Hiroshima, 65 years later, still troubling for conscience

Pope John Paul II at Hiroshima Feb 25 1981

Today is the sixty-fifth anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. I think that Americans continue to be in denial about the morally troubling aspects of this act which led to the end of World War II (following the second use of an atomic bomb on Nagasaki). When I taught at the US Air Force Academy I found that first year students were indoctrinated on the issue during their summer training and I encountered much resistance to broaching the issue among many cadets. In the Wall Street Journal today, Warren Kozak makes a strident denial that the bombing(s) deserve moral censure (p A15), and I recall that Donald Kagan made a similar argument on this day 15 years ago in the Journal pages. Mr. Kozak is troubled because the Obama administration is sending the US Ambassador to attend the official commemoration ceremony at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, for the first time in 65 years. I say it is about time!

Mr Kozak is worried lest this indicate an “apology” or perhaps suggest a “moral equivalence” between the Japanese acts of war and the United States, or perhaps even between Nazi and US acts of war. His argument for the bombings takes the form of a standard utilitarian argument. The United States fought for a just cause. The bombings helped us to achieve our just end. Further, more lives were spared by the acts of bombing than by the alternatives considered at the time, namely the invasion of Japan. Case closed.

But Pope John Paul II said “that wound affected the whole of the human family. Hiroshima and Nagasaki: few events in history have had such an effect on man’s conscience.” It would be good for our conscience to be deeply troubled by those events of 65 years ago.

I think we should stand back and consider the remarks by Pope John Paul II remarks at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. In his biography Pope John Paul II (pp. 380-381), Tad Szulc draws on the eye witness account of Jesuit Father Pittau: “It was one of the most beautiful and moving speeches. It took the form of a prayer: ‘Lord Hear me! It is the voice of the mothers who have lost their children. It is the voice of children who have lost their mothers and fathers.  . . .  Never again Hiroshima! Never again Oświęcim. He pronounced a part of it in Japanese and I could see people crying.  . . .And when he saw the museum of the Atomic Bomb in Hiroshima he was really moved. You could see  in his face this kind of sorrow.” John Paul II spoke in Japanese. A policeman in Toykyo reported to Father Pittau that this was the first time he saw an important person who genuinely “understands and respects our culture and our language.”

See his full speech here. And also see his remarks to scientists  here.

John Paul II visited as a “pilgrim of peace” and not an official ambassador of a state. He is correct to say that the name Hiroshima is now and forever associated with the horror of the blast, a “destruction beyond belief,” and the “first victims of nuclear war.” If the way of modern war leads to Hiroshima, then it is a place to make a “fresh determination to work for peace.” We cannot simply refuse to remember what happened here; we must do more than think that nuclear weapons are but an “unavoidable means of maintaining a balance of power through a balance of terror.” The pilgrim of peace is right to challenge these ways of thinking. We continue to live on the brink of a great disaster — “there is a desire to be ready for war, and being ready means being able to start it; and it means taking the risk that sometime, somewhere, somehow, someone can set in motion the terrible mechanism of general destruction.”

We still laugh at the movie Dr Strangelove; it lays out an exaggerated number to show the logic of a calculation whose possibility was formed on that fateful day 65 years ago. If then President Truman could calculate 40-50 thousand killed in the b of an eye — then why not a General Turgidson who proposed a massive nuclear strike on Russia and anticipated a counter strike ; so he said: “Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed, but I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops, uh, depending on the breaks.” It is an inhuman logic. Can we admit with Tolkein, “we are attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring. And we shall (it seems) succeed. But the penalty is, as you will know, to breed new Saurons, and slowly turn Men into Elves into Orcs. Not that in real life things are as clear cut as in a story, and we started out with a great many Orcs on our side.” J. R. R. TOLKEIN, Letter to his son serving in RAF 6 May1944.

Thus the Pope said to the scientists at Hiroshima: “We realized with horror that nuclear energy would henceforth be available as a weapon of devastation ; then we learned that this terrible weapon had in fact been used, for the first time, for military purposes. And then there arose the question that will never leave us again: Will this weapon, perfected and multiplied beyond measure, be used tomorrow? If sο, would it not probably destroy the human family, its members and all the achievements of civilization? Ladies and gentlemen, you who devote your lives to the modern sciences, yοu are the first to be able to evaluate the disaster that a nuclear war would inflict on the human family. Αnd I know that, ever since the explosion of the first atomic bomb, many of you have been anxiously wondering about the responsibility of modern science and of the technology that is the fruit of that science.”

John Paul was not a utopian thinker; he was a pilgrim of peace; he was a teacher of the faithful and a leader in the world at large. In the face of technological power, he said that we must appreciate the role of the cultural, the educational, and the religious as the decisive moment.

Our future on this planet, exposed as it is to nuclear annihilation, depends upon one single factor: humanity must make a moral about-face. At the present moment of history, there must be a general mobilization of all men and women of good will. Humanity is being called upοn to take a major step forward, a step forward in civilization and wisdom. A lack of civilization, an ignorance of man’s true values, brings the risk that humanity will be destroyed. We must become wiser. Pope Paul VI, in his Encyclical, The Development of Peoples, entitled several times stressed the urgent need to have recourse to the wise in order to guide the new society in its development. In particular, he said that “if further development calls for the work of more and more technicians, even more necessary is the deep thought and reflection of wise men in search of a new humanism which will enable modern man to find himself anew by embracing the higher values of love and friendship, of prayer and contemplation”.


After reading Pope John Paul II the following thoughts occur to me:

1. Should the U.S. issue or indicate an apology to the people of Japan for this bombing of their cities? An apology carries a certain significance that for diplomatic reasons may be not appropriate. But an acknowledgment that these acts of bombing involved the deliberate killing of innocent people would be a good thing. We planned for a direct attack, not simply collateral damage on a military target. Evasive speech is not helpful at this point. (In his announcement after the event, Truman said in his opening line: “Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped  one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese Army base.”) Robert McNamara’s interview in “Fog of War” revealed a ruthless calculation in the firebombing of Japanese cities, not for military purposes but for retaliation. We became a Sauron.

2. Is there a moral equivalence between the US and Imperial Japan? Certainly not on the scale of imperial ambition and plan for systematic killing and acts of genocide. But as an act produced by scientific rational calculation of how to achieve an end, and allowing the deliberate killing of innocent women and children — the bombing of Hiroshima evinces the disturbing trend of thinking and acting that characterizes the modern technological state. Human life is no longer sacred; moral law is subordinated to efficiency. The culture of death takes its root here. Paul Ramsey calls this type of reasoning “totalitarian” because it reduces the human person and society into its totalistic calculations: “At stake in preserving this distinction [combatant/non-combatant] is not only whether warfare can be kept barely civilized, but whether civilization can be kept from barbarism.  Can civilization survive in the sense that we can continue in political and military affairs to act civilized, or must we accept total war on grounds that clearly indicate that we have already become totalitarian – by reducing everyone without discrimination and everyone to the whole extent of his being to a mere means of achieving political and military goals?  Even if an enemy government says that is all its people are, a Christian or any truly just man cannot agree to this.” (Paul Ramsey, The Just War) But we did just that to the Japanese residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

3. With Pope John Paul II, we should appeal to the young people “to create a new future of fraternity and solidarity; let us reach out towards our brothers and sisters in need, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, free the downtrodden, bring justice where injustice reigns and peace where only weapons speak. Your young hearts have an extraordinary capacity for goodness and love; put them at the service of your fellow human beings.” We should read to them the letters of Tolkein. In 1941, in the midst of the war and much personal suffering, Tolkien wrote to his son Michael as follows: “Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. There you will find romance, glory, honor, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth.”

4. Religious conversion and education are the way to change the world, if it is to be changed. Here we can quote Solzhenitsyn (Templeton Address, 1983):

To the ill-considered hopes of the last two centuries, which have brought us to the brink of nuclear and non-nuclear death, we can propose only a determined guest for the warm hand of God, which we have so rashly and self-confidently spurned.

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2 Comments
  1. There was a time when I agreed, albeit uncomfortably, with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But being exposed the the Just War tradition began to make me think differently. Then I read G.E.M. Anscombe's critique of the honoring of President Truman and that ended all agreement with that action.

  2. Thanks, Mitchell, for mentioning Anscombe. The article Mr Truman's Degree" can be found at
    http://www.anthonyflood.com/anscombetrumansdegree.htm

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