World War II and the Just War Tradition
WITH THE 1941 ATTACK by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor, the United States became the victim of an aggressor and thus the duty to defend America became paramount. The attack outraged Americans and the American Catholic response was identical to the nation's. Francis J. Spellman, archbishop of New York, reflected this sentiment with great emotion when he said,
With fire and brimstone came December 7, America's throat was clutched, her back was stabbed, her brain was stunned; but her great heart still throbbed. America clenched the palms of those hands oft- stretched in mercy to the peoples of the nations that struck her. America's brain began to clear. America began the fight to save her life.1
This statement summarized the attitude of the Catholic hierarchy and of most Catholics who saw the attack as justifying participation in the war. However, some Catholics challenged the traditional just war doctrine by becoming conscientious objectors. For a few others the just war doctrine provided the rationale to speak out against the obliteration bombing of Dresden and Berlin as well as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But these Catholics were voices in the wilderness. The vast majority of American Catholics supported the nation throughout the course of the war. An important reason for this was that the statements of both the popes and the American hierarchy supported the state.
The reign of Pope Pius XI ( 1922-1939) coincided with the rise of fascism, Nazism, and communism and the destruction of democracy in Europe. Pius XI at first attempted to work with the new totalitarian