The Phenomenon of Rhetoric

…there is what I would call the phenomenon of rhetoric. In an area already tense and fraught with unavoidable dangers, there is no place for exaggerated speech or threatening stances.

—John Paul II

The Papal statement to the United Nations’ Second Special Session on disarmament warns against the abuse of language. Clearly, in such serious matters there is no place for mere rhetoric or for threatening rhetoric. Yet he also advised “we need today freshness of perspective and a capacity to listen respectfully and carefully to the honest suggestions of every responsible party in this matter …”

The NCCB Ad Hoc Committee on War and Peace seems to have done much of what was recommended, calling on scores of experts to testify on the nature and morality of deterrence. In the second draft, the bishops once again quoted John Cardinal Krol’s September 9, 1979 testimony to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. While the first draft correctly quoted the testimony, the second draft alters. The two paragraphs chosen for each draft outline the argument that deterrence is only acceptable when arms negotiations seem possible and possibly fruitful. Further, what Krol actually said in testimony was:

If that hope were to disappear, the moral attitude of the Catholic Church would almost certainly have to shift to one of uncompromising condemnation of both use and possession of such weapons.

In the second draft, the word “almost” is dropped, lending a wholly new interpretation to history.

The matter is confused even more when one considers that this key point is used to weigh American sincerity regarding disarmament. It would seem that the bishops do not consider that the United States government is making sincere efforts toward multilateral arms reduction. One can understand a bit of their confusion in the light of Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger’s September 13, 1982 letter responding to the first draft, in which he wrote:

You are correct in saying that arms control must go beyond mere acceptance of the status quo, and, for that reason, President Reagan has taken dramatic initiatives in the area of arms reductions. In Geneva we are negotiating the total elimination of intermediate range nuclear armed missiles in Europe, and at the Strategic Arms Reduction. Talks we seek to reduce by one-third the number of strategic ballistic missiles. Compared to past efforts these are dramatic, achievable, and meaningful reductions.

Unfortunately, the Secretary has here outlined the logical Soviet proposals, not the American proposals. The United States, in fact, has requested deeper cuts, including the elimination of intermediate range missiles wherever they are deployed (including the western Soviet Union). In addition, the U.S. request is for a one-third cut in strategic warheads, and approximately a one-half cut in strategic missiles.

While the drafters of the pastoral seem implicitly to present themselves as capable of reviewing the technicalities of the discussion, there is no indication that this major error in the presentation of the U.S. negotiating stance was ever recognized. (In fact, it was not until the Origins edition of the second draft that they even spelled the Defense Secretary’s name correctly.)

Given the documentation problems of both “sides” of the discussion, it is perhaps appropriate to seriously question an underpinning of the document’s assertion that one nuclear detonation ineluctably leads to all-out nuclear war. The bishops write:

Expert witnesses advise us that commanders operating under conditions of battle would not be able to exercise strict control: The number of weapons used would rapidly, increase, the target would be expanded beyond the military and the level of civilian casualties would rise enormously.

We are directed to footnote 35 for substantiation of this paragraph, and that footnote claims as source “Testimony given to the NCCB committee during preparation of this pastoral letter. The testimony is reflected in the quotes found in footnote 27 above.”

Footnote 27 quotes not the testimony but published works. Four items, including one authorless government report, are given as support, but of the seven authors cited, only two actually testified before the committee, former Defense Secretary Harold Brown and former arms negotiator Gerard Smith. The military strategist cited neither has command nor was a witness.

And footnote 27 is the citation which supports the following:

The technical literature and the personal testimony of public officials who have been closely associated with U.S. nuclear strategy have both convinced us of the overwhelming probability that a nuclear exchange would have no limits.

This seems to imply that the bishops have decided only to believe the technical literature produced by former public officials and the testimony of former public officials. For whatever reason, present government officials, they who actually have the documents and the strategic plans at their disposal, are seemingly ignored. One can assume that present government officials’ testimony was consistent with their public view, which includes the possibility of a limited exchange.

The bishops have here established themselves as qualified to judge among conflicting expert opinions, yet even if they merely weighed the conflicting testimony on a scale the predictably anti-administration testimony of the seven former government officials would have out-weighed that of the four present government officials.

Clearly, there is no place for exaggerated speech in these matters, and there is even less place for misstatements of fact, misquotations, or sudden technical expertise.


When Crisis was originally published in 1982, Phyllis Zagano was Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications at Fordham University.

Join the conversation in our Telegram Chat! You can also find us on Facebook, MeWe, Twitter, and Gab.