America Comment

Was the US right to drop the atomic bombs? The answer is more difficult than you think

View of the radioactive plume from the bomb dropped on Nagasaki (Hiromichi Matsuda/Handout from Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum/Getty Images)

On August 6 it was the anniversary of the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and on August 9 – officially declared the feast of the Assumption of Our Lady in 1950 – it was the anniversary of the dropping of the second bomb on Nagasaki. In its Heritage Series, the CTS has republished The Day the Bomb Fell, an eyewitness account by a German Jesuit, Fr Johannes Siemes, alongside Peace is our Problem, an essay written by Mgr Bruce Kent in 1970.

Fr Siemes, who was living in the Jesuit novitiate at Nagatsuka, 2km from Hiroshima and halfway up a hillside, starts: “6 August began in a bright, clear summer morning…” In retrospect, knowing the appalling devastation that he was to witness and that has been described countless times since, these words sound heavy with ill-omen. The priest, along with his Jesuit companions who had not been injured, did their best to help Japanese victims of the blast – an almost impossible task. With no medical supplies, all they could do was clean the wounds and make the sufferers comfortable.

Only in the last paragraph does the priest reflect on the wider ethical issues raised by atomic warfare, saying some fellow priests saw it in the same category as poison gas, that should never be used on a civilian population; others “were of the view that in total war, as carried out in Japan, there was no difference between soldiers and civilians and that the bomb itself was an effective force tending to end the bloodshed, warning Japan to surrender and thus avoid total destruction.”

These ethical issues have never been resolved. Some, like philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, condemned Truman, the US President, for making the decision. Others, such as Leonard Cheshire VC, an official observer at the time who later founded the Cheshire Homes for those suffering from long-term illnesses, believe as strongly that the bombs did avert “total war” and the loss of an even greater number of civilian lives if the final battle had moved to the Japanese mainland.

Mgr Bruce Kent, for long in the forefront of campaigns for nuclear disarmament, was writing in 1970, during the time of the Cold War when, as he writes, “The weapons of mass murder, nuclear, chemical and bacteriological, are becoming available to more and more nations.” He deplored the then arms race between the US and Russia. What would he say about the world situation today, beset by random acts of terrorism, fuelled by an ideology hostile to the West?

Although Kent rightly emphasises the obligation of Christians to be peacemakers, he does not answer the key question (which he quotes) raised by St Thomas Aquinas: “Is it always sinful to wage war?” or St Augustine’s theory of a “just war”. He is clear that aggressive acts of war against civilian populations such as Hiroshima and Nagasaki can never be approved, quoting paragraph 2 of the Vatican II document, “The Church in the World of Today” which states, “Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.”

We would all agree with this. Nonetheless, we also live in a fallen world where a country has the obligation to defend its citizens against unprovoked attack. There are no easy answers.