Truth Trumps Partisanship

When the fans for the team I am rooting against start cheering with joy for a homerun or a touchdown, my first reaction is that the wretches are gloating and “rubbing it in.” I can think back to Saturday afternoons when I reacted for a moment or two as if the Miami University football fans cheering a touchdown against Notre Dame were miserable low-lifes, unlike the properly exuberant Notre Dame fans dancing for joy to the tune of the Notre Dame fight song when the Irish scored.

In the same way, it can be a mistake to conclude that the people on the other side in political controversies are intellectually dishonest or Machiavellians driven by partisanship. There is no reason to assume, for example, that those who disagree with us about the war in Iraq or how literally we are to take the story of the Magi are duplicitous or motivated by base sentiments. We should have at least some solid circumstantial evidence before making such a judgment.

If you think I doth protest too much, you may be right. Because it strikes me that prominent thinkers on the conservative side in the culture wars are more honest and open to rethinking their positions in public than historians and commentators on the Left. I can’t, for example, think of any well-known liberals who have spent time debating why the Left was so wrong about the workers’ paradises being created in Mao’s China or Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Not the way prominent writers on the Right are willing to rethink old views.

A good example is the way conservative pundits reacted to the recent anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945. There was no party line in conservative circles. Thomas Sowell and Jeff Jacoby defended the position associated with the American right for half a century now. Pat Buchanan and Charley Reese argued the time has come to condemn what we did to Japan.

Let’s take Sowell and Jacoby first. “No mass killing, especially of civilians, can leave any human person happy,” wrote Sowell. “But compared to what? Compared to killing many times more Japanese and seeing many times more Americans die” in an invasion of the Japanese homeland? “We might have gotten a negotiated peace if we had dropped the ‘unconditional surrender’ demand,” he concedes. “But at what cost? Seeing a militaristic Japan arise again in a few years, this time armed with nuclear weapons that they would not have hesitated for one minute to drop on Americans.”

To make the same point, Jeff Jacoby quoted from an essay by Paul Fussell entitled “Thank God for the Atom Bomb.” Fussell writes of his memories as 21-year-old infantry officer on the day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. He had been wounded twice already in Europe. Fussell remembers how he and his fellow soldiers “broke down and cried with relief and joy. We were going to live. We were going to grow to adulthood after all. The killing was going to be over.”

Jacoby adds, “The historical record confirms what those soldiers knew in their gut: Hiroshima and Nagasaki, hideous as they were, shortened the war that Japan had begun and thereby saved an immensity of lives. Far from considering itself ‘essentially defeated,’ the Japanese military was preparing for an Allied assault with a massive buildup in the south. It was only the shock of the atomic blasts that enabled Japanese leaders who wanted to stop the fighting to successfully press for surrender.”

Buchanan and Reese’s view? Buchanan does not disagree that dropping the bombs ended the war and saved American lives. He asks another question: “[I]f terrorism is the massacre of innocents to break the will of rulers, were not Hiroshima and Nagasaki terrorism on a colossal scale?”

I can picture some of my readers reaching for their Rolaids at this point. But we should not overreact. Buchanan agrees that World War II was a just war. He agrees that it was a war against “enemies whose crimes, from Nanking to Auschwitz, will live in infamy.” Nonetheless, he contends that “the destruction in seconds of two cities, inflicting instant death on 120,000 men, women and children, and an agonizing death from burns and radiation on scores of thousands more” is an act that “must trouble any Christian conscience.” There is no way around it: We made war intentionally and deliberately on non-combatants on that day in 1945.

To buttress his case, Buchanan quotes President Truman’s chief of staff, Admiral William Leahy: “This use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make wars in that fashion.”

What about the lives of the American soldiers that would have been lost if we had invaded the Japanese mainland? Charley Reese understands. “I applauded the dropping of the bombs at the time, and if I had been Harry Truman, I probably would have made the same decision. That’s what I mean by war corrupting even good people. It forces them to make decisions they wouldn’t make in peacetime.” Reese continues: “Children deserve a chance to sample the joys of living, and modern warfare kills children as if they were nothing more than ants. We said for public-relations purposes that Hiroshima was a military target, but in fact there were only 43,000 soldiers there. The 300,000 civilians” killed in the bombings “were nearly all women, children and old men.” The civilians killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not collateral damage. They were the targets.

What Reese and Buchanan force us to confront is that in August of 1945 Japan had not yet been defeated by military methods that conform to the Church’s understanding of a just war. If we did not want to pay the price of thousands of more lost American lives in an ongoing war by conventional means to secure the Japanese’s unconditional surrender, our only option was to negotiate a treaty with them — or drop the atom bomb on their civilian population to, as Pat Buchanan phrases it, “break their will.” Which brings us to the bottom line: Was using strategic nuclear weapons against Japanese non-combatants morally permissible to avoid the costs of waging war against their fighting men and legitimate military targets?

I can’t think of a way to make that argument, not if we accept any obligation to adhere to the Church’s teachings in regard to a just war. We can’t resort to old bromides about “all being fair in love and war” and “war being hell” to solve this dilemma. The just war teaching is specifically meant to lift us above that frame of mind. There are many scenarios we can employ to test Reese’s and Buchanan’s “revisionism”:

• Would it be morally permissible to drop a nuclear bomb on the Sunni-held areas of Iraq to end the killing of our soldiers and marines — to “make the place a parking lot,” as we sometimes hear it said?

• Would it be permissible for Israel to drop a nuclear bomb on Iran to save all the Jewish and Arab lives that will be lost in the years of struggle that lie ahead in the Middle East?

• Would it be permissible for Iran to drop the bomb on Israel for the same purpose?

Not much room to maneuver, is there?

James Fitzpatrick's novel, The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the New American Church, is available from our online store. You can email Mr. Fitzpatrick at

(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)

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