The Letter of Last Resort
The decision about nuclear apocalypse lying in a safe at the bottom of the sea.
Pentagon public relations had arranged the tour because they wanted me to see how sane its "missileers," as they were known, were. And they were sane. Too sane. It was 1978, and I had had been investigating "The Subterranean World of the Bomb" for a Harper's story of that name, and I decided I had to ask the missile crewmen the ultimate questions. This is how I described it:
I asked these sanest of all men how they could be sure they'd be able to launch when they knew it [the attack] was for real.
"One thing you have to understand, remember," one of the crewmen told me, "is that when I get an authenticated launch order I have to figure my wife and kids'd be dead already up above. The base is ground zero. Why shouldn't I launch? The only thing I'd have to look forward to if I ever got up to the surface would be romping around with huge mutant bunny rabbits." We all laughed. It seemed funny at the time.
"Okay then, put it this way," I said , "If you assume that when you get the launch order everyone on our side has been devastated by a Soviet first strike, is there any purpose served by destroying what's left of humanity by retaliating purely for revenge?"
Our conversation turned to the Christian ethic of "turn the other cheek," and I asked:
"Say you're [then President] Jimmy Carter, a serious Christian, and you're President when the whole deterrence thing fails. ...You see those missiles coming in on the radar screen and you know mass murder is about to happen to your people and nothing you can do will stop it. Is there any point in committing another act of mass murder?"
"You think he should surrender?" another crewman asked me.
"I don't know," I said, taken aback by the question.
Recently, long after that encounter, I came upon a fascinating study of Jewish thinking on nuclear retaliation—all this nuclear doctrine leads you ultimately to theological questions. In particular there was a fascinating passage in a paper written by Warner D. Farr, a colonel in the U.S. Army.
Farr had made a careful study of the theological literature on the Last Resort question of retaliation when deterrence fails.
"In Jewish law," he wrote, "it is asserted, 'there are two types of war, one obligatory and mandatory (milkhemet mitzvah) and the one authorized but optional (milkhemet reshut).' ... Interpretation of Jewish law concerning nuclear weapons does not permit their use for mutual assured destruction. However, it does allow possession and threatening their use, even if actual use is not justifiable under the law." (Italics mine.)
Threat, yes? Use, no? Who knew the Talmudists had parsed nuclear war so closely. The footnote to this assertion refers to a paper by a scholar named Michael J. Broyde called "Fighting the War and the Peace: Battlefield Ethics, Peace Talks, Treaties, and Pacifism in the Jewish Tradition."
Here's the relevant section on deterrence and retaliation and the Decision of Last Resort:
The use of nuclear weapons as a weapon of mass destruction is very problematic in Jewish law. In a situation of Mutually Assured Destruction if weapons are used, it is clear that the Jewish tradition would prohibit the actual use of such weapons if such weapons were to cause the large scale destruction of human life on the earth as it currently exists. The Talmud explicitly prohibits the waging of war in a situation where the casualty rate exceeds a sixth of the population. Lord Jakobovits, in an article written more than thirty years ago, summarized the Jewish law on this topic in his eloquent manner:
"In view of this vital limitation of the law of self-defense, it would appear that a defensive war likely to endanger the survival of the attacking and the defending nations alike, if not indeed the entire human race, can never be justified. On this assumption, then, that the choice posed by a threatened nuclear attack would be either complete destruction or surrender, only the second may be morally vindicated."
However, one caveat is needed: It is permissible to threaten to adopt a military strategy that it is in fact prohibited to use, in order to deter a war. While one injustice cannot ever justify another injustice, sometimes threatening to do a wrong can prevent the initial wrong from occurring. Just because one cannot pull the nuclear trigger does not mean one cannot own a nuclear gun. [Italics mine.]
It is important to understand the logical syllogism which permits this conduct. It is prohibited—because of the prohibition to lie—to threaten to use a weapon that is prohibited to actually use. However, it can be clearly demonstrated that lying to save the life of an innocent person is permissible. Thus, this lie becomes legally justifiable to save one's own life too. An example proves this point: If a person desired to kill an innocent person and one cannot prevent that act by killing the potential murderer, one could threaten this person by saying "if you kill this innocent person, I will kill your children." While, of course, one could not carry out the threat in response to the murder ...
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.
Photograph of Royal Navy nuclear submarine by BAE Systems/Getty Images.