When the United States and the Soviet Union stared into the abyss of nuclear Armageddon during the Cold War, filmmaker Stanley Kubrick began reading obscure journals like the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and consulting with leading military minds. The research became fodder for his 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, a cult classic that skewered the paranoia, absurdity, and surreal logic driving the nuclear arms race. A year later, Pope Paul VI stood before the United Nations, pleading for peace as war turned Vietnam into a blood-soaked nightmare. Almost two decades after Kubrick used dark humor to expose the madness behind nuclear proliferation and Paul VI called for an end to all war, the U.S. Catholic bishops were featured in a May 16, 1983 cover story in Time magazine under the headline, "The Bishops vs. The Bomb." Church leaders had just released a pastoral letter, "The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response," a scathing critique of U.S. nuclear arms policy and the limits of deterrence strategies that ruffled the feathers of top military brass and political powerbrokers in Washington.
While a generation of children no longer dive under school desks during nuclear air raid drills, the threat of nuclear weapons remain a defining moral challenge. On Wednesday, Archbishop Edwin O'Brien of Baltimore, who for a decade served as Archbishop for the Military Services, delivered a powerful address about nuclear weapons at the U.S. Strategic Command, Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska. The time has come "to move beyond nuclear deterrence as rapidly as possible," Archbishop O'Brien told government, military, and academic experts gathered at the first-ever Strategic Deterrence Symposium. Deterrence only has moral credibility, he said, if it is connected to the ultimate goal of a nuclear-free world.
O'Brien, who was an Army Chaplin and did a tour in Vietnam, is no lightweight when it comes to understanding the grim realities of war and violence. He can't easily be dismissed by conservative hawks. The status quo of nuclear deterrence is untenable, as O'Brien sees it, because of the "weakening of the non-proliferation regime" and the "spread of nuclear weapons and technology to other nations." With the expiration of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) looming in December, he urged political leaders to negotiate a new treaty that includes "deeper, irreversible cuts in nuclear weapons."
This is not a message those who profit from war will likely warm to quickly. It's been nearly 50 years since Dwight Eisenhower, in his farewell address as president, warned about the dangers of a growing "military industrial complex" that was creating unprecedented levels of weapons being sold to the government. This has only become more entrenched today with Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and other military contractors feeding at the Pentagon's trough and exerting influence on Congress. The Washington Post reported yesterday that the "Democratic-controlled House is poised to give the Pentagon dozens of new ships, planes, helicopters and armored vehicles that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates says the military does not need to fund next year, acting in many cases in response to defense industry pressures and campaign contributions under an approach he has decried as 'business as usual' and vowed to help end." Michael Sean Winters of America magazine notes the hypocrisy of Blue Dogs sharpening the budget knife on health care proposals as next year's budget for military toys comes in at a cool $6.9 billion.
The path to peace and a nuclear-free word will not be easy. Some skeptics say it's a utopian dream. But as people of faith, we have a good history of turning despair into hope. "The arc of history is long," Martin Luther King Jr. said, "but it bends toward justice." We keep pushing.
John Gehring is Senior Writer and Deputy Communications Director for Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.