New York City—the fiftieth anniversary of Hiroshima has now passed by. The media here are no doubt breathing a little easier, after weeks of pouring through the old black and white film footage, and arranging interviews with photogenic veterans of the War in the Pacific.
Everywhere you looked, you were sure to find a news anchor doing a retrospective, or a magazine with a mushroom cloud on the cover, offering to explain, “Why We Dropped the Bomb.” The media made us feel as if we were back there again, facing the same uncertain future the war generation endured. The bombing could now be understood “in context.”
One particularly successful recreation of the war’s end was done by the Show- time network, in a three and one-half hour miniseries called “Hiroshima,” directed by Roger Spotiswoode. Filmed in antique amber and white, it employed a mix of dramatic scenes, actual war footage, and personal interviews. It brought to life the remarkable Truman White House as it went through its contemplation and completion of the new weapon called the atomic bomb.
It was a marvelous film to watch, but there was a moment early on which signified the problem that comes with understanding the issue of Hiroshima.
At the first new cabinet meeting after Truman takes over the presidency, Secretary of War Henry Stimson expresses his opposition to the bombing of civilians, as happened in the fire-bombings of Tokyo and other cities. Truman, played with delightful folksiness by Kenneth Welsh, agrees with Stimson in theory, but responds that if the Japanese want to build their military installations amidst the populace, it cannot be a concern of the U.S. government. Meeting over.
Truman expresses a defensible moral insight: if, in battle, one is circumspect about the means employed against the targeted installations, the unintended civilian deaths are justified. But Japanese civilians were an intended target of those raids, with indiscriminate incendiary weapons employed—a practice which began earlier in the European theater. Civilian deaths were foreseen, and willed, as a means to speed the end of the war.
There are no characters in the film to personify the traditional concern for non-combatants. Even Stimson’s initial qualms, felt with trembling intensity, become old memories as he and Truman walk along together, deciding not to drop the bomb on Kyoto, because it is Stimson’s favorite city. Stimson too, has been seduced. He now sees only the context, the uniqueness of the moment.
In encyclicals like Evangelium vitae and Veritatis splendor, Pope John Paul II has been trying to communicate to Western society the irony of our current “culture of death.” Never before have we been so free politically, or had so much technological power at our disposal to solve our problems. Yet, we also allow technology to make us feel more constrained, more surrounded by dilemmas than ever before. We allow it to make the unthinkable possible, and thus to tempt us—whether in abortion, euthanasia, genocide, or the killing of civilians by firebombs or atomic bombs—with a new kind of moral “responsibility,” where the responsible thing is also the easier thing, done “just once,” in an allegedly “unique” moment.
Look again at the question of Hiroshima: In the past, under ordinary circumstances, a prudent military commander could send his men into battle with a clear conscience. Knowing the odds are against them, he nevertheless hopes they will defy those odds and survive. Yet, if Truman acted so, it seems he would have been immoral. Not because he was negligent about his battle plans, but because he failed to employ this other “unique” means at his disposal, newly invented. The “context” of this moment, along with the new technology, made evil a requirement, a prudent military option. If Truman had changed his mind, and opted for the invasion, the lives lost would have been lost by his negligence. The politics of “prudence” then, required this action.
The defense of the Hiroshima bombing suggests that the inversion or overthrow of moral values becomes, as a result of man’s technological creativity, a moral and historical necessity. What is to stop technology from being devised for every “unique” situation, and thus overthrowing all the old moral constraints? Such a progression is already underway in the field of medicine. There is nothing Christian, or conservative, in such a Promethean future. And no Christian or conservative should deceive himself into thinking any moment escapes the requirements of the eternal law.