The moral use of nu­clear weapons

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

Ever since the 1960s, re­vi­sion­ist his­to­ri­ans and re­li­gious lead­ers have con­demned Pres­i­dent Harry S. Tru­man’s use of the atomic bomb to end the war with Ja­pan in Au­gust 1945. How­ever, in “The Most Con­tro­ver­sial De­ci­sion: Tru­man, the Atomic Bombs, and the De­feat of Ja­pan,” the Rev. Wil­son D. Mis­cam­ble, a his­tory pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Notre Dame, writes, “There was not an eas­ily avail­able and ap­pro­pri­ate op­tion that would have met the se­ri­ous po­lit­i­cal and moral ob­jec­tions of many later crit­ics of Tru­man’s de­ci­sion.” Not only does Fa­ther Mis­cam­ble’s re­search ex­on­er­ate Tru­man, but it lays a seedbed for ques­tions about the contemporary use of nu­clear weapons where, un­til now, even the an­gels have not dared to tread.

Any­one deal­ing with moral is­sues re­al­izes that con­text is ev­ery­thing. In this ground­break- ing study, Fa­ther Mis­cam­ble ably re­con­structs the sce­nario that led Tru­man to au­tho­rize the use of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Na­gasaki 66 years ago. He says, if sim­ply “eval­u­ated in iso­la­tion, each atomic bomb­ing as­suredly was a deeply im­moral act de­serv­ing of con­dem­na­tion.” Re­al­is­ti­cally, how­ever, Fa­ther Mis­cam­ble be­lieves that ef­for ts to “eval­u­ate [Tru­man’s] ac­tions ret­ro­spec­tively in ex­plicit moral terms is in­suf­fi­cient.” He main­tains that the po­lit­i­cal-mil­i­tary as­pect of the sit­u­a­tion is cru­cial in de­ter­min­ing the right­ness of Tru­man’s de­ci­sion.

Fa­ther Mis­cam­ble re­buffs those re­vi­sion­ist his­to­ri­ans who, years later, pro­posed that other less dras­tic mea­sures for vic­tory could have been used. “The on-the-ground re­al­ity of a Ja­panese mil­i­tary ‘gird­ing for Ar­maged­don’ and con­vinced ‘that it could achieve suc­cess against an in­va­sion,’ must be well ap­pre­ci­ated by all who gen­uinely seek to un­der­stand why atomic bombs were used. In short, Ja­pan hardly stood on the verge of mil­i­tary de­feat. The time has come at long last to ex­plode per­ma­nently the myth of a Ja­pan ready to sur­ren­der.”

In mak­ing his de­ci­sion, Fa­ther Mis­cam­ble writes, Tru­man acted in con­cert with the best advice of his gen­er­als in the field. In eval­u­at­ing the pos­si­ble in­va­sion of the Ja­panese home is­lands, it was de­ter­mined that the “odds were against the in­vaders be­cause the de­fend­ers would soon equal or out­num­ber the at­tack­ers on the beaches.”

In light of this, “In such cir­cum­stances none of the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary lead­ers ei­ther in the Pa­cific the­ater or in Wash­ing­ton cau­tioned Tru­man to re­con­sider his use of the atomic bomb. The re­al­ity was quite the op­po­site. Ap­prised of the bloody car­nage that awaited his in­vad­ing force Gen. [George C.] Mar­shall even asked [Man­hat­tan Project head] Les­lie Groves in late July about the fea­si­bil­ity of us­ing atomic bombs as tac­ti­cal weapons to di­min­ish the Ja­panese re­sis­tance on Kyushu.

Tru­man was warned that a land in­va­sion could cost from half a mil­lion to a mil­lion Amer­i­can lives.

Fa­ther Mis­cam­ble writes, that even after the sec­ond bomb was dropped, many high of­fi­cials in the Ja­panese gov­ern­ment and mil­i­tary wanted to con­tinue the war. “Hard as it may be to ac­cept when one sees the vis­ual record of the ter­ri­ble de­struc­tion of Hiroshima and Na­gasaki, Ja­panese losses prob­a­bly would have been sub­stan­tially greater without the atomic bombs.”

Fa­ther Mis­cam­ble presents Tru­man as be­ing se­cure with his de­ci­sion to drop the bombs. But this does not mean he was not trou­bled by the loss of life, es­pe­cially to non­mil­i­tary per­son­nel. In 1948 Tru­man stated, “I don’t think we ought to use this thing [the atomic bomb] un­less we have to. . . . You have got to un­der­stand that this isn’t a mil­i­tary weapon. . . . It is used to wipe out women and chil­dren and un­armed peo­ple, and not for mil­i­tary uses. So we have got to treat this dif­fer­ently.”

Fa­ther Mis­cam­ble con­tends that war­fare had al­ready changed be­fore the use of nu­clear weapons. Civil­ian pop­u­la­tions were al­ready seen as part of a na­tion’s “war ma­chine” be­cause they pro­duced the ma­teriel that sup­plied the war ef­fort. The prior non­nu­clear bomb­ings of Euro­pean cities, he writes, al­ready estab­lished the prece­dent that in­cluded the col­lat­eral dam­age of non­com­bat­ants. In light of this, the ques­tion must be asked: Does this com­pro­mise the prin­ci­ple of the tra­di­tional just-war the­ory that pro­tects civil­ians? And is the the­ory in need of up­dat­ing?

An­other more important ques­tion re­mains: May the atomic bomb be used to­day to pre­vent some greater evil to a state? Of course, cer­tain uses of a strate­gic nu­clear weapon would be in­con­ceiv­able be­cause the bomb would de­stroy count­less in­no­cents.

How­ever, might it be per­mis­si­ble to use a tac­ti­cal nu­clear weapon on a mil­i­tary tar­get to stop the ag­gres­sion of a rogue state or ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion?

The Rev. Michael P. Orsi is a chap­lain and re­search fel­low in law and re­li­gion at Ave Maria School of Law.

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