Every year it becomes harder to remember why it was bombed in the first place.
Somewhat surprisingly, the 65th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki this month passed without many sharp condemnations and calls for repentance by left-leaning church officials. The head of the Two Futures Project, a coalition for left-leaning evangelicals urging a nuclear free world, blogged for the Huffington Post about the atomic anniversaries serving as a reminder of the urgent need for nuclear disarmament. In Switzerland the head of the World Council of Churches (WCC) likewise urged complete “nuclear abolition” based on memories of those destroyed Japanese cities.
“Again we mourn the people who died from the atomic bombings of 1945 and extend our solidarity and resolve to those who survive,” declared the Geneva-based WCC chief, noting that “65 years on, nuclear bombs still threaten humanity and deny a lasting peace.” He also bemoaned the legacy that since 1945 has seen the world “divided into two camps — a handful of states that assert the right to have weapons of mass annihilation and the majority of states that do not.”
Of course, the WCC chief, who is a Norwegian theologian, did not acknowledge the context of Japanese militarism, with its millions of murdered victims across Asia. And he derided nuclear weapons as wicked without morally distinguishing among the various regimes that possess them or their purposes. In August 1945, many tens of millions rejoiced that U.S. atomic strikes would spare the lives of countless hundreds of thousands, probably millions, from dozens of nations would have died if the war had continued even a few more months, much less years. Interestingly, the WCC’s news service reported about a Japanese pastor and atomic survivor who recently penned his memoir. Setting the context in contrast with silence from Western church officials, he wrote that the atomic bombings were “a result of a war of aggression and colonial rule in Asia by Japanese militarism, which cannot be talked about without a deep repentance as one who supported and cooperated with causing the war of aggression.”
The horrors that Japanese militarists visited upon Asia’s occupied nations even up until the very end are too numerous to mention. But one particular atrocity perhaps iconically represents many. After U.S. forces and Filipino insurgents in February 1945 famously liberated over 2,100 primarily civilian Allied prisoners at Los Banos prison camp in the Philippines, Japanese forces retaliated by slaughtering the entire nearby Filipino village. Over 1,500 Filipino men, women, and children perished on one single horrible but typical day under Japanese occupation. They were not inadvertent collateral casualties from a bombing. Each victim was butchered individually by Japanese troops under command of the embarrassed commander of the by then empty prisoner camp.
Recalling the years of such Japanese crimes that led to Hiroshima and Nagasaki does not typically interest Western church officials commentating against the U.S. atomic blasts. And these prelates usually forget about the countless American, Japanese, Chinese, Australian, New Zealander, Filipino, Canadian, Indonesian, Malaysian, Papuan, Korean, Chinese, Indochinese, Burmese, Indian, Russian, and South Pacific Island lives that were spared because of the atomic strikes. Some prominent liberal Western church officials at the time, aware of the horrible choices, were more understanding. John Foster Dulles, later Eisenhower’s secretary of state, was a theologically liberal Presbyterian who in 1945 chaired the Federal Council of Churches’ (FCC) commission on a Just and Durable Peace. In the immediate wake of Hiroshima, but before Nagasaki, Dulles organized a statement from the FCC, precursor to the National Council of Churches. He was joined by the FCC President, Methodist Bishop Bromley Oxnam, himself a prominent liberal churchman.
“Americans can be proud that under their auspices a scientific miracle has been performed,” Dulles and Oxnam announced on behalf of the FCC. They urged a “temporary suspension” of further air attacks to allow for Japanese surrender. And they warned against America, as a “professedly Christian nation,” making atomic weapons a “normal part of the arsenal of war.” More than a week later, they wrote President Truman expressing “profound thankfulness” for the Japanese surrender without further atomic conflict. And they celebrated that America had “showed a capacity for self-restraint which greatly increases our moral authority in the world.” Having given a “practical demonstration of the possibility of atomic energy bringing war to an end,” the precedent “may be of incalculable value to posterity.”
The FCC’s more critical general secretary presaged his coming successors by telling Truman he himself was “deeply disturbed” by the atomic strikes.
Truman responded: “Nobody is more disturbed over the use of Atomic bombs than I am but I was greatly disturbed over the unwarranted attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor and their murder of our prisoners of war. The only language they seem to understand is one we have been using to bombard them. When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast.”
How to confront beastly aggression from Japanese militarists, their Nazi allies, or other dark, kindred spirits has often been difficult for idealistic liberal Western religionists. In 1946, another FCC commission, which included luminaries such as famed Christian “realist” Reinhold Niebuhr, denounced the bombings as “morally indefensible.” They further insisted: “We have sinned grievously against the laws of God and against the people of Japan.” But Niebuhr on his own later pronounced that “the eventual use of the bomb for the shortening of the war would have been justified” if the Japanese had not surrendered.
More articulate than Western prelates now or then perhaps was a retired Japanese Anglican bishop seven years ago who remembered the atomic blasts as a nearby teenage naval cadet. The bombs caused jubilation for the Koreans and the Southeast Asians whom the Japanese oppressed, he recalled to Episcopal News Service. But for the Japanese, who lost hundreds of thousands of innocent people, the bombings also provided freedom from totalitarianism, militarism, colonialism and racism, he said. He described the bombs as “God’s judgment” and “God’s mercy” at the same time. “I’m not affirming or justifying the dropping of [an] atomic bomb by any means,” the bishop concluded. But he surmised that God “can use not only the good thing but also bad things to do his will.”
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