Defining the Problem

The Greatest Moral Problem Ever to Face Mankind

Theodore M. Hesburgh, 1984

Theodore M. Hesburgh is President of the University of Notre Dame and an ordained priest in the Roman Catholic Church. In addition to numerous honorary degrees he is the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the American Liberties Medallion of the American Jewish Committee. Father Hesburgh believes that of all the great problems that demand priority today, the nuclear threat to humanity is, by all odds, the greatest: The greatest moral problem that has ever faced humanity.

Whiteley: Father Hesburgh, you have called the Bishop's Pastoral Letter, "The Challenge of Peace" the finest document ever produced by the American Catholic hierarchy. What are you referring to?

Hesburgh: Well, the Bishops have come out with a lot of letters going back to the beginning of this century, before the war or immediately after the war; that's the First World War. They come out with a letter with kind of a social program against child labor, for woman's suffrage, a whole lot of things of that sort. And it was in a sense a prescient look at the New Deal which came to be a decade or so later. And I think in our time there is simply no moral question more complicated, more important, more vital to every human being on earth, than the nuclear threat to humanity.

Whiteley: You've called it the greatest moral challenge ever facing humanity.

Hesburgh: That's right. We've had a lot of moral problems: war and peace, slavery, lack of human dignity, and hunger and starvation, and refugees, whole lot of problems we've had. I've been mixed up in a lot of them.

Whiteley: And fundamental for you is that Bishops don't cease to be citizens by becoming Bishops.

Hesburgh: That's right. A lot of people say it's none of their business; I say it's all our business. It's the business of all of humanity. And as moral leaders, if they don't declare themselves on the most important moral issue of our time, I don't think they've got a right to declare themselves on anything else that has a moral content. As moral leaders they have to; not just the Catholic Bishops, but the Protestant religious leadership, the Muslim religious leadership, the Hindu, the Jewish, the Buddhist - they all have to declare themselves on this problem, and I'm trying to get them to do so.

Whiteley: You've written that the Bishops encountered a situation not unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, which had before it a case which was entirely new. Why was the issue of nuclear weapons a new problem for the church hierarchy?

Hesburgh: Well, first of all, the nuclear weapons didn't emerge until Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which will be forty years ago in 1985. And then the second thing is that while we've been around for a long time - Christians over 2000 years we have elaborated a theology of war; we really haven't elaborated a theology of peace, although that's at the very center of what the Christian religion stands for. When Christ rose from the dead and approached his apostles, his first words were "peace, peace be to you." And it's something we constantly pray for and most of the areas of the world where the Muslim religion predominates, the normal greeting is "Salaam, peace. Salaam aleikum. Peace be to you." In Israel people say "shalom" to each other which is their word for peace. And more and more I find young people around the campus say 'peace' as you walk by. It's become as central as it should be. But the fact is that there was very little to draw on if you'll notice, if you read the Bishop's letter, and I don't think many people do because it's fairly long, about 44,000 words, but if people would read that letter they would see that the Bishops have reached out across Christian tradition, first to look at pacifism, which is a very thin splinteral group almost within the Christian religion. They say this is perhaps certainly a valid Christian stance to be a pacifist, and it's a lot easier for an individual than it is for a whole nation. And then they go into Saint Augustine's theology of peace, but I have to say that was written at a time when people were fighting with bows and arrows and spears, and the most vicious weapon that emerged after that was the crossbow. And we're talking about weapons that in a matter of minutes can span the continents and destroy entire cities with one bomb.

Whiteley: The theory of "just war" really was not a firm foundation on which the Bishops could base their challenge of peace.

Hesburgh: Well they did draw from it two principles. One is "discrimination" and the other is "proportionality." "Discrimination" means that if you're engaged in what is called a "just war", you have to fight it with just means. You can't indiscriminately blow up hundreds of civilians, as for example the Germans did in London, and we did in Dresden. Those are really immoral acts. Secondly, the whole idea of "proportionality" is that if you're in a war to right a wrong, or to save a freedom, or do the things that wars have been fought for, the end result can't be disproportionate to what you are trying to gain. In other words you can't do what they did in Vietnam. They said we had to destroy the village to save it; that's disproportionate. There's nothing left to save once you've destroyed it. If you fight a nuclear war there won't be anything to be won because everybody will be dead - the victors and the vanquished. Because we will all be vanquished.

Whiteley: Part of Einstein's message to us is conventional warfare is no longer the way that our society will conduct its affairs, and we rely on war.

Hesburgh: That's right. Clausowitz, the famous writer on war, said that war is simply the extension of political action by other means. That's no longer true. War in a nuclear sense is simply human extinction, and the extinction of everything we hold sacred. Our cities, our civil institutions, our hospitals, schools, our books, our artwork, our whole cultural ambiance of orchestras and music and dance. It's all gone. Everything's gone, but especially all human beings are gone. And the great creation that God gave us - this is the one planet in our solar system where life is possible - we wipe out life and we make it simply an unlivable cinder as we see on Mars or on Venus or on the Moon.

Whiteley: In venturing into this area, however, you said the Bishops were opening themselves up to criticism from all sides: That they were meddling, that they were into something they didn't know anything about, that they were naive. How do you answer people?

Hesburgh: Well, first of all, the way the letter was written it didn't leave much room for naivete or not knowing what they were talking about. They talked to the scientists who were best versed in the realities of nuclear warfare. They talked to the military leaders who certainly had been thinking about nuclear warfare and scenarios for it. They talked to political leaders. They talked to educators. They talked to people who had followed this as almost a career from the beginning, writing scenarios and deciding how nuclear war might be fought. They listened to both sides. They even went over and talked to the Bishops in Europe who tend to think otherwise on certain matters, because they are somewhat less politically free than we are. The First Amendment keeps us from a lot of political entanglements, but in Europe many of the clergymen are paid by the state, and in this case we're a lot freer, and I think there were some palpable disagreements in their discussions with the European Bishops. I think the American Bishops, contrary to the European Bishops, came out with a much clearer, much stronger, much more forthright document on nuclear war than did the French or the German Bishops.

Whiteley: You've singled out five of their conclusions as significant. The first was that nuclear war is not justifiable in any context.

Hesburgh: Well the most fundamental principle, that whole letter from a moral point of view is simply that there is no reason whatever that would justify the indiscriminate killing of a hundred million innocent people. That is simply unthinkable. You could sit up all night and you can't think of any reason that would justify killing a hundred million innocent people. I can't think of any reason to kill one innocent person. Although there are people who heroically have given their lives for the good of others.

Whiteley: So the no first-use doctrine is a basic . . .

Hesburgh: It's a basic thing that you can't use it first, last, or any time.

Whiteley: The second point you singled out was the controlled use of nuclear weapons simply raises the situation where escalation may occur.

Hesburgh: That's right. I've talked to many military and scientific people on this point and everyone seems agreed - I can't find any disagreement anywhere - that limited nuclear war is simply a snare and delusion. That there's no case on history where people went down to defeat in a battle when they had other things they could use to gain a victory. And while you start with tactical so-called nuclear weapons, if you're losing the war with those you tend to escalate into longer range, intermediate range weapons. And if you're losing on that and you're being faced with intercontinental nuclear weapons, you start using your intercontinental nuclear weapons too. So everybody feels that once that nuclear threshold is crossed, the fat's on the fire and the whole house is going to burn down; maybe the house of humanity.

Whiteley: A third point was that there's no justification for the use of nuclear weapons on any civilian population.

Hesburgh: Yes, this is what one always gets tangled up with. I know that the Bishops were told that it's official American policy not to target civilian populations. And that's simply true, it isn't. But if you target forty places in Moscow which has the largest civilian concentration in Russia, and you hit those forty targets or a number of them right on the nose, you're still going to kill everybody in Moscow. You can say, well we didn't mean to, that wasn't our intention. But whether it's done intentionally or not they're no less dead. The same would be true of striking military targets like the Pentagon, or the CIA, or other things in Washington, D.C. - you wipe out all the people in Washington, who most of them are innocent of this affair.

Whiteley: A fourth point was that deterrence is not an end in itself.

Hesburgh: No. The whole posture of our building up these nuclear weapons was simply deterrence. If they strike us, we'll strike them back. And since no one wants to commit suicide they won't strike us. This is good as far as it goes in the sense it has prevented war for the past forty years almost. But the simple fact is as we build these weapons higher and higher, and as we get into all kinds of offensive as well as defensive weapons, and as we shorten the fuse from some six hours when the weapons had to be delivered by aircraft to a few minutes where they're now being delivered by submarines off the coast, then we get into a situation where we're asking for a computer war. And computers don't have any conscience; they don't decide right or wrong, they simply follow a program. If they do this, we do that and so forth. And the thing once started is gone, and the human element gets completely subtracted. Apart from computer error and accident, and making mistakes and starting it that way, it's no less started no matter what reason got it started. And you're no less dead after it starts.

Whiteley: A fifth and final point you singled out was the need for immediate, verifiable, bilateral stops to production, deployment, testing of nuclear weapons, and an immediate move to cut down the number of weapons you've indicated we could destroy the world over numerous times with our current stockpile.

Hesburgh: The simple problem is that, despite the fact that we have a great superfluity of things to deter others, they keep adding to their forces and we keep adding to ours. And deterrence, as I mentioned earlier, may have made some sense in the beginning, but only makes sense now if you're trying to get rid of nuclear weapons entirely, get rid of the threat. You put two scorpions in a bottle and sooner or later one of them is going to strike, and once one strikes, they both strike and you've got two dead scorpions. It may not be a very good analogy for our situation, but the fact is that one has to begin to go in the other direction. We have been building, building, building for forty years. We are right now in the course of putting in whole new nuclear systems and so are they. And this is madness, I mean it's insane. When you can destroy the world very effectively right now fourteen times over, why figure out a way to do it twenty times over, or thirty times over. Why figure out a way to do it quicker, in four minutes instead of five minutes, or landing within twenty yards of the target rather than forty yards of the target. When you're talking about a megatonnage of explosives, why make it so sophisticated that instead of just having it on land, sea, and air, now we put it in outer space.

The whole thing is just going upwards and onwards and sooner or later it's going to topple over and we're all going to be dead, and I don't like to see that happen. Not just for myself but I think the youngsters coming along, your children, eventually your grandchildren. So, somehow we've got to stop. All a freeze means is like that sign in front of a railroad track. Stop, look, listen. We've got to stop for a moment and see where we are, and listen to what the people are saying, and then do something about it. But I've always said we've got to do something about it together, the Superpowers. There's no point in our doing something about it if they don't do something about it. Now we can start something, say we won't do this if you don't do it either, but if you start doing it we're going to restart doing it. That kind of unilateral action was taken by President Kennedy, and it led eventually to the Limited Test Ban. We have made some progress in test ban and SALT I, and some suggested in SALT II, but they all allow for even a higher escalation. And we have to simply stop. We have to simply say instead of adding new systems we're going to start to draw back. Instead of having 50,000 warheads we're going to get back to 25, and then maybe 15, and ultimately I hope we get rid of them all. We can never get rid of the knowledge of how to build them, but at least if we can get rid of those bloated arsenals that will someday destroy us I believe we have hope, and I'm for hope.

Whiteley: A theme that's run throughout your writings is the importance of education in leading to hope that that very technology that has the capacity to cut down forty yards from the target to twenty yards from the target is the same technology which, redirected, can help eliminate hunger, poverty...

Hesburgh: It takes a certain point, and maybe when the thing arrives at a point of idiocy where we're piling disaster on disaster and when there's so many other problems we see needing attention that could be solved if we put the same kind of resources into peace as we put into war. I think we're all beginning to see that more and more, and peace is becoming the one central issue of our day.

Peace very simply is not just the absence of war, it's the work of justice. It's creating a world where people don't have to fight for food, they don't have to fight for territory, and they don't have to fight for water, and they don't have to fight for everything, because everyone has had a chance to develop his or her civilization, his or her economic situation, his or her food situation. That can be done. We could solve the food situation. We could solve the economic development situation. We have a world where forty thousand children die every day, mostly for want of a five-cent pill that would keep them from dying of what is in effect, dehydration, through all kinds of intestinal and other diseases not unrelated to malnutrition. We have a billion people on earth right now who are hungry. They may survive but you've seen their spindly legs, and if they're children, their bloated stomachs. We have a billion people on earth who can't read and write in a highly technical civilized world. It's like being blind, and we could cure that in a matter of months with the current technology, if we put it to work on doing this, and not blowing each other up. We have just a wide, wide range of problems, most relating to the quality of human life, to the upholding of freedom of human beings, of the free practice of their religion, of the free development of their hearts and souls and minds, and all these things could be done. Instead of that, practically half of the people in science and technology are putting their genius to work, and we are putting most of our treasure to work, on means of destruction.

Whiteley: But as you write about that, that's an issue of value. You've assigned education a significant role in rethinking values.

Hesburgh: I think if we don't do it - the churches do it to some extent - but I think we have to do it because we really spend more time with the young people than the churches do. And that's why a person like myself, who is essentially a church person, is so concerned. I spent my whole life in education, not just at the University of Notre Dame, but all over the world. And I think that's essential because all of the things we do in education are works of value.

They're trying to create an ambiance within a person's life that gives that life dignity and value, that allows that person to perform in a way that is truly human, that allows them to make priorities in their lives and judgments about what's right and wrong, or good or evil. Education doesn't always do that, but at its best it does.

Whiteley: Where would you have higher education begin? It's a curricular issue, and a goal to make value a formal part of what the product of four years with a university.

Hesburgh: Well there are several ways you can do it. One way you can do it which is very popular with young people is to do it by way of problems. You can say why should a billion people in this world be hungry right now, or why should a billion people in this world be illiterate right now. Those are problems that are solvable. If we can put a man on the moon we can certainly solve the problem of education by satellite all over the world. But let me go on deeper. You could also say why should we be adding "X" billions of dollars to an arsenal which already is sufficient to blow not just our enemies but ourselves up seven times over, and the same with them. Why should we be selling literally - the United States is the largest arms seller in the world - why should we be selling billions of dollars worth of arms to nations that can't afford those arms, and don't need them, who literally have much greater problems regarding their people, like food and shelter? These are moral questions, and you can't solve them without some sense of values. That's one way of going at it. Another way more integral to education, of course, is to have greater emphasis on the humanities as being the transmitter of values. We're losing a lot of this because today we tend to be highly vocational in our education, and you can go through a whole professional education like medicine, or law, or business without ever hearing about the ethics of that profession, or what is the obligation of a professional person to the clients he takes care of.

Whiteley: In talking about education for the year 2000 you have referred, in a shifting world, to the need for referents.

Hesburgh: That's right. You need a few anchors, or if you're a navigator you need a few reference points like the stars. And that's true of our moral life. We do need some anchors. I think the biggest anchor I have is faith, and it's because I believe in eternal life and I believe in the Savior, and I believe in the good news of the gospel. I have a lot of anchors of special religious knowledge that leads me to the greatest values. But beyond that, from a purely rational point of view, you can develop values. In a democracy sometimes you're forced to go that route especially, say in a great state university - they're not set up to teach religion, although they can do it on the side, and I think they do it mostly in Newman clubs, etc. But all of the humanities are carriers of human values. You can't study history without getting some sense of the heights and the depths to which human beings have gone. I mean compare a Hitler to a Mother Theresa. It gives you a pretty stark idea of values or priorities or what's important in life, or what one can accomplish.

Whiteley: If the material is presented in a way to heighten the value reference?

Hesburgh: That's right. There has to be some interest, but if it's even presented well the values are self-obvious, self-evident really. Literature has a whole range of people's lives, lives that lead to happiness and lives that lead to unhappiness, and why. Again, a sense of values. Even mathematics gives you a sense of the precision and the honesty of comparing figures, and seeing deeply into some kind of order rather than disorder in the world. The same could be true of most of science, which is really a symphony of order if you get it at the deepest level.

Whiteley: But you've indicated that higher education is weakest in this need to create referents and values. Why is that?

Hesburgh: People are scared because they say you can't really teach values, and that's in one sense true; you exemplify them through history or literature or art. On the other hand you most exemplify them in the lives of teachers. There are some people, you can't be around them very long - and if you're in a university you're with the teacher for a whole semester, without getting some sense of what they stand for, what their priorities are, what kind of values they have, how they treat you with respect or lack of it, how fair they are in the way they assess you and your work. Teachers, great teachers, have always been transmitters of values. Maybe that above knowledge, in some sense, because the knowledge may come and go and we forget a lot of things we learn, but we rarely forget the example of a great teacher.

Whiteley: Father Hesburgh, thank you for sharing with us today your insights into the way to a more peaceful world.