“Law stands on hollow ground where solid moral conviction is absent. A gap in law is often just a mirror through which we are impelled to gaze into our own ambivalent souls.”
— Nobuo Hayashi, Senior Legal Advisor, International Law and Policy Institute, speaking at the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, December 9, 2014
In July 2012, three aging Catholic activists broke into a high-security nuclear weapons production facility near the company town of Oak Ridge, Tenn., with scarcely more than bolt cutters and their faith in God. After a few small acts of symbolic vandalism, Michael Walli, Sister Megan Rice, and Greg Boertje-Obed peacefully submitted to arrest. A 100-seat courtroom in Knoxville, Tennessee, is hardly where one imagines the apocalypse on trial in a legal court. Yet, as Dan Zak details in this informed tale of resistance, a hope for the world rested in hands of the 12 citizen jurors chosen to judge the trespassers.
Almighty: Courage, Resistance, and Existential Peril in the Nuclear Age jumps between valances to chart the development of Catholic peace activism in the 20th century, the swell of America’s nuclear-industrial complex, and the legal and bureaucratic mechanisms that thwart the former and catalyze the latter. In the course of narrating the aforementioned act of civil disobedience, Zak plunges into ancillary issues related to mankind’s most dangerous invention: the incongruities between social morality, scientific thinking, and public policy; the paradox of nuclear deterrence; and the lack of spirited protest against nuclear proliferation by anyone who is not a member of AARP.
The three protestors broke into Y-12, a uranium enrichment facility in Oak Ridge. The author weaves the Y-12 mission into a larger history that includes the birth of the Manhattan Project, the ascendency of the nuclear-industrial sector in Washington, D.C., the survival of a liberal Catholic protest movement that dates back to the early 20th Century, and more. Sister Rice and friends did not, of course, liberate the world of its nuclear burden, thus Zak also fits their activism into contemporary challenges and anxieties. There’s a lot to cover in this book—which is why it’s a book!
The Legacy of the Manhattan Project
The Manhattan Project was the decades-long American initiative to research basic atomic physics, design and build nuclear weapons, and test them. The project didn’t culminate with Trinity, the first atomic bomb ever detonated, nor did the research and arms accumulation end after American B-52s destroyed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Activities related to the Manhattan Project would touch every corner of the United States, including the backwoods of Eastern Tennessee and small, occupied atolls in the South Pacific. An estimated 750,000 Americans have worked over the last century toward our current nuclear capabilities.
Even though the U.S. actively started to decrease its stock of nuclear arms, research and refurbishment of nuclear and thermonuclear weapons still accounts for about 40 percent of the Department of Energy’s budget. Except for general defense spending and social security benefits, nuclear R&D is the next largest investment made by our country. “Nukes, in other words, would be America’s third-highest priority, ever,” as Zak puts it. “Along the way, the weapons would evolve from a strategy into a policy into a faith.” The takeaway from facts like these is that, as a country and as a member of the global community, our political, monetary, and social will consents to technology that “would hasten doomsday, and also be credited with delaying it.”
Scientists as Prophets
Scientists were the first to imagine and discover the secrets hidden between the bonds of atomic particles. They were the first to harness that power and, naturally, the first to warn of their discovery’s moral and existential dangers. Intellect and expertise grant one a special responsibility: to use that knowledge responsibly. Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer are the physicists most well-known for voicing concerns about the atomic technology they helped create, but they are among many scientists who have fretted over the implications of their discoveries. Selig Hecht, a biophysicist and contemporary of Oppenheimer who appears in Almighty, wrote of the modern paradox of knowledge: “the more we know of nature, the more easily we wreck our lives with the knowledge; order in natural knowledge and chaos in social behavior. Why?” While it’s true our society and public discourse favor the empirical over the spiritual, we ignore scientists who prophesy as if they were street-corner preachers.
The Muscle of the Catholic Workers Movement
At the time of the Y-12 break in, Boertje-Obed was 57 years old, Michael Walli was 63, and Sister Megan Rice was 82. If the idea of retirement-aged people vandalizing a military site wouldn’t surprise you, reemergence of a dormant political movement back into the mainstream conversation should. Plowshares, Global Zero, and Catholic Worker activists had their heyday in the 1970s and ’80s, culminating in New York City’s largest demonstration ever. On June 12, 1982, one million people gathered in Central Park in the spirit of disarmament. But as we move further away in time from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the further the purveyors of peace activism move to the fringe of American discourse.
It’s important to know where it all started. The buildup to Y-12 and the 1982 march was greatly inspired by the life’s work of a nascent liberal Catholic revival, spearheaded by Dorothy Day in the early 1900s. Day’s brand of spirituality was underpinned by the beliefs that it is society’s responsibility to look after the destitute and homeless, and to “meet the wants of the age through direct intervention.” We’ve briefly detailed the amount of money the United States government poured into the Manhattan Project; Day and her adherents believe that money spent on instruments of war is a “direct theft from the poor.” You can’t really argue with them. Facing byzantine legal hurdles, the movement chose acts of symbolic civil disobedience as its weapon for changing public opinion, striving for justice, and waging peace.
Founded on the same principles as Dorothy Day’s mission, Pope John XXIII made a strong case for disarmament, world peace, and a ban on nuclear weapons in Pacem in Terris, his 1963 Encyclical Letter to the Catholic clergy:
“There can be, or at least there should be, no doubt that relations between states, as between individuals, should be regulated not by the force of arms but by the light of reason, by the rule, that is, of truth, of justice and of active and sincere cooperation. . . .
“We, the Vicar on earth of Jesus Christ, Savior of the World and Author of Peace, and as interpreter of the very profound longing of the entire human family, following the impulse of Our heart, seized by anxiety for the good of all, We feel it Our duty to beseech men, especially those who have the responsibility of public affairs, to spare no pain or effort until world events follow a course in keeping with man’s destiny and dignity.”
At the time of Almighty‘s publication, dreams of total disarmament still linger but are just out of reach. Non-state terrorist groups like the Islamic State are savvier and more connected. Recalcitrant members of the global community (we’re looking at you, Kim Jong Un) flout the international Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and continue to advance their own nuclear capabilities. To top it off, there are major gaps in security at nuclear sites around the world that make the prospect of obtaining unenriched uranium easier than ever. The systems created and maintained to build and develop these weapons has become so massive that it is difficult to account for every ounce of fissile material. With the pace of arms drawdowns at a crawl, groups like Global Zero are trying new methods to eradicate the weapons, including a new push to pass international legislation that would outlaw the possession or production of nukes.
“And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” — Isaiah 2:4
While Almighty is not directly in conversation with the Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah, the activists the book takes care to profile take their name from the verse above. Isaiah describes transforming a weapon of war—a sword or spear—into a tool to foster community—a plow or pruning blade. The Plowshares movement is pacifist and decidedly anti-nuclear, and takes the biblical passage to a contemporary interpretation. Actions of the Plowshares movement have included hammering nuke-armed submarines, the nose cones of intercontinental ballistic missiles, and (in the case of Sister Rice and her co-actors) the concrete turrets of national security sites. Beating the weapons of modern nations are symbolic acts, but acts to wage peace and prevent an apocalypse nonetheless.
THEMES & TRADITIONS
Mutually Assured Destruction
Nuclear deterrence is not given much space in Almighty, perhaps on account of sympathy toward the profiled activists and their cause. In short, nuclear deterrence is a political strategy that assumes if a nation has pre-armed and pre-aimed nuclear weapons, another nation will not attack out of fear of devastating retaliation. The strategy is one of the primary catalysts of the Cold War between the United States and the USSR. Later, it twisted into the even more madcap notion of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD). Pushing nuclear deterrence one step further, proponents of MAD encouraged the development of automated weapons systems that, in the event of an unexpected or unstoppable attack, could launch retaliatory nuclear weapons even if humans weren’t alive to press the big red button themselves. While MAD systems are partly responsible for discouraging new developments in nuclear strike capability (because the likelihood of disabling it during an attack is too small), they have driven safeguards and redundancy in the software for retaliation technology. Nuclear deterrence has become the ultimate chicken or the egg conundrum. Plowshares activism rejects the poultry farm in its entirety.
Catholicism, the Antichrist & the Bomb
A handful of times in Almighty, Plowshares activists compare nuclear weapons to the “Antichrist.” The Antichrist has a robust presence in the history of Christian thought. (Especially in the history of anti-Catholic Christian thought.) But let’s quickly defer to one of our favorite texts, Revelation 13, for one of the more imaginative descriptions of him: “And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy.” Generally, the Antichrist takes the form of a person; the monstrous qualities listed above are symbolic. The Antichrist is a “false messiah” who would attempt to take the place of Jesus during the Second Coming (AKA: the apocalypse). Fulton J. Sheen, a prominent bishop, wrote a clear description of the Catholic understanding of the Antichrist in 1951:
“He will come disguised as the Great Humanitarian; he will talk peace, prosperity and plenty not as means to lead us to God, but as ends in themselves . . . He will set up a counterchurch . . . It will have all the notes and characteristics of the Church, but in reverse and emptied of its divine content.”
Sheen’s summary is apt for two reasons: first, that he is highly regarded within the Church and on his way to sainthood, and second, that he penned it shortly after the advent of nuclear weaponry. Belief in the concepts of nuclear deterrence and mutually assured destruction express faith in outcomes of peace, prosperity, and plenty—the goals of the “Great Humanitarian.” Additionally, the secretive, exclusive nature of the nuclear-weapons complex, the sprawling and community-building quality of the war effort, in addition to the insistence that turned it from “a strategy into a policy into a faith,” sound like the trappings of a “counterchurch.” Belief in the primacy of the Bomb and all of its so-called peaceful intentions, then, is belief in a false messiah. Please note the image in the next section.
SCRAPS & FACTOIDS
- Speaking to Catholicism’s diversity of thought: George B. Zabelka, a Catholic military chaplain, “blessed the 13-man crew of the B-29 bomber that would deliver the second bomb to Nagasaki, home to Japan’s largest population of Christians.”
- The Virgin Mary stands and prays above the true faith of St. mary’s Catholic Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
- “You have got to understand that this isn’t a military weapon. It is used to wipe out women and children and unarmed people, and not for military uses. So we have got to treat this differently from rifles and cannons and ordinary things like that.” —Harry S. Truman, 33rd President of the United States
Hecht, Selig. ““Science and Moral Values.” Moral and Spiritual Foundations for the World of Tomorrow. Congregation Emanu-El, 1945.
Hoffman, David E. The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy. Doubleday, 2009.
Kubrick, Stanley. Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Columbia Pictures, 1964.
Pope John XXIII. Pacem in Terris. 1963.
Schlosser, Eric. “Break in at Y-12.” New Yorker. March 9, 2015. Link.
Sheen, Fulton J. Communism and the Conscience of the West. Country Life Press, 1951.