75 years since Hiroshima, when “the world headed in a wrong direction”

Image credit: 509th Operations Group

Comment by Robin Gill, 6 August 2020

The 75th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki anniversary is particularly poignant for many Christians. Today, 6 August, the day Hiroshima was bombed, is also the Feast of the Transfiguration when the glory of Christ was revealed to his disciples.

The bomb, dropped by a US Army Air Force B-29, killed up to 226,000 people, yet a significant question for many Christians remains: Was the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and then Nagasaki morally justifiable?

There has been a long discussion about justifiable or unjustifiable warfare within Christian history that continues to influence western thought. With the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the fourth century as the state religion, Christian thinkers moved away from the radical pacifism of the early church.

First Bishop Ambrose and then St Augustine of Hippo argued that warfare was justifiable if it was properly authorised by the state for purposes of defence. This tradition was further developed by St Thomas Aquinas and others in medieval times and has continued in the modern era.

The Challenge of Peace, a highly influential 1983 pastoral letter of the United States Catholic Bishops, exemplifies this continuing tradition. They made an important distinction between:

  • Just causes for going to war. They assessed these by seven criteria: just cause; competent authority; comparative justice; right intention; last resort; probability of success; and proportionality.  They found “competent authority” and “last resort” especially difficult today in democratic countries, regretting that the United Nations  was still relatively powerless.
  • Just practices within war. They considered simply in terms of proportionality and discrimination. Proportionality in both contexts caused them huge problems in a nuclear age. They said that even in the non-nuclear Vietnam War they reached the conclusion that “the conflict had reached such a level of devastation to the adversary and damage to our own society that continuing it could not be justified”. Nuclear weapons, in addition, faced massive problems of discrimination, especially given their potential for massive collateral damage on non-military populations. 

The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki involved just practices and, with it, the criteria of proportionality and discrimination:

On proportionality, the American bishops argued:

In simple terms, we are saying that good ends (defending one’s country, protecting freedom, etc) cannot justify immoral means (the use of weapons which kill indiscriminately and threaten whole societies). We fear that our world and nation are headed in the wrong direction. More weapons with greater destructive potential are produced every day. More and more nations are seeking to become nuclear powers. In our quest for more and more security, we fear we are actually becoming less and less secure.

Similarly the United States Methodist Bishops’ 1986 report In Defence of Creation concluded:

We believe war is incompatible with the teaching and example of Christ. We therefore reject war as an instrument of national foreign policy and insist that the first moral duty of all nations is to resolve by peaceful means every dispute that arises between or among them.

On discrimination, the moral problem for many Christian commentators remains that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was wholly indiscriminate. Like the bombing of civilians by Germany and the Allies in the Second World War, and the 9/11 attacks on New York  in 2001, civilian rather than military buildings and populations were deliberately targeted.

American Catholic and Methodist bishops alike argued in the 1980s that pragmatic justifications of such actions (for example, that the atomic bombings forced the Japanese government to surrender and thus saved many military lives) should not override the key principle that all warfare should be discriminate.

It is not clear if Catholic or Methodist bishops were consulted in 1945 when the decision was made by President Harry Truman to drop atomic bombs on Japan. In addition, it was probably the disastrous Vietnam War that persuaded the American bishops in the 1980s to become more politically vocal. Nonetheless, it is now quite rare to find any theologian or secular intellectual in the West who is prepared to defend any past or future use of nuclear weapons.

Even Robert MacNamara, US secretary of state during the Vietnam War, later became a sharp critic of the nuclear policy of “mutually assured destruction”.  A long tradition of Christian-inspired morality appears to have been influential. 

Robin Gill is emeritus professor of applied theology at the University of Kent