“The Atomic Bomb and the Crisis of Man,” by Richard M. Fagley
Originally published in Christianity & Crisis on October 1, 1945

If there was any doubt that beneath the crisis of the Second World War lay a more profound crisis of man, the explosions in New Mexico, Hiroshima and Nagasaki should have shattered the illusion. The fact that the illusion widely persists reveals the depth of our present, and possibly final, crisis.

Through the sacrifices of young men and scientific discovery, our secularized society survived the crisis of Hitler’s pagan conspiracy. The faith of modern man in his own self-sufficiency unfortunately also survived, weakened perhaps but not broken. Consequently, the end of one crisis becomes, with the discovery of atomic power, the beginning of a far greater crisis. From this crisis there is no escape by the ways familiar to secularism or worldliness. The inexorable “either-or” of the atomic bomb, upon which hangs the fate of life on this planet, leaves the pride of man no means by which to save itself. The only alternative to Armageddon is repentance and regeneration.

One tragic reflection of the present crisis is the picture, conjured up by some of our writers, of vast power and plenty made possible by atomic energy. The Promised Land of freedom from want lies just ahead. Man has made the power of the sun his servant, and freed himself for luxury and leisure. How distorted is our vision to see so easily the vista of mechanical progress in this Atomic Age, and to fail to see clearly the greed, pride, and fear in ourselves which have now brought us to the doorstep of doom! Of course, atomic energy can lift the burden of poverty from the backs of countless millions and give all mankind the material basis for creative living. What should be equally obvious is that only if man has a new spirit within him can he pass over into this Promised Land. The Atomic Age is otherwise almost certain to be extremely short and extremely brutish!

Equally revealing is the naive faith of many in the ability of science to control the threat of atomic bombs by creating effective counter-weapons. The end of a scientific race between the development of anti-bombs and the development of bigger, faster bombs is not hard to see. It is the end of man on this earth. Not machines but man with God’s help can control the power God has permitted man to discover.

Again, there is the common illusion that fear can protect mankind from atomic war. Fear, it is true, may help—if it leads men to seek, with a contrite heart, the protection and guidance of God. But fear by itself offers a shortcut to catastrophe. The fear of destruction from atomic bombs in the present world of competing states would ensure and hasten sudden, ruthless attacks with atomic bombs. Total aggression would become the strategy for survival. As Norman Cousins writes, “If history teaches us anything, it is that the possibility of war increases in direct proportion to the effectiveness of the instruments of war.”

Of a piece with the above patterns of thought is the notion that the present crisis might be exorcised, if only the inventors would destroy their infernal machine, or if they would discontinue the manufacture of bombs, while the nations signed a pledge not to use them. For better or worse, however, the clock of history does not run backwards. Nor can its cosmic hands be stayed by Kellogg-Briand pacts. Atomic power is here to stay for the remainder of human history. And unless man can control himself as well as atomic power according to the moral law, both will no doubt terminate within a comparatively few years.

The argument for world government as a way to control the perils and potentialities of atomic energy is logical in detail. But its fundamental premise, that changes in political institutions by themselves would assure human survival, is false like the rest of the secularist arguments. No form of government is foolproof. No system of international control can provide a final answer. Political institutions can be corrupted. Controls can break down.

This does not mean that the form of institution or the differences among types of political controls are unimportant. Far from it. Yet twist and turn as we may, we cannot escape from this crisis by secularist means. We are driven inexorably from one false solution to another, unless and until we seek a more profound, religious solution. A deeper faith in God and therefore in man as a child of God and a more sacrificial effort to make brotherhood a guiding principle of society, alone offer real hope that atomic rockets can be kept under control, and the new energy be put to the service of human needs. Unless men everywhere are moved to confess their own inadequacy, and seek to follow God’s will rather than their own, no other strategy can save mankind.

The fate of the world, therefore, in a literal sense, depends upon the ability of the moral and religious forces, and above all, of the Christian churches, to call men effectively to repentance, worship, and service. The conversion of man, who, as Cousins puts it, “has exalted change in everything but himself,” has suddenly become a life-and-death issue, not merely for individuals, but for the race. Beyond all other groups, our churches are confronted with the ultimatum of the atomic bomb, for they alone can provide a significant answer.

The chief expedient deserving, or rather demanding, immediate attention is the establishment of international controls over all atomic power which can be used in bombs. It seems absolutely clear that the menace of atomic war would become acute, if control of the bomb slipped from sole possession by the United States into the hands of two or more competing states. If that happened, and indeed it is the probable and expected development, the need to combine these separate controls into one mutual control would be desperate. Yet the very factors which made the need so tremendous—the overwhelming fear and suspicion, and the equally overwhelming tendency to attack in the hope of survival—would make international control extremely difficult if not impossible to achieve.

If international control alone offers some hope of preventing catastrophe at least temporarily (and perhaps permanently, given a new spirit in man), then the one favorable time to achieve such control is now. The reasons seem obvious. Now the initial and probably crucial decision is in the hands of one state, the United States, rather than in the hands of two or more states. Now the United States has preponderant bargaining power, because of its temporary monopoly, to secure the type of international control most favorable to its own security as well as to the security of the rest of the world. Now, at the climax of a coalition victory before the spirit of cooperation has been broken by a new race for atomic armaments, is the psychological moment for agreement. Now is when the United Nations organization, untarnished by neglect, misuse or failure, offers a promising control mechanism. Every month the decision is delayed dims the prospects for success. As fear and suspicion, frantic research and intense secret preparations mount, the difficulties of achieving agreement would mount far higher.

Of course, even American initiative—and no other country can take the initiative—might not succeed. The United States could not yield its monopoly to the United Nations without securing in return the maximum guarantees possible that no other nation would acquire the power to manufacture atomic energy separately. These would no doubt require international manufacture in one form or other, effective international inspection of all industrial and laboratory facilities, pooling of atomic research and experimental equipment, perhaps international control of essential raw materials. One or more states might object to such an agreement, though this does not seem likely, at least for some months to come. Unless the United States takes the lead, however, there is no hope at all for international controls.

It is neither fitting nor expedient for Christian churches to advocate detailed technical methods of control. We do not know the manufacturing process, we are not experts in government, and we are too weak to permit divided counsels about secondary issues. The main thing to stress is the need to provide the maximum possible assurance that no one nation or bloc of nations could use atomic weapons as instruments of national policy. The United Nations should be emphasized as the overall agency of control, to reinforce the constructive work agreed upon at San Francisco, so important as a means to a new fellowship among peoples.

Our efforts should deal with the concrete issues of international control and national safety, not with speculative abstractions like “world government.” To be sure, genuine international control over the most destructive and constructive energy yet known would have profound repercussions on international relationships. But we have neither the strength nor time to squander on what might or might not be built on international atomic control, particularly when such speculation would divide the forces of world order and provide new arguments to its opponents. We dare not be anything but intensely practical.

The relatively favorable time for action is pitifully short and all of us woefully unprepared. Let us, therefore, in our weakness and ignorance seek God’s strength and light. Let us in our churches and in our homes seek, in all humility, His guidance for our world, our nation, our churches and ourselves in this fateful time. Spiritual power alone can cope with atomic power.

Richard M. Fagley is the author of The Population Explosion and Christian Responsibility (1960).