Obama at Hiroshima (longer version)

Here is a longer version of the op-ed I published at The New York Daily News arguing that President Obama should apologize for Hiroshima, with references to Catholic thought.

Once, in a talk to school students about sex, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen said the following:

When, I wonder, did we in America ever get into this idea that freedom means having no boundaries and no limits? You know I think it began on the 6th of August 1945 at 8:15 am when we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. That blotted out boundaries. The boundary of America that was the aid of nations, and the nations that were helped. It blotted out the boundary between life and death for the victims of nuclear incineration. Among them even the living were dead. It blotted out the boundary between the civilian and the military. And somehow or other, from that day on in our American life, we say we want no limits and no boundaries.

In dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Sheen reasoned, the U.S. had incurred a moral corruption that could not be easily contained.

As the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima, Barack Obama has insisted that he will not apologize for the bombings, doubtless aiming to ward off the domestic criticism that such contrition would garner.  Early in his presidency, his foes on the right lambasted him for an “apology tour” overseas.  A 2015 Pew Research Center Survey showed that 70% of Americans over 65 considered the atomic bombs justified, while 47% of 18- to 29-year-olds thought the same.

Would Obama be wrong to apologize, though?  When Archbishop Sheen called Hiroshima the destroyer of moral boundaries, he was speaking not from the left or the right side of the political spectrum, but rather from the heart of his church and from the standpoint of the natural law.  It is always wrong intentionally to kill an innocent person – that is, to murder.  And one should never adopt an immoral means to one’s end.  These are the precepts behind centuries-old laws of war, which have distinguished combatants, who may be targeted lawfully, from non-combatants, whose death one may never intend.

The deaths of non-combatants, the U.S. manifestly did intend when, for the first and only time in history, it used nuclear weapons.  Historians do not dispute that the primary reason for the bombs was to destroy the morale of Japan by killing its civilians, thereby hastening the end of the war.  Killing non-combatants – murder – was a means to an end.  The same reasoning had underlaid the United States’ obliteration bombing of Japanese cities, including Tokyo, as well as the Allies’ bombing of Hamburg and Dresden, Germany, earlier in the war.

Armchair analysts! will come the response.  Professors with their principles looking back 71 years later may well condemn the bombings but have considered little the pressures that President Harry Truman was under when he had to make his terrible decision of summer 1945.  Nor have the denizens of the faculty lounge come to grips with the number of lives of U.S. soldiers that would have been lost in a conventional invasion of mainland Japan, which some historians estimate to be 500,000, the charge will run.

The history of what did not happen, though, is always debatable.  Historical counterfactuals – what would have happened if X did not occur – are notoriously uncertain, perhaps just as uncertain as predictions about the future.  Even the assumption of a colossally bloody invasion of Japan rests upon the fixity of U.S. war aims such as unconditional surrender and the deposing of Japan’s Emperor.  Had war aims been relaxed, might an alternative peace have been possible?  The answers can only be speculative.

Far more certain is the moral law, which the Apostle Paul taught is inscribed on the heart.  If it is wrong without exception to kill civilians as the object of one’s action, then targeting the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki must be ruled out apart from how persuasive this or that historian’s counterfactuals may be.  The principle of non-combatant immunity is not the conclusion of a speculative university seminar but is rather a law that every soldier, including the commander in chief, is expected to know and follow.  General Curtis Le May, the architect of the campaign to bomb Japanese cities – no armchair analyst he – acknowledged as much when he quipped after the war that “if we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.”

While the arguments against the bomb can be rendered through reason, it is worth noting that those reasoning from the heart of the same tradition as Archbishop Sheen – the Catholic tradition – have reached the same conclusion that he did.  Courageously, theologian John Ford, S.J. wrote an article in 1944 – during the throes of the war – explaining why obliteration bombing could never pass moral muster.  Oxford philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, a Catholic and one of the greatest philosophical minds of the twentieth century, refused to attend the ceremony when Oxford awarded President Truman an honorary degree, explaining her decision in a pointed essay.  The great document of the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, the “magna carta” of modern Catholic social and political thought, condemned the bombing of cities outright, indenting the text, “[a]ny act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.”  Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical of 1993, Veritatis Splendor, rejected the proportionalist method of moral reasoning that would replace moral absolutes with a weighing of goods – the kind of reasoning that is required to justify the bombings.  John Paul II spoke about Hiroshima directly when he said to the Japanese ambassador to the Holy See in 1999, ““The cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are a message to all our contemporaries, inviting all the earth’s peoples to learn the lessons of history and to work for peace with ever greater determination. Indeed, they remind our contemporaries of all the crimes committed during the Second World War against civilian populations, crimes and acts of true genocide.”

War crimes leave wounds.  When a nation places its patriotism and its policy behind a gravely immoral deed and continues to justify this deed, it invites its citizens to commit further grave wrongs on the proportionalist rationale.  Not long after Hiroshima, the U.S. government rested the nation’s very defense on the threat to kill innocents in its policy of massive retaliation.  Again, Anscombe diagnosed the problem in an essay, “War and Murder,” which she concluded by writing, “[t]hose, therefore, who think they must be prepared to wage a war with Russia involving the deliberate massacre of cities, must be prepared to say to God: ‘We had to break your law, lest your Church fail. We could not obey your commandments, for we did not believe your promises.’”

In renouncing a moral wrong and inviting citizens to share in the contrition, a head of state can help to heal historical wounds and to nullify historical rationales for future crimes.  President Abraham Lincoln exercised such moral leadership when he called Americans – from both North and South – to repent for slavery.  More recently, President George H.W. Bush officially apologized to Japanese-Americans interned in World War II and President Bill Clinton apologized to Guatemalans for U.S. complicity in human rights violations during the Cold War.

The U.S. also has every right to ask Japan to apologize for its attack on Pearl Harbor and its atrocities during the war.  Such an apology from Japan may well be unlikely.  The apologies that Japanese prime ministers voiced in the 1990s for Japan’s crimes in the 1930s and 1940s provoked a nationalist backlash and public controversy as much as they did greater national contrition.

A U.S. president’s apology for the atomic bombs is also likely to provoke opposition from many American citizens, who will say that an apology for Hiroshima and Nagasaki breaks faith with the U.S. soldiers who fought and died in World War II.  An apology, though, does no dishonor to these soldiers, who fought a war whose cause was just.  Contrition would not detract in the slightest from the imperative of remembering and honoring their sacrifice.

Rather, were the lone superpower to apologize for its violations of the law of nations, it could set an example for other nations to follow.  It might deprive Japan’s latter day nationalists of some of their best arguments for rejecting contrition towards their own country’s history and make it easier for Japanese prime ministers to extend apologies to the U.S. as well as to China and Korea.  An apology for the dropping of the atomic bombs would elicit ire and fury in the short run, but with the passing of time may come to be seen as one of President Obama’s greatest acts of leadership.

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Daniel Philpott

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.