The Nuclear Reality: Beyond Niebuhr and the Just War

by Donna Schaper

Ms. Schaper is associate chaplain at Yale University.

This article appeared in the Christian Century October 13, 1982, p. 1014. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


We have ascribed an idolatrous power and ultimacy to weapons, which has deepened our dependence on them and increased our feelings of inevitable disaster. Our politicians and the technicians of violence have shown great dedication to perfecting the means for human extinction.

As a commissioner to the 1980 General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church, I was convinced that the church’s new peacemaking efforts needed “a good dose of Niebuhr.” I saw “The Call to Peacemaking” document as pacifistic and deficient in its failure to affirm the “just war.” In a brief speech to the Peacemaking Committee, I closed this way:

I dare say that if “The Call to Peacemaking” were being written just after World War II, it would read differently. With the memory of Munich, it probably would include a statement something like this: “There can be no security in a world whose obsession with peace leads to appeasement.”

Then I quoted from Reinhold Niebuhr’s letter to a pacifist who was reluctant to favor the Allied war effort against Hitler:

Your difficulty is that you want to try to live in history without sinning . . . our effort to set up the Kingdom of God on earth ends in a perverse preference for tyranny, simply because the peace of tyranny means, at least, the absence of war (Love and Justice [Westminster, 1957]).

This was the dose of realism I felt my Presbyterian brothers and sisters needed.

Now, two years later, I am in a different place. Although my background includes graduation from West Point, Command and General Staff College, the U.S. Army War College, overseas service in Okinawa, Germany and Vietnam, combat duty as a company commander in Korea and chaplain assignments at every level of the army, including the Pentagon, none of this experience has prevented a gradual but inexorable change in my viewpoint during the past two years. No, I did not become a pacifist. In fact, I will probably continue to bristle when the facile warmongering stereotype is unfairly and uncharitably applied to the many fine leaders of our armed forces. Likewise, I will continue to defend those military chaplains whose self-identity and role definition is so clear that they lend no credence to Niebuhr’s remark, “Kings use courtiers and chaplains to add grace to their enterprise.”

What has changed is my view of nuclear warfare and nuclear weapons. The change is by no means unusual or unique. In the May 1982 chief of chaplain’s newsletter, I referred to the people of Europe who feel they are “living on the battlefield.” Then I shared my own feelings:

I believe that statement can go further: We are all living on the battlefield. We are all vulnerable. For years I have put this out of my mind, knowing perhaps in some distant or subliminal way that it was true. But it never “grabbed” me. I just really did very little thinking about it. That is not true recently, however. This new awareness is happening to many people the world over. I believe this is of God, and I believe this is something God is doing in human history today. Doubtless it is striking fear into the hearts of many, leaders and policy-makers especially. This awareness of itself may not automatically determine immediate specific policy, but it is right that human beings be aware that it is wrong to be nonchalant, unthinking and indifferent about the real danger of the possible destruction of humankind. I welcome this widening awareness as a divine intervention, a warning and a signal, possibly a life-and-death “last chance” for human civilization. Life is a precious gift of God, willed by our Creator, but it cannot continue unless we also will that it does.

If I were to revisit the Peacemaking Committee now, I would say to them that the question is not whether we are to “live in history without sinning,” but whether we are to live in history at all. If we were to apply Niebuhr’s real politics, with its ready acceptance of the inevitability of conflict, to the present nuclear situation, it could well mean “a perverse preference for the war of mutual annihilation, simply because the war of mutual annihilation means, at least, that the other side doesn’t win either.” In speaking of plans for a protracted nuclear war, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger said recently that nuclear war was not winnable but that “we certainly are planning not to be defeated” (New York Times, August 9, 1982).

In view of continued presidential certification and support of the government of El Salvador, I would conclude, “There can be no peace in a world whose obsession with security leads to denying the claims of human rights and justice.” Finally, I would still admit that under certain circumstances, weakness invites aggression. Peacekeeping has a place. The United States Army War College motto, “Not to promote war, but to preserve peace,” is the idea behind the Armed Forces motto, “Peace through strength.” But now I would have to ask, “When does ‘peace through preparation for war’ make war a more likely possibility?” Certainly I would say, “There can be no peace in a world whose obsession with security leads to a never-ending arms race.”

Reinhold Niebuhr saw history as a “long tale of abortive efforts to establish peace,” with failures due “either to the effort to eliminate the factor of force entirely or to an undue reliance upon it” (Moral Man and Immoral Society [Scribner’s, 1932]). During the rise of Hitler and World War II, Niebuhr moved from his early pacifism to focus on the pacifist’s unrealistic effort to eliminate the factor of force. But now it appears that Niebuhr’s comment on “an undue reliance upon the factor of force” was more prophetic. The undue reliance on force by both the United States and the Soviet Union is characterized by nuclear overkill, indiscriminate arms peddling, and the wasting of precious human and national resources in an unending arms race.

Given these conditions and Niebuhr’s ability to shift his thinking, I wonder if he were living today whether he would not sharply limit his application of real politics. He reminded us that realism, not moralism, guides the conduct of nations. Nations relate to one another simply on the basis of self-interest. It is unreasonable and moralistic to expect nations to reflect the virtues of individuals -- hence his book title, Moral Man and Immoral Society. Niebuhr chided moralists for failing to understand “the brutal character of the behavior of all human collectives.” The stark realities of power and conflict must be accepted as inevitable. Indeed, “to the end of history the peace of the world . . . must be gained by strife.”

Such ideas from Niebuhr’s real politics blunted moral attacks on war and helped provide an easy conscience to a generation of American policy-makers. But now the case for realism appears to be moving beyond Niebuhr. Real politics, with its acceptance of the inevitability of conflict, is no longer realistic -- not when two nations with a total of more than 50,000 nuclear weapons can essentially obliterate one another. We must go beyond real politics, from self-interest to shared interest. Despite their competing systems, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. have a shared interest in survival. Niebuhr states it clearly:

The peril of nuclear war is so great that it may bridge the great ideological chasm between the two blocs and make them conscious of having one thing in common: preference for life over death (The Structure of Nations and Empires [Scribner’s, 1959]).

In order to realize this preference, we must go beyond Niebuhr’s realistic observation that groups and nations relate predominately on a “political rather than ethical” basis. If we cannot, then we must face the likely doom of the human race. Ironically, a recently revealed memo which former president Harry Truman wrote in 1958 indicates that he feared precisely this failure.

The nuclear reality not only takes us beyond Niebuhr and real politics; it also takes us beyond the “just war” as a justification or rationalization for the use of nuclear weapons. Nuclear warfare is indicted, not vindicated, by the limiting categories of just-war criteria such as due proportion, just means, just intentions and reasonable possibility of success. The burden of proof is on those who would say otherwise. A limited nuclear “just” war can be theoretically conceived of in a textbook scenario, but is it possible in the real world? War is confusion, chaos and hell, not predictable sequences. Even if nuclear weapons were to be used as counterforce, and even assuming that noncombatants could be protected, the question of escalation would remain unanswered -- not to mention long-term environmental or genetic damage. How can we know that any use of nuclear weapons will not result in catastrophic escalation?

In 1978, General Creighton Abrams was said to have interrupted a discussion about limited nuclear war “with an expletive, followed . . . by the statement, ‘One mushroom cloud will be reported as one hundred, and that will probably be the end of the world.’” The technical discussions as to when or whether nuclear weapons can be used without violating just war criteria are irrelevant unless the question of escalation can be answered with certainty.

I suspect that a number of these conclusions are shared by many middle-of-the-roaders who have thought of themselves as just-war adherents. Our realization that the just war theory provides no justification for nuclear weapons or nuclear warfare has involved painful reappraisal, a “shaking of the foundations.” However, some of us were prodded and assisted by the cavalier comments of leaders in the current administration. European nuclear protest has been accounted for as “Protestant angst” (Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy Richard N. Perle) which was “bought and paid for by the Soviet Union” (President Ronald Reagan). On this side of the ocean, Secretary of the Navy John Lehman blamed “a few uninformed and overly idealistic religious leaders.”

This trivialization of nuclear concerns was a misreading of the across-the-board struggle taking place with issues of life and death, of the widespread sense that this may be the “last chance” for human civilization. Since our leaders did not have the sensitivity to feel the moral earnestness of literally millions of European and American people, it is legitimate to ask how sensitive they are to the moral issues themselves.

In good will we might patiently wait for signs of moral leadership, but the facts of history do not offer us this choice. We were the first and only nation to use atomic bombs in war. It was a presidential decision; the American people were not consulted. Furthermore, in our armed forces schools, military officers in tactical war gaming make the assumption that nuclear “release” will be forthcoming in any major war. Where did such an assumption come from?

All these factors heighten the importance of the present nuclear debate. If there is any hint from our political leaders that the use of nuclear weapons is regarded once again as one of the prerogatives of power in a “close hold,” then at the very least the nuclear debate ought to serve the purpose of forcing openness, or what Jacques Ellul called “unmasking.” Using nuclear weapons does not fit into the “If I felt the American people needed to know. . .” category. History, if there is to be a history at all, must not repeat itself.

But the only guarantors of this history are the American people themselves. As reported in the Washington Post, former secretary of defense Robert S. McNamara implicitly assigned this responsibility recently when he attempted to account for the tremendous nuclear buildup by the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in the last 15 years. Robert Scheer asked, “But how did this happen?” McNamara’s response: “Because the potential victims have not been brought into the debate yet, and it’s about time we brought them in. I mean the average person.”

In order for this participation to take place, “the average person” must overcome a passive feeling of inferiority which blindly blesses government policy, and is content to “leave it to the experts.” The question is not whether we trust our leaders, but whether our leaders can be made to trust the American people and bring them into their confidence. Gatekeeping is a permanent feature of any bureaucracy.

At lunch with me one day in the Pentagon, a senior Defense Department official complained about Roman Catholic bishops who, in involving themselves in nuclear issues, were “tampering in geopolitical areas.” I responded by defending the bishops’ right to transgress the sacred soil of geopolitics; the possible killing of human beings is certainly a moral question. “Potential victims” have a right to be brought into the debate and the decision-making process concerning their fate.

“Potential victims” must also break through their sense of foreboding and inevitability -- the prime ingredient which could bring us to a nuclear holocaust. In reflecting on the Truman-Churchill decision to use the atomic bomb, Niebuhr said, “The question is whether they were not driven by historic forces more powerful than any human decision.” Will competitive forces “more powerful than any human decision” once again drive us toward use of nuclear weapons and ultimate disaster? Or will we decide that human decisions can and will control our destiny?

It now appears that the U.S.-U.S.S.R. arms race has taken on “a life of its own.” Completely apart from the “Soviet threat,” the reason this is so is that we have ascribed an idolatrous power and ultimacy to weapons, which has deepened our dependence on them and increased our feelings of inevitable disaster. Therefore our president “orders” another 17,000 nuclear weapons. And he proposes to sell $25 billion worth of arms in a single year to a waiting world. The familiar statement “If we don’t, someone else will” is a sign of the paralysis of “inevitability” and lack of moral leadership -- not a valid reason for arms peddling.

Last year Frank C. Carlucci, deputy secretary of defense, described what he believed to be an election mandate: “We are obliged to rearm our country.” Then, in anti-gun-control language, he said, “A casual appreciation of history reveals that neither weapons nor armies start wars. People start wars.” This, of course, is nonsense, even though it is true that people start wars. What is so tragic is this nonchalant approach to weapons, as if they were just another commodity such as wheat or silver. Admiral Hyman G. Rickover’s sense of history in his “final blast” before retirement was more accurate:

The lesson of history is: When a war starts, every nation will ultimately use whatever weapon has been available. That is the lesson learned time and again. Therefore, we must expect, if another war -- a serious war -- breaks out, we will use nuclear energy in some form. That’s due to the imperfection of human beings (New York Times, January 30, 1982).

Even though Rickover seems given over to the probability of nuclear extinction, he nevertheless seems to appreciate that weapons are not “neutral,” that their presence introduces a compelling temptation for human beings to use them.

Jacques Ellul probed the deeper reasons why human beings must get control of weapons and weapons systems or be controlled or destroyed by them. In a technological society, Ellul points out,

People think that they have no right to judge a fact -- all they have to do is to accept it. . . . A striking example of this religious authority of the fact is provided for us by the atomic bomb. Confronted by this discovery, by this instrument of death, it was quite possible for man to refuse to use it, to refuse to accept this fact. But this question was never even raised. Mankind was confronted by a fact, and it felt obliged to accept it. All the questions which were raised after that were secondary: ‘Who will use this weapon? How shall we organize our economy with it in view?’ But no one ever raised the question: ‘Is this line of action itself good or bad?’ The reason is that ‘the fact’ itself at the present time seems to be something which is beyond good and evil (The Presence of the Kingdom [Seabury, 1967]).

Actually, Ellul is not quite correct in stating that the question of refusing to use the atomic bomb “was never even raised.” The matter was never considered in any public forum. However, the Committee on Social and Political Implications in its report to then-Secretary of War Henry Lewis Stimson stated prophetically:

The use of nuclear bombs for an early unannounced attack against Japan is inadvisable. If the U.S. were to be the first to release this new means of indiscriminate destruction upon mankind, she would sacrifice public support throughout the world, precipitate the race for armaments, and prejudice the possibility of reaching an international agreement on the future control of such weapons (quoted in Alan Geyer, The Idea of Disarmament [Brethren Press, 1982]).

This committee foretold the consequences of the nuclear “Fall.” They underscored Ellul’s contention that nuclear weapons command a religious authority over our lives.

We cannot reverse the Fall, but what we can reverse is our continued complicity in nuclear idolatry. The time has come for the American people to overcome the religious authority of nuclear weapons by questioning their basis in “fact.” Neither real politics nor the just war theory can provide a legitimate basis for their existence or use. The “fact” of nuclear weapons has been superseded by a more compelling fact: that human beings have a right to live free of the risk of mutual nuclear annihilation. This is the essence of European and American nuclear protest.

Paul Warnke’s comment that the START talks were “conceived in sin” (as a result of grass-roots pressure) indicates the reluctance of the leaders of this administration to face the primary moral question of nuclear arms control and elimination. Having accepted nuclear weapons as “fact,” these leaders have concentrated on secondary questions concerning nuclear capability and use. Now it is time for our leaders to exercise their considerable talents in the “politics of self-interest” by stopping the nuclear arms race instead of continuing to justify and stockpile the means of mutual suicide.

Albert Einstein once said, “We live in an age of perfect means and confused ends.” Our politicians and the technicians of violence have shown great dedication .to perfecting the means for human extinction. Now it is time for them to back off and ask, “to what end?” If they cannot exercise a commensurate moral leadership in addressing this question, then it is time for the leaders to be led.