Tom Finneran, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and St. Ann’s Parish

Friday, August 16, 2013


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Given the devastation that the atomic bombs caused, many wonder if President Truman did the right thing in dropping them.

The specific dates that trigger intense reflection and passionate debate are once again, for the time being, behind us. Those dates–August 6th and August 9th–are drawn from our year of victory in what might be called one of America’s good and necessary wars. The year was 1945. Japan, our superb and steady ally for more than fifty years now, had been at our doorstep and at our throat from 1941 to 1943. She was a skilled, disciplined, and ferocious foe. And she had caught America napping in the sun of that Pacific paradise, Hawaii.

The debate, of course, is about America’s use of the atomic bomb and whether we violated some moral code of honor and decency in our obliteration of two cities and hundreds of thousands of civilian women and children. Though historic accounts indicate that President Truman made a swift and untroubled decision to use the bombs as soon as practicable, the debate itself is worth having over again.

Responsible power

Certainly the West’s condemnation of Hitler’s savage brutalities against civilian populations indicates the existence of a moral code of unacceptable behavior. And we would not lightly don our own cloak of barbarities without losing something right and righteous in the process. As the world’s policeman for almost a century now, America must not lose its way by merely claiming that might always makes right. We do not fight wars of colonial conquest and possession. And our “occupation” of certain countries (Japan, South Korea, Germany) have been at either their explicit request or through mutual understanding that greater horrors lie ahead should they be left defenseless against aggressors.

Recently disclosed documents suggest that the defeat of Japan was, in those spring and summer months of 1945, so certain that the use of the atomic bomb against them was entirely unnecessary. Yet, upon consideration of those documents as well as the moral reservations of some top scientists and generals, I cannot condemn President Truman’s decision to unleash the bombs.

High stakes

I think there is little question that the use of the bombs both shortened the war and saved countless American lives. And, in any moral equation that we use, the lives of the aggrieved must be weighed against the lives of the aggressors. America did not start the war or even come close to any involvement in preliminary hostilities. We were a young nation, mired in economic depression, very weak militarily, somewhat isolated by two magnificently protective oceans, and famously distracted by cars, stars, and baseball. Oh what an age of relative innocence, well before the appalling savagery of Hitler, Tojo, and Stalin penetrated our consciousness.

Not only were America’s armed forces quite small and ill-prepared, but there was also a very strong political pull toward non-involvement in Europe’s mounting troubles. No sensible American parent wanted to send their sons to fight (and die) in what seemed to be just another of those countless European squabbles. The memories of the various idiocies of World War I were too recent and too painful for us to contemplate an early entry into the world’s latest war. Recall that it took the attack on Pearl Harbor to force our hand, earning both Japan and Germany the indignant fury of an innocent giant, now awakened and fighting back.

Looking at the big picture

Anyone remotely familiar with the literature or reality of war knows how ugly and barbaric it really is. It is not the antiseptic high-altitude release of bombs or drones or other stealth weaponry. Rather, it is dirty, vicious, violent, hideous behavior, fought in trenches and forests and fields which stink with the smell of burning flesh and shattered humans, or fought from the decks and bowels of steel ships ablaze from bombs, incinerating those on board and sinking rapidly to an ocean doom. And for those American soldiers who faced the Japanese, there was a certain fanatic tenacity in every encounter. Seventy years later there is still a frightful resonance to the words Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, and kamikaze. Every single encounter with the Japanese was fought until the last man was dead.

And therein rests the justification for President Truman’s decision to use the bomb. Having encountered Japan’s ferocity in its defense of remote island outposts, Truman was justified in expecting a fight over every square inch of Japan’s home islands, purchasing, and drenching that real estate with American blood. Truman was right in his decision for it is as likely that he saved Japanese lives as well as the lives of the American servicemen he commanded. The President’s highest obligation, his moral obligation, was to achieve as swift and as decisive a victory as possible, thereby eliminating the need for a grinding ground war fought on every mountain, in every cave, and every building and shrine in Japan.

Finally, any recitation of a moral code carries with it the full implication of justice. Millions of young American boys had their lives upended through no fault of their own. The aggressors came to us and took the dreams of our youth. My friend Paul’s dad lived in St. Ann’s Parish in Dorchester. He was just a young man when war came to America. He had hopes and plans and dreams, all of which were taken from him when he put on his American uniform. Thankfully, he came home alive, with dreams deferred and ultimately dashed because his best years had been spent defending his home. Had Truman bowed to the belated “moral claim”, how many more young men, American and Japanese, would have to be sacrificed to such an elusive concept? St. Ann’s is a long way from Nagasaki and Paul’s Dad probably wishes that he never had to hear of it. But his hand, and the hand of President Truman was forced by the evil acts of others. Truman and Paul’s dad did the right and moral thing.


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