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Purpose, Ethics and Nuclear Weapons

Recently, a friend sent me a copy of Admiral Hyman Rickover’s 1982 Morgenthau Memorial Lecture.  The lecture, given under the auspices of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, was entitled, “Thoughts on Man’s Purpose in Life.”  In the lecture, Rickover, who died in 1986 but remains widely respected for his role in building the US nuclear navy, spoke of “some basic principles of existence, propounded by thinkers through the ages….”  Among these, he focused on responsibility, perseverance, excellence, creativity and courage, and he called for these to be “wedded to intellectual growth and development.”

I agree with the admiral on his choice of principles to give purpose to one’s life.  If one can live by these principles, his or her life is likely to be purposeful.  Yet, I think that Admiral Rickover missed an important point, which is: what one does with one’s life matters.  Rickover chose to focus his professional activities on the development of a nuclear navy.  In the questions following his speech, he was asked: “How can we equate nuclear weapons and warfare with moral and ethical values?”

He had a ready answer:

“I do not know why you point at nuclear weapons alone when moral and ethical issues are involved.  Weapons of themselves are neither moral nor amoral; it is their use that raises the moral and ethical issue.  In all wars man has used the best weapons available to him.  Gunpowder made wars more deadly.  Nuclear weapons are merely an extension of gunpowder.  Therefore, it is not the weapon, but man himself.  One can be just as dead from an axe as from a bomb.  The issue is whether man is willing to wage war to carry out the moral, ethical, or other values he lives by.  If history has any meaning for us, it shows that men will continue to use the best weapons they have to win.  Throughout history, even when men have established leagues to prevent war, they have nevertheless resorted to it.  Utopia is still beyond the horizon.  Above all, we should bear in mind that our liberty is not an end in itself; it is a means to win respect and dignity for all classes of our society.”

In this statement, I think Rickover is wrong.  Weapons are not morally neutral, particularly those that kill indiscriminately and cause unnecessary harm.  Nuclear weapons, which are capable of massive infanticide, genocide and the ultimate transgression, omnicide, the death of all, go far beyond an extension of gunpowder.  They are a threat to the continuation of civilization and advanced life on the planet, including human life.  This is why we cannot be satisfied with projecting the past (history) into the future.  We must radically change our approach to security and create a future in which human survival is assured.

When asked if he had any regrets “for helping create a nuclear navy,” Rickover replied: “I do not have regrets.  I believe I helped preserve the peace for this country.  Why should I regret that?  What I accomplished was approved by Congress—which represents our people.  All of you live in safety from domestic enemies because of the police.  Likewise, you live in safety from foreign enemies because our military keeps them from attacking us.  Nuclear technology was already under development in other countries.  My assigned responsibility was to develop our nuclear navy.  I managed to accomplish this.”

However, in testimony the same year before Congress, Rickover said:

“I do not believe that nuclear power is worth it if it creates radiation. Then you might ask me why do I have nuclear powered ships. That is a necessary evil. I would sink them all. I am not proud of the part I played in it. I did it because it was necessary for the safety of this country. That’s why I am such a great exponent of stopping this whole nonsense of war. Unfortunately limits — attempts to limit war have always failed. The lesson of history is when a war starts every nation will ultimately use whatever weapon it has available.”

Admiral Rickover further remarked: “Every time you produce radiation, you produce something that has a certain half-life, in some cases for billions of years. I think the human race is going to wreck itself, and it is important that we get control of this horrible force and try to eliminate it.” (Economics of Defense Policy: Hearing before the Joint Economic Committee, Congress of the United States, 97th Cong., 2nd sess., Pt. 1 (1982))

Jimmy Carter said in a 1984 interview with Diane Sawyer that Admiral Rickover had told him:

“I wish that nuclear power had never been discovered….  I would forego all the accomplishments of my life, and I would be willing to forego all the advantages of nuclear power to propel ships, for medical research and for every other purpose of generating electric power, if we could have avoided the evolution of atomic explosives.”

Of course, we did not avoid “the evolution of atomic explosives,” but this does not mean that we are condemned to live with these weapons forever.  That is up to us.  I believe that a purposeful life, in Admiral Rickover’s terms (but not in his actions), would bring responsibility, perseverance (more than one would think necessary), excellence, creativity and courage to bear upon the most serious threat confronting humanity, that of nuclear annihilation.  Humans in the past have risen to the challenge of abolishing slavery.  Now a common purpose of humanity must be to abolish nuclear weapons before they abolish us.  This will require replacing ignorance and apathy with focused concern and active engagement.

David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org), an organization that has worked since 1982 for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

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David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org). 

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