Our Reliance on Nuclear Arms

“Must all human life — especially the lives of our children — remain a permanent hostage to the nuclear arms we already possess by the tens of thousands of costs of trillions of dollars? Have those weapons become...false gods...? Do we in fact worship the security we think we get from our reinforced concrete silos and the fearful forces within each of them?... And if our President the High Priest who alone has the key to unlock those tabernacles with their awesome, god-like powers?”
Sargent Shriver | Monterey, CA | May 11, 1985

Our Quote of the Week brings into question our decades-long reliance on nuclear weapons in the name of national security. When we consider the catastrophic risks of nuclear war, and the astronomical price tag associated with such weapons, denuclearization becomes the only rational path forward.

This week’s quote is from Sargent Shriver’s 1985 Address at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. In the speech, Shriver outlines differences between the era in which he first stepped onto the national stage, i.e., the Kennedy era of the early 1960s, and the present day, i.e., the era of Ronald Reagan. He refers to the 1960s as the “we” era -- the time of the Peace Corps, of the “crazy ideas” in which people like Shriver himself had a vision of government that included the potential to innovate and to motivate individuals to serve others. He then lists some of the problems of the contemporary world, including high poverty rates, high taxes and cost of living for lower- and middle income families juxtaposed with unprecedented wealth of corporations, a lack of interest in voting, rising debt in developing countries, and, as our quote suggests, and the threat of nuclear war. With his vivid imagery, of people as hostages, of nuclear technologies as gods, and of US President’s power to deploy the weapons as “god-like”, he paints a gruesome picture that will hopefully inspire opposition against what he describes as a massive threat.

Shriver was committed to the notion of denuclearization. During this period of his life, he worked actively, often behind the scenes, to encourage world leaders to pursue nuclear disarmament. Shriver rallied political figures as well as spiritual leaders to persuade governments to adopt a “No First Strike” policy. He was instrumental in bringing together Robert McNamara, George Kennan, McGeorge Bundy, and Gerard Smith, who would go on to write a piece entitled “Nuclear Weapons and the Atlantic Alliance” for Foreign Affairs. The piece warned of the dangers of nuclear war and encouraged the adoption of a “No First Strike” policy. And he encouraged Fr. Bryan Hehir and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops to publish a pastoral letter that echoed the concerns of the Foreign Affairs piece, placing them into a spiritual context.

Today, the United States’ refusal to adopt a “No First Strike” policy, and the ongoing development of nuclear weapons by several countries (at the time of writing, Russia, France, China, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, and North Korea, and the United States, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists), continues to pose a threat to all of us. Just this week, North Korea threatened to deploy nuclear weapons as a response to the US’ deployment of aircraft carriers, bombers, or missile submarines.

It is perhaps a positive sign that one of the summer’s most anticipated films is Oppenheimer, which dramatizes the scientific discoveries and later the staunch opposition to nuclear arms of theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose work led to the creation of the first atomic bomb. We believe, as Sargent Shriver did, that it is not reasonable for us to remain “permanent hostages” to nuclear powers. And we believe that it is up to all of us to raise our voices to demand an end to the nuclear arms race, which has the potential to destroy life as we know it.

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Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
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