“We are the Barbarians”: Hiroshima and Nagasaki

“We are the Barbarians”: Hiroshima and Nagasaki May 31, 2016

The effects of the atomic blast on Sumiteru Taniguchi, January 1946 (public domain image)

The effects of the atomic blast on Sumiteru Taniguchi, January 1946 (public domain image)

An article at Rare yesterday points out that some of the earliest and most vociferous critics of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were conservatives writing for National Review. Imagine that.

No less a person than Russell Kirk wrote in 1945: “We are the barbarians within our own Empire.”

That’s much stronger than anything President Obama said, and yet Joel B. Pollak at Breitbart called for Congress to censure him for it.

Now, if Mr. Pollak care were a consistent man, he would also condemn Russell Kirk and National Review. I will not hold my breath for it. But in 1959, Medford Evans, writing in Mr. Buckley’s magazine, said that “the indefensibility of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima is becoming a part of the national conservative creed.”

It seems that Breitbart does not really subscribe to the “national conservative creed.” Don’t let them fool you.

Of course, National Review no longer does subscribes either, for on May 27 it ran this article, in which David French says that the atomic bombings were “right and necessary.”

This is not conservatism they are peddling at Breitbart and National Review, but what Mark Shea has rightly called “The Thing That Used to Be Conservatism.”

If you want proof that Mr. Shea is right on this point, look no further. Conservatism—or that “thing” that dons a mask and pretends to be conservatism—is no longer a set of coherent principles, but rather incoherent shibboleths. We were the barbarians in August 1945, and “conservatives” are barbarians when they defend an act, not of just war, but of total war.


The Rave article was interesting to me in light of this discussion with pro-life cartoonist Gary Cangemi on Facebook. (Or he says he’s pro-life.) My post was a link to an article by Christopher Check at Catholic Answers. Mr. Check argued that the atomic bombings were “wrong. Period.” In response, Mr. Cangemi employed the dubious “you had to be there” defense:

If you are going to second guess our history, you’d better get yourself a time machine and go back to WWII and fight shoulder to shoulder with our troops at Iwo Jima and other hell holes the Japanese created.

Fortunately, we need construct no DeLorean to arrive in August 1945 and see for ourselves. We can read Russell Kirk, who that very year called the bombings “barbaric.”

Or we can read the words of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. I think we can safely say that Ike, who commanded D-Day, was “there.” He said:

I voiced to him [Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson] 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.

President Truman’s own Chief of Staff, Adm. William Leahy, dissented. I suspect he was “there” too.

It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons.

The lethal possibilities of atomic warfare in the future are frightening. My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.

On August 8, 1945, former president Herbert Hoover wrote that the atomic bombing “revolts my soul.” My guess is, Mr. Hoover was around at the time.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur—he was “there” too—said that the bombing had no military necessity whatsoever.

But, says Mr. Cangemi, who was not there, you had to be there.


Mr. Cangemi went on to suggest that the Church has not given an unequivocal condemnation of the bombing.

Come again?

Has he not read Pope St. John Paul II?

[Hiroshima and Nagasaki should remind the world of] the crimes committed against civilian populations during World War II.

Or Pope Paul VI. Remember him? He described the atomic bombings as “butchery of untold magnitude.”

Or Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. Maybe the name rings a bell. He said:

When, I wonder, did we in America ever get into this idea that freedom means having no boundaries and no limits? I think it began on the 6th of August 1945 at 8:15 am when we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.

Or the USCCB. My guess is they have some authority to speak for the Church.

World War II liberated many and defeated tyranny but left as a shameful legacy instances of combat conducted without distinction between civilian and soldier. In the decades since the bombing, some have advanced the argument that despite the horrendous magnitude of civilian suffering, these actions can be justified by the efficient end of combat it effected. But secular ethicists and moral theologians alike echo the words of the Second Vatican Council: “Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.”

I am not sure what part of “firm and unequival condemnation” is difficult to understand, and yet Mr. Cangemi repeatedly asserted throughout the thread that the statements of Church leaders and theologians are so very fuzzy and unclear.

That is false. The Church is very clear when she says that just war requires jus in bello as well as jus ad bello. A just cause means nothing unless you pursue it justly. A nation may not indiscriminately target civilians; total war is never just war; Consequentialism is a heresy. Evil may never—never—be done that good may come.


Generally (or at least I like to think thus), no American defends slavery any more. No one defends the relocation and wholesale slaughter of Native American populations. And yet “conservatives” (falsely so called) loudly defend the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as though it was not barbarism.

Why? Is it because they wish to retain a defense of our behavior in the War on Terror, including waterboarding?

Is it because of proximity in time? Our parents and grandparents fought in World War II, and maybe they would not have come back.

Or is it a form of Americanism: My country, right or wrong?

Maybe it is all of these.

Whatever it is, it is not conservatism, and it is not Catholicism; and it is time we stoped pretending otherwise.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment