Sense and Nonsense: Irish Comments on Nuclear War

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At least five hierarchies (the German, US, Dutch, French, and Irish) have thought it advisable in the past year to make a statement on the morality of nuclear war and the issues surrounding it. Basil Cardinal Hume of London also wrote a very perceptive letter on this topic.’ The Irish statement was written after the German and US statements, but before the Dutch, English, and French ones.

One is hard put to know what to make of the Irish document, which seems devoid of meaningful reference to the political and ideological contexts in which questions of war and peace alone exist. It is almost as if we could consider issues of war and peace on the basis of an analysis of what weapons might do, rather than on the basis of the powers and wills of those who threaten to use them and those who seek to prevent their usage.

True, Ireland is not a nuclear power, though its position to the west of Europe, especially in the sea and submarine routes, makes it part of the general western European defense perimeter. Further, as the French, particularly, sought to make clear, a “small” nuclear power has both responsibility and deterrent capacities. The Irish hierarchy understood, however, that the question did arise for them as well in spite of all the other problems the island might face. Yet, in the light of the famed Irish instinct for politics, this failure to account for the political side of the issue seems strange.

The principle of “just war”, to be sure, was reaffirmed. However, it was so restricted as to seem practically useless in relation to the major deterrent issues of our time. This is particularly so in the light of the issue often discussed by the Germans and French of how to deter massive conventional superiority without threatening nuclear defense.’

The Irish document began by noting the concern “inside and outside the churches over the growing threat of nuclear weapons.” Already here, there is a kind of abstraction from political reality. Stated this way, the weapons, inert as they are by themselves, active only on the supposition of political wills behind them, became paramount. This approach leaves the Irish statement sounding wholly distant from the actual problems a responsible military and civilian official would face.’ The question of political prudence, which is so relevant to the strategy for preventing or waging war among men and nations, something so evident in the German and French pastorals, is thus replaced by an accurate calculation about megatonnage and potential damage, almost as if the bombs could activate themselves like living beings.

Weapons themselves, of course, in this approach become “evil” in comparison with which all other evils seem less. “When the damage likely to be caused by exercising our right of legitimate defense is out of proportion to the values being defended, it is better to suffer injustice than to defend ourselves by means involved in such defense.” This situation, evidently, arises in the case of the intent to use nuclear weapons. But, “to say this is not to tolerate or en-courage a passive acceptance of evil. Even if the use of nuclear weapons were unjustifiable, we still have the right and duty of active, albeit non-violent resistance to unjust aggression.”

How differently the German and French bishops argued this point, since their focus was on the political reality of how to prevent all war, nuclear and conventional. Such statements seem to make clear that the argument with the Irish bishops is not so much over their principle of the need to suffer evil at times, but rather about just what they think the nature of modern totalitarianism is and whether the alternatives they suggested were possible. That is, the argument is about what is considered “greater evil”, physical death or moral death?

Or to put it in another fashion, does following the morality outlined in this document lead to a civilization in which the opposite of morality is the governing policy? And this is a question of one’s judgment about what it is a modern totalitarian system would be like were it to be handed full control of the world, be it on the basis of victory in war or democracy’s giving up to avoid war. This is a “1984” type question that seems not to have occurred to the Irish bishops in this document, since they seem to assume that the sort of active-passive resistance they envision remains open even on the supposition of a “moral” surrender.

Perhaps it is a question of judgment, but the notion that nothing would radically change in giving up to a totalitarian enemy, something the German and French bishops were particularly concerned about denying, goes against all testimony of people who live under these systems and whose only hope of moderation within them, as someone like Solzhenitsyn constantly reiterates, is the existence of societies outside the totalitarian orbit. Since there is no effort to discuss this situation, there seems to be an assumption within the Irish document that things would go along pretty much as before, that issues of right and its exercise would remain much the same under a totalitarian system.

So we are left to wonder how, in practice, our admit-ted duty “to develop an informed conscience and equally the right not to be coerced to act against … conscience” can be effectively protected if we must surrender to the worst state to be moral? The whole point of political boundaries, on their philosophical side, has to do with this issue, with the effort to keep us all from having to live in the worst regime to be moral, only to discover that the worst regime denies morality itself.

The Irish bishops, however, did not deny the statements on deterrence coming from the Holy See or other hierarchies. They did not seem to admit the point made by the German and French bishops, however, to the effect that without “intending” to use the deterrent capacities, deterrence would not be of any value for its purpose. Indeed, in not acknowledging this point, their document seems to allow no real deterrence if we follow its stated principles in terms of actual political reality.

A good test of any of these war documents, I think, is to put oneself in the shoes of the philosophical and political leader of a totalitarian power, claiming the rights and privileges of his ideology and lacking no fear to follow his principles. Then, we should ask whether any one of these documents which would fall into his hands would deter him from doing anything, on the supposition that the leaders of the enemy follow its principles exactly?

In addition, we should imagine this totalitarian leader asking himself whether any one or all of these documents would be useful for accomplishing the stated goals of the totalitarian leader by encouraging their promotion and ex-ample in the policies of one’s opposition? Are there points in them, in other words, that, if followed, would turn the world over to the ideological system with a minimum of effort or risk?

If, say, the ailing Mr. Andropov read the French or the German bishops, and assumed western military and political leaders were bound to its prescriptions, he would, I think, not envision using his own weapons. He would be deterred. If he read the Irish document, however, I think he could go to a conference in, say, Geneva, to be sure this was the governing position. Once assured, he could proceed, on the basis of the document, to point out, logically, that the West must give up in order to remain moral. This would be so because it would be immoral, on the document’s own terms, to employ the strategy that would pre-vent the totalitarian leader from following his own goals and ideology. That is, for the West to employ a deterrence that he would be bound to respect in his own terms, since he is not bound by the same document. He could then politely ask for surrender without fear of either opposition or moral objection.

Interestingly, the one passage the Irish bishops did cite from the German bishops seems very curious when read against the same statement in the context of the German document. The Irish document is addressing itself to the question of intention to deter and whether any even limited use of nuclear weapons might be conceivable. This is their text:

“The West German bishops, speaking in the country perhaps most exposed to the threat of nuclear weapons, share the same grave doubts — ‘is not the danger of escalation from their use (i.e. of weapons designed to deter and to prevent war) — however limited — so great that one cannot imagine any situation in which one could accept responsibility after consideration of all factors to use atomic weapons?’ And they add, ‘in the European sphere this question also rises in sharper form in the light of the growing destructive power of conventional weapons.’”

If we look at this citation in the German text, it seems very different both as to mood and point:

“The observance of these criteria does not furnish any absolute guarantee that the deterrence reliability prevents war. Many people are therefore concerned about what would happen if the deterrent were to fail and if armed hostilities were to break out. Can in fact weapons designed to deter and to prevent war be meaningfully used in a war pursuant to the principle of the proportionality of means? Is not the danger of escalation from their use — however limited — so great that one cannot imagine any situation in which one could accept responsibility after considering all the factors to use atomic weapons? In the European sphere, this question also arises in sharper form in the light of the growing destructive power of conventional weapons. We hope and pray that a situation will never occur in which somebody is confronted with such decision -making.”

The German point is very different, I think. First of all, they think deterrence does work and will work to preserve both freedom and peace. Secondly, they leave the decision at the level of the prudential decision -maker n the context of an actual situation. Finally, they are reporting someone else’s views — “many people …” — not necessarily their own, which is the whole burden of their long document.

In conclusion, I think the Irish document, along with the others, in the light of the Holy Father’s reflections, as well as those of so many informed military and civilian leaders, not neglecting the views of so many ordinary people, has brought us to see the central issues. These are not just “the growing threat of nuclear war,” but the nature of civil freedom, the means to prevent war in the light of actual enemies and their designs, the risk and political courage that must be shown if the higher goods of civilization be not sacrificed to a theory that nothing is worse than death.

In this sense, I believe we are beginning to put this whole issue behind us since there is now a clear moral rationale for effective deterrence, largely found in the French and German documents. What remains is the task of not only deterring one’s enemy on his own terms, so that he does not think western humanitarian and religious values are a primary instrument to impose a totalitarian system on the remaining free world, but, deterrence in place, another avenue will be taken by the enemy because of the silent example of what is clearly not to be done.

The German statement was to the point.

“Such a peace policy presupposes clarity of concepts and the credibility of the people of both sides so that a substantiated trust can arise via the mutual predictability of behavior. . . By virtue of this decision we are choosing from among various evils the one which, as far as it is humanly possible to tell, appears as the smallest. It is the confirmed goal of our efforts, firstly to contribute towards ensuring the prevention of the looming holocaust of mankind and a gradual reduction in the number of weapons of mass destruction, and secondly to strive for a comprehensive system of peace and justice beyond the arsenals of weapons and the systems of oppression.”

This combination of willingness to take risks, to emphasize both freedom and peace, to know that we do not live with easy choices, seems to be the emerging consensus in this area. Everyone who has contributed to this debate has, it seems, forced the argument to this growing clarity.


The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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