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The Bishops and the Bomb

The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response, The Pastoral Letter of the US Bishops on War and Peace.

National Catholic News Service
32 pp., $3.50 (paper)

Report of the President’s Commission on Strategic Forces

(The Scowcroft Commission).
US Government Printing Office, 29 pp.

Underneath our continuing debates on nuclear danger we begin to detect the possibility that we may be able to reach a new level of common understanding of what nuclear deterrence is, what it is and is not good for, and how it relates to morals, to politics, and to the prospects for peace. It is too soon, and probably too much, to try to set forth any “general theory” of deterrence, but it does seem possible to clarify some elements of its nature. Such an undertaking may have additional value in a season in which, as Emma Rothschild has powerfully demonstrated, the Pentagon under Caspar Weinberger is doing its best to give deterrence a bad name.1 Such consideration of Mr. Weinberger’s misconceptions is one powerful catalyst of new understanding, and another, itself refined by extended debate, is the pastoral letter of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, overwhelmingly approved in Chicago on May 3. Still a third is the report of the Scowcroft Commission, in which good and bad arguments are mixed together with remarkable inattention to their intrinsic incompatibility.

The pastoral letter fully deserves the wide audience it seeks. It is a thoughtful and comprehensive effort to bring religious and moral principles to bear on nuclear weapons. In reaching their conclusions, the bishops have been unafraid to criticize existing official positions; in turn they have been treated first with suspicion and then with wary assertions of sympathy by the Reagan administration. The pervading concern of their letter is with the “unique challenge” presented by nuclear warfare to “the classical Christian position” on war and peace. The power of their response to this challenge makes the report a landmark in the changing pattern of American concern with nuclear danger, and an excellent starting point for a look at what can now be said about deterrence.

I begin from these unpleasant truths: nuclear danger exists; there is no escape from the requirement to coexist with it; and this requirement in turn implies some notion of deterrence. We do not know how to transcend the danger. This is not a welcome thought, since a quite modest awareness of the nature of thermonuclear weapons is sufficient to persuade most of us that if we could truly “ban the bomb” we should. But neither political nor technological reality now allows it.

The political reality is that the nations have never come near to any agreement that would reliably eliminate nuclear weapons. This melancholy history does not itself determine future possibilities; it may show only that we have not tried hard enough, and certainly there have been many moments at which a better effort might have been made. Yet a larger lesson of the record is that in the weapon-building decisions of nations, fear of the bomb itself has always been less powerful than fear of an adversary’s bomb. The weapons each government has sought have been those it found necessary in the light of what others had done or might do. Not one of the nuclear-weapons states has ever been ready to surrender that judgment to any other government or to any international authority. Flora Lewis was right to remind us recently of the comment of Arkady Sobolev, the senior Russian official at the United Nations when the Baruch Plan was put forward, that “the Soviet Union was not seeking equality, but, rather, freedom to pursue its own policies in complete freedom and without any interference or control from the outside.”2

This situation is not likely to change soon. It reflects the continuing and deeply rooted power of the idea of national sovereignty. The reality that the nations of the nuclear world are now inescapably interdependent—dependent on each other’s behavior for their very survival—has not changed the deeply entrenched determination of nearly every nation, and in particular every nuclear-weapons state, to make its choices on such matters through the decision-making process of a sovereign government in which authority, interest, hope, and fear are all defined in primarily national terms.

If anything could have led people to abandon their nation-centered ways, it should have been the bomb. The logic of this proposition has been compelling from Hiroshima onward. From Norman Cousins to Jonathan Schell, writers preoccupied by nuclear danger have fixed on national sovereignty as the basic obstacle to the exorcism of the specter. They are right, but the obstacle persists, and while there may be a special intensity to the state-centered dedication of the Soviet leadership, the beam is in other eyes too, including our own.

A second possible means of transcending the threat is technological. Hope on this front was rekindled, at least for some, by Mr. Reagan’s remarks in March offering “a vision of the future” in which there would be a reliable defense against strategic missiles. But is such a hope well founded? I think not. The difficulty here is not simply in the extraordinary cost and complexity of the new systems we do not yet know how to build or in the fact that there can be countermeasures to these systems. There is also the more basic problem that thermonuclear weapons impose a radically new calculus of advantage on anyone seeking to neutralize them: they make it necessary to achieve a kill rate very near 100 percent. Anything less is not good enough for safety—only good enough, at best, for deterrence.

In that sense the hope held out in the president’s address is deeply misleading. Even if all his assumptions about technical promise were granted, it would be impossible to believe we shall ever have a perfect defense against ballistic missiles, including those at sea, or to suppose that we could have a defense equally perfect against aircraft and cruise missiles too.

We have two bedrock realities: the units of political account are nation-states, and thermonuclear weapons are drastically different from any others. These two realities, mixed together in different ways, with different additional ingredients, underlie all assessments of nuclear deterrence. Even taken alone they require some notion of deterrence, of the way in which nation-states are to coexist, with nuclear weapons and without nuclear war.

On these two realities the United States and the Soviet Union, over the last thirty years, have built a third: two extraordinarily large, varied, and survivable sets of thermonuclear systems which are in themselves a most formidable reality. Even if the two governments were to reach agreement tomorrow on large-scale reductions—whether those of Ronald Reagan or those of George Kennan—they would still face each other with thousands of warheads so deployed that neither side could hope to make a large-scale nuclear attack on the other without a wholly unacceptable risk of receiving a catastrophic reply. Moreover, the path from any lower level of weaponry to a world truly free of nuclear weapons is still blocked by this enormous unanswered question: How will the two nations ever be able to trust each other not to hide a few—or a few hundred?

Nuclear danger and nuclear deterrence plainly exist between the superpowers and will not disappear soon. As the bishops put it, “Deterrence is at the heart of the US-Soviet relationship, currently the most dangerous dimension of the nuclear arms race.”

To this present reality the bishops give a highly qualified but clear-cut response. Balancing nuclear danger against the need to protect “the independence and freedom of nations and entire peoples,” they reach “a strictly conditioned moral acceptance of deterrence.” In our current debates their strict conditions may be more significant than their approval. The bishops have studied the question closely, and they know what they are against: nuclear war. They are not impressed by war-fighting theories of any sort. They have no difficulty explaining their firm opposition both to strategies that would entail deliberate attack on large populations and to strategies that would merely produce catastrophic loss of human life as an “unintended” consequence of megatonnage aimed at military targets. They know and report the medical assessment of what nuclear war would be like, and how it would obscenely multiply the “butchery of untold magnitude” that Pope Paul VI saw in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. They know the extraordinary uncertainty attending any attempt to “limit” any nuclear exchange and the incalculable risk involved in any first use of nuclear weapons. They explicitly withhold their approval from all of these forms of war-fighting. These and other conclusions and recommendations all follow from the bishops’ rejection of nuclear war, and we must return to them. Yet what must be noted first is that with all their conditions and caveats, the bishops accept deterrence itself.

The deterrence so conditionally approved is a deterrence essentially independent of any particular theory of war-fighting, a deterrence inherent in the deployments already made and sure to exist for many years to come even under the most optimistic assumptions. In the absence of very large changes in their survivability, the existing systems on both sides are now so powerful and varied that no political leader can have or hope to have any clear idea of what would in fact happen “if deterrence failed”—that is, if nuclear war began.

This difficulty is not escaped by any theory, because no theory can predict with any confidence the behavior of any government, friend of foe, in such a situation. Most “scenarios” for nuclear warfare between the Soviet Union and the United States reflect nothing more than the state of mind of their authors. Estimates of the ease or difficulty of limiting such a conflict, for example, are just that—estimates. Moreover, they are estimates of interacting behavior under conditions of unprecedented stress and danger, possibly in the midst of already appalling destruction. No one can have any certainty that credible communication would be possible between the adversaries even hours after such a conflict began. Such communication requires leadership that is mutually recognized, effective, and continuous, on both sides. Who can promise that? Yet without such communication who knows how to stop the horror?

Similar inescapable uncertainties apply to every other element of the situation. Which weapons would function with what efficiency? What intentions would be read into what actions? Can we tell how Soviet decision makers would regard the launching of a missile that could be aimed at either missile fields or nearby Moscow? How would an adversary interpret a temporary absence of response, when it could reflect almost anything: careful restraint, a plan for later coordinated retaliation, or the absence of any governing mind at all? Would the impulse to stop the slaughter be stronger than the impulse to kill the killers, and would it be the same or opposite on the two sides? Who can tell?

Because of all these uncertainties, serious leaders have known for a generation that there is no pat answer to the terrible question of what to do if deterrence fails. It is natural but unprofitable for advocates of one or another approach to deterrence to accuse each other of having profoundly immoral intentions in this event—plans for “prolonged nuclear war” or for “mutual assured destruction.” The bishops are quite right to reject both kinds of nuclear war, and their own concentration on deterrence should remind us that in reality our debates about hypothetical nuclear exchanges have seldom reflected settled convictions about what one would actually do in the dread event of nuclear war. Instead they reflect judgments on the kind of military capacities thought necessary for the self-confident deterrence of the other side.

  1. 1

    The Delusions of Deterrence,” NYR, April 14.

  2. 2

    Foreign Relations of the United States,1946, volume I: General; The United Nations (US Government Printing Office,1971),p.957.

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