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…

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