Of War and Peace

Any policy regarding nuclear weapons that claims a moral or theological status must rest its claim on its lessening the probabilities of nuclear war, and of the West’s surrender to the Soviet Union. I regret that, after reading Joseph Cardinal Bernadin’s defense of the nuclear policies contained in the American bishops pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace (in the May issue of Catholicism in Crisis), I remain convinced that the letter’s policies would, if adopted by the West, increase the chances of nuclear war or surrender. Sadly, I believe that the very advocacy of such policies by the bishops in fact contributes towards those disastrous consequences.

The bishops’ letter absolutely rules out counter- population nuclear policy because it would violate the just- war principles of non-combatant immunity and proportionality. At the same time, the letter gives a “strictly conditioned moral acceptance” to the strategy of deterrence. But on what is this deterrence going to rest if we announce to the Soviets that we will not retaliate by destroying their cities if they destroy ours? Ever since the Kennedy Administration, the credible deterrent to a massive Soviet nuclear attack against our population has been our having both the means and the will to guarantee it would be suicidal for the Soviets to launch such an attack — the policy of mutual assured destruction (MAD).

Before Kennedy, MAD was not U.S. policy because the Soviets did not have the technological ability to wipe out our civilian population. Cardinal Bernadin and the bishops are correct when they assume “the premise that nuclear weapons and nuclear strategy constitute a qualitatively new moral question.” The Soviet capacity to destroy virtually all our non-combatants required a directly proportional retaliatory policy in the just cause of our protecting the life of our entire population. Without our credible capacity and will during these past twenty years, our policy of deterrence would have been empty and would have in fact deterred no one. Given the status of our technology in the sixties, the alternatives to MAD would have been to accept total nuclear annihilation or to surrender to the Soviets in the face of a threat to destroy us. “Better red than dead” would be a peculiar position for leaders of a religion that has always held that there are values higher than the deferment of death at all costs.

 We come hence to a crucial flaw in the bishops’ policy. The bishops give scant attention to the nature of Soviet intent as seen in their historical and present foreign and domestic policies. The bishops’ letter cites Pope John Paul II’s 1982 statement that “Peace is the fruit of order, and order in human society must be shaped on the basis of respect for the transcendence of God and the unique dignity of each person, understood in terms of freedom, justice, trust and love.” Which one of the Pontiff’s bases for just order has the Soviet leadership from Lenin onward respected in its treatment of its own people, or those others under its hegemony via other communist governments it supports from East Europe to Vietnam to Cuba?

The expansion of the Marxist-Leninist system to nation after nation through military means has been the Soviet policy since the Nineteen-Forties and remains so today, as seen in Afghanistan, Angola, Ethiopia, and Central America. However convenient phraseological parody is because of the Star Wars movies, the Soviet Union is evil, and it is an empire, with a relentlessly expansionist policy.

The stakes involved in America’s nuclear policy today are not superiority, but survival. MAD is a flawed policy, not because it violates the bishops’ quixotic interpretation of just and unjust wars, or their self-contradictory notion of deterrence, but because Soviet capabilities developed in the Nineteen-Seventies have made MAD obsolete as a deterrence policy.

SALT II notwithstanding, the Soviets have developed and deployed nuclear weapons of such accuracy, destructiveness and numbers, which, together with other technological advances, constitute a first strike capacity. That is, the U.S.S.R. can destroy most of our land-based missiles, most of our obsolete bomber force, and disrupt navigational and communications systems on which our submarines would depend in launching accurate missiles against the U.S.S.R. This has radically changed the nature of deterrence. It is most likely that we no longer could guarantee the retaliatory destruction of either the Soviet military or its population should the U.S.S.R. strike our strategic forces. Thus, the U.S. government has begun to devise a “nuclear war-fighting” capability, i.e., the ability to absorb a first strike and still be able to hit the enemy with overwhelming nuclear force. The desire for a nuclear war- fighting capacity is in fact necessitated by the imperative of having a deterrence system that is once again credible. It is not based on some Strangelovian urge to wage nuclear war, or on, as Cardinal Bernardin puts it, “proposals which blur the distinction between nuclear and conventional weapons.”

The bishops’ letter calls for “immediate, bilateral, verifiable agreements to curb the testing, production and deployment of new nuclear weapons systems,” in effect, a perpetuation of Soviet nuclear superiority, with its dangers to our lives, or through intimidation, to our freedom.

Similarly, the chances of nuclear war and our surrender would be increased should the U.S. renounce the first use of nuclear weapons on a limited basis, as the bishops’ letter urges. The reasons for this are, one, the aforementioned Soviet superiority in strategic first-strike nuclear weapons, and, two, the superiority of Soviet and Warsaw Pact conventional military forces vis-a-vis U.S. and NATO conventional forces.

It is virtually certain that a full scale Warsaw Pact conventional-weapons attack on Western Europe could not be halted without the use of nuclear weapons against front line invading military forces, or at least against their second line reserves and support systems. A NATO no first strike pledge would be an invitation to Soviet conquest of Western Europe. With the industrial and military resources of Western Europe in the hands of the U.S.S.R., the defeat of “fortress America” would be only a matter of short time.

The bishops call for a nuclear “freeze” would not only perpetuate the dangerous Soviet lead in strategic nuclear weapons, but would also preserve the present imbalance in intermediate range nuclear missiles in Europe. The Soviets have installed hundreds of SS-20s along their western frontiers. They can reach cities in Italy, West Germany, France, Holland and England in seven minutes. NATO’s plans to deploy comparable Pershing II and cruise missiles have been stalled by the ripples in some NATO countries of a mendacious Soviet “peace offensive” that depicts NATO’s response to the SS-20s as “aggressive,” “destabilizing,” and “provocative.”

The issue of medium-range missiles is no mere distraction in the light of massive ICBM arsenals. The SS- 20s give the Soviets several, perhaps decisive, strategic potentials.

One, the U.S.S.R. could launch an all-out invasion of Western Europe with conventional weapons, in which their superiority to NATO is overwhelming. The Warsaw Pact has 4 million troops to NATO’s 2.6 million, 7,240 planes versus 2,975, and 42,500 tanks to NATO’s 13,000. (Indeed, we did not build the one antitank weapon that could have balanced the Warsaw Pact superiority in armor, the neutron bomb. One may also note that in the past 15 years Soviet expenditures on their military forces have remained high and steady regardless of Western policy, be that policy detente or confrontation.) Simultaneous with their invasion, the Soviets could announce that they would respond to any use of nuclear weapons against their troops and tanks by launching their SS-20s against Western European cities. Having no comparable medium-range nuclear missiles in place (that is, the Pershing Its and cruise missiles whose deployment a nuclear freeze would prevent), NATO could not deter that threat by a counter threat of retaliation in kind against Soviet cities. The U.S. at this point would have two options- (1) capitulation, allowing the Red Army to take Western Europe — and, as noted, with the resources of Western Europe in Soviet hands, the defeat of the U.S. would not be far behind; or, less likely, (2) the launching of our strategic nuclear weapons from the U.S. upon the U.S.S.R., thereby starting a total nuclear war.

A second scenario: the U.S.S.R. could launch an SS- 20 or two or three against European NATO cities, let’s say, Cologne, Turin, and Manchester, and give Western Europe an ultimatum of surrender or total nuclear destruction. Once again, the U.S. would face the same two unacceptable options of giving up Europe — thus insuring our own eventual defeat — or starting an all-out nuclear war. Or, the Soviets could simply use the existence of the SS-20s to intimidate and “influence” NATO’s governments in a further “Finlandization” of Western Europe, as they are doing.

Thus, a nuclear freeze as advocated by the bishops would greatly increase the chances of Western Europe going the way of Afghanistan or Finland, eventually our own surrender, or of much of the world perishing in a general nuclear holocaust.

But the bishops argue, quite plausibly, that a limited nuclear exchange would probably escalate into a full global nuclear war. Which makes it all the more imperative that we have a second strike ability to destroy the Soviet Union, not only as a deterrent against a Soviet nuclear strike against the U.S.’s nuclear forces and/or population, but also as the ultimate and critical deterrent to a Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe.

Perhaps the bishops’ pastoral letter, as Cardinal Bernadin claims, does “help set the right terms for public debate on the morality of war” by raising the moral heart of the question. But in its specific policy conclusions and recommendations, the bishops must also accept responsibility for profoundly confusing the question, thus sapping the West’s resolve at a time when real deterrents to nuclear war and surrender urgently need to be redeveloped. Peace and freedom are by definition pragmatic questions, or in the pastoral letter’s term, “prudential” questions. Policies concerning them, therefore, are to be judged not merely on their moral intent, discussed in highly abstract terms in the bishops’ letter, without much reference to political or military realities or to the manifested nature of Soviet policies, but primarily on their practical moral consequences. Do the policies in practice deter war and preserve freedom, or not? The bishops’ policies would not. When the bishops commit their considerable authority to advocating those policies, they do not increase our chances of avoiding war and preserving freedom.

Heeding Cardinal Bernadin’s plea that debate on the pastoral letter be approached “in a patient, loving, straightforward and compassionate manner,” one can only urge the bishops to further, deeper consideration of what is involved in the challenge of peace, and of the consequences of what they are doing.


  • Richard Gambino

    Richard Gambino is Professor Emeritus at Queens College (C.U.N.Y.)

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