This August marks the 60th anniversary of the surrender of Japan and the end of the Second World War. As Americans we can be rightly proud of our successful defense against the grave threats to humanity presented by the Axis powers. We do well to remember the bravery and sacrifices of all those, soldiers and civilians, who fought for a cause that was certainly just. So many died. The survivors went on to become that “greatest generation” who faced down the threat of communism in the Cold War while building a nation of unprecedented prosperity.
However, this month also marks the 60 th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki . The United States was the first and hopefully the last nation to use nuclear weapons in war. That we did so is still, after all these years, a reason for much soul searching. While our cause was just – and perhaps these bombings brought the war to a quicker conclusion – the indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on these two cities violated basic moral norms: namely, good ends do not justify evil means.
As Vatican II taught, “Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime again God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation”. (Gaudium et Spes 60) The Japanese bombing of Chinese cities in the 1930’s, the German terror attacks on London and Coventry , as well as the Allies’ fire bombings of Dresden , Hamburg and Tokyo , like the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki , did not distinguish between civilians and combatants. Taken together they all were products of a “total war mentality” and represented an abandonment of our Christian tradition that insists that a just war must be limited in both its ends and its means. That our adversaries did not abide by these same principles did not free us from the responsibility to do so.
Today, after the collapse of the Soviet Union , the threat of global nuclear annihilation which defined the post-War era has thankfully evaporated. Nevertheless, new threats have emerged. The present War on Terror has us engaged with an unconventional foe that certainly has a “total war mentality” which recognizes no moral restraints. The possible use of weapons of mass destruction by these terrorist groups or rogue regimes like North Korea still understandably preoccupy us even as Coalition forces continue to pacify Afghanistan and Iraq.
As we respond to the threats of the present, we must remember the lessons of the past and refuse to succumb to a “total war mentality”. We do have a right to defend ourselves against terrorism. But it is a right which, as always, must be exercised with respect for moral and legal limits in the choice of ends and means.
As Pope John Paul II said ten years ago, “World War II is a point of reference necessary for all who wish to reflect on the present and on the future of humanity”. Sixty years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki we can recognize how the growth of technologies of violence does little for the security of nations and peoples. The yearnings for peace will not be satisfied through arms races or the stockpiling of arsenals of increasingly more lethal weapons.
Sixty years ago this month World War II ended. The free world celebrated V-J Day exhausted yet hopeful that a new peace could be forged. Today, we must recover that hope – and dare to pray for Peace on Earth.
Pope John Paul II, only weeks after that fateful September 11 th of 2001, exhorted us:
“To pray for peace is to open the human heart to the inroads of God’s power to renew all things. With the life-giving force of his grace, God can create openings for peace where only obstacles and closures are apparent; he can strengthen and enlarge the solidarity of the human family in spite of our endless history of division and conflict. To pray for peace is to pray for justice, for a right ordering of relations within and among nations and peoples. It is to pray for freedom, especially for the religious freedom that is a basic human and civil right of every individual. To pray for peace is to seek God’s forgiveness and to implore the courage to forgive those who have trespassed against us.”