Fifty-one years ago in 1956, a lone woman stood up in the hallowed halls of Oxford University and made an unscheduled and heartfelt speech. Her name was Elizabeth Anscombe. The occasion of her protest was a Convocation of all the colleges to vote on a controversial proposal to include less of the Greek New Testament in the Theology Degree and on a secondary issue of whether to offer President Harry S Truman an honorary degree, a decade after his decision to drop the world's first atomic bombs on the densely populated cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The scene is described in Jonathan Glover's book Humanity – a Moral History of the Twentieth Century. "The House was preparing to snooze through the routine business before coming to the real reason for their presence, but suddenly and startlingly, Miss Anscombe arose and delivered an impassioned speech against the award of an Oxford degree to the ‘man who pressed the button of the bomb’. The Vice Chancellor called for a vote: she was in a minority of one."
Glover describes how "this speech elicited only the complete silence and impassivity of those present - not the slightest sign of approval or disapproval, not a murmur, not a rustle, not a change of countenance, but only utter imperturbability". Why? Did no one think that this courageous and powerful speech deserved the compliment of rational opposition?
Miss Anscombe's central claim was that killing innocent people as a means to an end is always murder. She accepted that, in the circumstances, dropping the atomic bomb probably saved many lives, but pointed out that the circumstances included the Allies’ demand for unconditional surrender and their disregard of Japan's known desire for a negotiated peace. Professor Anscombe became possibly the greatest English moral philosopher of her generation. She died in 2001 aged 81 years.
On 6 August 2007, the 62nd anniversary of the dropping on the bomb on Hiroshima we must, unlike the dozing Oxford dons in 1956, confront the question of why that bomb was dropped, to ensure that it never happens again – whatever the circumstances.
We know the criteria used in the decision to drop the bomb focussed less on the target’s 'military significance' and more on the fact that:
- it was a location that had not suffered any damage so that the impact of the atomic bombs could be accurately assessed;
- it was a target large enough accurately to judge the impact of the atomic bomb.
There were some dissenting voices around President Truman. General Dwight Eisenhower questioned the justification of using the bomb on two grounds: "First, the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn't necessary to hit them with that awful thing. Second, I hated to see our country to be the first to use such a weapon". A leading physicist, Leo Szilard, argued that its military use might make it difficult to resist following the precedent. We know that Robert Oppenheimer had doubts when he uttered his immortal words: "Now I am become Death – the Destroyer of Worlds."
But they failed to persuade President Truman – and those two bombs killed over a third of a million people both adults and children, in a hell we can not adequately imagine.
Now the Bush Administration is proposing a new weapons programme, the 'Reliable Replacement Warhead' (RRW) aimed at building a new generation of 'improved' nuclear warheads. Congress has voted $20 million towards the programme - with projected spending in billions. This is in direct defiance of the spirit of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and bears out Albert Einstein's prescient comment: "nuclear weapons have changed everything – except our modes of thought". It does little for America's credibility abroad: if the most powerful nation in the world cannot live by these rules, then why should other nations.
Here in Norwich we can do our bit to ensure that the lessons of Hiroshima are never forgotten: there will be an Interfaith Gathering to remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki and to cherish all life on Saturday 4 August 2006 at 7pm in the Friends Meeting House, Upper Goat Lane, Norwich.