Nuclear War and Christian Responsibility

From the Feb. 6, 1962 issue
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It is no exaggeration to say that our times are Apocalyptic, in the sense that we seem to have come to a point at which all the hidden, mysterious dynamism of the "history of salvation" revealed in the Bible has flowered  into final  and decisive crisis.

It has been said so often that it has become a cliché, but it must be said again at the beginning of this article: the world and society of man now face destruction. Possible destruction: it is relatively easy, at the present time, to wipe out the entire human race either by nuclear, bacterial or chemical agents, separately or together. Probable destruction: the possibility of destruction becomes a probability in proportion as the world's leaders commit themselves more and more irrevocably to policies built on the threat to use these agents of extermination. At the present  moment, the United States and the Soviet bloc are committed  to a policy of genocide. Not only are they committed to the use of nuclear weapons for self-defense, but even to their use in first-strike attack if it should be expedient. This means that the policies of the United States and Russia are now frankly built on the presumption that each one is able, willing and ready to completely destroy the other at a moment's notice by a "first­strike"; that the one destroyed is capable of "post mortem retaliation" that would annihilate not only the attacker but all his allies and satellites, even though the defender were already wiped out himself.

There is no need to insist that in a world where another Hitler is very possible the mere existence of nuclear weapons constitutes the most tragic and serious problem that the human race has ever had to contend with. Indeed, the atmosphere of hatred, suspicion and tension in which we all live is precisely what is needed to produce Hitlers.

It is no exaggeration to say that our times are Apocalyptic, in the sense that we seem to have come to a point at which all the hidden, mysterious dynamism of the "history of salvation" revealed in the Bible has flowered into final and decisive crisis. The term "end of the world" may or may not be one that we are capable of understanding. But at any rate we seem to be assisting at the unwrapping of the mysteriously vivid symbols of the last book of the New Testament. In their nakedness, they reveal to us our own selves as the men whose lot it is to live in the time of a possibly ultimate decision.

We know that Christ came into this world as the Prince of Peace. We know that Christ Himself is our peace (Eph. 2:14). We believe that God has chosen for Himself, in the Mystical Body of Christ, an elect people, regenerated by the Blood of the Savior, and committed by their baptismal promise to wage war with the great enemy of peace and salvation. As Pope John XXIII pointed out in his first encyclical letter, Ad Petri Cathedram, Christians are obliged to strive for peace "with all the means at their disposal" and yet, as he continues, this peace cannot compromise with error or make concessions to it. Therefore it is by no means a matter of passive acquiescence in injustice, since this does not produce peace. However, the Christian struggle for peace depends first of all upon a free response of man to "God's call to the service of His merciful designs." The lack of man's response to this call, says Pope John, is the "most terrible problem of human history" (Christmas message, 1958). Christ Our Lord did not come to bring peace to the world as a kind of spiritual tranquilizer. He brought to His disciples a vocation and a task, to struggle in the world of violence to establish His peace not only in their own hearts but in society itself.

The Christian is and must be by his very adoption as a son of God, in Christ, a peacemaker (Matt. 5:9). He is bound to imitate the Savior who, instead of de­ fending Himself with twelve legions of Angels (Matt. 26:55) allowed Himself to be nailed to the Cross and died praying for His executioners. The Christian is one whose life has sprung from a particular spiritual seed: the blood of the martyrs who, without offering forcible resistance, laid down their lives rather than submit to the unjust laws that demanded an official religious cult of the Emperor as God. That is to say, the Christian is bound, like the martyrs, to obey God rather than the state whenever the state tries to usurp powers that do not and cannot belong to it. We have repeatedly seen Christians in our time fulfilling this obligation in a heroic manner by their resistance to dictatorships that strove to interfere with the rights of their conscience and of their religion.


We are no longer living in a Christian world. The ages which we are pleased to call the "ages of Faith" were certainly not ages of earthly paradise. But at least our forefathers officially recognized and favored the Christian ethic of love. They fought some very bloody and un-Christian wars, and in doing so they also committed great crimes which remain in history as a permanent scandal. However, certain definite limits were recognized.  Today a non-Christian world still retains a few vestiges of Christian morality, a few formulas and clichés, which serve on appropriate occasions to adorn indignant editorials and speeches. But otherwise we witness deliberate campaigns to eliminate all education in Christian truth and morality. The Christian ethic of love tends to be discredited as phony and sentimental. It is therefore a serious error to imagine that because the West was once largely Christian, the cause of the Western nations is now to be identified, without further qualification, with the cause of God. The incentive to wipe out Bolshevism may well be one of the apocalyptic temptations of twentieth-century Christendom. It may indeed be the most effective way of destroying Christendom, even though man may survive. For who imagines that the Asians and Africans will  respect Christianity and  embrace it after it has apparently triggered  mass-murder  and destruction of cosmic proportions?  It is pure madness to think that Christianity can defend itself with nuclear weapons. The mere fact that we now seem to accept nuclear war as reasonable is a universal scandal.

True, Christianity is not only opposed to Communism, but is in a very real sense at war with it. This war­fare, however, is spiritual and ideological. "Devoid of material weapons," says Pope John, "the Church is the trustee of the highest spiritual power." If the Church has no military weapons of her own, it means that her wars are fought without any weapons at all and not that she intends to call upon the weapons of nations that were once Christian.


We must remember that the Church does not belong to any political power bloc. Christianity exists on both sides of the Iron Curtain and we should feel ourselves united by very special bonds with those Christians who, living under Communism, often suffer heroically for their principles.

Is it a valid defense of Christianity for us to wipe out these heroic Christians along with their oppressors, for the sake of "religious freedom?" It is pure sophistry to claim that physical annihilation in nuclear war is a "lesser evil" than the difficult conditions under which these Christians continue to live, perhaps with true heroism and sanctity preserving their faith and witnessing very effectively to Christ in the midst of atheism. Persecution is certainly a physical evil and a spiritual danger, but Christ has said that those who suffer persecution in His Name are blessed. (Matt. 5:10- 12)

At the same time, one of the most disturbing things about the Western world of our time is that it is beginning to have much more in common with the Communist world than it has with the professedly Christian society of several centuries ago. On both sides of the Iron Curtain we find two profoundly disturbing varieties of the same moral sickness: both of them rooted in the same fundamentally materialist view of life. Both are basically opportunistic and pragmatic in their own way. And both have the following characteristics in common. On the level of morality they are blindly passive in their submission to a determinism which, in effect, leaves men completely irresponsible. Therefore moral obligations and decisions have become practically meaningless. At best they are only forms of words, rationalizations of pragmatic decisions that have already been dictated by the needs of the moment.

Naturally, since not everyone is an unprincipled materialist even in Russia, there is bound to be some moral sense at work, even if only as a guilt-feeling that produces uneasiness and hesitation, blocking the smooth efficiency of machine-like obedience to immoral commands. Yet the history of Nazi Germany shows us how appalling was the irresponsibility which would carry out even the most revolting of crimes under cover of "obedience" for the sake of  a "good cause." This moral passivity is the most terrible danger of our time, as the American Bishops have already pointed out in their joint letters of 1960 and 1961.

On the level of political, economic and military activity, this moral passivity is balanced, or overbalanced, by a demonic activism, a frenzy of the most varied, versatile, complex and even utterly brilliant technological improvisations, following one upon the other with an ever more bewildering and uncontrollable proliferation. Politics pretends to use this force as its servant, to harness it for social purposes, for the "good of man." The intention is good. The technological development of power in our time is certainly a risk and challenge, but that does not make it intrinsically evil. On the contrary, it can and should be a very great good. In actual fact, however, the furious speed with which our technological world is plunging toward disaster is evidence that no one is any longer fully in control—and this includes the political leaders.

A simple study of the steps which led to the dropping of the first A-bomb on Hiroshima is devastating evidence of the way well-meaning men, the scientists and leaders of a victorious nation, were guided step by step, without realizing it, by the inscrutable yet simple logic of events" to fire the shot that was to make the cold war inevitable and prepare the way perhaps inexorably for World War III. This they did purely and simply because they thought in all sincerity that the bomb was the simplest and most merciful way of ending World War II and perhaps all wars, forever.


The tragedy of our time is then not so much the malice of the wicked as the helpless futility even of the best intentions of "the good." There are war-makers, war criminals, indeed. They are present and active on both sides. But all of us, in our very best efforts for peace, find ourselves maneuvered unconsciously into positions where we too can act as war criminals. For there can be no doubt that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, though not fully deliberate crimes, nevertheless crimes. And who was responsible? No one. Or "history." We cannot go on playing with nuclear fire and shrugging off the results as "history." We are the ones concerned. We are the ones responsible.  History does not make us, we make it—or end it.

In plain words, in order to save ourselves from destruction we have to try to regain control of a world that is speeding downhill without brakes, because of the combination of factors I have just mentioned: almost total passivity and irresponsibility on the moral level, plus demonic activism in social, military and political life. The remedy would seem to be to slow down our activity, especially all activity concerned with the production and testing of weapons of destruction, and in­ deed to back-track by making every effort to negotiate for multilateral disarmament.

This may be of great help, but still only a palliative, not a solution. Yet at least this is perhaps feasible, and should at all costs be attempted, even at the cost of great sacrifice and greater risk. It is not morally licit for us as a nation to refuse the risk merely because our whole economy now depends on this war-effort. On the contrary, our national reliance on this substantial source of income and profit hardly qualifies as Christian.

Equally important, and perhaps even more difficult than disarmament, is the restoration of some moral sense and the resumption of genuine responsibility. Without this it is illusory for us to speak of freedom and "control." Unfortunately, even where moral principles are still regarded with some degree of respect, morality has lost touch with the realities of our situation. Moralists tend to discuss the problems of atomic war as if men still fought with bows and arrows. Modem warfare is fought as much by machines as by men. Even a great deal of the planning depends on the work of mechanical computers. An entirely new dimension is opened up by the fantastic processes and techniques involved. An American President can speak of warfare in outer space and nobody bursts out laughing­ he is perfectly serious. Science-fiction and the comic strips have all suddenly come true. When a missile armed with an H-bomb warhead is fired by the pressing of a button and its target is a whole city, the number of its victims is estimated in "mega-corpses"—millions of dead human beings. A thousand or ten thousand more here and there are not even matter for comment. Under such conditions can there be serious meaning left in the fine decisions that were elaborated by scholastic theologians in the day of hand-to-hand combat? Can we assume that in atomic war the conditions which make double effect legitimate will be realized? Obviously not. And to make this perfectly clear, the explicit and formal declarations of governments leave no doubt that indiscriminate destruction is intended.


In atomic war, there is no longer question of simply permitting an evil, the destruction of a few civilian dwellings, in order to attain a legitimate end: the destruction of a military target. It is well understood on both sides that atomic war is purely and simply massive and indiscriminate destruction of targets chosen not for their military significance alone, but for their importance in a calculated project of terror and annihilation. Often the selection of the target is determined by some quite secondary and accidental circumstance that has not the remotest reference to morality. Hiroshima was selected for atomic attack, among other reasons, because it had never undergone any noticeable air bombing and was suitable, as an intact target, to give a good idea of the effectiveness of the bomb.

It must be frankly admitted that some of the military commanders of both sides in World War II simply disregarded all traditional standards that were still effective. The Germans threw those standards overboard with the bombs they unloaded on Warsaw, Rotterdam, Coventry and London. The allies replied in kind with the saturation bombing of Hamburg, Cologne, Dresden and Berlin. Spokesmen were not wanting on either side, to justify these crimes against humanity.  And  today, while  "experts"  calmly  discuss  the  possibility  of  the United States being able to survive a war if "only fifty millions" of  the  population  are  killed;  when  the Chinese speak of  being  able to "spare" three hundred million  and "still get along," it is obvious  that we are no longer in the realm where moral truth is conceivable. The only sane course that remains is to work frankly and without compromise for the total abolition of war. The pronouncements of the Holy See all point to this as the only ultimate solution. The first duty of the Christian is to help clarify thought on this point by taking the stand that all-out nuclear, bacterial or chemical warfare is unacceptable as a practical solution to international problems because it would mean the destruction of the world. There is simply no "good end" that renders such a risk permissible or even thinkable on the level of ordinary common sense.

At this point someone will say "The Church has not condemned nuclear war." First of all there is no need to condemn something that already quite obviously stands condemned by its very nature. Total war is murder. The fact that the Church tolerates limited war and even theoretically tolerates the limited use of "tactical" nuclear weapons for defensive purposes does not mean that she either advocates or tolerates indiscriminate killing of civilians and military. Pope Pius XII, in 1954, made this perfectly clear. He said: "Should  the evil consequences of adopting this method of warfare ever become so extensive as to pass entirely beyond the control of man, then indeed its use must be rejected as immoral." Uncontrolled annihilation of human life is "not lawful under any title." There is much debate over the term "entirely beyond control." If a missile with a nuclear warhead can be aimed so as to destroy Lenin­ grad rather than Helsinki, is this sufficient to be termed control? One doubts this was the mind of Pius XII.

It might be possible to get people to admit this in theory, but it is going to be very difficult in practice. They will admit the theory because they will say that they "certainly do not want a war" in which nuclear agents will be used on an all-out scale. Obviously no one wants the destruction of the human race or of his own nation, although he will not admit it in practice because foreign policy entirely depends on wielding the threat of nuclear destruction. But in an issue of such desperate seriousness, we have to face the fact that the calculated use of nuclear weapons as a political threat is almost certain to lead eventually to a hot war. Every time another hydrogen bomb is exploded in a test, every time a political leader boasts his readiness to use the same bomb on the cities of his enemy, we get closer to the day when the missiles armed with nuclear warheads will start winging their way across the seas and the polar ice cap.

The danger must be faced. Whoever finds convenient excuses for this adventurous kind of policy, who rationalizes every decision dictated by political opportunism and justifies it, must stop to consider that he may be himself cooperating in the evil. On the contrary, our duty is to help emphasize with all the force at our disposal that the Church earnestly seeks the abolition of war; we must underscore declarations like those of Pope John XXIII pleading with world leaders to renounce force in the settlement of international disputes and confine themselves to negotiation.

Let us suppose that the political leaders of the world, supported by the mass media in their various countries, and carried onward by a tidal wave of ever greater and greater war preparations, see themselves swept inexorably into a war of disastrous proportions. Let us suppose that it becomes morally certain that these leaders are helpless to arrest the blind force of the process that has been irresponsibly set in motion.  What then? Are the masses of the world, including you and me, to resign themselves to their fate and march on to global suicide without resistance, simply bowing their heads and obeying their leaders as showing them the "will of God"? I think it should be evident to everyone that this can no longer, in the present situation, be accepted unequivocally as Christian obedience and civic duty.

On the contrary, this brings us face to face with the greatest and most agonizing moral issue of our time. This issue is not merely nuclear war, not merely the possible destruction of the human race by a sudden explosion of violence. It is something more subtle and more demonic. If we continue to yield to theoretically irresponsible determinism and to vague "historic forces" without striving to resist and to control them, if we let these forces drive us to demonic activism in the realm of politics and technology, we face something more than the material evil of universal destruction. We face the moral responsibility of global suicide. Much more than that, we are going to find ourselves gradually moving into a situation in which we are practically compelled by the "logic of circumstances" deliberately to choose the course that leads to destruction.

We all know the logic of temptation. We all know the vague, hesitant irresponsibility which leads us into the situation where it is no longer possible to turn back and how, arrived in that situation, we have a moment of clear-sighted desperation in which we freely commit ourselves to the course that we recognize to be evil. That may well be what is happening now to the whole world. The actual destruction of the human race is an enormous evil, but it is still, in itself, only a physical evil. Yet the free choice of global suicide, made in desperation by the world's leaders and ratified by the consent and cooperation of all their citizens, would be a moral evil second only to the crucifixion. The fact that such a choice might be made with the highest motives and the most urgent purpose would do nothing whatever to mitigate it. The fact that it might be made as a gamble, in the hope that some might escape, would never excuse it. After all, the purposes of Caiphas were, in his own eyes, perfectly noble. He thought it was necessary to let "one man die for the people."

The most urgent necessity of our time is therefore not merely to prevent the destruction of the human race by nuclear war. Even if it should happen to be no longer possible to prevent the disaster (which God forbid), there is still a greater evil that can and must be prevented. It must be possible for every free man to refuse his consent and deny his cooperation to this greatest of crimes.

In what does this effective and manifest refusal of consent consist? How does one "resist" the sin of genocide? How are the conscientious objectors to mass suicide going to register their objection and their refusal to cooperate? Ideally speaking, in the imaginary case where all-out nuclear war seemed inevitable and the world's leaders seemed morally incapable of preventing it, it would become legitimate and even obligatory for all sane and conscientious men everywhere in the world to lay down their weapons and their  tools  and  starve and be  shot  rather  than  cooperate  in  the  war  effort. If such a mass movement should spontaneously arise in all parts of the world, in Russia and America, in China and France, in Africa and Germany, the human race could be saved from extinction. This is indeed an engaging hypothesis- but it is no more than that. It would be folly to suppose that men hitherto passive, inert, morally indifferent and irresponsible might suddenly recover their sense of obligation and their awareness of their own power when the world was on the very brink of war. Indeed we have already reached that point. Who says "No!" except for a few isolated individuals regarded almost generally as crackpots by everybody else?

It is vitally necessary that we form our conscience in regard to our own participation in the effort that threatens to lead us to universal destruction. We have to be convinced that there are certain things already clearly forbidden to all men, such as the use of torture, the killing of hostages, genocide (or the mass extermination of racial, national or other groups for no reason than that they belong to an "undesirable" category). The destruction of civilian centers by nuclear annihilation bombing is genocide. We have to become aware of the poisonous effect of the mass media that keep violence, cruelty and sadism constantly present in the minds of uninformed and irresponsible people. We have to recognize the danger to the whole world in the fact that today the economic life of the more highly-developed nations is centered largely on the production of weapons, missiles and other engines of destruction. We have to consider that hate propaganda, and the consistent nagging and baiting of one government by another, has always inevitably led to violent conflict. We have to recognize the implications of voting for politicians who promote policies of hate.

These are activities which, in view of their possible consequences, are so dangerous and absurd as to be morally intolerable. If we cooperate in these activities we share in the guilt they incur before God. It is no longer reasonable or right to leave all decisions to a largely anonymous power elite that is driving us all, in our passivity, towards ruin. We have to make ourselves heard. Christians have a grave responsibility to protest clearly and forcibly against trends that lead inevitably to crimes which the Church deplores and condemns. Ambiguity, hesitation and compromise are no longer permissible. War must be abolished. A world government must be established. We have still time to do something about it, but the time is rapidly running out.

Thomas Merton was the author of "Man in the Divided Sea," and many other books. He was a member of the Trappist Community at Gethsemani, KY. He died December 10, 1968.

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