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Happy Easter, 1914

Happy Easter 1914 Andrew Kitzmiller

Andrew Kitzmiller

Jason Jones and John Zmirak - published on 04/22/14

Just like our great-grandparents, we may well be on the brink of a civilization-busting war. And let’s not forget nukes are still on the table.

Just as it did almost exactly 100 years ago, the world dances on the precipice of an unthinkably ruinous war.

Again, the fate of millions could hang on the quarrels of squabbling Slavs, in a part of the world with little economic or strategic importance. Instead of Bosnia and Serbia, we watch Ukraine and Russia prepare for battle over the lines that divide Catholic from Orthodox Slavs, and pray that they reach some resolution. Your children’s safety, as of this writing, may very well rest on whether the pot-bellied pro-Russian thugs of the comic opera People’s Republic of Donetsk can be talked into putting away their Kalashnikovs.

Happy Easter.

This time, instead of poison gas, unlimited submarine warfare, and starvation blockades, we are armed with even blunter, more primitive instruments: “city-busting” nuclear weapons that were built for the most unthinkably evil purpose: to destroy every man, woman, child and animal for hundreds of miles around. The progress of our technology has shoved us backward morally, rendering quaint and meaningless such profound advances as international law, the rules of war, and constitutional requirements that Congress approve any declaration of war. Because of the devilish speed and Satanic destructiveness of nuclear weapons, we must leave the power to launch such a war in the hands of a single man, who might have to decide at Twitter speed whether the mixed signals his generals see on their instruments are a sneak attack or a technological glitch.

As Richard Nixon, in the depths of paranoid bitterness over Watergate, warned reporters: “I can go into my office and pick up the telephone, and in 25 minutes 70 million people will be dead.” Replace “Richard Nixon” with “Vladimir Putin” and see if that makes you feel any safer.

How did we get here? Put bluntly: we insisted on unconditional surrender from Japan in 1945, and used atomic weapons to get it.  There good reasons for both decisions, and the men who made them (Harry Truman and Winston Churchill) were not bloodthirsty pragmatists like their enemies in Germany and Japan.  But the fact is that the use of atomic weapons on civilian centers in 1945 changed the face of war and radically altered how we plan for it.  Those decisions also changed our culture.

Were there other choices? Were they practical? Could we have used the atomic weapons we had developed in a less inhuman way, one that better respected Western moral norms—for instance, by preparing for an invasion of Japan and “telegraphing” where it would occur, then using our atomic bombs primarily on Japanese soldiers instead of civilians?

This is not an alternative history blog, nor are we qualified to play armchair general at the safe distance of seventy years. But we are forced by the plain implications of the moral norms that let us condemn the Axis slaughter of civilians to say that the massive bombings used by the Allies were also immoral. Limiting civilian casualties should have been at least one of the factors in choosing bomb targets, yet there is little evidence that Allied leaders even worried about the ethics of liquidating enemy citizens from the air. Indeed, it appears that on this point the Allies permitted their enemies to drag them down to their level. It was a level, of course, that Stalin had reached long before.

This moral slide into Subhumanism on the part of the only powerful countries on earth with moral compasses had real and lasting consequences. Because we had ended the war with Japan by using atomic weapons on cities, and thereby saved hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers’ lives, we adopted Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s fate as a model for future wars.

When the Soviet Union continued its military buildup even after the war was over and savagely imposed on Eastern Europe totalitarian governments, we rested for our defense on our air superiority—particularly our greater supply of atomic weapons. Rather than try to match the ever-increasing Soviet advantage in conventional forces, we let it be known that we would meet any Russian attack on Western Europe with massive nuclear attacks on Russian cities—which would, we knew, be met by almost equal attacks on the U.S. and Western Europe.

We adopted a “first-use” policy and held to it through most of the Cold War; we developed ever larger and more devastating bombs, and trembled when the Soviets did the same. Every “small” conflict, from Korea to Cuba, thereby became a crisis in which our leaders had to weigh the option of mutual extermination. As we have learned, there were several occasions when miscommunication, or weakness and folly followed by bluster, brought the world within a hair’s breadth of launching such a war of human extinction. It was luck, or perhaps Providence, that kept us from the brink long enough for the Soviet system to undergo its unavoidable economic implosion—an outcome predicted as early as 1920 by Ludwig von Mises.  

Our acceptance of the “doctrine” of Mutually Assured Destruction also coarsened us morally. Then-Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen expressed this insight in a 1974 talk that, tellingly, was never broadcast in the United States:

“When, I wonder, did we in America ever get into this idea that freedom means having no boundaries and no limits? You know I think it began on the sixth of August 1945 at 8:15 am when we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.

“That blotted out boundaries. The boundary of America that was the aid of nations, and the nations that were helped. It blotted out the boundary between life and death for the victims of nuclear incineration. Among them even the living were dead. It blotted out the boundary between the civilian and the military. And somehow or other, from that day on in our American life, we say we want no limits and no boundaries.”

It is significant that Sheen made these remarks not long after the decision in Roe v. Wade removed any boundaries to what Americans could do to the innocent in the womb, in defense of their own notion of freedom. But Sheen had taken a similar stand much earlier, in the immediate wake of the bombings and the jubilation of peace. As the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists reported in May 1946:

“Msgr. Fulton J. Sheen of Catholic University in a sermon on April 7 in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York scored our use of the bomb on Hiroshima as an act contrary to the moral law and said, ‘We have invited retaliation for that particular form of violence.’ Both obliteration bombing and use of the atomic bomb are immoral, Msgr. Sheen said, because ‘they do away with the moral distinction that must be made in every war—a distinction between civilians and the military.’ […]

“Discussing arguments that use of the atomic bomb shortened the war and saved the lives of American fighting men, Msgr. Sheen declared: ‘That was precisely the argument Hitler used in bombing Holland.’”

A decent regard for civilian lives does not imply that we should be willing to sacrifice indefinite numbers of our soldiers to avoid any innocent deaths. Commanders must balance their first concern—winning the war, with minimal losses—against the solemn duty to spare civilians wherever possible. We can never target civilians directly or intentionally, nor totally disregard the cost in civilian lives of a military victory. To do so is to let our enemies’ worst instincts infect our own morality—with consequences that may well outlive the peace, as Sheen observed.

Our conduct of the Second World War was not determined entirely by the desire to spare our soldiers’ lives. Had that been our main concern, we could have refused to invade Continental Europe at all, and spared our men such slaughters as happened at Anzio and Normandy — leaving the conquest of Hitler to Stalin’s advancing armies. Our leaders knew that a Communist-occupied Western Europe was not in America’s interest, and so were willing to spend the lives of hundreds of thousands of men to avoid it. Restricting our use of massive urban bombing in the war would also have cost soldiers’ lives.  Our statesmen could have decided that such a grim sacrifice was worthwhile, to avoid the degrading moral effects of fighting ruthlessly against civilian populations.

Broadcasting our willingness to obliterate enemy civilians in the course of self-defense would become an ugly necessity during the Cold War. But its legacy continued well beyond the removal of the Soviet Union and China as likely adversaries. A lack of vision and commitment to reforming our nuclear strategy and achieving real disarmament has left us with something little better than the status quo of 1988. We and Russia still target each other’s cities with massive nuclear weapons to this day. We are still playing Russian roulette.

In the wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001, editors at National Review Online famously mused about whether we ought to “nuke Mecca.” Conservative journalists would not, we think, have quipped back and forth about whether to “level every building, gas all the schoolchildren, and incinerate all the old people and women” of Mecca. If it took the deployment of U.S. Marines to do over the course of weeks what the SS did to the Warsaw Ghetto, it’s unlikely that mainstream writers would joke about whether to order it. Those who did would likely find themselves unemployable pariahs.

But the quick, decisive nature of a nuclear attack—it’s like putting an entire city inside a microwave—helps us ignore the blood-soaked realities. We can skip over the details of the slaughter, which we neatly hide in two bumper-sticker syllables: “Nuke ‘em!”

Jason Jonesis a producer in Hollywood. His films include Bella, Eyes to See, and Crescendo. Learn more about his human rights initiatives at

John Zmirakis the author of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism. His columns are archived at The Bad Catholic’s Bingo Hall. This column is adapted from Jones’s and Zmirak’s upcoming book, The Race to Save Our Century(Crossroad, 2014).

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