It is well known that the University of Notre Dame has been engaged in an internal struggle over its pro-life identity in recent years. When President Barack Obama was honored in 2009 with an honorary law degree, advocates of the unborn, both on and off campus, protested loudly. Those protests seemed to have done some good: in 2009, the University opened an Office of University Life Initiatives to add to independent initiatives that already existed on campus, such as the Notre Dame Fund to Protect Human Life. But forward steps seemed occasionally to be matched by backward ones; exhibit A is the scandal over the appointment of Roxanne Martino to the Board of Trustees, a donor to the pro-abortion Emily’s List to the tune of some $25,000.

Through it all, one voice of pro-life sanity—certainly not the only one, but a voice to take seriously—has been Fr. Wilson Miscamble, C.S.C., a professor in the history department. Fr. Miscamble vigorously protested the Obama honors; he has been an important figure in the history of the Center for Ethics and Culture, a pro-life bright spot on the Notre Dame campus; and he leads the campus chapter of University Faculty for Life. His pro-life witness at an essential moment in Notre Dame’s history has been exemplary.

So it is with no pleasure that I venture here to make some criticisms of his recent book, a short history of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Most Controversial Decision is, as history, a great read. Miscamble presents a concise but clear narrative of the events leading up to the attack, especially Truman’s elevation to the duties of the presidency after Roosevelt’s death, for which his preparation at Roosevelt’s hands had been, in Miscamble’s words, a “disgraceful failure.” The race to get Truman up to speed proceeded neck and neck with the race to get the first atomic weapons ready for use. Truman received word of a successful test while returning from the Potsdam conference with Stalin and Clement Atlee, Churchill’s successor. Before he had finished that voyage, Hiroshima became the first city to be attacked with an atomic bomb.

According to Miscamble, neither Truman nor his secretary of state James Byrnes “raised any questions regarding whether the atomic bomb was a legitimate weapon of war.” And, as he points out later, “indiscriminate bombing had become the norm for the Anglo-American forces well before 1945.” I believe that referring to the Japanese attacks, and indeed, previous attacks on Tokyo and Dresden, as “indiscriminate” misstates the matter, to the extent that the word suggests merely a lack of care. Rather, the cities were attacked precisely because they had not only military targets of value, but also because they were large population centers—and thus the label “terror bombing” was aptly applied. Truman himself would describe the atomic bomb as “far worse than gas and biological warfare because it affects the civilian population and murders them by wholesale.” Yet Truman remained ready to drop more bombs than the two that were necessary; and he remained ready to drop more into the future, while praying that “he would never have to make such a decision again.”

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What are we to make of this, from a moral point of view? Miscamble rightly distinguishes the question of “necessity” from the question of “morality”; even if the use of the bomb were necessary to shorten the war and save many Americans, and perhaps even some Japanese and other Asian lives, was it a morally defensible decision that Truman made?

By the standards of what philosophers call “common morality,” the answer is clearly in the negative. Common morality is that part of morality that been articulated, developed, and promulgated by the Judeo-Christian tradition, but which also can be known by natural reason. By well before the twentieth century, common morality had coalesced around a principle of just war that those who pose no threat are absolutely not to be intentionally targeted or killed. This principle was acknowledged, but certainly not introduced, by the Second Vatican Council, in its document Gaudium et Spes: “Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.” So common morality, and at least the Catholic Church’s magisterial teaching on the matter, agree that non-combatants should never be intentionally targeted for death.

And “never” means “never.” As John Finnis, Joseph M. Boyle, and Germain Grisez explain in their book on nuclear deterrence, “Moral impossibility is as absolute a limit on responsibility as is any other sort of impossibility, and there are kinds of actions which are of themselves wrong, whatever the circumstances and good intentions.” So, as I noted in a recent Public Discourse essay, if one is convinced of the truth of moral absolutes, one must completely rule out their violations from options for action.

No doubt Truman, like Roosevelt before him, was in a difficult position in considering the invasion of Japan. Some philosophers, like Elizabeth Anscombe, have pointed to the Allies’ demand for “unconditional surrender” as contributing to this difficulty: faced with such a demand, with its implied willingness to absolutely dismantle the Japanese state even if it were to surrender (for “unconditional” means, on its surface, that nothing was off the table), there could be little motivation for the Japanese to lay down their arms.

Miscamble directly takes up this challenge, and his portrait of the Supreme War Leadership Council of the Emperor suggests an astonishing willingness on the part of some members to continue the fight even after the second atomic bombing; change in the demand would, he argues, have been interpreted as a sign of weakness. But Miscamble does not, in criticizing Anscombe, address her more fundamental point: that Truman had “certainly decided to kill the innocent as a means to an end,” a claim for which the evidence is overwhelming; nor does he take on her moral evaluation of this as “always murder.”

Instead, Miscamble approaches the issue through a Machiavellian lens, suggesting that a statesman “must come to ruin” if he is not able to make the hard decisions and “learn to be able not to be good.” Miscamble writes of Truman: “within the privacy of his own heart and soul it is likely that Truman understood he had been forced by necessity to enter into evil. And, so indeed, he had.”

But the idea of being faced with and forced by necessity into doing evil—such as violating the moral absolute against intentional killing of the innocent, or indeed any other moral principle—is no part of common morality. In fact, moral absolutes are framed, as I argued in my previous essay, in terms of intentional acts precisely because it is always possible to refrain from an action whose intention would be contrary to a human good. The deliberate killing of “the innocent elderly and the sick, women and children” is precisely such an action: always and deeply contrary to the good of human life, always and everywhere to be avoided in one’s choices and actions.

The Machiavellian idea, in fact, is deeply opposed to common morality and the tradition of moral absolutes in its pretense that the life of the successful public servant is incompatible with adherence to such absolutes (and to other forms of virtue as well). Common morality does indeed identify acts that only public authorities can perform, such as taxation and imprisonment of felons, but never on grounds that public authorities are exempt from an absolute that governs all agents.

The Machiavellian position, like the position that accepts that moral absolutes must be violated in cases of “supreme emergency,” is also unstable. If no moral absolutes for public servants, who are, after all, only human beings, then no moral absolutes at all. So if one can be forced by necessity into killing the innocents on a grand scale for the great good of the state, then why cannot one be “forced” into such killing on a small scale for the sake of one’s career, education, mental well-being, or family stability?

Thus we come inevitably to the more immediately pressing issues of pro-life consistency and witness. Consistency because the pro-life view identifies a universal moral claim as underwriting its commitment to the unborn: all innocent human beings are to be held absolutely immune from intentionally inflicted harm or death. Snip that thread in the ethics of war, and the entire pro-life garment, covering the unborn, the disabled, and the elderly, begins to unravel. And witness because the pro-life cause is furthered not only by arguments, but by a willingness on the part of pro-life citizens to live out their commitments with an acknowledgment that sometimes those commitments require difficult choices: choices of personal, and even political, sacrifice.

It might well be true that greater suffering would have resulted from a refusal to use the atomic weapons in Japan, or to firebomb Tokyo, or Dresden before that. In fact, these claims cannot be known with certainty, and also could be false. Commitment to the moral principles of common morality, however, is not, and never has been, conditioned on the idea that adherence to those principles would never be demanding: witness all those killed for their refusal to foreswear their faith. To plead for greater “understanding” of the evils that Truman avoided, or the difficulties that he faced, is one thing; but to excuse his choices as “necessary” evils, required for the greater good, is to abandon our post as witnesses to the truth that pro-life principles are immutable and without exception.