This article on just war, also looks at regulating evil, nuclear weapons, and the task of government in deterrence and peace.

Source: Reformed Perspective, 1982. 7 pages.

The Ethical Justification of Deterrence


It is not difficult to prove that the potential use of nuclear arms poses ethical problems. The destructive power of these weapons is so gigantic that the question may be asked whether a war which must be waged with such weapons has anything to do with humanity at all.

The facts are generally well known. The heaviest conventional bombs used against Germany during World War II, the so called block-busters, had a capacity of 10-12 ton TNT. The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima had a thousand times as much power: 12,500 ton TNT. The power of the hydrogen bomb has a multiple in the order of a million. Such a bomb, if exploded in a city, would cause the evaporation of the entire city centre. No building would remain standing in a radius of over ten kilometers. Even at a distance of thirty kilometers from ground zero the mortality would be around fifty percent. The fallout danger zone has a range of 200 to 300 kilometers, depending on the wind.

A 20 megaton bomb is a large projectile. There are even bigger devices, but there are many more smaller ones, for example the warheads in SS-20 and Pershing 2-rockets. Such speaking of “smaller” nuclear arms, in view of their enormous destructive power, is a contradiction in terms.

At the outset I must add, however, that the restriction to the use of conventional weapons would not significantly lessen the ethical problems in an all-out East-West battle.

If now such a war fought with conventional weapons would leave nothing but desolation, how could we then ethically justify the deployment of a nuclear arsenal?

A Just War🔗

Much has been written under ethics about a “just war,” especially in the middle ages. A number of criteria were given to establish that a “just” war was waged, namely when it was done:

  • by a lawful government;
  • for a just cause;
  • with a proper intent;
  • with due consideration of advantages and disadvantages;
  • with means that are compatible with the nature of the conflict;
  • with recognition of the distinction between combatants and noncombatants.

It is not easy, with regards to the actions during World War II, for example, to state unequivocally that the distinction between combatants and noncombatants was – or could be – respected. Yet, while recognizing many wrong deeds, it can be maintained that the war with Hitler and his cohorts was just. When attention is narrowed down to details only, one could probably equate the German raid on Rotterdam with the Allied raid on Dresden. But when the totality of the conflict is kept in view, one can also distinguish between misdeeds and mistakes. The Nazi bestialities have been condemned in the court of Nuremberg, before the forum of the world.

But what will remain of that concept “just war” in a nuclear conflict? Can anybody still weigh those pros and cons? Who would maintain that nuclear arms could be compatible with the nature of any conflict? How could anybody expect to distinguish between military and civilian targets even with the most accurate delivery of projectiles? Maybe in the Saharah this is possible. To consider that in the densely populated countries of Europe, is an illusion.

Humanitarian Law of War🔗

Anybody who has any sense of propriety would say that nuclear weapons should be outlawed. That conclusion could even be derived from the humanitarian law of war. This did cause some debate at one time, when a captain in the Dutch air force, M.J.F Stelling, argued that use of nuclear arms violated international law and that therefore the individual soldiers did not only have the right to refuse their cooperation with the use of nuclear arms, but that they had even a duty to refuse.

In my opinion Stelling's position has been refuted adequately by Prof. P.H. Kooijmans in his article Nuclear Arms and International Law1 Stelling could not base his notorious pronouncement on the 1948 Genocide Pact. Genocide is crime aimed at the eradication of a national, ethnic or religious group as such. That end could be achieved with nuclear weapons, but that does not imply the presence of genocidal intent as described in the pact.

Stelling's position is stronger when he appeals to the humanitarian law of war. Realizing that international law does not explicitly prohibit nuclear weapons, he recites the preamble of the 1907 rules of landwars, the so-called De Martens clause, which has the following contents:

In anticipation of a more complete rendition of the law of war, the parties to this treaty deem it appropriate to declare that in all those cases not covered by this regulation, citizens and combatants remain protected by the principles of international law as they proceed from the conventions among civilized nations, the laws of humanity and the demands of public concepts of justice.

This clause does indeed justify the banning of nuclear arms. If in accordance with the Genevan Protocol of 1925 chemical weapons are forbidden and if in accordance with a 1972 pact, biological and toxic weapons are prohibited, why then, should, consequently reasoning, such prohibition not outlaw nuclear arms? Is their application any friendlier than gas or biological weapons? Indeed, on purely logical ground Stelling's position seems strong.

However, ethics, also the ethics of warfare, has to take into account more factors than only logic. The fact that nuclear weapons are not on the list of forbidden arms is not an oversight, or an inexplicable lack of rationality. It simply results from political and military realities which are hard and fast. So much so, that deriving an answer to this problem by a process of deduction from existing laws of war is at best naive.

If one wishes to arrive at an ethically justifiable judgment, then he should take into account the international political entanglements in which the existence of nuclear weapons play their part. At best we could base this contention on the humanitarian law of war: Under more favorable conditions the nuclear weapons would have been forbidden. That is very little comfort for today, but it does contain a clear message for the future.

Regulating Evil🔗

One can be so filled with good ethical convictions: The nuclear weapon is a demonic device, and with such devilish things one should not be involved under any circumstances. Evil must be condemned, not condoned. That sounds forceful and it passes for prophecy. But the strong formulation of a conviction does not make it ethical. The standard, the rule which tells us how things should be is then made absolute. The consequences of that approach are detrimental.

A Few Examples🔗

It is a rule that we must speak the truth and not lie. Yet we lied to the Germans to save, for example, Jews in hiding. We used the evil of lying in order not to cause the death of our neighbor. Even though Kant condemned the so called white lie (the Bible does not), many have in this way, with a clean conscience, saved their neighbors.

It is a rule that marriage vows be kept. According to the Bible, divorce is evil. But even a Christian must admit that the government has a calling to regulate matters of divorce. While the church must, in accordance with the Scripture, warn against breaking up marriages, the government does not escape the need to regulate this evil by legislation.

Prostitution is a caricature of the standards regarding sex. But there is no society which has eradicated this evil. Thomas Aquinas said that prostitution is for society, what the sewer is for a palace. Remove the sewers and the palace becomes a rotting filthy place. A.Th. van Deursen explains that several city magistrates gave up the hopeless struggle against prostitution and limited the fight to regulation.

Keeping in mind such examples, one would be inclined to speak about nuclear weapons in less absolute terms. To say: nuclear arms are evil and must therefore be removed from the earth, starting with our own country, is ethically irresponsible, if the cost has not been weighed against the benefits. Therefore, even though nuclear arms are a great evil, a certain brand of nuclear pacifism is not an acceptable response.

Bad things must not be cherished. But sometimes they must be regulated and used.

The End and The Means🔗

In this regard we hear of a contrast which is often made between attitudes based on different ethics. On the one side, we are told, there is the approach based on proper inclination. “Always speak the truth, no matter the consequences.” “Do not get involved in nuclear armament, irrespective of the political and military results of such unilateral disarmament.” “Act with a pure conscience, disregarding the outcome.” In contrast with this, the other approach has eyes for the consequences only. “We don't want the Russians, and their arrival may be prevented with all possible means, including atomic weapons.”

In such a comparison the pacifist will show as the man, the woman, with the pure conscience, whereas the one who defends the use of nuclear arms appears to be tainted as one who has a conflict with his own conscience, provided he has such a thing. He is the man for whom the end justifies the means, which is ethically a wicked standpoint. I hasten to add that the contrast in the discussion is never as black and white as sketched here. Even pacifists bring the consequences of their stand into the debate. But they maintain that ownership (and possible use) of nuclear arms will have catastrophic results, many times worse than the consequences of unilateral disarmament.

It is clear that this dualism between two approaches is untenable. Both are abstracts. A righteous inclination is not at all proper if the cost-benefit measurement is not made. The pacifist who says: unilateral removal of nuclear arms regardless of the consequences, plays an ethical trick. He opens the door for the party which does not do away with nuclear weapons to make use of them, because now they have a chance to gain in a conflict. Is it right to say: I am radically opposed to nuclear arms, even though by so doing I will bring atomic warfare closer by?

Conversely, concentration on an excellent purpose without the proper inclination is also wrong. If one condones the deployment and potential use of nuclear weapons, then he must be able to justify it in his conscience. He must not say that a good end will justify all means. But with the theologian, Emil Brunner, he can maintain that a necessary purpose may be served by matching necessary means. That is the case, no matter how evil the nuclear arms may be in themselves, and no matter how strongly we should endeavor to have an international condemnation of their use.

We must not lose sight of the norm.

Not lose sight of the truth as norm when we must use a lie to save our neighbor.

And not lose sight of what should be called humanitarian law of war if the threat of nuclear retaliation cannot be abandoned for the time being.

Our decision and conclusions must be made amidst the present realities, even though such decisions may be sadly regrettable when measured with the norm of what should be ideal conditions in the world.

Deterrence and Self Interest🔗

The present situation is that we live in a world of disharmony, where peaceful coexistence is only possible within a balance of power. Any issue between nations results always in a tug-of-war between the self-interests of the parties. Many a conflict is then settled in a compromise. But not always. History shows thousands of wars to prove that point.

Yet the number of wars would have been greater, had not time and again the one displayed his strength, to deter the other. It is a very old and time honored conviction, which says that he who desires peace, must prepare for war: Si vis pacem para bellum. Deterrence to prevent war is no modern invention of the post-Hiroshima world. It is a wisdom which has been practiced at all times.

Consciously I use the word wisdom. I use that word as a Christian, desiring to speak in this world about the love of Jesus Christ, as one who knows the contents of the Sermon on the Mount. But I know that the same Bible where we find that Sermon also speaks of “the powers that be,” the authorities, who do not bear the sword in vain, since they are servants of God, to execute His wrath on the wrongdoer (Romans 13). The gospel cannot be preached in a world of complete chaos. Therefore God upholds the world by oppressing evil with the use of government. That does not turn people into lambs. But the effect – and the calling – is that the lions are kept locked up in their cages. That is also the case in international relations. Power matches power. Strength must be consumed by equal strength. Similia similibus curantur. Otherwise the lions will break out of their cages after all.

This view is the consequence of my belief that man is sinful, that it is necessary to restrain the dissoluteness of men with force and that God graciously entrusts the sword into the hands of the government for that purpose. I do not accept the optimistic view which claims that peace shall abound as soon as weapons are destroyed and the policy of deterrence is abandoned.

I am fully aware that deterrence has often failed. But that does not mean that the appeal to the human urge of self-preservation has been without effect. This urge is not a matter of great ethical beauty and far removed from real love which knows of self-denial. But even a less exalting (anthropological) notion can have great effect. Man is often a wolf for his fellow man. Given an opportunity, the most civilized person can become a brutal Nazi hangman, but such people, who enjoy torturing others to death, still have a strong urge to save their own skin.

This urge of self-preservation, this prevailing of common sense, or whatever tag one wants to place on it, may be seen as the ground for many responsible and acceptable policies. If people would be indifferent about life and death, life insurance companies would collapse. If car drivers were to take pleasure in hurting themselves and others, traffic rules would become impossible.

The stronger the deterrence, the more forceful the appeal to self interest. That applies particularly to the effect of nuclear arms. Murder becomes then suicide. The crises around Berlin and Cuba have proven how great the effect is of a threat with nuclear weapons.

The determined will to use those nuclear weapons under extreme circumstances has led to a stalemate whereby neither party uses them.

One could say that the Cuba crisis brought us to the edge of the abyss. It can also be said that no nation desiring only expansion but not annihilation would jump off that edge.

Balancing Risks🔗

Accepting nuclear weapons as inevitable under present conditions involves taking risks. Can the arms race continue without an accident? But rejection of nuclear arms is equally risky. What will the Russians do if the West lies invitingly open? Balancing these risks may lead to the following alternative views on nuclear weapons:

  1. unilateral disarmament;
  2. possession but never use (or not use for a first strike);
  3. possession but limited use in case of an armed conflict;
  4. possession, and in case of need, full use of power.

I reject possibility (a), for obvious reasons. The intent of the Soviet Union to spread Communism and its hegemony over all of us is very clear. To avert such Soviet domination we may have to take risks. Those risks I consider less hazardous than the chance that after unilateral disarmament we shall become Finlandized or even occupied territory.

The argument that Russia will be deterred by U.S. strategic nuclear weapons if Western Europe disarms, betrays cowardly ethics: reducing own risk of exposure and then still on the sly, taking shelter under the umbrella of American power. That would be hypocrisy. If nuclear weapons are to be accepted gratefully anywhere on earth as protection of our freedom, then we must share the risks involved.

To increase the conventional strength of NATO as a replacement of nuclear powers is no solution either. We mentioned already that then the ethical problems are not much smaller. Furthermore, the deterrent function of NATO has no credibility if nuclear weapons are not part and parcel of the policy. One can properly urge for reduction of nuclear arms and for greater emphasis or conventional weapons. But without nuclear hardware it will not work.

Alternative (b) cannot be maintained either. Possession of atomic weapons has no deterring effect without the willingness to use them if needed. If the party that has the lesser conventional strike capability – that is the case with NATO, because for every NATO tank there are three under the Warshaw pact – let it be known that it will never be first to use its atomic arsenal, then the strategy of deterrence has lost its credibility.

Of what remains, (c) is acceptable; (d) is not. But here again one formulates his thoughts not without great anxiety. One could envisage a conflict with limited use of nuclear weapons, which, after a few atomic explosions, is ended. Scenarios as by John Hacket, The Third World War, August 1985 are not beyond the realm of the possible. If such a limited use is possible, then the ethical implications are not necessarily negative.

A total, all-out usage is unjustifiable in any case. But it is a possibility which could become reality, if things were to get out of hand. However, it could never be ethically justified. Because at the moment that such an all-out use of nuclear arms is undertaken, there is no more risk taking left. Then, both parties face certain total destruction.

This very simple truth was at bottom the reason for abandoning the theory of massive retaliation and for adopting the flexible response strategy. Even the holiest sense of vengeance does not justify the destruction of the whole world. The expression fiat iustitia, pereat mundus (let justice prevail even though it would cause the world to perish), could today, as far as its second part is concerned, technically be realized. But no one who would let that take place is then dealing with iustitia.

Remains therefore alternative (c), with all the anxiety that is contained in that phrase: limited use of nuclear arms. What is limited?

The ambiguity of this term, however, lends strength to the strategy of deterrence: nobody can foresee when limited changes into unlimited. That causes the strategy of deterrence and the possibility of containment in the beginning phase of a nuclear conflict to retain its credibility.

Minimize Risks🔗

Any attempt to do something against the financially voracious war industry or the proliferation of nuclear arms seems futile. What did the disarmament conferences produce? How attractive is then the preaching of the nuclear pacifists! They at least, want to do something. Their action demands contrasts with the inert conservatives who want to leave everything unchanged, allowing the arms race to go on unchecked, and thus resigned, let the inevitable disaster come over us.

Emotional reaction against the nuclear arms race is summarized in the cry: “Stop that insanity!” It is a cry to rally those who believe it is time for action.

The risks that the arms race and the evermore sophisticated systems pose, must not be underestimated. Any risk is one too many. And we must minimize them. But that does not mean that we must exchange them for other, much greater risks. Even when the development in the military industry shows an increase rather than a reduction of the peril, we must keep our cool. Labelling the strategy of deterrence as “insane” is quick and easy. But if we look at the positive side of this strategy things become different. The fact that between World War II and the present, twice as much time has elapsed as between World War I and World War II, cannot be separated from the existence of atomic bombs.

The risks of a nuclear conflict can probably never be banned completely. That encourages soberness. We may wish to ban the bomb, but it is more realistic to say that we must learn to live with that explosive device in our midst. Emotional claims of a world threatening to explode are understandable, but they must not cause us to act irrationally.

We must continue the so often repeated attempts to achieve nuclear arms reduction and containment. For that purpose a number of steps are needed:

  • Improving international relations. I don't only think of a more peaceful US – Soviet relationship but also of the Helsinki accords which have had some effect in the East European countries. The developments in Poland could still take a positive turn and spread through other countries behind the iron curtain. Such a development could become extremely dangerous, but is a positive development totally impossible? Dr. Bertram of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London has predicted immense economic and ethnical problems within the East bloc nations. Ethnical minorities in the Soviet Union are becoming more self-conscious and articulate. We are facing a time of great tensions. But tensions do not have to result in disasters.
  • The collapse of the Salt 2 accords does not mean that further disarmament talks are ruled out. A strengthened foreign policy of the U.S. does not necessarily result in a rekindling of the “cold war.” Such a policy could also stimulate the other party to sit down to do business. The installation of the “hot line” between Moscow and Washington was the direct result of the US strong stand in the Cuba Crisis.
  • The margin between conventional and nuclear weapons must be maintained. That distance should not shrink. If the conventional weapons that is highest on the ladder comes close to the nuclear weapons that are lowest on the ladder, the temptation grows to experiment at those levels, certainly in a conflict which is waged “on the side,” such as Afghanistan.
  • Nuclear proliferation is an extremely distressing phenomenon, requiring everyone's attention. The thought that the different states in the Middle East and South Africa could possibly threaten each other with atomic weapons is enough to make one shudder.

This proliferation may well cause a total shift in relations in the next decade. Such a further spread makes us fear that major disastrous accidents only will cause the nations to come to their senses and to take serious steps towards arms containment.

  • That brings us back to where we were at the start: acknowledging the need for nuclear arms in our situation does not mean that we must take it for granted ethically and judicially. We must hope for – and work for – a better situation, when the humanitarian law of war can effectively outlaw possession and use of nuclear weapons. That road seems hopeless. But there are many nations living in peace together today, which cannot imagine that they ever lifted up arms against each other, or that they would ever do it again.

Ethics and Politics🔗

Two remarks regarding the relation between ethics and politics are in place. Ethics is often given an aura of holiness, while politics is condemned as dirty business. Ethics is supposed to work with absolute values; politics does nothing but compromise, always achieving less than what is right. The pure conscience functions in ethics. The tainted one works in politics.

I take liberty not to believe a word of this distinction. Politics and ethics are indeed at loggerheads. But not responsible politics and ethics.

Ethics simply deals with the actions-of-every-day by people-in-every-place, all citizens, politicians and soldiers included. Someone who specializes in ethics never deals with anything else but reality. If not, then he construes abstractions, causing conflicts between ethics and politics.

How Do We Use Our Liberty?🔗

As a Christian I do not say NO to nuclear arms. I thank God for the freedom which we may enjoy in the West. But the justifiable possession of nuclear arms becomes a doubtful issue, when I see in how many ways the West is abusing its freedom. The West is free and still relatively prosperous, but it kneels down in front of all the gods that come to lure us.

We bow down before the god Mammon of money, which makes us always ask for more and never give in, even though a large segment of mankind starves to death.

We bow down before the god Moloch of the child sacrifice, which is called Abortus Provocatus.

We kneel in front of the god Sex which breaks the bonds of marriage and family.

We kneel before the god Democracy which demands total permissiveness, because man must be free to do as he pleases.

My greatest difficulty with atomic weapons is here. Abuse of freedom does not cancel out proper use. Neither does it disprove the right to defend that freedom.

But the spiritual anarchy exercised in democracy and the Communist dictatorship may come very close in likeness, so that freedom in both camps becomes only an empty shell. The more this process develops, the less one is inclined to defend the existence of nuclear arms. The deciding factor is not the power of these weapons but rather the strength of our freedom.


  1. ^ Published in Antirevolutionaire Staatkunde jaargang 1980, 398 ff.

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