Debate about a nuclear arms race may be missing a moral dimension, and these debates should include all nuclear powers
The second nuclear age takes place in a post-Christian world. New atomic missiles come from North Korea, Pakistan, India, China – with diverse religious and nonreligious traditions. The United States, set to start its own nuclear modernization, now too is a post-Christian nation.
“Post-Christian” here means the decline in primacy of a Christian worldview in politics, especially in the United States and Europe. During the first nuclear age and Cold War, both were Christian societies by this definition. And while Christianity still has many adherents, it lacks the authority it had during the years of the Cold War. This decline of authority means that calculations of self-interest in international politics bear almost all of the weight for restraint and shaping world order. Questions that drove debate about the Cold War arms race are no longer asked with the same passion. Yet these questions haven’t vanished. Who, for example, determines the national interest? Who does the calculations on which self-interest is founded and that determine nuclear armaments buildup?
Any framework that overlooks these moral issues misses a critical dimension of strategic analysis.
That our world is post-Christian, despite nearly a third of the population being Christian, should give us pause, especially about nuclear weapons. As a practical matter the national interest is now decided by politicians and strategy specialists. If the Cold War had been conducted this way it would have been a more dangerous experience, perhaps intolerably so. But it wasn’t. A larger Christian context surrounded the debate over the arms race. It didn’t prevent this arms race, but capped it in important ways. Many people don’t realize that most nuclear weapons proposed during the Cold War were never built. Neutron and cobalt bombs, tsunami makers with bombs on the ocean floor and nuclear weapons in space – all proposed and never built.
One reason was the backlash in the United States over how such matters were decided. Debate started by Christians thinkers and activists raised the moral level of discussion on nuclear war and peace. The United States wasn’t only playing a chess game of grand strategy, but taking a stand against a “vast evil,” in the words of prominent theologian John Courtney Murray. For this Jesuit and adviser to President John Kennedy, terrible things – like nuclear deterrence – had to be faced to stop Communism. This led to his reluctant support for deterrence since he saw no alternative. His arguments were subtle and sophisticated, the hallmark of Jesuit thinking then and now.
Thomas Merton – Trappist monk, pacifist and bestselling author – came to a different view. His first book, The Seven Story Mountain appeared in 1948 just as the Cold War and nuclear conflict were entering public consciousness. By the late 1950s Merton argued the arms race was becoming a greater danger than the Soviets, because it couldn’t be controlled in the long run. Strategists, Merton said, offered arguments about the national interest with detached, icy rationality based on narrow self-interest. This surface rationality masked the reality that they couldn’t control the arms race and were only fooling themselves behind abstractions of deterrence and containment.
Merton is especially relevant for a second nuclear age, with nuclear weapons today spread among nine countries. He wrote a book in the early 1960s that called for Christian resistance to the arms race and foresaw that the United States was itself becoming a post-Christian nation. Church authorities bottled up his Peace in the Post-Christian Era at the time. Merton died in 1968, and the book appeared in print in 2004, posthumously.
Merton held that some actions are just wrong, immoral, and we should say so – a view overlapping with some strategic thinking of the era, including Herman Kahn’s doomsday machine. A weapon that destroys all life on earth is after all the ultimate deterrent and the logical, absurd conclusion of the deterrence strategy supported by most politicians and technocrats. But by carrying strategic thinking to a ludicrous conclusion, Kahn insisted such a weapon shouldn’t be built. And as he predicted, no one did.
The moral debate of Murray and Merton widened pubic discussions on nuclear war and peace, reaching campuses, think tanks, and inspired many activists including Dorothy Day and Father Daniel and Philip Berrigan. And this is the point. They disagreed with each other, but their disagreement broke the narrow straitjacket of thinking about the arms race.
This disagreement eventually reached the Pentagon. In the early 1980s, the arms race was heating up under President Ronald Reagan. Back then, it looked theoretically possible to combine expansion in the number of nuclear warheads with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles, increased missile accuracy, and missile defense into a first-strike capability against the Soviet Union. On paper, there was no doubt that such a system gave a first-strike advantage to the United States. By 1983 a huge nuclear buildup by the superpowers was underway.
Against this background, the US Catholic Bishop’s Conference in May 1983 issued their Pastoral Letter on War and Peace – in essence, maintaining that nuclear deterrence, not warfighting, was provisionally morally acceptable. But there were grave reservations. Deterrence was only provisionally morally acceptable as a temporary alternative and not a reliable system of world order for the long term. The letter reflected the influence of Merton 15 years after his death and Murray, who died in 1967. Unlike many proclamations put out by anti-war and anti-nuclear groups, the pastoral letter did not say “nuclear weapons are evil, the United States should disarm at once.” Instead, the letter acknowledged real dangers that couldn’t be ignored or simplified.
The letter came out just as the United States was starting a nuclear buildup. Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger was deciding on size of nuclear force and a strategy, and Moscow was becoming paranoid.
The year 1983 was more dangerous than anyone at the time realized. The Soviets, it turns out, were loosening the nuclear trigger with multiple nuclear false alarms. Soviet warning satellites mistakenly detected American missile launches, and Moscow regarded a NATO exercise called Able Archer as preparation for a first strike. In the context of the extreme mistrust of the time, it made for an explosive cocktail. Years later, the CIA published details of Soviet fears.
In June 1983 the Pentagon ran the most realistic nuclear war game of the Cold War. Called Proud Prophet, the actual secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff played their roles and relied on actual top-secret war plans of the Strategic Air Command and the Navy. The roles of secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs were concealed from other players. A cutout used to play the president had no authority. Instead Weinberger and Chairman John Vessey Jr were briefed daily and consulted over a top-secret telephone line. They made decisions and passed them to the cutout.
The mechanics of Proud Prophet are described elsewhere, including my book The Second Nuclear Age. Suffice it to say, the game escalated, with hundreds of millions killed and the end of life on earth as we know it. One cannot prove it, but the game and larger context of the era, including the Pastoral Letter on War and Peace, deeply affected US leaders. Afterward, there was less loose talk about a US nuclear attack on the Soviets, a shift that came at a critical time.
Much has changed since the Cold War. But need for an enlarged framework that goes beyond calculated self-interest has not changed. The arms race has been left to politicians and specialists. Yet there’s a legacy of Christianity and the arms race that is noble, moral and useful.
Debate is needed to energize broad segments of society – beyond the groups that engaged during the Cold War because we now live in a multipolar nuclear world. The moral debate about the arms race must include Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, India and China. That won’t be easy, but is a necessity, even while overlooked in many intellectual and academic circles.
One doesn’t have to be a Christian to see the dangers of the arms race. This recognition must be used to reframe the debate about nuclear war and peace.
About the Author
Paul Bracken is professor of management and political science at Yale University.