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Edith Stein

Today is the Feast of St. Edith Stein, martyred in the modern Golgotha of Auschwitz. The National Socialists executed her sixty-eight years ago.

Exactly three years later, sixty-five years ago today, the United States B-29 bomber, the Bockscar, under the command of Charles Sweeney, dropped the atomic bomb known as the “Fat Boy” on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. According to estimates, the bomb created winds of over six hundred miles per hour and heat at close to 4,000 degrees fahrenheit. Somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000 persons died either instantly or over the next two months from injuries sustained from the bomb.

It is difficult for any thinking person–American or otherwise–not to consider this one of the greatest crimes in history, given that so many of those who died were civilians and innocents.

We can make all of the excuses we want: the United States would have had to have invaded the island with 1,000,000 men, resulting in an untold number of casualties. Or, perhaps, more callously, some casualties are merely the result of war; besides, the Japanese bombed us first.

All of the above–and more–is true, of course. One might even take the argument further and still be within the realm of truth–no country treated its captured enemy POWs more brutally than did the Japanese.

Does any of this really justify not only the development of the bomb under President Roosevelt (certainly, no fan of Asians as witnessed by his countenance and encouragement of the vile internment camps for American citizens of Japanese ancestry) or dropping of a weapon of mass destruction (yes, the Americans knew how powerful this thing was, though they didn’t quite realize the extent to which radiation would continue to affect the population) on innocents?

Is what we did to Japanese innocents in August 1945 that different from what the National Socialists did to Edith Stein and so many others in August 1942 (and until the end of the war)? I would argue it was not. It all comes down to state-sanctioned murder of the innocent.

Then, let’s add some other interesting but patriotically-inconvenient information about Nagasaki. It did possess considerable manufacturing and war-production abilities, but it was also one of the older cities in Japan, one of the most intensely pro-Western and Christian (yes, thousands of practicing Japanese Christians) cities of Japan, feared and distrusted by the Japanese mainstream.

Sixty-five years ago, the United States not only committed an evil, it did so with grand stupidity. It blew up the one city in all of Japan that might have actually supported the United States and the West.

Those “Made in America” six-hundred mph winds and nearly 4,000 degree heat almost instantly provided the Christian church with one of the single largest groups of martyrs in the entire century.

Nine years after the dropping of the two bombs, Russell Kirk pondered the ferocity of American power and progressivism in his book, A Program for Conservatives. “And now a few words concerning power among the nations. It is ours already; and we have done with it what men always have done with pure power: we have employed it abominably. I do not say that the Nazis or the Japanese militarists would have employed it to better advantage, or that the Communists would use it mercifully; on the contrary, I am certain that, to the best of their ability, they would have striven to accomplish still greater mischief. But that does not excuse us. The learning of physical science, and the perfection of technology, instead of being put to the improvement of Reason, have been applied by modern man to achieve mastery over nature and humanity; and that mastery has been brutal. We Americans happened to be first in the race for the acquisition of the tools of mass slaughter, and we used those tools as the Roman used his sword and his catapult against Carthage.”

As Kirk makes so painfully obvious, we Americans speak so loudly about acting upon high principles. But when it comes down to it–or at least when the progressives are in office–America commits atrocities beyond forgiveness, at least forgiveness by anyone on this side of eternity.

“A handful of individuals, some of them quite unused to moral responsibilities on such a scale, made it their business to extirpate the populations of Nagasaki and Hiroshima; we must make it our business to curtail the possibility of such snap decisions, taken simply on the assumptions of worldly wisdom,” Kirk wrote in true Pauline fashion.

“The conservative can urge upon his nation a policy of patience and prudence. A ‘preventative” war, whether or not it might be successful in the field–and that is a question much in doubt–would be morally ruinous to us. There are circumstances under which it is not only more honorable to lose than to win, but quite truly less harmful, in the ultimate providence of God,” Kirk concluded.

If only the progressives of each party today would read such words of beauty, truth, and goodness offered by Kirk over half a century ago.

Today, sixty-eight years after the fascists executed a brilliant saint, sixty-five years after the U.S. committed an act of genocide against an innocent population, should be remembered by all Americans. If we have the right to glory collectively in the things our republic has accomplished in the name (and actuality) of humanity, we have an equal duty to remember collectively the sins our nation has committed in the name of progress.

Sadly, though perhaps the most atrocious, today’s act (that is, the remembrance of that act committed on August 9, 1945) is merely one of many days that Americans should remember in sorrow and penance, asking forgiveness from He who is, as St. John assured us, love itself.

Through His witnesses–in Auschwitz and Nagasaki–perhaps we can learn, at the very least, some humility.

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28 replies to this post
  1. Why do you single out Nagasaki as a moral crime to equate with Auschwitz? If you're going to make the comparison, the Tokyo Firebombing of March 1945 would seem to offer a stronger case, with its higher casualties and–as a moral crime–the raid planners' deliberate incendiary drop patterns that created a firestorm over the dense wooden buildings and the larger number of people complicit in perpetuating it.

    You quote Kirk as saying "There are circumstances under which it is not only more honorable to lose than to win, but quite truly less harmful, in the ultimate providence of God." I haven't read the original, but I've seen it cited as a comment on the idea of striking first against the USSR during the Cold War, in a global thermonuclear war scenario. Are you really implying that: a) launching global nuclear war, the executions in Auschwitz, and bombing Nagasaki in 1945 are all morally equivalent? It seems to me that you could make a valid point about America's sins without an over-the-top reference to genocide and the Holocaust.

    • Equating the bombing of an enemy city – and in the end that is what Nagasaki was, an ENEMY CITY – with rounding up an entire population for execution in a concentration camp is morally indefensible. There is no reason for guilt about blasting Nagasaki because it was an enemy city of a nation that had launched war on the West in conjunction with two other genocide states (Germany and Italy). There are no Western war crimes, only the war crimes of the predator states, be they the Axis powers and their predecessors, Soviet Russia and her satellites in North Vietnam, Eastern Europe, the Middle east, and Central America, or the present-day Islamo-Arab imperial powers such as Iran and Syria (Saddam Hussein’s Iraq having been belatedly defeated as it should have been by the US).

      • Mr. Daly: We can all sleep a little easier now that you have categorically exonerated Western nations from even the theoretical possibility of committing “war crimes,” although those whose moral certitude falls short of yours–and I would hazard to guess that includes a lot of people–may continue to wrestle with their “morally indefensible” qualms and spasms of conscience.

  2. Carl, Rubashov, and Matt–thanks for the posts. Thanks to Ryan and Mark, too. Rubashov, yes, I'm making an argument of moral equivalency. I could've chosen the fire bombings as a topic–but I wanted to focus on the events of today, August 9. I firmly believe that what the Nazis did to Edith Stein and millions of others equalled, morally, what the American did to the population of Nagasaki. Again, I could've chosen from a number of American crimes: the pillaging of Catholic churches during the Mexican war; the enslavement of Africans until the passage of the 13th Amendment; the war against the Nez Perce; Custer's invasion of Sioux land in 1876 (my family celebrates Crazy Horse's victory over Custer on June 25); the stealing of Indian children from their parents during the progressive period; the fire bombings of Dresden and other cities in WWII; the internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry; the massacres against Vietnamese villagers; the betrayal of our alliance with the south Vietnamese and the Cambodians in 1975; and the list goes on and on and on. . . .

    • You lost me with equating what the Nazis did to millions of people with what the Americans did in interning Japanese. That’s a ridiculous comparison.

      • To Grace T.’s comment I would add “the enslavement of Africans until the passage of the 13th Amendment.” Are we to believe that America was an evil country until 1865? And what then of the Founding Fathers? Were we the only country involved in slavery? And what of the Africans who sold their fellow-Africans into bondage? I can’t imagine Russell Kirk being terribly enthused. Yes, the examples offered by Dr. Birzer are mostly worthy of condemnation, but the paragraph falls through the ice with a failure to make important distinctions.

      • My father was in one of the army divisions scheduled to make the landing on Japan. He said they knew it would be a suicide mission, especially the part of the strategy that included his outfit. The casualty projections were extreme, in the hundreds of thousands. The two bombings changed all that.

        Nagasaki and the holocaust are not a comparison, but rather a contrast – a difference between a difficult decision to defeat an enemy that was not going to surrender under any other conditions, and a calculated strategy to kill an entire race of people (and others), one person or one roomful at a time after exacting as much suffering as convenient. It is a contrast between the investment of killing innocents in the pursuit of a war, and the cost of innocents in the effort to end a war. Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war. The noncombatants are always the unacceptable cost of war, more so in those days than now, but wars are waged, and innocents inevitably pay the price; the difference is in the driving cause.

        Some take the self righteous luxury of believing hard decisions, made by burdened leaders, don’t need to be made at all. Those same folks should understand they are free today to speak out, or to act in compassion toward humankind, because of the terrible cost of those decisions.

        I’m grateful my dad came home.

        • My father was in the Philippines in Aug of 1945 (Navy), the real crime was not negotiating surrender with Japan in May of 45, Japan had one condition, they keep the Emperor, which we gave them that concession after dropping two bombs! The A-bombs were not dropped for military reasons, purely for political reasons to show the Russians and the world what kind of weapon we had.

          • The two bombings not only demonstrated Washington’s willingness to use the bomb, but served to provide useful information on its effect on cities. In other words, the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were as much human experimental subjects as Mengele’s victims.

  3. This was tough to read.

    You could probably also add the brutality of the Philippine-American War…

    I do think there is a slight (slight) moral difference between mass murder and genocide. With the former there is some strategic goal outside killing, some purpose which, when met, will end the killing. With genocide, which is what Hitler's regime engaged in from, loosely, 1941-1944, there really wasn't any purpose outside the killing at all. During those years, the point was the elimination of a people group, and German success would probably only have enabled an extension of the Final Solution.

    But that's something like saying Donald Trump is wealthier than Ted Turner: the distinction is academic.

  4. One should consider that after Hiroshima was destroyed by the Atomic bomb on Aug. 6th, the Japanese leaders still did not capitulate until a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. The Japanese in power are most responsible for the relentless bombing of Japan leading to the two nuclear explosions. They(the Japanese in power) had much opportunity to stop it. Internment camps were created in an atmosphere never experienced before in the US.
    Both issues will be debated for a long time. Right or wrong both issues were decided based on the judgement that more harm than good would come from not dropping the bomb and interning Japanese. The Japanese did attack to US. If the Germans, Japanese, or even the Russians would have been in control after WWII, imagine for a second what it would be like now.
    Jack O'Connor

    • Two brief points re your comments:

      If you read extensively the history of the negotiations for a peace treaty between US and Japanese leaders, I believe you will not find it not nearly so easy to assign responsibility for the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the Japanese. And in any case, it was not they who ordered airmen to carry out these acts of mass destruction.

      Being on the receiving end of aggression hardly relieves a party from being bound ethically to conduct a just war. And even designating the aggressor is more complicated than identifying who openly and directly fired the round that is treated in the press as the official beginning of hostilities.

  5. Acknowledging the points clearly made in this article, I do not intend to question the more abstract but correct views of what is right and wrong. I am merely stating what I know and have a reasonable understanding of the events surrounding and decisions made at the closing of WWII.

    Germany and even Russia were attempting to develop the Atomic Bomb during the war. Germany did or was close. The Russians had effectivly got to Germany first and there was fear that Russia would benefit from German technology. The US had the bomb and a number of people before and after FDR's death wanted the bomb, when ready, to be dropped off the coast safely away fom Tokyo and Yokahoma. Invading Japan would be much more difficult than taking Germany. A loss of one million men was estimated to achieve Japan's surrender. The American Government decided to drop the bomb on a Japanese city reasoning that Japan would not surrender until forced to and Russia was threatening the peace in Europe. It was intended to end the war with Japan immediately and send a message to the world that war would be more horrific than imaginable,and a deterent for future conflict. The fact that Japan did not surrender until the second bomb was dropped will wiegh in on how the US leader's decisions will be judged for a long time to come.

    I do not hear from the author that these cities were chosen because they were mostly Christian, unlike other cities in Japan. How the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen is ripe for more discussion.

    Jack O'Connor

  6. The simple fact is that the Allies' conduct of WW II surpassed in sheer barbarity anything the Germans or Japanese did. We and the English invented strategic bombing of enemy cities. Neither the Germans nor the Japanese possessed the sort of large four-engine bombers required for such missions. And interestingly, Winston Churchill conducted strategic raids on German cities in 1940 specifically to provoke the Germans into retaliating by bombing London. He bombed the Germans for eight straight nights before they responded by bombing British civilian centers, thus taking the pressure off the RAF and its airfields, which was Churchill's intent.

    Our bombing of Japanese population centers was also strictly one-sided. Only military targets were attacked at Pearl Harbor. Japanese cities and their helpless inhabitants were the targets of American strategic bombing, which for all intents and purposes was virtually unopposed, the Japanese Army and Naval air forces having been nearly destroyed by that time.

    Somehow, WW II, a conflict in which we sided with the most monstrously evil political instrument in human history, the USSR, is regarded as "the good war." Good? It led to a post-war situation in which the USSR enslaved not only its own citizens (after killing roughly 40 million of them in the Thirties), gave rise to Red China, the enslavement of Eastern Europe, and the Korean and Vietnam wars, as well as the squandering of hundreds of billions of dollars to maintain the stalemate with Soviet Russia. No doubt of it, WW II was certainly a "good war."

  7. My 86-year-old dad was a crewman on the USS Alabama as the war ended, and still tells people who feel sorry for Japanese, “I am one of the two million” — because it was estimated that one million ON EACH SIDE would die in a conventional invasion. US ships approaching japan were already being decimated by Kamikazes. Japanese almost always fought to the death, and Japan was training its women to fight with sharpened sticks. Marines on the beaches of Saipan watched helplessly as Japanese mothers on the cliffs above threw their babies off the cliffs and then jumped after them. They had been told that Americans would eat their babies.

    No, the Pacifist-Liberal argument is too facile, and morally prideful. There was simply no life-sparing answer to ending the war, and I do believe firmly that quick destruction of the enemy was the best alternative. The blame for the war with Japan, from beginning to end, lies with the leaders of Imperial Japan, Japan’s warrior culture, and their servile minions.

  8. Hi Brad – it’s me, Erik, your fellow Progarchist. Your article is definitely some compelling food for thought, but in the end I must most respectfully dissent.

    I would never want to look at the atomic bombing of Hiroshima or Nagasaki callously or with a “they had it coming” attitude, particularly knowing the horrors that were ultimately rained on literally hundreds of thousands of non-combatants, horrors which are now well documented. At the same time, when I survey the choices Truman had laid out before him to bring the war to a conclusion, it becomes painfully evident that they were all bad – no, horrible – choices. There simply were not any choices available to Truman that didn’t involve extreme carnage and the horrible deaths of thousands (if not millions), many of them innocents. It wasn’t a choice between “humanitarian catastrophe or no humanitarian catastrophe,” instead it came down to which humanitarian catastrophe would be chosen to bring the war (a humanitarian catastrophe in and of itself) to a conclusion.

    One of the reasons why war, any war, is so tragic is that decisions about who may have a chance to live and who will die have to be made by so many, from a medic of the rank of private in the battlefield all the way up to the commander–in-chief. Such decisions are rarely, if ever, easy. They are almost always impossibly difficult to make going forward, but ridiculously easy to second guess looking backward. Yet a choice has to be made, and even if one isn’t made, it still is (i.e., as one of our common-favorite philosophers surmised, “if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice”). And in the case of a war as bloody as our war in Japan, that choice was always going to be a bad one, one that involved unspeakable atrocities to be committed by the side that wished to come out victorious.

    Truman’s choices came down to dropping the atom bomb on selected targets, invading mainland Japan, or long, drawn out blockade. We don’t need to hypothesize about the first option because we know the historical result. The second and third options would have almost certainly led to more loss of innocent lives, with the added tragedy of those losses being drawn out over a longer timeframe. An invasion of mainland Japan would have been carnage unlike any ever seen before, even in World War II. The battle of Okinawa was but a tiny preview of something that would have played hundreds of times over on Honshu and Kyushu. Many estimates of civilian deaths on Okinawa top 100,000; some estimates even exceed the number killed in the initial blast at Hiroshima. Those deaths on Okinawa are no less horrible or tragic than any of the deaths at Hiroshima. If anything, those that were vaporized in the space of a nanosecond did not suffer, where virtually all of those innocents killed on Okinawa – even those who committed suicide – suffered more. Thus, I can’t really see how the desire to avoid an invasion of the main islands of Japan and the long, drawn out bloodbath that would have almost certainly resulted, rates as no more than an “excuse.” Paul Fussell’s excellent essay, “Thank God for the Atom Bomb” does some more in laying out the case against an invasion here:

    As far as a blockade enforced for a long period, that would also have been a humanitarian catastrophe. Mass starvation and civil breakdown would have almost certainly resulted. Surrender, particularly from a people with the warrior ethic of bushido ingrained into their culture over several centuries, was a much less likely result.

    The other part of Truman’s decision-making calculus for making the bomb, which relates to the invasion, flows from his position as the commander-in-chief of America’s armed forces. As commander-in-chief, he has a responsibility first and foremost for the soldiers, sailors, and airmen in the field under his command. The families of those soldiers, sailors, and airmen come in as a close second. I don’t mean to be callous, but Japanese civilians are a distant third in that hierarchy, given that this was not a war of our choosing and was a legitimate war of national defense. Referring back to what I wrote in the third paragraph of this post, it is undeniably tragic that lives have to be prioritized and choices have to be made about who will die. But again, it’s sad fact of the human condition that in wars such decisions have to be made (and I truly pity those that have to agonize about such thing). Yet I cannot think of one worthy and admirable commander in history that would in a legitimate war of defense prioritize the civilians of the enemy country over the own warriors that he is asking to fight for him with the distinct possibility of dying for him as well. (One of the things I thought was so utterly disgraceful about Bush’s conduct of the war in Iraq is the overly restrictive rules of engagement placed on the forces sent into that theater combined with the hyper-aggressive JAG corps that was ready to indict anyone they could for transgressions of those rules. You would think he would have second-guessed his decision to invade based on that alone, but reflection wasn’t one of his better qualities … but I digress.)

    If any incidents stand out to me as indefensible atrocities committed by the U.S. in World War II, it’s the firebombing of Tokyo and several other cities. Those bombings took more lives than the atomic bombings. And yet, there were no objectives other than revenge and/or terrorizing the civilian populations that were hit. Literally hundreds of thousands died by being burned to death, one of the most horrible ways to die imaginable. And yet the tragedy of war continued unabated thereafter. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at least had the (ultimately successful) strategic objective of bringing the war to a swift conclusion.

    On a tangent, I did not realize that Nagasaki was the home of so many Christians, having thought they were all driven out during the Tokegawa era. I’m certainly open to the idea that other targets could have been chose, although that is a topic for another debate.

    I realize that despite all I have written above, it is highly unlikely that I have changed your mind that of anyone who is like-minded. That’s fine, as I can tolerate the disagreement on a matter as weighty as this, particularly in light of the loss of so many civilians. But I also think that one can just as reasonably and morally be on this side of the debate when examining the choices that were available to end the war, along with the choice to let it linger on. In a Facebook post you mention that none of the great thinkers you admire would condone the decision to drop the bomb. I cannot speak for them, but divorced of the context, I can think of few who would condone the decision, as such a divorce results in a clear black and white demarcation of the available options. But I can’t believe any of those thinkers would condone the slaughter of so many innocents on Okinawa, nor would they condone multiplying that slaughter hundreds of thousands of times over on Honshu or Kyushu. Nor can I believe they would condone allowing for the mass starvation and breakdown of civil society and the widespread suffering that would follow. When the dropping of the atom bombs is placed into that context, the decision to use them at that time is no longer one that is clearly black and white, but just one of another of many sad, tragic shades of gray.



    (P.S. you’re probably wondering why I haven’t put this much energy into a Progarchy posting lately … I’ll work on it J )

  9. What a difference between Kirk and Frank Meyer. The latter wrote a piece for National Review in 1963 basically justifying a preemptive nuclear attack against the USSR. Right, he was considering a precise, “surgical” attack, with minimal civilian casualties — but was not Nagasaki justified the same way? Let’s kill some people in order to save many. Sometimes, I wonder, despite as a historian I understand the “mentality” of the time, I wonder how American conservatism would be if this fierce anticommunist element had not been so strong in its first years.

  10. The only justification for dropping the bomb is if Japan wanted to continue to fight. What if they were ready to surrender and we dropped it anyway? These quotes seem to imply exactly that.

    “During his recitation of the relevant facts, I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives. It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of ‘face’. The Secretary was deeply perturbed by my attitude…”

    – Dwight Eisenhower, Mandate For Change, pg. 380

    read more here….

  11. Considering the relatively low yield of the nukes used on Japan, they could have justifiably been used against military targets with minimal collateral damage. It’s unfortunate that they were used to massacre civilians instead. If as some claim, the Japanese civilians were going to resist an invasion with bamboo spears, then they would no longer be civilians. However, actual evidence of this occurring on a large scale would be needed for the bombings to be acceptable. Don’t immolate people unless you are sure they are not innocents.

  12. Do you separate “governments” from the societies they spring from? Because, after all, Brad’s post is about acts commited during a war, and even “limited” governments have a lot of power in these occasions, at least as to how to better attack the enemy. There is a bigger issue here that is not answered by a merely libertarian/anti-State approach.


  13. As for me and my household, I’m glad Harry decided to drop the bomb. I more than likely wouldn’t be here (as well as my brother and sister along with our progeny) if he hadn’t. Besides, the raids on Tokyo and the resultant casualty’s from the firebombing tactics caused as much loss of human life and property as dropping the bomb did.

  14. So there you have it; there is no great moral difference between the USA and Nazi Germany. If anything, the USA with its ”progressive” officeholders is probably worse…

  15. “Modern” warfare began when the Lincolnites eschewed honor and decency and participated in gross depredations against a defeated and defenseless civilian population.

  16. To those who are grateful that their Fathers, Grandfathers etc… did not have to invade the Japanese mainland, (my Father was in the Navy and in the Philippines when they dropped the bomb) most certainly should be, but how about those who were killed in action between May 1945 and August 8, 1945? Those deaths were unnecessary since the Japan was ready to surrender in May of that year? The Bombs were unnecessary, Truman following FDR’s policies, is a war criminal.

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