Thomas Merton on the Amoral Mindset of War

U.S. nuclear weapon test Ivy Mike, 31 Oct 1952, on Enewetak Atoll in the Pacific, the first test of a thermonuclear weapon (hydrogen bomb), 1952. (Photo courtesy of US Atomic Energy Commission)

U.S. nuclear weapon test Ivy Mike, 31 Oct 1952, on Enewetak Atoll in the Pacific, the first test of a thermonuclear weapon (hydrogen bomb). (Photo courtesy of US Atomic Energy Commission)

Writing in the context of US-Soviet nuclear rivalry, Thomas Merton argued that the US had a right to self-defense but a moral obligation to work for peace. He opposed the policy of massive retaliation and advocated nuclear disarmament. He warned against something he called “demonic activism, a frenzy of the most varied, versatile, complex and even utterly brilliant technological improvisations, following one upon the other with an ever more bewildering and uncontrollable proliferation” (Peace in the Post-Christian Era, p. 103).

The problem of war, Merton maintained, was first and foremost a matter of attitude. Even at the risk of nuclear annihilation, Americans succumbed to a truculent and suspicious state of mind that precluded any solution other than violence. Such a mood undermined confidence in negotiation. Yet, he insisted, “we can no longer afford to ignore our obligation to work for the abolition of war as a means of solving international problems” (p. 5).

Merton’s critique of US war culture as an amoral state of mind that yields to the hegemony of power remains relevant to the present challenge of peacemaking. We still lack the motives required to build a peaceful world, to resist fear and hatred and to restrain our savagery, which is “a fatal deficiency” (p. 19).  

We are faced with a crisis of spirit. The problem in a nutshell is that we seek and find the cause of evil in a scapegoat, upon which we discharge “all the virulent force of our hatred, compounded with fear and anguish, striving to rid ourselves of our dread and of our guilt by destroying the object we have arbitrarily singled out as the embodiment of all evil. Far from curing us, this is only another paroxysm which aggravates our sickness” (p. 127). Whether the scapegoat is Communism or terrorism, the ensuing attitude of war is an oversimplification that renders evil for evil. Peacemaking is an exercise of conscience, a matter of choice, which does not accept war “passively, stoically and without examination” (p. 141).

We tend to underestimate, even ignore, the importance of our state of mind when calculating the cause of war and possibility of peace. Attitudes of pure nationalism and expectations of the unconditional surrender or the total defeat of a purely evil enemy are superficial assumptions reinforced by propagandists and acculturated by media. Accordingly, Merton observes:

The amoral man may think himself keenly aware of the actuality of objective facts, when in reality he is simply experiencing the pressure and urgency of his own assumptions. Indeed, he may purely and simply be projecting his irrational and symbolic obsessions on the exterior world and experiencing them as objective realities, in which case he is not only unrealistic but mentally ill. (p. 55)

A revealing example of superficial assumptions embedded in Cold War public discourse was the cliché “better dead than Red.” Merton dissects this insidious slogan to reveal its gratuitous insinuations, which produce darkness and desperation that in turn undermine confidence in peacemaking.

Merton observes that this absurd saying “reduces a complex and critical human problem to a choice between meaningless alternatives.” It implies “there is no way out but one form or other of destruction.” The red or dead cliché ignores “the real bravery of patient, humble, persevering labor to effect, step by step, through honest negotiation, a gradual understanding that can eventually relieve tensions and bring about some agreement upon which serious disarmament measures can be based.” It settles us into “the easier business of letting hate, suspicion and fanaticism simmer.” It suggests “that the very survival of democracy is bound up with total nuclear war,” while Communism by implication “can survive without recourse to total nuclear war.” That is “hardly a confession of faith in democracy” (pp. 122-124).

Merton also critiques the just war doctrine, which was deployed to justify nuclear war and, we should note, is being used today to justify a global war on terrorism. The deficiency of this line of thought lies “not in the good intentions it prescribes but in an excessive naïveté with regard to the good that can be attained by violent means which cannot help but call forth all that is worst in man.” Moreover, the doctrine postulates “a subjective purity of intention,” but that very intention “can be doctored and manipulated with apparent ‘sincerity’” (pp. 42, 45).


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