Moral Clarity in the Nuclear Age: Part III


70. We do not consider the present situation of nuclear deterrence ideal; we consider it a moral choice involving the lesser evil. When we look to the future, we see both creative possibilities and even greater dangers. The greatest danger is spiritual. Democratic peoples find protracted danger and sacrifice more onerous by far than do the leaders of totalitarian states. The latter benefit by military mobilization; the former find it a threat to democracy itself. Again, successful deterrence buries the evidence that brought it into play to begin with, and a free people must take up the argument ever anew. Thus, hope for peace nourishes illusions in a democratic people, eternal vigilance being the price of liberty most difficult to pay. That is why today broad popular discussion, argument and consensus are indispensable to the preservation of liberty. The military strategy of the United States and its allies depends upon popular understanding and popular support.

71. In this respect, every citizen might well wish that our lives were not burdened, as they are, by sacrifices for defense. Many cannot help wishing that nuclear dangers might simply vanish. Indeed, much time and energy is well spent trying to imagine prudent steps to diminish the present danger.

72. Many citizens have hoped that a mutually verifiable nuclear freeze by both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. would offer surcease. We judge that the hope that the Soviets will consent to on-site’ verification is remote. We recognize that verification by technical means such as satellite observation and electronic monitoring is subject to deception and disinformation. Moreover, there are four reasons for believing that a freeze now would be destabilizing. First, the Soviet nuclear force already holds two destabilizing advantages, both in its “first strike” capacity concerning the U.S. land-based Minutemen and in its targeting of European capitals with SS-20s. Similarly, the trend lines of new Soviet developments are up, whereas the process of strengthening U.S. and NATO deterrent forces is appropriately democratic and slow. Second, a freeze at present levels does not at all diminish the present danger; it freezes it in place. This danger includes the rapidly approaching obsolescence of U.S. delivery systems and the relative youth of Soviet systems. Third, we note that a “verifiable” freeze — including a freeze upon nuclear research and development (which can go on inside buildings anywhere) — would require a massive regimen of verification beyond anything remotely sustainable at present. Finally, Soviet officials have begun offering schemes of reduction, below levels envisaged by a mere freeze. For these reasons, we judge that a negotiated freeze may well be inferior to negotiated reductions, and thus cannot be insisted on by moralists. Such concrete judgments must finally be resolved democratically, by duly constituted governments amid reasoned public debate, in which good people disagree.

73. Since the Soviets have several forms of superiority at present —not necessarily in every respect, but in some important ones — it is obviously difficult for Soviet leaders to surrender advantages they have amassed through great sacrifices on the part of their peoples. On the other hand, Soviet leaders have reason to fear the greater inventiveness of free societies. If American and NATO resolve were now to falter, Soviet leaders would have reason to continue their present successful strategy. If, on the contrary, they must face the fact that the U.S. and NATO are determined to maintain deterrence through new inventions, they may conclude that they must alter their course. The linchpin of preventing war is Soviet will. Soviet intentions, strategies, weapons development and procurement follow from Soviet will. At the present moment, we judge that negotiations for reductions in both strategic and theater nuclear weapons coincide with real interests on both sides. Such negotiations, however fragile and risky, as history shows, have a reasonable prospect of success, provided that the Soviets perceive greater risks in the determination of Western nations to rectify the current imbalance. Such an opportunity must be pursued, despite the sorry record of arms negotiations in the past. Caution is required since negotiations for the sake of negotiations may occasion greater evils. Criteria distinguishing moral from less than moral negotiations are required. Many of our current difficulties arise out of judgments made by American negotiators in the past. The current emphasis on large offensive land-based missiles, for example, and on offensive rather than defensive weapons, arose from past negotiations. Nonetheless, a change in Soviet will, through negotiations if possible, is to be pursued with determination.

74. The question of defensive weapons raises further technological possibilities in the future. It is not our role to recommend particular weapons systems, but it is important to recall that technology does not stand still and that the future is not determined. Future developments in satellite detection systems, matched with non-nuclear satellite weapons, could enable defenders to destroy ballistic weapons shortly after take-off. Long- range ballistic missiles would, therefore, be rendered obsolete. Some experts hold that current technology affords just such a defensive possibility now, others believe this will not be feasible until well into the future, when laser weapons are available. In any case, this is a non-nuclear defense. As a deterrent system, it does not rely on counterforce or countervalue but on non-nuclear defensive instruments. Not only does its moral character seem to be superior, but its implementation would seem to remove the threat of land-based missile systems. While it is not our role here to pass judgment for or against this or other particular systems, we do wish to note that the present situation may one day be lifted from the human race. The human race is neither static nor foredoomed.

75. For most of its history, the human race did not live under nuclear threat; there is nothing inevitable or necessary about the continuance of that threat. Efforts to remove it must be sound, prudent, and wise, lest they result in a deterioration of the present situation into something even worse. But eventually to lift such a threat is surely within the reach of sustained moral efforts. It is the vocation of Christians and Jews not only to reflect on the word but to change it, bringing it closer to the outlines of the Kingdom promised in both the Old and the New Testaments. It is the vocation of American citizens, civilian and military, called by the Seal of the United States to evoke Novus ordo Seclorum, a new order of liberty and justice for all, to extend the boundaries of liberty and justice by peaceful means, through the consent of the governed. Although not without failures and flaws, the purpose of United States foreign and military policy since World War II has been to defend and to extend such liberties, on which alone true peace can rest. We cherish the hope that even our adversaries will one day experience liberty for all their peoples, and join with us in the cooperative task of bringing all peoples on earth to a fuller measure of human development, in peace, liberty, and justice for all humankind, fulfilling thereby the will of God on earth. It is in seeking to follow His Will that we have, to the best of our ability, formulated these arguments for the respectful consideration of our fellow Catholics, our fellow citizens, and all persons of good will throughout the world. May God favor this purpose. Though His ways be dark, His constancy abides forever.


  • 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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