Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Father Wilson D. Miscamble’s newly published The Most Controversial Decision (Cambridge University Press: New York, 2011) wrestles with questions about President Harry Truman’s election to use the Atomic Bomb in order to defeat the Japanese Empire in World War II. A gifted and highly accoladed historian, Father Miscamble (whose occasional visits and pastoral ministry here in the Archdiocese have enriched so many in the faith) teaches history at Notre Dame University. But his solid theological background is also reflected in the ethical aspects of his most recent book.

The atomic bombing of Hiroshima occurred on 6 August, 1945. The bombing of Nagasaki followed on 9 August. Immediately thereafter, the world changed radically, forever.

The story of the A-bomb began on 2 August, 1939, when Albert Einstein wrote President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that "the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future." Eventually Einstein’s now famous letter led to "the Manhattan Project" (especially after Winston Churchill advised Roosevelt in 1942 that Nazi Germany was moving rapidly toward construction of an atomic device).

Scientists like the Hungarian Leo Szilard, the Austrian Lise Meitner, and the Italian Nobel laureate, Enrico Fermi, to name but three, became involved, directly or indirectly. A crucial moment in the process occurred on 2 December, 1942, in Chicago, on the squash courts underneath the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field. Then and there, the very first successful self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction took place.

Father Miscamble’s focus in this volume is, to repeat, primarily historical. Hence, he reviews the various moves and countermoves pro or con regarding the Manhattan Project as it took shape; e.g., the appointment of Robert Oppenheimer, the involvement of the Danish genius Niels Bohr, etc.

All along, however, it now seems evident that neither Roosevelt nor Churchill fully grasped (initially, at least) the horrific potential of the bomb. Churchill, for example, advised Bohr that "this new bomb is just going to be bigger than our present bombs and involves no difference in the principles of war." (Miscamble, p.14) Apparently, neither Roosevelt nor Churchill guessed that an atomic bomb would by itself ensure Japan’s unconditional surrender; indeed, each leader’s understanding of the bomb’s power "seems to have been limited." (ibid.) Walter Kimball, one of the President’s advisors, "has suggested that ‘Roosevelt, like most non-scientists, did not comprehend the revolutionary potential of nuclear weapons.’" (ibid.)

As history has since unfolded, the fateful decision to use the bomb was not Roosevelt’s to make; the decision to fly the Enola Gay over Hiroshima belonged to Harry Truman, who had succeeded to the White House following Roosevelt’s death. Yet the first effective atomic bomb test, in the New Mexican desert, had occurred only weeks earlier, on 16 July, 1945.

As a careful historian, Father Miscamble has gathered a wealth of data about the soul-searching that preceded and followed the event in Hiroshima. The almost legion aspects of the decision (strategic, tactical, political, socioeconomic, cultural, and most importantly, ethical) are extremely difficult to sort out and assess. Japan’s absolute commitment to Ketsu-Go (the country’s defensive plan) had been tested with frightening consequences at Iwo Jima (over 6,000 American deaths and 20,000 wounded); and at Okinawa (70,000 American casualties including 12,000 Americans killed or missing). Okinawa is still assessed as the bloodiest battle of the Pacific theatre, and the second-most bloody battle of World War II. (The Battle of the Bulge in Germany was the worst). Moreover, the Japanese suffered unbelievably high casualties in both. (Okinawa lasted 82 days; only 7,000 Japanese survived – out of 100,000 troops! No wonder that the Japanese dubbed the ordeal "rain of steel.")

Part of the military/naval/air force calculus regarding the invasion of Japan was the estimation of casualties – not only of America and our allies, but also of the Japanese people, including their own military defenders. The best intelligence reports indicated that the Japanese would give no quarter; they all appeared to die with a conviction that the invaders would be vanquished. (Over 4,000 kamikaze planes, plus thousands of conventional aircraft, as well as 600,000 troops, stood ready to meet the invaders.)

As the Enola Gay prepared for its flight, the pilot of the strike thought "it would take five atom bombs to jar the Japanese into quitting." (ibid., 83-84)

Again, however, the very possibility that the invasion, minus the bomb, might cost a million American lives (as Herbert Hoover warned Truman earlier) was "taken very seriously by the President." (ibid., 49) Besides, what about Americans and others who were languishing in Japanese concentration camps? Almost 250,000 people might have died every month that the war continued after July 1945. (ibid., 115)

Ethical decisions are not essentially quantitative in nature; they are, at core, qualitative. Yet the number of victims impacted must also be considered; indeed, conscientious field commanders must seriously survey them beforehand.

Truman himself acknowledged, as he departed the White House in January 1953, that "starting an atomic war is totally unthinkable for rational men." (ibid., 117) In doing the ethical calculus, which begins with the reality that the A-bomb cannot be equated with weapons in the classical sense, there must be a profound reassessment about indiscriminate bombing, a "moral Rubicon" that had been crossed prior to Hiroshima (e.g., Shanghai, Nanking, Leningrad, London).

"To remember the past," Pope John Paul II declared in Japanese at Hiroshima on 25 Feb. 1981, "is to commit oneself to the future."


Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of

The Catholic Transcript

and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.