Salt ii is dead. But the issue SALT II addressed is still with us: How can we avoid a self-defeating nuclear arms race? Political leaders from both left and right warn us that this is the number one problem facing planet Earth today.

Yet in the midst of strident debate, evangelicals have remained strangely silent. In part, this is because they are not usually pacifists. They are not even “nuclear pacifists,” who approve the use of force in principle but favor a ban on nuclear weapons because of their awesome and indiscriminate destructive power. While evangelicals place no ultimate trust in military weapons of any sort, the majority are convinced that in a wicked world we must at times use force.

Evangelicals also hesitate to make facile pronouncements on this subject because it is unbelievably complex. It baffles the experts and so can be expected to stymie the reasonably informed evangelical. Such a person loves his country, opposes evil, and hates war; but he is also aware that, historically, military weakness has usually invited aggression. He therefore feels responsible to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to defend his country and preserve its freedom.

Still, the current debate over what to do about SALT II finds the evangelical Christian with a frustrated conscience. He is face to face with a terribly important issue that has devastating consequences for good or ill. Monetary costs of the imminent arms race threaten to destroy our free society. Moreover, history shows that arms races almost without exception lead to war; nuclear war would bring certain death to most Americans and destroy our nation even if in the process we might also destroy the Soviet Union and kill most of its people.

Why, then, did we find such widespread opposition to SALT II? To understand, we must first consider the most weighty objections leveled against adopting any limit on nuclear arms. The argument heard most frequently is that the Soviet Union is now dangerously ahead in the arms race and that the U.S. is not number one. But this is not really the case, as experts on both sides of the debate readily admit. In some areas, the Soviets have attained clear superiority; in other areas, the United States is still ahead. The consensus seems to be that, except in conventional weapons, the two superpowers are roughly equal in overall military capability (Russia with more missiles—2,500 to 2,126—but the U.S. with more nuclear warheads—9,486 to Russia’s 6,029).

More fundamental than the exact size of the American military machine is the question of our national military goal. It should not be set at becoming number one, or even at attaining exact parity with the Soviet Union, but rather at achieving an adequate deterrent force. Ideally, we should be weak enough on offense so that the Soviet Union will not fear we will start a war, and strong enough on defense and counterstrike deterrent so it will not consider attacking us or our allies. Since offensive and defensive weapons cannot be neatly separated, this means that we must aim for a rough parity but be willing to allow the Soviet Union sufficient relative strength in its own eyes so it will not fear attack from us. The United States certainly has or comes close to this sort of defensive parity at the present time, and it must make sure that it does not fall significantly behind.

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A second objection often posed to any nuclear disarmament agreement is that the United States simply cannot be sure the Soviet Union is keeping its part of the bargain. The fact is that with present equipment, the United States cannot monitor perfectly the Soviet displacement of its weaponry, and so cannot be sure that the agreement will be kept with integrity. Moreover, an evangelical Christian readily grants human depravity and is unlikely to place undue trust in any country. In effect, therefore, any such agreement is really unilateral disarmament.

Still, we seem able to monitor Soviet nuclear capability in a generally accurate if not totally precise way. Even those calling most loudly for vast military increases think they know the size of the Russian military and judge ours to be less. So if our goal is neither military superiority nor exact parity but only an approximate parity, we have such high probability of ascertaining the truth about Soviet compliance that we will be foolish to reject a treaty on this ground.

Further, we should go on record as a nation unequivocally in favor of mutual open inspection and seek to direct the immense weight of international opinion to pressure the USSR to do the same.

The third objection to nuclear arms limitations is aimed specifically at SALT II: it will accomplish nothing. Even if passed, it allows for huge increases in weaponry and may even be detrimental to American safety by creating a false confidence in a limitation treaty that does not really limit.

This last objection has figured more and more decisively in recent discussions because both Russia and the U.S. are deploying increasing numbers of exceedingly accurate missiles. This makes obsolete the U.S. defensive strategy based on the deterring effect of a massive counterstrike.

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According to such a strategy, the U.S. would never begin a nuclear war, and would seek to deter Russia from beginning one by promising retaliation. This would be so massive that the Soviets, rather than gaining an advantage by such an attack, would suffer certain destruction. The new accurate bombs, however, mean that Russia’s initial strike would greatly restrict U.S. capability to strike back. It would be limited to missiles that could be brought into action in the few seconds or minutes intervening between detection of the Russian missiles in the air and their explosion on us and our missile sites. Once the Russian warheads exploded there could be no counterstrike.

Three devastating conclusions follow:

1. Nuclear armaments provide no defense, becoming effective only as a first-strike weapon of attack. This almost irresistibly presses a threatened nation to attack first—knowing that if the enemy attacks first, the defending nation will have no chance to defend itself, and when the attacking nation’s bombs meet their targets, it will have no possibility of counterattack.

2. By guaranteeing that there will be no second strike, the new super-accurate weapons greatly reduce the deterring threat of any retaliation.

3. The new situation increases immensely the danger from miscalculation, such as breakdowns in the nuclear detection system—there will be no time for checking or correcting any mistakes. The slightest false report from the distant early warning system, DEW (and these now occur frequently), would launch the U.S. into an unprovoked attack that would inevitably destroy an innocent nation and, perhaps, our own as well. What, then, becomes of U.S. defensive strategy? We must choose between two equally unacceptable alternatives. On the one hand, we could initiate a nuclear attack upon an enemy that has not attacked us (certainly a difficult alternative for a Christian). On the other hand, we could settle for a policy of waiting until the enemy attacked, knowing that with such a policy we would have no chance of protecting ourselves from devastation and small possibility of deterring his attack by threat of a counterstrike.

Facing this dilemma, the average evangelical has chosen to remain silent. He will sit this one out and pray for the best.

But we are convinced that there is a way out. It lies in the negotiation of a new treaty, better than SALT II, built around a moratorium on nuclear armaments as proposed by Sen. Mark Hatfield in his amendment to SALT II. He proposes a complete freeze on the development, testing, and deployment of strategic missile systems by both the Soviet Union and the United States, and calls for a prohibition of any new strategic nuclear systems.

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In view of its defensive strategy and commitment not to start a nuclear war, the U.S. will find it wise to limit the number of nuclear weapons as much as possible. They have lost their former value as a feasible deterrent. They are effective only as a first strike weapon of attack. For the foreseeable future, the U.S. must choose between a hair-trigger strategy of attack (hoping against all evidence that no mistake in our detection system will ever occur) and a dependence not on nuclear but conventional weaponry. With that choice, sanity as well as Christian conviction would seem to dictate the latter alternative.

But suppose we cannot get the USSR to agree to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Many, unfortunately, including Mr. Hatfield, make a moratorium the necessary condition for approval of any nuclear disarmament. This would be a tactical mistake. If the Soviet leaders do not agree to such a freeze on all nuclear systems, we should still—reluctantly—seek a new SALT treaty that will at least limit nuclear arms. Even a quarter-loaf is better than no loaf at all. And by pressing for a total ban on further nuclear weapons, even though Russia did not agree to it, the U.S. would set itself on record as unequivocally opposed to nuclear arms expansion. This would lessen the danger of overconfidence on the part of the American people in any less-than-satisfactory SALT II—type treaty, and would further sensitize them to the awesome danger of nuclear warfare. It would also remove from the U.S. the responsibility for failure to limit nuclear arms and place it squarely on the USSR. We should then seek to mobilize world opinion against nuclear proliferation and against any nation that refused to agree to a nuclear moratorium.

The only satisfactory treaty, of course, must be built around a complete moratorium on nuclear weapons for, say, five years. The original commitment should run only for a specified number of years as a safeguard against the rise of a nuclear-powered China, or against the creation of new nonnuclear but equally devasting weapons which the Soviets might refuse to restrict.

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When running for office, Mr. Reagan denounced SALT II as a bad treaty. But it is now up to him to negotiate a new and better one that will stop this mad race toward proliferation of nuclear weapons.

We therefore urge Christians to rally to the support of a new treaty built around the Hatfield proposal to stop all nuclear arms proliferation. In addition to this, we should announce our vigorous support for mutual open inspection. The possibility of any nuclear treaty with the Soviet Union is resting on a knife’s edge. The issue could go either way. Christians with a sharp conscience of their responsibility for the good of others have an opportunity to act at this time in history so as either to nudge the U.S. toward a better course of action, or quietly to let their beloved nation drift further toward annihilation.

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