Silencing the bells of Nagasaki

Funeral Mass near the ruins of the Urakami Cathedral, held on November 23, 1945, for the victims of the atomic bomb. (WikiMedia)

Seventy-five years ago today, the USAAF B-29 Bockscar dropped one of the last bombs of the Second World War in the Urakami valley, on the industrial port city of Nagasaki, Japan. Tens of thousands of people died instantly, with many more to follow in the days, months, and years afterwards.

The passage of history—including the intervening logic of the Cold War—has obscured the fact that the condemnation by many prominent Catholic theologians of the use of atomic weapons was immediate, even if the Catholic reaction overall was mixed. Many of those same Catholics had been vehemently opposed to the indiscriminate bombings in places like Tokyo and Dresden. Msgr. Fulton Sheen assailed the use of the atomic bomb in 1946. As Fr. Francis X. Sallaway said, these disapprobations were made “with clear logic and in simple English.” In the years and decades after their use, every single pope has taught the evils involved in the use of nuclear weapons.

One reason for the interminability of the debate about the use of the atomic bombs by my country is that the question is taken in an abstract and purely military sense. That is, those who would restrict the discussion to seemingly “the easy out” about morality are asked to provide alternative strategies:

As future anniversaries of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki occur, one might hope for less moralizing condemnation of Truman’s decision until the critics specify at least a less immoral and yet still feasible course of action to end the terrible war.

Wilson D. Miscamble, C.S.C., The Most Controversial Decision: Truman, the Atomic Bombs, and the Defeat of Japan (Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 124.

Indeed, it seems foolish to question whether non-nuclear measures to end the war—blockades, a neutral demonstration of the new weapon, an invasion—would have been as brutally effective, or would not have been more difficult and more costly for the Allies, or would have been as swift in preventing Soviet invasions in East Asia, etc. But for all that, the moral question about ius in bello is not made irrelevant, as Joseph Capizzi’s recent essay at Public Discourse argues. This lesson can also be learned by reflecting upon that terrible event in light of the life and work of two other men: the Japanese physician and Servant of God Takashi Nagai and the Jesuit moral theologian Fr. John C. Ford.

The bells of Nagasaki Cathedral

The life of Takashi Nagai is movingly told by Fr. Paul Glynn in A Song for Nagasaki. Nagai converted to Catholicism after having been a scientific atheist as a young man. His conversion was in large part brought about by the intervention of the descendants of the “hidden Christians” of Nagasaki—the ones depicted in Scorsese’s 2016 film Silence—including the prayers of his future wife, Midori. Pascal’s Pensées also played a role in his road from atheism to agnosticism to Christianity, including an Augustinian tolle, lege moment:

Nagai walked home slowly on a road skirting Mount Konpira. To receive baptism would wound his father and go against filial piety, the Confucian ethic he had imbibed with his mother’s milk. There were other negative aspects. For instance, some German Bible critics suggested more research was needed before we knew with certainty what Jesus taught. Or again, would it not be prudent to delay baptism until his father accepted the idea? There was also his duty in the pioneer field of Japanese radiology. Why not delay baptism until his position in the state university was better than mere assistant to the professor? After promotion, he could be baptized and do more for Christianity.

He was now home and sat down by the low table on the tatami floor. He took up Pascal’s Pensées and had hardly read a paragraph when he came across a sentence that riveted his attention: “There is enough light for those who desire only to see, and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition.” Suddenly it became obvious—for him to delay baptism was to keep company with darkness!

Glynn, A Song for Nagasaki, pp. 111–12.

Nagai’s medical expertise was radiology—he died of leukemia brought on by overexposure to x-ray radiation. His teaching and medical work in the radiology department at the University of Nagasaki hospital were interrupted by service as surgeon in the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and (after his conversion) in Nagasaki itself.

When Nagai had been preparing for baptism, he asked about the Catholic teaching on war. Father Moriyama explained the tradition outlined in the fourth century by Augustine: one could fight in a “just war”. Nagai had long since doubted that Japan was in a just war, though he did not think the Western Allies were paragons of justice either. He came to the practical conclusion that caring for the wounded, whether soldiers or civilians, was in no fashion immoral and with peace of conscience poured all his energies into air-raid drills. He built up an emergency supply of medical essentials in his underground theater in case the hospital was bombed.

Glynn, A Song for Nagasaki, p. 143.

After the bombing, Nagai worked for two consecutive days caring for the survivors. It was only on August 11 that he was able to look for his family:

When the army doctors and nurses arrived to take responsibility, Nagai was at last free to think of his own family. His children and Gran were safe four miles away in the mountains. But Midori! As he stumbled down the slope toward the desert of ash that had once been Urakami, remorse flooded his soul for not going to her aid as soon as he was rescued from the debris in his office. He had now reached the neighborhood of his home, where radiation could be much worse, but he was determined at least to give her a decent burial, beneath a cross in their family plot.

With difficulty he found their home in an area that was now nothing but broken roof tiles and white ash. What was that black lump over there? It was Midori! There was little more than the charred remains of her skull, hips and backbone. He could see she died in the kitchen that she loved. Sobbing, he picked up a heat-buckled pail and knelt to gather her bones. What was the dull glint among the powdered bones of her right hand? Though the beads were melted into a blob, the chain and cross identified it as the Rosary he had seen slipping through her fingers so often. He bowed his head and sobbed: “Dearest God, thank you for allowing her to die praying. Mother of Sorrows, thank you for being with faithful Midori at the hour of her death.”

Glynn, A Song for Nagasaki, pp. 172–73.

In the remaining six years of his life, Nagai wrote prolifically despite his diagnosis of terminal leukemia (he also wrote one of the first scientific reports on the effects of the atomic bomb). This work was personal and spiritual. The earliest instance was his funeral oration at the Mass of November 23, 1945, for those who died in the bombing (pictured above):

“And just then, at 11:02 A.M., an atom bomb exploded over our suburb. In an instant, eight thousand Christians were called to God, and in a few hours flames turned to ash this venerable Far Eastern holy place.

“At midnight that night, our cathedral suddenly burst into flames and was consumed. At exactly that same time in the Imperial Palace, His Majesty the Emperor made known his sacred decision to end the war. On August 15 the Imperial Rescript, which put an end to the fighting, was formally promulgated, and the whole world saw the light of peace. August 15 is also the great feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. It is significant, I believe, that the Urakami Cathedral was dedicated to her. We must ask: Was this convergence of events, the end of the war and the celebration of her feast day, merely coincidental, or was it the mysterious Providence of God?

“I have heard that the atom bomb. . . was destined for another city. Heavy clouds rendered that target impossible, and the American crew headed for the secondary target, Nagasaki. Then a mechanical problem arose, and the bomb was dropped further north than planned and burst right above the cathedral. . . . It was not the American crew, I believe, who chose our suburb. God’s Providence chose Urakami and carried the bomb right above our homes. Is there not a profound relationship between the annihilation of Nagasaki and the end of the war? Was not Nagasaki the chosen victim, the lamb without blemish, slain as a whole burnt offering on an altar of sacrifice, atoning for the sins of all the nations during World War II?”

Nagai used hansai, the Japanese word for the Bible’s “holocaust”, or whole burnt offering. The angry reaction of some mourners is well captured by famous director Keisuke Kinoshita in Children of Nagasaki, the most recent movie on Nagai’s life. Some of the congregation stood up and shouted in protest that Nagai should try to dignify with pious words the atrocity perpetrated on their families! Nagai showed neither anger nor surprise. Having traveled through the dark valley they were in, he was sympathetic to their response. He continued with a quiet authority that compelled silence.

“We are inheritors of Adam’s sin. . . of Cain’s sin. He killed his brother. Yes, we have forgotten we are God’s children. We have turned to idols and forgotten love. Hating one another, killing one another, joyfully killing one another! At last the evil and horrific conflict came to an end, but mere repentance was not enough for peace. . . . We had to offer a stupendous sacrifice. . . . Cities had been leveled, but even that was not enough. . . . Only this hansai in Nagasaki sufficed, and at that moment God inspired the Emperor to issue the sacred proclamation that ended the war. The Christian flock of Nagasaki was true to the Faith through three centuries of persecution. During the recent war, it prayed ceaselessly for a lasting peace. Here was the one pure lamb that had to be sacrificed as hansai on His altar. . . so that many millions of lives might be saved.”

Glynn, A Song for Nagasaki, pp. 188–89.

Fr. Glynn comments later in the book:

Nagai, standing at the crossroads of death, averred that hansai spirituality had brought great peace. If you speak Japanese and have attended the A-bomb anniversaries in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I think you will have observed a great difference. I had noted this over a number of years, and while attending the two ceremonies on the fortieth anniversary in 1985, I heard some regular participants express it this way: “Hiroshima is bitter, noisy, highly political, leftist and anti-American. Its symbol would be a fist clenched in anger. Nagasaki is sad, quiet, reflective, nonpolitical and prayerful. It does not blame the United States but rather laments the sinfulness of war, especially of nuclear war. Its symbol: hands joined in prayer.”

Glynn, A Song for Nagasaki, pp. 257–58.

The Jesuit who condemned obliteration bombing

The moral costs of the Second World War are harder to calculate than its cost in lives and resources. Between total war and the prospect of interminable total war, a “moral Rubicon” was crossed.

Well over fifty million people lost their lives in that gigantic conflict, which descended to new lows of barbarism in both European and Pacific theaters. Restraints that previously had directed soldiers to spare noncombatants were thrown off. Barton Bernstein has observed insightfully that “the older morality crumbled in the crucible of what became virtually total war.” In this “emerging conception of nearly total war,” Bernstein explained further, “the enemy was not simply soldiers but non-combatants. They worked in factories, ran the economy, maintained the civic life, constituted much of the nation, and were the core of national cohesion. Kill them, and soon production would tumble, the national fabric would rip, armies would soon feel homeless, and the government might surrender.” Merely listing such cities as Shanghai, Nanking, Leningrad, Rotterdam, Coventry, London, Hamburg, Dresden, and Tokyo makes the point. As a number of writers have noted succinctly, a “moral Rubicon” had been crossed long before Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Indiscriminate bombing had become the norm for the Anglo-American forces well before 1945. In fact, as William Hitchcock has revealed, even the heroic liberation of Western Europe resulted in a grisly catalogue of civilian casualties among the very peoples the Allies aimed to free from Nazi oppression.

Miscamble, The Most Controversial Decision, p. 119.

While Fr. Miscamble’s argument is calculated to show the inconsistency of moral condemnation of Truman without the correlative condemnation of other Allied leaders like Churchill or Roosevelt, its force overshoots its intended target. Fr. John C. Ford, S.J., would certainly think so, for it is precisely his point that all such “indiscriminate bombing” is immoral. That the moral Rubicon had already been crossed does not make crossing back over to the other side impossible. He would concur with Capizzi: “That we had abandoned morality does not license its continued neglect.”

Fr. Ford made his case while the war was still raging, in a 1944 article “The Morality of Obliteration Bombing” (open access here), demonstrating that the Allied practice of the large-scale devastation of centers of civilian populations was immoral. After the atomic bombings, he argued that atomic warfare was unjust and contrary to the proper understanding of ius in bello, since in nearly every typical case the use of such weapons would intentionally kill the innocent. Several years later he made a more compact argument on the subject of thermonuclear warfare, dealing with similar objections and misapplications of double-effect reasoning, in “The Hydrogen Bombing of Cities” (open access here).

The reasoning is straightforward, even if emotional doubts or the weight of a historical or patriotic consensus cloud the truth about the argument’s premises: No just means of warfare includes the use of weapons that indiscriminately kill the innocent, but obliteration bombing requires such means, ∴ etc. This argument is sustained by the affirmative answers to the two questions he asks:

1) Do the majority of civilians in a modern nation at war enjoy a natural-law right of immunity from violent repression?

2) Does obliteration bombing necessarily involve a violation of the rights of innocent civilians?

Ford, “The Morality of Obliteration Bombing,” p. 271.

The natural objection against the first question—that all civilians are engaged in the “war effort” and are therefore non-combatants—is quickly undermined. The typical objection to the second—that the principle of double effect can be used to argue that the death of innocent non-combatants is an unintended side-effect—is shown to be unconvincing and frankly unrealistic, especially given the definition of obliteration bombing that Fr. Ford constructs from contemporaneous war reports and publicly available information:

Obliteration bombing is the strategic bombing, by means of incendiaries and explosives, of industrial centers of population in which the target to be wiped out is not a definite factory, bridge, or similar object, but a large area of a whole city, comprising one-third to two-thirds of its whole built-up area, and including by design the residential districts of workingmen and their families.

Ford, “The Morality of Obliteration Bombing,” p. 267.

The reasoning against the use of double effect is similar in his later book chapter about thermonuclear war:

It is my contention that the civil and military leaders who would plan and execute the dropping of a series of high megaton H-bombs on an area like Moscow or New York: 1) would not in practice avoid the direct intention of violence to the innocent; 2) could not avoid such an intention even if they would; and 3) even if they would and could avoid it, would have no proportionate justifying reason for permitting the evils which this type of all-out nuclear warfare would let loose.

Ford, “The Hydrogen Bombing of Cities,” p. 100.

Clearer cases must govern thinking about more obscure cases—and Fr. Ford’s analysis is far from scholastic casuistry. Particularly helpful in the shorter essay (just quoted) is his simple and direct employment of the golden rule as a method of reasoning. Its moral clarity ex parte ante offers a complementary obverse to Nagai’s expression of hansai in the aftermath of the bombing.

Nagai recognized that only God could bring good out of the evils of the indiscriminate bombing on both sides. This alone gives the lie to the rhetoric of “morally difficult decisions” and to all sorts of pragmatic lines of reasoning. On this 75th anniversary, contemplating the life of Nagai and the work of Fr. Ford, we can perhaps think of Nagai’s Midori and—like the ones who walk away from Omelas—walk away from the typical justifications for silencing the bells of Nagasaki.

Further reading

Ford, S.J., John C. “The Morality of Obliteration Bombing.” Theological Studies 5, no. 3 (September 1, 1944): 261–309.

———. “The Hydrogen Bombing of Cities,” in Morality and Modern Warfare: The State of the Question, ed. William J. Nagle (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1960), 98–103.

Glynn, Paul. A Song For Nagasaki: The Story of Takashi Nagai: Scientist, Convert, and Survivor of the Atomic Bomb. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009.

Nagai, Takashi. Atomic Bomb Rescue and Relief Report. Edited by Fidelius R. Kuo. Translated by Aloysius F. Kuo. Nagasaki: NASHIM, 2000.

Hrynkow, Christopher. “‘Nothing but a False Sense of Security’: Mapping and Critically Assessing Papal Support for a World Free from Nuclear Weapons.” Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament 2, no. 1 (January 2, 2019): 51–81.

Miscamble, Wilson D. The Most Controversial Decision: Truman, the Atomic Bombs, and the Defeat of Japan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

  • Other Historical Sources

“No Vatican Stand Is Taken on Bomb; No Statement on Its View Is Likely Unless the Pope Speaks for Himself Pope Denies Statement.” The New York Times, August 9, 1945.

Hersey, John. “Hiroshima.” The New Yorker, August 31, 1946.

Sallaway, Francis X. “The Morality of the Use of the Atomic Bomb.” In The Essex County Catholic Radio Programme, edited by Essex County Catholic Radio Committee, 11–12. Salem, MA: Essex County Catholic Radio Committee, 1946.

“Use of Atom Bomb Assailed by Sheen; Only Effective Control Is by Moral Education, He Tells St. Patrick’s Audience.” The New York Times, April 8, 1946, sec. Archives.

Editors. “Use of Atom Bomb Assailed by Sheen.” The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists 1, no. 10 (May 1, 1946): 12. [link]

Compton, “If the Atomic Bomb Had Not Been Used.” 

Truman, “The Japanese Were Given Fair Warning.” 

Stimson, Henry. “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb.” Atomic Heritage Foundation. Accessed May 10, 2020.

McKinney, Katherine E., Scott D. Sagan, and Allen S. Weiner, “Why the Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima Would Be Illegal Today,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 76, no. 4 (July 3, 2020): 157–65,

  • Public Discourse

Joseph E. Capizzi, “Hiroshima and the ‘Easy’ Thing to Do,” Public Discourse, August 5, 2020.

Christopher Tollefsen, et al.

Tollefsen, Christopher. “The Abiding Significance of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” The Public Discourse, August 3, 2010.

Miscamble, O’Brien, Tollefsen

Tollefsen, Christopher. “Moral Absolutes and the Moral Life.” The Public Discourse, November 21, 2011.
Tollefsen, Christopher. “The Most Controversial Decision: Challenging Pro-Life Witness.” The Public Discourse, December 1, 2011.

Reply: Miscamble, Wilson D. “The Least Evil Option: A Defense of Harry Truman.” The Public Discourse, December 12, 2011.
Reply: O’Brien, Matthew. “God and Moral Absolutes.” The Public Discourse, December 13, 2011.

Response: Tollefsen, Christopher. “No Intentional Killing of the Innocent: A Response to Miscamble and O’Brien.” The Public Discourse, December 19, 2011.

Tollefsen, Christopher. “On the Dangers of Thanking God for the Atom Bomb.” Public Discourse, August 6, 2015.
In response to Stephens, Bret. “Thank God for the Atom Bomb.” Wall Street Journal, August 3, 2015, sec. Opinion.
— See also the original: Fussell, Paul. “Thank God for the Atom Bomb.” The New Republic, 1981.

Tollefsen, Christopher. “Why the ‘Catholic’ ‘Pro-Life’ Case for the Bomb Fails.” The Public Discourse, August 19, 2015.
In response to PragerU’s video, by Fr. Wilson Miscamble, “Was it Wrong to Drop the Atom Bomb on Japan?”

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