The Least Evil Option: A Defense of Harry Truman

 
 

Rather than simply denouncing Truman for his decision to employ the atomic bomb, his critics need to confront the harsh reality of war and seriously consider the lack of viable alternatives available to him.

I am grateful to Professor Christopher Tollefsen for his forthright critique of my book, The Most Controversial Decision. I appreciate his kind comments about my pro-life efforts here at Notre Dame, and for his remark that, “as history,” my book is a “great read.” Professor Tollefsen’s criticisms, however, are hardly original: I have read and heard variations of them over the years, including from my treasured friends and Notre Dame comrades-in-arms, David Solomon and Michael Baxter. Just this past semester, at the banquet concluding a conference honoring Professor John Finnis, I sat at a table with the honoree and Professors Joseph Boyle and Germain Grisez, among others. When discussion turned to the use of the atomic bombs, these men were all gracious to me, but Joe Boyle (who recently had read my book) explained in no uncertain terms that I was a “consequentialist.”

Of course, Tollefsen references the work of Finnis, Boyle, and Grisez on nuclear deterrence, but, in the end, he largely repeats the fundamental criticism mounted against President Harry Truman by Elizabeth Anscombe over a half-century ago: Violating the moral absolute against the intentional killing of the innocent is always wrong. The atomic bombs involved such killing and so should not have been used––end of story. It is all neat, and clear, and logically consistent. And, it now has the seeming added advantage of having Veritatis Splendor to back it up.

Yet Tollefsen’s critique is rather abstract and detached from a real understanding of the war against Japan in 1945 and the courses of action open to Harry Truman. Some philosophers undoubtedly see such an understanding as completely irrelevant. A good historian is more charitable, and so struggles to understand something of the world of policymakers such as Truman with its inevitable compromises and constantly competing pressures. (In this regard let me recommend Michael Burleigh’s recent Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II.) The historian accepts the complexity, the uncertainty, and the sheer messiness of policymaking during wartime and acknowledges the tense atmosphere in which policymakers operated. Before this particular historian condemns, he, at least, wants to understand what occurred and why, for this surely aids the task of moral analysis. Let me provide some sense of my book’s conclusions, and then I will present specific reservations about Professor Tollefsen’s argument.

By July of 1945, the Japanese had undergone months of devastating attacks by American B-29s. Their capital and other major cities had suffered extensive damage, and their home islands were subjected to a naval blockade that made food and fuel increasingly scarce. Japanese military and civilian losses had reached approximately three million, and there seemed to be no end in sight. Despite all this, Japan’s leaders and military clung fiercely to notions of Ketsu-Go: a plan that centered on inflicting such punishment on the invader in defense of the homeland that he would sue for terms. In fact, even after Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Soviet attack in Manchuria, the Japanese military still wanted to pursue that desperate option, but Emperor Hirohito broke the impasse in the Japanese government and ordered surrender. He came to understand that the atomic bomb undermined (as the brilliant historian Richard Frank has noted) “the fundamental premise” of Ketsu-Go “that the United States would have to invade Japan to secure a decision” in the war. Ultimately, the atomic bombs allowed the emperor and the “peace faction” in the Japanese government to negotiate an end to the war.

Of course, the United States eventually could have defeated Japan without the atomic bomb, but all the viable alternate scenarios to secure victory—continued obliteration bombing of Japanese cities and infrastructure, a choking blockade, the likely terrible invasions involving massive firepower—would have meant significantly greater Allied casualties and higher Japanese civilian and military casualties. These casualties would likely have included thousands of Allied prisoners of war whom the Japanese planned to execute. Notably, all of these options also would have indirectly involved some “intentional killing of innocents,” including the naval blockade, which sought to starve the Japanese into submission. Hard as it may be to accept when one sees the visual evidence of the terrible destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japanese losses probably would have been substantially greater without the A-bombs.

Moreover, the use of these awful weapons abruptly ended the death and suffering of innocent third parties throughout Asia. Rather surprisingly, the enormous wartime losses of the Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, Vietnamese, and Javanese at the hands of the Japanese receive little attention in weighing the American effort to shock the Japanese into surrender. The losses in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were horrific, but they pale in comparison to the estimates of seventeen to twenty-four million deaths attributed to the Japanese’s hideous rampage from Manchuria to New Guinea. The thoughtful scholar Robert Newman explains that “the last months were in many ways the worst; starvation and disease aggravated the usual beatings, beheadings and battle deaths. It is plausible to hold that upwards of two-hundred-fifty thousand people, mostly Asian but some Westerners, would have died each month the Japanese Empire struggled in its death throes beyond July 1945.” Surely these persons also are “innocents” deserving of some concern in our moral calculations?

Bluntly put, the atomic bombs shortened the war, averted the need for a land invasion, saved countless more lives on both sides of the ghastly conflict than they cost, and brought to an end the Japanese brutalization of the conquered peoples of Asia.

Subsequent to their use, Harry Truman maintained that dropping the bombs had been necessary, having ended the war and saved numerous lives. This conviction, however, did not stave off his own serious moral qualms about the action. He never again spoke of the atomic bombs as military weapons to which the United States could make easy resort. He rightly indicated some retreat from his pre-Hiroshima view that the A-bomb was just another military weapon.

Some evidence suggests that Truman also worried that he had blood on his hands. In this, of course, he hardly stood alone among the participants in the enormous, ghastly struggle of World War II. Well over fifty million people lost their lives in that conflict, which descended to new lows of barbarism in both European and Pacific theaters. Restraints that previously had directed soldiers to spare non-combatants were thrown off as the Allies battled to defeat their powerful foes. As a number of writers have noted, a “moral Rubicon” had been crossed long before Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Indiscriminate bombing had become the norm for the Anglo-American forces well before 1945: Churchill and Roosevelt both approved the harsh endeavors to break the morale of their foes, which they hoped would ultimately secure victory and save lives. The devastating Tokyo fire-bombings took place on FDR’s watch, after all.

Surprisingly, however, in the moral assessments of the war, Churchill and FDR escape much of the condemnation heaped on Harry Truman for using the atomic bombs. Truman’s critics should refrain from putting him in some singular dock of history. They might instead carefully consider the responsibility of the Japanese government for its people’s fate. In moral terms, the Japanese leadership had a responsibility to surrender by June of 1945, when there existed no reasonable prospect of success and when their civilian population had suffered so greatly. Instead, the neo-samurai who led the Japanese military geared up with true banzai spirit to engage the whole population as combatants of sorts in a national kamikaze campaign. Their stupidity and perfidy in perpetrating and prolonging the war should not be ignored.

Of course, the question remains: Was it right? I suggest that, in retrospect and within the privacy of his heart, Truman likely understood that he had been forced by necessity to enter into evil. And so, I argue in my book, he had. He ordered the bombing of cities possessing significant military-industrial value, but in which thousands of noncombatants, among them the innocent elderly and the sick, women and children, were annihilated. Evaluated in isolation, each atomic bombing was a deeply immoral act deserving of condemnation. The fact that the bombings entailed the least harm of the available paths to victory, and that it brought an end to destruction, death, and casualties on an even more massive scale, cannot obviate their evil; it should, however, satisfy those who accept a utilitarian approach to morality, in which good ends can justify certain immoral means. I am not in that number.

Yet I remain sympathetic in evaluating Truman and his decision. He was a person who knew that the confusing fog of war sometimes places the policymaker in circumstances where he has neither a clear nor an easy “moral” option. Perhaps Truman had his A-bomb decision in mind when he wrote fifteen years later, in a discourse on decision-making (in his Mr. Citizen), that “sometimes you have a choice of evils, in which case you try to take the course that is likely to bring the least harm.” That is how his decision regarding the atomic bombs should be assessed.

From the perspective of over six decades, Truman’s use of the bomb, when viewed in the context of the long and terrible war, should be seen as his choosing the least evil of the options available to him. Admittedly, he did not weigh these options in a careful moral calculus at the time and proceed forward with that understanding, but fair-minded observers will see that he chose what he might have termed a necessary evil—the one that did the least harm. Henry L. Stimson had it exactly right when he wrote in 1947 that “the decision to use the atomic bomb was a decision that brought death to over a hundred thousand Japanese. No explanation can change that fact and I do not wish to gloss over it. But this deliberate, premeditated destruction was our least abhorrent choice.” “Abhorrent,” for sure, but it must be understood, the “least abhorrent” as well so as to bring the bloodshed to an end.

Truman, along with many others, has blood on his hands, but he also stopped the veritable flood of blood on all sides. The reality that he prevented much greater bloodshed must be acknowledged. So, too, it must be appreciated that, in choosing to employ the atomic bomb, he did not turn his back on some obvious and feasible “moral” course of action that would have secured a Japanese surrender.

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.

In closing, let me admit that I hold Harry Truman in high regard for his efforts during the Cold War, of which I have written at some length. I endorse my friend Alonzo Hamby’s view that “Truman’s mobilization of the Western world against the Communist challenge” was an achievement “Churchillian in its significance.” He was certainly worthy of the Oxford degree that Elizabeth Anscombe sought to deny him.

Wilson D. Miscamble, C.S.C., is a priest in the Congregation of Holy Cross and professor of history at the University of Notre Dame.

 

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