Was it Necessary to use the Atomic Bomb?


In a recent post I suggested that we should perhaps pray for the conversion of America, in part as a way of reminding ourselves that being Catholic and being American are not exactly the same thing.  Nor, for that matter, are they equal things.  That is, for a faithful Catholic, Catholic identity must be more fundamental than national identity, even though the claims of patriotism are real and should be given their due.  As Josh Mercer’s thought-provoking post shows, the tension between being a Catholic and being an American shows itself with special force in relation to the question whether it was morally justifiable for America to use the atomic bomb against Japan in World War II.  On the one hand, such an action looks pretty questionable on traditional Catholic standards governing just warfare.  On the other hand, if doing it was wrong, it was not just wrong but very egregious, so patriotic Americans (even serious Catholics) resist the view that it was wrong.

Defenses of the American use of the bomb usually take the form of an appeal to necessity.  It was necessary to use the bomb, defenders of that action say, because it saved more lives than it took.  The alternative was to invade the Japanese home islands, which American military planners thought would cost huge numbers of both American and Japanese lives–losses that would dwarf those caused by the atomic bombings.


But in what sense does this argument appeal to necessity?  Or, was the necessity actually a genuine one?  Using the bomb is said to be necessary to prevent the deaths that would come from invading the home islands.  But this just moves us to the question: why was it necessary to invade the home islands?  This became a “necessity”–in, it must be admitted, a rather loose sense–because of the allied powers’ decision to demand the unconditional surrender of Japan as a condition of peace.  In other words, the allies decided not just to defeat Japan but to make it submit absolutely.  But was such an aim a necessity?

If we want to think about that question with some objectivity, in a way that rises above mere patriotic self-justification, we would need to ask if we would think it a necessity in different context, perhaps where the roles were reversed.  For example, in the 19th century the United States got into a war with Mexico.  Suppose that instead of emerging victorious, the war had gone badly for the United States.  Suppose the Mexicans succeeded in driving out the American Army, but also decided that that was not sufficient.  Suppose they made it their policy to seek the unconditional surrender of the United States, and were willing to invade it to implement that policy.  Would we regard such a conquest as a necessity of war?  And if the Mexicans thought they could make us submit with less bloodshed by burning to the ground whole cities in Texas, with their populations, would we accept that as an act of necessity?  I don’t think so.

This analogy is admittedly imperfect.  The American government of the early 19th century was flawed, but the Japanese government of the 1930s and 1940s was far worse.  It was authoritarian, militaristic, aggressive, and had shown itself brutally indifferent to human life.  Maybe in light of its egregiousness the allied leaders thought it was important to not just defeat but to destroy and replace such a regime.  Hence the decision to adopt a policy of unconditional surrender.

But we are under an obligation to think carefully and critically about these matters–about whether such a policy was morally defensible, especially if it required either a bloody extension of the war, or the indiscriminate killing associated with atomic warfare as the supposedly humane and moderate alternative–because such thinking is essential to our ability to make reasoned and ethical judgments about similar matters in future wars that may come.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org


About Author

Carson Holloway is a political scientist and the author of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity (Baylor University Press), The Right Darwin? Evolution, Religion, and the Future of Democracy (Spence Publishing), and All Shook Up: Music, Passion and Politics (Spence Publishing), and the editor of a collection of essays entitled Magnanimity and Statesmanship (Lexington Books). His articles have appeared in the Review of Politics, Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, Perspectives on Political Science, and First Things. He is a regular contributor to the online journal The Public Discourse. Holloway was a 2005-06 William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. He received his Ph.D. in political science from Northern Illinois University in 1998.

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