Father Wilson Miscamble Defends the Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

(I originally posted this over at The American Catholic.  The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki tend to be a hot button issue on Catholic blogs, as one can tell by the several hundred comments that this post elicited, and which may be viewed here.  I assume this will be of interest to the history mavens of Almost Chosen People.)

Getting the annual Saint Blogs August Bomb Follies off to an early start.  Father Wilson Miscamble, Professor of History at Notre Dame, and long a champion of the pro-life cause, defends the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the video above. The video is a summary of the conclusions reached by Father Miscamble in his recent book, The Most Controversial Decision.  Go here to read a review of the book by British military historian Andrew Roberts.  Go here to read a review of the book by Father Michael P. Orsi.  Go here to read a review by Michael Novak.

I echo the conclusions of Father Wilson Miscamble and appreciate his heroic efforts to clear up the bad history and inane American self-flagellation that has distorted a very straight-forward historical event.    I also appreciate his willingness to take the heat that his position has caused him.  Go here to read his response to a critique by Professor Christopher Tollefsen.  This portion of his response is something I have noted in regard to many critics of Truman, an unwillingness to address the consequences of not dropping the bombs:

It is when one turns to alternate courses of action that the abstract nature of Tollefsen’s criticisms becomes apparent. He criticizes Truman’s actions as immoral but offers no serious proposal regarding a viable alternative. Elizabeth Anscombe had naively suggested that Truman alter the terms of surrender, but such an approach only would have strengthened the hand of the Japanese militarists and confirmed their suicidal strategy. Tollefsen concedes that “it might well be true that greater suffering would have resulted from a refusal to use the atomic weapons in Japan,” but he backs away from any genuine discussion of what Truman should have done and of what that “greater suffering” might have involved. He provides no evidence that he has considered this matter at all. But should philosophers be able to avoid outlining what they would have done in the demanding circumstances that Truman confronted? I have always thought that moral reflection wrestles with the awful and painful realities. Tollefsen seems to want to stand above the fray, to pronounce Truman’s actions as deeply immoral and to leave it at that. It would have brought greater clarity to this discussion if he had confronted the alternatives seriously.

If Tollefsen were to engage the military issues involved in the war in the Pacific, I suspect he would be forced to raise further objections to the American military practices pursued well before the Enola Gay flew toward Hiroshima. Take as but one example the early 1945 Battle for Manila, in which approximately one hundred thousand Filipino civilians were killed. Some were killed by the Japanese, but many of this large number were killed by aggressive American air and artillery bombardments used, without particular regard for civilian casualties, as the American forces sought to dislodge an established enemy that refused to surrender. These harsh tactics could not meet Tollefsen’s criteria with regard to means. Given his unbending approach on moral absolutes, I assume he would condemn the action; but just what military means would he support in trying to defeat a foe that considered surrender the ultimate disgrace and who fought accordingly? Similarly, Tollefsen could hardly approve of the military force utilized in the taking of Okinawa and the high number of civilian casualties that resulted.

I suspect that Professor Tollefsen would be willing to say that it would be better to do absolutely nothing and to live with the consequences, if I may use that word, than to use morally questionable tactics. But the decision not to act undoubtedly would have incurred terrible consequences. Surely such inaction would carry some burden of responsibility for the prolongation of the killing of innocents throughout Asia, in the charnel house of the Japanese Empire. Is it really “moral” to stand aside, maintaining one’s supposed moral purity, while a vast slaughter is occurring at the rate of over two hundred thousand deaths a month? Isn’t there a terrible dilemma here, namely, which innocent lives to save? Would Tollefsen really have rested at peace with the long-term Japanese domination of Asia? Would that be a pro-life position?

Let me confess that I would prefer that my position had the clarity of Professor Tollefsen’s. It is a large concession to admit that Truman’s action was the “least evil.” Arguing that it was the least-harmful option open to him will hardly be persuasive to those who see everything in a sharp black-and-white focus. Yet this is how I see it. If someone can present to me a viable and more “moral way” to have defeated the Japanese and ended World War II, I will change my position. I suppose my position here has some resonance with my support for the policy of deterrence during the Cold War. I could recognize the moral flaws in the strategy but still I found it the best of the available options, and the alternatives were markedly worse. Interestingly, I think the author of Veritatis Splendor thought the same thing and he conveyed that view to the American bishops as they wrote their peace pastoral letter.

I trust that my pro-life credentials will not be questioned because I refuse to denounce Truman as a “mass-murderer.” Unlike Tollefsen, I do not think that my position initiates the unraveling of the entire pro-life garment. I believe Truman pursued the least-harmful course of action available to him to end a ghastly war, a course that resulted in the least loss of life.

Harry Truman knew that if he ordered the dropping of the bombs, a very large number of Japanese civilians would be killed.  He also knew that if he did not drop the bombs it was virtually certain that a far larger number of civilians, Allied, in territory occupied by Japan, as well as Japanese, would be killed, as a result of the war grinding on until the war ceased due to an invasion of  Japan, continued massive conventional bombing of Japan, or a continuation of the blockade which would result in mass famine in Japan.  He also knew that an invasion of Japan would have led to massive, almost unthinkable, US military casualties, to add to the 416,000 US deaths and 670,000 US wounded that World War II had already cost.   The morality of Truman’s dropping of the bombs has been a subject of debate since 1945.  Comparatively little attention has been paid to the practical and moral consequences of Truman failing to act.  Father Miscamble is to be congratulated for examining this facet of Truman’s Dilemma.

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Published in: on August 6, 2012 at 5:30 am  Comments (6)  
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6 Comments

  1. I remember my dad relating stories of Japanese soldiers refusing to surrender from cousins he had in the war. We believe in live to fight another day and that life is sacred (at lease most of us in that day). The Japanese saw surrender aa a greater disgrace than losing ones life.

    Americans will never understand that difference. I never understood why Truman selected those particular cities. The military production facilities were never mentioned in any of my history books. Always wondered why NOT Tokyo.
    Also this argument shows the fault of bringing presuppostions (all of us have them) to any arguement. While one cannot prevent this, truly intelligent people are not slaves to their presuppositions. I believe that given the options Truman had little other options. I am sure the man struggled mightily before and after with this choice. I would shake his hand and stand with him, given the opportunity.
    In Christ,
    Dennis McCutcheon

    • Dennis, one Japanese soldier came out of the brush in the Philippines in the 1970s. Their slogan in 1945 was “Let the Yankees come! One hundred million die proudly!” I have absolutely no doubt that but for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese government would not have surrendered until several million more Japanese were dead, either as a result of famine caused by the blockade, or as a result of an Allied invasion of the homelands. The bombings were the last gasp attempt by Truman to avoid an immense blood letting at the end of the War in the Pacific. The shocking thing for me is how hard it was for the Japanese to agree to surrender, even after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

  2. I don’t understand supposedly intelligent people can look at the history of the immediate years before,how the Japanese military, air force, navy fought, their lack of compassion for local native populations and ESPECIALLY Iwo Jima and Okinawa late in the war and come to a different conclusion. ???

    • It beats me Dennis. I think some people are just viscerally against nuclear weapons and others are committed to a world view where Uncle Sam is always the villian.

  3. Filial piety compels me to support Truman’s decision. My grandfather was slated to go in Operation Olympic.

    • As were two of my uncles Adam, including one who had fought his way across the Pacific as a Marine and who was certain he was going to be killed in the invasion. Critics of Truman I suspect are usually, perhaps often willfully, ignorant of the immense blood letting that occurred every month that war dragged on, with the invasion of the Home Islands doubtless surpassing anything thus seen for an immense body count in a relatively short period of time.


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