The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagaski are infamous examples of mass destruction of human life during wartime. Two dates this month—August 6 and August 9—mark the 75th anniversaries of the bombings. On the first of the two anniversaries I folded paper cranes, went to a brief memorial ceremony in my town, and prayed to God for peace between nations. I also reread various moral statements, past and present, on the decision to use the bomb. Few if any of the moral authorities I am liable to consult have defended it.
At the time, Albert Camus and George Orwell wrote essays condemning the bombings. J.R.R. Tolkien, in a letter to his son, derided the Manhattan Project scientists as “lunatic physicists” and “Babel-builders.” American military brass like Generals Eisenhower and MacArthur, and even the legendarily bloodthirsty General Curtis LeMay, objected to the bombings as unnecessary. L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, said that the scientists who had made the bomb should have destroyed it for the good of humanity.
Later on, the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes described any act of war targeting an entire city along with its population as “a crime against God and man” (§80). All postwar popes have favored nuclear nonproliferation. Their appeals to the global community have ranged from John Paul II’s preference for multilateral arms reduction to Pope Francis’s demand for complete nuclear disarmament. Francis condemned nuclear weapons in his November 2019 visit to Japan, and again this week on the Hiroshima anniversary. “It has never been clearer,” he wrote on August 6 in a letter to the Governor of Hiroshima Prefecture, “that, for peace to flourish, all people need to lay down the weapons of war, and especially the most powerful and destructive of weapons: nuclear arms that can cripple and destroy whole cities, whole countries.”
So what do we learn from this? If the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were so wrong, what does that tell us about our own time? What do these specific cases tell us about war and peace writ large? I’ve often asked myself these questions. More than that, I think they’re questions of universal concern. They are questions that people ask themselves the world over when they think about history and remember the past.
I’ve traveled abroad several times during my adult life (before COVID-19). When I did, it often seemed like reminders of the quest for “peace on earth, goodwill toward men” followed me around the world. Or rather, it seemed like I was seeking out those reminders without consciously realizing it.
I visited Japan one summer while studying Japanese literature in college, and I was there for the anniversary of the bombings. While there, I went to a festival for a seasonal Japanese holiday called Tanabata, which is celebrated August 6-8 in the city of Sendai. The holiday itself is not connected to the war or the atomic bombings, but the coincidence about the dates is suggestive, and Sendai takes full advantage of it. There are pedestrian arcades across much of the city; at Tanabata the arcades are hung with (among other things) garlands of paper cranes, symbols of longevity and of peace. One also finds paper strips called tankazu on which wishes for an auspicious and peaceful future are handwritten. Many of these, at least that year, had to do with a desire for peace between and within nations. A new adaptation of Twenty-four Eyes, a famous antiwar novel by the writer Sakae Tsuboi, also aired on Japanese TV in that particular August.
A few years later on a family trip to Italy I found myself in Assisi during what I’m told is the country’s largest regular peace demonstration. It is a march that goes from Perugia to Assisi on or near St. Francis’s feast day on October 4. I had been hiking in the hills near Assisi that day and returned to Assisi just as the march reached the town. Going back to my hotel I had to find my way through a crowd of thousands who were milling around the Basilica of St. Francis bearing signs and banners with peace slogans in Italian. The trip in general and that day in particular inspired in me a devotion to St. Francis, the man of pax et bonum.
The next year, a visit to the French Alps with a close friend brought us to the doorstep of a Waldensian church near Mont Blanc. The Waldensians (or Waldenses) are a Christian denomination that originated in the High Middle Ages and aligned itself with the Protestant reformers a few centuries later. The early Waldensians were pacifists and even quasi-anarchists, along the lines of the later Mennonites; however, after centuries of persecution, some began to fight back. It took until the 2010s for the Catholic Church to apologize for the various massacres and expulsions that punctuate Waldensian history. In 2015, Pope Francis became the first pope to visit a Waldensian church.
I don’t bring up these examples to brag about the places I’ve traveled. I certainly don’t want to imply that I only think about questions of war and peace when I’m dramatically confronted with them. Rather, I bring them up to demonstrate that it’s a worldwide concern. Very few people actually want war in their country, or even overseas. People the world over know that there is, or must be, a better way. Yet war persists, and many wars today involve atrocities that are just as immoral as Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What can we do? How do we account for humanity’s manifest failure to learn anything from its history? These are questions I’ve often asked myself. Sadly, I don’t have any easy answers.
I’m not sure whether I would call myself a pacifist. Peace, like discipleship, can be costly. Sometimes one suspects that it’s being bought too dearly. I simply can’t convince myself that the evil represented by, for instance, the Nazis did not need to be externalized and fought. Some people and some ideologies just can’t be swayed by appeals to reason, justice, morality, or common humanity. However, I believe that these are fewer and farther between than they appear. Too often, military action is undertaken not because peaceful means have been tried and found wanting, but because (as Chesterton might have put it) they have been found difficult and left untried. It’s also an obvious truth that not every strategy or tactic pursued in a just cause is itself just.
I would definitely call myself antiwar. I think anybody interested enough in World War II history to know how J.R.R. Tolkien reacted to Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have to be, if they took that history seriously. One should always seek alternatives to violence. One of the most admirable things is to insist on nonviolence and prevail against all odds.
In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King called for not “a negative peace that is the absence of tension” but “a positive peace that is the presence of justice.” The Catechism, too, defines peace as “not merely the absence of war [nor] limited to maintaining a balance of powers between adversaries,” but “the work of justice and the effect of charity” (§2304). When we talk about peace, we are called to talk about pursuing justice and practicing charity, through nonviolent or at least proportionate means. Our Lord teaches us, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” As His disciples, we are called to make peace.
Image: Photograph taken by the author.