New Forest East



By Leonard Cheshire

Leonard Cheshire: The Light of Many Suns (Methuen, London, 1985) ISBN 0413592405


Leonard Cheshire was one of only two British observers who witnessed the dropping of the atom bomb. This book is an account of that experience, and of the effect it had on his own attitude to what he describes as the "nuclear dilemma".

The author is a Christian, and a Catholic. He has confronted the horrors of war at first hand, and argues that the emphasis on nuclear weapons can divert us from the appalling consequences of conventional warfare. He examines the historical setting of the nuclear debate and the moral and spiritual issues it raises; and he discusses the position of the pacifist, both in terns of ordinary practicability and the teaching of the Church.

His case for the retention of a nuclear deterrent is a powerful one, based as it is on the belief that it does maintain peace between those nations who possess it, and that the capacity for self-defence is not incompatible with the teachings of the Church as well as practical commonsense; that, from a Christian standpoint , the nuclear age presents challenge and, most importantly, hope ...


... The American conviction that only an extreme measure would persuade Japan to surrender was not a mistaken one. In the space of forty-eight hours the military had suffered two shattering blows – the [Hiroshima] bomb and the Soviet invasion of Manchuria – without their resolve to hold on to the very end being dented. Of these two, it was the latter that made the greater immediate impact, for, as it fell within the realm of their experience, its consequences were easy enough to calculate. The bomb, on the other hand, was something entirely new ... The Americans had always thought that two bombs would be needed: the first to convince Japan that they had an atomic bomb, and the second to demonstrate their capability and will to continue dropping them until she surrendered. Once it was clear that the military had overruled the peace faction, the second attack had to come quickly in order to leave the Japanese in no possible doubt that Truman meant what he had said. [p.51]

... How is it, then, that they did surrender? How is it that, having laid down their arms, they never carried out what the honour of the imperial army demanded, in keeping with the example of all other defeated units across the Pacific islands? There can only be one answer: that the bomb enabled them to surrender without having to concede military defeat. They could say, and with absolute truth, that no man can fight the atomic bomb; that, because it was not to a human enemy that they were surrendering, they could lay down their arms with honour. This was the argument ... which the Emperor also used as the central point in his broadcast to the nation:

“The enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is indeed incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should We continue to fight, it would result not only in the ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilisation ... This is why We have ordered the acceptance of the provisions of the Joint Declaration of the Powers.”

The message was broadcast at noon on 15 August to an awed public who had never heard the Emperor’s voice, and many of whom listened on their knees ... The fearsome reprisals [against prisoners of war] and the mass hara-kiri that had been planned never took place. [pp.65–66]

... It was on Churchill’s instructions that I had been sent on the mission [to observe the dropping of the second atomic bomb], but the general election had taken place while I was waiting at Hamilton Field for the outbound flight, and it was now Attlee to whom I was to report ... six weeks had now elapsed, and this had given me time to compose my thoughts. For better or for worse, I knew the three main points that I wanted to make:

1. The atomic bomb is decisive and final. You cannot fight against it and survive as a nation. If both sides have it equally, neither can afford to attack the other; there is military stalemate.

2. It follows that a third world war will be prevented, and world peace preserved, only if the Western Allies possess an adequate atomic arsenal.

3. The key lies not in the atom bomb itself ... It lies in the effectiveness of the delivery system. Future delivery systems will take many forms, but the principal will be rockets coming out of space. At all costs Britain should initiate its own space programme.

Mr Attlee listened intently to my first two points, but seemed to lose interest when it came to the subject of space, and the interview terminated.

This last mission accomplished, I felt lost and empty, and asked the RAF for my discharge. They said I was close to a breakdown and put me in a hospital near the Crystal Palace for a fortnight. I think, perhaps, it had all been a bit much for me. [pp.67–68]


... There are moral theologians who say that a decision based on the lesser of two evils is never morally correct, irrespective of the consequences, and that an immoral means may never be used to attain a good end. I have to say, however, that I cannot bring myself to agree with a moral principle stated in such absolute terms and held as binding in all circumstances ... In cases where human life is at stake, I should have thought that the more accurate test of the correctness of one’s action is its intended purpose. Am I trying to do what is in the best interests of all those involved in the emergency ... One can reply, of course, that at this level of activity our moral duty is pretty obvious, and that going into these philosophical whys and wherefores is just a distraction. But we shall find that when we come to confront the nuclear issue the very same moral difficulty is there, and we shall be able to deal with it only if we have worked out a viewpoint of our own which we believe in and can defend against opposing opinion. [pp.76–77]

... It is a sad reality that in time of full-scale war, which of its nature is evil, man goes to such lengths of sacrifice for what he considers to be the common good; and that in time of peace, which in essence is good, he retreats back into the more limited world of his own private interests and hopes, without seeing that he himself is thereby the loser. For it is precisely by becoming more involved with mankind as a whole and less with his immediate circle that man finds inner fulfilment and attains to the full stature of perfection for which he is destined. [pp.81–82]

... I take as my starting point the fundamental question: do nations have the right of armed self-defence against unlawful and armed aggression? For on the view we take of this much will depend on the nuclear debate.

The right of self-defence has been assumed from the beginning of recorded history, and consistently upheld by the Christian Church. Only the absolute pacifist rejects it. The Law of Nations sees international society as consisting of a series of sovereign states, each of which has certain basic rights, the principal of which are territorial integrity and political sovereignty. International law upholds the inviolability of these two rights, grants the victim state the right to defend itself, and permits other states to come to its aid ... There is no policeman on the international scene ... Yet, act as a policeman we have to; and this is not only because our own survival as a free nation is at stake, but because resisting an aggressor has a moral value in itself. The common values of international society are strengthened when aggression is resisted, and diminished when, either through appeasement or capitulation, it is allowed to triumph ... The underlying moral issue [with international aggression] is the same as with terrorists, hijackers, kidnappers and the like: experience as well as reason tells us that they have to be resisted and brought to justice, or else the floodgates will open.

... So far, it would appear, so good. If nations have the right to self-defence against an unlawful aggressor, and if the exercise of that right contributes to the stability and the values of international society, what is now required is to discover the extent to which nuclear weapons affect that right. However, first it is necessary to examine the claim of pacifism which denies the right of armed defence altogether. It is a view which with the advent of nuclear weapons has attracted a growing number of adherents, and on which each of us must make a personal and informed judgement. [pp.90–2]

... [There follows an extended discussion of pacifism, based on Leonard Cheshire’s essay The Error of Pacifism published by the Coalition for Peace Through Security in 1983. Referring to the scenario of a policeman having to decide whether to shoot terrorists attempting to massacre passengers at an airport, it concludes:]

In seeing the commandment, “You shall not kill”, as an absolute prohibition which makes the shooting of the gunmen an inadmissible moral option, the pacifist stands alone. Almost all moralists, religious as well as secular, hold that in such a situation, where no other way exists of stopping the massacre that is taking place, the commandment to love one’s fellow men can be translated into action only by shooting the perpetrators of the crime. He is not using an immoral means to achieve a good end, because shooting the criminal is not, under these circumstances, an immoral action. A murderer, whilst in the process of committing murder, forfeits his right to have his life protected by the law so that he may complete his murderous work. [p.99]

... If absolute pacifism were adopted as state policy, the police would be disarmed, and sole possession of firearms yielded to the criminal element of society. What doors this would open to the men of violence, to kidnappers, to those who know how to play on the passions of crowds for their personal ends! [p.102]

[Chapter] 6. Nuclear Hope

For the pacifist, the advent of nuclear weapons has substantially increased the force and urgency of his case. He can now present the choice facing mankind in simple and clear-cut terms: either destruction of the nation, possibly even extinction of the greater part of mankind, or accepting a Soviet invasion of Europe and making the best one can of the unpleasant consequences ... But the proposition ‘better red than dead’, compelling though it undoubtedly is, conceals a trap; better still is neither the one nor the other, neither nuclear war nor subjection to an alien and hostile regime. The majority of people seem to sense this, for the electorates of the main Western nations have clearly indicated that they do not want to be left defenceless. [p.107]

... The present nuclear debate concentrates so single-mindedly on the terrible nature of nuclear weapons, that hardly any attention seems to be paid to the nature of conventional war and to what would happen to Europe were this to break out. In many people’s minds there is an unspoken assumption that only nuclear weapons threaten Europe’s survival, and that if they could once be negotiated away the dread catastrophe we all fear would be averted. There is a further assumption in some people’s minds that if we were to upgrade and strengthen NATO’s conventional capability we could dispense with our nuclear weapons and still be adequately defended. These issues are central to the debate but are not faced up to properly; in short, they are fudged. Both assumptions are dangerously false. [p.109]

... “Far more easily do nations fall into wars”, it has been aptly said, “than ever they fall out of them.” Once the Normandy invasion had succeeded, it was self-evident that the war was lost to Germany, but Hitler would have happily brought everything down with him rather than acknowledge defeat ... In Japan ... it was not very different ... Had a way of laying down their arms without the disgrace of military defeat not offered itself, I dare not think what the casualties and material devastation would have been. With the Russians approaching from the West, bent on winning a post-war presence in Tokyo, and the Americans from the South East, their attitudes totally changed by Soviet aggressiveness in Eastern Europe, casualties could have far exceeded MacArthur’s estimate of three million. [pp.109–110]

As to the total casualties in the two world wars, no-one will ever know the exact figure. The first war is thought to have cost 25 million, of whom approximately 8 were military and the remainder civilian ... In the second, in Europe alone, at least 50 million wore lost, of whom 33 million were civilians. Thus in each war two civilians died for every soldier. These figures may be disputed as to detail but not in their general purport. They tell a story that, for some reason I do not understand, is largely overlooked in the nuclear debate. The truth is that when major wars are fought over densely populated areas such as Europe, huge civilian casualties are an unavoidable consequence of the land fighting ... This is not what the liberating, or defending, armies want; the very reverse. It is just that, other than on the rare occasions when they can afford to declare a city ‘open’, as with Rome, the nature of modern land-warfare leaves no alternative. In a life-and-death struggle such as we are talking about, only victory will bring an end to the suffering. Could the besieged Soviet army in Leningrad, for instance, have given those unable to influence the course of the fighting, such as the old and the very young, the same rations and care as the front-line troops? In that one terrible battle in excess of 600,000 civilians died, half as many again as in the entire bomber offensive against Germany. [pp.110–111]

What has gone wrong with the conduct of the defence debate is that the destructive horror of nuclear weapons has taken our attention away from the other horror of an East-West conventional war. The two are not, of course, of the same magnitude; but that is not the point ... Given that twice as many died in the first as in the second war, we must reckon with the possibility that a third conventional war would follow approximately the same progression. That means casualties in tens of millions, very possibly many tens of millions, and a devastated Europe. One may argue that war in Europe does not necessarily mean all-out war ... But it is exactly in this kind of way that so many major wars have started in the past, the aggressor misjudging his victim’s reaction and setting motion an ever-escalating train of consequences that he never foresaw. [p.111]

... This is the first thing that needs to be said about conventional war, and which we must not try to sidestep. If nuclear weapons are assumed not to exist, conventional war may still appear what aggressors have so often thought it to be, a rational option of state policy. There is no contemporary evidence to encourage the belief that never again will major nations succumb to the temptation to use conventional weapons against each other, where they have the incentive and are led to think that they will get away with it ... I find it a dubious morality that aims to abolish the nuclear deterrent only to replace it with an upgraded conventional defence. It implies, or at least risks implying, that all-out conventional war in defence of Europe is morally tolerable, and this I cannot accept. There are three potential disasters that confront us: nuclear war, conventional war, and subjugation by an alien regime. The three cannot be equated in terms of horror, but they are all none the less disastrous. The only solution I can accept as adequately satisfying the moral imperative is the one which prevents all of them. This is what the deterrent claims to do, not only for us in the West, but for the Warsaw Pact nations too. [p.112]

... This is the second thing that needs to be said about conventional war. It is the gateway, almost certainly the only gateway, to nuclear war, for hardly anybody seriously thinks that war would start with an all-out pre-emptive strike. It would be a win-all or lose-all gamble on one throw of the dice, with the odds heavily stacked against success.

The implication of this is clear and unarguable. To renounce unilaterally one’s whole nuclear capability is to leave oneself with no effective defence against an adversary who has retained his own capability and who, if the prize were sufficiently important to him and the political repercussions bearable, might be tempted to use it, or at least threaten to use it. This would leave the nuclear side in a position of total and irreversible military superiority with no counterbalancing force on the international political scene ... The nuclear power would know that he could never be threatened by the other’s conventional forces, no matter how formidable they might be. He would merely have to declare that he was not prepared to accept military action as an acceptable way of resolving disputes between the superpowers, and that if attacked he would invoke some form of nuclear strike against the other’s territory. [113–114]

... One is entitled to argue that the Soviet Union of today would never act in such a way, were the West to renounce unilaterally its nuclear weapons. But, even if such a judgement were sound, one cannot argue that no future Soviet government, let alone other possible totalitarian regimes for the rest of time, ever would so act. For fifty years Marxism-Leninism consistently preached that a final military showdown would be needed to finish off capitalism ... Only when it was realised that nuclear war would almost certainly destroy communism as well as capitalism was the doctrine of the inevitability of war rejected, and détente substituted. [p.115]

... The Soviet Union ... has never sought to conceal its belief that if armed force can serve the communist cause, then it is right to use it. That from the time of Khrushchev on it has seen the nuclear deterrent as an absolute barrier to the use of force against the West is a matter of great significance. From a different standpoint than ours it confirms that nuclear weapons have totally changed the nature of war; it means that, deeply divided though the Soviet Union and the Western Alliance are in so many ways, they are wholly united in the knowledge that nuclear war would destroy both of them ... the sheer destructiveness of the weapon and the elusiveness and range of the delivery system makes nuclear war unwinnable, and therefore not a road that that anyone in their senses can take. [pp.115–116]

... But let us suppose that the seemingly impossible has happened. All existing nuclear nations have destroyed their weapons, dismantled their manufacturing plants and solemnly undertaken never to build another weapon, never to engage in weaponry research, and never to communicate nuclear technology to another nation. Where would this leave us?

Firstly, the use of armed force once more becomes a rational option for the superpowers and this brings back the grim spectre of world war ... We cannot be sure that the world will never see another Hitler. If nuclear war is thought to be a real possibility, though manifestly suicidal, it is hardly rational to argue that, the deterrent once removed, conventional war is highly unlikely. Should any such a war break out, each superpower would almost certainly set about regaining a nuclear capability, convinced that the other was doing the same, and with the carefully worked-out balances of the era of deterrence no longer there, a most dangerous and volatile crisis would confront mankind. [pp.116–117]

Secondly, nuclear knowledge cannot be disinvented ... The ever-accelerating advance of technology will make manufacture of all forms of nuclear power simpler and cheaper ... Can we be sure that no other nation would fall to the temptation? Extremism is another feature of today’s world, among regimes and individual leaders ... possession of the decisive weapon could one day appear to one of these as the means of fulfilling what they see to be their God-given mission. Then where would we be? ... If smaller powers started to become nuclear, the major ones would almost certainly fell they had to follow suit for their own safety. [p.117]

... To have to live with the horror which that single bomb [on Nagasaki] caused is a harrowing experience and a source of great personal regret; but I find that the very fact of thinking about it immediately recalls the infinitely greater horror that the totality of the war up until that moment had constituted 55,000,000 killed and nobody knows how many maimed in one way or another for the rest of their lives. Then there is the further thought of the other millions who would have had to die, had the bomb not cut the war short. To reply that it might not have come to all-out war across the length and breadth of Japan is no adequate reply at all. Japan’s surrender did not hinge round the wording of the Potsdam Declaration, nor upon the prospect of imminent and inevitable military defeat. To the military who governed, honour was more important than the survival of the nation, and honour could be preserved only by death ... The atom bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not inflict as many casualties as the heaviest conventional attacks, either in Germany or Japan, but they proved decisive; they achieved in just twelve days what the bomber offensive kept hoping it could achieve but never quite could. [pp.117–118]

... “Against me you cannot fight,” the atomic cloud over Nagasaki seemed to me to be calling out to those who witnessed it. Today it sends out the same call, only more powerfully and more insistently ... It is a plain reality, demonstrated by what happened in Japan, that one cannot fight an adversary who has a monopoly of nuclear weapons and the will to use them. Until something new comes along, either in the technology or in the structure of international society, which will once again alter the very nature of war, there is no total defence of the nation with conventional weapons only. It follows that our only choice is a straight one between retaining a credible nuclear deterrent, or leaving ourselves with no effective defence at all against the Soviet Union. It is the fact that there is no middle ground between these two poles, no means of abolishing nuclear weapons without also abolishing the right of self-defence against another nuclear power, that creates the moral dilemma, and which accounts for the spiritual and moral agonising that has gone on ... [p.119]

... However, there are some who argue that deploying the deterrent involves a daily intention to cause huge civilian casualties should the nation be attacked, and that such an intention makes deterrence a morally unacceptable option. That is to say, no matter how high the probability of the deterrent keeping the peace, nor how disastrous the probable consequences of dismantling it, dismantle we must, on the grounds that an immoral means cannot be used to achieve a good end. It is a moral view that has a number of adherents but I do not believe that it stands ... what we are facing is an intractable moral dilemma, to which no solution can be found which is wholly free of moral problems. For the Western Alliance to repudiate the possession of nuclear weapons would be to leave their development and deployment for the rest of time to those nations who see no moral objection to using them for their own ends. [pp.121–122]

... Thus to assert that those in the nuclear chain of command have a daily intention to kill large numbers of civilians is to present a distorted picture of the reality. Only if a major assault were launched against Europe would the possibility of using nuclear weapons come into question, and in that case the intention would be to bring the fighting to an end in the shortest possible time and with the minimum loss of life ... That the intention of those who deploy the deterrent is morally wrong is not the view of the great majority of moralists, nor is it the view of the Pope, the bishops’ conferences and many other Christian bodies of the Western nations who, with varying qualifications, have held the deterrent to be morally tolerable ... On the other hand, there is world-wide agreement that all-out strategic nuclear use is morally unacceptable. The question on which we cannot agree is, where, along the spectrum ... does what is morally tolerable become morally intolerable? [pp.123–124]

... The atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, although directed against major military targets, killed many thousands of civilians indiscriminately; yet, because of the fact that they brought the war to an immediate end, thereby saving several millions of lives, there is a compelling case for holding them to be morally tolerable. Can one, then, really say that, in the highly improbable event of an all-out attack on Europe, to threaten a limited nuclear strike on a military but populated target for the clear purpose of halting the aggression, and to have the intention of carrying it out unless the attack is called off is morally unacceptable? I do not think so. Only because this very intention was in doubt did war break out. To take the one step capable of correcting the error and halting the war cannot be immoral in an absolute sense. [p.125]

... Some people seem to think it a small thing that we have come forty years without war in Europe, and draw little comfort for the future from it. Instead they feel the need, in the interests of peace, to keep our attention focused on the potential threat of nuclear weapons, and to persuade us that there is an ever-increasing danger of nuclear war breaking out. This is not the way my personal experience since those dark days of World War Two moves me to see it. I believe that the most dangerous nuclear phase was the opening one and that, were there going to be war between the superpowers, it would have come then, during the time that both were testing each other out and before the stark reality of the deterrent had fully struck home. [p.127]

... Whatever their differences, whatever the means either [superpower] may adopt in order to gain an advantage over the other, in this one matter of survival their mutual interests are indissolubly linked. The last thing they want is nuclear war by accident or nuclear war imposed on them by a third party, whether ally or adversary. We can be assured that their mutuality of interest in this respect will drive them to take every possible precaution ... to ensure that neither of these two things happens. [pp.127–128]

... These past forty years seem to me to mark a decisive stage in human history, in that they have banished from our beautiful earth the terrible spectre of world war. From now onwards, whoever wishes to walk the road towards world conquest ... will find their way blocked by that deadly cloud which, in its infancy, stood as a sentinel over Hiroshima and Nagasaki ... I believe that as we become more familiar with nuclear power, we will feel less fearful of it, more aware that if we behave responsibly we can hold it under proper control, and more conscious of the many ways in which it can be harnessed for our common good. The very fact that nuclear nations can no longer afford to fight each other, and that world war has been relegated to what Pope John Paul movingly called "the tragic past", is already a momentous step forward. True, we are not protected from smaller wars, nor from the perhaps greater danger of globally organised terrorism or subversion, but there is hope that the continuing advance of weapons technology over the whole spectrum will gradually compel the world community to find ways of muzzling the freedom of nations to fight each other. [pp/128–129]


Group Captain Leonard Cheshire VC OM DSO DFC is today [1985] perhaps best known for the Leonard Cheshire Foundation which has established homes for the disabled throughout the world. He was a bomber pilot during the war and his decorations attest to his role as one of Britain's authentic war heroes ... His books include Bomber Pilot; Pilgrimage to the Shroud; The Face of Victory and The Hidden World.