The Hiroshima bombSometimes 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

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
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:

“For men to choose to kill the
innocent as a means to their ends is always murder, and murder is one of the
worst of human actions. […] But I shall be asked for my definition of “the
innocent.” I will give it, but later. Here, it is not necessary; for with
Hiroshima and Nagasaki we are not confronted with a borderline case. In the
bombing of these cities it was certainly decided to kill the innocent as a
means to an end. And a very large number of them, all at once, without warning,
without the interstices of escape or the chance to take shelter, which existed
even in the ‘area bombing’ of the German cities.

In 1945, a Gallup
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
the bombing was “the right thing” while only 22 percent thought it was

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

“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… 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.”

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.”

Alstin works at the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide, South

Zac Alstin is a writer, editor and stay-at-home dad to three marvellous children, in Adelaide, South Australia. His hobbies include martial arts, making things at home, and contemplating the underlying...