A momentous anniversary, eclipsed by current crises, demands our remembrance today. Events of 75 years ago changed our world profoundly and irreversibly.

In August 1945 it took just a few milliseconds for a powder charge of conventional explosives to set off a chain reaction in a mass of fissile material – 141 pounds of enriched uranium over Hiroshima, just 11 pounds of plutonium over Nagasaki three days later.

Explosions more powerful than 16,000-ton bombs destroyed the two city centers, reducing buildings and people to toxic ash.
In many ways this was just another step in the evolution of 20th-century warfare, as longstanding limits on war’s devastation were set aside, one after another, for military objectives. Poison gas had devastating effects in the First World War. Indiscriminate attacks on non-combatants became routine German and Allied tactics in Europe. The American firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945 killed 100,000, more than either atomic bomb.

Yet in August 1945 a new world dawned that we can never exit. President Truman’s threat to attack a dozen more cities, when only a few bombs remained, was a bluff. Yet a decade later the US arsenal had grown into the thousands, not only fission bombs but also far more devastating fusion weapons. The Soviets built their own comparable nuclear arsenal.

From 1945 until the end of human history, every confrontation between nations will carry the potential to trigger devastation on a global scale. Once we spoke of armies “going to war.” Today war can come to our doorstep, wherever we are, borne by a missile.

What if the world had responded in 1945 with an immediate ban on atomic bombs? What if the few remaining bombs in US hands had been destroyed, the weapons labs disbanded? Only in our dreams.

Every new invention elicits the desire to make more, bigger and better. A new horseless carriage that can speed along at 25 miles per hour? Let’s build one that goes 125. Has a human astronaut been rocketed into orbit and returned safely? We’ll send men to the moon and robot telescopes to the boundaries of the solar system. Impressed by the skyscrapers of New York? Beijing, Kuala Lumpur, and Dubai can build them taller. And the destructive power of weapons, predictably, grew exponentially after 1945.

Thirty-five years ago I wrote about an earlier Hiroshima anniversary in the Reformed Journal, then a monthly periodical. (“Aftereffects: The legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” Reformed Journal, 35:8, August 1985, pp. 10-13.) It was true then, and by God’s grace still true today, that no nation but the United States has ever detonated an atomic bomb in war. Awareness was far higher then of the threat of nuclear conflict, however. Best-selling books forecast “nuclear winter” after a superpower conflict. Dutch churches launched a campaign to “rid the world of nuclear weapons beginning with the Netherlands,” as on the button above. On June 12, 1982, a million people rallied in support of a United Nations disarmament conference, the largest demonstration in the nation’s history. (See “No More Hiroshima: The march in New York,” Reformed Journal, 32:7, July, 1982, pp. 10-15)

But the two major nuclear powers, locked in ideological conflict, were expanding their arsenals rapidly. By 1985 there were 70,000 nuclear weapons in the world, all but a few thousand held by the US or the USSR. Leaders of both nations boasted, like teenage boys, that ours are bigger and better than yours. President Ronald Reagan persuaded Congress to authorize 100 new ICBMs, each carrying ten nuclear warheads – and to baptize them “Peacekeepers.” Fifty remain on alert today.

Thankfully the nuclear arms race of the 1980s has slowed significantly. Bilateral and multilateral nonproliferation and disarmament treaties – and the unreliability of decades-old warheads – have brought the global nuclear weapons tally down to 13,000. Of these, American and Russian forces hold about 4000 each, 1500 on each side deployed and ready for launch. A few hundred more are in France, Great Britain, China, Pakistan, India and Israel.

The Trump administration proclaims its support for disarmament, but its actions speak louder. It has renounced past treaties limiting missiles and battlefield nuclear weapons, ramped up development of new nuclear weapons, and abandoned international efforts to monitor developments in Iran.

These actions are only a small departure from previous administrations, however. Democratic and Republican presidents alike have issued high-sounding appeals for disarmament while retaining and updating enough bombs to destroy every city on the globe several times over, with plenty in reserve to bounce the rubble. Russian leaders have followed the same script.

If we recognize a moral authority higher than the nation-state, what can we say about the duplicity and the danger of current nuclear policies? From the dawn of the nuclear era, Christian voices have invoked the teaching of the church, consistently upheld from the time of the early Fathers, that willful harm to the innocent is impermissible, in war or in peace. Nuclear weapons by their nature flout all such moral limits.

Catholic pontiffs have been among the most forceful recent voices. Pope John XXIII’s wide-ranging 1963 encyclical, Pacem in Terris, stated flatly: “Justice, right reason, and the recognition of man’s dignity cry out insistently for a cessation to the arms race. . . Nuclear weapons must be banned.” All his successors have concurred. Pope Francis went a step further in 2017 when he stated that, because of the risk of accident or error, “the threat of [nuclear weapons’] use, as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned.”

Protestant church assemblies have spoken with equal force. The 2006 report on peace and war adopted by the Christian Reformed Church in North America stated boldly: “We reaffirm the declarations of Synod 1982 that nuclear weapons should not be considered legitimate means of warfare, and we once again call on all current nuclear powers to halt the production and proliferation of nuclear weapons and reduce the stockpiles now accumulated.”

Already in 1955 the forerunner of today’s Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) stated, “We believe that lasting peace requires the elimination and prohibition of all weapons of mass destruction.” A 2018 statement elaborated: church members should “renounce the false god of nuclear security with its promise of catastrophic consequences; renounce any policy that threatens the death of millions of God’s children in any land with a single command and a single warhead,” and work with other faith communities to seek “total elimination of nuclear weapons from the earth.”

Drawing on two millennia of theological and moral reflection, church bodies have rejected the false claim that nuclear weapons are legitimate weapons of war. And yet, drawing on 75 years of increasingly sophisticated technology of destruction, the nation’s leaders have maintained and refined their toolkit for sowing death and destruction anywhere on the globe at will, even while claiming that this is the way to preserve peace.

The policy of nuclear deterrence amounts, after all, to a sanitized and enlarged version of the terrorist’s threat: do as we say or we will kill you and your family. Communicated through anonymous phone calls to a politician or business leader, it is outrageously immoral. Can it be the foundation of a moral polity when it is proclaimed from the halls of government? Christians must continue to stand up and say no.

David Hoekema

David Hoekema is professor of philosophy emeritus of Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

10 Comments

  • Tom says:

    All true. And yet . . . . .

    18 to 22 million people died in WW1,
    70 to 100 million people died in WW2.
    That’s roughly 88 to 122 million people dead in wars over the first 45 years of the last century. And in the 75 years since 1945, roughly 9 million people have died in wars around the world.

    You’ll have a hard time convincing me that our nuclear arsenal has nothing to do with that.
    (numbers are just based on quick Googling, so may be suspect, although I expect the magnitudes are about right)

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Well professor, I too have thought long and hard about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
    Empire has always sought the latest and best weaponry and tactics to dominate “enemies”.
    The US Empire became fully operational on August 6 and 9, 1945, when we unleashed the doomsday weapon on “the enemy”.
    Ever since then, “all-out war” has been unthinkable and the world lives in fear that rouge nations or entities will do to the US what we have done to others. All wars since WW II have been “limited”, with no “winners”, only insurgents that keep nipping at American dominance.
    We fear the next outbreak of “Total War” will be the end of human civilization as we’ve come to know it.
    As we also know, earthly Empires come. And they go, to be replaced by others, able to impose their will on “enemies”.
    As you write, “. . . .we recognize a moral authority higher than the nation-state”. Our allegiance must be to the Lord or the “New Order” whose law is love, who urges his followers to lay down their swords, doing acts of justice, kindness and walking humbly in “this world with devils filled”.
    David, urging Empire to divest of nuclear weapons, now that the cat is out of the bag, is a fool’s errand. We want to maintain the myth that “we are in control.” Empire and would-be empires will seek military-backed dominance until Jesus returns (nation against nation, as our Lord predicted).
    Fortunately, mutual fear has kept the “nuclear deterrence” in check. So far. But for how long before events and people conspire to go nuclear again?
    Our “Christian” nation sought to overcome evil with more evil (at Hiroshima and Nagasaki). And we justified it. We baptized it. It needed to be done.
    Let’s not forget. We, the United States of America, unleashed the bomb. WE inaugurated this doomsday era in which we live (and fear).
    The Law of Retaliation can only be overcome by the Law of Love (and forgiveness). Until humanity learns that lesson, the death spiral will continue until we are all blind, deaf. . . . and dead.
    By God’s grace, there is another “Way”. And we followers of this Way will carry on, doing the Lord’s business, come what may, seeking the “welfare of the city”.
    Thank you, professor, for this overview into the church’s efforts to curb the nuclear menace. We are inheritors of Empire’s blessing. We are complicit. Yet, we feel guilty. We want to share all God’s riches with all people everywhere. And we are bound and determined to do it. So, help us God!

  • Doug Vande Griend says:

    “The policy of nuclear deterrence amounts, after all, to a sanitized and enlarged version of the terrorist’s threat: do as we say or we will kill you and your family.”

    Minus the rhetoric, Isn’t this rather precisely what any government does — and should do — when its domestic law enforcement makes clear that a sufficient level of disobedience to its laws will result in government wielding its “power of the sword” against he or she who so disobeys — to the point of death if needed? OK, not “your family” but that is generally (though not always) possible for domestic law enforcement. Aside from the duty to fervently try not to kill non-combatants, is the argument here that the United States should ENSURE that non-combatants be killed in war by unilaterally rid itself of nuclear weapons? Even tactical? If so, what then about conventional missiles, bombs and other explosives (which do the same even if at lower levels)? For that matter, mere guns will certainly, despite all efforts, kill both combatants and non-combatants in war.

    Perhaps we should advocate that there “not be any war.” OK, I’ll go along with that, but frankly, one could reasonably argue that the Pentagon advocates for that right now. But to advocate that the US unilaterally disarm (whatever category of weaponry) will, as a matter of present human race reality, is to advocate for an increase in war globally speaking, not to mention eliminate the ability of the US to defend against other global powers. And if we advocate to disarm our military weaponry, should we not also disarm our domestic law enforcement? (Actually, that is fashionable these days).

    I’m willing to stand up and say “no” to certain governmental policies and practices provided that there is something reasonable and definitive to say “yes” to. The “yes” part here is really complicated. One who advocates for unilateral disarmament, of any class of weaponry, should explain exactly what armaments should remain, and how those remaining armaments will reasonably enable the government to do what governments are obliged to do.

  • David Hoekema says:

    I appreciate these thoughtful responses, and in an hour’s conversation with each writer I am sure we would learn from each other even if we held to our divergent perspectives. Lacking the opportunity for that, a few thoughts:

    — Church leaders and assemblies who have come to the considered judgment that nukes are not legitimate weapons of war have most often called for bold steps toward multilateral disarmament, not unilateral renunciation. One nuclear power did take that step, however: South Africa, when it became a multiracial democracy in 1994. Would the United States be less secure from foreign invasion if we dumped our nukes into the sea while retaining all the rest of our weapons? Probably not. But we might do better to start with some dramatic first steps that would motivate other nuclear powers to follow suit.

    —A world free of nukes is not a world in which there can never be more nukes. Technical knowledge would remain, and bad actors could start building in secret. But with current capabilities for satellite and electronic monitoring, it would take three to six months, not minutes, to launch an attack, and we would know what was cooking. That’s a big plus. (Jonathan Schell, The Fate of the Earth, made this point forcefully.)

    —What I fear we have forgotten, inured to the comforting euphemisms of “defense spending” and “national security,” is that nuclear weapons are not really weapons of war. They cannot defend a border or defeat an enemy army. What they can do is intimidate, by the threat of their use, and inflict indiscriminate destruction, if used. In this way they are unlike legitimate means of coercion, which (arguably) include police sidearms and army rifles and prison walls with guards. (Much of my work in political philosophy has asked when coercion is permissible — in enforcing laws, resolving international disputes, and even in keeping college students’ worst impulses under control.) Moreover, “immoral to use but perfectly OK to threaten” is nonsensical. If it justifies nuclear deterrence it also justifies police detectives threatening torture. Nukes are not weapons, and we were wrong to think they were. Let’s get rid of them.

  • Doug Vande Griend says:

    David: I appreciate your responses. Here are mine to your three points.

    Calling for “bold steps toward multilateral disarmament” is certainly a reasonable thing to do, even if not so hopeful (which doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done). But when you say, as you do in your concluding sentence, “Christians must continue to stand up and say no,” I suspect most will regard that call as a call to tell the US to unilaterally disarm. And indeed, protests regularly issue that call, in the US, to the US government.

    As to whether nuclear weapons are “really” weapons of war, I see that as a rather unhelpful question. The two dropped on Japan certainly were. Dropping a single nuclear bomb on a single city would, today, be a (rather grievous) act of war short of total annihilation. Tactical nuclear weapons are designed to be limited in effect. And then conventional weapons can be obliterating as well — e.g., from the perspective of South Koreans, especially those in Seoul, who face a conventional annihilation threat quite constantly. And indeed, there are quite a number of bright people whose lives of work have concluded that MAD may well have been a policy that has kept far more peace than anything else could have. That is a role that “real” weapons play, nuclear or conventional.

    I think the larger question in today’s world, that no one seems willing to discuss (in forums like this one) is about nuclear non-proliferation. Especially today as to Iran and North Korea, the threat of smaller countries fully under the control of fully centralized governments (to the tune of a single person) possessing nuclear weapons is the more significant question to discuss if one wishes to engage the question of nuclear weapons. Do we (US and allies) really want to enforce non-proliferation? If so, what may/should be done to accomplish that? Was non-proliferation a bad idea to begin with, or should it be abandoned now so that any country or private power should be permitted to develop nuclear weapons? In terms of questions whose answers will likely practically affect the human race right now, nuclear non-proliferation questions are the greater candidates, I think, than mutual disarmament of the global superpowers.

    • Tom Ackerman says:

      Doug,

      While I agree with you about the need to discuss non-proliferation, it seems to me that we need to recognize that there is a difficult moral question involved. What gives the US (or any other nation) the right to say that we can possess nuclear weapons and you cannot? We all recognize the horrific potential of nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists, but then we don’t necessarily agree on who might be defined as a terrorist. Thus, answering the non-proliferation question requires a soul-searching debate about the just use of power and international relations. It also requires a commitment by the nations involved to maintain a course through time regardless of fluctuations in internal politics.

      I think we need to maintain a focus on multilateral disarmament, rather than focus on unilateral disarmament. Starting in the later half of the 1980’s, the US entered into and maintained disarmament agreements with the then USSR and now Russia. It is extremely distressing to me that the current US administration has discarded several of these agreements with no discussion or apparent strategy. We recognized in the 1980’s that unlimited numbers of nuclear weapons endangered the entire planet, not just the combatants. That has not change. The US has not in recent memory struggled to define how many weapons (of any kind) are sufficient for defense. We spend more than half of the federal discretionary budget on the Defense Department (which perhaps we should return to its original name of War Department). We annually spend more on Defense than the next ten countries combined.

      Where are the voices of the Protestant Churches in the US in these matters? Where are we trying to confront these problems in the name of Christ? Why are we not seen as proponents of a just peace?

      • Doug Vande Griend says:

        Tom: Thanks for your engagement. You cite a difficult question indeed (“What give the US (or any other nation) the right to say that we can possess nuclear weapons and you cannot”). Of course there is really clear answer to this, although I think John Locke (Second Treatise of Government) provides a helpful analysis. Locke suggests that among themselves, nations are in a “state of nature” (you need to read Locke to understand what he means by that) and thus regulated in their inter-nation behavior by the “law of nature” (again, need to read Locke).

        But if you ask the question you do, you really need to open up the questioning to any nation to nation action that is not done by specific nation/nation agreement. If the answer to your question is that it (US)/they (other nations) have no such “right,” then all nations become quite isolationist, and indeed, pre-world wars, there was a mighty big strain of that thinking in the US. Arguably, objections to such “rights” would eliminate the “right” of any government to impose tariffs (import or export), international trade, embargoes, etc. For that matter, it would eliminate the “right” of the United Nations to do much of anything at all. After all, any action of the UN includes the assumption that there is some sort of “right” of some nations to tell (an)other nation(s) what to do or refrain from doing.

        I think the best answer given by someone may perhaps be what Locke gave, as difficult as that answer may be to “implement.”

        As to your complaint, “Where are the voices of the Protestant Church in the US in these matters?,” I’d prefer that institutional churches largely stay out of the business of taking specific stances on these very difficult questions. Certainly, institutional churches might offer exegetical renditions of Scripture passage that they might see as related to the questions (exegeting Scripture is a focused expertise of institutional churches), but beyond that, institutional churches do well to be appropriately humble about their expertise (and non-expertise), not to mention recognize that institutional churches are not called (within the world of reformed ecclesiology at least) to speak in behalf of its members as to some quite disputable matters. In other words, institutional churches are not, ought not act as, political lobby offices for its membership.

  • David Hoekema says:

    I think we are getting close to the one-hour conversation I wished for, but on line. Quick response to Doug’s comments:

    –A tinpot dictator firing off one of his three nukes is a greater worry tosay than the US or Russia firing ten of its 1500 that are locked and loaded — agreed! That’s why the supposed negotiations with North Korea might have been useful, but they turned out to be only a publicity stunt on both sides. And that’s why the laborious and protracted multilateral negotiations with Iran, which accomplished a lot, are still important to the European powers who take treaty agreements more seriously than the US does at the moment.

    –And that’s why I can’t agree that “tactical nuclear weapons” are in the same class as conventional weapons. Crossing the nuclear threshold may or may not be construed by others as permission to throw whatever they have back at us. Too risky to be part of our strategy. Yet the US has consistently refused to pledge “no first use.” (Under several administrations, not just the current one.)

    –Nonproliferation should indeed be a major focus today — agreed again! But there are gaps in the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which remains in force today. 191 countries are signatories but three of the newest nuclear powers (India, Pakistan, and Israel) never signed, and North Korea pulled out. Moreover, the deal the nuclear powers made with the non-nuclear nations was essentially: nobody will start building nukes and those of us who have them will get rid of them. (“Article VI of the NPT represents the only binding commitment in a multilateral treaty to the goal of disarmament by the nuclear-weapon states,” says a reference site.) Not much progress on the second part of the deal. All the same, it was a very important agreement and may well have kept the numbers of new nuclear powers small. Thank God, and the more sane diplomats of the world, for that!

    DH

    • Doug Vande Griend says:

      David: Yes, these questions are better discussed in day-long (at least) conferences, aren’t they? But maybe we take what we can get, eh?

      As to North Korea, that nation’s intention to denuclearize has been an extremely difficult problem for a long time now. I understand why the Kims would want nuclear weapons, especially after seeing what happened to Gaddafi/Libya after it complied with US (Reagan) demands in the 1990s. But it is also understandable that other nations (Japan, South Korea, US, many others) would consider North Korea (better described as a single person named Kim Jung-Un) in possession of nuclear weapons (with delivery systems but even without) as simply intolerable. No, there hasn’t been much progress on multilateral disarmament, but I doubt there ever will be. And if I’m right (and so far I am), then the question of whether the US should actively enforce nuclear non-proliferation remains. Indeed, even if non-proliferation efforts fail as to some countries (e.g., Pakistan, India, Israel), the question as to other countries yet remains, perhaps especially as to countries like North Korea and Iran because of the kinds of governments that have controlled those nations.

      The longer I live, the more “common sense-ian” and “pragmatic” I tend to get about these kinds of questions (as unsatisfying as that may be). In my reply to Tom Ackerman, I suggested that clear rules for nation to nation relationships are really hard to come by, and that perhaps nations are simply in a Lockean “state of nature” as to each other, subject only to the “laws of nature,” which, if one reads Locke, is admittedly a difficult law for people to uniformly discern (and thus cause for people to form defined governments that serve defined “nations”). One might, for that reason, favor a global nation with a single world government approach, but as a practical matter, that’s not in the cards — and I would not advocate for it (at this place and time in history at least). Still, all of these questions deserve (demand) discussion, not only by governments but also by citizens who don’t hold government positions. After all, citizens elect governments — at least in governments roughly fashioned after the US model.

  • Karl J Westerhof says:

    Oh how much I appreciate this dialog! Respectful, thoughtful, charitable. So helpful to readers like me, and I hope to the church as well. We need this kind of conversation so badly. Thanks to all of you who participated in it!

Leave a Reply