Truman’s terrible choice, 75 years ago

George Weigel

Three U.S. Navy officers look out at me from a small, black-and-white snapshot, taken in Sasebo, Japan, on September 26, 1945: three and a half weeks after the Japanese Empire’s formal surrender aboard USS Missouri. These young Americans, assigned to an amphibious flotilla of landing craft, had spent the previous months on Okinawa, preparing to invade Dai Nippon. Given the carnage they had just witnessed on Okinawa, which was expected to be far worse when they led the seaborne invasion of Japan’s home islands, it’s not hard to imagine those three officers marveling that they were still alive, much less standing undisturbed at a major base of the Imperial Japanese Navy.

The officer on the far right of the photo is my father, LTJG George S. Weigel, USNR.

Other snapshots in an album I’ve recently rediscovered are striking. They show Japanese submarines; an enormous drydock; impressed Korean laborers lined up on a pier for repatriation to their homeland; two Japanese aircraft carriers abandoned at a late stage of construction; a bus fueled by a rear-mounted charcoal burner. Then there are the pictures of Japanese civilians: adults queueing at a railroad station, pushing carts through the streets, boarding a bus, riding bicycles; children on a playground.

The Japanese images are especially thought-provoking. Because, like my father and his two brother officers, those civilians would likely have been killed, had World War II in the Pacific not ended when it did and how it did. So would the 81,556 Allied prisoners of war in Japan, China, and Southeast Asia, who, by order of the Japanese high command, were to be murdered rather than released.

As D.M. Giangreco demonstrates from Japanese records in Hell to Pay: Operation Downfall and the Invasion of Japan, 1945-47, the militarist-nationalist fanatics who dominated Japanese policy until Emperor Hirohito’s decisive intervention in August 1945 planned to turn the entire Japanese population into combatants during an American invasion. Elderly men and young boys, women and children – all were to resist with whatever tools were at hand, fighting alongside the still-formidable Japanese army and supported by kamikaze pilots, suicide speed boats, and human torpedoes.

Original American estimates of Japanese homeland casualties during Operation Olympic (the invasion of Kyushu scheduled for November 1945) and Operation Coronet (the invasion of the Tokyo Plain in March 1946) ranged from five to 10 million; some later estimates put the anticipated death toll at 20 million, including perhaps 10 million who would die of starvation as food supplies evaporated during the fighting. American combat deaths, projected from the slaughter on Okinawa, were expected to be no less than 500,000 and perhaps as many as a million, out of a total American casualty projection of two to five million.

In the summer of 1945, President Harry Truman had three options for ending the Pacific War without the unprecedented bloodletting of an invasion. The first was to step up the fire-bombing of Japanese cities, which had already killed hundreds of thousands and would, if continued, kill hundreds of thousands more. The second was to strangle Japan by naval blockade and starve her into a submission her leaders might not concede until millions, and perhaps tens of millions, were dead. The third was to use the atomic weapons developed by the Manhattan Project to stun Japanese politicians into recognizing that the entire nation would be destroyed if they did not constrain their militarists, acknowledge defeat, and capitulate.

President Truman chose the third alternative. In doing so, he saved millions, even tens of millions, of lives, American and Japanese.

The constraints on the bombing of cities set by the just-war tradition of moral reasoning had been breached long before the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; far more Japanese died in the spring 1945 fire-bombings of Tokyo and other cities than at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. And it seems difficult, if not impossible, to vindicate Hiroshima and Nagasaki on classic just-war grounds without relativizing moral norms in the kind of ethical calculus John Paul II rejected in the 1993 encyclical, Veritatis Splendor.

Does that make Harry Truman a moral monster, the equivalent of Stalin, Hitler, and the Japanese militarists who killed millions of innocent Chinese in a war that began in 1937? No, it does not. Truman authorized the use of the atomic bombs thinking, rightly, that doing so would save American and Japanese lives by shocking Japan into surrender.

It was a terrible choice, what Secretary of War Henry Stimson called “our least abhorrent choice.” Given the available options, it was the correct choice.

COMING UP: The providential demise of the Papal States

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Evelyn Waugh’s Catholic traditionalism was so deep, broad, and intense that self-identified “traditional Catholics” today might seem, in comparison, like the editorial staff of the National Catholic Reporter. Yet the greatest of 20th century English prose stylists held what some Catholic traditionalists (notably the “new integralists”) would regard as unsound views on the demise of the Papal States: a lengthy historical drama on which the curtain rang down 150 years ago this month.

In the third volume of Waugh’s Sword of Honor trilogy, the novels’ protagonist, Guy Crouchback, makes Italy’s surrender in World War II and King Victor Emmanuel III’s flight from Rome the occasion to lament, to his father, the papacy’s acquiescence to its loss of the Papal States: “[This] looks like the end of the Piedmontese usurpation. What a mistake the Lateran Treaty was…How much better would it have been if the popes had sat it out and then emerged saying, ‘What was that all about? Risorgimento? Garibaldi? Cavour? The House of Savoy? Mussolini? Just some hooligans from out of town causing a disturbance…’”

To which Gervase Crouchback, a man of insight informed by deep piety, replies in a letter: “Of course in the 1870s and 1880s every decent Roman disliked the Piedmontese…. And of course most of the [Catholics] we know kept it up, sulking. But that isn’t the Church. The Mystical Body doesn’t strike attitudes and stand on its dignity…When you spoke of the Lateran Treaty did you consider how many souls may have been reconciled and have died at peace as a result of it? How many children may have been brought up in the faith who might have lived in ignorance?”

The “Piedmontese” – the forces of the Kingdom of Italy led by the House of Savoy – seized control of Rome on September 20, 1870, and Pope Pius IX retired behind the Leonine Wall as the “prisoner of the Vatican.” As a result, many of Europe’s great and good thought Catholicism finished as a force in human affairs. More fools they – and more foolish still those who, today, mourn the loss of papal sovereignty over a much larger territory than the micro-state of Vatican City (essential to protect the pope’s independence) created by the 1929 Lateran Treaty.

About a year ago, I was lecturing on my book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History, and suggested that the loss of the Papal States had been the best thing to happen to the papacy in an often-brutal 19th century. It had liberated the pope to be a powerful voice of moral witness and persuasion in the world, unencumbered by the sometimes shabby compromises inherent in governing a state and playing European power politics. That moral power had been demonstrated in many ways, I said, not least by John Paul II’s pivotal role in the collapse of European communism: a role he certainly could not have played as the autocratic ruler of a large swath of central Italy.

There were a few of the new integralists in the audience that night. I noticed them quietly nudging each other, perhaps whispering behind their hands, “There he goes again.”

Well, here I go again, again.

The loss of the Papal States was a great boon to the papacy and to the Church’s evangelical mission, and for several reasons. Civil governance of a considerable territory by a clerical caste had, over time, proven an obstacle to Catholicism’s evangelical, catechetical, and sanctifying missions. In the popular mind, an authoritarian political regime, the Papal States, was identified with “the Church.” That was not only theologically dubious; such a close identification had corrosive spiritual effects, as clerical corruption and incompetence made preaching the Gospel in an increasingly secular environment even more difficult.

Moreover, the very fact of clerical mayors and governors undercut the Church’s teaching that the priest is an icon of the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ, who, in John 6:15, flatly rejected temporal kingship. To make matters worse, the pope, as absolute monarch of a Grade-D European power, too often found himself in the position of having to make an international alliance with one Catholic country against other Catholic countries – thereby compromising his primary mission as universal pastor of the Church.

Catholicism is blessedly rid of all that. The sesquicentennial of the end of the Papal States is a moment to ponder the workings of divine providence in history, including the divine capacity to write straight with what may seem, at the time, crooked lines. It certainly isn’t an occasion for grief.