The Religious Left and Hiroshima

Leftist Christians continue to deny reality about why the U.S. brought an end to Japan's brutal war.

Shane Claiborne, a popular pacifist evangelical, recalled the 67th anniversary of Hiroshima by quoting the pacifist remarks of a Catholic priest who, having served as a chaplain in the Pacific during World War II, 40 years later regretted his military service.

“I never preached a single sermon against killing civilians to the men who were doing it… It never entered my mind to protest publicly the consequences of these massive air raids,” the priest remembered.  “I was told it was necessary – told openly by the military and told implicitly by my Church’s leadership.”

The priest concluded:  “For the last 1700 years the Church has not only been making war respectable: it has been inducing people to believe it is an honorable profession, an honorable Christian profession. This is not true. We have been brainwashed. This is a lie.”

So this priest essentially joined the Anabaptist perspective and rejected Roman Catholic teaching, as well as the teaching of nearly universal Christianity, about the state’s vocation to exert force.  This stance is Shane Claiborne’s, and he insists, amid a growing chorus of neo-Anabaptist evangelical elites, especially in academia, that Christians must reject all force.  Their position essentially makes all government impossible.   It also asserts a very narrow definition of Jesus and His teachings that separate Him from the wider apostolic witness and from the Old Testament.

Jim Wallis’ Sojourners largely shares Claiborne’s neo-Anabaptist insistence on complete rejection of all force.  But in recalling the Hiroshima anniversary, Sojourners published an old interview with leftist historian Gar Alperovitz, author of several books about the Atomic Bomb, the first published in 1965.   His latest book is Beyond Capitalism, appropriately blurbed by Noam Chomsky

Alperovitz didn’t make pacifist arguments. Instead, he claimed the “use of the atomic bomb, most experts now believe, was totally unnecessary” because the Japanese would have surrendered any way, even before a U.S. land invasion scheduled to begin in November 1945.  In other words, Japan would have surrendered eventually thanks to continued massive U.S. conventional bombing, plus the slaughter of Japanese troops in Manchuria by attacking Soviets, not to mention the ongoing starvation of its population.

That the bomb was needed to avoid massive casualties is only “popular myth,” though the alternative scenario Alperovitz preferred would have entailed massive casualties and human suffering. He cited “liberal Protestant theologians for the Federal Council of Churches” who criticized the bomb shortly have the war.  And he suggested a joint American-Japanese apology for Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima.

If by “most experts” opposed to the Hiroshima bombing Alperovitz meant leftist idealogues, surely he is correct. Not among them is Father Wilson Miscamble, Professor of History at Notre Dame, who defended the U.S. atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in his 2011 book The Most Controversial Decision. “I believe Truman pursued the least-harmful course of action available to him to end a ghastly war, a course that resulted in the least loss of life,” Miscamble argues, relying on both exhaustive historical scholarship and his own theological expertise. He is Australian by birth and perhaps conscious of what would have happened to his land had, absent American power, Japan occupied it with the same murderous brutality it inflicted on the rest of its Asian empire.  He notes that critics admit not dropping the bombs might have facilitated even “greater suffering” without offering a tangible alternative. “I have always thought that moral reflection wrestles with the awful and painful realities,” he notes.  “If someone can present to me a viable and more ‘moral way’ to have defeated the Japanese and ended World War II, I will change my position.”

Among the countless other horrors of the war Japan unleashed, Father Miscamble cites the Battle of Manila in 1945, where 100,000 Filipino civilians died. Even though U.S. victory there was certain, Japanese militarist honor forbade surrender.  The almost psychotic Japanese resistance on Okinawa and Saipan, where even thousands of Japanese civilians committed suicide rather than accept U.S. occupation, was a tiny foreshadowing of what a U.S. invasion of Japan might have resembled.

As to the likelihood of Japan’s surrendering absent atomic weaponry, even after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan’s ruling military council was evenly divided over seeking terms.  Only the unprecedented intervention of the Emperor allowed surrender, and he fully expected a military coup against him, which nearly happened. The Japanese militarists fully envisioned national suicide.  By comparison, the Germans, even under Nazism, were considered rational.  Individual Germans and whole German armies surrendered when defeated.  Even so, Hitler also preferred national suicide along with his personal suicide. And Germany did not surrender as a nation until the Soviets overran Berlin, themselves expending over 80,000 lives.  It’s absurd to think Japan, which still had several million under arms, would have surrendered any more readily than Germany without U.S. nuclear weapons.  Meanwhile, every single day the war was prolonged, as Miscamble notes, meant tens of thousands of Asians and others would die under Japanese occupation.  World War II, history’s most murderous war, had already consumed over 50 million, nearly half of them thanks to Japan.

Miscamble faults the war’s horrible end on the “twisted neo-samurai who led the Japanese military,” themselves guided by “stupidity and perfidy,” and who “geared up with true banzai spirit to engage the whole population in a kind of kamikaze campaign.”  Nothing less than two terrible bombs could extinguish the unquenchable blood thirst of Japanese militarism.

It’s always very hard for the Religious Left to fault any force other than American power for the world’s horrors.  But in the case of the U.S. atomic attacks of 1945, as Father Miscamble carefully concluded, the terrors they ended vastly exceeded the terrors they inflicted.

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