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THE WORLD'S MOST DANGEROUS IDEA
Truman was right
Dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki taught America that morality was irrelevant.
Sometimes the danger of an idea becomes evident only in retrospect. This is the case with President Harry S Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 65 years ago. He still has many defenders. But I would argue that by endorsing the deliberate killing of innocent civilians, he helped our society to break with centuries-old traditions of morality. In a very real way Little Boy and Fat Man are responsible for the moral chaos of the cultural revolution which erupted in the 1960s.
Of all that has been written about this decision, the most pointed remarks come from the Cambridge philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001). A world expert on Wittgenstein, she was also a mother of seven and committed pro-lifer. She was once arrested for protesting outside of an abortion clinic. In 1956 she issued a pamphlet opposing Oxford University’s decision to award President Truman an honorary degree:
In 1945, a Gallup Poll found that 85 percent of Americans approved of the bombing while only 10 percent disapproved. More than 60 years later, public opinion has not shifted remarkably. In 2009 61 percent thought the bombing was “the right thing” while only 22 percent thought it was wrong.
These people approve of the bombing because they have been taught that it was a necessary action. It is claimed that without the bombing, victory could only have been achieved through a costly and far more destructive invasion. Therefore, it was better to choose the lesser of two evils. As Truman recalled, "We faced half a million casualties trying to take Japan by land. It was either that or the atom bomb, and I didn't hesitate a minute, and I've never lost any sleep over it since."
This concept of “necessary” evils seeks to bypass the normal rules of ethics. “Necessity” implies that there were no other options. Because Truman had no choice, there was no right or wrong. But while debates about the options will continue, we must acknowledge that the intentional killing of innocent people can never be the right choice.
And lest we imply that a deadly and catastrophic invasion was therefore necessary, we must also cast serious doubt on the ethical validity of that option. A disproportionately violent and destructive invasion for the sake of unconditional surrender is also not an ethical option. A military commander does not have the moral right to order his men into fruitless or disproportionately deadly engagements. We see this also in the carnage of World War One, where soldiers were slaughtered in the thousands for the sake of miniscule advances. How could it be any better to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of allied soldiers in an invasion of Japan, when the resource-poor islands could be contained without such horrific loss of life?
The moral nature of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki does not differ significantly from the firebombing of Tokyo or the bombing of Dresden, in which civilians were also deliberately targeted and tens of thousands died. What sets them apart is that this decision was, and still is, embraced by the overwhelming majority of Americans. The significance of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is not simply that it was so terrible, but that something so terrible gained such widespread support.
If we approve the intentional killing of an innocent human being, we can hardly, from that point onward, adhere consistently to the principle of the sanctity of human life. When our actions contravene a moral principle, we thereby embrace to some degree a new and deficient principle of morality. Killing innocent human beings as a means to an end undermines Western civilisation itself.
Catholic Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, a highly respected American radio and television personality whose broadcasts drew audiences of up to 30 million people during the late 1950s, made this very point in his ‘What Now America?’ series (recorded 1974-75). He is quoted as saying:
The lesson of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is quite clear: ethics is not to be taken seriously in a crisis. Ethics can be put aside when the situation is sufficiently dire. We can sacrifice the lives of innocent human beings in order to avoid hardship and suffering for ourselves. It is the same reasoning that underpins abortion and euthanasia. “Let us do evil, that good may come”.
All of us have grown up within a culture that for 65 years has considered morality as an optional extra. We have learned that its guidance is non-binding. We invoke it when convenient, but we do not revere it as law – we are not essentially moral beings. This moral callousness is more dangerous than the bomb itself. As Anscombe concluded: “We can now reformulate the principle of “doing evil that good may come”. Every fool can be as much of a knave as suits him.”
Zac Alstin works at the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide, South Australia.
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