By Fr. Glenn Jones
Much of this column is from a column I wrote a couple of years ago, but it seems apropos now, as the 75th anniversary of the only use of atomic weapons in wartime is nigh, to repeat much of it here (with slight editing).
July and August, of course, usher in these anniversaries of the first atomic explosion here in New Mexico, and the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings which essentially ushered in the end of World War II. In my former parish of Los Alamos where “the bomb” was developed, annually there were disarmament demonstrators—well-intentioned folks, of course, if not always civil or kind … but, regardless, one can hardly blame them for seeking the ideal of unthreatened peace that all the world desires. One consideration overlooked, however, was an acknowledgement that, although Los Alamos is the birthplace of “the bomb”, Mankind’s attainment of nuclear capability was inevitable; war simply sped up its realization.
Many criticize the U.S. use of the atomic bomb to end the WWII, but war pursued in ANY manner is horror … plaguing humanity nonetheless. At the time, it was estimated that hundreds of thousands of Allied troops, and millions of both military and civilian Japanese—would have perished in an invasion of their homeland. Fire-bombing of Japanese and German cities (Tokyo and Dresden, for two examples) had killed at least as many as did the atomic bombs. Had not the atomic bomb been used, such firebombing would have continued, as it had been done in several tens of cities. Only the shock of the immense power of a single bomb—and the uncertainty about how many such bombs the U.S. possessed—convinced the Japanese emperor to break the ruling council’s deadlock in favor of surrender and peace.
One can hypothesize as to what would have happened if one of the other technologically-capable nations had developed the bomb before the U.S.? Had one of the Axis powers or the Soviet Union done so, very likely world conquest and even many millions more dead would have resulted; both Hitler and Stalin had proved that they hardly reverenced human life as much as their own power and ambitions. Or Japan may have continued its inexorable march through Asia and the Pacific … perhaps eventually into Europe and beyond. Even Great Britain—weary of years of war and suffering and indiscriminate bombing in the Blitz—may have been tempted toward lesser restraint. Yet, had the U.S. had colonial ambitions as is often charged, with vast armies and navies already in Europe and the Pacific, there would have been no better time to literally take over the world; after all, who could have opposed such immense power?
What if the bomb had been developed during peacetime? Had nations stockpiled these weapons without ever having witnessed the very real results of their destructive potential, would they have been more inclined to utilize them? Remembrance of the effects of such weapons is largely what has kept them from being utilized again to this very day … even 75 years later. And it seems hardly disputable that the deterrent effect of U.S. capability over the decades—maintained in large part by dedicated personnel of the national laboratories of New Mexico—has been a major determinant in that restraint.
What would result in our unilateral disarmament, as is often proposed? That nuclear-capable nations would be awestricken in admiration of U.S. magnanimity and follow our lead is dangerous naiveté at the highest level—on par with the appeasement strategy of Europe with Hitler; how did that work out?! On the contrary, a worldwide nuclear free-for-all might very well ensue as nations vied for dominance. How about a wholesale surrender to potential aggressors to “save lives”? Well, it might do so for time … but the “absolute power corrupts absolutely” adage comes to mind, and history shows that genocide becomes a real possibility when rulers weary of the powerless ruled. We need only remember the very recent Holocaust, the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s, the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s, to remember how lightly lay the veil of civilization upon Mankind.
Surprising to many, even the Catholic Church’s thought on this topic is somewhat mixed. While lamenting arms races and exhorting ever-increasing efforts for lasting peace and disarmament, the Church nonetheless recognizes the right and duty of nations for effective defense of its citizens. The bishops of the world stated at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s: “… scientific weapons are not amassed solely for use in war. Since the defensive strength of any nation is considered to be dependent upon its capacity for immediate retaliation, this accumulation of arms…likewise serves, in a way heretofore unknown, as deterrent to possible enemy attack. Many regard this procedure as the most effective way by which peace of a sort can be maintained between nations at the present time.” (Gaudium et Spes, 81)
There’s no simple solution to the ominous and ever-present specter of nuclear weaponry, else it would have been already attained. “The bomb” exists, and the nuclear genie as it’s often called is not going back into the bottle; therefore, it must be dealt with realistically. Nuclear capability will be pursued in the world whether we like it or not. Yes, the ideal may be “No Nukes!” … but until the day arrives in which such disarmament and its absolute verification is possible, the mission of the Los Alamos and Sandia labs is not only valid but essential in maintaining the (admittedly tense and tenuous) nuclear restraint throughout the world. There is a vital difference between promotion of an ideal and being naively idealistic—the indispensable formula of reality separating the two—while nonetheless continuing to strive to bring the ideal to realization. To these ends, and to many others: thank you, labbies, for your service to our nation.
In a world of ever-expanding nuclear proliferation, we strive for—and pray ever more ardently for—peace among nations … always remembering that “…to us a child is born, to us a son is given…and his name will be called ‘Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,’” (Isaiah 9:6) … and that “Nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37)
Rev. Glenn Jones is the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and former pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Los Alamos.