New Forest East


By Leonard Cheshire

The Tablet – 19 October 1985

In a letter to the editor in our issue of 28 September, Mgr Bruce Kent [General Secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament] challenged Leonard Cheshire on a number of points. Below, the Group Captain replies.

Dear Father Bruce,

I sincerely hope that we may continue our exchange of views in these columns and, since our friendship makes it seem strange to talk to you through a third party, the editor has kindly let me address you personally. Believe me, I know only too well that the problem of justice, freedom and peace in the nuclear age constitutes a moral dilemma of profound proportions, which admits of no easy or neat solutions. I thought I had always acknowledged this. If at times I have not, then I cannot but thank you for pulling me up.

Since, in a discussion about the meaning of "unilateralism", you have introduced the issue of the two atomic attacks on Japan, let us begin there and try to see what the nuclear past has to tell us about the nuclear future. When we debated this at the Imperial War Museum in July, your basic argument was that the use of these bombs was immoral in an absolute sense and therefore inadmissible, no matter what the consequences of not using them might be. In your letter to The Tablet of 28 September, you now seem to go further still by stating that they have been condemned by the official teaching of the Catholic Church, and that to defend them is to renounce the Church. Perhaps you would clarify this for me.

Remember, the race to build the bomb was against Hitler, not Japan. Had America succeeded in producing it in 1943, the lives of the 25 to 30 million people who died in those last two terrible years of the war – most of them civilians – would in all reasonable probability have been spared. Further, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary would have remained free, Germany undivided, and the Japanese stopped in their tracks.

Yet, if there is a moral absolute forbidding the atomic bombs on Japan, even though their purpose was to avoid the catastrophe of all-out war across the Japanese mainland, the same moral absolute would have forbidden the use of the bombs against Hitler. How one can hold that to have continued the European war to its bitter end with conventional weapons would have been a morally better act than cutting it short with one or two nuclear weapons, had these been available, I simply do not know.

The reality is that the atomic bomb did cut the Japanese war short and, again in all reasonable probability, saved several million lives, the majority of whom would have been civilians. What that has to tell us is that strategic nuclear weapons linked to an effective delivery system prevail over all other weapons and enforce surrender.

In last year's Pax Christi debate, you agreed with me that the superpowers will never intentionally attack each other, since they know that full-scale war would be mutually suicidal. I put it to you that unintentional war is less likely still, for this would give them the worst of all worlds – mutual destruction for no intended purpose – and on this point at least they have absolute mutuality of interest. We may be sure that they have gone to extreme lengths to ensure that any unintentional outbreak will never happen.

You take a contrary view. You hold that the West has a moral duty to dismantle the deterrent, irrespective of whether or not it makes war between the superpowers an absolute impossibility, and irrespective of what the Soviet Union does. It is around this issue that the debate revolves.

Some Catholics share your opinion that possession of nuclear weapons to prevent war is illicit, and others, in general terms, share mine. In popular, even if oversimplified, parlance, the former are described as "unilateralists" and the latter as "multilateralists". You are not entitled to disinvent the term unilateral, nor to imply that the Pope and the Catholic hierarchies of the western world have endorsed your position. On the contrary, they all resolutely uphold the right of armed self-defence.

There is one thing that greatly surprises me in your letter. You think it necessary and morally acceptable to tolerate some nuclear possession for a period of time. This cannot be because you think that the government and the British people will not listen to a morally correct argument, for you are convinced that there is a moral absolute forbidding such possession, and you are the last man to compromise fundamental moral principles. This is why you appeal so strongly to so many, and why I too warmly respect you.

Is it, then, that you have come to believe that the deterrent really does keep the peace, and that this benefit overrides the need to obey the moral absolute? If so, I think you will find that you have taken the first step towards coming over to my point of view. If there is a different moral basis for tolerance of the deterrent, please tell me.