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.



  • Mouse

    Every justification made for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ultimately fails. All of them that I have seen boil down to (or are hidden forms of) the argument that one may do evil to create a good result, or of the argument that the ends justify the means. Both types of arguments violate Catholic teaching.

    For the life of me, I cannot understand why anyone who believes in Jesus would have a desire to justify this act. So we Americans can assuage their guilt? The dropping of this bomb was no different than a massacre, and even in wartime massacres cannot be justified, even if innocent lives supposedly are saved as a result. And all claims that we didn’t know it would massacre many innocent people are fairy tales!

    Not trying to make any vets of that era feel guilty, after all, you didn’t drop the bomb! but it’s just the truth. Even the guy who DID drop the bomb has written about how immoral it was…so what is our problem that we can’t just accept that it was wrong?

    In my opinion the justification of that horrendous act certainly has prepared our country for the idea that efficiency justifies crushing others, in various ways, not just abortion but even smaller ways, like dehumanizing mechanization or even rude, reckless driving so we can get to our destination 2 minutes sooner.I’m not blaming everything on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but I think it indeed did something to our national consciousness that played a part in our national descent into acceptance of crimes against human life. Not that the US was so pure before that (slavery, Indians…)- but I think it made it worse. OK, rant over.

  • Robert Margetts

    Thanks Tom you are right on. I would add that since a crime (by the US) has been committed then atonement must be made to God. I am a former Major in the USAF and I stood in conscience against the use of atomic bombs on population centers. I am close to publishing a book (“Witness for Atonement”) on my life story that leads the reader to also becoming a witness for atonement. The book is endorsed by a Cardinal, and two priests who have all given me input for the book. If you have interest I would certainly look to any support you could give me and would email you a manuscript.

    God bless
    Robert Margetts

  • Daniel

    If you were sitting in the presidents chair and you had to make a decision between
    A) losing many thousands of American soldiers and many more thousands of Japanese soldiers, men, women, and children (if we had to fight our way to Tokyo there would have been many women and children killed). Keep in mind that there would be a large amount of widows left with children to raise without a father had these Americans been killed trying to invade Japan.
    B) using an experimental weapon that you know will end the war and save thousands of american soldiers lives and allow them to go home to their families

    What would you choose?
    That era was not one wear we could target a single building with a smart bomb from hundreds of miles away. Collateral damage was going to happen in some way or another. I’m not saying that the atomic bomb was necessarily the right thing to do (notice how the weapon hasn’t been used since) but in the 1940’s if you look at the options I think there is a valid case for its use even if you look at the information the American military had in front of them.

    • Brian English

      Western self-loathing, for which these annual August festivals of self-flagellation are a sacred rite, is actually a primary element of the Culture of Death.

  • Tom Hoopes

    A challenge to defenders of the atomic bomb attacks: Given 1.) that we live in a country that performs more than a million abortions per year and 2.) that our culture (civilians certainly included) is largely committed to this culture of death, 3.) tell me why we are not a legitimate target of destructive military tactics by your logic. Why should a religious nation (say, a Muslim one) not use violence to force America to stop its killing?

    Ideas have consequences. The idea that the atomic bomb was okay has horrific consequences: for us.

    You CANNOT do evil so that good may come of it. That’s very hard sometimes. But it is a principle that we must hold onto.

    • Brian English

      This is not a question of consequentialism, although you see many on the Catholic blogosphere try to force it into the contours of that doctrine.

      You can double-effect your way through an invasion of Japan, but you end up with 1-9 million Japanese dead, along with 100,000-1,000,000 American dead. In insisting that invasion had to be chosen over the bombings, you are actually in conflict with the Just War concept of waging war with proportionate means. The bombings were actually the more humane method for ending the war.

      • Tom Hoopes

        Once you target non-combatants, you have left Just War behind. But you haven’t met the challenge. Explain what moral logic spares America from attack.

        • Brian English

          (1) I see you are going to stick with your “it would have been better to kill 10-90 times more civilians through invasion” doctrine. Civilians are going to die under either option, why would you want to kill more of them? At least with the bombings we were able to warn people to get out of the cities before the bombs were dropped. How were people supposed to get out of Japan before an invasion?

          (2) Sorry, but I don’t respond to absurd hypotheticals that posit that the modern Unites States is more evil than Imperial Japan.

          • Joshua Mercer

            Maybe this is a stupid question, by why would we *HAVE* to invade Imperial Japan? I understand the rationale of capturing the islands of Midway, Iwo Jima, Gaudacanal, winning back the Philippines, etc. By why would we have to invade the Japanese mainland? Once we have beaten back the Japanese to their own soil, why not simply have a naval blockade? It would mean we would still have to battle the Japanese at sea and we would still have losses of live on both sides, but not the carnage of invading an entire country. I’ll admit to a bit of ignorance on the matter. But the idea that we *had to* use nukes because our only other option was to have a quarter million American men die by invading the country… well, makes me think that neither option was the right answer…

          • Tom Hoopes

            Good question, Josh … and it highlights the problem with this weird “We either had to do what we did or X would have happened” argumentation. That’s why God made non-negotiable moral principles. You don’t have to be a genius imagining all possible moral landscapes, you just have to skip doing the bad thing.

          • Brian English

            A naval blockade would have achieved the worst possible combination of results. You would have had massive civilian starvation, as well as epidemics of the diseases that accompany mass starvation. And after all that, we would still have had to invade because the Japanese military would not have surrendered until it believed it could not achieve a military victory. People forget that even after the Nagasaki bombing, the military was still deadlocked on surrender, and it was only then that the Emperor intervened.

    • Joe M

      Tom. Once you have militarized an entire country, you have left non-combatants behind. Imperial Japan had mobilized the efforts of their entire country for the purpose of carrying out an unjust war to literally take over the world. Distinguishing where military efforts (manufacturing efforts, competent-enough combatants, etc.) begin and end there would rely on arbitrary judgments. — In contrast, the entire country of the US has not been mobilized to carry out abortions. — Like others, your argument boils down to the idea that a far greater number of people should have died (including women and children) to end that war so that you and some others could feel better about it years later. There are many people alive today (many more than those lost in the atomic bombs) that I’m fairly certain would not trade their lives in for you to be more comfortable with the use of atomic weapons within the context of that situation.

  • Gerry

    There were 400,000 Asians dying each month in areas occupied by Japan. Two or three months…800,000 or 1.2 million more souls killed by Japanese agents or actions, what of these whom we saved cutting the war short?

    Yours is a most fortunate world. I wish the rest of us lived in it.

    • Brian English

      “There were 400,000 Asians dying each month in areas occupied by Japan.” The loss of life in the areas occupied in Japan’s armies is constantly ignored by those who condemn the bombings. The number I have read is 5,000 a day, but that figure might have been limited to China.

  • chris c.

    Acouple of things bother me in discussing the horrific A bomb attacks; and by all means a pilgramage to Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a great idea to remind us of the horrors of war and the suffering of the innocent. But, what makes no sense is that there is so very little in the way of overt or even indirect condemnation of the attacks from Pius 12th, or from any of the Catholic bishops who were alive at the time of WW2. They lived through the war and knew full well its horrors yet condemnation did not come until decades later. If the act was so clearly immoral why did the condemnations not come immediately or within a few years.
    The other issue I have is isolating a discussion of the use of the A-bomb apart from other forms of strategic bombing during WW2 both in Europe and the South Pacific. Is the use of hundreds of planes dropping thousands of bombs OK while one plane and one bomb is not? Thousands of innocents died either way. And again Pius 12th, who witnessed first hand the war in Europe did not condemn as far as I know the fire bombings of Dresden and Hamburg or the destruciton of other German cites. Why not? Did he perhaps believe that only such tactics could force and end to the war? He suffered through it, critics of later years did not.
    In sum it is easy to condemn in hindsight, but they judgments of those who lived through it should count for more. Their witholding of judgment speaks loud and clear.



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