When the Soviet Union continued its military buildup even after the war was over and savagely imposed on Eastern Europe totalitarian governments, we rested for our defense on our air superiority—particularly our greater supply of atomic weapons. Rather than try to match the ever-increasing Soviet advantage in conventional forces, we let it be known that we would meet any Russian attack on Western Europe with massive nuclear attacks on Russian cities—which would, we knew, be met by almost equal attacks on the U.S. and Western Europe.
We adopted a “first-use” policy and held to it through most of the Cold War; we developed ever larger and more devastating bombs, and trembled when the Soviets did the same. Every “small” conflict, from Korea to Cuba, thereby became a crisis in which our leaders had to weigh the option of mutual extermination. As we have learned, there were several occasions when miscommunication, or weakness and folly followed by bluster, brought the world within a hair’s breadth of launching such a war of human extinction. It was luck, or perhaps Providence, that kept us from the brink long enough for the Soviet system to undergo its unavoidable economic implosion—an outcome predicted as early as 1920 by Ludwig von Mises.
Our acceptance of the “doctrine” of Mutually Assured Destruction also coarsened us morally. Then-Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen expressed this insight in a 1974 talk that, tellingly, was never broadcast in the United States:
“That blotted out boundaries. The boundary of America that was the aid of nations, and the nations that were helped. It blotted out the boundary between life and death for the victims of nuclear incineration. Among them even the living were dead. It blotted out the boundary between the civilian and the military. And somehow or other, from that day on in our American life, we say we want no limits and no boundaries.”
It is significant that Sheen made these remarks not long after the decision in Roe v. Wade removed any boundaries to what Americans could do to the innocent in the womb, in defense of their own notion of freedom. But Sheen had taken a similar stand much earlier, in the immediate wake of the bombings and the jubilation of peace. As the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists reported in May 1946:
“Discussing arguments that use of the atomic bomb shortened the war and saved the lives of American fighting men, Msgr. Sheen declared: ‘That was precisely the argument Hitler used in bombing Holland.’”
A decent regard for civilian lives does not imply that we should be willing to sacrifice indefinite numbers of our soldiers to avoid any innocent deaths. Commanders must balance their first concern—winning the war, with minimal losses—against the solemn duty to spare civilians wherever possible. We can never target civilians directly or intentionally, nor totally disregard the cost in civilian lives of a military victory. To do so is to let our enemies’ worst instincts infect our own morality—with consequences that may well outlive the peace, as Sheen observed.