“It was a terrible choice,” writes papal biographer and Catholic commentator George Weigel in First Things. “Given the available options, it was the correct choice.”
The choice made was President Harry Truman’s decision to use atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands, most of whom were noncombatants. As Weigel notes, Truman’s decision saved the lives of millions of Japanese and Americans by bringing a savage war to an end. (On Okinawa, just weeks before the bomb was used, one hundred twenty thousand Japanese and American soldiers were killed.) But of course there is a problem with endorsing that decision, especially for a conservative Catholic like Weigel. How does someone who has lectured other Catholic moralists on the abandonment of exceptionless moral norms with regard to abortion, contraception, divorce and remarriage, and a host of questions around sexual morality, exonerate Truman? “It seems difficult, if not impossible,” Weigel concedes, “to vindicate Hiroshima and Nagasaki on classic just-war grounds without relativizing moral norms in the kind of ethical calculus John Paul II rejected in his 1993 encyclical, Veritas splendor.”
In that encyclical on moral theology, the pope insisted that certain acts are “intrinsically evil” and that the motives and intentions of those who commit them are not exculpatory. Not to recognize that fact leads to the moral relativism so pervasive today. Committing such acts damages the perpetrator as well as the victim. Christians should, Weigel has written, be “prepared to die rather than do what they know is wrong.” The “witness of martyrs” is what’s needed. Yet he appears to think that in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nakasaki, motives and intentions do in fact alter the moral calculus.
Weigel was prompted to tackle this moral conundrum after rediscovering an old photograph of his father, LTJG George S. Weigel, USNR. The photo shows the senior Weigel in Japan shortly after the Japanese surrender. Just weeks before, Lt. Weigel had been assigned to a landing craft destined to take part in the invasion of the Japanese homeland. Given the suicidal devotion with which the Japanese would defend “the emperor,” Weigel believes his father would most likely not have survived the war but for Truman’s decision.
My own father, a navigator in the Army Air Force, was also set to take part in the invasion. When the atom bombs were dropped, he was about to parachute into Japan on a reconnaissance mission. But for the bomb, his fate too seemed sealed.