“The Nuclear Challenge”

A Commencement Address by Senator Daniel Patrick Moyhnihan at Daemen College

May 15, 1983 3 o’clock p.m. Kleinhans Music Hall Buffalo, NY

I am going to try to complicate your lives a bit this afternoon. I propose to examine the nature of the relationship between the teaching of moral values in America in this last quarter of the 20th Century and the formulation of public policy in an area with as much potential for immoral result as any I can imagine: nuclear weapons and strategic policy.

That the matter of strategic doctrine should be considered in the light of moral teaching is to my mind self- evident: as man is God’s most cherished creation, so preservation of His gift of life to us must be our most urgent duty. Pope John Paul said it best, in his moving address at Hiroshima (on February 25, 1981):

In the past, it was possible to destroy a village, a town, a region, even a country. Now it is the whole planet that has come under threat. This fact should finally compel everyone to face a basic moral consideration: From now on, it is only through a conscious choice and through a deliberate policy that humanity can survive. 1

We cannot simply hope for the best. ‘It is only through a conscious choice and a deliberate policy that humanity can survive.’

What therefore shall be our ‘deliberate policy?’ Where may we look for guidance?

It may fairly be said that for doctrinal intricacy and duration of debate, as well as for its enduring value, Christian theology occupies a special place in the history of ideas. From the earliest times, the debate has been characterized by men of great learning and texts of intimidating complexity. Indeed, there could scarcely have been greater contrast than that which obtained at the advent of the Middle Ages between clergy reading and writing in ancient, unspoken languages and an all but illiterate laity. Even so, through all those centuries, and down to the present time, the theologians conceded great authority in matters of doctrine to the sensum fidelium, the belief of the faithful. Be it ever so uninformed at the technical level, it was held even so to be a repository of truth.

May I suggest that something comparable is to be encountered in the American people today in their suddenly aroused concern about nuclear weapons? There is in this perception of terrible danger a kind of ultimate truth which the experts must acknowledge, and to which they must in the end defer.

In the history of mankind, there cannot ever have been a subject of such importance as nuclear arms control that was for so long the domain of such a tiny band of specialists. Interestingly, historians of the subject frequently turn to theological analogies when discussing these men and their work. Thus John Newhouse writes, in his book Cold Dawn, about SALT I:

As in the case of the early Church, contending schools form around antagonistic strategic concepts. The most relevant of these are known as assured destruction and damage limitation, and each can claim broad support and intellectual respectability. Debates between the two schools recall those between the Thomists and the essentially Franciscan followers of Duns Scotus.2

For most of the period since Hiroshima, the public simply has not been involved, nor has it felt involved. I offer an example. In the course of 1979, the year the SALT II Treaty was considered in the Senate, I received more letters from New Yorkers about the plight of the Alaskan timberwolf than about SALT II. People somehow did not feel their views mattered. Now they do: Already in 1983 (as of May 6) I have heard in writing from 134,890 New Yorkers about the Nuclear Freeze resolution.

The fear exists, and it should be acknowledged, that a mass movement calling for nuclear arms reductions must inevitably have greater influence on the Democratic Party to the negotiations than on the totalitarian party. Such concerns are not to be dismissed. Persons demanding an “immediate” end to the arms race could usefully be reminded that, in this life, good will is not always rewarded in kind.

Those of retentive memory will recall events which occurred during the Holy Year 1500. Cesare Borgia, at the head of the forces of Pope Alexander VI (who happened also to be his parent), had set out to lay siege to Camerino in an outlying region of the Papal States. His march took him in the direction of the prosperous city of Urbino, whose Duke happened to possess the finest artillery in Italy at the time. Borgia asked to borrow this new weapon system and the Duke, by all accounts a pious and scholarly man, agreed. Whereupon Borgia laid siege to Urbino instead, and forced the Duke to flee into exile.

There is a responsibility, then, to speak to the freeze movement, as well as for it. It is a responsibility that requires not only the closest attention to diplomatic history and political science but that may benefit, as well, from certain insights put forward recently by the national conference of Catholic Bishops in a pastoral letter distinguished by its scholarly competence. The Bishops remind us that nuclear war is not merely a mathematical problem of percentages and trajectories and megatonnage: that arms control is something more than a matter of arranging for sufficient sessions in Geneva among arms control negotiators. They are trying to teach us something about the very difficult moral choices that currently confront us in the matter of nuclear weapons and strategic policy — not only those of us in the United States or in government, but all persons of good will everywhere.

Far from simplifying things for us, however, the letter challenges us each to choose among morally desirable goals, to decide among morally unacceptable means and to wade through situations where the options can only be described as morally ambiguous. It is intentionally done. As the letter states near the outset,

In all of this discussion of distinct choices, of course, we are referring to options open to individuals. 3

We each have to make our own decisions about what is right in this matter; together, 230 million of us will help shape American policy. In order for the collective policy to be morally the correct one, the individual reflections must be honest and thoughtful.

I bring to your attention the Bishop’s treatment of two issues that are currently the object of much attention: our fundamental doctrine of deterrence, firstly; and secondly, the question of whether we in the western alliance should, as some prominent persons have suggested, renounce the first use of nuclear weapons.

The Bishops’ letter emphasizes, in particular, the moral ambiguity associated with NATO’s policy of ‘strategic deterrence.’ Now deterrence means essentially (according to a basic arms control reader):

Dissuasion of a potential adversary from initiating an attack or conflict, often by threat of unacceptable retaliatory damage.4

In this nuclear age, it means that we try to deter the Soviets, or any other nuclear power, from attacking us or our allies by making clear that, if ever they do, we will launch our nuclear weapons, and so many millions of their citizens would be killed that they would never dare attack.

The Bishops very clearly tell us that it would be wrong to inflict this damage on civilians, on innocent women and children (and men) — even in retaliation for an attack on the United States. The pastoral letter says:

Retaliatory action, whether nuclear or conventional, which would indiscriminately take many wholly innocent lives, lives of people who are in no way responsible for reckless actions of their government, must . . be condemned. This condemnation, in our judgment, applies even to the retaliatory use of weapons striking enemy cities after our own have already been struck.5

The purpose of the doctrine of deterrence, however, is precisely to prevent any such war, any such devastation, from occurring. And the fact that there has been no nuclear war since 1945 provides some evidence that this threat to devastate innocent population has succeeded in preserving nuclear peace, and the lives of those very same people.

Yet the morality of a position or doctrine derives also from the intentions that underlie it. It is clearly — publicly and officially the intention of the United States and NATO to unleash this devastation on the population of the Soviet Union if it should attack us. Is that moral?

The Bishops quote the message by Pope John Paul II to the United Nations second special session on disarmament last June, in which he said:

In current conditions, ‘deterrence’ based on balance, certainly not as an end in itself but as a step on the way toward a progressive disarmament, may still be judged morally acceptable. Nonetheless in order to ensure peace, it is indispensable not to be satisfied with this minimum….6

Terrence Cardinal Cooke put it similarly when he said:

Government leaders and peoples of all nations have a grave moral obligation to come up with alternatives (to deterrence). But as long as our nation is sincerely trying to work with other nations to find a better way, the church considers the strategy of nuclear deterrence morally tolerable; not satisfactory, but tolerable.7

This seems to me sound; deterrence is not desirable in and of itself but it is “morally tolerable” (or, in the words of His Holiness, “morally acceptable”) as long as it is a step on the way toward a progressive disarmament.

Regarding first use of nuclear weapons, the moral obligation seems easier to discern, but the likelihood of actually realizing that morally correct posture seems distinctly more remote.

Yet the bishops last week said:

We do not perceive any situation in which the deliberate initiation of nuclear warfare on however restricted a scale can be morally justified…. We find the moral responsibility of beginning nuclear war not justified by rational political objectives…. We judge resort to nuclear weapons to counter a conventional attack to be morally unjustifiable.8

Which clearly says that our policy of threatening to use nuclear weapons in response to an overwhelming conventional attack is simply not morally justified.

I am inclined to agree. Here is the dilemma, our dilemma: are we willing to pay what it would cost for the West to adopt the morally correct (what I personally believe would be the morally correct) policy of renouncing the first use of nuclear weapons? The bishops do note that:

The need to defend against a conventional attack in Europe imposes the political and moral burden of developing adequate, alternative modes of defense to present reliance on nuclear weapons.9

Remember, we will continue to have a responsibility to protect the independence of our nation, and the freedoms that flourish here, from likely threats. And our freedom, whether we like it or not, is inextricably bound to the survival of kindred democratic societies, in the Middle East, in Asia, not least in Western Europe. Here again I would quote the American bishops, who have drafted an extraordinarily sober-minded and far-seeing document in this pastoral letter:

The fact of a Soviet threat, as well as the existence of a Soviet imperial drive for hegemony, at least in regions of major strategic interest, cannot be denied . . . Many peoples are forcibly kept under communist domination despite their manifest wishes to be free.10

We see this most obviously today in Poland; it is no less true in a score of other nations where Soviet forces continue to try to suppress the peoples’ will to be free. We must never lose sight of the nature of the Soviet state with which we must of necessity try to negotiate arms control agreements.

It happens that my first speech in the Senate (on March 4, 1977) was on the subject of arms control. I said then:

One’s view of strategic arms limitation is informed by, in truth should be controlled by, one’s prior judgment about the state of world politics, and the nature of relations between the Soviet Union and the United States.11

Cold realism must govern the conduct of our negotiations with the Soviet Union. Yet, though our relations today be close to their historical nadir, this is not either a time for despair. If I could leave you with a single thought today, this would be it: do not despair. And do not fear. Rather hope, and be confident. The Bishops remind us that:

Hope sustains one’s capacity to live with danger without being overwhelmed by it.12

You have the vote, and you have learned how to speak your minds. Speak about keeping the peace, work for it, get started today.


1John Paul II, “Address to Scientists and Scholars,” delivered at Hiroshima, Japan, February 25, 1981; found in Origins (the documentary service of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops): Vol. 10, No. 4, p. 621.

2John Newhouse, Cold Down: the Story of SALT (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973), p. 9.

3“The Challenge of Peace; God’s Promise and Our Response.” (The Pastoral Letter of the U.S. Bishops on War and Peace); Origins. Vol. 13, No. 1, p. 9.

4W. H. Kincade and J. D. Porro, Negotiating Security: An Arms Control Reader (Washington: 1979).

5The Challenge of Peace.” Origins, Vol. 13, No. 1, p. 15.

6John Paul II, “Message to the Second Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly Devoted to Disarmament.” (June 1982).

7Terence Cardinal Cooke, annual letter to the chaplains of the Armed Forces, December 14, 1981, (from The New York Times, December 15, 1981, Section 2, p. 16).

8 “The Challenge of Peace,” Origins. Vol. 13, No. 1, p. 15.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid., p. 23.

11 Daniel Patrick Moynihan, statement in the United States Senate, March 4, 1977.

12 “The Challenge of Peace,” Origins, Vol. 13, No. 1, p. 2.


  • Daniel Patrick Moynihan

    Daniel Patrick Moynihan (March 16, 1927 – March 26, 2003) was an American politician and sociologist. A member of the Democratic Party, he was first elected to the United States Senate for New York in 1976, and was re-elected three times (in 1982, 1988, and 1994).

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