Friday, August 7, 2020
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Friday, August 7, 2020. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The Atomic Age and the Inescapable Questions of Modern War: The 75th Anniversary of Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
This week marks the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On Hiroshima on August the 6th, on Nagasaki on August the 9th. Those two bombs together are the only two atomic weapons ever deployed by humanity in the midst of war. And for that fact, we should be extremely thankful. This is a very sober anniversary in order to understand it. And there are so many issues here presented for Christian worldview analysis. In order to understand it, we have to go back into the context. We have to go back to August of 1945, and then we'll have to go back further in history even than that. By the time you get to August of 1945, you have the war in the Pacific as the only part of the Second World War that is continuing.
Americans tend to think far more often of the European theater of war. That of course came to an end with the surrender of Nazi Germany earlier in the summer. But by the time you get to August, it is the fact that the United States and its Allies were facing continued months, if not years, of bloody battle against the forces of Imperial Japan. The Pacific theater, of course, had begun with the attack upon Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, the surprise attack undertaken by the forces of the Japanese Imperial military. Though for the United States, the Second World War began in the Pacific theater, at least by a matter of days, as compared to the European theater, the European theater quickly became the first issue of priority. The defeat of Nazi Germany, as one of the three axis powers, was considered primary. And there was an agreement on this, on the part of the Allies fighting together. But the Pacific War was being fought concurrently, especially in terms of two factors.
One was massive naval battles that pitched the navies of the Allies and, especially, of the United States over against the Japanese Imperial Navy. And also a process undertaken under the leadership of general Douglas MacArthur, a Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Pacific theater, in which a process of island-hopping had begun with MacArthur's strategy being to isolate Japanese Imperial forces, pressing them back towards the Japanese mainland. But the Allies quickly learned that the closer they got to the Japanese mainland, the more ardent became the fighting of the Japanese forces. All you have to do is mention one of these epic battles, such as Iwo Jima, to understand that the Allied losses were absolutely massive. And by the time you get to August of 1945, even though Nazi Germany has been defeated, and even though it would appear that the Imperial forces of Japan were going to eventually be forced to surrender, the Japanese did not surrender.
They were not acknowledging the fact that they were losing the war, and, instead, they had committed themselves publicly and ideologically to a war of bloody attrition. But at this point, we need to press back further in history, back to the early decades of the 20th century and a revolution in the field that became known as nuclear physics. In particular, the understanding of the molecular and atomic structure of matter. And beyond that, the technology of splitting the atom. Very early in this process, speculation emerged at the energy released by splitting the atom could be harnessed into a massive weapon of deadly power, but the actual power of that nuclear weapon was vastly underestimated until it was eventually created in the course of what became known in the United States as the Manhattan Project. Ironically, many of the nuclear scientists, the physicists involved in the Manhattan Project and in developing the ideas behind it were German.
And as a matter of fact, Nazi Germany was intent upon the development of nuclear weapons long before there was such interest on the part of the United States. In one very real sense, we have to understand that had Nazi Germany gained possession of nuclear weapons, World War II, not only might have, but almost assuredly, would have ended very differently with something other than a Nazi surrender. But in one of the great, but very revealing ironies of history, it was the antisemitism, the genocidal hatred of Nazi Germany, that led so many of the prominent Jewish nuclear physicists to flee Germany and to go to Allied nations, most particularly to the United States, where they became involved in the Manhattan Project. Eventually this led to the development of a nuclear bomb. The most famous of those first weapons burns when it was detonated, had a detonation force that was actually far greater than had been estimated by the physicists.
It's also interesting to know, as a footnote in history, that nuclear physicists, such as Edward Teller, had actually warned that it might be possible that the detonation of a single atomic weapon, would set on fire the entire atmosphere of earth and incinerate the entire planet. It tells us something about human intelligence and ingenuity that when Teller raised that issue, it led to the fact that the scientists went back to the chalkboard and did continuing formulations and equations until they satisfied themselves, and Edward Teller as a matter of fact, that it would not indeed incinerate the entire atmosphere and bring life on earth to an end. Yet it is also very humbling to recognize that even as they were right, that it did not incinerate the entire atmosphere and set it afire, they were wrong in that they had quite considerably underestimated the power of the nuclear weapon, but then this takes us back to 1945. In 1945, shortly after Harry S. Truman became President of the United States after the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the former vice president, now president, who just a matter of a very short time earlier had been a United States Senator from Missouri.
He was faced with one of the most Epic decisions ever confronted by an American president as commander in chief. Would the United States use the atomic bomb? This has come down to be one of the most controversial questions in the entirety of military history throughout the history of humanity. Was the United States right or wrong in using the atomic bombs in 1945? The arguments are hot and there is a lot to argue from both sides, arguing against the use of the nuclear weapons is the historic principle of Christian just war theory. This developed in Western civilization directly out of the questions of wrestling with Christian morality and the reality of war. Unfortunately, as you look through human history, there have been far more years of war than there have been years of peace. And as a matter of fact, there's virtually no time in human history when there was peace all over the world. Warfare and a fallen world is an all-too-present reality.
Christians seeking to struggle with the reality of warfare asked the question, when would a war be justified? That's the first question. And secondly, if a war is justified, how must it be fought? So just war theory deals with both of these dimensions. First of all, is this military action just? Is it justifiable? And the second, if so, how must it be justifiably fought? Christians struggling with these issues separating these two questions that argued that a just war, a just military action can only be defensive rather than offensive. It must be in the protection of life rather than at the intentional expense of life. That's very crucial, by the way. It means that sometimes war is understood in a fallen world to be the least worst option in order to defend human life. It must not be over the acquisition of territory, and a just war must be declared by a legitimate authority.
There's more to it, but that's the most important part of the first question of just war theory. The second question comes down to how a war can be justly fought, how a military action can be carried forward? And one of the most important of those principles has to do with the fact that there must be a targeting only of combatants and not of civilians. That had been a part of Christian, just war theory for centuries, but all that basically changed with World War II. And it didn't change, first of all, in August of 1945. It changed, first of all, with the Battle of Britain, with the German bombing of major British cities in the early months of the war. Adolph Hitler and the other leaders of Nazi Germany at the time believed that they could bring England into submission by bombing its major cities, targeting civilians, in order to unleash terror from the skies that would lead to the demand of British people to sue for peace.
And you can imagine on terms friendly to Adolf Hitler. But by the time you get to the end of the war in Europe, both sides were undertaking massive bombing campaigns. And for the last half of the war, it was mostly the Allied forces, particularly the air forces of the United States and Great Britain who were carrying out a war for air supremacy over Nazi Germany, and not only seeking to eliminate the industrial might of Germany that was undergirding the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe and the total German war effort, but also to break the will of the German people by means of massive aerial bombing. The most infamous of those raids took place over the German city of Dresden, but there were also attacks on cities such as Hamburg, and by the time World War II came to an end in Europe, both side had abandoned that principle of the non-targeting of civilians when it came to massive aerial attacks.
And here we have to note that the big change before a change in morality was a change in technology. That change can be traced from the invention of the airplane to the development of bombers. And then, of course, the emergence of massive bombing capacity, both in terms of the weapons and the bombers during World War II. One of the principles we learned from this--and, as Christians, this is very sobering--is that when these weapons are developed, it is virtually impossible that they not be used. The historical arguments are still hot, even just in the European theater, as to the impact, whether it was great or it was insignificant when you consider aerial bombing, but the reality is in moral terms, this was a massive shift. And you can see this, basically, as something that grew throughout the 20th century. And it grew with the technology because the moral issues involved in these massive bombing campaigns began to pale over against the development of thermonuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles by the end of the 20th century. The bombers of World War II look almost quaint when compared to the intercontinental weaponry that is now possessed by several nations.
The Doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) — Epic Moments from the Cuban Missile Crisis to Able Archer
But now we arrive to this week in history, 75 years ago. President Harry S. Truman made the decision that the United States would drop nuclear weapons on Japanese cities in order to bring Japan to the point of surrender. The argument made by President Truman, both inside the White House in military deliberations and to the public, was that this was justified by a net saving of life, bringing the war in the Pacific to an end before there was the further loss of potentially millions of lives in that war of attrition to which the Japanese Imperial forces had been committed. Some of the bloodiest warfare in human history had taken place in the battles between the Allies and Japanese forces in places such as Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. As the Allies continued to press forward towards the home islands of Japan, the warfare only intensified as did the desperation of the Japanese as demonstrated in developments such as the kamikaze attacks.
Politically, in retrospect, there was very little decision for Harry Truman to make. It was virtually impossible that a president of the United States could be presented with weapons that could bring a war to an end and not to use those weapons. Furthermore, we also have to acknowledge that aerial warfare that included the deaths of untold civilians had not begun with Hiroshima and Nagasaki and nuclear weapons, but had begun in cities like Tokyo with massive aerial bombardment that used conventional weapons. The politics came down to this: no American president could face the American people and admit that he had failed to use a weapon that could have brought the war to an end earlier and saved American lives. Harry Truman went on to make the argument that the use of the atomic bombs had saved not only American lives, but also Japanese lives, particularly, lives involved in the forces of Imperial Japan, but also the civilians that were being mobilized in order to defend the Japanese home islands.
So the argument against the use of the nuclear weapons comes down to just war theory or to some other argument that the use of nuclear weapons is never ever justified. We can also understand why someone would make that argument because atomic weapons are unique in the history of humanity in their deadly power. The bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the 6th and 9th of August, in the year 1945 appear like matchbox toys compared to the nuclear weapons of today. The argument for the use of the atomic weapons is precisely the argument that was made by President Harry Truman at the time. And that is that the use of these weapons would, in net effect, save more lives than would be cost. So far as President Truman saw it, this was an extension of at least some aspects of just war thinking in an effort to save more lives than would otherwise be lost.
But there's the great debate. It is interesting that on the 75th anniversary, both sides of this argument emerged once again. It is interesting to note that the arguments against the use of nuclear weapons didn't have much traction in 1945, publicly or privately, almost anywhere. But that has changed now. This question divides Christians and even in some senses divides, not only liberals and conservatives from one another, but conservative versus conservative and liberal versus liberal. Although in the main, this has continued to be an issue that has primarily divided conservatives from liberals, especially looking at one key decade, the decade of the 1980s, when there was a massive movement that was declared for the cause of nuclear disarmament. Some went so far as to argue that the United States and its Allies in NATO should unilaterally disarm in terms of nuclear weapons, even if the Soviet Union did not. That was recognized fundamentally as nonsense and didn't make much traction when it comes to the United States government or others, for that matter. Indeed, even as concerns about the power of nuclear weapons grew, the logic of enhancing and deploying nuclear weapons, even in Western Europe, gained ground.
Far exceeding the historic reach of just war theory, the doctrine of mutual assured destruction known as MAD, mutually assured destruction, emerged as the main factor that explains why nuclear weapons were not used after there was a face-off between nuclear powers, especially the United States and the Soviet Union, from the late 1940s onward. Why were those weapons not used during some of the most white-hot years of conflict in human history? It is because it was recognized that if one side were to offer an initial strike using nuclear weapons, the other side would retaliate. And eventually the calculation would be the total destruction of the other power. And that would mean, in an exchange of nuclear weapons, the likely destruction of life on earth, or at least most human life on earth. So going back to 1945, was the use of nuclear weapons legitimate? Now the reality is, politically, there probably was no alternative, but morally speaking, this is an incredibly sobering question.
I believe that the use of nuclear weapons, in this case, probably did save more lives than otherwise would have been lost, but it is also a recognition that the principal of not targeting civilians was largely destroyed with the development of weapons coming from the air. That's a very sad development in human life, but there it is.
The Sobering Reality of the Technological Imperative: Once a Technology Emerges, It Will Be Used
The second incredibly sobering reality for Christians is this. It reminds us that when a technology emerges, it will be used. Jacques Ellul, the French theologian, referred to this as the technological imperative. If something can be done and the human ingenuity or technology is developed, it almost assuredly will be done. Someone is going to use the technology. That was the argument that would have been used if the United States had nuclear weapons and would have been required to use them to defeat Nazi Germany. You can count on the fact that argument would have been made.
It was the very argument made as we look at the use of nuclear weapons by the Allies, by the United States, in particular, in August of 1945. This is, as Christians understand, an incredibly important principle. Once a knowledge exists, it can't be unknown. That's just impossible. And when you look at the issue of nuclear disarmament, let's just say that you had the major nation, such as Russia and the United States, other nuclear powers, including say the United Kingdom and France, and go beyond that, India and Pakistan and China and Israel. Let's just say that all of those nations were to agree to destroy their nuclear weapons, to shred all of the academic articles and the background to the technology, and to try to submerge in the depths of the sea, forever, the knowledge of creating nuclear weapons. The fact is it would still be out there. All you have to do, as evidence of this, is mention two nations, Iran, on the one hand, North Korea, on the other.
Say what you will about the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. At least this much must be said about it. It apparently worked for decades, preventing any use of nuclear weapons after 1945. Once you had multiple nations with these weapons facing off against each other, they basically became unusable. It is recognized now that the great danger is not that Russia or the United States, or even China would use one of these weapons. But rather, at this point, that you would have a rogue nation or a non-national entity that would gain possession of nuclear weapons and either threaten to use it or actually use it. Sometimes when it comes to a great issue of the Christian worldview, we have to come to the conclusion that it isn't really clear and certainly will not be uncontroversial. It won't be incontrovertible to come to one conclusion or another about say the decisions made in the month of August of 1945.
I'll tell you about one very sobering conversation I had. It was with a man who had been on the front lines in World War II, a United States Marine, who had been involved on the front lines of the Battle of Okinawa. He saw exactly what went on there. He considered himself extremely lucky to be alive. And for the rest of his life, he carried the scars of having seen what he saw and experienced what he experienced in the Battle of Okinawa. He would be involved in other battles as well. When we talked about the use of nuclear weapons in July of 1945, he simply said to me, with an intensity on his face, "I will never forget. The use of those bombs brought about the surrender of Japan and they came not one second too soon." But at the same time, there was the acknowledgement that in the seconds represented by the detonation of those two bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki an entirely new and unspeakably horrifying technology of death had arrived on the human scene.
In retrospect, we now know that we came extremely close to an exchange of nuclear weapons, that is between the United States and the Soviet Union, back during the years of the Cold War, basically, dated between say 1945 and 1992. Thinking about this from a Christian worldview, we are reminded that you can never take the condition of being human and the reality of very real three-dimensional human beings out of this equation. Just think of the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev facing off against the United States President John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. If those two men had not come to a basic understanding of one another, taking a risk on both sides, during those critical hours. Well, we now know that the United States and the Soviet Union came within a hair's breath of an actual exchange of nuclear weapons. It was an extremely close call. Most Americans and others around the world are less familiar with what might have been an even closer call that took place in 1983.
This was when the NATO forces, led by the United States, had undertaken a war game in Western Europe, considering the possibility of an attack from the forces of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact coming from the east. And, thus, the war game was undertaken in 1983 under the name Able Archer 83. This came when Ronald Reagan was president of the United States. And Reagan sent chills down the spine of the leadership of the Soviet Union. And it was Yuri Andropov who had recently taken power, the former head of the KGB, as general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union after the death of long-time leader, Leonid Brezhnev. Here's what happened. At one point during the Able Archer exercises, which we now know the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact did not know was merely an exercise. Soviet radar and intelligence had picked up what it believed was a missile attack upon the Soviet Union from the forces of the United States, a nuclear missile.
Given the fact that the war games were already underway, the forces in the Soviet Union and the Soviet leadership came to the conclusion that this just might be an actual attack coming from the United States and NATO. It wasn't, but they did not know that. And instead, when there was this malfunction, we now know in the Soviet system, they believed that a missile was coming to them. Standing in the gap was one man, this is a very interesting lesson, just in terms of human history and the Christian worldview. One man, you don't know his name, you probably should. His name was Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov. This Lieutenant Colonel was the one Soviet officer who had to make the decision as to whether or not he should call Moscow and inform the Soviet leaders that a nuclear attack was underway that would lead to a cascade of decisions that would have almost surely led to a thermonuclear exchange between the forces of the east and the west.
Colonel Stanislav Petrov was in the position where if he made a mistake, his own nation was going to be defeated. It would have been his fault, but if he made the mistake the other way, humanity could be destroyed. He made the decision that it was unlikely that the United States would be sending one nuclear missile. And instead of picking up the phone and calling Moscow, he decided to treat the issue as if it were a technical glitch. It was, and it happened two more times during those hours that Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov was on duty. He made the same decision each time. And in all of those cases, he probably single-handedly prevented a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union. Last, on either side, we have too much confidence in our technology.
It was later determined that, of course, there was not a nuclear exchange. The United States had not launched a nuclear attack upon the Soviet Union. It was a pattern of the sun reflecting off of clouds that led to radar activity that triggered the entire system. A couple of lessons from the Christian worldview here. We can never trust technology. Technology can do massively important things, but we can never, in the end, put our faith in technology. Secondly, we really can't put our faith in fallible human beings, either. Human beings bear enormous responsibility. And sometimes they equip themselves incredibly well. We can include on that list, Colonel Petrov. But sometimes human beings let us down. And after all human beings were those who came up with the technology in the first place and devised the means of using it. But that gets to a final observation. How would history be different if it had been Nazi Germany that had developed the nuclear bomb during the 1940s? How might history be different if the United States had not used those weapons in August of 1945?
Well, in the first case, we can be pretty sure that World War II would have ended very differently, and that would emit, morally speaking, a very different future for humanity than what we knew after the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945. The thought of Nazi Germany armed with nuclear weapons is almost beyond our moral comprehension. So here we are in August of 2020, 75 years after the first use, the only use, of atomic weapons in human history. We have to pray that for generations and generations and generations to come, if the Lord tarries, you will still have the conversation about 1945 and the only use of atomic weapons. At the very least, we have to pray that it will be so
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