At his website, New Paradigms Forum, Christopher Ford recently hosted an email colloquy on the subject of nuclear deterrence between staunch disarmament advocate Steven Leeper, chair of the Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation, and himself. The position of Ford, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and chief negotiator of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons for the Bush administration, can perhaps best be described as counseling extreme caution in disarming while other states still seek to develop nuclear weapons programs.

Leeper, who writes, “I have very little contact with people who think the way you do, so I am genuinely interested in what you have to say,” sprays questions at Ford like a machine gun. But one evokes an elemental issue that seldom sees the light of day in dialogues about nuclear weapons. Breaking down his question into two parts, Leeper asks:

. . . which would be worse, for the whole world to be dominated by Russians, Chinese, communists, Muslims, Arabs and/or eco terrorists [not sure how that got in there — RW] or for all human beings on Earth to die as a result of nuclear winter, radiation and/or environmental catastrophe? In this connection, have you ever believed it would be better to be dead than red?

Ford’s response:

I’m not sure what to make of this question. You want me to posit a choice between being ruled by “Russians, Chinese, communists, Muslims, Arabs and/or eco terrorists”? And to weigh this choice somehow against species extinction? I don’t know on what basis such a question would be intelligible, much less answerable. (Do you think these are choices that actually face us?) It sounds like you’re fishing for a way to draw me out on “better dead than red” or “better red than dead” preferences, but those are bumper stickers, not policy choices or real options that face anyone.

Leeper doesn’t help himself by harkening back to a scenario now obsolete. The likelihood of Russia threatening to attack the United States with nuclear weapons if it refuses to surrender to, say, Russia’s attempt to conquer it, is nonexistent (and probably always was, even during the Cold War). In fact, that’s what Ford is alluding to when he says, “Do you think these are choices that actually face us?”

The scenario’s current unreality basically undermines the legitimacy of the question to Ford. Besides, realists operate under a set of assumptions that don’t allow for the question that Leeper is struggling to ask. Which is, as I see it: if threatened with nuclear attack, should a state, especially one that characterizes itself as founded on a respect for human rights, threaten to retaliate, thus ensuring massive loss of life on its own as well as the aggressor’s side? Or, should it refuse to retaliate and, instead, yield to the aggressor’s demands, such as surrendering the reins of government? (For simplicity’s sake, the subjects of a limited nuclear exchange and a large country held nuclear hostage by a smaller state aren’t addressed in this post.)

However archaic the scenario, the image it evokes of untold numbers of deaths in mass warfare is always timely. But the question is a non-starter to national-security types, who find it naïve to the point of touch-feely. In fact, to them it’s a complete abnegation of national security since surrender means there is no longer a nation for which to provide security. It’s also counterintuitive for any state, especially one that traces its origins back to concepts like “live free or die” or “give me liberty or death.”

But when the cost of liberty is tens of millions of the enemy, as well as your own citizens, dead, it makes a mockery of the heroism implicit in those slogans. Before we consider an alternate strategy to nuclear retaliation, let’s ask ourselves what kind of ethical and/or religious individual would take pride in being the citizen of a state that is not only partly responsible for but makes him or her complicit in the loss of so much life? Here’s how some people of faith view this issue.

Tyler Wigg-Stevenson leads an evangelical disarmament movement, the Two Futures Project, that’s gaining surprising momentum. In an op-ed for the Washington Post’s “On Faith” section, he writes:

There’s nothing wrong with a strong military. . . . But if we take seriously the whole witness of Scripture, we must also recognize that the unfettered pursuit of strength — fearing mortal enemies more than God’s judgment — in fact leads to an ungodly arrogance and idolatry. . . . we cannot simply take a secular utilitarian, value-less approach to security policy.

In other words, the sanctity of the state comes in a distant second to that of the Kingdom of Heaven. Meanwhile, in a testimonial on the Two Futures Project website, Tony Campolo, Professor Emeritus, Eastern University, wrote. . .

Fear of what other nations could do to us with their weapons is no justification for developing nuclear weapons ourselves. As Christians, perfect love should cast out that fear and allow us to take the risks that go with disarmament.

In the statement above and the one that follows, the words “humane individual” could be substituted for Christian. A commenter to the Washington Post piece, one Arancia12, sums it up best.

I do not believe in survival at any cost. . . . Death is not the worst thing that can happen to a Christian. Not living as a Christian is the worst thing that can happen to a Christian.

In other words, were communism still around, yes, maybe red than dead — for the time being anyway. A Christian or a humane individual could contrive to lead a more ethical life under such conditions, no matter how trying, than in a state with an ocean of blood on its hands.

Meanwhile, a military alternative exists to nuclear retaliation. Bear in mind that, along with a nation’s nuclear weapons sites and infrastructure (not to mention its civilian population), conventional weapons depots will be destroyed in a nuclear attack. Whereas, were we to surrender, they would instead be appropriated by the aggressor state. Why not devise a contingency strategy in advance with munitions cached around the countryside? Odds are, the U.S. government already maintains such a program. It need only be activated in the event of an attack or occupation.

As commenter Arancia12 wrote, there are worse things than death, such as — and it bears repeating — living in a country complicit in the greatest mass murder in the history of mankind. We may lose our immediate liberty by surrendering. But fighting for it is arguably at least as liberating as living under a liberty which today we take for granted and allow to erode anyway. But that’s a post for another day.

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