A Letter from Germany to U. S. Bishops

The following letter was sent to Archbishop John Roach, Chairman of the Catholic Bishops of the United States, on March 14, 1983. The writers are members of the German Bundestag. Dr. Alois Mertes is state secretary of the Federal Foreign Office and a Christian Democrat. Dr. Georg Leber is Vice President of the Bundestag and former Federal Minister of Defense. He is a member of the Social Democrats. Efforts to determine if this letter was circulated prior to the Bishops’ meeting in Chicago were unsuccessful.

Your Excellency, Most Reverend Archbishop,

In your country and in ours a lively discussion is taking place in public about the second draft of the planned pastoral letter of U.S. Catholic bishops on the subject of “war and peace”. Having studied the draft, we wish to express in this letter the great concern we feel as German Catholics and democratic politicians. We are writing to you on no one’s behalf, but we are well aware that numerous personalities with political, military and ecclesiastical responsibility in Europe share our concern. A pastoral letter from the American bishops, the political conclusions of which result in war and subjugation in Europe becoming more likely, presents a challenge to our Christian conscience.

We are thus writing this letter as Christians who have always actively participated in church life and as members of the central committee of the German Catholic Laity who have collaborated in the light of the Christian faith in formulating opinions on contemporary problems, including questions of peace, security and disarmament.

With gratitude we welcome the religious principles of the second draft because they give encouragement to all people in America and elsewhere who support peace in human dignity and justice as well as the prevention of all types of warfare. But we are also writing as democratic politicians who, after experiencing two types of totalitarian rule on German soil, wish to put into practice, each in his respective party — the Social Democratic Party of Germany and the Christian Democratic Union of Germany as well as in their government offices — the norms of Christian ethics for a secure and just peace. We are co-authors of the article “Nuclear Weapons and the Preservation of Peace” (Foreign Affairs, summer, 1982, p. 1157-1170. Europa-archiv no. 12’1982, p. 357-368), in which, out of a spirit of responsibility for peace in Europe, we expressed our opposition to the ethical and political arguments regarding the demand of the Soviet Union and of individual American figures to renounce the defense option of a first use of nuclear weapons. (Your draft mentions this article in note 33.) We ask you to make our arguments known to your fellow bishops. Fraternity in the church forbids ruthlessness in the preservation of national interests. It demands fraternal dialogue, especially when, despite consensus about ethical norms, serious disparities arise in judging the facts, owing to differences in geographical position, history and especially in political and strategic vulnerability.

We welcome the publicity you have wished in the debate on the planned pastoral letter. The U.S. is one of the powers and the only superpower of our times in which the moral principles of religious communities have the opportunity to influence political decisions. The American position on the question of securing peace is of importance to the survival of Western Europe and especially of the population of the non-nuclear and politically and militarily particularly vulnerable Federal Republic of Germany which relies in good faith on American guarantees for peace and its freedom. Obviously, many of your fellow brothers are aware that:

— the second draft has failed to take due account of either all the relevant moral or all the political and strategic facts but has presented ethics and facts up to now in a rather selective manner.

— the draft is based on a specific American perspective which is incompatible with the no less legitimate perspectives of other Americans, other nations and other constituent parts of our universal Church.

— the draft abandons a principle maintained by the 2nd Vatican Council and all popes of the nuclear age up to now: ecclesiastical teaching authority cannot solve the paradox weighing heavily on the responsible politicians, i.e. that war and blackmail under the present international circumstances can only be prevented by a demonstration, credible to friend and foe, of the capacity and resolution to offer effective resistance to a conventional or nuclear attack.

We repeat: the credibility of the U.S. nuclear defense guarantee for Western Europe is a precondition not only for the prevention of a conventional or nuclear war in Europe, but also for the prevention of political expansion by intimidation, pressure or blackmail.

The Soviet-European aspect of the problem is missing completely from the draft and thus an essential part of a reality which must be taken into account in any responsible political proposal. The Federal Republic of Germany including West Berlin renounced any control over nuclear weapons in 1954 vis-a-vis its allies and in 1974, at U.S. requests, vis-a-vis all states, in the treaty on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. Our country is afforded protection from a potential aggressor or blackmailer only by the North Atlantic Alliance and its ability, based on the American presence in Europe, to act as a credible deterrent using a strategy of flexible response. This remains true as long as no other viable alternative can be seen to secure peace and our freedom.

We regard as unethical a demand of a strategic nature which makes war in Europe more likely than in the past. This is especially true of the time-worn Soviet demand which the American bishops seem to want to make their own: renunciation of the defense option of a first use of American nuclear weapons in the case of successful conventional aggression against the alliance on European territory.

The Prague Declaration of the Warsaw Pact of 7 January 1983 has repeated this demand. This concurs with the obvious political aim of the Soviet Union, to shake Western Europe’s faith and especially that of the nonnuclear Federal Republic of Germany, in American protection and to make it politically pliable in a step-by-step process of preventive good conduct. It is thus easy to understand why the central organ of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany in East Berlin, Neues Deutschland, recently published those parts of the second draft of the pastoral letter which fan the flames of Soviet propaganda and strategy against the North Atlantic Alliance. As far as we are aware, the foreseeable consequence of renouncing the option of a defensive first use of American nuclear weapons is incompatible with Christian ethics because it endangers peace in freedom and encourages peace by submission in which the preaching of the Christian gospel would probably also be impeded or suppressed. We regard it as irresponsible to condemn essential aspects of nuclear strategy if this is sure to make conventional war and political submission more likely.

Life which is threatened by conventional weapons should not be protected any less than life threatened by nuclear weapons. Because a conventional east-west war would most likely begin on the territory of our divided Fatherland, we demand strict adherence to the already existing international prohibition of the first use of any weapons at all. With the past and present federal governments we adhere to what Federal Chancellor Helmut Schmidt stated in 1973 before the special session of the U.N. General Assembly devoted to disarmament.

“The prohibition of the use or threat of force embodied in the charter of the United Nations must therefore apply to all weapons, both nuclear and conventional. Whoever is the first to take up arms of whatever kind and to resort to or threaten military attack violates this prohibition. I repeat: this prohibition is comprehensive. Either it applies totally or not at all. Those who try to restrict it to the first use of certain weapons must ask themselves whether they would consider an attack launched with other weapons less prohibited. Should a country which is threatened by a neighbor heavily armed with conventional weapons be less protected than others by the prohibition of the use of force?”

In other words, we support a comprehensive renunciation of the first use of all weapons and not a selective non-first use of specific weapons. And indeed, the humanitarian International Law of armed conflicts and the strategic planning of the NATO alliance have for a long time now lived up to important demands of the American bishops, e.g. those concerning the distinction between combatants and non-combatants and concerning the relationship between the means used and damage incurred. As Christians we willingly and emphatically agree with the view expressed in the draft of the pastoral letter that the Soviet people and their leaders are “people created in God’s image”. But is this not equally true of everyone in the past and present? Does this Biblical message entitle those who are politically responsible to lessen their duty to afford protection? We are against every form of hatred and enmity, but at the same time we advocate vigilance in the face of all dangers which in the long run jeopardize the freedom of our citizens. It is our responsibility to analyze objectively the revolutionary and expansionist aims which are still openly professed by the Soviet leadership, ideological aims to which they also devote their military potentials.

We all perceive the danger today which could arise through unbridled proliferation and accumulation of nuclear weapons, through technical and psychological miscalculations, in short through human error, even without aggressive intent. We therefore need precautionary measures and a strategy which faces up in equal degree to both the nature of the Soviet threat and the nature of modern weapons of mass destruction. The western strategy of preventing war through deterrence is not, in our opinion, an ideal answer to this need, but in the present situation there are no equally effective, let alone more effective, answers to be found. This strategy of the western alliance would confront the Soviet Union, should it attack, with an imponderable risk to its own existence. It is the incalculability of this risk that in reality has prevented any belligerence — not only nuclear, conventional too — between East and West. It must not be overlooked that this very risk of self- destruction if war were to break out has forced the political leaders of the nuclear-weapon states to ponder the risks as never before in history. In view of the rationality and will for self-preservation of states and systems, this affords reliable protection of the peace. In its understandable concern to eliminate as far as possible, by the most rigorous moral standards, the danger of nuclear war, the second draft of the pastoral letter has the effect, however, of undermining the decisive and legitimizing function of the policy of deterrence — the prevention of all war. The authors concentrate on the problem of the circumstances in which war would be morally permissible and those in which war — even as a means of defense — can no longer be regarded as legitimate. By pointing to the disproportionate and indiscriminate effect of the use of nuclear weapons, the letter states that to use or to threaten to use them is immoral. But the central tenet of Western strategy is the threat of escalation. Not even the option of the first use of nuclear weapons, indeed in the final analysis, not even a general nuclear response, which might render impossible any distinction between military targets and civilians or their property, can be excluded. On the contrary, the credible potential to escalate up to mutual destruction ensures, by its own inherent logic, the objective probability and the subjective certainty that no shot will be fired. The implementation of individual demands made in the present text would call into question the very basis of the strategy which has so far been effective in preventing war. The United States bishops hope that measures such as the prohibition of any planning aimed at the capability to wage nuclear war, particularly renunciation of the first defensive use of nuclear weapons or the withdrawal of all nuclear weapons from frontier zones could reduce the danger of nuclear war. We, the undersigned, however, fear that the implementation of such proposals would make the risk more calculable again for the other side and that war would thus become more probable. The proposals are of a technical military nature. They ignore the anthropological, ethical and therefore political nature of the problem in its entirety. We are concerned that the moral condemnation of a deliberate threat to engage nuclear defenses will necessarily make more probable a conventional war whose devastating effects would be felt above all in our country.

In the event of a conventional attack on Western Europe by the Soviet Union, neither its own existence nor that of our ally, the United States, would be out at risk. This would also be true of total military conquest of Western Europe resulting from a Soviet conventional attack. Even strengthening of conventional defensive capability, which the bishops support as a logical consequence of their reasoning, cannot alter this. We also doubt very much whether the states of Western Europe, based on democratic consent, would be politically able to reinforce their conventional defenses. This would, admittedly, raise the conventional risk to a potential aggressor. The risk of nuclear annihilation, however, the only effective barrier against war, would be eliminated. The removal of this risk would increase the danger not only of a conventional conflict but of a nuclear exchange, too. Once hostilities occur between the nuclear powers the probability increases that the conventional conflict will become a nuclear war — despite the renunciation of nuclear first use.

The primary criterion in a moral assessment of a political strategy must be the prevention of war. To simplify the value judgment: through the threat to use nuclear weapons — in itself immoral when isolated from objective and effect — the current strategy ensures peace in freedom. A strategy of renunciation of the threat to use nuclear weapons — in itself moral when isolated from objective and effect — endangers peace and our freedom.

In our age of ever more dreadful weapons of mass destruction and inconceivable want in the Third World, the search for balanced disarmament and genuine detente is an imperative of ethics and common sense.

Since the 1960’s U.S. administrations, encouraged and supported by their allies, have been negotiating with the Soviet Union in an effort to stop the growth of modern weaponry on the basis of equal security for both sides, to conclude reliable arms control agreements and finally to bring about disarmament, which must be balanced and verifiable if it is not to be an empty word with which to deceive the nations of the world. We should also like to draw attention to the efforts of the Western democracies both within and outside the Atlantic Alliance to eliminate the political causes of tension and arms accumulation through negotiations with the states of the Soviet bloc. We agree with the Holy See that the reduction in the causes of political conflict and reductions in military power are very closely intertwined. None of the major postwar political crises since Yalta and Potsdam has been caused by the United States or one of its allies, not even in the age of American nuclear monopoly and American nuclear superiority. They have all been the consequence of Soviet offensives against human rights and International Law. We also wish to point out that time and again the United States and its allies have made renunciations in the conventional, nuclear and chemical fields, to which the Soviet Union has all too often responded by accelerating its own arms build-up.

We wish to recall that no United States government has ever consulted its European allies so intensively nor given such comprehensive attention to its allies’ concerns prior to U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms negotiations as has been the case during the last few years. The draft letter does no justice to the present efforts by the Atlantic Alliance for a stop to arms stockpiling, for arms control and disarmament which have been loyally supported by both the past and present governments of the Federal Republic of Germany.

A realistic and honest view of the present and future prescribes the conclusion that the existence of nuclear weapons is irreversible. Even if all nuclear weapons were to be successfully abolished through verifiable disarmament agreements, the knowledge of the scientific and technical means of reproducing them would remain. The ability to split the atom and to put atomic science to military use can no longer be eradicated. Together with this knowledge, however, there remains distrust between rival states: the certain knowledge of each one that the other retains nuclear capability and the fear of being confronted again by a nuclear threat — this time without warning. The next “arms race” would inevitably follow.

The second draft of the pastoral letter concentrates almost exclusively on the nuclear arms race and the risk of man’s self-destruction. It ignores, however, the political strategy, offensive and defensive, which lies at the root of the depressing increase in all types of weapons. The draft contains no adequate judgment and assessment of the political ideology of the Soviet Union, which lies at the basis of the military power of that state and which imposes its burden upon Europe. For this reason it also ignores the danger, which we regard as much more real, that Western Europe will submit itself politically to the expansionist cravings of the Soviet Union, which openly professes its totalitarian and hegemonic goals. Nobody in a responsible position in the Atlantic Alliance holds, as the draft letter maintains, an “obsessive perception that Soviet policy is directed by irrational leaders striving insanely for world conquest at any costs.” On the contrary, every detail of Western strategy is based on the assumption that the Soviet leaders are not irrational adventurers but that they calculate all risks in a highly rational manner, that they combine political resolve with the preservation of nuclear peace, i.e. with the survival of their power and their country. The draft recalls the only use of nuclear weapons to date, that by the United States against Japan at the end of World War II. This begs the following question: would that weapon have been used if Japan had, to the knowledge of the United States, possessed the capability to wreak nuclear destruction on San Francisco and Los Angeles? The dreadful destructive power of nuclear weapons, paradoxically, has the effect of preventing war between states and alliances which possess it.

We consider the juxtaposition of morals and politics upon which the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter is based to be unjustifiable and therefore erroneous, because inter alia it implies that in shaping their strategy to secure peace in freedom the governments and parliaments of the Western democracies disregard moral criteria. Such an implication is unfair and arbitrary. It does not correspond to reality. We who write this letter to you, Most Reverend Archbishop, understand politics to be both a consequence of ethics and the practical art of the possible. But the particular requirement and duty which any politician is bound to face in his actions can be stated as follows: moral values such as peace, freedom and justice are theoretically in harmony but in practical politics frequently compete with each other. The responsible politician is therefore frequently required to weigh up equally valid moral principles, establish his priorities and act in accordance with them. The Catholic politician must also take account of the binding Christian ethical standards. At the same time, however, he must make a proper assessment of political circumstances — a responsibility from which the ecclesiastical hierarchy cannot release him.

As politicians, we expect a great deal from the Church: exhortation to examine our consciences rigorously: proclamation of the imperfection of man and the Biblical message of salvation; encouragement to trust in God’s help; moral support in making value judgments. The right of the state to control the lives of others to preserve peace and to protect its own nation as well as allied countries weighs more heavily on those in power in this nuclear age than ever before. But the Church cannot take from the politician his duty to decide on how to act when faced with a moral dilemma. Even the Christian who is aware of the moral duties stemming from his faith is often not spared the choice between a greater and a lesser evil. His insight is no greater than that of his Jewish or agnostic brethren who examine their consciences earnestly and obey the rules of general ethics. Before God and his own conscience, he must — if he is a Christian — take responsibility for the consequences of his decision in the light of his Christian faith and hope. We want peace, but peace in freedom. Not only do we not wish destruction by war. We do not wish subjugation below the threshold of war either. The right and the duty of the member states of our alliance reads “neither red nor dead”. We regard it as necessary to point out not only the danger of atomic suicide to the people of America, which has guaranteed peace in Europe for 38 years now and has successfully defended West Berlin against two blackmail attempts but also to point out the no less real and much greater danger of Europe’s gradual political capitulation. A morally and politically responsible judgment must take both these dangers and their causes into account, as the leaders of the Universal Church have always done up to now.

We therefore ask the United States Bishops to emphasize more clearly in the final version of their pastoral letter the specific tasks and also the specific limitations of the Church and of politics and thereby to take account of our European concerns in a spirit of fraternal consideration. The constructive dialogue on peace in the world must not become a destructive argument within the Church.

In grateful attachment to the Catholic Church in the United States, which was one of the first communities in your country to extend to us the hand of brotherly reconciliation and help after World War II, we convey to you our most sincere and warmest greetings.

Signed: Georg Leber and Alois Mertes


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