New Forest East



By Leonard Cheshire

The Tablet – 23 November 1985

In a further open letter, Leonard Cheshire responds to the questions posed by Bruce Kent [General Secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament] in The Tablet for 2 November and presses a question of his own.

Dear Father Bruce,

Thank you. I am finding this exchange very helpful, and I feel we are going to get somewhere.

We seem to share a common difficulty with regard to each other's position. Just as you cannot square my Catholicism with the views which I hold on the deterrent and Hiroshima, so I cannot square your moral stance with your own pragmatism in tolerating a conditional form of deterrence. You see the possession of nuclear weapons as being absolutely evil; you do not believe as I do that they protect us from world war, yet you do not then call for their immediate and, if necessary, unilateral abolition. Your reason appears to be a dual one; that it would be both a waste of time and dangerous. The former is hardly in the prophetic tradition, while the latter, though a more credible pragmatism, is out of line with the position you have been maintaining all these years. There is something here that does not add up, and I would be grateful for clarification.

Then, you have slightly twisted my words. I have never suggested that choosing the lesser of two evils is a norm for moral behaviour. That would be situation ethics, which I reject as much as you do. I am looking at a major assault upon human life such as world war and saying that if choice "A" will lead to far higher loss of civilian life than choice "B", and no third choice exists, I am right in choosing "B". Your proposition appears to be saying that on the contrary I must stick to "A", and this is beyond my comprehension. That is why I asked you to apply the moral principle that underpins your case to a concrete and authentic historical situation. But you dodged the issue.

Instead of answering, you present me with an alternative. Sensing far-off defeat in 1943, Hitler offers to surrender if we will give him time to incinerate another half million Jews. You ask: would I accept? The scenario is totally implausible, and so repugnant to me that I can barely bring myself to picture it. But you have posed the question, so I will answer. Of course I would not accept.

First, no-one who made such a proposal could be trusted to keep his word. Secondly, nothing less than unconditional surrender, eradication of the Nazi system and punishment of the guilty could suffice as the Allies' war aims. Your deal would frustrate these aims and legitimise the very evil we were fighting to destroy. Thirdly, does the fighting continue or is it halted during the six weeks or so needed to execute this diabolical scheme? Either way, the full truth becomes public knowledge and the cooperation of the German people has to be sought. Can one imagine them giving it, let alone being willing to continue dying on the battlefields? The scenario is artificially contrived, is not analogous to the Hiroshima dilemma and serves only to confuse the issue.

My scenario – I asked you to consider what would have been the right course to follow if the United States had succeeded in producing the atomic bomb in 1943 – may be hypothetical, but is at least real, for the Americans were doing their utmost to make it happen, as on their own side were also the Germans. Moreover, it confronts your central point that one may never do a bad act to achieve a good end with the realities of world war as we have experienced it.

You have no hesitation in stating categorically and unconditionally, with regard to a supposed future war, that any serviceman contributing to a nuclear strike against a populated target becomes a war criminal. Since you are so sure about the unknown, highly improbable, future, I do not see why you should hesitate about the known and documented past. I genuinely need your answer, in order to test the moral validity of my position and the coherence of yours.

Finally, a point of history. Against my claim that the use of the atomic bombs on Japan saved several million lives by cutting the war short, you state that the dropping of the bombs was not necessary to bring the war to an end. That is self-evident and undisputed, for by then Japan was doomed to defeat. The point is that the fanatical militarists who ruled regarded surrender as the ultimate disgrace of the male spirit and were hell-bent on a fight to the last man. What the bomb did was to save everyone concerned from the catastrophe of all-out war across the length and breadth of Japan. There is a case for holding that the first bomb need not have been dropped on a city, but the arguments both for and against are very strong and we will never know. The decision was taken in good faith and after much heartsearching.

Yes, Hiroshima and Nagasaki did indeed contain major military targets. All the same, I know from living experience what a terrible thing it is to have to drop an atomic bomb on another man's city, particularly when one is young.