On the Dangers of Thanking God for the Atom Bomb


There are often great temptations to violate the absolute norms against intentional killing and against lying. On the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bombs over Japan, we should remember what is at stake in such decisions and how agents constitute themselves in their choosing.

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Seventy years ago today, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. And earlier this week, in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal titled “Thank God for the Atom Bomb,” Bret Stephens spoke for many in complaining that once again the anniversary of the dropping of atomic bombs over Japan will be met with “cant.” There will be, he writes, demands for an apology from the US, calls for nuclear disarmament, and handwringing over man’s inhumanity to man. Near the end of his essay he describes a "U.S. public [that] is 'consumed with guilt for sins they did not commit.'” And he proposes the expiation of all these ills: “Watch the light come on at night in Hiroshima. Note the gentleness of its culture. And thank God for the atom bomb.”

I cannot help but feel some doubt as to the accuracy of Stephens’s description. Each August I am rather struck by the vociferous support for the atomic bombings, often expressed by those with whom I share what I take to be basic pro-life commitments to the inviolability of human life. Those commitments play themselves out in resolute opposition to abortion and euthanasia. But often they seem to have no purchase on the issues of capital punishment or just conduct in warfare.

No Intentional Killing: Proposed Exceptions

Where capital punishment is concerned, the divergence is intelligible, and the position of those opposed to abortion but supportive of the state’s right to execute convicted criminals is defensible, though I think in error. For the victims of abortion are innocent of all wrong and threat. Their killing is not only a violation of the sanctity of life; it is also manifestly unjust. No victim of abortion consents to his or her own death for the sake of another. And so the wrong of intentional killing—of acting in a way directly contrary to the basic good of human life—is compounded by the wrong of acting unjustly. This is hardly surprising: most killings are surely unjust.

The case of euthanasia is a bit trickier. If we assume that some, presumably very small, percentage of those who request physician-assisted suicide (PAS) or euthanasia do so entirely voluntarily, then we must concede that no injustice is done to them if they are killed, or are helped to kill themselves, for, as Aristotle and Aquinas both held, no one suffers injustice willingly. A terrible wrong against the good of human life is still committed, of course. And, what is more important from the perspective of political morality, there is no way at all of legalizing and institutionalizing PAS or euthanasia that does not unjustly put at risk those who cannot freely consent, whether from depression or some other incapacity, and those who will be pressured unjustly by family members, doctors, or others into accepting an early death. So the practice of PAS and euthanasia is also always unjust.

The injustice in capital punishment may be reasonably denied, at least if adequate safeguards are met. But, as I have argued, it is nevertheless always wrong, for it is always wrong to intend the death of any human person, even when that death would not be unjust. So the combination of opposition to abortion and defense of the death penalty is an erroneous, but not unintelligible combination.

Killing, Both Intentional and Unjust

But defense of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is different. There can be no doubt, nor does Stephens evince any, that the bombings were carried out with the intention of inflicting massive civilian casualties in order to demoralize Japan and break its leadership’s will. These civilians included the aged and infirm, women and children, all of whom were innocent in the relevant sense of just war doctrine—they posed no threat—and the last of whom were categorically innocent in every way. The proposal carried out in the bombings was to kill enough such persons, and show a willingness to kill more, that Japan would surrender unconditionally.

Such killing is both contra-life, in that it involved a massive attack on human beings with the intent of ending their lives; and unjust, in that it involved an attack on the lives of human beings who themselves posed no threat in any reasonable sense of the word. Its proponents even now justify it primarily, as does Stephens, not by denying the intention of killing the innocent, but by reference to casualties prevented, a consequentialist justification.

About consequentialism, much could be said. Appeal to the consequences as the sole justifying factor requires that those consequences be capable of measurement by a common standard. But there is no such standard by which the true multiplicity of consequences, including not just lives lost versus lives saved (and why should the goodness of those lives be strictly commensurable?) but also the consequences for the character of those taking, and those losing their lives may be measured. This point bears some consideration, going, as it does, to the difficulties we should find with Stephens’s concluding line.

Self-Constitution Through Choice

The choice to use atomic weapons over Japan was just that: a choice. As such, it did more than simply bring about an external state of affairs in which, possibly, though not definitely, more lives were saved than lost. Rather, that choice had lasting consequences for three groups of agents.

First, those individuals who made and carried out the choice constituted themselves as persons willing to kill innocent persons for the sake of good consequences. Unless repented of, this choice became part of the character of those agents, surely shaping their subsequent moral deliberation. Would they have stopped after two bombings, even if Japan had not surrendered? Why would they have, having now become persons willing to go this far?

Second, there was the nation over whom these agents possessed political authority. As exercising that authority, Truman chose for the United States. When Stephens speaks, albeit slightingly, of a public consumed with guilt, I think he is not far off, for through Truman and his agents, the country acted. Of course, there is a moral difference between those who acquiesced in Truman’s authoritative decision to drop the bombs, and those who did not. But Truman’s authority brought with it the possibility of self-constitution for the United States, and much of the country endorsed and internalized precisely the choice that Truman made on their behalf.

Did this self-constitution on the part of our country have its own consequences? It surely did. Stephens describes a chastened Japan, one dedicated to peace. But he passes over the subsequent history of our nation, a history that includes further acts of indiscriminate killing during the Vietnam War, a standing resolution to destroy the Soviet Union if it were first to attack us with nuclear weapons, and the eventual adoption by the nation in its domestic affairs of death as a solution to be embraced for its consequences—before birth, as in abortion or human embryo destructive research—or at the end of life, in PAS and euthanasia. These are, sadly, natural choices for a country swayed by consequentialist justifications; the way to those choices was paved by the literally catastrophic choice to destroy Japanese cities (as before them, German cities) for the sake of military gain.

And this leads to the third set of persons for whom that choice had, or may yet have, consequences: Those of us today who are faced with the question of whether to rejoice or grieve at the choices made by others now seventy years ago. For the reason I have given, grieving is the better path; in so responding, we reject the choice, and set our hearts against the killing of the innocent.

But consider instead Stephens’s suggestion: that we thank God for what was done. Is there any greater endorsement of Truman’s decision, and surer way of internalizing in our own character the choice that was made? I doubt that there is.

Caution for the Present

Over the years on Public Discourse there has probably been only one issue on which I have written that has angered those who otherwise are my pro-life friends more than the issue of killing in capital punishment and in war, and that is the issue of lying for a good cause. Currently, pro-lifers are again decrying, and rightly, the barbarism of Planned Parenthood, with their officials’ callous indifference to the real, and not merely monetary, value of the human beings destroyed in abortion. But knowledge of that indifference, and the actions rooted in it, seems to have come about once again by means of techniques that involved lies.

If so, then the actions of the Center for Medical Progress ought not to be celebrated any more than the actions of Truman and the United States in their military conduct in WWII. Celebrating either brings, for pro-lifers, a specific danger, the danger of internalizing a willingness to act contrary to basic goods, and to violate absolute norms, for the causes we believe to be most important. That is not the path to righteousness, whether as individuals or as a nation; it is not the higher ground the pro-life movement is called to occupy. We should give thanks when we are given the strength and courage to occupy that ground, not for the willingness to abandon it.

Christopher O. Tollefsen is professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina and a senior fellow of the Witherspoon Institute. He is the author of Lying and Christian Ethics (Cambridge, 2014).

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