By John Hunt
The Tablet – 12 October 1985
The Light of Many Suns: The Meaning of the Bomb, Leonard Cheshire Methuen, £7.95
The fortieth anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has inevitably been marked by a spate of books, articles and documentaries dealing with the horror of nuclear weapons and the threat posed by them to the future of mankind. Almost all have been sombre in their message, whether they be objective or overtly propagandist. This book must therefore be almost unique. Not only does it provide a confident justification for President Truman's decision to use the atomic bomb to end the war in the Far East in the shortest possible time, and with the minimum loss of both American and Japanese life, but it also strikes a firm note of hope for our future in the nuclear age.
It is also unusual in largely eschewing technical and scientific jargon. It is a slim book which is comparatively easy reading for the non-specialist. This might lead some to think it must be superficial, but this would not be fair. It is a book by a man with a unique experience, who has wrestled with his conscience, and who has been at pains to satisfy himself about the details behind the arguments he puts forward.
Group Captain Leonard Cheshire, VC, OM, DSO, DFC, is today best known as co-founder with his wife of the Ryder Cheshire Mission for the relief of suffering and for devoting his life to the Cheshire Foundation which now has over 220 homes for the disabled in 45 countries. To his own contemporaries, however, he is still remembered as the outstanding pathfinder and bomber pilot who was awarded the Victoria Cross as commanding officer of the famous Dambusters' squadron, and also as one of the two British observers (the other was Sir William Penney) chosen by Churchill to accompany the American nuclear air strike on Japan.
Both aspects of his life – gallantry and humanity – are still very much part of the make-up of this remarkable man. He remains proud of serving with the RAF but is neither an arm-chair strategist nor a blimp. As a committed Catholic he has dedicated his life to the relief of suffering but he is no woolly do-gooder. This gives his testimony – agree with it or not – an extraordinary interest.
The first part of his book gives an account of his role as the Americans carried out the nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It ends with his report to Attlee (who had by then succeeded Churchill) that the atomic bomb was decisive and final, that if both sides had it neither could afford to attack the other, and that a third world war would be prevented only if the Western Allies possessed an adequate atomic arsenal.
The second half of the book examines this pragmatic strategic conclusion against traditional and contemporary Christian morality and finds no incompatibility. Cheshire understands and respects the pacifist position, although he does not agree with it. But provided the right of self-defence in a just cause is accepted, he sees no difficulty over the policy of nuclear deterrence and believes that it provides the best hope of peace.
It would be unfair to try and summarise his argument, particularly since it is already concise and compressed. Indeed, there are several strands to it. One starts with an analogy with terrorism. Is an armed policeman who is in a position to kill three gunmen who are themselves opening fire on a large number of innocent people justified in shooting them? How binding is the precept that a good end cannot justify an immoral means, or is it true that, in the words of a leading Jesuit moral theologian, "circumstances do change cases"?
He also feels that the potential destructive horror of nuclear weapons has diverted attention from the actual horror of East-West conventional war which deterrence has prevented, and claims that of the 75 million who were killed in or died directly as a consequence of the two world wars, two-thirds were civilians. He admits that under an umbrella of mutual deterrence one cannot say that an attack by one side on the other is absolutely impossible but argues that it is rationally impossible, and that we would be foolish to bring back a rational option of conventional world war. He reminds us that nuclear knowledge cannot be disinvented, and that the problem is to live with it and harness it to peaceful ends.
He regrets the tendency to look upon atheistic communism and Western capitalism as morally equally bad; and, in the field of disarmament and peace-building, he warns against the tendency to look solely for the ultimate solution and to ignore the small steps that pave the way to it. He examines the statements of the Pope and the bishops' conferences and concludes that nuclear deterrence is both necessary and justified.
There are, of course, points where one would have liked to see his argument developed further. For example, he does not deal adequately with the question of fall-out, largely, I suspect, because of his conviction that nuclear deterrence has banished the spectre of world war since no country is going to put its own very survival at risk. However, even if the basic underlying stability of the East-West nuclear relationship is accepted, there remains the worry of proliferation as nuclear capability is extended to lesser, and less responsible, countries, and more could have been said about this.
All issues of life and death inevitably raise strong feelings, and almost everyone would agree that the indiscriminate and deliberate use of nuclear weapons against civilian targets (or indeed such indiscriminate use of other weapons of mass destruction including, for example, chemical weapons) would be morally wrong. There are others who go further and say that even the conditional implication that the use of nuclear weapons is not ruled out in certain circumstances is morally wrong, and that therefore the possession of nuclear weapons with the intention of avoiding war (and thus their use) is unacceptable, whatever the consequences of abandoning the policy of nuclear deterrence. To such people the issue is a clear-cut one, and Leonard Cheshire's book is perhaps unlikely to change their minds.
If, however, as with so many other people, the moral arguments seem perplexing and unclear, then it is clearly right also to take into account the practical arguments, for and against deterrence, which responsible governments inevitably have to weigh. Has deterrence been responsible for maintaining peace between the super-powers, and is it the most effective way – in present circumstances and until some better regime is established – of ensuring the maintenance of that peace? Alternatively, is the present balance of terror leading the world inevitably to the nuclear abyss? What would be the consequences of the West dismantling its nuclear defences in the absence of general world agreement to do so? In other words, is the present position for all its gravity a relatively stable one, or is it precarious? And which course carries the greater risk of destabilisation?
There is no doubt whatever where Leonard Cheshire stands on this.
John Hunt, Lord Hunt, chairman of the Tablet Board, was Secretary to the Cabinet from 1973 to 1979.