THE utilization of atomic energy for warlike purposes raises moral, political and military questions and requires the review and perhaps the revision of many traditionally accepted ideas. The first of these questions is whether the possible use of so horribly destructive a force does not rule out the very idea of war.

For years I have been irritated by the statement that because men have always fought they always will fight. When I was young this pessimistic fatalism conflicted with my hopes for a better world; my reaction was sentimental, a refusal to accept the idea of a society without progress, a future without hope. Today my reaction is just as sharp but quite different, grounded more in reason, I believe, and hence more justified.

The thesis of the inevitability of war stated in absolute terms strikes me as superficial in any case. The reason men have fought throughout history is because they hoped that by fighting and winning a war they would solve their problems. In our time, however, so-called victories no longer pay, and this will be even more true in times to come. No sensible person would say today that war solves problems or that problems are easier to solve after a war than they were before. The plain fact is that war no longer pays. But though it is a fact, it is still quite a new one and therefore deserves to be repeated and explained.

The Franco-German war of 1870 was the last war in Europe that brought some advantages to the victor. As the prize for their victory, the Germans received 5,000,000 gold francs and two provinces, Alsace and Lorraine, and from it they drew the impulse which by 1914 had made them the most powerful nation in Europe if not in the world.

By the time of the First World War the results of victory already were very different. That war made plain that the fate of nations is joint, not separate. Those who thought they had won found very soon that they had come to the aid of those who had lost. The United States in particular learnt how much its attempts to rescue Germany cost in loans that never were repaid and gifts that brought nothing in return. Before long the worries and difficulties of the defeated became those of the victors also.

Since the Second World War this process has been even more marked. It is paradoxical but a fact that the European country with the most prosperous and expanding economy today is the one that was severely beaten only ten years ago. And it is not only that the economic situation of the vanquished nation is superior to that of many of the victors, but also that its political situation is stronger both as regards stability and its own confidence in the future.

As to the Third World War, the war which might break out tomorrow, we must all be fully aware that it would see the use of atomic weapons. It may seem exaggerated to say that humanity would be entirely destroyed, but there can be no doubt that the cataclysm would be immense and the losses incalculable. Civilization would be thrown back generations, maybe centuries.

When I see two great nations confront each other, each employing every propaganda device to show that it possesses superiority in the atomic field, I admit that I find difficulty in working up much enthusiasm on any such basis. For one or the other has or soon will have enough bombs at its disposal to strike an absolutely mortal blow at its opponent. Which of them has a surplus thus does not seem to me very important.

Obviously, too, even if the aggressor makes a surprise attack he will not be safe from reprisals, since he could not obtain control over all the reserves of his enemy at one blow. Therefore it does not seem to me important whether this side is more vulnerable because its industry and population are more concentrated or that side because its enemy has better bases. Such things do not change the essential facts or the conclusion to be drawn from them, namely that even a war that ended in victory would have caused such destruction, would have so dislocated all the conditions of life and would create so many new and insoluble problems that it could not be anything but a fearful loss for everyone. This may be a simple way of reasoning, but it is not too simple. War, long accepted as cruel, is today stupid also. There is no reason and no excuse for anyone to make one. The number and efficiency of modern weapons may not make war completely inconceivable, since the possibility that fools or desperados may head governments cannot be ruled out, but at least it becomes more and more unlikely.

It is for these reasons that I say, contrary to the opinion of many and also at some risk of being misunderstood, that in the present state of affairs I would hesitate to forbid the construction of atomic bombs. I believe that the terrible fear weighing on the world on their account is one of the most effective guarantees for peace. I am fully aware of the risks of such a policy; yet, everything considered, I believe that it is the right one. Of course the only wholly effective way to guarantee peace would be for everyone to disarm. But is disarmament possible today? Each nation would have to place absolute confidence in its potential opponent, for even with an efficient system for controlling the future manufacture of atomic bombs it would still be comparatively easy for one of the chief protagonists to hide some of its stocks or certain of its factories somewhere in its vast territory and thus retain a superiority. Since the moral basis essential for such a degree of confidence does not exist for a long time, we must resign ourselves to live in danger and accept the danger as, paradoxically, our possible hope for salvation.

I must also say that the proposal to humanize war has always struck me as hypocrisy. I have difficulty in seeing the difference from a moral and humane point of view between the use of a guided missile of great power which can kill tens and even hundreds of people without regard for age or sex, and which if used repeatedly will kill millions, and the use of an atomic bomb which achieves the same result at the first stroke. Does crime against humanity begin only at the moment when a certain number of innocent people are killed or at the moment when the first one is killed? I am really not worried in the least that Mr. Molotov accuses me of being a war criminal because I foresee the possible use of atomic weapons in case of a Third World War. What seems really criminal to me is the idea of having recourse to war whatever form it might take, and in this respect I feel that my conscience is as clean as Mr. Molotov's.


Nevertheless, the existence of atomic weapons and the prospect that eventually they will be used create a series of problems, and the most important and delicate of them is this: Who is to decide when they are to be used--the military or the politicians? The ministers of the Atlantic Pact countries have been faced with this question since the last meeting of NATO.

One does not have to be an expert to understand that atomic weapons have transformed traditional methods of warfare. We are not dealing with just a new weapon; we have to create a new strategy. In democratic countries the military are often accused of planning and organizing the right sort of army to win the last war. To be "behind a war" has cost us dear in the past and we must not make that mistake again.

The army of today and tomorrow should count, then, on using atomic weapons. This involves a series of practical consequences, the most formidable of which is indicated in the question whether an army organized to face atomic weapons remains organized also to face so-called conventional arms and methods. I believe the answer is in the negative if it is true that the best defense against the atom bomb lies in the dispersion of forces. In that case another consideration immediately comes to mind: the very preparation of defense against the atomic bomb forces us to prepare to use it ourselves, for if a war broke out our army would no longer be suitable for a war conceived in classic terms.

Thus from argument to argument, from answer to answer, we come to the main political question: Since the next war will be an atomic war, since it will break out by surprise, and since reprisals are a main element in the calculations, who is to have the power and responsibility of ordering the use of the first bomb? The military or the civilians, the generals or the governments? A formal answer was given at the last NATO meeting to the effect that none of the traditional rules is to be changed: the decision rests and must remain with the governments.

This is the right answer. It would be unwise, however, to ignore the fact that in actual practice it does not settle everything. Some hypotheses are left vague and unanswered. For although we in the West are beginning to possess a single efficient military organization, each of us so far has jealously kept a separate political organization. This, to my mind, is wrong. We are aware that we must defend ourselves together against eventual aggression and we have made notable progress in this respect in recent years, but we have not yet created the political mechanism which should and could crown our military organization. We are united to fight a war which may be forced upon us, but we remain divided in making the decisions which might save us from such a war or which we would have to make once it broke out.

Only a fool would dare predict with certainty how the Third World War might begin or the precise situations which we should prepare to deal with. Will it break out in Europe or Asia? Or with a direct attack on the United States? In an area covered or not covered by the Atlantic Treaty? There are many uncertainties and there is no political organization today to study and face up to them. If we wait to let ourselves be caught up in events, we risk a period of uncertainty, blunders and misunderstandings which could be fatal to our alliance and our cause.

Decisions can be taken in the Council of NATO only by unanimity; each of the diplomats who sits there must ask his own government for instructions before acting on any serious matter. A council of this sort cannot deal with an urgent situation. Evidently a serious gap exists and must be bridged. Is it not time for the Atlantic nations to understand that if it is good to coördinate their military preparations to win a war it would still be better to coördinate their diplomatic and political efforts in order to prevent a war? Our greatest weakness at the moment is to ignore the basic principle that an army is only the instrument of a policy. This problem should be taken up without delay. The Atlantic Alliance will be incomplete and fragile until we draw all the necessary conclusions from the situation in which we find ourselves. Let us not remain halted halfway on the road we have chosen.

As things are, do we not react in different ways to various dangers and particularly to the menace of the atom bomb? Interest in this question is much more keen in the United States than in Europe. I am always surprised to find how much talk there is about it in America and that it leaves Europeans comparatively indifferent. A psychological explanation may be that for the first time in their history Americans feel directly menaced. They feel that a Third World War would be their war, that they would no longer be intervening in the conflicts of others but would be fighting for their own existence. The oceans no longer protect them effectively. The weapon which may be used against them is terrible. They are weighing the dangers of a totally new situation.

To the European the problem is quite different. Twice within a quarter of a century his continent has been cruelly ruined. He has seen destroyed cities, fleeing populations, roaring fires, tumbling houses, famine--every material and moral horror. Today he has developed a certain fatalism; it is hard for him to believe that it could be even more horrible the next time than it already has been twice. His memories are stronger, perhaps, than his imagination; the past obscures the future, and as a result he is somewhat more resigned regarding the menace of war and perhaps faces it with less resolution. He passionately wants peace, and though he doubtless is capable of defending his independence and liberties he would always refuse to have anything to do with a war of conquest and any preventive war.

I feel that in this essential respect most Europeans and Americans feel alike, and I think this common feeling should form the basis of a common policy.

The menace of the atom bomb points directly to the reinforcement of the Atlantic Alliance--in its aims but above all in its methods. The Atlantic Alliance must be given a political council. In Europe, I am for almost complete political integration within the framework of the Atlantic Pact. I would not dare go so far as that at once, but there are intermediary formulas to be found between the totally insufficient powers of the present Council of NATO and the renunciation of a part of the national sovereignty.


As I look back over what I have written, I am a little frightened at the inhuman logic of my reasoning and the audacity of my conclusions. I pause to consider them once more, to weigh the pros and cons for a last time. And still I feel that what I have set down is true and that it is useful for it to be said.

Around the atomic bomb is being built a whole strategy, a whole policy, perhaps even, in outline, a philosophy. Out of our very extremity may come wisdom, out of the frightening means of destruction may come the means of assuring peace. What men in the past have sought to make prevail by persuasion, by appealing to humane feelings, may in the end be achieved because the insensate machine inexorably imposes it. Technical progress may indirectly produce moral and social progress. If so, what an extraordinarily crooked road it would have been that led toward the good!

But this progress will take place, if it takes place at all, in a most dangerous atmosphere, an atmosphere of profound fear. Humanity's future will be hanging upon a maladroit gesture, an uncontrolled reflex, the act of a lunatic or a megalomaniac. Before we reach the goal much time will pass, many things will happen, many dangers will have to be avoided.

If war comes it may be atomic. It will not be for a province or for economic advantage; it will be a world war with civilization itself at stake. Yet we are trying to cope with this situation with our traditional form of political organization. Even our furthest flights of audacity have not as yet carried us beyond the stage of alliances. With difficulty we have succeeded in making some progress in military organization. For the rest, we advance to meet the future without having succeeded in breaking from the past. Truly our imagination is not in step with our era. The fact that the United States takes a different attitude from Europe toward recent events in the Far East simply underlines the risks we are running.

Let us end our timid efforts, which at best show vague good-will more than a clear awareness of realities, and let us accept the consequences of the plain fact that the fate of all of us in the West is inextricably linked. The atom bomb leaves no room for neutrality or separate national policies. The West is condemned not only to wage war together but to create policy together. Let us continue the military efforts we have begun; but let us urgently set to work to improve our political relations, showing in this field also a sense and purpose of real solidarity.

The Atlantic Alliance is a great thing. It has the potentiality to guarantee world peace. But with its present imperfections it cannot survive. Either it will be complete or it will not be.

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  • PAUL-HENRI SPAAK, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belgium; previously four times Minister of Foreign Affairs and three times Prime Minister; President of the United Nations General Assembly in 1946
  • More By Paul-Henri Spaak