More on Truman and Msgr. Swetland

[A while back, I wrote a post about President Truman’s decision to use atomic weapons to end the war with Japan. I specifically objected to remarks by Msgr. Stuart Swetland on Relevant Radio.  He has since responded, and I re-responded.  The full original post is here.

And, as I noted then, my dissent indicates no disrespect for the excellent work done every day by Msgr. Swetland and Relevant Radio, which I love.]

My original post began…

On August 6, the terrible anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, I was listening to the indispensable Catholic media outlet Relevant Radio, and I heard a curious interview with Msgr. Stuart Swetland on the subject of the day.

It made me think of Calvin Coolidge who is credited with many laconic (and probably apocryphal) anecdotes; my favorite is his supposed comment on returning from church one Sunday. Asked what the preacher spoke on, he answered: “Sin.” Further asked: “What did he say about it?”, Cal responded: “He was against it.”

It would be unjust and uncharitable to summarize the monsignor’s take on Hiroshima in so many words. He acknowledged the difficult situation and the tough decisions that faced those engaged in what was unquestionably a just war. But his conclusion was as straightforward as Coolidge’s: It was a sin, and Truman should not have done it.

The monsignor argued from Catholic doctrine, which appears to have recently reached the same conclusion. And he offered some historical “facts” in support. But the facts are questionable, and the arguments seem confused. (Full original post here.)

My email to Msgr. Swetland:

Please know my great respect for your opinions and your work.  Relevant Radio is a meaningful part of my Catholic life (especially when I am in my car).  That is why I am concerned about our disagreement regarding what seems to me to be a significant issue.

And I am, in truth, concerned about the posthumous judgement of the late Mr. Truman.  I am sure he was a great sinner (being a politician), but not in this case. While God’s judgement is true and certain, a US president deserves (and occasionally gets) a fair shake here below as well.

Anyway, I would appreciate your thoughts.

Thank you and God bless you for your good works.
Yours in Christ,
David Smith


Msgr. Swetland’s response:

[Msgr. Swetland must be a very busy man, being a college president (Donnelly) as well as radio commentator and who knows what else; but he took the time to respond to my article.] 

“Here are some materials about Catholic teaching on just war and why it is always and everywhere wrong to bomb whole cities and their population:

“An article written during the war detailing the immorality of such bombing:

“Gaudium et Spes 80 (Vatican II): “Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.”

“US Strategic Bombing Survey -“after action “ review on the attacks: – p.26: “There is little point in attempting precisely to impute Japan’s unconditional surrender to any one of the numerous causes which jointly and cumulatively were responsible for Japan’s disaster. The time lapse between military impotence and political acceptance of the inevitable might have been shorter had the political structure of Japan permitted a more rapid and decisive determination of national policies. Nevertheless, it seems clear that, even without the atomic bombing attacks, air supremacy over Japan could have exerted sufficient pressure to bring about unconditional surrender and obviate the need for invasion.

Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts, and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey’s opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.”

I hope this helps your reflections.



Msgr. Stuart W. Swetland

[And my reply to Msgr. Swetland:]

Thank you for your response.

The quoted assessment in the Bombing Survey is unarguable: “…even without the atomic bombing attacks, air supremacy over Japan could have exerted sufficient pressure to bring about unconditional surrender and obviate the need for invasion.”   But one needs to understand and appreciate the meaning of “air supremacy over Japan.” It meant continued bombing of every possible target in the country, comparable to the devastating March 9 night bombing of Tokyo, the single most deadly bombing raid in history (100,000 killed). The ultimate death toll on Japanese civilians would probably have been many times higher.

And the Survey also concluded: “Japan was still possessed of some 2,000,000 troops and over 9,000 planes in the home islands.”   The cost in US and Japanese lives of continuing the war, even without invasion, might have been horribly high in any case.

As for Father Ford’s essay, it should be noted that his is an argument against “obliteration bombing,” which clearly includes the conventional bombing of Japanese cities that preceded Hiroshima.   So Fr. Ford in effect argues against the Bombing Survey’s celebration of” air supremacy,” and vice versa.

But Fr. Ford’s critical summary sentence, “to make it legitimate would soon lead the world to the immoral barbarity of total war,” marks the ultimate missing-of-the-point. The world was already involved in total war, and had been waging total war for almost four years. President Truman had before him the task of ending it as quickly as possible: before Curtis LeMay could destroy more Japanese cities by conventional bombing; before more US (and Japanese) soldiers, sailors, and airmen would be killed; and before up to a million more Japanese civilians might die. That was the range of options on Truman’s desk.

As for the argument from Gaudium et Spes, I have no answer. Except to thank God that I have never had to face the kind of decision Truman faced, and to pray for his soul.

Thank you for taking the time to discuss this with me.

Yours in Christ

David Smith

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