In “Truman’s Terrible Choice”, George Weigel correctly observes that “it seems difficult, if not impossible, to vindicate Hiroshima and Nagasaki on classic just-war grounds without relativizing moral norms in the kind of ethical calculus John Paul II rejected in his 1993 encyclical, Veritatis Splendor.” Since Weigel is well-known as a Catholic theologian loyal to the teaching of Pope St. John Paul II, one would expect him to draw the obvious conclusion. Bafflingly, he somehow judges instead that Truman made “the correct choice.”
Nor (contrary to what Weigel’s remark might seem to imply) is the problem merely that there is an indirect connection between general Catholic moral principle and a condemnation of Truman’s decision to obliterate civilian populations. The Second Vatican Council could barely be more direct or explicit:
Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation. (Gaudium et Spes 80)
Moreover, two of the finest Catholic moralists of the twentieth century, Fr. John C. Ford and Elizabeth Anscombe, famously set out the natural law case against the bombings. What does Weigel have to say in response to their arguments? How would he square his position with the teaching of John Paul II and Gaudium et Spes? He does not tell us. Instead he merely rehearses the usual potted rationalizations that Ford, Anscombe, and others long ago exploded.
Weigel’s main theme is the standard one that an invasion of Japan would have been vastly bloodier than the bombings. There are two well-known problems with this attempted justification that he does not even acknowledge, much less answer. First, it is true that the balance of good over bad consequences of an action is something we must consider when deciding whether to perform it. However, consequences factor in only if the action is not intrinsically evil and thus already ruled out absolutely.
For example, since it is not intrinsically wrong to be a mailman, it is legitimate for me to weigh the balance of good and bad consequences when deciding whether it would be a good career choice for me to become a mailman. By contrast, since it is intrinsically wrong to be a conman, the balance of good over bad consequences of my being a conman is irrelevant to deciding whether to become one. It is absolutely forbidden to become a conman, whatever the consequences.
To suppose otherwise is to endorse the moral theory known as consequentialism – a theory John Paul II also condemned in Veritatis Splendor.
Now, Catholic just war teaching holds that directly and intentionally killing non-combatants is intrinsically evil, so that doing it is ruled out in an absolute way, whatever the consequences. It is intrinsically wrong, hence absolutely forbidden, to wipe out the civilian population of a city as a means of trying to convince an enemy government to capitulate. Whether doing so would save other lives is completely irrelevant. As Romans 3:8 and natural law alike teach, we are not permitted to do evil that good may come.
It might be replied that the destruction of civilian populations is justified by the principle of double effect, as long as this destruction is not intended but merely foreseen as a byproduct of a morally licit act of attacking the enemy’s war effort. Fr. Ford exposed the sophistry of such an argument, however, in his influential article “The Hydrogen Bombing of Cities”. As he pointed out, one could in principle appeal to double effect to justify using a nuclear weapon to destroy an enemy fleet at sea, even if there were civilians on board. In that case the target is a military one, and the presence of civilians is a merely contingent circumstance.
By contrast, the civilian population of a city is not a military target, even if there are war-related factories within the city. As Ford noted, appealing to the principle of double effect to justify destroying a city is like appealing to it to justify the use of a sledgehammer as a means of killing a spider on somebody’s head. (Unfortunately, Fr. Ford’s article does not appear to be available online, but his other paper, “The Morality of Obliteration Bombing”, is.)
It seems that Weigel might intend a different line of defense, for he tells us that the Japanese government “planned to turn the entire Japanese population into combatants during an American invasion.” Though he does not explicitly say so, perhaps he means to imply that the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – including, apparently, infants, old women, the disabled, and all the rest – really amounted to enemy combatants after all, and thus could legitimately be targeted no less than infantry or sailors might be.
But there are at least two problems with such an argument. First, it seems to presuppose the concept of “total war” between populations, which is itself highly problematic from the point of view of Catholic moral theology. Second, whether or not Japanese civilians would have been turned into combatants at some point, they were not in fact combatants at the time of the bombings. So, if that is Weigel’s point, it is also completely irrelevant.
Weigel also notes that “the constraints on the bombing of cities set by the just-war tradition of moral reasoning had been breached long before the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” So, what? This proves only that those earlier bombings were wrong too, not that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not wrong.
In her article “Mr. Truman’s Degree,” Anscombe pointed out the second main problem with the argument that invading Japan would have resulted in more deaths than the atomic bombs produced. The reason an invasion would have been so bloody is largely due to the Allied policy of unconditional surrender. Of course a population is far more likely to fight to the last man when you demand that they put themselves entirely at your mercy, rather than asking for only the more limited terms of peace that had been traditional in warfare. With the atomic bombings, the Allies “solved” a problem that they had themselves created.
Weigel opines that Truman was not “the equivalent of Stalin, Hitler, and the Japanese militarists.” True enough, but falling short of their level of depravity is no great moral accomplishment, and it hardly vindicates him. Truman was still wrong, and so is Weigel.
Edward Feser is Professor of Philosophy at Pasadena City College.
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