“We wait, perhaps, for some Abraham Lincoln who will make the mightiest kind of liberating decision.” – Herbert Butterfield


Herbert Butterfield, one of the great founders of the English School of Christian Realism – described as “Britain’s Reinhold Niebuhr” by Tobias Cremer in this very journal  – was also deeply conflicted on nuclear weapons. Yet Butterfield is hardly alone in his. Christian Realists are often, or should be, ambivalent about nuclear weapons. Provided we escape the somewhat unsettling and, according to Keith Pavlischek, un-Augustinian pragmatism of Reinhold Niebuhr, convicted Christian Realists must grant that nuclear weapons are a moral puzzle as even the great ethicist Paul Ramsey assented. Just War implies limits, but what moral limits are left after the holocaust of mutually assured destruction? “Having an H-bomb,” writes Ramsey in a grand display of understatement, “is no simple matter.” 

Yet while Ramsey eventually concluded that nuclear deterrence and even retaliation may be ethically permissible, Butterfield did not. “I am not sure,” wrote Butterfield, “that the greatest gift that the West could bring to the world would not be the resolution neither to use the hydrogen bomb nor to manufacture it any further.” He went further still, arguing not only for nuclear pacifism but for abolition, advancing public campaigns of disarmament in the 1960s. In 1958 he joined the World Council of Churches’ Commission on Christians and the Prevention of War in an Atomic Age. Biographer C.T. McIntire described Butterfield as possessing an “historic aversion to activist politics;” Butterfield once quipped: “I value every one of the fifty two miles that separate Cambridge and Westminster,” according to friend and famed international relations theorist Adam Watson. Yet, despite his broader aversion towards such activism, Butterfield spoke around the world in favor of unilateral disarmament.

These views were not generally shared by other Christian Realists of his age. Another biographer, Alberto Coll, laments that “however insightful many of Butterfield’s observations on the Cold War were, an exception must be made for his stand on nuclear weapons;” that it was a “sharp departure from prudence;” that his “call for unilateral disarmament represented an astonishing, albeit temporary, reversion to the alluring simplicities of dissenting Christianity, a rather un-Augustinian flight from the tragedy of politics and power.” Adam Watson, who was on the British Committee on the Theory of International Politics with Butterfield, is said to have eventually convinced him off his position of unilateral disarmament toward a policy of “no first use of atomic weapons” by 1968.

So what was Butterfield’s anti-nuclear argument, taken so brazenly in the midst of his friends turned critics, and how could it consistently and necessarily follow from his Christian Realism? This short essay will connect three interrelated and intrinsically Christian Realist arguments from Butterfield: his views of human nature, fear, and the high probability of error; his argument about the moral character of systems and institutions; and finally, his claim about what the aims of a just war must be, and whether nuclear weapons could ever achieve the justice to which war must be aimed. 

Human Nature and the Dominion of Fear

We rightly remember Butterfield for his genius in diplomacy, but he would be the first to remind us that he was primarily, properly, a historian (as, he would hasten to add, every diplomat should be).

History taught Butterfield to be anxious about nuclear weapons. It was largely true, he agreed, that the doctrine of deterrence and mutually assured destruction might hold in many times and places and that it was – in general – not an irrational stalemate. The pragmatic Realism of some of his colleagues certainly saw human nature as stable in its rational self-interest, but the Christian Realist could depend on no such stability: human beings cannot be depended on to always pursue their own self-interest. If humanity were that rational we would not so regularly fall into pits of sin and misery. 

In other words, if it is the material, even existential, self-interest of human beings on which the logic of deterrence rests, how could any Augustinian admit this is not but the flimsiest foundation on which to rest the future survival of the human race? Even those who know the saving grace of Jesus Christ betray their own interests and humanity a thousand times daily. God help us if the fate of the human race should rest in the hands of such furious, fallible degenerates. Butterfield’s answer is frank: it cannot and it must not. The apocalyptic destruction of the atomic weapon is so unfathomably final in its violence that it is not a weapon fit for the hands of beings like ourselves. It must be purged from our grasp. 

The problems of human nature are compounded by our falseness and finitude. It’s not just that human nature cannot be pragmatically depended on to materially secure its own future prosperity; it’s also that we are too often strangers to ourselves and to each other. And so, international relations is defined by anxiety and fear of what we cannot know.   

“We do not always realize,” argues Butterfield: 

and sometimes we do not like to recognize – how often a mistaken policy, an obliquity in conduct, a braggart manner, or even an act of cruelty, maybe traceable to fear… What is true of individual people is likely to be still more true of great agglomerations of humanity, where further irrational factors come into play. With nations, even more than individuals, in fact, the symptoms of fear may be unlike fear – they may even be the result of trying to convince us of the reverse.

Is it even possible, he asks, that a state could ever achieve the security it desires without so tipping the balance of power that it becomes a menace to its neighbors? Charting Butterfield’s histories of France’s Napoleonic Wars, Germany’s unification and rise to WWI, and the emergence of the Soviet Union, Butterfield argues that in each case fear played a primary motivating factor in what eventually became wars of expansionism and domination. Even apart from the ideological contest of communism, he wonders, would the United States and the Soviet Union not have found themselves at loggerheads after World War II if only for the fear and suspicion of their rival positions and power?

In Butterfield’s Christian Realism there is no solving the basic dilemma of human nature and the character of fear in international relations; there is only remediation. “We cannot penetrate to the roots of fear if we merely condemn the other party moralistically,” he wrote. “It is necessary to attack rather the structure of that fundamental dilemma which is the prime cause of international deadlock.” Fear, he argued, played a far greater part in the life and in the course of history than we often realize, and “sometimes we know that it is fear that is in operation when individuals and nations are bullying or bragging, or taking a crooked course.”

To argue then, as Butterfield says the nuclear enthusiasts do, that it is this same fear that will produce a stable détente between apocalyptically armed human powers is folly. “We must not imagine that all is well if our armaments make the enemy afraid; for it is possible that, at least in the twentieth century, it is fear more than anything else which is the cause of war… under the high pressure which fear induces, any minor and peripheral issue can seem momentous enough to justify a great war.” The catalogue of near misses and genuine mistakes that nearly produced nuclear wars in the atomic age, altogether apart from real confrontations like the Cuban Missile Crisis, bear witness to Butterfield’s harrowing, if so-far averted, prophecy.

Do Artifacts have Politics?

It is sometimes said that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Rebeccah Heinrichs writes in this magazine a version of this argument, that “nuclear weapons possess no moral agency. The regime leaders in possession or in pursuit of them do.” This is an important and sometimes forgotten argument about the nature of human tools and technologies: moral agency is a special quality of human beings. 

But Butterfield would say this argument is at best a half-truth, and perhaps a dangerous one at that. Our technologies, our systems, and our institutions, while not possessing moral agency do have moral qualities. They may not be agents, but they are not neutral. In a world ever-more saturated with new technology, this shorthand has become only more obvious in the past few years. Social media or cable news are not the origin or root of our political dysfunction, but it is clear they can accelerate, enlarge, and channel it. Our technologies are tools, intended for a kind of job, enlarging or enabling some part of our humanity. Technology and tools, just like our systems and institutions, can be powerfully liberating yet also distorting and dystopian. 

For Butterfield, nuclear weapons illustrated the need for just this kind of judgment in history, judgments he deemed consistent with the Biblical prophets. As one biographer describes Butterfield’s views: 

“First, man was often the executor of his own judgment, and the means whereby he hoped to escape from his limitations turned out in the end to be the ones that frustrated his overreaching design.” And, “the second aspect of judgment, intimately related to the first, was the pervasiveness of its operation. No human being; no form of culture, society, or government; no institution, regardless of how laudable its purposes, was immune to the kind of creeping pretensions of centrality that sooner or later blurred its vision and brought about its fall.” 

In other words, sin may be a particular vice of humans, but it infects not just our hearts, minds, and bodies, but also also our systems, institutions, technologies, and the work to which we turn our best but fallen efforts. This, after all, is just to restate what Sunday School Calvinism means when it talks of total depravity; not that we are as sinful as we could possibly be, but rather that there is no part of creation, including the sub-creations of human beings, that is untouched by the Fall. Abraham Kuyper , a likeminded Christian Realist from across the channel, called this an “architectonic critique,” the conviction that our moral attention must not only be fixed on human hearts – the work of the physician – but most certainly on the systems and institutions too – the work of the architect. To invoke such a present day architect, Desmond Tutu summarized: “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”

Systems, to therefore repeat the point, are not neutral; they push, prod, enlarge, channel, and human agency. Guns – returning to the metaphor – may not have moral agency, but they do have moral design. They are a tool and technology designed with a purpose to enlarge very specific abilities. Hardly anyone needs to be told that introducing guns into a situation changes the calculations and possibilities of a moment. Depending on the circumstance, it may bend that situation toward justice or violent injustice. As any tradesman could tell us, the right tool is needed for the right job. We must therefore understand our tools, and the job. But we must not be so naïve as to imagine our tools are inert, neutral materials, whose only moral quality is the use to which human agents put them.

“When we seem caught in a relentless historical process,” argues Butterfield:

“our machines enslaving us [emphasis added], and our weapons turning against us, we must certainly not expect to escape save by an unusual assertion of the human spirit… There is aggression; there is tyranny; there is revolutionary ferment; but if we wish to civilize international affairs we must do more than arrogantly hold our own against the barbarians, merely meeting them with our own weapons. Everything is going to depend in fact upon what we do over and above the work of self-defence. There can be no international system until somebody finds a way of relieving the pressure and begins the task of creating confidence. 

The hydrogen bomb, in Butterfield’s imagination, was such a grotesque tool of apocalyptic destruction that the mere “fact that we can contemplate such an atrocity is a symptom of a terrible degeneracy in human relations – a degeneracy the predicament itself has no doubt greatly helped to produce.” To make use of such “terroristic weapons” must lead us to “conclude that ours is a civilization that took a wrong turn long ago, and now, by the hydrogen bomb, had to be rolled back to its primitive stages, so that, in a second Fall of Man, the world could unload itself of knowledge too dangerous for human possession.”  

The End of War

Butterfield’s final anti-nuclear argument invokes the tradition of Just War most directly. That tradition has long been troubled by weapons of mass destruction, which seem to violate several of the common criteria of jus in bello. But Butterfield spends little time reflecting on whether or not atomic warfare would violate one or another criterion, and drives directly to the end to which any war must be aimed: justice. He writes: 

“Let us be clear about one important fact: the destructiveness which some people are now prepared to contemplate is not to be justified for the sake of any conceivable mundane object, any purported religious claim or supramundane purpose, or any virtue that one system can possess as against another.” In fact, says Butterfield, “we have reached the point at which our weapons have turned against us, because their destructiveness is so out of relation with any end that war can achieve for mankind.”

Not only is it the case that atomic use is inconsistent with any justifiable aim of war, but furthermore it simply could not produce justice in war in any meaningful definition:

“The very measures which we are taking to preserve liberty in the world are bound to lead to the loss of liberty in the regions that most prize it. They are bound – if we go on intensifying them – to make us become in fact more and more like the thing we are opposing,” wrote Butterfield. He reasoned: 

When there is a question of a weapon so destructive, the risk which accompanies one kind of action has to be balanced against the risks involved in the opposite policy, or attendant upon inaction itself. When the hazard is very great in either case, it may be useful to take account of the end for the sake of which one chooses to accept the hazard. 

Is there an injustice so severe, Butterfield wonders, that it would require the desolation of human civilization as a preferable justice? Though he does not deny the reality of the “the crimes of Communism,” he also wonders if they are so severe as to necessitate irradiating their soil, poisoning their water, and slaughtering their children. History, he argues, testifies that regimes moderate, tyrants fall, and systems collapse and are rebuilt. Only the hydrogen bomb precludes the possibility of any renewal. From its use, there is no reform, no revival, and no return.

A common objection to Butterfield, one of many he anticipates, is that “those who refuse to resort to the hydrogen bomb may be declining to risk themselves for the liberty of others.” In other words, that what appears as moral resolve is in fact immoral recalcitrance, a sin not of commission but omission. We must not be like the priests and lawyers in Jesus parable of the Good Samaritan, we must stop along the way and do justice. But while Jesus’ parable is indeed far more political and social than individualist readings suggest, it is still a significant leap from reforming social, political, and ethnic prejudice to threatening all of creation itself with the hydrogen bomb on that weary traveler’s behalf. The traveler himself may not survive his own defense:

Nobody can calculate – and perhaps only accidental circumstances would decide in a given case – whether the use of the bomb or its repudiation would carry the greater immediate risk. In any case, we cannot say that we will not receive the bomb – we can only say that we will not be responsible for the sin and crime of delivering it. Supposing we do have to receive it, the one thing we can do is to choose the end for which we will consent to be sacrificed… We can do this instead of being blind victims of historical processes, which will end by making us more and more like the thing we are opposing.


Herbert Butterfield did relent from his nuclear pacifism, and perhaps his more astonishing posture of unilateral disarmament. But he did not relent from his position against first use, and felt that “no first use” should be not only implied military doctrine, but a resolute, public posture. Our enemies need never fear an atomic first strike, only an atomic reprisal. In that, he finds himself more comfortably within the ranks of later Christian Realists. 

But the historian’s wisdom is hard to dismiss. Our commitment may be resolute, public, unwavering, but the curious and terrible tragedy of international relations is that we can never know – and our adversaries can never be sure either – that these commitments will hold. That is the fear that Butterfield says vividly holds us in its grip. And what about error, or avarice, or evil? “In the critical instance,” Butterfield asks, what about the “case of the ruthless man who knows that he is beaten – the mere fear of retaliation will not in itself prevent desperate policies, including the actual use of the bomb.” Again, “he may be reckless even of his own nation, determined to postpone his own destruction for a week, or to carry the rest of the world down with him. As in the case of Germany when Hitler was falling, war may be protracted by the will of a handful of wicked and desperate men. On these terms we are going to be more afraid of defeating our enemy than of suffering ordinary military defeat ourselves.” These are sobering reminders coming, as they do, in our present-day conflicts. 

And so also it is hard to dismiss the Christian Realism that underlies Butterfield’s anti-nuclear position, his arguments not only about fear, about error, about human nature, but also about the moral character of our systems and institutions, the prejudices, vices, and venal sins injected into the machines of our making. These doctrines of deterrence and mutual assured destruction may not turn out to be our liberators but our jailers. We may become prisoners, and God forbid causalities, of the machines of our own design. And what mortal wounds it may yet inflict on our bodies, what further desolation – Butterfield argued – has it done to our souls, our hearts and our imaginations, to conceive of these wicked devices as deliverers of justice? What justice, he wondered, could that be? And to what end could these weapons be put that they would achieve the proximate justice of Augustine’s long labors for justice in war? 

These questions, I think, may have answers, coming to us as they do from within Christian Realism itself. But Butterfield, as with machines of our design, deserve our curious, cautious, and careful attention. At least, like Ramsey, we might say: having an H-bomb is no simple matter.