Merton’s Message Resonates as Nuclear Holocaust Looms
The days of the fallout shelters with their supplies of long-lasting food to nurture us after the bombs had dropped and the school drills with children taking cover under their desks are long behind us. That was back during the height of the Cold War, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when world Communism was still on the march and only the assurance of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) was believed to prevent a hot war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Then, in 1964, the great Stanley Kubrick movie, Dr. Strangelove, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb, came out, and we began to come to our senses. We were shown graphically how, through a series of misunderstandings, the nuclear hair-trigger could be pulled and the world annihilated. That movie, following the profoundly unsettling experience of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, reminded us of how dangerous our flirtation with the idea of nuclear warfare really was, and for more than a generation we have pretty much put it out of our minds as simply unthinkable.
Not any more. In an important recent interview and article in The Nation, Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at NYU and Princeton University, “discusses several subjects related to his long, often-stated belief that the new US-Russian Cold War is more dangerous than was its 40-year predecessor, including the possibility of nuclear war”:
Ever since the onset of the Atomic Age, the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction has kept the nuclear peace. This may have changed in 2002 when the Bush administration unilaterally withdrew from, thereby abrogating, the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Since then, the United States and NATO have developed 30 or more anti-missile defense installments on land and sea, several very close to Russia. For Moscow, this was an American attempt to obtain a first-strike capability without mutual destruction. The Kremlin made this concern known to Moscow many times since 2002, proposing instead a mutual US-Russian developed anti-missile system, but was repeatedly rebuffed.
The decisions of the Obama administration built upon those of the Bush administration in increasing the likelihood of nuclear war:
The United States has embarked on an overhaul of its entire nuclear weapons enterprise, including development of new weapons delivery systems and life extension programs (LEPs) for and modernization of all its enduring nuclear warhead types and nuclear weapons production facilities. Moreover, rather than constraining the role of nuclear weapons, the Obama administration’s 2013 nuclear weapons employment strategy reaffirmed the existing posture of a nuclear triad of forces on high alert.
Both Bush and Obama continued the provocative stance of the Clinton administration toward the world’s other major nuclear superpower, Russia, by expanding NATO, an organization that should have been dissolved along with the Warsaw Pact when the Soviet Union collapsed, right up to Russia’s borders and including the former Soviet states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. The Obama administration continued to appear to upset the balance of nuclear terror by pursuing the installation of anti-ballistic-missile systems (ABMs) in former Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe and conspiring in the violent overthrow of a pro-Russian elected president in the former Soviet “socialist republic” of Ukraine.
In spite of the hopes of many who voted for him that our dangerously confrontational policies would get better, under Trump so far they seem to have gotten worse. He served warning when he was still just the president-elect:
"The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes," Trump posted to Twitter on December 22, 2016.
The next day, he bucked his aides' dismissive spin: "Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all," Trump allegedly told MSNBC "Morning Joe" host Mika Brzezinski over the phone.
He has followed through by caving in on the recent omnibus budget bill on most of the issues dear to his supporters in order to greatly expand our already bloated and over-extended military. Most disturbing of all, we have recently seen him choose the civilian version of General Buck Turgidson of Dr. Strangelove fame in the person of John “Yosemite Sam” Bolton to be his national security adviser, just as the level of tension with Russia has been greatly ratcheted up on account of what is an obviously ginned up poisoning charge against Russia by the government of the United Kingdom of a former spy and his daughter in Salisbury, England. As Britain, the U.S., and most of their NATO allies expel diplomats and the Russians respond in kind, the press across the board accepts it all at face value and continues to egg the president on to do more to “punish” and provoke Russia. At the same time, we continue to keep troops illegally in Syria, where direct confrontation with Russian troops could ignite a quickly escalating larger conflict.
Thomas Merton, the Anti-War Oracle
It was against this very frightening backdrop that I made the discovery of Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s great little book, Peace in the Post-Christian Era. First published in 2004, 36 years after Merton’s untimely and mysterious sudden death in Thailand on December 10, 1968, this is the manuscript that caused the worldwide head of the Cistercian Order to come down on him with a decree to stop writing about questions of war and peace. The year was 1962, and Merton was not allowed to fulfill his contract with the major publishing company, Macmillan. The reason given was that what he had to say, “falsifies the monastic message,” whatever that might mean.
Merton’s critics, usually people who think of themselves as conservatives, often characterize him as some kind of fuzzy-minded leftist, pacifist idealist. No one reading this short little masterpiece of clear thinking with anything resembling an open mind could possibly come to that conclusion about the man. It is people who could write such patent nonsense about the supposed “monastic message” and who could seriously entertain the notion of almost inconceivable genocide as some sort of valid national defense strategy who are the mush-minded thinkers, not Merton. Least of all should we think of such critics as the genuine Christians. This is from the book:
In the presence of an international politic based on nuclear deterrence and on the imminent possibility of global suicide, no Christian may remain indifferent, no Christian can allow himself a mere inert and passive acquiescence in ready-made formulas fed to him by the mass media.
In a world that has largely discarded moral imperatives and which indeed no longer seriously considers the violent death of one hundred million human beings as a moral issue, but only as a pragmatic exercise of power, the Christian must regard himself as the custodian of moral and human values, and must give top priority to their clarification and defense. (Merton’s emphasis)
As I read page after page of the most cogently argued, heartfelt case against the widespread mindless support of our warfare state, whipped up evermore by the mass media that Merton had so well pegged, I could only wonder who it was that came down on Dom Gabriel Sortais, Abbot General of the Cistercian Order, to shut Merton up. Here’s another sample of Merton’s dangerous message, as our rulers would regard it:
To reject a “world-wide” outlook, to refuse to consider the good of mankind, and to remain satisfied with the affluence that flows from our war economy, is hardly a Christian attitude. Nor will our attachment to the current payoff accruing to us from weapons make it any easier for us to see and understand the need to take the hard road of sacrifice which alone leads to peace!
We may amuse ourselves by reading the reports in the mass media and imagine that these “facts” provide sufficient basis for moral judgments for and against war. But in reality, we are simply elaborating moral fantasies in a vacuum. Whatever we may decide, we remain completely at the mercy of the governmental power, or rather the anonymous power of managers and generals who stand behind the faćade of government. We have no way of directly influencing the decisions and policies taken by these people. In practice, we must fall back on a blinder and blinder faith which more and more resigns itself to trusting the “legitimately constituted authority” without having the vaguest notion what the authority is liable to do next. This condition of irresponsibility and passivity is extremely dangerous, and also it is hardly conducive to genuine morality.
Just think of it. Merton was writing about the “faćade of government” in 1962, more than a half-century before the term “Deep State” had been coined. He was also enclosing “legitimately constituted authority” in quotation marks a full year before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He was also writing more than forty years before I penned my poem, “Barren Summit,” whose sentiments I feel confident he would have agreed with:
Forty years and counting
Since Kennedy was killed,
And our vacuum of leadership
Still has not been filled.
Why should those shoes present
Such difficulty in filling?
The candidates are weeded out
By those who did the killing.
Now as the apparently mindless vilification of Russia, a nation that is now perhaps more Christian than the United States and is certainly more Christian than most of our NATO allies—not to mention our two biggest Middle Eastern allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia—continues to escalate, Merton’s words appear more timely than ever:
We have to become aware of the poisonous effect of the mass media that keep violence, cruelty and sadism constantly present to the minds of uninformed and irresponsible people. (Paul Craig Roberts would use his favorite adjective, “insouciant.” ed.) We have to recognize the danger to the whole world in the fact that today the economic life of the more highly developed nations is in large part centered on the production of weapons, missiles and other engines of destruction.
We have to consider that hate propaganda, and the consistent heckling of one government by another, has always inevitably led to violent conflict… We must consider the dire effect of fanaticism and witch-hunting within our own nation. We must never forget that our most ordinary decisions may have terrible consequences.
The average person reading those words today has to regard them as prophetic and deeply frightening. Imagine if you can, though, that you are one of the power-wielders of the time reading what Merton had written, knowing that he was a man of great moral authority with a very large audience. Blocked from publishing, he mimeographed the manuscript and sent it to a large number of people, including Robert Kennedy’s wife, Ethel. If you were profiting from the system just as it was, would you not have regarded such a man as threatening?
I am reminded of the TV Western morality play of my youth that almost everyone watched, Gunsmoke. The great dramatic strength of the program was in its painting of the bad guys, the villains. No matter how much you might have been infused with the spirit of Christian forgiveness at home or church, usually within the first quarter hour of the program the thought that would be foremost in your mind would be, “That guy really needs killing.” And you could be certain that the noble, handsome, and hulking sheriff, Matt Dillon, who also happened to be blessed with quicker reflexes and better hand-eye coordination than any villain who ever lived, would do the honors in the end in a very satisfying extra-judicial fashion.
Now imagine, if you can, that you were the villain, and you saw the work of Merton that threatened to stand in the way of your ambitions. The primary thought in your mind would doubtless have been, “That guy really needs killing.” And so he was.
April 5, 2018
The writer is co-author with Hugh Turley of The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton: An Investigation.