New Forest East


By Leonard Cheshire

The Tablet – 4 January 1986

Nuclear weapons face us with a moral dilemma which cannot be solved by the principles of the Just War. Instead, we need a doctrine of Just Deterrence. This is Group Captain Cheshire's argument in response to [CND General Secretary] Bruce Kent's challenge in The Tablet of 14 December.

Dear Father Bruce,

Thank you for the thought you have given to answering my letter. Yes, we do have a substantial difference of view, but we also have common ground.

Justifiably, you point out that I have twice not answered how l reconcile Hiroshima with Vatican II's condemnation of

"any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of whole cities".

You also ask whether what the Church says matters to me. Do you really think as poorly of me as that? First, I don't think that the Vatican II passage you pick out was intended as a retrospective judgment; neither, it seems, do the commentators. Secondly, the Church as a whole continues to find the nuclear problem deeply perplexing, and has not yet settled on a clear judgment of the moral issues.

My delay was only because I needed to know your judgment on cutting the European war short in 1943 with an atom bomb, had it been available. In your first reply you concede that this poses a problem; in the second you say that you mistrust hypotheticals; in neither do you give a clear, unequivocal answer. This I find significant, for if we are dealing with a moral absolute that admits of no exception, then it would not matter how much I hypothesised. The answer would always be No. Your Trident commander could never fire a missile, even to preempt a threat to destroy the whole earth. If this really were the case, would you still give him the same advice? I doubt it.

The fact is that we face a moral dilemma which no one can yet solve in a wholly satisfactory way. We see the need to uphold the right of armed defence against unlawful aggression, but cannot see how the weapons required for the exercise of this right are to be reconciled with the moral law. Therefore we have to settle on a compromise. You, too, confirm this when you say that if you call for the whole cake you won't get even a slice. This is what I had been hoping all along you would say, for it means that we do have common ground.

In order to identify it, let us move forward from our respective starting points. Yours is the moral law, mine the unimaginable suffering of World War II. You, looking down from the heights, are trying to see how the weapons I am using fit your moral principles. I, in the abyss of the battlefield, surrounded by destruction and death on an ever-accelerating scale, have one primary objective – to put an end to it in the quickest possible time and with the minimum loss of life, even if this may compel an attack causing heavy civilian casualties. This is the only way I can see of fulfilling the commandment to love all our fellow men.

Before judging me too harshly, remember the utter horror of World War II. Every day an average of 25,000 died a violent death, of whom two-thirds were civilians. In terms of human life, that is a Hiroshima every five days for the entire war.

Pondering this leads us to different conclusions. You see the deterrent as immoral and want its abolition, but because of the practical difficulties you urge only step-by-step multilateral disarmament. I want to keep it, for my sights are set on nothing less than an end to any further aggression in Europe, and this I see as attainable only by deterrence. If the deterrent were removed, war would once again become a possible option. So I look upon replacing nuclear weapons with conventional ones as a bad, even an immoral, proposition. World War II marks that decisive threshold of history beyond which war between the superpowers, even without nuclear weapons, has become so total and destructive that it can no longer be fought within the just war principles.

However, I know that the deterrent is morally faulted. Therefore I want to make it as minimal, as moral and as safe as possible, and to assist this process I think that the Church has an immediate duty to formulate a doctrine of Just Deterrence. I also know that we must do all in our power to remove the root causes of division and confrontation among nations, and to build a higher level of justice in the world, so that the need for the deterrent will disappear. The urgency of this has been my constant theme over these past 40 years.

Here we agree, but we disagree over the role of the deterrent in keeping the peace. My central point is that you will get a far larger part of your cake if only you could uphold the deterrent, at least for the time being. I am saying that the more united the Western Alliance can stand behind the deterrent, the wider the door to disarmament opens. The deterrent really does keep the peace between the superpowers, and does so in an absolute sense at the top end of the spectrum, not lower down. Since conventional and battlefield nuclear weapons deter only in a relative sense, and since there is no likelihood of either side taking the enormous gamble of using them, I cannot see why such huge quantities are needed in Europe. Without prejudice to other disarmament steps, here, I think. radical reductions could be negotiated.

Enormous benefits would ensue. Neither side would appear as a potential aggressor to the other, and huge savings would be effected, for these are the weapons that take the greater part of the defence budget. Ultimately we could end up with the minimum mutual deterrent, ideally located wholly under the sea. I see the future as offering much more hope than you and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament are leading us to suppose.