Transcending Ambivalence: A History of Engaging the Bomb

By David Cotright

When the first nuclear explosion took place in New Mexico in July 1945, at a site ironically called Trinity, the scientists and military officers who witnessed the blast – who otherwise professed no religious faith – recounted their reactions in theological terms.

General Thomas Farrell, deputy director of the Manhattan Project, described the “strong, sustained, awesome roar which warned of doomsday and made us feel that we puny things were blasphemous to dare tamper with the forces heretofore reserved to the Almighty.”1 J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Los Alamos scientists and a savant of Eastern religion, reflected on passages from the Bhagavad-Gita, the sacred Hindu epic:

If the radiance of a thousand suns
Were to burst into the sky,
That would be like
The splendor of the Mighty One …

As the sinister mushroom cloud rose in the distance, Oppenheimer was reminded of another line from the Gita: “I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds.”

Religious leaders were horrified by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On August 20, dozens of Protestant leaders issued a statement declaring their “unmitigated condemnation.”2 In March 1946 a Federal Council of Churches commission headed by YDS theologian Robert L. Calhoun urged the United States to renounce the further production of nuclear weapons and place atomic energy under strict international control. In developing and using the bomb, the commission said, “We have sinned grievously against the laws of God.” Signers of the commission report included Reinhold Niebuhr, John C. Bennett, and Georgia Harkness.3

In condemning a weapon of mass annihilation, church leaders were reflecting the irenic principles in Christ’s commandment to love all, including enemies. The pacifism of early Christians had given way to just war doctrine, but peace principles were kept alive over the centuries by the historic pacifist churches – Mennonites, Brethren, and Friends – and gained new life in the late nineteenth century with the rise of social gospel Christianity and Catholic social teaching. Mainstream Christians embraced a mission of bringing justice and reconciliation to a broken world, often influenced or tempered by Niebuhrian realism. The horrors of world war and totalitarianism seemed to confirm the brutish character of realpolitik – although these realities also intensified the urgency of seeking peace and international cooperation, especially in an era of weapons of ultimate destruction.

“Duck and Cover”

This ambivalence shaped the early Christian response to the nuclear age. As the Cold War intensified in the late 1940s, some of those who had greeted the bomb with horror now came to accept it as a necessary deterrent against godless communism and the perceived threat of totalitarian aggression. In the Catholic Church and among evangelical Christians in particular, anti-communism overrode moral doubts about the legitimacy of weapons of mass destruction. Even the liberal Federal Council of Churches declared in 1950 that atomic weapons were necessary for defense and that their use was “justifiable” as retaliation against nuclear attack.4

Pacifist Christians rejected this Cold War consensus and warned against accommodating the bomb. In 1954 the American Friends Service Committee, the Brethren Service Committee, and the Mennonite Central Committee published an ad in The New York Times. Beneath a graphic image of the cross and a mushroom cloud, their statement compared two futures: “one standing for redemptive love and forgiveness, for the acceptance of suffering, for hope, for life; the other for hatred and massive retaliation, for the infliction of suffering, for fear, for death.”5

A resolute opponent of the bomb was Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker and an ardent pacifist who had refused to support World War II, fearing that the unleashed forces of militarism would lead to ever more terrifying forms of destruction.6

The development of atomic weapons seemed to confirm Day’s worst fears. As nuclear anxiety in- tensified in the 1950s, government officials ordered communities to practice air raid drills, and school children were instructed to “duck and cover.” When the state of New York announced a mandatory drill in 1955, Day and a few determined colleagues publicly disobeyed the order. At the appointed hour, as New Yorkers scurried into subways and basement shelters, Day sat conspicuously in City Hall Park and refused to budge. Her statement declared, “We do not have faith in God if we depend upon the atomic bomb.”7 The initial protest failed to attract much interest, but as air raid drills continued and radioactive fallout from atmospheric atomic testing began to poison the environment, public opposition to nuclear weapons spread.

Finding Resolve

The growing chorus of public concern about nuclear testing led to the founding of secular disarmament groups such as SANE and Women’s Strike for Peace. It generated political pressure that led to the signing of the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty in 1963. While some religious bodies spoke out against the nuclear danger, most remained silent. Among the few who endorsed the early efforts of SANE were the Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick, Paul Tillich, and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It was not until the early 1980s that religious communities shed their hesitancy about responding to the nuclear danger.

It was not until the early 1980s that religious communities shed their hesitancy. The catalyst for the change of heart was the accelerating arms race and the deployment of new nuclear missiles in Europe. A pervasive fear of nuclear war gripped human consciousness, especially in the U.S. and Europe. Discovery of the “nuclear winter” effect and publication of Jonathan Schell’s Fate of the Earth added to this anxiety, raising the shattering prospect of the destruction of all life, the ultimate sin against God’s creation.

According to a Gallup poll in September 1981, 70 percent of Americans felt that nuclear war was a real possibility.8 An analysis by pollster Daniel Yan- kelovich found a “sea change” in public thinking – pervasive nuclear fear combined with a deep desire for action to stop the drift toward destruction.9

The result was an unprecedented surge of citizen activism for disarmament, embodied in the U.S. by the nuclear weapons freeze campaign. The grass-roots movement for a bilateral halt to the arms race swept across the country like a proverbial prairie fire. Hundreds of local governments and professional associations adopted resolutions endorsing the freeze. The most dramatic outpouring of support came in June 1982, when nearly one million people marched to New York’s Central Park for a rally to halt the arms race, the largest peace demonstration in U.S. history. That same year a quarter of the U.S. electorate voted on nuclear freeze ballot initiatives. Across the nation, 18 million Americans voted on the freeze proposition, with 10.7 million, or 60 percent, voting in favor.

The religious community played a significant role in these efforts. Nearly every major religious organization in the U.S. raised its voice for disarmament. Churches and Jewish organizations issued pastoral letters, conducted educational campaigns, organized conferences, joined in lobbying campaigns, and in some cases supported nonviolent protest. The religious community became an essential part of the movement to end the arms race. In the hearts of millions of Americans, God was on the side of peace, against the bomb.

A key leader in this effort was the Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr., the former Yale University chaplain who in 1977 began a ten-year term as senior minis- ter at New York’s historic Riverside Church. One of Coffin’s first acts upon arriving at Riverside was to establish a disarmament program, which sponsored annual conferences attracting thousands of clergy and laity from churches throughout the country. Another early leader was the Rev. Jim Wallis, founder and editor of Sojourners magazine. Wallis was an initiator of the nuclear weapons freeze campaign and along with Coffin helped articulate the moral and religious argument for reversing the arms race. Religious peace organizations such as the American Friends Service Committee, Pax Christi, and the Fellowship of Reconciliation provided essential leadership for the founding of the freeze movement. Also lending early support were rabbis Alexander Schindler and David Saperstein of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, which sponsored local educational events in synagogues and among community groups across the nation.

The Bishops Write a Letter

The most significant statement from U.S. religious leaders during the 1980s was the pastoral letter of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, The Chal- lenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response, issued in 1983. Written by the Rev. Bryan Hehir for a committee of bishops chaired by Joseph Cardinal Bernadin of Chicago, the bishops’ pastoral letter had a profound public impact. The letter from the normally conservative and staunchly anti-communist Catholic hierarchy challenged the very foundations of U.S. nuclear policy and opposed key elements of the Reagan administration’s military buildup.

While avoiding the phrase “nuclear freeze,” the bishops declared their support for “immediate bilateral agreements to halt the testing, production, and deployment of nuclear weapons systems.” They endorsed a policy of no-first-use and a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. They condemned any use of nuclear weapons and opposed even retaliatory strikes that would threaten innocent life.

The logic of this position should have led the bishops to reject the very possession of nuclear weapons and the doctrine of nuclear deterrence since these are predicated on the threat of nuclear weapons use. The bishops chose instead to offer an interim “strictly conditioned” acceptance of nuclear deterrence, with the proviso that “nuclear deterrence should be used as a step on the way toward progressive disarmament.”10 The Catholic journal Commonweal called the pastoral letter “a watershed event” not only for the church but for society as a whole. George Kennan wrote in The New York Times that the bishops’ letter was “the most profound and searching inquiry yet conducted by any responsible collective body into the relations of nuclear weap- onry, and indeed of modern war in general.”11

Many other religious bodies and church denom- inations issued statements condemning nuclear weapons during the 1980s. Most of the Protestant churches went further than the Catholic bishops in condemning the existence of nuclear weapons. The previous uneasy acceptance of nuclear deterrence gave way in many instances to the endorsement of nuclear abolition. Not only the use but the very possession of nuclear weapons became unaccept- able. The executive ministers of the American Baptist Churches USA called the existence of nuclear weapons and the willingness to use them “a direct affront to our Christian beliefs.”

One of the most far-reaching declarations was In Defense of Creation, published in 1986 by The United Methodist Church. Addressing the ambiguity left by their Catholic colleagues, the Methodist bishops declared that nuclear deterrence “must no longer receive the churches’ blessing, even as a temporary warrant.” The Methodist statement addressed the economic consequences of the arms race, condemning the squandering of wealth in the arms build-up while hunger, malnutrition, and disease afflict the world’s poor.12

The involvement of the religious community gave important legitimacy to the demand for arms reduction. In Coffin’s words it cast a “mantle of respectability” over the freeze movement.13 When religious leaders spoke out for reversal of the arms race, it became easier and more acceptable for others to express similar views.

A 1983 article in Foreign Affairs described the mobilization of religious opinion as “to some extent an irresistible force in American affairs.” Given the scale of religious engagement with the nuclear issue, the article observed, “No government in Wash- ington can afford not to pay attention; no statesman can be indifferent to the debate.”14 The White House responded to these pressures by pursuing arms negotiations with Moscow. Reagan’s instinctive anti nuclearism was matched by Gorbachev’s desire for disarmament, as the two leaders agreed to deep reductions in nuclear stockpiles that brought an end to the Cold War. The religious community had significant influence in shaping the political climate that made these historic changes possible.

New Dangers, Old Thinking

In the post-Cold War era many expected and hoped that nuclear arsenals would steadily shrink and disappear altogether, as scientists and religious leaders had urged at the dawn of the atomic age. Former national security officials produced important reports arguing for the elimination of all nuclear weapons, as Reagan and Gorbachev had envisioned at Reykjavik in 1986. In Washington and other capitals, however, political leaders clung to outmoded thinking and maintained their arsenals, albeit at reduced levels, as the world entered what Jonathan Schell termed “the second nuclear era.”15

In this new age the greatest danger has become nuclear proliferation – the steady expansion of Israel’s nuclear arsenal, the spread of the bomb to India and Pakistan, North Korea’s nuclear program, the nuclear ambitions of Iran, and most alarmingly al-Qaeda’s declared intention to acquire and use nuclear weapons. The danger of a catastrophic nuclear exchange threatening all life has greatly diminished, but the risk that nuclear weapons might actually be used somewhere is arguably greater now than during the Cold War, and may increase in the years ahead.

In response to these dangers religious leaders are called again to speak out in defense of life. In 2005, shortly before his death, William Sloane Coffin appealed for renewed religious commitment to nuclear disarmament. The result was the creation of Faithful Security, a network of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim organizations working to reduce and eliminate nuclear weapons dangers. Evangelical Christians voiced their support for a world without nuclear weapons, notably in the Two Futures Project campaign.

Religious opposition to nuclear weapons has broadened because the moral argument for disarmament that crystallized in the 1980s has become more compelling than ever. Long gone is the ambivalence born of anti-communism. In the post-Cold War era, nuclear weapons no longer serve a deterrent function. By their very existence they are an inducement for others, including non-state actors, to acquire the capacity for mass destruction. These new dangers have added motivation and moral clarity to the continuing quest to lift the threat of annihilation that first clouded the human future more than 60 years ago.

The former executive director of SANE, David Cortright is Director of Policy Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Peace: A History of Movements and Ideas (Cambridge University Press, 2008).


  1. Robert Jungk, Brighter than a Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1958), 201, 221–22.

  2. Federal Council of Churches, “The Use of the Atomic Bomb,” statement issued by representatives of the Federal Council of Churches in response to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, New York, 20 August 1945. Quoted in Federal Council of Churches, Calhoun Commission, Atomic Warfare and the Christian Faith, report of the Commission on the Relation of the Churches to the War in the Light of the Christian Faith (New York: Federal Council of Churches, March 1946), 11–12. Also quoted in Kendall Scouten, “The Bomb’s Blast: A Call to Repentance,” Christian Advocate 120 (September 6, 1945), 1016.

    3 Federal Council of Churches, Calhoun Commission, Atomic Warfare and the Christian Faith, report of the Commission on the Relation of the Churches to the War in the Light of the Christian Faith (New York: Federal Council of Churches, March 1946), 11–12. Full text of this report appears as an appendix to Gar Alperovitz, Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam (London: Pluto Press, 1994), 321–37.

    4 Federal Council of Churches, Special Commission, The Christian Conscience and Weapons of Mass Destruction (New York: Department of International Justice and Goodwill, 1950), 14.

    5 American Friends Service Committee, Brethren Service Commission, and Mennonite Central Committee, “No Man Can Serve Two Masters,” newspaper ad, The New York Times, 16 April 1954, 22.

    6 Robert Ellsberg, “Introduction,” in Dorothy Day: Selected Writings, ed. Robert Ellsberg (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992), xxxiii.

    7 Jim Forest, Love is the Measure: A Biography of Dorothy Day (New York: Paulist, 1986), 135.

    8 “Poll Finds 7 out of 10 Imagining Outbreak of Soviet Nuclear War,” Washington Post, 27 September 1981, A17.

    9 Daniel Yankelovich and John Doble, “The Public Mood: Nuclear Weapons and the U.S.S.R.,” Foreign Affairs 63, no. 1 (Fall 1984): 33–5.

    10 National Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response, A Pastoral Letter on War & Peace (Washington, D.C., United States Catholic Conference, 1983), 58–9.

    11 George F. Kennan, “The Bishop’s Letter,” New York Times, 1 May 1983, E21.

    12 The United Methodist Council of Bishops, In Defense of Creation: The Nuclear Crisis and a Just Peace (Nashville, Tenn.: Graded Press, 1986), 48, 15.

    13 William Sloane Coffin, interview by the author, 3 December 1990.

    14 Bruce Van Voorst, “The Churches and Nuclear Deterrence,” Foreign Affairs 61 (Spring 1983), 828.

    15 Jonathan Schell, The Gift of Time: The Case for Abolishing Nuclear Weapons Now (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1998), 7, 10, 17.