Today is the 68th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. I guess this is the time to address something that I’ve been considering for a while; it’s a point where I disagree with many other Catholics and even the general opinion of the Church itself.
I support the atomic bombings of Japan at the end of WWII.
My main reason for doing so, and the reason I find arguments that this is ‘utilitarianism’ or such like unconvincing is that I have never once heard anyone present a viable alternative that wouldn’t have clearly resulted in many more deaths and much greater suffering. Yes, atomic bombs are horrible things, but I wonder if we’re so awed by their terrible power that we forget that there are many things that are, in their way, worse.
From what I understand, there were four options available to the US at the end of WWII to deal with Japan:
1. Drop the Atomic Bombs to try to force a surrender
2. Increase conventional bombing to try to force a surrender
3. Blockade the islands until the Japanese had to surrender
4. A full-scale invasion of mainland Japan using conventional forces.
Let’s set the first one aside for the moment and consider the second. Something we forget is that many, many more Japanese civilians died in conventional bombing raids than in the atomic bombs. I won’t comment on the morality of this, but the fact is that, when the Americans firebombed Tokyo in Operation Meetinghouse, months before Hiroshima, more people died than in either atomic bombing. And Tokyo, together with other Japanese cities, had been enduring this sort of thing for years (estimates of the death toll from air raids over Japan range as high as 900,000). Now, since Japan had weathered that firestorm, was there any reason to believe that continuous bombings would be any more successful? And even if they were, this would have to mean increasing the scale of the bombings, meaning more nights like Operation Meetinghouse, and one after another after another. However justified or unjustified killing 250,000 people with two bombs may have been, I don’t think killing twice that number with a million bombs would be any better.
Now regarding the third option. I think that sounds, to our ears, like the most humane; just blockade the islands and starve them out.
Starve. Them. Out.
Think of what that means. The Islands of Japan all starving. And while you consider that, remember that Japan – especially Imperial Japan – was a very militaristic culture, where suicide had long been regarded as an honorable thing (even today, Japan is the suicide capital of the world). And you know what a common method of suicide was? Self starvation. Faced with the choice between surrender and national suicide by starvation, I honestly think that, at best, it would have taken the Japanese a long time to decide on the former. In meantime, millions of people all around the island starve to death. Again, I don’t see how that would be any morally superior to the atomic bombings.
Oh, and let’s not forget that, while both these options were going on, Japanese forces are still fighting in Manchuria, and thousands of people – soldiers and civilians – are dying every day. China, remember, had the worst civilian casualties of the whole war, and that was due almost entirely to the Japanese. So not only are the Japanese dying by the thousand while we bomb them or starve them out (or, more likely, both), but so are the Chinese.
Both these options would have dragged on the war and cost far more lives than the atomic bombings. And, we must remember, there’s really no guarantee that either would have worked. It isn’t at all outside the range of possibilities that that Japanese, even with their cities burning and their people starving to death, would have sat down and let themselves be slaughtered piecemeal rather than surrender. Even after the atomic bombings the military commanders still wanted to fight on, and even attempted to kidnap the Emperor on the way to his announcement of Japan’s surrender. I don’t think either firebombs (which they had endured for years already) nor starvation (which they would have viewed as honorable) would have been any more convincing.
That leaves two options: the atomic bombs and the invasion.
The invasion option, I trust, doesn’t need much explanation to see why it was undesirable. Casualty estimates famously ranged into the millions for the Allies, and God alone knows how many Japanese would have been killed. Moreover, we’re talking about a nation that was arming civilians with broomsticks and training children to pack on explosives and dive under tanks. Would there have been a Japan at all after such an invasion? I doubt it. Even if there were, let’s not forget that hundreds of thousands of our grandfathers would have gone down on Japanese soil rather than coming home after their long years at war. I remember someone, I can’t remember who, imagining President Truman telling hundreds of thousands of grieving mothers and widows that the war could have been ended a year earlier without invading Japan, but they decided it wouldn’t be morally right to do so.
That thought puts things a little into perspective, doesn’t it? As horrible as the bombings were, is it at all likely that an invasion, or a blockade, or what have you would have been any less horrible? Isn’t it more likely that, dragged on for months or even years, they would have been far, far worse?
Essentially, the issue was this; America was at war with Japan and had been for nearly four years. America had a very powerful new weapon, one so powerful that it thought might end the war immediately and with less loss of life on either side than could be reasonably expected from any other method. America used that weapon against two military targets (and yes, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were military targets; they had barracks, steel-mills, and so on used to fuel the Japanese war machine). In the process, many thousands of civilians were killed along with the military personnel. Tragic? Yes. Horrific? Yes. Unjustified and evil? I have to say no. Dropping the atomic bomb was simply the best option available, both tactically and morally speaking. That certainly doesn’t make it a “good thing” in and of itself, but it does, I think, justify it.
In any case, let’s take a moment today to pray for the souls of both the victims of the bombings and those who committed it. They are both in God’s hands now, and He knows best.
Vive Christus Rex!