Truman’s Cheek

[Now here is something to see.  My Catholic friend Ben Finiti (at has written a historical essay in rebuttal to a Catholic cleric’s historical interview. Don’t these guys have enough theology to talk about?  Hasn’t the Pope said something outrageous in an airplane press conference? Shouldn’t they be fighting over that?

Anyway, here are BF’s thoughts on a monsignor’s thoughts on Hiroshima and dear Harry.  Enjoy. (I wrote most of it myself, if truth be known.)]


Hindsight from the High Ground

by Ben Finiti

On August 6, the terrible anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, I was listening to the indispensable Catholic media outlet Relevant Radio, and I heard a curious interview with Msgr. Stuart Swetland on the subject of the day.

It made me think of Calvin Coolidge who is credited with many laconic (and probably apocryphal) anecdotes; my favorite is his supposed comment on returning from church one Sunday. Asked what the preacher spoke on, he answered: “Sin.” Further asked: “What did he say about it?”, Cal responded: “He was against it.”

It would be unjust and uncharitable to summarize the monsignor’s take on Hiroshima in so many words. He acknowledged the difficult situation and the tough decisions that faced those engaged in what was unquestionably a just war. But his conclusion was as straightforward as Coolidge’s: It was a sin, and Truman should not have done it.

The monsignor argued from Catholic doctrine, which appears to have recently reached the same conclusion. And he offered some historical “facts” in support. But the facts are questionable, and the arguments seem confused.

I am certainly not qualified to argue theology with any monsignor (though I will try, later.) But facts are facts, and assumptions are not.

There are many points to consider. Monsignor Swetland stated, with varying degrees of certitude, the following “facts”. The Japanese government was about to surrender anyway. The Russians were about to tell Truman about a Japanese peace proposal. Invasion of the Japanese homeland would not have been necessary. The invasion’s half-million US casualties anticipated by US military planners would not have occurred.

These things are nice to know. I bet Truman would have liked to know them with the certainty that his posthumous critics know them.

Now, some of these facts fall into the category of 20/20 hindsight (the Japanese/Russian peace proposal.) Others are in the realm of counterfactuals, the history that never happened (the invasion was unnecessary, since the Japanese already knew they were beaten.)

But my main objection to such thinking is that it side-steps the one all-important question, the only question that matters, from a moral standpoint. What should Truman have done?

The moral high ground is the position which allows those far from the decision to boldly affirm what should NOT have been done. But the moral high ground does not allow consideration of the real question facing the real decision-maker. The only way the moral-high-grounder can address the real question is with hindsight and counterfactuals.

Well, here are some counter-counterfactuals.

1. The Japanese government probably knew they were beaten by 1943; they fought on. From their early offensive high-water, they were steadily pushed back on every front. After Midway, they never again struck in the eastern Pacific. After Guadalcanal, they were in constant retreat throughout the Pacific. And yet, as the tides of war rolled against them, the death tolls rapidly accelerated. The bloodiest battles, on land and sea, occurred in the last 6 months of the war – long after the Japanese government knew what the outcome would be. The death toll on Okinawa, the closest island to the Japanese homeland, was 12,520 US soldiers, 110,000 Japanese soldiers, and over 100,000 Japanese civilians, many by suicide.

The Japanese soldiers almost to a man fought to the death; fewer than one in ten surrendered or were captured.   As with the preceding battle of Iwo Jima, the closer the battles came to Japan, the higher the death toll.

Okinawa also saw the Japanese make full use of their most desperate “secret weapon”: the Kamikaze, or suicide pilots. This tactic grew out of fanaticism and desperation: they had few experienced or trained pilots left. But there were a lot of targets near shore, in the dense fleets of the US Navy.   3500 Kamikaze pilots died, but they sank 30 US ships, damaged 232, and killed 7000 US sailors. (By comparison, the Pearl Harbor death toll was 2403.)

It was the carnage on and around Okinawa that led US military planners to expect such high death tolls in an invasion of the homeland.

Another counter-counterfactual is that the Japanese still had several thousand planes hidden throughout the island, waiting to be mobilized in the final battle for the homeland. They were undoubtedly not very operational combat weapons, nor were there many good pilots. They were held exclusively for Kamikaze attack. But the typical Kamikaze plane was a rickety thing mostly made of wood except the engines (thus not radar-visible); and 19% of the unqualified pilots off Okinawa hit their targets (enough to kill 7000 sailors).

Summary: The Japanese still had a lot of fight in them.


2. The Japanese were not trying to surrender; some of them were trying to conclude the war on the least-unfavorable terms. The military-dominated Japanese government was deeply divided by 1945. The Army faction would not accept that naval defeats should require them to relinquish their Asian conquests (chiefly China and Korea). The Navy faction counted for little by then, and the civilians wanted peace but counted for even less.

The strongest faction, as always, was the Army. And they knew that the Allies had one demand that the Army could never accept; de-militarization. Unconditional Surrender meant the end of the Japanese Army (and Navy). Military resistance had thwarted several earlier peace feelers from the civilians (through neutral Sweden), and there is no evidence that the vaunted “Russian peace proposal” would not have been sabotaged by the Army leaders (or ever been passed on by the Russians, for that matter).


3. Virtually all of Japan consisted (then and now) of civilian population centers. And virtually every city and town constituted a legitimate target, given the limited information available to US forces. Every port city was a potential naval target, and every industrial city was a potential defense-industry center. So bombing targets with no risk of civilian casualties was not possible. Virtually all of Japan would have had to be declared off-limits to bombing.


4. An invasion had to be planned, and had to be assumed to be brutal and costly beyond anything seen so far.  Thousands of soldiers were in transit from now-defeated Germany to the vicinity of Japan. They expected, as did all Americans, that the slaughter resulting from Japan’s desperate, fanatical defense (last seen on Okinawa) was waiting for them. Planners projected up to half a million US casualties.


5, “Wait-and-See” was not an option for Truman. He had to assume that if a de facto truce were put in place while peace negotiations commenced, the Japanese would have been able to begin re-building their defenses in preparation for a possible final battle. The only way to prevent that would have been to continue the relentless conventional bombing raids that had already turned many cities into infernos. On one night, such bombing killed 100,000 civilians in Tokyo alone. In the days leading up to August 6, conventional bombing killed an estimated 330,000 Japanese (some estimates are up to 900,000), including civilians, defense workers, and military. If it had continued, the totals might have been unthinkably worse even than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki toll.

(The bombing campaign also cost the lives of 2600 US airmen.)

So there was no peaceful or bloodless option before Truman. Indeed, the civilian death tolls cited above make clear that there was no option that did not promise civilian deaths in the hundreds of thousands.

The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were terrible beyond words. But they were unique only in their efficiency. They were the final terrible things in a long war filled with terrible events.


I said I could not argue theology with the monsignor, but here I go, with a final thought from the moral high ground of pacifism. Pacifists rightly cite our Lord’s injunction to turn the other cheek in response to attack. But I find no scriptural command to turn the cheek of others, especially of those who are committed to our care. Those who accept the unutterably heavy mantle of defending their nation against enemies must be thanked, not judged, when in good faith they refuse to shirk that burden.

It was not Truman’s cheek that was on the line in August of 1945. It was the hundreds of thousands who were preparing to face the final battle of a war they did not start (including the hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians who might have died under conventional attack if the new weapon had been withheld.)


Much more can be said about all this. But these conclusions seem to me to be inescapable.

We should all thank God that we have never had to face the kind of decision that Truman faced. And pray that we never will.

From hindsight, and from the moral high ground of never having to face such a decision, we may think we know what the right decision would have been: the decision we would have made.

But until we are ready to answer the real question, to say plausibly what Truman should have done, perhaps we should withhold our judgement.



For further reading and consideration, I recommend the following books.

With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa, by E.B.Sledge

Closing the Circle: War in the Pacific, 1945, by Edwin P. Hoyt

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