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Moral Implications of Atomic Warfare

A paper written for the Fortnightly Club, Redlands, California

January 21, 1971

Frank M. Toothaker

Frank M. Toothaker


The gist of this paper is that the atomic era confronts the human race with the power either to destroy itself or to energize vast creative operations.  To determine which direction nuclear power is employed rates as man’s supreme moral decision.

Two facets of the current employment of atomic power as weaponry are generally accepted.  First, scientists assert, there is no defense against nuclear weapons.  Second, their creation and stockpiling is little more than a posture of deterrence.  No matter who uses these stockpiles or why, the result is projected as virtually the end of history. 

Morally considered, failure to stop the escalation of weapons buildup and failure to develop honest, meaningful and sacrificial commitments that diminish the potency of atomic missiles may rate as the final moral bankruptcy of nationalism.  The hope of any future rests with men of vision and courage who will dare to turn the tide toward sane nuclear employment.

Moral Implications of Atomic Weapons


Let me begin with a word about morals.  The human animal, before he knew how to record his thinking had gradually come to accept a few basic rules to govern interpersonal relationships.  These learnings from trial and error kept open the door to survival and to progress.  Crudely put, man slowly learned how to get along.  The ways that served him he called good; ways that set him back he proscribed as bad.  Man’s thinkers, seers and poets looked above immediate levels and beyond the moment to reflect that long-range values often denied short-term advantages.  They also noted the gap between achieved good and the unrealized potential which often was blocked or retarded by fear, folly or social infantilism.  Thus they sought to exalt these potentials and to encourage tensions pulling toward their realization.  They developed standards by which to test the durable and the excellent.  Thus into existence, and into some degree of control of social action came such codes as those of Hammurapi, Moses, Confucius and Muhammad, and such ethical challenges as those of Amos, Isaiah and Jesus.

Morality is man’s social judgment aimed at survival and progress, proposing the fullest benefit for the largest or most influential numbers.  As mankind believed he could improve his status he accordingly amended his codes.  Such a social doctrine may appear to be little if any more than a form of situation ethics, but it emphasizes that man’s schoolroom is where he learns the dos and don’ts of existence.  The morals of mankind in their broad and basic realism may be considered man’s discovery of God, the universal Good.  Man concludes that God reveals his nature to such as pay the price of comprehension.  Indeed, the Universe does yield its secrets to those who ready themselves to understand.  In that context good appears not merely a comparative temporal value, but a reality rooted in the character quality of the Ultimate.

We come now to consider the morality of the use of atomic power for the purpose of destroying human life and the environment upon which human survival depends.  We recognize that war itself has fallen under moral condemnation.  During and prior to the nineteenth century it was estimated that war could be approved as a method to secure what a group desired; or a method most effective to prevent some other group from taking some advantage from the first.  No one called the war method itself before the bar of judgment to account for its inner nature.  Certainly, many Old Testament authors affirmed war as an instrument of God’s will for the Chosen People and of His anger against their adversaries.  But pre-Christian priests, prophets and politicians never came a long mile toward the precipice of annihilation in the content they gave to the idea of war.  Yet even then some of the prophets, and the influence of Jesus developed a rising movement in early Christianity, elevating a new ethical standard and a sacrificial dynamic resting not upon violence but upon spiritual resistance.  Christians in the main withdrew from imperial armies and for conscience sake refused even to fight for their lives in the arena.  This era of pitting conscience against war broke down when Constantine’s armies were baptized wholesale.  Conversion became morally and spiritually meaningless.  With the years of this century the increasing savagery of battle, implemented by modern technology, has forced sensitive moderns more and more to the conclusion voiced by one of the Protestant churches:  “War is the world’s chief collective sin”.  Usually, the resort to war has been condoned on the grounds that it offers the least damaging choice in a given crisis, or some would say, the only choice.  In our memories one world war was fought as the war to end war.  Another was fought to make the world safe for democracy.  Neither of these attempts at justification has proved a reality.  The point is clear.  The Second World War left not only democracy at hazard.  It developed and bequeathed to the human race the means of its own extinction.  This is the immoral implication of nuclear weaponry. 

When the Second World War broke out the blitz over England roused a fury of indignation against Germany for the bombing of civilian centers.  Front lines might exist but they no longer contained the belligerent powers.  Moral denunciation fell upon Germany. That moral judgment will find little standing today, unless we renounce what has become acceptable to military strategists.  Indeed, it does seem difficult to differentiate between dropping a small bomb that kills one family, and another bomb, called conventional, that wipes out an entire block of homes, unless murder is morally computed on a mathematical basis.  At any rate our moral fever subsided when the obliteration bombings began to reduce German and Japanese cities.  What we generally fail to see is that our judgments of right and wrong are, as Dr. Ted Palmquist of Palo Alto, once expressed it, not what is right, or what is wrong, but who is wiped out and who is left.  It is wrong if it hurts me; it is right if in my favor it hurts my opponent.  I have often charged that this is the morality of Communism.  But this is really the accommodated moral code of all belligerents at all times, a code that has no brief for continued acceptance.

I do not mean to imply by this that no meaningful differences exist between belligerents.  Differences do exist, but the tragedy of war seems almost, if not quite inevitable – that the belligerents exchange vices in the process of combat, so that the victor loses the very virtues for which he contends.

As we come now to discuss the moral implications of atomic weaponry we recall the insistence of Secretary Stimson telling us that the use of the two bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Mar. Read. Dig. P 18- 1947) were justified because they killed fewer people than the B-29s over Tokyo in March 1945.  We had come to the place where with a sort of equanimity we could “average 68,000 people killed and 90,000 injured per bomb.”  We can shudder at any realization of what that means.  But today that would be peanuts.

The objective facts do not need a college professor to make them clear.  John Hersey told the story of Hiroshima.  We know what a little bomb did.  It expended more destructive power than all German bombs on Britain, 1939-45.  General McArthur vouched for the statement that bombs one thousand times more powerful are available.  Bikini experiments in 1946, over 24 years ago not only ripped up the bottom of the atoll, and sank numerous ships, but so poisoned the land and water that hot metal is still telling the story and the fish of the sea cannot safely be eaten.  The technical sophistication of those years in no way lessens this stark revelation.

Facing this fact, atomic scientists, to put it mildly, are appalled.  Dr. Harold Urey exclaimed:  “I’m a frightened man”.  Dr. Louis Ridenour concluded a careful analysis of possible defense with just four words:  “There is no defense”.  I heard Dr. Leo Szilard publicly speak the same conclusion.  Joseph and Stewart Alsop describe the dilemma of the General Staff.  Everything they knew is no longer dependable.  General H. H. “Hap” Arnold concluded:  “The time is at hand for the peoples of the world to admit that their warring power is too great to be allowed to continue”.  It appears that people in power have not credited Gen. Arnold.  Bernard Baruch addressed:  “My fellow members of the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission and my fellow citizens of the world.  We are here to make a choice between the quick and the dead.  It will not do to believe that any of us can escape war’s devastation.  Victor, vanquished and neutrals alike are affected physically, economically and morally”.  The San Francisco Chronicle stated two implications that seem quite clear:  “The bombs signify the birth of the final era in the long and bloody history of war – the atomic era.”  Fortune magazine noted “the difference between victor and vanquished in a war fought with atomic power would be merely a few percentiles of obliteration”.  In a word, across a quarter century no one really contests what Henry L. Stimson believed, that “man’s ability to destroy himself is nearly complete”, except to add, it may be complete.

With such facts, and such an understanding of the meanings to existence of the reality of nuclear power we certainly must ask: “What moral significance attaches to atomic weaponry?”  Such an evaluation began with the first expression of the intent to create atom bombs.  Dr. Lise Meitner, nuclear physicist, said, “Nothing was further from our minds than the utilization of this energy for the manufacture of atomic bombs.  And when the theoretical possibility of such utilization had been discovered, I, like any other responsible person hoped that its practical realization would not be possible.”

When it became evident that such bombing energies could and would be used, the significant scientific leadership believed it could no longer maintain the role of pure science, but must assume moral responsibility for the results of their discovery.  They urged that the bombs be not used upon vast, unwarned civilian populations, but that demonstration be staged where the compulsion of fear and prudence might be given a chance to prove their adequacy to produce surrender.  Scientists simply could not morally justify on a large scale what all had condemned on a small scale at Pearl Harbor.  These views have been overridden by political and military determinations. 

The people who listened to, but did not give much credence to the nuclear physicists’ moral concerns, needed not to affect surprise that religious voices were raised in protest.  Within two weeks after Hiroshima forty nine prominent clergymen and educators published a manifesto of dissent, “Our nation’s leaders announced this (the bombing) with satisfaction.  We do not share this sentiment.  We believe we have committed an atrocity of a new magnitude … a new low of humanity”.  This statement, first released by Dr. Paul Scherer, later received signatures from hundreds of additional leaders.  The Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, through its Commission on the Relation of the Church to War in the Light of the Christian Faith, said:  “We are agreed that, whatever be one’s judgment of the ethics of war in principle, the surprise bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are morally indefensible.”  Such moral judgments during the intervening years have never been repealed.  President Truman and Secretary Stimson assumed responsibility for the relevant determinations, and the latter argued justification thus:  “This deliberate, premeditated destruction was our least abhorrent choice”.

The immediate moral implication of all this seems to be: Moral responsibility is the price of freedom and even of survival.  If the race has created or discovered values, and if the race itself has a value superior to its possessions, or the sovereignty of national self-interest, then to fail to preserve these values is outright moral abdication.  The editors of Life spotlighted the issue this way:  “Our only safeguard against the very real danger of reversion to barbarism is the kind of morality which compels the individual conscience, be the group right or wrong.  The individual conscience against the atom bomb?  Yes, there is no other way”.  To this General Douglas McArthur added his conviction:

“There can be no doubt that both the progress and survival of civilization is dependent upon the timely recognition of the imperative need for some such forward step (as the surrender of the sovereign right to resort to arms) is dependent upon the realization by all nations of the utter futility of force as an arbiter of international issues; is dependent upon elimination of international relations of the suspicion, distrust and hatred which inevitable result from power threats, boundary violations, secret maneuvering, and the violation of public morality; is dependent upon a world leadership which does not lack the moral courage to implement the will of the masses who abhor war and upon whom falls the main weight of war’s frightful carnage; and, finally, is dependent upon the development of a world order which will permit a nation such as Japan safely to entrust its national integrity to just such a higher law to which all peoples on earth shall render themselves subservient.  Another war may blast mankind to perdition, but still we hesitate.”

That is moral concern of a high order, something lifted above mere prudential opinion.  To proceed down the time worn ruts of fear, suspicion, arms competition, intolerable insecurity under bomb threats, ours and others, certainly is immoral beyond measure.

Vision at this point, as I have said, has moved many scientists far out of any position of detachment.  The traditional attitude toward research has switched.  Heretofore researchers have pursued their goals without compunction or regard for what others might do with their findings.  Now they revolt at creating what they cannot later control.  Even though they sustain the sense of the guilt of this era they cannot leap the hedge of conscience which has risen against further irresponsible creativity.  Science has turned evangelistic.  In part scientists no doubt see that such totalitarianism as we have previously viewed may appear liberal in comparison with the destruction of freedom imposed by the imminence of atomic warfare.  The laboratory will become the slave of the state.  To all intents and purposes it now is, because nuclear research cannot be supported without the support of the state.

Sad to say, the concerns of church, college and independent researcher centers have been unable to cope with the traditional, habitual fear responses to danger.  With one hand we signal, “There must never be another major war”.  With the other hand we motion our political leaders to prolong and to stimulate the causes of war.  What we accomplish in these ways simply stimulates others to do likewise, all of which feeds the chilling nightmare of the arms race.  Bernard Feld, one of the active atomic scientists, would clarify why this irrational activity on the part of the more powerful nations.  He suggests that many facets reflect the reasons, (1) the grip that nationalism holds on personal loyalties, (2) the fantastic attractions of non-rational ideologies, (3) human aspirations for material progress, (4) man’s unquestioning faith in the technological revolution, (5) instant global communications and (6) outmoded political structures.  His evaluation of nuclear weapons systems simmers down to this:  “Deterrence is their only value” and “the temptations to upset this balance are irresistible”.  He goes on to describe as de-stabilizing factors the development of ABM and MIRV (multiple independently-targeted re-entry vehicle).  The true nature of atomic weaponry appears to betray infinite moral confusion.

It may appear that moral confusion bears little relation to survival.  Such a view cannot be sustained.  Even a casual survey of twenty four years of history is illuminating.  After Alamagordo we hugged the secret of atomic fission, making ourselves believe it a secret.  “Know-how” enabled America to develop widely known theories relating to the atom.    E equals mc² any first rate physicist knew.  Time, fear, pride would develop what all science knew.  It would call out spying and build suspicion and enmity.  Thus was fear increased and counter preparedness stimulated on a major scale in the only economy then able industrially to produce atomic weapons.  That nation solved the production problem.  Then indescribably backward China and Gaullist France.  Today even India is capable of independently producing all the components. 

Morally we have arrived at a crisis where we must give up the postulate that war between two or more major contestants is the lesser of two evils.  In the Cuban crisis Russia faced the likelihood that an armed confrontation would release nuclear missiles.  Russia decided to discard the hazard of war.  The United States could have with one warhead wiped Hanoi off the continent.  Our government chooses not to do this because of possible, even likely nuclear confrontation with not one, but two powers.  We know and they know that atomic weapons spell “The End”.  We are not ready to accept the basic assumption involved in the use of nuclear fusion that suicide is preferable to the adjustments required for survival.  Survival has never been without its price of struggle, blood, sweat, tears.  Gains have been pitifully small and bitter losses have marked the trail from the jungle.  Life, and all the gains of the centuries hang in the balance.

The confusion and immorality of infantile thinking breaks through in many ways.  One is in language, to describe the potential use of nuclear weapons by the word: “Defense”.  By this time we must believe our nuclear physicists as with almost one voice they say there is no defense.  Military experts assure us that a response by nuclear warheads to an initial offensive strike can be made by the party first attacked.  But with millions dead and cities flattened the term “defense” is hardly descriptive of reality. 

Numerous sources propose that America strike first.  Morally speaking such a proposal fragments whatever inner integrity a people may possess.  That is, to strike while ostensibly a people posture as non-belligerent, and while others still depend upon that posture as being real is to admit the charge that such a people is criminally hypocritical.

No person of character is willing to propose that their culture erase all distinctions between right and wrong.  To abrogate all moral judgment is the way to a total dark age, to cancel out all mercy, all love, and render our plans and our performance after this fashion is to choose the inner nature of a fiend.  To consent to such a role means a people consents to stab in the dark on the sole grounds that it were better that way to seize the tiny percentile of avoidance of complete annihilation regardless of the death of untold fellow humans.  The National Opinion Research Center in June 1946 conducted a poll on this point, discovering that if it were rumored that some nation was preparing to attack the United States, 47% of the interviewed favored shooting first and investigating the rumor afterward.  If a nuclear interchange took place one surely wonders, would an investigation matter, and who would do it!

I have deliberately refrained from the discussion of the moral codes of high religion.  Too often they have been praised from pulpits and extolled by the pew, until such time as they get in the way of national pride, economic objection or social panic.  Then the Dow-Jones in the moral stock-market falls to depression lows.  True, the hydrogen bomb and the Ten Commandments do not speak the same language.  Jesus’ estimate of the infinite worth of a single human being gets no mention when MIRV is discussed.  Yet one church, in recognition of the sin of atomic rape and the reversal of creation, proposes an act of atonement and a fund to alleviate such suffering as befalls affected persons.

It may appear from this discussion that nothing is left but to wait for the mushroom cloud.  This conclusion is too hasty.  A high moral value rests with the determination to outlaw the processes and develop practical understandings that head off Armageddon.  To speak of this determination too firmly has generally appeared to major powers to be an admission of weakness.  In reality it shows evidence of being the mark of security.  In this direction ninety four nations have, if I have counted them correctly, signed the non-proliferation treaty.  Who knows whether the SALT talks will get very far, but the very effort bespeaks the recognition that there must exist better ways of mutual global life than to blow one another into fallout particles.  We know, if we quiet our fearful hearts, that not even a nation as good as ours has been appointed to play God.  Weak as is the United Nations it does possess a witness that life is sacred, too sacred to be made a bloody smear.  It does witness every day that co-operative controls and world-wide discipline alone can exercise any strong affirmative groundwork for peace.  Such collaboration does not require the wiping out of differing political and economic ideologies.  It offers man a glimmer of hope of escape from his present split personality and a way to renounce the immoral, enroute to spiritual unity, in fact more so than in name.

Quiet steps in this direction have already been taken but they barely make a back column footnote.  Not long ago, working at the problem of the fusion of hydrogen atoms which may make possible fully controlled power of unimaginable creative uses a company of Russian experimenters revealed that they have created a type of furnace that developed up to 18,000,000 degrees Fahrenheit.  This is the start toward the 180,000,000 degree heat considered necessary for hydrogen atomic fusion.  Their announcement was met with incredulity.  Finally a team of British scientists accepted an invitation to come, see and verify.  This they did, then set up their own apparatus and got comparable results.  American scientists now have further reproduced these results.  Dr. Glenn Seaborg and others with him believe that controlled fusion will become a source of power before the end of the century.  Lewis Mumford says that the cooperative sharing of knowledge, and mutual discipline, and the institution of the experimental method in this field of international dealing with atomic power is of itself a moralizing process.  He puts it this way: “If our morality is not adequate, if our daily habits are not informed by rational purposes, if our inhibitions are not, when necessary, inviolable … if we do not put humanity, in every sense of the word, before all petty and limited ends, nothing can be saved”.

Dr. Robert Wilson, the scientist who discovered the isotron method of separating small amounts of U235 from U238 thus making the first atomic stockpile-material available, looks back after these years to say: “I look at the decisions that have affected the country most deeply.  It seems to me that they were made at a level and in such a manner that moral considerations tended to get lost or reduced to shotgun principles like anti-communism.”  He did not write specifically of MIRV or ABM and decisions related to them.  The decisions of the hour must look beyond these shotgun principles, to the risks, the responsibilities and even the sacrifices that hold promise of survival.  Our best will not be too much.  Less than our best will be treason to humanity.



1.       John Hersey, Hiroshima.  Knopf 1946

2.       Harold Urey – pamphlet.  National Committee on Atomic Information, Washington, D.C.

3.       Joseph and Stewart Alsop.  Saturday Evening Post.  July 13, 1946

4.       Bernard Baruch – International Control of Atomic Energy,
          U.S. Department of State, publ. 81.Z: At 712

5.       Fortune Magazine, Jan. 1946, introducing Louis Ridenour

6.       Albert Einstein – letter, published by Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, 90 Nassau St., Princeton, N.J.

7.       Letter published by Dr. Paul Scherer and others, Aug. 20, 1945

8.       Readers Digest; 3:47 p. 18

9.       Life magazine, August 20, 1945

10.     Douglas McArthur, address to Allied Control Council, Tokyo, Apr. 4, 1946

11.     Norbert Wiener, letter, April 1947, printed in Metal Progress

12.     Bernard Feld, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Jan. 1970

13.     Charles Davis, Institute of International Relations, June 1, 1946

14.     Lewis Mumford, Values for Survival, Harcourt, 1946

15.     Robert R. Wilson, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, June 1970


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