The Moral Case for the Strategic Defense Initiative

The whole human race faces a moment of supreme crisis on its advance towards maturity. So warned the Fathers of Vatican II in opening their discussion of the problem of war in the modern world. How did we get to this moment of supreme crisis?

The roots of the crisis can easily be traced at least as far back as Eighteenth Century France where, within a space of a few years, there occurred two events which laid the foundations for the problem we now face. The first was the Montgolfier balloon ascent, which began man’s conquest of the air; the second was conscription into the Republican armies, which began the nationalization of war. The century and a half that followed these events saw a radical transformation in the nature of war. The population-as-national-resource of the French revolutionaries was soon transformed into the population-as-target. But as long as wars were fought on the ground, actual attacks on the enemy population were, by and large, first impossible (because the enemy army stood in the way) and then unnecessary (because once the army in the field was defeated, the population at home saw that there was no alternative to surrender).

The conquest of the air changed all that. Air power made it possible to attack the home population as a means to winning the war. Although the strategy was tried during World War I, technology at that early date was still too primitive and the strategy had no effect on the outcome of the war. But the horrors of the protracted trench warfare that was World War I made the development of air power look like an attractive alternative—a quick blow to the enemy homeland should end a war at relatively low cost, or so the strategists thought. It did not, of course, but the targeting of civilian populations nevertheless, and in spite of military opposition, came into its own. The technology used through most of the Second War was inefficient (it took a 1,000-plane raid which lasted three days to destroy Dresden), but effective. But World War II made its contribution to technology as well as to strategy, for the war saw the development both of the ballistic missile and of the nuclear bomb. It was the combination of these two inventions—an invulnerable delivery system and a weapon small enough to be carried, but large enough to be “useful”—in a moral context which tolerated the destruction of enemy cities that created the current predicament, the “supreme crisis” of the opening passage.

It did not have to be this way, of course. Immediately after the war, the United States, which had a monopoly on the possession of nuclear weapons, offered to give them up through the Baruch Plan. But this offer was rejected by the Soviet Union. Immediately after the war, the United States demobilized the largest army the world had ever seen, but the Soviet Union, in Czechoslovakia, in Berlin, and in Korea, to cite just the most salient incidents, made it clear that, though the Nazi menace had been destroyed, the threat to the free world was not in the least diminished. More recent events, in Czechoslovakia (again), in Poland, and in Afghanistan, make it clear that the threat is still before us.

The response we chose, reliance on nuclear weapons, was an economy move—nuclear weapons were cheaper, and more convenient, than maintaining a large conventional army. But the choice we made created a new danger, for the very weapons on which we relied for our defense came to pose a danger of their own. The American Bishops, in their recent pastoral letter, summarized the situation as follows:

we perceive two dimensions of the contemporary dilemma of deterrence. One dimension is the danger of nuclear war, with its human and moral costs….The other dimension is the independence and freedom of nations and entire peoples, including the need to protect smaller nations from threats to their independence and integrity.

This reliance on the specter of retaliation to secure basic human values is, in President Reagan’s words, “a sad commentary on the human condition.” What can we do about it? Three general lines of policy are available, each with variations.

The first is disarmament: we could get rid of nuclear weapons. Two variations of the disarmament policy are available—unilateral and multilateral. The first ignores the fact that the current situation is not just a bad one, it is a dilemma. The Bishops rightly insist that

The moral duty today is to prevent nuclear war from ever occurring and to protect and preserve those key values of justice, freedom, and independence which are necessary for personal dignity and national integrity.

Unilateral disarmament may avoid one of the horns of the dilemma, but only at the risk of impaling us all on the second.

The second variation of the disarmament policy is multilateral disarmament. Surely if both sides agreed to give up all nuclear weapons, then deterrence could be achieved, as it once was, conventionally, by our ability to deny the enemy success on the field of battle, rather than by threat of unacceptable retaliatory losses. And if deterrence should fail, at least there would be no chance that the war which ensued would destroy the whole planet. The problem here is not over whether a nuclear-free world would be a good thing—everyone agrees that it would. The question is rather over whether we can get there, and if so, how? For there are significant, perhaps insuperable, obstacles which stand between us and a nuclear-free world, at least along any of the most commonly proposed roads to that end.

Disarmament would only provide security if we could be sure that the other side actually did disarm. And verification of arms control agreements is a tricky business. At the current relatively high levels of armament, the tolerable margin of error is within our technological capabilities—if we miscount by 10 missiles, or perhaps even by 100, it is a matter of little strategic significance. But in a disarmed—or nearly disarmed—world even such a small difference in arsenal size would give decisive strategic advantage to the nation that had it. The incentives for cheating on arms control would be great and would only be magnified by the fear that the other side might be cheating as well.

A related danger is that small arsenals, whether achieved via gradual reductions on the way to disarmament or via cheating on an agreement to disarm completely, are highly unstable. This instability arises from each nation’s perception that the only way to survive the crisis is to destroy the other nation’s nuclear forces in a preemptive strike. The prospect of achieving a successful pre-emptive strike on a nation with a strategic arsenal of a thousand warheads, properly deployed, is fairly small. There is no point in attacking unless one can assure that the victim of the pre-emptive strike has no significant retaliatory capability, and gaining that kind of assurance is no easy matter. But the probability of success in destroying an arsenal of only 10 weapons is much greater. That is why small nuclear arsenals are relatively unstable. The Bishops rightly emphasize the importance of considering stability when discussing the criteria to be used in evaluating new weapons systems.

Complete nuclear disarmament, then, makes cheating too rewarding; even approaching it is dangerously destabilizing.

A second policy alternative is to stick with the current strategy of deterrence by threat of nuclear retaliation, or some variation of it. The variations on this policy pertain to the nature of the retaliatory threat. The history of U.S. nuclear policy seems to be a rather uneasy vacillation between general threats to destroy Soviet society and more focused threats on particular aspects of Soviet power (preeminently, but not exclusively, on its military forces) This strategy of deterrence by threat of punishment has kept “peace of a sort” for some forty years now, but it is, for numerous reasons, less than ideal.

First, execution of certain threats would clearly be immoral. Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or of extensive areas along with their populations is a crime against God and against man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.

In an earlier letter, the American Bishops argued that even threats against enemy population centers were immoral, since they required a conditional intention to do what was immoral. But the moral principle on which they relied, that intention to do what is immoral is itself immoral, seems to me not to apply to the kind of self-frustrating intention which characterizes deterrent threats. For an intention to do something immoral is objectionable just because it is the last step the agent takes on the way to performance of an immoral action. The intention to retaliate which characterizes the nuclear deterrent strategy, however, is conditioned on an event (a Soviet attack) which, it is believed, the very adoption of the intention makes unlikely. Thus, far from being anyone’s last step on the way to performance of the act of retaliation, it is designed, among other things, precisely to make the act of retaliation unnecessary. In any case the point is moot, for several recent statements of official U.S. policy have explicitly stated that “for moral and political reasons, the United States does not target the Soviet civilian population as such.”

Second, even with the most scrupulous attention to the moral principle of non-combatant immunity, retaliatory threats raise both self-interested and moral worries. The very existence of the weapons raises the possibility, however remote, of accidents. Further, if deterrence should fail, there is always some danger that war would escalate to nuclear war and nuclear war to massive nuclear exchanges. And despite the technological advances which increase the accuracy of nuclear delivery vehicles, the colocation of military targets and civilian populations keeps alive the prospect of widespread collateral damage.

Nuclear deterrence, whether implemented through reliance on a policy of mutually assured destruction or on a policy of flexible response, may be the best of the currently available options, but it is just what the Bishops declare it to be, inadequate as a long-term basis for peace. In saying this, they were echoing sentiments which had been expressed by Pope John Paul II the year before. In a message to the U.N. he had said:

In current conditions, “deterrence” based on balance, certainly not as an end in itself, but as a step on a way toward progressive disarmament, may still be judged morally acceptable. Nonetheless, in order to assure peace, it is indispensable not to be satisfied with this minimum which is always susceptible to the real danger of explosion.

The dissatisfaction with nuclear deterrence is not, of course, confined to the clergy. In a recent conversation, President Reagan expressed his dissatisfaction with the present state of affairs:

Think of it. You’re sitting at that desk. The word comes that they [the missiles] are on their way. And you sit here knowing that there is no way, at present, of stopping them. So they’re going to blow up how much of this country we can only guess at, and your response can be to push the button before they get here so that even though you’re all going to die, they’re going to die too…. There’s something so immoral about it.

The Bishops urge that we “move…in a new direction, toward a national policy and an international system which more adequately reflect the values and vision of the kingdom of God.” The President put the same point as follows: “The human spirit must be capable of rising above dealing with other nations and human beings by threatening their existence.”

These remarks lead us into the third policy option which might be adopted in response to the nuclear dilemma—strategic defense. In the opening paragraph of my essay, I argued that the dilemma we face was created by the coupling of an invulnerable delivery vehicle—the ballistic missile—and a devastating warhead. A policy of strategic defense would be designed to make the delivery vehicle vulnerable.

Such a policy would not be a panacea. It would not solve the problems of poverty or racism. It would not even solve the problem of national security, but it would nevertheless solve one particularly intractable aspect of that last problem in a way preferable to the current policy for reasons both of morality and of self-interest.

The advantages of defensive over a retaliatory policy seem clear. Defense against nuclear weapons raises no problems of intending (in any sense) what it would be immoral to do. Defense against nuclear weapons raises no problems of what to do if deterrence should fail. Defense against nuclear weapons does not leave us vulnerable to accidents. And perhaps most importantly, the ability to defend oneself against nuclear weapons opens the road to nuclear disarmament, by removing the instability of small arsenals and by removing the incentive to cheat on disarmament agreements. These are, of course, precisely the kinds of advantages cited by President Reagan in proposing that we look into strategic defense. At one point he asked, “Would it not be better to save lives than to avenge them?” and at another he points out that strategic defense could “pave the way for arms control measures to eliminate the weapons themselves.”

Does strategic defense have disadvantages? Two are commonly cited.

First, critics object that it undermines the only really successful nuclear arms control treaty we have ever achieved. It is true that, though research into the possibility of strategic defense would not violate any provision of SALT I, deployment of such a system, at least on the scale being discussed here, would do so. But it is not clear that it is for that reason bad. Arms control treaties are, after all, not ends in themselves; they are means to preserving national security and international peace, as they themselves make clear. They should remain in force only ‘so long as they help to achieve the end for which they were established. But SALT I makes sense only in the context of a strategy of mutually assured destruction, of vulnerable populations and invulnerable retaliatory forces. And that, as we have seen, is a policy which Bishops, Pope, and President all agree is acceptable only as an interim strategy!

Second, critics object that implementation of strategic defense would open a dangerous window of instability, a period in which the Soviet Union would see itself as having one last shot at the American nuclear arsenal before it became forever out of reach, protected by the strategic defensive shield. This is, of course, a danger. Careful coordination with our adversaries would be necessary to assure that we, and they, deploy strategic defensive systems in such a way that no such window of instability is opened. And the Reagan administration is explicit about the fact that the Strategic Defense Initiative should be “a cooperative effort with the Soviet Union, hopefully leading to an agreed transition toward effective non-nuclear defenses.” But the problem, though real, does not seem insuperable.

The real question seems to be, not whether strategic defense would be morally superior to deterrence by threat of nuclear retaliation, but whether it would work, and whether we can afford it. Both questions, however, seem premature. Strategic defense is not, at present, a possibility. President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative proposes only that we initiate “a long-range research and development program,” to see just what the possibilities are. The research will itself, of course, not be free, but as President Reagan asks, “is it not worth every investment necessary to free the world from the threat of nuclear war?” To which we might add, given what we have said about the moral superiority of this strategy over the alternatives, would it be morally permissible to ignore what may be the only road to the elimination of nuclear weapons?

  • Kenneth W. Kemp

    At the time this article was written, Kenneth W. Kemp, captain in the United States Air Force, taught ethics in the Department of Philosophy and Fine Arts at the United States Air Force Academy.

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