Why Nuclear War Can Be Ethical

On a discussion board I frequent, one poster presented the following hypothetical question;

“If you were President of the U.S. and were just informed that we were definitely under a full nuclear attack by a country that’ll destroy most or all our people, would you order a full nuclear counter-attack?”

The poster received the predictable “correct” answers from many people, condemning any sort of violent response, to the point that the consensus became clear that the group, as a whole, thought that any use of nuclear weapons, even in retaliation to a massive unprovoked attack, was not only immoral but an atrocity. I was the sole respondent to observe that the only moral course was to retaliate in full force. For today’s column, I want to expand on why this is so.

I must begin with the acknowledgement that nuclear weapons are horrific weapons, which no sane person wants to see used. Yet it must be understood that nuclear weapons exist, and therefore we must address that fact. We can try to prevent proliferation, but in truth we cannot hope to do so forever. It follows therefore, that the only control we can hope to hold is to influence the behavior of nations in such a way that they will be disinclined to build or use nuclear weapons.

When we look at the question posed at the beginning, there are a lot of missing pieces. What we do know, is that a massive nuclear attack is underway against the United States, and therefore the United States is not the trigger of these events, but rather someone else has done this. Since we are dealing with a hypothetical, it is completely fair to answer by saying we would plan and act ahead of time in a way to dissuade that massive attack from happening. Deterrence, in a word. And historically, for all the talk and blather, the only proven deterrent from such an attack is the sure destruction of the aggressor through retaliation.


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A good example of this can be found by examining the world condition in 1975. While it is popular to pretend that the Soviet Union was largely misunderstood and never truly a threat to the West, in reality the USSR certainly hoped to win a war of conquest against the Free World, and planned it military ambitions accordingly. The Soviets boasted a much larger army, with better experience and organization, higher morale (especially as Vietnam fell), support from regional governments and logistics. The Soviets made inroads into Africa, Asia, and South America and many leading “intellectuals”, both Republican and Democrat, were counseling American leaders to push for the best deal possible, before it was “too late”. In the dark days before Reagan and Thatcher, it seemed all too plausible that the Iron Curtain would soon extend its reach to at least all of Europe and North Africa.

Yet it did not happen. One thing bothered the Soviets, one thorn in their plans which stymied Moscow’s ambitions. The United States refused to rule out a nuclear retaliation, even in response to a conventional invasion by the Warsaw Pact. The United States possessed the means, and it seemed the will, to use nuclear weapons to prevent Soviet hegemony in Europe. The Soviets erroneously believed that the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976 reinforced that view, since Carter had served as an officer in the United States Navy. Perhaps that view was not erroneous, as even in his most obliging discussions with Moscow, President Carter never ruled out a U.S. First Strike, an option he understood was vital, perhaps literally vital to the very survival of the United States.

It is difficult for some people to understand the unique role of the United States. Even as they demand the U.S. serve as a global policeman, liberals and simplists fail to understand that the United States serves a truly unique role, one which no other nation is able, much less inclined, to take up. The nuclear umbrella is held by Uncle Sam, and so there is a very great difference between American nuclear might and nuclear weapons in anyone else’s arsenal. It should also be understood that such an umbrella has already restrained the American hand in the use of nuclear weapons.

It is now known that in the last weeks of 1963, President Johnson was seriously concerned that the assassination of President Kennedy might have been planned and supported by either Cuba or the Soviet Union. If this was true, President Johnson would be faced with a truly ghastly decision in how to respond. One consideration was the possibility of full-scale war with the Soviet Union, which would inevitably include nuclear strikes. In 1964, there was little doubt that the United States could devastate the Soviet Union to a degree that the Soviets could not hope to match. However, even if American losses would comparatively light, Johnson understood that even “complete victory” as it was then defined would include the deaths of millions of Americans, and severe damage to the infrastructure of the United States in all respects. But even if this could be avoided, the annihilation of the Soviet Union would mean that the United States would forever after be linked to an act of incalculable barbarism, and any influence the United States could claim would be solely through the threat of force; it would impossible to reconcile any claim of moral leadership with the devastation of so much of the earth and the deaths of so many people.

It is in this light that I return to the hypothetical question. If we accept for discussion the claim of a massive nuclear attack on the United States, then we are by definition discussing an aggressor who is unconcerned with the morality of their attack, but who is pursuing the destruction of America as an integral step in a plan of conquest – no other possibility exists. If such a power were to succeed in surviving the assault on the United States, the remaining nations of the earth would fall under control of an unquestionably evil despot, having proved a bloodthirstiness on unprecedented scale and malicious forethought. The responsibility of the United States is such, that even were it facing its own imminent destruction that the United States must use its forces to remove that threat from the rest of the world. The attack must be deterred through the certainty of total retaliation, but even if that should be insufficient to prevent the attack, the attacker must be totally destroyed to end its threat and evil.

Certainly all of this sounds grim and cold-blooded, and that is true. However, the audience should take note of the great difference between a hypothetical massacre and a real one. If the knowledge of the first can dissuade a power from causing a second, then that course must be pursued as the most moral choice. Nuclear weapons cannot be unmade, nor knowledge of them undone. Therefore the resolve of the United States to respond in full force must be established beyond question, in order to diminish desire to build, much less use, such weapons.

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