Why Should We Care About the Atomic Bomb?

The debate comes up every once in a while in Catholic circles, and it comes up below. I want to take issue with Brad Birzer a little, but with Tom Crowe a lot more. Because our acts of destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not only wrong, they were monumentally wrong in a way that changed us. America hasn’t had the same moral force ever since.

Vatican II

The Second Vatican Council condemned our nation’s use of the atomic bomb and the Catechism repeats its denunciation verbatim in No. 2314 (which someone quoted in the comments section):

“Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.”

The council fathers certainly had the atomic bomb in mind when they put that sentence into Gaudium et Spes (as well as Dresden and Hamburg and even London). The Church’s condemnation is Biblical in its severity : a “crime against God and man.” If you want to fudge on an issue of Catholic morality, don’t pick this “firm and unequivocal” one.

But don’t make the opposite mistake either, concluding that America’s position in World War II was the moral equivalent of our enemies’. Pope John Paul II told our National Prayer Breakfast in the year 2000 that he was “personally grateful for what America did for the world in the darkest days of the 20th century.” Given our achievements in World War II, it seems clear that the dropping of the atomic bomb wasn’t “American Bloodlust” as Brad Birzer had it. No one seriously advocates following the Hiroshima example today. The U.S. military in the 21st century is a leader in weaponry and tactics that avoid harm to civilians (yes, I know there are horrific and disquieting exceptions. But these are not the rule).

Rather, the atomic bomb was a temptation to end the war the easy way — to end the war even if it meant vaporizing children. We didn’t do it out of bloodlust, we did it out of desperation and weariness (and in justified anger at the atrocities Japan was guilty of). The only problem is, once we took the devil’s bait, we found that the only way to rationalize what we did was to abandon moral logic. To obliterate cities, we had to obliterate right and wrong along with them.

Pope Paul VI said “few events in history have had such an effect on man’s conscience.” Pope John Paul II here includes Hiroshima and Nagasaki on a list of pilgrimage sites we should visit and remember in reparation on a par with the “holy cities” of the earth.

As Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen said in “What Now America?”

“When, I wonder, did we in America ever get into this idea that freedom means having no boundaries and no limits? I think it began on the 6th of August 1945 at 8:15 am when we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. … Somehow or other, from that day on in our American life, we say we want no limits and no boundaries.”

Shortly before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said much the same thing. He associated the use of the atomic bomb with a host of modern abuses of freedom, including terrorism and biomedical attacks against human life.

“There no longer exists a ‘knowing how to do’ separated from a ‘being able to do,’ because it would be against freedom, which is the absolute supreme value. … Man knows how to clone men, and so he does it,” he said. “Man knows how to use men as a store of organs for other men, and so he does it; he does it because this seems to be a requirement of his freedom. Man knows how to build atomic bombs and so he makes them, being, as a matter of principle, also disposed to use them. In the end, terrorism is also based on this modality of man’s self-authorization, and not on the teachings of the Koran.”

American democracy is only as good as American morality. The only way for America to be a moral force in the world is for it to embrace the “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” it was founded on.

For Americans, the culture of life is built on the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The culture of death is built on “crimes against God and man.”

Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., where he teaches in the Journalism and Mass Communications department and edits the college’s Catholic identity speech digest, The Gregorian.



  • phil

    While we are having this discussion, could we ponder why on earth FDR would want to destroy the well known Catholic region of Nagasaki? It was well known that Nagasaki was full of these Catholic Christians.

    • Brian English

      Nagasaki was actually the secondary target. Cloud cover over the primary site (the name escapes me) led to the bomb being dropped on Nagasaki. And I am sure someone will show up here claiming that Nagasaki was bombed because Truman hated Catholics.

  • Calixtus

    A great many ill-informed people have a nuclear bomb phobia. A nuclear bomb is just a really big bomb. If you are an enemy who started an aggressive war in which you slaughter innumerable people you are going to get bombed. Count on it. Whether you die from thousands of little bombs or one big bomb you are just as dead. If an enemy makes bombing necessary, one big bomb is simply more efficient and humane. Conventional bombing of Tokyo killed far more people than did the atom bomb. Big bomb or little bombs, it really doesn’t matter. So stop being so silly. Stop all bombing, all wars? Fine. Tell it to Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and any of your many left-liberal muslim madmen pals, who will soon have nukes of their own and will use them indiscriminately. We won’t. Read a history book or two. Tutor your dangerous naivete. Try growing up. I trust that silly Barak Hussein Oba Ama far more than I do the President of Iran. Are you so far gone that you thing those ‘other’ people are going to disarm? Are you aut of your minds? The musselmans will start the first nuclear war, the Yanks and the Israelis will end it. Nuclear armaments are a fact of life. Adapt to it and deal with it because it ain’t going away. So very often in the past, peaceable nations have let themselves become unprepared (see WW II) and paid the price in millions of innocents dead. You are those people who will leave us defenseless and it will be on your conscience. I know I know I am talking to a brick wall but at the moment I have nothing else useful to do. Cheers.

  • Nolan

    Judge me, O God, and distinguish my cause from the nation that is not holy, deliver me from the unjust and deceitful man.

    We can’t relive the past. We can only have faith in the Providence of God and the teachings of Holy Mother our Church. — The more we devoutly pray; the greater will be our discernment.

    The discussion about ‘right or wrong’ should be Church centered. We are obligated to pray and to listen to our Church in this world.

  • Mary

    Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, in their moral intention, no different from carpet bombing or fire bombing of cities without regard for citizens. Both those who made the decision to drop the bombs, and those who dropped the atomic bombs, did not know the extent of its power, and to attribute to them the guilt of such awful evil is wrong.

  • Bob

    Most people do not realize that we wanted a unconditional surrender from Japan. The Japanese were willing to surrender well before we dropped the bomb and we were fully aware of it (we broke their codes well in advance). As a matter of fact they were in discussions with the Russians (who they thought would treat them more lenient – at first). The only concession they were not willing to make was the preservation of the honor in the emperor (that he would at least remain a figurehead and not be prosecuted, disrespected- not all that problematic when it doesn’t really appear he was primarily responsible for Japan’s entering the war- if you think that he was solely and primarily responsible you really need to start reading Japanese history as the emperor was not “all supreme” despite the concept of emperor. It had more to do with national honor and Oriental self respect.

    Anyways. The US bombed Nagasaki and Hiroshima as a show of force in order to over awe the Japanese and force an unconditional surrender. It really had nothing to do with the Japanese who beside that could barely put only a few planes in the air as they had no fuel due to the Allied blockade. Japan has no natural resources which were needed to supply an army. As soon as the blockade was effective it was only a matter of time before they had no weapons, ammo, etc. If you doubt this then please study the issue as it is just plain facts.

    Then there is the issue the US trying to force Japan to surrender to us instead of Russia (presumably to avoid a new Soviet colony). Well after the Japanese were rebuffed by the Russians (also according to our wishes) we then realized in a short time Stalin would be able to invade and subject Japan. All of a sudden then we rushed to ratify a treaty and permitted the Japanese emperor to remain. It was all one big farce and propaganda show that a lot of people still believe. The bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima was totally unecessary (aside from the moral considerations). That is just a historical fact.

    Yes and I have had relatives in the Japanese death marches, wounded in Guadacanala and read about the thousands of women who were forced into the horror of Japanese se slavery (very very sick and diabolical- beyond words). However, 2 wrongs do not make a right and it was grossly immoral to fry women and children (as well as any other noncombatents- which most of them were) alive. For those who think it was so righteous go and read the accouunts where people had their eyes melted out and their skin slipping off since it was melted and piteously crying out for water which was poisonous to drink.

    • Brian English

      Some Japanese diplomats made statements that Japan was ready to surrender. However, the Japanese military, which controlled the country, had no such intentions. They had massed their troops on the southern coast, where the American invasion was expected to land, and the first thing they did after the Hiroshima bombing was call in Japanese scientists and ask them how long it would take for Japan to build such a bomb. The whole “Japan was ready to surrender but we wouldn’t let them” story is nonsense.

  • Jack

    Tinian Island, Pacific Ocean.

    This is where World War II was won.

    On July 24, 1944, 30,000 US Marines landed on the beaches of Tinian. Eight days later, over 8,000 of the 8,800 Japanese soldiers on the island were dead (vs. 328 Marines that were killed), and four months later the Seabees had built the busiest airfield of WWII – dubbed North Field – enabling B-29 Super fortresses to launch air attacks on the Philippines, Okinawa, and mainland Japan.

    Late in the afternoon of August 5, 1945, a B-29 was maneuvered over a bomb loading pit, then after lengthy preparations, taxied to the east end of North Field’s main runway, Runway Able, and at 2:45am in the early morning darkness of August 6, took off..

    The B-29 was piloted by Col. Paul Tibbets of the US Army Air Force, who had named the plane after his mother, Enola Gay. The crew named the bomb they were carrying Little Boy. 6½ hours later at 8:15am Japan time, the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

    Three days later, in the pre-dawn hours of August 9, a B-29 named Bockscar (a pun on “boxcar” after its flight commander Capt. Fred Bock), piloted by Major Charles Sweeney took off from Runway Able. Finding its primary target of Kokura obscured by clouds, Sweeney proceeded to the secondary target of Nagasaki, over which, at 11:01am, bombardier Kermit Beahan released the atomic bomb dubbed Fat Man.

    The commemorative plaque records that 16 hours after the nuking of Nagasaki, “On August 10, 1945 at 0300, the Japanese Emperor without his cabinet’s consent decided to end the Pacific War.”

    Most people, when they think of Hiroshima and Nagasaki , reflect on the numbers of lives killed in the nuclear blasts – at least 70,000 and 50,000 respectively. Being here caused me to reflect on the number of lives saved – how many more Japanese and Americans would have died in a continuation of the war had the nukes not been dropped.

    Yet that was not all. It’s not just that the nukes obviated the US invasion of Japan , Operation Downfall, that would have caused upwards of a million American and Japanese deaths or more. It’s that nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki were of extraordinary humanitarian benefit to the nation and people of Japan.

    Let’s go to this cliff on the nearby island of Saipan to learn why:

    Saipan is less than a mile north of Tinian. The month before the Marines took Tinian, on June 15, 1944, 71,000 Marines landed on Saipan. They faced 31,000 Japanese soldiers determined not to surrender.

    Japan had colonized Saipan after World War I and turned the island into a giant sugar cane plantation. By the time of the Marine invasion, in addition to the 31,000 entrenched soldiers, some 25,000 Japanese settlers were living on Saipan, plus thousands more Okinawans, Koreans, and native islanders brutalized as slaves to cut the sugar cane.

    There were also one or two thousand Korean “comfort women” (kanji in Japanese), abducted young women from Japan’s colony of Korea to service the Japanese soldiers as sex slaves. (See The Comfort Women: Japan’s Brutal Regime of Enforced Prostitution in the Second World War, by George Hicks.)

    Within a week of their landing, the Marines set up a civilian prisoner encampment that quickly attracted a couple thousand Japanese and others wanting US food and protection. When word of this reached Emperor Hirohito – who contrary to the myth was in full charge of the war – he became alarmed that radio interviews of the well-treated prisoners broadcast to Japan would subvert his people’s will to fight.

    As meticulously documented by historian Herbert Bix in Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, the Emperor issued an order for all Japanese civilians on Saipan to commit suicide. The order included the promise that, although the civilians were of low caste, their suicide would grant them a status in heaven equal to those honored soldiers who died in combat for their Emperor.

    And that is why the precipice in the picture above is known as Suicide Cliff, off which over 20,000 Japanese civilians jumped to their deaths to comply with their fascist emperor’s desire – mothers flinging their babies off the cliff first or in their arms as they jumped.

    Anyone reluctant or refused, such as the Okinawan or Korean slaves, were shoved off at gunpoint by the Jap soldiers. Then the soldiers themselves proceeded to hurl themselves into the ocean to drown off a sea cliff afterwards called Banzai Cliff. Of the 31,000 Japanese soldiers on Saipan, the Marines killed 25,000, 5,000 jumped off Banzai Cliff, and only the remaining thousand were taken prisoner.

    The extent of this demented fanaticism is very hard for any civilized mind to fathom – especially when it is devoted not to anything noble but barbarian evil instead. The vast brutalities inflicted by the Japanese on their conquered and colonized peoples of China, Korea , the Philippines, and throughout their “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” was a hideously depraved horror.

    And they were willing to fight to the death to defend it. So they had to be nuked. The only way to put an end to the Japanese barbarian horror was unimaginably colossal destruction against which they had no defense whatever. Nuking Japan was not a matter of justice, revenge, or it getting what it deserved. It was the only way to end the Japanese dementia.

    And it worked – for the Japanese. They stopped being barbarians and started being civilized. They achieved more prosperity – and peace – than they ever knew, or could have achieved had they continued fighting and not been nuked. The shock of getting nuked is responsible.

    We achieved this because we were determined to achieve victory. Victory without apologies. Despite perennial liberal demands we do so, America and its government has never apologized for nuking Japan . Hopefully, America never will.



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