Richard Pointer is Professor of History and Fletcher Jones Foundation Chair in the Social Sciences at Westmont College, Michael Van Dyke is Professor of English at Cornerstone University, Scott Waalkes is Professor of Political Science at Malone University, and Mark Yuly is Professor of Physics and Associate Dean for Natural Sciences and Mathematics at Houghton College.
The Nuclear Age dawned 70 years ago in the summer of 1945. But what did the use of atomic weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki really portend? The August 7 New York Times’ massive front-page headline, in all capital letters, offered one interpretation: “First Atomic Bomb Dropped on Japan; Missile Is Equal to 20,000 Tons of TNT; Truman Warns Foe of a ‘Rain of Ruin.’” Ever since that news of atomic destruction became public, scholars have grappled with the meaning of the Bomb. What had happened and what could happen in a world where humans could split atoms and unleash massive destruction in an instant? Seventy years later, what do nuclear weapons mean for us and for our world? It is our privilege as guest editors to introduce several contributions to an ongoing conversation about such questions in our Nuclear Age.
However, some may wonder if such a conversation is even relevant these days. What is the controversy? Are not nuclear weapons a relic of the Cold War? The guest editors of this issue were privileged enough to be present in Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the 68th anniversary of the bombings with other colleagues from the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities on a faculty development trip co-sponsored by the World Evangelical Alliance. We can assure readers that citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki do not see nuclear weapons as a distant relic. Both cities commemorate the anniversary of the attacks as a day to proclaim their hopes that humans will “never again” use such weapons.
Our lead essay, by linguistics professor Akiyo Cantrell, echoes that theme. Cantrell describes how the hibakusha (survivors, literally “explosion-affected persons”) in Hiroshima continue to testify about the reality of their suffering, the transformation of their identities (sometimes even with forgiveness of those who carried out the attacks), and the need to carry on the story for future generations. We invite readers to engage her essay prayerfully, with an eye toward how we might learn from Hiroshima survivors. Their testimonies about the world’s first atomic bombing make a special claim on us.
Activist and pastor Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, our next contributor, argues that state leaders who keep nuclear weapons truly forfeit their claim to ruling with just authority. Drawing on his own participation in the movement to delineate the “humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons,” Wigg-Stevenson cites several devastating accounts of the horrific impacts of nuclear weapons use and testing. Is there a point at which such suffering cannot be justified and claims to authority are forfeit? Wigg-Stevenson provocatively contends that there is just such a point. Some readers might disagree with his conclusions, but none should dismiss his premises. Wigg-Stevenson draws deeply on the Western tradition of reflection on just authority to make his case. His firsthand accounts of the 2014 Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, refracted through a theological-ethical prism, reawaken readers to the horrors of nuclear weapons.
Writing from a greater distance, political scientist Daniel Allen reviews nuclear deterrence theory and its critics to analyze the Bush Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review of 2002 and the Obama Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review of 2010. He concludes that the 2002 review was a dangerous escalation while the 2010 review fell short of the idealistic rhetoric of the Nobel Prize-winning Obama. Allen also makes the case that Christians from both pacifist and just war perspectives can agree with nuclear pessimists. The latter draw heavily from cognitive psychology and organizational behavior to claim that nuclear accidents or inadvertent wars are likely just so long as humans are human and bureaucracy is bureaucratic. Allen argues that Christians, who understand the fallibility and frailty of humans, should remain wary of claims that rationality will always prevail in deterrence relationships. Allen concludes that, “well into the foreseeable future, the world’s survival will rely to a frightening degree on the ironclad logic of MAD’s madness and the mercy of God.”
Journalist Eric Schlosser echoes Allen’s frightening conclusion in a recent book, Command and Control, which documents nearly a dozen nuclear accidents between the 1950s and 1980. Political scientist Scott Waalkes reviews this book in a review essay on recent books published on nuclear weapons (of which there are several). As Waalkes puts it, “Schlosser’s stories make for compelling and troubling reading. They shock us out of any complacency about the safety of nuclear arsenals, reminding us that no technology is perfectly safe.” The dangers of accidental nuclear explosions or inadvertent launches suggest that we as Christian scholars should continue to beg for God’s mercy while working to reduce the madness of nuclear weapons. While some scholars are devoted to abolishing nuclear weapons altogether, others such as Ward Wilson are concerned with facing the practical realities of such weapons. Wilson’s book Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons, also reviewed here, is an excellent place to start learning more. Waalkes also discusses recent books on “moderate” efforts to contain nuclear proliferation and practice nuclear arms control (efforts well short of total abolition). He concludes with a recent book on just war theory that, troublingly, neglects discussion of nuclear weapons. Still, as Waalkes puts it, “We can learn a great deal from scholars who continue to think about nuclear weapons, even when public attention to them has waned.”
The articles in this issue address only a small portion of the topics relating to the Nuclear Age that are worthy of Christian reflection. As such, the editors make no claims to exhaustiveness. We are aware of the many other issues that could be addressed relating to nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. For instance, Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi remind us of the dangers of meltdowns in nuclear power plants. At the same time, the quest for alternative energy technologies may push governments toward nuclear power. The problems of nuclear waste remain. Governments continue to invest in missile defense systems. New technologies will surely emerge.
Seventy years later, then, Christian scholars still have much work to do in finding meaning, loving mercy, acting justly, and walking humbly with God in this world full of nuclear weapons.