Moral Clarity in the Nuclear Age: Part II


31. Because of the unparalleled power of nuclear weapons, it is easy to be deflected from reasoned discourse. When one has listened to eminent scientists and physicians detail the horrors of the worst imaginable case of nuclear destruction, one is driven to recall the lessons of Christian faith about the precariousness of all human life, the approaching end of history, the perennial wickedness and obdurateness of the human race, and the total sovereignty of God. Nuclear weapons have changed our world but have not altered the fundamentals of the Jewish-Christian vision. In the biblical era, only about 50 million human beings, widely separated from each other, lived on earth. Under ancient conditions of communications, those who lived in a village, a town, a region, or even a country believed they knew “the whole world,” and did not know they inhabited a tiny planet spinning in space. For them, the destruction of their whole world could descend in one violent sacking, pillage, and leveling — as, more than once, the heads of infants in Israel were dashed against stones; and as Moscow, Kiev, Warsaw fell to Mongol invaders in horrors still not forgotten. Images of horrible plague and destruction often arose in medieval times. Not even our fears are as novel as we think. This is the context in which Pope John Paul II said at Hiroshima: “In the past it was possible to destroy a village, a town, a region, even a country. Now it is the whole planet that has come under threat.” Today, nuclear weapons add new dimensions of scale and time, through prolonged radioactivity. These new possibilities made two questions most insistent: Can nuclear war be prevented? If so, which strategies and tactics, and which principles of human behavior, are most likely to succeed in preventing it? The first question involves a principle: we must seek to prevent nuclear war. The second, while also involving principles, is ultimately a question for prudential judgment.

A. The New Moment

32. There is a widespread, well-organized, and well- financed “peace movement” in several free countries today, particularly in those about to make decisions for their future defense against superior nuclear forces now arrayed against them: West Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium and the United Kingdom. (France is militarily independent of NATO and has its own deterrent; its “peace movement” is far less visible.) There is also a well — organized “peace movement” in many cities in the U.S. Some find the public discussion here and abroad “unprecedented in its scope and depth.” Democratic societies entrust such matters to public discussion; that is one reason they are worth defending. Democracy itself depends upon the civility, reasonableness, and wisdom of the discussion.

33. Political peace has always been precarious, as when statesmen imply fragility in such phrases as “the balance of power.” An overall balance of power, always shifting, does not guarantee peace. Yet experience has shown that the capacity to retaliate in kind has prevented some weapons systems from being used, even when peace is breached — witness chemical weapons in World War II. But deterrence has never been wisely thought of as a “safe and stable” system, except by comparison with other proposed alternatives. Today a spiritual sea change does threaten deterrence. Since 1945, the 400 million persons of the North Atlantic Alliance have enjoyed liberty and prosperity unparalleled in human history. Changes in material conditions also unleashed new possibilities for spiritual fulfillment. This great transformation in life has been sudden and profound. Children can scarcely know the almost wholly different conditions under which their parents entered upon life during the Depression and war-time. The horrors and deprivations of forty years ago are unknown to a majority of those now living. Consequently, unrealistic and utopian expectations find fertile soil. Deterrence is sometimes judged against ideals, not against recent history. There is a danger that history may once again repeat itself, not only in Europe but elsewhere. Preserving peace and defending justice are political tasks, and politics, while always ambiguous and imperfect, is the instrument of natural law for the protection of the weak and the innocent. Constitutional law, democratic procedures and political processes are far from perfect, but they are noble in their dependence upon civil discourse, persuasion, and realistic judgment about the less than perfect.

34. To be sure, it is tragic that so much treasure has had to be spent on arms since 1945. The post — war world might have been different. Moreover, if one compares the crude atomic bomb of 1945 and its primitive delivery system with the weaponry thirty-seven years later to be found in the arsenals of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., one sees that the “arms race”, means not only treasure spent but conditions transformed. This is true even though the total money spent on nuclear weapons and their technology has been a very small fraction of U.S. economic resources. Expenditures on the research and production of nuclear weapons by the United States since 1945 have been estimated to be less than $400 billion, about $12 billion per year. In fiscal year 1983, U.S. expenditures on nuclear weapons constitute nine percent of the military budget, 2.9 percent of the entire federal budget, and about 0.6 percent of GNP. Compared to conventional arms, nuclear arms are vastly less expensive.

35. Under the terms of the treaties ending World War II, the United States has chiefly been charged with the defense, not simply of its own interests, but of Western Europe and Japan, as well. After the war, all Western nations virtually disarmed. Even in face of a massive Soviet build-up since 1965 — the most massive in peacetime history — the defense budget of 1981 for G.N.P., was for Belgium, 3.3; Britain, 5.4; Canada, 1.7; Denmark, 2.5; France 4.1; Germany 4.3; Greece, 5.7; Italy, 2.5; Japan, 0.9; Luxembourg, 1.2; Netherlands, 3.4; Norway, 3.3; Portugal, 3.8; Spain, 1.9; Turkey, 4.5; U.S., 6.1. (It is estimated that the Soviet Union spends, for its military alone, not counting the military KGB, between 11-12 percent) These considerations suggest two conclusions. First, the percentage of national resources spent on arms by Western allies is low. Second, the percentage of national resources spent on nuclear arms, in the case of the U.S., is ten times lower. Thus, when in 1976, the Holy See condemned the arms race as a danger, an act of aggression against the poor, and a folly which does not provide the security it promises, the Holy See could not reasonably be interpreted as asking the Western allies to spend much less than they are. The reason for poverty in the world is not adequate defense. Furthermore, efforts to supplant reliance on nuclear weaponry with reliance on conventional weaponry are bound to raise military costs dramatically, since conventional weapons are far more expensive.

36. While we cannot speak for the “arms race” of Third World countries or in the Soviet Union, we do note that the percentage of world gross economic product being spent on arms has declined during every year since 1967. In 1978, the last year for which figures are available, the world spent 5.4 percent of its gross economic product on arms, down from 6.7 percent a decade earlier. In 1978, this amounted to $480 billion. Since virtually all nations of the world are welfare states to some degree or another, it must be noted that government expenditures alone for health and welfare, not counting expenditures by private citizens on their own behalf, amounted to several times more than military expenditures. In the United States, for example, the percentage of the federal budget spent on health and welfare programs of various sorts during 1982 was 51 percent, and on the defense budget 26 percent. This does not include human services provided by state and local governments and by private agencies of every sort. Since the United States bears the free world’s heaviest defense burden, comparisons of percentages of human services expenditures to military expenditures in West Germany, the United Kingdom, and other nations are even more favorable. In the free nations, moneys from all sources spent on health, education, welfare and other human purposes exceed moneys spent on weapons, by a factor of about 20 to 1.

37. It is, nonetheless, true that lower spending on defense would be advantageous to all. Since government spending which creates deficits has implications for inflation and unemployment, every reduction in pressure on government budgets may have creative effects throughout the economy. For many reasons, we favor the minimum amount of defense spending consistent with moral obligations to defend the innocent with just means. We recognize that moral means may be more costly than less moral means, as conventional deterrence may be more expensive than nuclear deterrence, but we accept this as the price of moral behavior.

38. To say “no” to nuclear war is both a necessary and a complex task, especially since saying “no” doesn’t make it so. It is also a task full of paradox, and demands new ways of thinking. It is a task demanding perseverance from one generation to another. It is a task exquisitely dependent upon cool-headedness and the force of reason, a task made difficult by outbursts of passion, hyperbole, flagrant accusation, and misleading assertion. In denouncing the relations between the United States and the U.S.S.R. for being based upon a balance of nuclear power, some critics fail to imagine the consequences of losing a war to tyrannical powers. Some also fail to imagine the consequences of attempting a balance of conventional power. First, the history of modern Europe is not reassuring about balances of conventional power. Second, world leaders do not seem by their behavior to fear conventional wars, of which there have been more than 67 since World War II, as they fear nuclear conflict. Third, currently the conventional military arms of the Soviet Union sufficiently outnumber those of Western Europe as to create an imbalance, whose rectification would require immediate, sustained and heavy military expenses by western nations. A political leader seeking to solicit those expenses from voters might not be successful, and might not win support from the churches, universities, and the press. In short, an alternative to the nuclear balance is easier to talk about than to realize. Further, it is one-sided to speak of “psychological damage” done to ordinary people, especially the young, by the nuclear balance without comparing it to the “psychological damage” which would be caused by heavier taxes and conscription for conventional forces, on the one hand, and by intimidation under “Finlandization,” on the other hand.

Appeasement, too, causes “psychological damage.” It is also extreme to contrast the “billions readily spent for destructive instruments” — seventeen billion dollars were spent in the U.S. in 1982 on strategic forces— with “pitched battles” being waged in the U.S. Congress “about a fraction of this amount for the homeless, the hungry, and the helpless.” Moneys allocated by Congress for housing assistance, food stamps, Medicaid, Medicare and other forms of welfare vastly exceed moneys allocated for nuclear arms. Although one might wish that cuts in spending on nuclear weapons would go to the homeless, the hungry, and the helpless, the second draft of the Pastoral Letter of the U.S. Catholic Bishops (November 1982) prudently observes: “Rejection of some forms of nuclear deterrence might therefore require a willingness to pay higher costs to develop conventional forces. Leaders and peoples of other nations might also have to accept higher cost for their own defense if the United States government were to withdraw any threat to use nuclear weapons first.” Saying no to nuclear weapons may, therefore, impose a greater burden on the poor than at present.

B. Religious Leadership and Public Debate         

39. Religious leaders who wish to influence public policy by influencing public opinion owe a special debt to democratic states, and incur an obligation to defend them against those who would destroy them. “Rulers must be supported and enlightened by a public opinion that encourages them or, where necessary, expresses disapproval,” Pope John Paul II says, thus preferring societies in which the public may express disapproval of their leader.” Is it just to defend such societies with nuclear weapons? Some would “build a barrier against the concept of nuclear war.” But a parchment barrier will not prevent nuclear war. As even God’s commandments have frequently been disobeyed, so also a nuclear war may be waged by sinful men. Since this possibility cannot be excluded, it does not seem wrong for the potential victims of nuclear war to give some thought to “surviving” it. Is it a necessary assumption that any one use of any one type of nuclear weapon will result almost at once in the explosion of every nuclear weapon? History is full of surprises and sudden turns. What seems most probable often does not occur. Prudent leaders must, therefore, consider other possible eventualities.

40. It is possible that one step into nuclear warfare will escalate outside human control to total expenditure of every nuclear weapon. But this is not the only possibility. Moral reflection requires the moralist to face other eventualities. Today, these possibilities are shaped by two great concrete realities: the actual nature of the Soviet Union and the actual nature of the. United States and other Western democracies. The problem of saying “no” to nuclear war is not abstract; it is concretely directed most of all to Moscow, to Washington, and European capitals. Actual decisions about existing and forthcoming nuclear weapons are made by real persons in specific political and geographic locations. Moral thinking about nuclear war must be concrete, as well as abstract.

C. The Concrete Moral Context

41. In deciding ethical questions in political matters it is wise procedure to seek first a clear grasp of realities, interests and powers. This attained, one then wisely asks: “What ought we to do?” and appeals to all one’s resources of vision and principle. Virtually all arguments about the prevention of nuclear war hinge on judgments concerning the nature of the Soviet Union and its nuclear forces. In 1968, the U.S. had a larger number of nuclear warheads, a greater total throwweight, and a larger and more varied number of delivery systems, than did the Soviet Union. In an effort to promote arms control, Defense Secretary McNamara froze the strategic bomber fleet at 600 aircraft, froze the number of land-based missiles at 1,054, and froze the maximum number of nuclear submarines at 41. Subsequently, by 1982 the total throwweight of U.S. nuclear arsenals has been reduced by more than one-half, and warheads have been reduced in number and in size. Emphasis has been placed upon smaller, more accurate warheads, in order to meet just war criteria of proportionality and discrimination, and in order to avoid entrapment in a strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction. (We ourselves judge that this shift away from MAD is morally correct despite the fact that MAD affords conceptual simplicity and lower costs.) Since 1968, no new delivery system for the U.S. land- based missiles has been built, no new bomber has been built, and both the ICBM missiles (1,052) and the B-52’s (315) are entering obsolescence.

Since 1968, by contrast, the Soviets have developed the number, power, variety and accuracy of their delivery systems and warheads. As Secretary Harold Brown said: “When we build, they build. When we stop building, they build.” The U.S. did try a freeze, for fourteen years. The trend lines of Soviet forces kept mounting, while those of U.S. forces either fell or rose more slowly or have now become subject to public pressure for a freeze. The Soviets have now developed a strategic triad with nuclear weapons on aircraft and in submarines. Their land-based missiles outnumber ours by a third, and are more modern, larger, and more powerful. Their land-based missiles are sufficient in number and power to deliver at least two warheads on each of the 1,052 American silos, while still retaining a large number of warheads and delivery systems for a second strike. If it is wrong for the U.S. to have a first strike capability, it would seem to be wrong to acquiesce in the Soviets having one.

42. Some citizens are inclined to stress the possibilities of negotiation, agreement, neighborly coexistence, and perhaps even ultimate friendship with the Soviets. Pointing out that now friendly nations like Germany and Japan were not long ago our foes, they correctly say that in world affairs there are no permanent enemies. They believe that taking risks, making first steps, and launching initiatives will draw the Soviet leaders into amicable, or at least non-hostile, relations. Since the days of Lenin, the Soviets have supported frequent “peace offensives.” Surely, some citizens conclude, peace is better than war, agreement better than conflict, amity better than struggle. Much depends on how cynical Soviet leaders are. If their purpose is the eventual destruction of democratic societies, feigned friendship may suit them now. On the other hand, if they intend to become a nation like other nations, committed to live and to let live, respectful mutuality may be possible. Among these and other possibilities, how would we judge the purposes and character of the leadership of the Soviet Union? That is the factual question on which subsequent ethical judgment turns. Naiveté in this judgment, on the one hand, or excessive cynicism, on the other, would undercut moral correctness in later judgments. For it is not moral to place trust in a liar, nor is it moral, from erroneous hardness of heart, to refuse trust. Judgment about the leadership of the Soviet Union must be carefully developed, beginning with their own view of themselves and their strategies for war, or else further moral judgment is flawed. This is another instance of the crucial role played by prudence.

43. In assessing the purposes and character of the Soviet leaders, it is crucial to observe three facts. First, the number of relevant decision makers is very small (fourteen in the Politburo), and their means of attaining power and of holding power are far from regular, systematic, open, and under public control. Much jockeying goes on; there have been many murders, executions, disappearances, and obliterations from the historical record (“non-persons”) among them. Second, the ideology of Marxism-Leninism which legitimates their role in history, their authority, and their morality operates as a check upon their behavior. Even for those who do not believe this ideology in their hearts, ideological deviation may swiftly become a source of vulnerability to their positions and their lives. Third, the culture of centuries of Russian experience, including xenophobia and a sense of inferiority, affects their understanding of the role of the Russian people in history. Observers properly debate what comparative weights to assign to each of these three characteristics: organizational struggle; the ideology of Marxism- Leninism; and Russian experience and culture. All three factors bear on the Soviet sense of security and historical destiny. All three must be soberly considered. Whether one entertains prospects of friendship or coexistence or struggle with such leaders is much affected by such assessment. How one weighs the moral value of Soviet words and deeds is also affected by one’s judgment about their cultural world. Words spoken and deeds done have full significance only in such contexts. How to interpret their significance within one’s own context is quite a different matter.

44. The record of arms control negotiations during the past hundred years has been, for the most part, a record of deception on the part of the cynically ambitious and of self-deception on the part of those who thought peace might be bought cheap. The record of negotiations of other nations with the Soviet Union on non-aggression and non-interference pacts, and concerning treaties on chemical and biological warfare, and the like, has always required unusual amounts of vigilance against betrayal. Marxist-Leninist ideology rejects “bourgeois formalism,” including promises and signed agreements; Soviet practice in observing treaties, while sometimes good, is selective. Furthermore, to demand on-the-ground verifiability of Soviet arms is to demand a sweeping change within the structure of Soviet society. Despite all this, negotiations are both necessary and useful. But signed agreements by Soviet leaders cannot be understood by prudent persons as deterrents to any course of action Soviet leaders choose to take when they choose to take it. Parchment barriers have seldom restrained players of Realpolitik.

45. In 1968, defense Secretary McNamara judged that U.S. strategic forces were both superior to Soviet forces and at a point of sufficiency for the deterrence of any possible Soviet attack. For this reason, he instituted the freeze mentioned above. Secretary McNamara’s judgment was that the Soviets would build up their forces until they reached parity. By 1972, with the signing of Salt I, leaders on both sides claimed that parity had been reached. Since 1974, the Soviets have added two new generations of delivery systems and warheads, with others in development. This includes missiles of unprecedented size and throwweight for the strategic services, and large, swift missiles for the European theater, as well. In a sense, the nuclear initiative has passed into Soviet hands.

46. As for the United States, military budgets in constant 1972 dollars remained relatively level from 1962-1982, and expenditures for nuclear weapons as a percentage of the military budget and in constant 1972 dollars have also remained remarkably level. From 1968 until 1976, virtually every presidential campaign and many congressional campaigns were conducted on the pledge to cut military spending. As a proportion of GNP, military spending went from 9 percent in 1960 to 5 percent in 1980. As a proportion of the federal budget, military spending during the same period went from 44 percent to 23 percent. Beginning under President Carter, then raised again under President Reagan, the military budget (in actual outlays) has now been slated to rise, in real terms, at 7 percent per year, reaching about 6.3 percent of GNP and 32.4 percent of the projected federal budget for 1984. Unlike other nations, the United States is charged not solely with its own defense but with that of Western Europe and Japan. It is estimated that the maintenance of 303,000 troops in Europe costs the defense budget $133 billion yearly, compared to the expenditure (in 1981) of $16.7 billion on all nuclear forces together. U.S. strategic bombers, under the McNamara freeze, have been reduced from 600 to 315. The number of land-based ICBMs remain at 1,052. The number of nuclear submarines remains at 31, of which only half are on station at any one time. Military hardware inexorably becomes obsolete and less reliable with age, Even without expanding capacity, the replacement of weapons systems every ten or fifteen years is required. Such hardware, therefore, has a time factor: a preponderance (almost two-thirds) of U.S. delivery systems are older than ten years, while a preponderance (more than two-thirds) of the Soviet delivery systems are less than six years old. Technology, of course, does not stand still, so new generations of weapons have new potential. For U.S. forces, such changes have been generally in the direction of greater accuracy and smaller warheads, subject to control of greater precision.

47. U.S. military strategy is defensive in configuration. This fact is clearest in conventional weaponry. Neither U.S. nor NATO forces are equipped for offensive use, not in numbers of tanks, nor in numbers of fighters, bombers, or support vehicles. No attempt has been made to match Soviet forces on the Western front tank for tank, artillery piece for artillery piece, aircraft for aircraft. To equalize the numbers of U.S. forces with Soviet forces in Western Europe would require raising the number of NATO fighter planes and interceptors from 3,100 to the 8,600 in the Warsaw Pact forces. To equalize tanks would require raising the northern NATO number of 10,500 to the Warsaw Pact number of 27,300. The Soviet all-ocean navy now numbers 2,429 ships, the U.S. Navy 514. The task of equalizing all forces is not necessary for two reasons. First, the NATO configuration is defensive, the Soviet offensive. Second, U.S. forces are believed still to hold a technological edge, which however, has diminished over the years.

48. It has long been recognized that democracies are inferior to dictatorships in their capacities to mobilize armies during peacetime. Free voters are reluctant to bear expenses not widely seen to be essential; they discern many social needs of greater moment and value. Free economies seem to thrive on production for peace rather than for military purposes, as the Japanese, West German, and other economies demonstrate. The ideology of the West does not require the destruction of socialism, but the ideology of Marxism-Leninism does teach a law of history according to which socialism must replace capitalism. A part of this law is encapsulated in “The Brezhnev Doctrine” that nations, once socialist, may never be permitted to return to an earlier stage in history. Such cultural and political discrepancies are also part of the present reality.

D. The Imperative of Deterrence

49. It is not necessary to decide the argument whether Soviet forces, nuclear and conventional, are now superior to U.S. forces, whether in Europe or worldwide. Forces superior in number are not necessarily superior in other respects. More important for forces committed to defense is the simpler question of sufficiency for deterrence of aggression. Superiority is not essential. Sufficiency is. Moreover, sufficiency to deter aggression is a moral imperative of the right to self-defense and the duty to defend the innocent from unjust aggression. This includes the defense of good citizens living now under totalitarian regimes who, as Solzhenitsyn reminds us, would be left by our failure without any hope whatever.

50. This is the concrete context within which the moral standing of doctrines of deterrence arises. The overriding moral imperative is to deter the use of nuclear weapons, both their explosive use and their political use to intimidate the free. To fulfill this imperative, prolonged social sacrifices and resoluteness of public will are indispensable. To weaken this will is immoral, since a public unwilling to meet these sacrifices fails in its moral duty. That duty is purely defensive.

51. Some hold that it is not enough to deter aggression. One must also attempt to bring about changes in the potential aggressor, especially by appeals to self-interest in avoiding mutual destruction, by negotiations, by cultural exchanges, by trade, and, in a word, by peaceful and friendly pursuits. With these arguments we are in full accord, when and insofar as the potential aggressor shows himself by deeds to be a mutual partner. Adolf Hitler, however, both betrayed and was betrayed by Joseph Stalin. Not all states seek relations of mutuality. In affairs of state, Aristotle once observed, one must be satisfied with a tincture of virtue. Reinhold Niebuhr in Moral Man and Immoral Society showed with several reasons why this is so. Just conduct can, however, be morally demanded of states, and exacted by the force of arms.

52. An adequate morality of conduct between states, therefore, must take account of the varying moral conduct of different states, including outlaw states whose only moral law is their own aggrandizement. Such states have appeared, and do appear, in history. Knowledge about how such states act is pivotal.

53. In this context, moral clarity in a nuclear age raises exceedingly difficult questions. A major complexity is this. The possession of Soviet nuclear arms on the borders of the West has political uses far beyond material considerations like potential physical destruction; this point has been well stressed by German Catholics. Since nuclear weapons have a political as well as an explosive use, deterrence of both uses demands a sufficiency of threat. The only known path to this sufficiency is a corresponding threat of destruction to a potential aggressor’s industrial base or else of its warmaking capacity. The first alternative is called “countervalue,” the second “counterforce.” The moral problem posed by countervalue strategies is that they hold non-combatants in urban areas hostage. The moral problem posed by counterforce strategies is that they awaken possibilities of a hair-trigger response to perceived threats. The countervalue strategies require much less accuracy, fewer warheads and delivery systems, and much less expenditure. The counterforce strategies require far greater technological sophistication, numbers, precision, and prior intelligence. It must be said that both strategies make one sad, except by comparison with the only current alternative. That alternative is to fail in the duty of defending the innocent, by having no deterrent at all. Such a dilemma, like the Fall, ought not to have existed, but when it does exist, actions to prevent evil are not bad but good. On its face, it would seem that countervalue strategies are less to be approved, by the just war criteria of proportionality and indiscriminate taking of innocent life. Countervalue strategies give rise to the terror of Mutual Assured Destruction. On the other hand, some support them because they seem to afford less risk of miscalculation and cost less money. Furthermore, some regimes are such that they do not shrink from using Western principles to confound Western strategies, deliberately emplacing offensive weaponry amidst civilian targets.

54. It is clear that the complexities of nuclear deterrence change the meaning of “intention” and “threat” as these words are usually used in moral discourse. Those who intend to prevent the use of nuclear weapons by maintaining a system of deterrence in readiness for use do intend to use such weapons, but only in order not to use them, and do threaten to use them, but only in order to deter their use. That this is not mere rationalization is shown by the fact that several generations of nuclear weapons systems have become obsolete and been retired, without ever having been used. These are considered the successful and moral systems. In the same way, deterrence is judged to be successful insofar as nuclear war does not occur.

55. That a human system like deterrence is not infallible, is not foolproof, and does not convey full safety and security, goes without saying. In the world of contingent matters of fact, no system is. That one might devoutly wish for some other alternative also goes without saying. Contemplation of the horror of a breakdown in deterrence, through either the outbreak of nuclear hostilities or the intimidation of innocent peoples leads some to seek a way out of this dilemma by putting the best possible face upon the enemy to be deterred. But this is to deny the premise from which the dilemma arises in the first place. Were the Soviet Union a benign nation, even a nation like Japan and Germany, a nation like others, the need for deterrence would by now have much diminished or disappeared. The U.S. has no deterrent in place against any other power. The reality of the Soviet Union is the linchpin of the dilemma.

56. But the moral dilemma remains. No choice before U.S. leaders is wholly satisfactory. To abandon deterrence is to neglect the duty to defend the innocent, to preserve the Constitution and the Republic, and to keep safe the very idea of political liberty. No President by his oath of office can so act, nor can a moral people.

57. We must, then, confront anew the moral hazards of deterrence. The fundamental moral principle at stake is to make the moral choice which occasions the fewest evil consequences. To abandon deterrence occasions the greatest evil, for it entails endangering that liberty which is more precious than life itself. Free societies are an indispensable social condition of free moral life and the preservation of human rights. That is why for the signers of the Declaration of Independence (and for millions before and since) liberty is worth the pledge of life, fortune, and sacred honor. Insofar as deterrence succeeds, no evil is committed and the worst evils — whether of destruction under nuclear war or of abandoning the duty to preserve liberty — are avoided. It is the fundamental moral intention of those who embrace deterrence that it should succeed in preventing these worse evils. Those who say that deterrence may fail are, of course, correct. But they do not, and cannot, show that the abandonment of deterrence will succeed either in preventing nuclear devastation or in preserving liberty. Their claim to a superior morality is, therefore, flawed in a fundamental respect.

58. An example may illustrate this. Had Japan had the capacity in 1945 to strike Sacramento and Portland as Hiroshima and Nagasaki were struck, one may doubt that President Truman would have ordered the flight of Enola Gay. In that case, a bloody amphibious assault on the Japanese mainland may have had to ensue, with far greater devastation and loss of life than actually occurred. Two points arise from this illustration. Without justifying the decision of President Truman, the first highlights the uses of deterrence from the point of view of the Japanese. The second highlights the awful destructive force even of modern conventional warfare. It was perhaps for this reason that the Second Vatican Council spoke of “modern scientific weapons” rather than explicitly of nuclear weapons.

59. Some find the moral flaw in deterrence in the choice of an evil means to attain a good end, calling this “consequentialism.” They admit that the end of preventing nuclear war is good. But they hold it evil actually to intend to use any deterrent force lacking proportionality and moral discrimination in order to attain this end. This formulation contains, we judge, two flaws. First, the appropriate moral principle is not the relation of means to ends but the choice of a moral act which prevents greater evil. Clearly, it is a more moral choice and occasions lesser evil to hold a deterrent intention than it is to allow nuclear attack. Second, the nature of the intention in deterrence is different from intention in ordinary moral action. There is a paradox in its nature, such that the word intention is clearly being used equivocally.

It is true that on entering the arena of public policy and prudential judgment, moral actors who make public policy are bound primarily by the ethic of consequences rather than by the ethic of intentions. (“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”) Further, existing alternatives in a world of sin often present policy makers no alternative that is purely good, and oblige moral actors to choose the course that occasions the least evils. Nonetheless, the quality of moral intentions deserves moral scrutiny. Alas, the word “intention” (like “threat”) has many meanings. Since many moral issues cluster here, some detail is necessary.

In the carrying of a firearm, (a) a policeman, (b) a burglar, and (c) a murderer each has a different intention with respect to using the firearm. The policeman intends deterrence but no actual use unless governed by justice and the disciplines of his profession; the burglar intends only a threatening and conditioned use, outside justice; the murderer intends not a conditional but a willful use. These three are only a few of the many senses of “intention” and “threat”. The intention in deterrence, for example, is analogous to case (a), not to (b), and certainly not to (c). In nuclear matters, we would further. distinguish between a fundamental, secondary, and architectonic intention. Each of these must also be treated in turn.

The fundamental moral intention in nuclear deterrence is never to have to use the deterrent force. That this is in fact so is shown by the honorable discharge of military officers, after their term of duty expires, who have succeeded in their fundamental intention. Besides this fundamental intention, however deterrence requires by its nature a secondary intention. For the physical, material weapon is by itself no deterrent without the engagement of intellect and will on the part of the entire public which called it into being. It is also no deterrent if it fails to meet and to halt the will, intellect, and social organization of the particular opposing regime. A people which would be judged incapable of willing to use the deterrent would tempt an adversary to call its bluff. Thus, a secondary intention cannot be separated from deterrence. Without that secondary intention, distinct from the fundamental intention, a deterrent is no longer a deterrent but only an inert weapon backed up by a public lie.

60. As a counter to this, some might argue that the Soviet Union could never be sure whether a weapon held in readiness was backed by the secondary intention to use it. Given Soviet ideology about the perfidy of capitalist powers, however, Soviet leaders would be obliged to assume the worst. Arguing the casuistry of truth-telling may indeed permit leaders of one nation to allow the leaders of another, who have no title to know the truth, to be self-deceived. But probes and tests of real intentions cannot be ruled out. In nuclear matters, such uncertainty willfully created would seem to constitute immoral behavior.

61. The word intention has yet a third sense, beyond the two subjective intentions we have so far discussed. The Catholic moral tradition holds that human acts have objective intentionality apart from subjective dispositions. In order to construct and to maintain a nuclear deterrent force, a democratic society must generate a complex, highly rational, socially organized, objective intentionality. Citizens through their representatives vote funds for it; research and production are organized, elaborate systems of communication and command are maintained. The architectonic of objective political intention suffuses the entire process. This already is a sustained intention of a crucial sort. To be sure, many individuals must also be committed to their tasks to suffuse this objective intentionality with appropriate subjective dispositions. The latter are indispensable. But a society which possesses a deterrent also has an organized objective intention. In the case of the United States, individuals add to this objective intention subjective intentions which are both fundamental —that the deterrent succeed in never being used — and secondary — that the deterrent be held in readiness for use. To say that a nation may possess a deterrent but may not intend to use it is fulfilled by the fundamental intention but not by the objective intention and the secondary intention. To condemn the latter is to frustrate the former and to invite a host of greater evils.

62. Moral clarity in a nuclear age requires that governments not willfully allow certain kinds of miscalculation to arise in the minds of other governments. While not every capability or intention or option needs to be — or should be — revealed, a basic and clear set of understandings is necessary. This requirement rules out bellicose threats as it rules out mere bluff. Public statements about nuclear policy must, therefore, be unambiguous and reasoned, restrained and understated. Leaders have sometimes erred in this matter. Communications links between adversaries should be swift, clear, unthreatening, and unambiguous, especially during times of stress. The record of the last thirty-seven years shows that this is difficult but possible.

63. A dilemma arises when some say that countervalue strategies are immoral in substance but preferable on grounds of economy and sufficiency; but that counterforce strategies, more moral in substance, are immoral because more dangerous. A similar dilemma arises when some say that making nuclear weapons smaller and more precise, so as to approximate the force of larger conventional weapons, thus reducing the moral problem of proportionality and indiscrimination, makes the use of nuclear weapons more thinkable and so should be avoided. If the use of both sorts of nuclear weapons is to be deterred, total reliance on one alone is likely to enlarge the options and temptations of an aggressor.

64. Similarly, some critics condemn the attainment by the U.S. of a “first strike” capability, while ignoring the fact that the Soviets already have, or very shortly will have, this capacity with respect to U.S. land-based delivery systems. By “first strike” capability is meant the capacity to destroy the opponent’s delivery systems before they can be called into use. This the United States does not have, and has no plans to attain. The one- hundred MX missiles requested by Presidents Reagan and Carter (who requested 200) cannot possibly wipe out all Soviet land-based missiles. Since two warheads on each silo are believed to be required, the 1,398 Soviet land-based delivery systems cannot be threatened by the MX, for it would be suicide to strike some without destroying all. Meanwhile the existing 1,052 American silos are vulnerable to the multiple-warheads of a fraction of the Soviet missile force. Since U.S. B-52s are not likely to penetrate Soviet defenses, a “first strike” by the Soviets may leave only submarine-launched missiles under U.S. command. To launch these would guarantee a second strike on U.S. cities. Given these capacities, the Soviets could, even without a first strike, hold U.S. forces immobilized and in checkmate, freeing Soviet conventional forces from restraint. Nuclear weapons do not have to be fired in order to exact surrender.

65. The reasons why the U.S. maintains a strategic triad — land-based, airborne, and submarine-borne delivery systems — are two: first to reduce the temptation of a simple “first strike” and, second, to prevent the President of the United States from facing only a single option, the command to destroy Soviet cities. Such an option would be suicidal for American cities. No President can be fairly placed in that position.

66. In short, given the nature of the Soviet leadership, its ideology, and its political culture, and recognizing the configuration of its own nuclear forces, we see no completely satisfactory position: neither abandonment of the deterrent, nor a deterrent strategy based upon counterforce, nor a deterrent based upon countervalue. Among these, we judge the best of the ambiguous but morally good options to reside in a combination of counterforce and countervalue deterrence. We uphold the fundamental intention of deterrence that no nuclear weapon ever be used. We uphold the secondary intention of being ready to use the deterrent within the narrowest feasible limits, as indispensable to making deterrence work. We reject the policy of national bluff which permits possession but does not permit its essential secondary intention. We discern no other way to defend the Constitution of the United States, to protect its institutions of liberty, and to prevent the most awful aggression against innocent peoples here and elsewhere. It would hardly be better for us if some other people bore this burden, but in any case there is none who can lift it from us. In due course, the Soviet Union may learn to prefer ways of peace abroad and ways of liberty at home — in which case, peace among nations may be possible. For this we labor and pray.

E. Conventional War and Nuclear War

67. Even should the specter of nuclear war be lifted at last from the human race, we recognize the horrors of modern conventional warfare. The power and terrible accuracy of rocket-driven conventional arms, launched at great distances, became visible during the last days of World War II. These horrors have been magnified since, as exhibited in the Falkland Islands and elsewhere. In World War I, 15 million civilians died. In World War II, 51 million civilians died. In some 67 conventional wars since that time, millions of other civilians have died. It cannot be thought that an end to nuclear deterrence will necessarily usher in an era without war. Insofar as war springs from evil in the human heart, insofar as that evil is ineradicable except by the grace of God, and insofar as human beings can, and do, resist God’s grace, we do not expect that war will ever be wholly eliminated from human history. Nonetheless, the dream of a world without war abides. Institutions of liberties and rights, peaceful competition and cooperative labors, and the conversion of every human heart are devoutly to be labored for. They cannot be said to have yet been attained. Like Christ, we see ahead the cross: Not our will, but Thine be done.

68. Distinguished strategists have argued that an end to nuclear deterrence raises the probabilities of conventional war on the part of the Soviet Union. This is because of the great superiority of Soviet conventional forces, wherever they should choose to mass them, on the Central German Plain or on the northern borders of the Middle East. However this may be, we hold it to be a good worth sacrificing for to raise the capabilities of NATO forces in Europe and the Middle East to a level sufficient to deter any Soviet temptation to aggression. The editors of The Economist have worked out a study of the as-yet unmet requirements of such sufficiency. They hold that this goal is costly, but attainable. Economically, at least, it is feasible; whether political will for the sacrifices entailed is available is questionable. Still, the present weakness of NATO on the German plain now makes recurrence to defense with tactical nuclear weapons a necessary part of NATO strategy. To supplant this reliance on tactical nuclear weapons with a sufficient conventional deterrent seems to us both morally good and morally required. Even so, prudence requires that the nuclear deterrent must be held in reserve. Certainly, it will have to be so until the current imbalance in conventional forces is redressed. We urge speedy and generous cooperation to this end, even though welfare states naturally prefer to evade heavier expenditures except for social programs.

69. It has not been sufficiently recognized, in the U.S. and in Europe, that thepeople of the United States have made themselves hostage to an outbreak of war in Europe. Should such a war arise, and should a terrified Europe demand that tactical nuclear weapons be called into play (when, for example, Soviet troops had made a breakthrough h across half of Germany), further nuclear escalation could not be ruled out, in which the Soviets would threaten the United States might someday seek disengagement from the European theater. But this step, too, would have fateful consequences not only for the United States but for humankind. In this context, the cry for “No First Use” of tactical or other nuclear or nuclear weapons has for some much appeal. Heeding such a cry, the United States might at first save itself. It is not likely to have done so for long. Until an adequate conventional deterrent is in place in Europe, we hold a pledge of “no first use” to be divisive and destabilizing. Perhaps most clearly among our differences, this conviction differentiates our judgment from that of the bishop’s second draft. Since NATO forces are not designed for offensive use, the question arises only in the case of Soviet aggression. Deterrence of that aggression is the first moral imperative. When NATO conventional forces are able to present a sufficient deterrent without recourse to nuclear weapons, such a pledge would be in effect whether stated or not.

  • Michael Novak

    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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