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Winter Books

It’s time to ban the bomb


By Jonathan Schell
Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, 223 pages, $25


The first nuclear era, which began with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, ended with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. We live in the second nuclear era, the post-Cold War nuclear era.

At first glance, this may appear a more benign, less threatening moment. It may also be humanity’s last fleeting chance to save itself from cataclysmic nuclear destruction. With 35,000 nuclear weapons remaining in the world, The Gift of Time presses the question: Are these weapons of mass destruction remnant products of the first nuclear era or are they permanent fixtures in the world landscape?

Humanity, facing its most important decision in recorded history, must now decide. Yet we have done little to understand the dimensions of the choice we face.

Jonathan Schell’s latest work aims to change that situation. It comes none to soon.

Complicating the matter, we lack perspective. Since the nuclear age and the Cold War were born at almost the same time and enveloped each other, few observers troubled to distinguish clearly between the two. Once the Soviets had the bomb, in 1949, sound proposals for nuclear disarmament -- to reverse the growing threat to humanity -- were routinely rejected on the grounds that the character of the Soviet regime posed insurmountable obstacles.

Nuclear disarmament, the Cold War catechism had it, was possible only if the disarmament arrangements could be fully inspected; but the Soviet Union, being a closed society, would never permit such inspections; hence, nuclear disarmament was impossible. Nuclear critics were silenced.

In other words, the totalitarian nature of the Soviet regime became both the justification for building nuclear arsenals and the hard rock explanation for the impossibility of ever eliminating them.

The arms race followed, assaulting both reason and morality. The 1950s witnessed the rise in the West of the doctrine of nuclear deterrence. It taught that safety from nuclear terror was possible only by threatening that same terror. It also taught that, to maintain credibility, threats had to grow and entail ever greater risk.

Legitimacy and momentum

Official acceptance of the doctrine, as an essential element of U.S. policy, gave the nuclear buildup, however potentially destructive, a legitimacy and momentum. It was now acceptable, even soothing to some, that great benefits could be extracted from nuclear arms. Those who protested the insanity of the march toward genocide were seen not for the healthy awareness they brought forth, but rather as agents of threat to the state and were marginalized as a result. The curious result was that psychological health was punished and sickness was rewarded. And still is.

Schell does not specifically cover the moral issues faced by the religious communities during the Cold War. They had their own problems dealing with the arms race. The advent of nuclear weapons and the policy of nuclear deterrence eventually posed serious moral conflicts for religious institutions that professed the sacredness of life. They had to face the moral issues raised by threats of indiscriminate destruction. They had to confront the moral vacuum that stems from abandoning the rudimentary principle that one must never, even in “retaliation,” threaten to kill millions of innocent people. The Roman Catholic church was only one of many religions that found themselves confronted by growing nuclear armaments and their justifications.

The first serious effort by the Catholic church to deal with the nuclear issue came as a result of lobbying done by Catholic activists, including New York pacifist Eileen Egan, during the Vatican Council in the mid-1960s in Rome. As the result of their actions, the world’s bishops, in 1965, issued the council’s only condemnation of weapons of mass destruction.

The council offered a chilling assessment of the threat of modern warfare, when it wrote: “The whole human race faces a moment of supreme crisis in its advance toward maturity” requiring “a completely fresh reappraisal of war” (“Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”). The council fathers called the arms race “one of the greatest curses on the human race,” inflicting “on the poor ... more than can be endured.”

The Catholic church, in responding to nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence, had two Christian traditions to draw on, the nonviolent tradition and the just war position. Neither offered a good answer to issues raised by nuclear weapons.

Just-war teaching holds that a person may participate in war, and by extension, war preparations, only if certain requirements are first met. The most perplexing, as far as nuclear war is concerned, involve the principles of proportionality and discrimination.

Proportionality demands that a moral response to an act of aggression cannot exceed the nature of the aggression. Discrimination requires that the lives of innocent persons may never be taken directly. On this later point the council wrote: “Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation” (“Pastoral Constitution”).

This official church assessment has been the foundation of all subsequent Catholic moral evaluations of nuclear war.

The first time the U.S. bishops attempted to deal with the nuclear weapons issue was in a 1976 pastoral letter, “To Live in Christ Jesus.” In it they wrote, echoing the council fathers: “Acts of war deliberately directed against innocent noncombatants are gravely wrong, and no one may participate in such an act. ... As possessors of a vast nuclear arsenal, we must also be aware that not only is it wrong to attack civilian populations but it is also wrong to threaten to attack them as part of a strategy of deterrence.” Deterrence was on the line.

Later, in 1979, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Cardinal John Krol, speaking on behalf of the bishops, seemed to back off the deterrence condemnation, saying it cannot be justified in principle, but might be tolerated -- if the deterrent framework is used to make progress in arms limitations and reductions. An official Catholic accommodation appeared to have begun.

In the eyes of some, the once-blanket condemnation of strategic nuclear weapons, as part of a deterrent system, was slipping, seriously compromising the church’s moral posture on life issues. The question continued to be asked: If the use of a weapon of mass destruction is immoral, then is not also the threat to use such a weapon of terror also immoral? Deterrent proponents said no, countering that the very existence of nuclear arsenals provide the only assurance they will never have to be used.

Clearly, a more thorough evaluation was called for. Bishop Thomas Gumbleton was one of a handful of Pax Christi Catholic voices to call for a U.S. bishops’ pastoral on the church’s response to modern warfare.

In 1982 the Catholic bishops began work on their watershed pastoral. It would address their concerns about the Cold War defense buildup and the threat that nuclear weapons presented to the world. The bishops conducted hearings to learn the views of experts and relied on specialists to draft their letter.

In 1983, after several drafts, they issued “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response.” At the heart of its analysis, the pastoral offered a “strictly conditioned” approval to U.S. deterrence policy, provided it met three necessary criteria:

First, it could only be viewed as an interim policy. “We cannot consider it adequate as a long-term basis for peace,” the bishops wrote.

Second, it was acceptable only “to prevent the use of nuclear weapons by others.” No first strike was tolerated.

Finally, it could not be seen as “an end in itself but as a step on the way toward a progressive disarmament.” The bishops wrote that “progress toward a world freed of dependence on nuclear deterrence must be carefully carried out.”

The bishops’ statement came at a time of intense public nuclear scrutiny -- in the midst of the Cold War -- when nuclear confrontation seemed not only possible but seemingly, at times, imminent.

Historic opportunity

With the Cold War fading into history, nuclear conflict seems less threatening today. Public scrutiny of U.S. nuclear deterrence policies, meanwhile, is almost nonexistent. These realities fuel Schell’s deepest fears and deepest hopes. He is desperately afraid that humanity may be missing a historic opportunity to rid the world of nuclear weapons. He is afraid, if this opportunity is missed, that nuclear weapons will remain permanent fixtures, will proliferate -- and one day again almost certainly will be used.

Schell writes: “If China and Russia are now our friends, and the Cold War ended a decade ago, why are we still basing our ‘security’ on the threat of mutual annihilation?”

The Gift of Time is made up of a series of interviews with former nuclear policymakers such as Robert McNamara, Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, Helmut Schmidt, as well as U.S. and Russian military leaders, all of whom have had their fingers near the nuclear button for years -- and all of whom now say the world has a historic chance to change course and rid humanity of these terrifying weapons.

As they converse about the technicalities involved in disarmament moves, Schell and others attempt to dispel the myth that deterrence kept the peace during the Cold War. It is false logic to conclude that since World War III never came, deterrence was responsible. It is sobering to learn that some policymakers and generals responsible for carrying out nuclear policy now believe it was almost by sheer luck that nuclear war was averted.

The abolitionists cited say they know it is an uphill battle to make their case. The planet has been living with the bomb for more than a half-century now; people have come to believe they have no choice. Yet activists insist that abolition has never been in closer reach. History has handed us a political windfall, observes Schell. But getting rid of the weapons, he and others say, will take great resolve and courage; it will require patience and ingenuity as well. Above all, they say, it will require rethinking conventional nuclear wisdom.

The Gift of Time ignites the imagination as disarmament is discussed. New ideas intended to break through long-standing deadlocks are offered. Several abolitionists speak of breaking out from traditional discussion, called “vertical” nuclear reduction efforts. These efforts have involved cuts in the number of weapons. They have served as the basis of the SALT reduction treaties.

The problem with vertical deals is that they are painstakingly slow and after almost two decades have left enough warheads around to end the world a hundred times over.

Another parallel track, they say, might be “horizontal” reductions, aimed at making existing arsenals safer. A first step in horizontal reductions would be to de-alert today’s weapons, ending the policy of “launch on warning.” From there, nuclear weapon systems would go to decoupling warheads from missiles and disassembling key components. Such arrangements, they say, could be internationally negotiated and inspected.

An advantage of horizontal reductions -- taking place at the same time as vertical reductions -- would be that nuclear nations could reassemble their force in a short time if a renegade country cheated. The horizontal route serves as an answer to those who argue against abolition on the grounds that terrorists could hold a nuclear free world hostage.

“We need a whole new way of thinking,” says retired Gen. Charles Horner, who ran the Air Force Space Command from 1992 to 1994. Says retired Gen. George Lee Butler, who ran the Strategic Air Command until 1994, “There is no security in nuclear weapons.”

Losing moral authority

Schell argues that the Clinton administration has missed a historic opportunity to reverse our addiction to nuclear weapons. By not changing policy, the United States and its nuclear fellows hold on to their nuclear weapons while losing the moral authority to persuade other countries, like India and Pakistan, to give up theirs. The nuclear club, meanwhile, gets less exclusive all the time.

As it stands, the United States is not prepared to change its nuclear posture. Instead, it is hardening that posture. In its 1994 Nuclear Posture Review, the Clinton administration said no to change in deterrence policy. Schell quotes then-Deputy Secretary of Defense John Deutsch as saying the United States needs thousands of nuclear weapons as a “hedge” against a turnaround in Russia or to deter “rogue states” that might obtain nuclear weapons. So deterrence remains the cornerstone of U.S. defense policy even though its foundation -- confrontation with a totalitarian power, the Soviet Union -- ended almost a decade ago. The thought unsettles many who consider it and raises moral questions, especially for the Catholic church, given its teachings on nuclear morality.

Some Catholics, many associated with the U.S. branch of Pax Christi, the international Catholic peace movement, have again called for a reappraisal of the church’s official “strictly conditioned” approval of deterrence. Earlier this year, 75 U.S. Catholic bishops concluded that nuclear deterrence, as a national policy, must be condemned as morally abhorrent.

“With the recent nuclear tests by India and Pakistan, we feel our statement is both timely and prophetic,” said Walter F. Sullivan, bishop of Richmond, Va. and president of Pax Christi USA. Citing the $60 billion Department of Energy program known as Stockpile Stewardship and Management, as well as current administration policies, the bishops concluded that the United States plans to rely on nuclear weapons indefinitely. “Such an investment in a program to upgrade the ability to design, develop, test and maintain nuclear weapons signals quite clearly that the United States shows no intention of moving forward with that ‘progressive disarmament’ and certainly no commitment to eliminating these weapons entirely,” stated the bishops. Such a commitment was called for in the 1983 Peace Pastoral.

Reflecting the sentiments of the abolitionists cited in Schell’s book, Gumbleton said flatly: “We are in a new moment,” adding that “the old Cold War mentality that has driven deterrence policy for half a century must give way to a recognition of this new moment.”

In addressing the United Nations in October 1997, Archbishop Renato Martino, permanent representative for the Holy See Observer Mission at the United Nations, summed up the Vatican’s hope for change as well. “If biological weapons, chemical weapons and now land mines can be done away with, so too can nuclear weapons,” Martino said. “Those nuclear weapons states resisting such negotiations must be challenged, for in clinging to their outmoded rationales for nuclear deterrence, they are denying the most ardent aspirations of humanity as well as the highest legal authority in the world.”

Schell’s Gift of Time places the modern nuclear weapons issues clearly before us, making it more difficult for anyone to claim, “I had no idea.”

Given the critical choice before humanity, it is, indeed, time for new ideas. You will find them in this book.

Tom Fox is publisher of NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, November 6, 1998