The question to be answered is whether a nuclear war with its massive destruction is, under any circumstances, now ethically justifiable.

The form of the question presumes that the pros and cons of pacifism itself are not involved, because if pacifism were the accepted moral attitude, then the matter of nuclear warfare would be entirely irrelevant.

War is the ultimate means by which an aggressor nation seeks to subject another country to its will. The victim has but two basic choices, to fight or to surrender. Appeasement may be a temporary measure to gain time to prepare for defense, but it never causes an aggressor to desist; rather, it encourages him to further aggression and merely postpones the decision to fight or surrender. The conflict is one of opposing wills, expressed in the clash of military arms. Any destruction beyond that believed necessary to cause the submission of the aggressor and bring about a settlement of the war issues is unjustifiable and therefore unethical. If nuclear weapons are not a military necessity, then their possession and use it certainly unethical. Their military necessity must be examined.

Even if nuclear weapons are a military necessity in preventing, deterring, or fighting an otherwise justifiable war, the massive destruction they inevitably cause to the non-combatant population may make it unethical to use them, even though the only alternative is complete submission to the aggressor. The critical factor here is the word massive. In every war some non-combatants unavoidably become casualties. Civilized nations seeking to act in a civilized manner attempt to avoid hurt to enemy non-combatants whose efforts do not contribute directly to the enemy’s prosecution of the war. In spite of such desires, loss of some non-combatants because of their proximity to legitimate military targets has been recognized as an inevitable accompaniment of war. These people are endangered because their own side elects to fight or to maintain war-supporting activities where they are. Sometimes one side will try to protect its war operations by camouflaging them as non-military. This type of action, when discovered by the enemy, makes real non-military installations suspect and therefore subject to attack. It has been generally agreed that if a country engages justifiably in a particular war, it is not fairly subject to criticism for the loss of non-combatants whose suffering is an unavoidable consequence of the effort to win the war. The principle involved, not the number of casualties, is the major consideration. In nuclear war, however, the number of civilian casualties is so great that many hold it unethical to employ atomic weapons, even though the only alternative is total submission to whatever tyranny the conqueror chooses to impose. The solution to this dilemma is found in a factor rarely considered in discussions of the matter, namely, the guilty responsibility of the great mass of the country’s population for the initiation and prosecution of a war of aggression.

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The discussion which follows seeks to discover answers to the two relevant questions: (1) Are nuclear weapons necessary to a peaceable nation (such as the United States) which is endangered by another nation possessing similar armaments? and (2) Is the enemy population of sufficiently guilty responsibility for the aggression to make it a justifiable military target? A further question might be asked: Does a government have the moral right to subject its own people to nuclear war rather than surrender?—that is, as some have said, is it not better to be Red than dead?

Military Necessity Of Nuclear Weapons

Experience shows that effective weapons are never abandoned unless they become obsolete or are superceded by others of superior quality. Nuclear weapons exist today and are increasing. The two great nuclear powers are the United States and Soviet Russia. Every American knows that his government would like to secure a major disarmament of the nations, provided that an agreement to do so could and would be enforced. Apart from such enforcement, only disaster could be expected. A nation not possessing weapons is necessarily at the mercy of one that does possess them. Protracted negotiations have shown that the Soviet government will not agree to any form of disarmament inspection or security which will provide the United States adequate safety after our country honorably keeps its own part of the disarmament agreement. Experience shows without the slightest fear of contradiction that the Soviet government cannot be relied on to keep any agreement or treaty if it becomes expedient not to do so. Its imperialistic aggressions, cruelties, and treacheries are known to all who follow world events. Apart from abject surrender, there is no military alternative to the possession of nuclear weapons and the determination to use them if that becomes a last resort.

Since the United States is non-aggressive in its foreign policy, its nuclear policy is that of retaliation against a nuclear attack by Russia. Apart from our country’s ability and readiness to use nuclear weapons, the world would undoubtedly have been engaged already in major wars caused by Russian efforts to seize Berlin and the Near and Middle East (where the oil is). The Soviet backdown in Cuba was clearly the result of America’s nuclear power and its declared readiness to use this power if necessary. The dispatch of American troops to Lebanon in the middle fifties and the presence of allied forces in Berlin, backed up by American nuclear power, committed the United States both to fight for those localities and to use nuclear weapons if necessary. As far as non-nuclear forces were concerned, the Russians might have launched wars without serious risk, but the devastation to Russia itself to be expected from nuclear attack made the cost too great to risk. To date, nuclear weapons have been the major preventive of a Soviet military effort to take over localities of great importance to the security of the so-called free world. There seems to be a reasonable expectation that as long as the United States is armed with nuclear weapons, is ready to use them if necessary, and remains peaceable in its intentions, there will be no major war. The cost to Russia if it should launch such a war would overwhelmingly outweigh any advantage it could gain by victory. It is possible, of course, that some mistake or malfunction at a lower military level might fire a missile and trigger a war, but this danger is so obvious that both governments have undoubtedly taken every precaution to prevent such a disaster. It is also possible that the United States might lose its alertness and, in a Pearl Harbor attitude, invite a sudden devastating surprise blow that would defeat it at once. This, however, is only a contingency to be avoided. It is concluded that nuclear armament is a military necessity for the United States, unless it is prepared to make with finality the decision that it is better to submit to Soviet aggression and tyranny for ourselves and other nations than to risk nuclear war. Such a policy would be the result of fear, and fear has never been a good method of dealing with tyranny and aggression. Militarily, nuclear weapons are a necessity.

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Guilty Responsibility Of The Aggressor

Every nation is a corporate society, the only alternative to chaos and anarchy. Since the government is corporate, its decisions are binding on the entire nation unless the nation is to disintegrate in civil strife. In relations with other nations the nation is an entity.

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It is the ruler of the state who decides to launch a war of aggression, but the people fight the war. In reaching his decision the ruler considers many factors, one of the most important being whether the populace will support the war. He uses all the means available to secure such support in preparing for the war, in non-military aggression, and finally in the war itself. Unless he is confident of popular support he will not risk the war, because not only would the war be lost, but he himself would be purged from his exalted office. He would gain nothing and lose everything.

Admittedly, no one, including the Russians, wants a nuclear war. But this does not mean that moral righteousness motivates this desire. Instead, it is fear for self, not love and mercy toward the enemy. History seems to show clearly that a populace is not at all averse to a war of conquest if it foresees gain at little cost. The same lusts dominate John Citizen as dominate his sovereign (Rom. 1:18–32; 3:10–18; Jas. 4:1, 2). Peaceable nations differ from aggressors in that they may be too weak vis-à-vis their potential enemies, they may be relatively so well off that they are satisfied with the status quo, they may be involved in internal difficulties, or they may be strongly influenced by strictly New Testament Christianity. The particularization of the type of Christianity is necessary because over the centuries there have been many departures from the original precepts and doctrines of the faith, and many of the worst international crimes have been perpetrated by states which call themselves Christian. The willingness of nations to engage in conquest is demonstrated by the unremitting frequency of wars during the centuries, the greatest of them coming in this present age of science, enlightenment, and reason.

In the absence of the restraints mentioned above, it appears that all that is needed to start a war of conquest is to stimulate the human lusts adequately, giving assurance of victory at acceptable cost. In the past this has not been difficult to do, because no ruler would undertake conquest unless it appeared to him that the desired results could be obtained. If it appeared so to him, it was not too difficult to convince the mass of the people. Often, too, hatred of the intended victim would be aroused, motivated by fear of being attacked at some future time. It is true, of course, that the ruler often uses false propaganda to deceive his own people as to his real ambitions, but this does not alter the fact that they are only too ready to be deceived. A great nuclear war could not begin without ample indication of aggressive intentions. War is a last resort, and nuclear war is certainly the last of the last. Aggression and occupation of other countries cannot be concealed from the aggressor people. Soldiers and other persons in those countries tell their own families, and the word spreads. The declared reasons for aggression may be false, but the fact of aggression cannot be concealed. In a nation preparing for and carrying out aggression, only a small minority oppose their government’s policy, and even fewer do so for moral reasons. And of these, fewer still are willing to suffer for their convictions; principle succumbs to expediency. Generally most persons are indifferent to the government’s policies. A police state does exercise a certain power in this respect in that by coercive means it prevents active opposition. But such coercion actually need be applied only to those who are sufficiently determined to express their opposition actively. If the stability of the police state requires excessive coercion of its citizens, then it is highly unlikely that the sovereign will risk a war of aggression. It is safe to conclude that wars of conquest are launched by the ruler with the active or passive support of the nation, without which he would not dare to start military action. The people therefore are not innocent; they share the guilt of aggression. The true innocents—incompetents, children, and non-conformists—are exposed to danger by their own nation. In regard to these enemy non-combatants the defending state faces the same problem that it has in the past; the only difference is that the numbers are greater, the problem more obvious.

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Since the bombings of World War II, and now nuclear weapons, the entire aggressor nation, guilty as it is, no longer is shielded by its armies and navies. It, the real force, the real will behind the military weapons, can be attacked directly instead of only after the defeat of its military forces. By supporting the ambitions of its ruler it shares his guilt and accepts the same risks as do the military forces themselves. Therefore such loss as it does sustain can be laid to its own aggression, not to its innocence. It is only the risk of loss that has deterred and does deter a criminal ruler like Khrushchev from launching a major war of conquest. The guilty role of the entire nation in nuclear war shows that the massive destruction to non-combatants is not the morally determining factor in the decision to resist aggression or to surrender.

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Conclusion: The massive destruction caused by nuclear weapons is not an ethical bar against their use in a war justifiable by other moral considerations.

Postscript: The utter horror of nuclear war and the demonstrated inability of men to stop human crime (including military aggression) should convince all Christians that there is no hope of enduring peace until Christ shall establish his kingdom at the Second Advent.


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