Making Deterrence Work

THE EFFORT BY the National Conference of Catholic Bishops to go into stragtegic specifics on questions of nuclear war may have consequences are different from those the bishops intend. It is not always those who cry “Peace, peace!” who actually bring peace. The opposite has frequently been the case.

The second draft of the statement prepared by the bishops (October 1982) is very long, and searching objections to it cry out to be made on nearly every page.

I cannot be certain that my own vision of reality is correct. Yet if it is, then this draft statement moves the world very close to war. That is not its motive, clearly. But it may well be its effect.

This judgment is based on two main strategic considerations. The first concerns the deterrence of conventional warfare in Europe over the next twenty years. The second concerns the deterrrence of a Soviet ballistic missile attack on the United States

I. On the first point, the hishops claim it is immoral to deter attacks even by overwhelmingly superior Soviet forces upon Western Europe with a (tactical) nuclear deterrent. They may have forgotten that in World War I, 15 million Europeans died in conventional warfare. In World War II, 51 million Europeans died. Since that time conventional warfare has increased in horror. (The largest conventional explosives are now more destructive than the smaller nuclear weapons.) Conventional warfare in Western Europe almost certainly means terror and destruction tar in excess of that of World War II. Some estimate 100 million dead.

Scores of conventional wars have broken out since World War II. Leaders do not seem to fear conventional warfare, as they properly fear nuclear war. The absence of a nuclear deterrent against Soviet conventional forces in Europe may, sooner or later, bring on a holocaust of a conventional war.

The bishops’ current draft is abstract and rational. It overlooks probable real occurrences. Imagine three conditions: (1) The U.S.S.R. offers West Germany the prospect of unification with East Germany, and succeeds in getting German voters to weaken NATO; (2) in frustration, U.S. voters demand withdrawal of U. S. support from NATO; (3) an economic and political crisis in the U.S.S.R. — perhaps during the struggle of succession — tempts the more militant Soviet faction to seize the opportunity to take Berlin and invade West Germany. Another great European war could break out before this century’s end.

Current NATO strategy is defensive. (The configuration of Soviet forces is offensive. The Soviets need no defensive preparations. The West lacks airplanes, tanks, and troops offensively armed.) It contemplates surrender of perhaps one-third of Germany before being able to halt a Soviet advance. A further Soviet breakthrough might evoke panic in Europe. The clamor for a tactical nuclear response against Soviet rear elements would be acute. As the bishops do note, nuclear war is most likely to erupt from conventional war. The absence of a European nuclear deterrent may, in this way, precipitate the very nuclear war the bishops desire to prevent.

Much depends on how the bishops understand Soviet reality. The present draft interprets Soviet necessities and imperatives far less cynically than it interprets U.S. government actions. The bishops are making a bet on Soviet peacefulness and reasonableness. Many have lost that bet.

The London Economist (July 31 and October 30) has been far more clear sighted on European security than the U.S. bishops. A conventional deterrent. The Economist says, does not now exist, but could exist with significantly higher military spending — but only if a nuclear deterrent is kept in working order, too.

II. On strategic weapons, further, the U.S. bishops have either made a semantic mistake or cut the heart out of nuclear deterrence. They argue that a deterrent is morally permissible, but only if one never intends or threatens to use it. Nuclear weapons they say — may never be used (in any of the most likely circumstances of use). Possibly this is a semantic mistake. Perhaps the bishops mean by intention and threat words or thoughts only. In an architectonic system of readiness, however, there is another sort of intention and threat far more credible than mind-reading. Readiness itself is the only real intention, the only real threat, which a distant adversary can take seriously. Adversaries ignore words.

But if the bishops intend to produce an empty shell of deterrence — a set of weapons manned by persons who are pledged never to use them — they do invite a daring opponent to call the bluff. Deterrence is primarily a commitment of will. Erode the moral will and deterrence is no more than useless missiles rusting in the ground or under water. Under such conditions, uncertainty is bound to grow. Probes are far more likely to occur — perhaps only a single salvo, destroying (say) Minneapolis, meant to force instant surrender. A nation with no will to respond will not respond.

Not at first, perhaps, but over a decade or more, such teaching by the Catholic bishops will make all Catholic political leaders and military men suspect, as being, in effect, unreliable in time of crisis. The Catholic church will be acting as a sect. Paul Blanshard should have lived to see this hour.

The point of deterrence is to deter. If one’s aim is to prevent any use of nuclear weapons ever, one cannot begin by saying “We won’t ever reply against aggressive nuclear force.” This is to surrender in advance.

The ultimate logic of the bishops’ second dratt is unilateral disarmament. If it is immoral ever to use a deterrent force, the deterrent force no longer exists. By its very existence, a deterrent force is an intention, a threat. Possibly, the bishops mean that U.S. leaders should be liars and hypocrites: maintaining a bluff. In that case, U.S. policy is a lie. If the bishops really mean that a deterrent cannot be used as a deterrent, they are actually demanding unilateral disarmament. First, spiritual, moral disarmament. Then, the removal of weapons. They avoid the political Consequences of this recommendation, but by a kind of double-tailk. This is casuistry at its worst.

Nuclear warfare does demand an “entirely new” kind of thinking. Those who intend never to use a deterrent force must intend to use it, it necessary. Only in this way can a deterrent truly deter. Thus, if the bishops do approve of deterrence, they must approve of the intention to use it. Only in this way is there a chance of nuclear weapons never being used. This is one of the paradoxes of nuclear strategy. The successful nuclear weapons systems — there have by now been three generations of such — are those which become obsolete without ever having been used.

Why have the bishops not seen that their present position entails unilateral disarmament? One presumes that they have not forced themselves to face it. The more thoroughly pacifist among them do grasp the logic, however. They celebrate this draft as the indispensable pillar of their ultimate goal: pacifist surrender before aggression, which they hold is to follow the example of Christ. (It is one thing for individuals to hold this view; another to impose it on a pluralist state.)

Nowhere in the bishops’ dralt do the bishops voice the by now classical Christian arguments against pacifism. They list none of the Christian reasons for rejecting pacifism — theological arguments, moral arguments, and political arguments. They give pacifism a free ride.

In all arguments there is a “slippery slope.” This draft gives away the top of that slope; the rest is downhill. How did the bishops get into this predicament? As John Langan, S.J., has recently pointed out in The Washington Quarterly, they did not do so because a flood-tide of theological writing in this area obliged them to. Quite the contrary. They have been moved by very recent popular opinion. This is a dangerous motor force. Everyone desires peace. That is why the Soviets since Lenin have always conducted campaigns for “Peace” in public opinion as a main force in strategic warfare. The popular desire for peace is always genuine. To attain peace vis-a-vis the Soviets, however, vigilance in distinguishing false peace from true is always necessary.

The bishops give U.S. governments since 1968 little or no credit for ceasing to maintain U.S. nuclear superiority. Secretary McNamara froze land-based missiles at 1.054 in 1968, where still they remain. No new U.S. strategic bomber has been built: B-52s, which once numbered 1300 are now 316, every one of them older than the young men who fly them. Total U.S. nuclear megatonnage has shrunk by more than half since 1968; warheads are less numerous, and also smaller and more accurate. Polaris submarines are becoming obsolete. A breakthrough in anti-submarine technology could make the U.S. submarine fleet — the third leg of the triad ol deterrence — as vulnerable as the first two legs now are.

Secretary Harold Brown once described the U.S. experience with the Soviets: “When we build, they build. When we stop building, they build.” The bishops fail to study Soviet arms, their number, their configuration, and their intention (discerned not by reading minds but by describing the correlation and the structure of forces).

For all these reasons, and many more, the bishops are unwittingly leading the U.S. down the road, not of peace, but of appeasement and surrender. They fail to show how the U.S. military — on the narrow strategic ground the bishops leave them to stand on — can deter Soviet power. It is as if the bishops care nothing about an accurate assessment of power. Abstractly, their arguments make sense. Concretely, concerning the real nature of the Soviet Union and the present strategic balance, they do not make sense.

Nor is it sound Christian theology to hold that U.S. power comes from God, from Christ. Christian faith does not teach us to rely on the miraculous.

If the strategic thinking of the U.S. Catholic bishops leads to war — conventional, or nuclear, or both — they will have assumed responsibility for millions of victims. It will be no defense to say they “trusted in God,” or acted from “faith in Christ.” They may well think they are acting as “prophets” but most who claim in history to be prophets are false prophets. The record of bishops in worldly affairs is not a happy one.

It seems a sin, an outrage, to divide the Catholic people on strategic considerations. Holding to orthodox Catholic faith and a profound interior life in these times are difficult enough. The vocation of bishops gives them no special authority in temporal matters, particularly not of this type. There is more than a hint of clericalism in the expressed desire of the bishops to set themselves up as strategic thinkers. Their goal is to prevent nuclear war. Their method of attaining this goal is seriously flawed.

This summer, I have read at least three articles on the moral questions ot nuclear deterrence — by laymen, even non-Catholics — far more sophisticated than the bishops’ draft: the articles in The Economist referred to above; Theodore Draper in The Afcw York Review of Books (July 15); and Edward Luttwak in Commentary (August). The writings of laymen like James Finn, William V. O’Brien, George Weigel, and others seem to me far more perceptive.

The bishops, of course, must follow their consciences. But so must laymen and laywomen. The bishops urged the laity to question the policies of their government, and of course they not only should do so but have long done so, in this democracy. Now laymen and laywomen are also in the position ol following their consciences against their own bishops — and less on theological grounds than on political and military grounds. The bishops have overreached. They invite not only dissent but proper resentment.

Absolutism in politics is a serious danger to democracy. When the bishops speak as citizens, they invite all citizens, whose fate is at stake, to reject and to oppose them. The ecclesiology of the bishops’ draft is weak: it yields far too much authority to clergymen in areas beyond their vocational calling. The biblical theology is weak. It leaps from true peace as conversion of the heart to Christ (where does this leave Jews, atheists and others?) to political peace and nuclear peace. The theology of pacifism is extremely weak.

But most remarkable of all, the itch of the bishops to attack their own government is transparent. There is hardly a shred of testimony in this article to the role the U.S. has played in the world since 1945, both as a political and humane ideal, and as an umbrella of liberty. After World War II, in what Winston Churchill has described as the most generous deed by any state in history to its foes, America rebuilt war-ravaged Europe (especially Germany) and Japan, and has provided for most of its defense needs. Never in history have so many former colonies become independent nations — more than 100 since 1948 — as during the period of American power. Moreover, since 1962, in constant dollars, as the New York Times dramatically graphed (October 24, 1982), U.S. defense spending has remained remarkably constant. The proportion of defense spending devoted to nuclear forces has stayed at 9-10 percent. The U.S. for many years allowed the Soviets to “catch up” in nuclear power, only to see Soviet trend lines continue sharply upwards.

The hostility toward American government in the bishops’ draft is muted but evident. Bishop Leroy Matthicssen, however, told Life, “The Catholic church is on a direct collision course with the United States government, and I’ll be right out there taking the brunt of it.” Tom Fox, editor of The National Catholic Reporter, told Time; “This will place U.S. Catholics in a confrontation with American policies ….” The Jesuit Father F. X. Winters wrote with satisfaction that Catholics in the nuclear chain of command “will have to choose between apparent loyalty to [their] country and obedience to the church …. There may ensue a great schism.” The itch for confrontation is not admirable. It is sectarian and self-righteous. It indicates a surprising immaturity, on the one hand, and a dramatic failure to appreciate the blessings of governance in the United States. Which sort of government in Catholic history would the bishops prefer for the United States? Would they like to control U. S. policies? What role do they seek for themselves in a pluralist, free society? What role do they leave for laymen and laywomen — to follow their sense of reality, or that of the bishops?

Twenty years ago, I looked forward to dissent in the Church. I still do. The bishops are still, however, in the new style of a new generation, playing an authoritarian, heavily clericalized role. Their politics may now be that of the left. They may be acting more as a sect and a political party than they ought. But they are still carriers of clerical presumption and aggrandizement. Dissent remains the order of the day — dissent in conscience and theology, as well as in strategic and military judgment.

From Vol. 1, No. 1 of the original “Catholicism in Crisis”, published November 1982.


Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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