“The Atomic Issue,” by Reinhold Niebuhr
Originally published in Christianity & Crisis on October 15, 1945

It is important to understand the full dimension of the problem of the atomic bomb, before rushing forward solutions. Many proffered solutions have not taken the relevant facts into consideration. It is, for instance, not possible to lock the atomic bomb secret in a chest or to put it into the keeping of an international commission.

This is not possible because only a fractional part of the whole procedure, which brings forth the atomic bomb, is secret. The scientific principles, upon which it is based, are well known; and have been for several decades. The development of the bomb was partly achieved by the government’s organization and collation of scientific knowledge and partly by the development of manufacturing techniques. The exact anatomy and structure of the bomb is of course a secret. But neither the extraction of uranium from the ore, nor the manufacture of the bomb is the kind of secret which could not be recapitulated by good scientists and technicians of any nation within a period of eighteen months to three years. Our possession of the “secret” of the bomb therefore gives us only a short range advantage. Furthermore it must be considered that actual work on the bomb has been done elsewhere (by the Germans for instance) and that residual results of their labors could be appropriated by other nations (Russia for instance).

One of the immediate issues facing us now arises from the fact that there is a general disposition on the part of governmental, particularly military, authorities to emphasize the exclusive character of our knowledge of the bomb while the scientists who worked on the bomb (and also those who did not and are not therefore sworn to secrecy) are anxious to have the fact known that the secret is very limited. They are concerned about this matter because the scientists are filled with moral scruples about the possible destructive effect of the bomb in the future and are apprehensive lest the political use of the prestige of the bomb, in bargaining for short term advantages with other nations, may hasten another war; and may, in any case, negate every possibility of using the world wide fear of the bomb as an instrument for a better world order.

It may be mentioned in passing that another source of tension between the scientists and the government is bound to develop. The scientists are afraid that the complete governmental control of the whole field of nuclear energy will tend to discourage non-military objectives, such as the possibility of relating nuclear physics to cancer cure. On the other hand the withdrawal of all governmental supervision would lead to a chaotic struggle between the universities and large foundations on the one hand and between the universities and large industries on the other. The solution for this problem probably lies in a governmental agency of large proportions in which pure science will be strongly represented and will be armed with the authority to prevent the development of nuclear physics from becoming a mere instrument of military ordnance.

But this is a minor issue compared with the monstrous proportions of the threat of mutual annihilation with which the development of the atomic bomb has confronted the world. It may be worth noting incidentally that the humility and moral sensitiveness of the scientists who developed the bomb, proves that the atomic bomb heralds the end of one age and the beginning of another in more than one sense. For this humility proves that the era in which science assumed that all of its discoveries were automatically beneficent to mankind, is past. The scientists are beginning to understand how all the achievements of a technical age contain potentialities of evil as well as of good; and that sometimes the evil is more obvious and immediate than the good. The question which confronts us, is whether we can either abolish war so that this new dimension of destructiveness in warfare will not prove the undoing of civilization absolutely; or whether we can abolish the use of the bomb so that we may at least confine the destructiveness of warfare to the proportions, existing before the invention of the bomb.

One must report with something like dismay that neither of these objectives is easily attainable. Many organizations and individuals are rushing into print with proposals for the outlawry of the bomb. Some think that we ought to use our present advantage of the possession of the bomb for the purpose of persuading other nations to agree with us to a program of outlawing this new lethal instrument. In criticism of this proposal the following considerations must be weighed:

(1) Past history of the outlawing of particular instruments of conflict (submarines, balloons, poison gas, etc.) does not encourage the hope of success. We have succeeded only in outlawing poison gas; and there is general agreement that we were successful in regard to poison gas only because poison proved to be strategically ineffective under the conditions of modern technical war for many reasons into which we can not enter now. (2) The outlawry of the bomb would require a rigorous international inspection system which would subject every physics laboratory and every mining operation and almost every type of factory to careful scrutiny. This very scrutiny would presuppose eventual conflict and would accentuate mutual mistrust. The report of probable or real evasions of either the letter or the spirit of the law by one nation might well fan present frictions and animosities into premature conflict. (3) No systems of suppression, which will seem politically feasible from the standpoint of the nations which now have the bomb, will appear to be perfectly reciprocal from the perspective of those nations which do not have it. This is true for the simple reason that it is not possible to put nations, which have the knowledge of the bomb on the same footing with those who have not, through any system of suppression. (4) Any system of outlawry would only guarantee that the bomb would not be used at the beginning of a major war. It would certainly not secure us against its use before the war was finished.

Because efforts to outlaw the bomb might make it more difficult to outlaw war, many students of the problem have come to despair of this objective, though they may have entertained it only a month ago. The question therefore arises: does the invention of the bomb hasten the day of a really effective world government which will outlaw both war and the bomb by bringing the anarchy of international relations under the dominion of genuine law and effective order? If one answers this question without wishful thinking the answer can also not be too sanguine. Our situation is that the world is now organized under the authority of three, and possibly only two, great hegemonous powers. The United Nations Organization only slightly qualifies the sovereignty of these great powers and (if we may judge by recent history) seem not to have mitigated their mistrust of each other at all. Only a few months ago both Britain and America aspired to the role of mediator between the other two. But recent events have proved the futility of these aspirations. The world is in the process of division between the Russian and the Anglo-American complex of power. It would be easier to construct an international authority to maintain its dominion over ten hegemonous nations of fairly equal power than over two. The chasm between the two is deeper than itwould be between the ten. And the power of the twois so great that no purely constitutional artifact can create sufficient power or authority to hold the two under its dominion. Moreover there is no immediate possibility of overcoming the vicious circle of mutual mistrust between the two, sufficiently to initiate the steps required for the creation of world government.

If the absolute outlawry of the bomb and the absolute outlawry of war are not possible goals for the next decades at least, what ought to be done? The only possibility which remains is that the policy with reference tothe bomb would be so directed that it would tend to overcome and not to aggravate the mutual fear and mistrust which have developed between Russia and the western world. Such a policy could take various forms. It might take the form of an offer to share the secret of the bomb, accompanied by a proposal for a reconsideration of all the issues between the West and Russia which now breed distrust. Sharing the secret of the bomb might mean the establishment of international laboratories in nuclear physics in which all scientific possibilities of nuclear physics would be explored, with the military possibilities neither emphasized nor suppressed. The policy might be even more simple and consist merely in making the secret generally available. Since it is only a short-run secret anyway, there are those who argue that we have little to lose and much to gain by such an offer.

While I am convinced that such an act of trust and generosity is more within the field of possibilities than either the immediate outlawry of war or the absolute outlawry of the bomb, I must nevertheless confess that this policy is also not within immediate political reach. Russian intransigence, particularly in recent weeks, has so sharpened animosities and increased aprehensions, that no government would dare to make such an offer or gain the support of the nation in making it. The fear of mutual annihilation ought indeed to persuade us that a very radical step is necessary to secure the survival of civilization. But unfortunately ultimate perils, however great, have a less lively influence upon the human imagination than immediate resentments and frictions, however small by comparison.

Such considerations may well prompt the heart to complete dismay. One has to elaborate them nevertheless, merely as a matter of honesty. It is simply a fact that the introduction of a new and more lethal instrument of conflict into history at a moment when the world is only imperfectly organized, tends to accentuate its anarchy. But it is necessary to dwell upon the difficulties also as a matter of policy. For only a full understanding of the practically insuperable difficulties which confront us can arm us with the humility and the courage to seek for a solution of this problem radical enough to prevent the annihilation of civilization. It may well be that the final policy adopted will contain elements of all three alternatives. But no combination of alternatives will be effective if some method of bridging the gulf between Russia and the West is not found. Even the best possible policy might fail to overcome Russian mistrust and fear and the resulting drive for unilateral security on the part of Russia, which so exasperates the west. But an effort must be made or we are all undone. No ideal ultimate plan will help us if it does not take these immediate difficulties into consideration.