Consequentialism falls short because it blurs the distinction between murder and killing in war, the latter of which—while not always adhering to Gospel truth—is a grim necessity in the defense of the state. The misapplication of consequentialism to the atomic missions does a severe disservice to history.


One need not be an aficionado of romantic films with echoing trumpets to understand why war is a reality of this world. “There is one Strife who builds up evil war, and slaughter,” says Hesiod. “She is harsh; no man loves her, but under compulsion and by will of the immortals men promote this rough Strife.”[1] It will be so, no matter how “advanced” humans think we have become. War and human nature is one of the things we ponder if we take time to stop and consider all that is.

The late John Keegan expressed serious misgivings about the future of warfare, but believed two aspects of it were completely necessary to the continuation of civilization. The first is that war is not an invention and, accordingly, is not open to “altering our genetic inheritance.” The second is that the world would be “uninhabitable” without the existence of organized armies.[2] War, as bitter as it can be, makes possible the existence of the state, and thus the potential for a just society. In order for that to happen, men’s blood must be shed and entire peoples vanquished. This is, in part, the struggle that plays out in the Old Testament.

All of this is relevant to an ongoing debate regarding the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Each year, around the beginning of August, young Catholic pundits sound the drumbeat in journals and on social media, denouncing the United States’ employment of the bomb as the principal lesson in evil from the Second World War, and declaring their judgment to be the last word on the issue. Those who point out the necessity of the bomb are accused of propagating a national myth and roundly criticized for defending the indefensible.

Condemnation of the atomic raids, of course, is not a recent phenomenon; the outrage began almost as soon as the Enola Gay completed its mission. For Catholics especially, the issue was brought to prominence by British analytic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, though the essence of her argument against obliteration bombing had been previously articulated by Jesuit Fr. John C. Ford in 1944. The manner in which war was subsequently addressed by the Church clearly reflects the thinking of both.

However, the eager appropriation of Anscombe’s anti-bomb position by Catholic millennials is a dismaying development. Some have taken her thinking to an extreme, as demonstrated by one scholar’s comment that it would be “better that the whole earth should perish in fire and ash before a moral evil be committed.”[3] Such statements arouse concerns far deeper than a blatant ignorance of history. They also represent a distortion of the classical understanding of the relationship between theology and political philosophy; a flawed rationale that confuses abstract principles for human nature.


Catholic social teaching, depending on the source, often has a tendency to sound like Mel Brooks’ 2,000-Year-Old-Man reminiscing about Jesus: “Lovely boy. Thin. Wore sandals.” Which is to say, there is a certain gross sentimentalism that obscures the Augustinian and Thomistic tradition of maintaining a balance between faith and reason, the “two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”[4] While in political matters Catholics are undeniably called to what Romano Guardini called a “demanding nobility of the spirit,” this should not be confused for a private catholicity that obfuscates right reason. To do so would undercut a key tenet of Aristotelian philosophy, affirmed by St. Thomas Aquinas, which holds that “the good of one man is not a final end but is directed toward the common good.”[5]

From the moment Christ assured the Pharisees that all should render unto Caesar, the Church has consistently acknowledged man’s obligations to the state. This tradition is built on the precept that both natural and revealed theology provide the backdrop to a just political order. By reinforcing the classical premise that the state (however imperfectly) promotes the common good, Jerusalem remains united to Athens. And while ius divinum and ius civile are usually, but not always, mutually exclusive, the former does not coopt the latter to the point of establishing a clerocracy in which Defense Department weapons development or rules of engagement is directed by a Dominican friar.

Hence, the division described by Jacques Maritain, in which “political power is not the secular arm of spiritual power, [and] the body politic is autonomous and independent within its own sphere,” exists largely to relieve the Church from the temptation to use temporal power to create heaven on earth.[6]

Because the state—an amalgamation of individuals, families, and communities—is established with the goal of “living peaceably without injustice,” it has the exclusive authority to resolve disputes with the use of force.[7] There is good reason for this. The band of armed border ruffians in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian illustrates the reason Aristotle labeled “worst of all” the man separated from law and justice.[8] The highwayman who swears fealty only to himself and the Alcibiades-like freelancer are both repugnant to ordered society. Just War doctrine, as originally articulated by St. Thomas, affirms the prerogative of the state in making war and establishes two associated conditions: just cause; and right intention “to achieve some good or avoid some evil.”[9] To these, the Catechism of the Catholic Church adds, among other things, a prudential judgment clause for the evaluation of all pertinent conditions.

While Elizabeth Anscombe, in her self-published tract Mr. Truman’s Degree (1958), did not altogether challenge the legitimacy of the state to make war, she proceeded less from Aristotle’s conception of the common good and more from the standpoint of the intentions of agents causing action. Anscombe held that, in war, a deliberate intent by an agent to do evil negates any good that comes as a result. She applied this concept, known as consequentialism, generally to the air war in World War II and specifically to the United States’ employment of the atomic bomb, writing:

It may be impossible to take the thing (or people) you want to destroy as your target; it may be possible to attack it only by taking as the object of your attack what includes large numbers of innocent people. Then you cannot very well say they died by accident. Here, your action is murder.[10]

Mr. Truman’s Degree, a hybrid of philosophical and theological argumentation, largely tracks Rev. John C. Ford who, in a 1944 essay, declared “air bombardment of civilian centers is a symbol of total war in its worst sense.”[11] Indeed, Anscombe rejects the “indivisibility” of total war, in which civilian population centers are targeted for destruction—and, along with it, the concept of an enemy nation’s collective responsibility. This provides the basis for her accusation that the United States fought a war of “vague and hence limitless objectives” against Japan, including the development of purposely unacceptable terms in the Potsdam Declaration and willful ignorance of Japanese peace entreaties in the weeks leading up to the atomic missions.


At first glance, consequentialism appears to checkmate any ex post facto philosophical justification for the atomic missions. The fact that they brought the war to a decisive end is off the table. So too is the invasion they precluded, and the resulting preservation of American and Japanese lives. The curtailment of Japan’s reign of terror in every place it occupied in the Pacific is rendered moot. Murder is as murder does, after all. And the mere invocation of consequentialism often forces well-intentioned defenders of the bomb’s outcome, such as Fr. Wilson Miscamble of Notre Dame University, to backpedal while trying not to concede the point.[12]

Yet in evaluating the merits of Anscombe’s argument, it is perhaps better to start with a statement made by a critic of her mentor, Ludwig Wittgenstein: “If philosophy is logical by emphasis, it is no longer that love of wisdom which philosophy is by hallowed appellation.”[13] In other words, it loses its inherent value when designed to be a tautological trap. A survey of how Anscombe’s acolytes have applied consequentialism clearly proves that such is the case. And if one accepts that the underlying premise of consequentialism—intentions—is linked intimately to conscience, then an additional danger, identified by Joseph Ratzinger, presents itself:

It is indisputable that one must always follow a clear verdict of conscience, or at least that one may not act against such a verdict. But it is quite a different matter to assume that the verdict of conscience (or what one takes to be such a verdict) is always correct, i.e. infallible—for if that were so, it would mean there is no truth, at least in matters of morality and religion, which are the foundations of our very existence.[14]

As it pertains to statecraft, this point takes on additional import when placed in Cicero’s broader context that “knowledge and contemplation of the world of nature would be feeble and unfulfilled if no practical action were to flow from it.” He added that the “obligations of justice, involving as they do the welfare of mankind (and nothing should be more hallowed in our eyes), are to be given precedence over the pursuit of knowledge and its obligations.”[15] Cicero’s perspective is particularly insightful, since he lauded Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus Africanus, who literally razed Carthage to the ground and ended Rome’s century-long struggle with its arch-nemesis, as a model leader.

Here emerges a major problem with Anscombe’s philosophy: It enshrines intentions as the primary consideration for the statesman in matters of war. In a theoretical world populated exclusively by orthodox Catholic nations—such as that portrayed in Michael D. O’Brien’s novel, Voyage to Alpha Centauri—this might possibly be viable. But not in the real world we occupy. “If every man and woman in the world sincerely pledged themselves not to fight,” wrote Malcolm Muggeridge, “there would still be war as long as there was hate in their hearts.”[16] As such, what Anscombe suggests would, in situations where the use of force is warranted, undermine the common good by holding rulers to an impossible standard of conduct that hinders them from doing what is necessary to preserve the state from harm.

This does not mean the consideration of warfare is better addressed in the utilitarian Kantian or Nietzchean realms of thought. Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan tried that on the rest of the world and failed spectacularly. However, Anscombe’s ideal of what optimally ought to be for all is deceptively altruistic. In practice, it would enshroud the potential for action in passivity, thereby limiting options and undermining the statesman who, as Michael Novak stressed, is “bound primarily by the ethic of consequences rather than by the ethic of intentions.”[17]

Nevertheless, in considering the question of whether using the atomic bomb on Japan constituted prudential judgment, one need not ask whether the ends justified the means, but rather if the conditions justified the action. The latter opens a broader vista of inquiry by essentially placing the thinker in the councils of war. In fact, the wealth of historical information related to the decision to authorize the flights of Enola Gay and Bock’s Car proves that Anscombe relied on several fallacies to prove her point. Here a brief review of the facts prior to August of 1945 is warranted:

(1) Why the atomic bomb was developed. John Lukacs’ words suffice: “In the consciousness of certain eminent scientists there had arisen the fear that other scientists might be building an atom bomb for Hitler.”[18] Naturally, the possibility that Nazi Germany’s expansive arsenal could eventually include such a weapon was intolerable to Franklin Roosevelt and Henry Stimson. That the bomb was ultimately used on Japan was, of course, a matter of timing rather than preference. Had Little Boy been ready in 1944, it would have certainly been dropped on a target in Germany.

(2) What the bomb was designed to be. While a certain mystique surrounds the story of the Manhattan Project, it is important to remember that the bomb was designed primarily for efficiency. That one bomb could cause damage equivalent to that of a massed formation of five hundred B-29 bombers, notes Richard Frank in Downfall, “represented no order-of-magnitude increase in destructiveness over a conventional air raid.”[19]

(3) The strategic situation. U.S. forces had received a bitter foretaste of Ketsu-Go, Japan’s strategy to defend its home islands against invasion. Okinawa alone resulted in some 12,000 American soldiers and sailors killed in action, as well as the deaths of 70,000 Japanese and 80,000 Okinawans. Though a victory, historian Ronald Spector observed that the battle had “the paradoxical effect of discouraging the Americans while inspiring the Japanese,” because losses had reached 35% of forces committed.[20] The simple fact of the matter is that fatalities were spiking the closer American GIs got to Japan itself.

Moreover, the 22,000 Japanese non-combatants who leaped to their deaths from the cliffs of Saipan bore out the grim assessment of Ambassador Joseph Grew, the nation’s foremost expert on Imperial Japan at the time, that they “will not crack morally or psychologically or economically, even when eventual defeat stares them in the face… only by utter physical destruction or utter exhaustion of their men and materials can they be defeated.”[21]

All the while, preparations for Operation Downfall, the invasion of Japan, were moving forward, but not without a fair amount of trepidation among its planners. Japan may have been limping, but it was not yet out of the fight. Soldiers, aircraft, and ammunition were still available in abundance. Intelligence gained from Magic and Ultra forecast an approximate 1:1 ratio between invading and defending forces, which portended disaster for the U.S. on Kyushu. Civilians (at least those not evacuated from invasion areas) were being recruited into service to the point that an Army Air Force intelligence analyst declared, “the entire population of Japan is a proper Military Target…. THERE ARE NO CIVILIANS IN JAPAN.”[22] A simmering internal debate between the Joint Chiefs of Staff about the efficacy of invasion plans would have eventually come before President Truman.

(4) The diplomatic situation. The entirety of the Japanese government’s official position on unconditional surrender was encapsulated in a July 21 cable from Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo to Ambassador Naotake Sato in Moscow: “We are unable to consent to it under any circumstances whatever. Even if the war drags on and it becomes clear that it will take much more bloodshed, the whole country as one man will pit itself against itself against the enemy in accordance with the Imperial Will….”[23]

Six days later, the Imperial cabinet doubled down on its obstinacy by publicly sneering at the Potsdam Declaration, a document that included language ensuring Japan—should it choose “the path of reason”—would not be destroyed as a nation, that its soldiers could return home peacefully, and that commerce necessary to its survival would be preserved. In the estimation of Max Hastings, “Japan had done nothing in China or South-East Asia throughout its occupation, or in the prison camps of its empire, to make any plausible moral claim upon terms less rigorous than those imposed upon Germany.”[24]

Waging a global war for nearly four years had resulted in some four hundred thousand Americans killed. The next invasion, under any projected scenario, would soon add dramatically to the butcher’s bill. Harry Truman appeared resolute in finishing the job against an enemy that showed no signs of giving up. But the doubts harbored by some of his military leaders about Downfall reflected an uncertainty about the nation’s willingness to endure a prolonged conflict. Especially with thousands of weary men returning from the European Theater to a thoroughly war-rationed home, and thousands of others heading to the North Pacific to face prospects Samuel Eliot Morison called “painful to contemplate.”

Their doubts were well placed. “Any long war always entails great hazards to liberty in a democracy,” wrote de Tocqueville. Notwithstanding the natural advantages it has over other forms of government, he thought that war inevitably “annoys and often drives to desperation that countless crowd of citizens whose petty passions daily require peace for their satisfaction.”[25] Aristotle’s humorous anecdote about the Athenian statesman Eubulus’ price-shopping a siege illustrates the point at which public sentiment can turn against further conflict in favor of peace at all costs.

The danger, of course, is that a nation at war must remain committed to decisive victory. And that, according to Josey Wales, entails getting “plumb, mad-dog mean. ‘Cause if you lose your head and you give up then you neither live nor win.”

The atomic bomb, then, was a tool at the disposal of the U.S. government to aid the common good. The prospect of accelerating the unconditional surrender of Japan, which had unjustly thrust war upon the nation, would end further loss of American lives. In allowing the missions to go forward, civilian and military officials were acting solely for the benefit of the United States—not for any other nation, and not for humanity, since the latter were outside their purview. While the harshness of the decision summons Robert E. Lee’s immortal words about why we should not grow too fond of war, the circumstances made it entirely reasonable and justifiable.


The Anscombian might, at this juncture, say the argument has yet again been made for consequentialism since, conditions or no conditions, the U.S. government’s action in using the atomic bomb amounts to extremism in the defense of liberty. And, worse still, that the bomb is a result of politics divorced from moral virtue. Ergo, murder.

The first charge might be true but for the fact that the Supreme Court actually defined such extremism in Korematsu v. U.S. The second charge is meaningless save for how it came to be made. For it is impossible in this world for man to exist completely and utterly independent from a state. It is possible for man to exist as a toponymous person, that is, ignorant of the political confines of the state in which he lives, like certain tribes in Central Asia. He may also deliberately attempt to live separately from a state, which is individualistic and, as described above, inherently evil. But man as monad—Muggeridge’s naked man on naked earth—is, in a practical sense, inconceivable.

Hence, the conditions for contemplating matters of moral virtue, theological virtue, for religious freedom itself, require the existence of a just state and its institutions. “Those who love these institutions, and who intend to defend them with their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor,” wrote Michael Novak, “are not defending ‘spiritual values’ in the abstract, but rather those institutions which permit individuals, alone or in association, to follow truth, conscience, and love wherever they may lead.”[26] In this regard, it is helpful to remember Chesterton’s point about how the history of Catholicism would have been different had Carthage prevailed in the Punic Wars.

Lincoln, who treasured the Declaration of Independence above all things in political philosophy, knew this to be true and sometimes had a visceral reaction to those who questioned the maximum effort with which he fought the Civil War. “Would you deal lighter blows rather than heavier ones?” he snapped on one occasion in 1862. “Would you give up the contest, leaving any available means unapplied?”[27] Richard Current wrote that in order to preserve the future of the last, best hope of democracy on the earth, Lincoln realized that “whatever would win the war most quickly would win it most humanely.”[28] As such, he readily approved the hellfire General Sherman would loose on the Deep South in his march to the sea, not to mention the thousands of men and uncounted weapons needed to destroy the South’s will to fight. Had Lincoln met Jimmy Breslin, he might have offered a rejoinder to one of the columnist’s more memorable lines: dies the city, dies the man.

Yet the question arises: must civilians suffer in war? Of course, if one believes war qua war is, in an abstract sense, the ultimate evil the answer is never. That, however, fails to recognize the harsh realities of how states are established and maintained. Accepting as a given what Daniel Mahoney, writing in The Idol of Our Age, maintains, “the state is a powerful instrument for keeping evil at bay and for safeguarding the foundations of civilized order,” means it is reasonable for the statesman to use violence to confront evil.[29]

This was on display in an 1863 letter from Sherman to Henry Halleck, in which the former defined in no uncertain terms what total war meant:

If the people of the South oppose, they do so at their peril; and if they stand by, mere lookers-on in this domestic tragedy, they have no right to immunity, protection or share in the final results… I would keep it so, till all traces of the war are effaced; till those who appealed to it are sick and tired of it… and sue for peace. I would not coax them, or even meet them halfway, but make them so sick of war that generations would pass away before they would again appeal to it.[30]

Sherman’s intent in bringing war to the Southern people—armed and unarmed—was conceived with great deliberation: to make it so horrible as to prevent its reoccurrence on American soil. The larger point is the necessity of a tree, root, and branch approach to war.

The Aristotelian premise holds that the good of the man is the good of the state. If so, the fortunes of civilians in an enemy nation—rich, poor, or middle class, regardless of whether they live in a democratic, oligarchic, aristocratic, or tyrannical government—must necessarily rise or fall with the fortunes of war.

“War is the price we pay for living in a state,” counsels Solzhenitsyn’s Father Severyan. “Before you can abolish war you will have to abolish all states.”[31] The statesman does not abandon Christian virtue even when war involves putting the whole of an enemy state to the sword; there are times when, as Cicero knew, “the hour and need demand it.”[32]


The sentimental version of warfare is, of course, markedly different than the genuine article. While the chivalry of errant knights and the gallantry of white-scarfed fliers in biplanes may appeal to the imagination, the reality of war is what General Sherman made it out to be: unrefined cruelty. And unavoidable when the survival of peoples are at stake.

Thus, in consequentialism we find an example of Flannery O’Connor’s “hot-house innocence which is of very little help to anyone who has to be thrown into the problems of the modern world.” It is a philosophy that attempts to evangelize an abstract conception of war, notwithstanding Elizabeth Anscombe’s good intentions. However, consequentialism falls short because it blurs the distinction between murder and killing in war, the latter of which—while not always adhering to Gospel truth—is a grim necessity in the defense of the state.

Moreover, the inherent passivity of consequentialism, playing as it does to the humanitarian impulse of Catholic thought, raises the possibility of a state “that does not encourage citizens and believers alike to take seriously the full range of one’s political and civic responsibilities.”[33] In war, this would quickly prove fatal to the state and the continued existence of the institutions it cherishes.

As such, the misapplication of consequentialism to the atomic missions does a severe disservice to history. Targeting Hiroshima and Nagasaki based on population density was undeniably hard-hearted, but necessary given that the will of the Japanese nation was, as yet, unbroken. Even if one argues that Imperial Japan was, by August 1945, less of an existential threat to the United States, it is incontestable that an invasion of Japan was projected to take the lives of hundreds of thousands of American soldiers. Preserving those lives was a civic imperative.

A weapon was available to possibly achieve that purpose—and perhaps even end the war itself. In the event, the decision to use it was guided by humane national loyalty.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

1 Hesiod, The Works and Days, 14-15.

2 John Keegan, A History of Warfare, 384-385.

3 Comment made on Twitter by Josh Madden, visiting scholar at the Pontifical University of John Paul II.

4 Pope St. John Paul II, Faith and Reason, 1998.

5 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Qu. 90.

6 Jacques Maritain, “The Rights of Man; Church and State,” found in St. Thomas Aquinas on Politics and Ethics, p. 173.

7 Cicero, De Officiis, I-34.

8 Aristotle, The Politics, 1253.

9 Summa Theologiae, Qu. 90.

10 Mr. Truman’s Degree, p. 4.

11 “The Morality of Obliteration Bombing,” Theological Studies, Vol. 5, Issue 3, 304.

12 See “The Least Evil Option: A Defense of Harry Truman,” The Public Discourse, December 12, 2011.

13 Stanley Jaki, Cosmos and Creator, p. 89.

14 Joseph Ratzinger, quoted in Tracey Rowland, “‘We live in a devastated age’: Reflections from Guardini on being ‘Lost in Chaos,’” Catholic World Report, April 15, 2019.

15 Cicero, De Officiis, 153, 155.

16 Malcolm Muggeridge, Things Past, p. 52.

17 Michael Novak, Moral Clarity in the Nuclear Age, pp. 61-62.

18 John Lukacs, Remembered Past, p. 78.

19 Richard B. Frank, Downfall, p. 253.

20 Ronald Spector, Eagle Against the Sun, p. 543.

21 Richard Russell, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, p. 520.

22 Downfall, p. 189.

23 Ibid., p. 230

24 Max Hastings, Retribution, p. 476.

25 Both quotes from Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, p. 649.

26 Moral Clarity in the Nuclear Age, pp. 104-105.

27 Richard N. Current, The Lincoln Nobody Knows, p. 182.

28 Ibid., pp. 185-186.

29 Daniel Mahoney, The Idol of Our Age, p. 84.

30 “Sherman and Total War,” The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 14, No. 4, 470.

31 The Idol of Our Age, p. 83.

32 De Officiis, I-81.

33 The Idol of Our Age, p. 88.

The featured image is a photograph of the atomic cloud over Hiroshima, taken from “Enola Gay” flying over Matsuyama, Shikoku (August 6, 1945) by 509th Operations Group, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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