A train is hurtling down the tracks. Ahead of it lies a group of five people, tied to the tracks and unable to escape. The only way to save their lives is to switch the train onto a different track—a track on which only a single person is tied down. You stand at the lever that can switch the train. No one else is around. No other options are available to you. What should you do? Kill the one to save the five, or let the five die because you refuse to kill the one?
For the past 50 years, scenarios like this one have played an outsized role in popular and academic discussions of moral decision-making. Such discussions are not, perhaps, without some value. But one of their bad effects is the way they invite us to conceive of the moral life as a series of decontextualised choices between strictly fixed options, with the outcome of each one guaranteed in advance. Kill the one or the five will die. Torture the terrorist suspect or the plane will be hijacked. Lie to the Nazi soldiers or he will certainly find the Jews who are hidden in your basement. What’s missing is the role of creative practical thinking—what the scholastics called prudentia—in considering the possibilities and determining how to act. Also missing, the importance of reflection on how we got here—what the decisions are that we and others made to land us in a morally challenging situation. Here I am, standing alone at a lever in a railyard, the lone person responsible for the lives of five captive people…well, what in the world can have happened to me? Did I get involved with a bad set, perhaps? Isn’t this a thing we ought to be thinking about, if we want to think about how a person ought to live?
When moral life is conceived of as a series of fixed choices, each of which arises in what might as well be a vacuum, a natural response is to evaluate those choices simply in terms of the number of people affected: in every case, the correct thing to do is the thing that will minimise suffering. This response is natural, but not inevitable. We can and must consider not only the consequences of our possible actions, but also those fixed principles that rule certain options out no matter the situation we are in. It is precisely for this reason that prudence is so essential. Such is the consistent teaching of the Church through its history: that one must never do evil—not even to avoid a seemingly greater evil or achieve a very great good. The teaching can be a difficult one. Sometimes it calls for great sacrifice. But the Christian’s commitment to it is rooted in our confidence that the world is in the hands of a loving and provident God, whose commands are just and ordained to our own happiness. This, again, is the unbroken teaching of our Church. And it is hard to see its rationale when we allow the moral life to be construed in the way that we have just described, as a series of fixed choices that may as well have no history or wider context.
All these mistakes are on display in George Weigel’s recent attempt, online at First Things, to defend Harry Truman’s bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is the framing of Truman’s choice as between a totally fixed set of options: to firebomb Japanese cities, to starve the Japanese by blockade, or to use atomic weapons in an effort to “stun Japanese politicians” into capitulation. Nothing else could be done. There is the certainty that, in each case, we knew exactly what the outcome of a given choice would be. The choice saved lives. And there is the failure to consider the wider context of Truman’s decision, the past choices that made these seem like the only available options. It is irrelevant how we arrived in this position. In each case, there is inattention, in particular, to the way that America’s demand for unconditional surrender by the Japanese was a crucial factor in keeping the nations from negotiating terms of peace. Ignorant or neglectful of the actual historical context, Weigel’s account of Truman’s calculation is simply fanciful. And, finally, his defence of Truman’s choice makes a mockery of the Christian belief that evil cannot be required of us, lest God show himself to be a liar.
We begin with the historical record. Writing in 1957, the great Catholic philosopher G. E. M. Anscombe claimed that “the root of all evil” leading to Truman’s decision “was the insistence on unconditional surrender” by America and her allies. She was surely right about this much: other terms of peace were conceivable, and the decision, enshrined in the Potsdam Declaration, to demand unconditional surrender by the Japanese, lest their nation face “prompt and utter destruction,” only strengthened the Japanese resolve to continue fighting. Indeed, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson’s original draft of the Potsdam Declaration allowed Japan to retain a constitutional monarchy. And in a 2007 article published in the Asia-Pacific Journal, the historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa contends that Stimson, Admiral William Leahy, General George Marshall, Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, and Acting Secretary of State Joseph Grew all preferred alternative peace terms than what Truman insisted upon. If Truman had not changed Stimson’s Potsdam proposal, Japan may well have surrendered in short order.
Why would Japan have accepted Stimson’s original proposal? By July 1945, after the U.S. conquest of Okinawa, Japanese leadership knew they could not attain their pre-war goals. In his article “The Winning Weapon?”, Ward Wilson expresses the Japanese perspective well: “The issue was how to obtain acceptable terms, not whether to seek peace.” Acceptable terms for Japan included retaining their emperor. And one can easily imagine the emperor intervening sooner if the terms included a constitutional monarchy.
In Weigel’s telling of this history, Japanese leadership was fanatical and could only be punished into submission. Again, this is untrue: in the summer of 1945, Japanese leadership was already requesting that Moscow mediate a surrender. These hopes for mediation vanished on August 8, when the Soviet Union attacked and overwhelmed Japanese forces in Manchuria. Given the timing of the Soviet invasion and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki just a day later, it is impossible to conclude that one of these events was decisive. Yet significant evidence points to a key role for the Soviet invasion. The bombing of Hiroshima, for example, did not lead to acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration. In contrast, Soviet entry into the war prompted a crisis for Japan. With hopes for mediation dashed and fearing Soviet occupation, Japan’s leaders met to discuss these events. According to political scientist Robert Pape, “The most important factor accounting for the timing of surrender was the Soviet attack against Manchuria.” Hasegawa likewise concurs with this conclusion. Weigel’s version of this history, in which Truman’s act was the event that brought the war to an end, belongs to the realm of fiction, not fact.
Finally, Weigel’s account of Truman’s reasoning ignores one of the obvious possibilities available to the U.S. military. According to Weigel, the atomic bombs were dropped with the aim of “shocking Japan into surrender.” Yet if this was his sole purpose, then Truman could have chosen to demonstrate the power of the atomic bomb in some other way, perhaps by dropping it in the ocean near Tokyo. Indeed, the idea of such a demonstration was proposed by the scientists who built the bomb. In a memo that came to be known as the Franck Report, which was sent to Secretary of War Stimson in 1945, physicist James Franck and others argued that “the use of nuclear bombs for an early, unannounced attack against Japan [was] inadvisable.” Given the moral and political costs of such an attack, they advised instead that the force of nuclear weapons should be “first revealed to the world by a demonstration in an appropriately selected uninhabited area.” Even if, in fact, merely demonstrating the power of the bomb would have carried less shock value than actually using it to destroy entire cities, anyone committed to upholding the prohibition on killing innocent civilians should recognise this as a superior choice to the one that Truman actually made.
We conclude that, contrary to Weigel’s inaccurately clear-cut narrative, Truman had other options available to him than the one he ultimately chose, and it is far from clear that the dropping of the bombs played the decisive role Weigel imagines in bringing about Japan’s surrender.
When Anscombe opposed Oxford’s decision to grant an honorary degree to President Truman in 1957, her stance drew international attention. The Collegium Institute’s archive of Anscombe’s papers at the University of Pennsylvania contains a number of letters she received from people who wrote to criticise or commend her arguments, the most striking of which is from a survivor of the Nagasaki bombing who wrote from a hospital where he was being treated for radiation sickness.
In his letter, Anscombe’s correspondent describes his suffering: “For several years [after the bombing] I continued to be quite normal, but in 1947 I began to be unwell. I began to suffer from atom bomb sickness, a disease formerly unknown to human experience, and I have now been an invalid for nine years.” He writes that he was hospitalised about three months earlier, and was expected to stay another three to six months. Upon leaving the hospital he would have to cover the cost of his own outpatient treatment, without any assistance from the Japanese government. The letter to Anscombe continues:
Most of us atom bomb sufferers will never get up again, or, in any case, not in one year or two years. Many are reduced to penury by ten years of sickness and the expense of treatment in all that time and suicides of individuals and of whole families increase in number each year. Even if they live they are a great burden to their families, and they are without hopes and dreams, just like living corpses. Such misery is the present state of those who have the atom bomb sickness.
People like him, and like those whose faces we see in photographs and videos of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the wake of what Weigel calls Truman’s “terrible choice,” are made in the image and likeness of God. Such is the teaching of our Church, and it is for this reason that we are strictly forbidden to kill an innocent human being, no matter the consequences of not doing so. To conduct a war by murderous means is to call down God’s vengeance upon us. To defend such conduct as Weigel does, as the “correct choice” to make from among an artificially limited range of options, is to defend the state-sponsored murder of innocents.
But if God promises vengeance on those who disobey his commands, he also offers his pledge of protection when we uphold them. Anscombe recalls this pledge in her 1961 essay, “War and Murder,” which she would later describe as having been “written in a tone of righteous fury about what passed for thinking about the destruction of civilian populations.” She writes that, as Catholics, “we have to fear God and keep his commandments, and calculate what is for the best only within the limits of that obedience, knowing that the future is in God’s power and that no one can snatch away those whom the Father has given to Christ.” To refuse God that obedience is to deny that his power over the future is what he claims. Anscombe imagines what such a person must be prepared to say to the Lord: “We had to break your law, let your Church fail. We could not obey your commandments, for we did not believe your promises.”
John Schwenkler is a professor of philosophy at Florida State University. He is the author of Anscombe’s Intention: A Guide (Oxford, 2019) and co-editor, with Enoch Lambert, of Becoming Someone New: Essays on Transformative Experience, Choice, and Change (Oxford, 2020).
Mark Souva is a professor of political science at Florida State University. He is the author of numerous journal articles on international relations and, with Charles Barrilleaux and Chris Reenock, of Democratic Policymaking: An Analytic Approach (Cambridge, 2017).
With thanks to Commonweal Magazine and John Schwenkler and Mark Souva, where this article originally appeared.