Schweitzer's Word: A 20th-century moral argument against 21st-century nuclear politics

Given the inflammatory rhetoric afflicting both sides of the possible development of nuclear weapons in Iran, the words of Albert Schweitzer seem to have been forgotten by many world leaders. Schweitzer firmly believed that an explosion of nuclear weapons anywhere in the world would be an unmitigated disaster, both physically and morally. During a period of U.S. and world history when school children practiced hiding under their desks from a potential nuclear fallout, Schweitzer spoke against nuclear testing and nuclear weapons to radio audiences around the world. His words are credited with changing the course of history. Nowadays, however, the leaders of a country with nuclear weapons seem to believe they have earned international respect and that they cannot be trifled with. In reality, such leaders have lost their moral compass.

Schweitzer's words, written almost 50 years ago, still apply. "The awareness that we are all human beings together has become lost in war and through politics. We have reached the point of regarding each other only as members of people either allied with us or against us and our approach: prejudice, sympathy, or antipathy are all conditioned by that. Now, we must rediscover the fact that we-all together-are human beings, and that we must strive to concede to each other what moral capacity we have. Only in this way can we begin to believe that in other peoples as well as in ourselves there will arise the need for a new spirit which can be the beginning of a feeling of mutual trustworthiness toward each other."

I think that the United States should take the lead in destroying its nuclear weapons. The United States has, according to the Center for Defense Information, built an estimated 98 percent of the world's nuclear warheads since 1945. At a U.N. conference sponsored by the Global Security Institute, the former premier of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, and CNN founder Ted Turner called for each country with nuclear weapons to destroy 10 percent of their weapons a year for 10 years until they were all gone. Only a common sense proposal such as this will prevent the countries of the world from following each other like lemmings off the cliff of nuclear weapons development.

At the height of the Cold War, Schweitzer was convinced by Norman Cousins and the death of his friend, Albert Einstein, that he must make a moral declaration of opposition to nuclear testing and nuclear war. President John F. Kennedy wrote to Schweitzer on June 6, 1962, "Nothing lies closer to my heart than the hope of bringing about general and complete disarmament under conditions of reliable international control. You are one of the transcendent moral influences of this century. I hope that you will throw the great weight of that influence behind the movement for general and complete (nuclear) disarmament."

Albert Schweitzer was the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, was generally recognized as one of the great moral examples of the 20th century. He came from the French province of Alsace and rose to international prominence because he did good deeds. By the age of 30, he had completed two degrees in theology and a doctorate in philosophy. He was well known throughout Europe for his organ recitals and his interpretations of the Bach's music. He had written and published many books, was a pastor, a full professor at the University of Strasburg, and in great demand to lecture on philosophical topics related. Then, he gave up fame and fortune to become a medical doctor and build a hospital in Lambarene, an African town in what is now Gabon. He friends thought he was crazy to do it, but he spent the last 50 years of his life caring for patients who came to his hospital. Schweitzer thought his greatest contribution to the world was his belief that a reverence for life is the foundation of all moral philosophy.

As a result of Kennedy's request, Schweitzer made three radio addresses with the help of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee in Oslo. In these addresses he called for an end to nuclear testing and proposed the destruction on nuclear weapons. His call was broadcast worldwide in radio addresses translated into several different languages. Kennedy later credited Schweitzer with significantly influencing the debate on nuclear weapons and helping to make it possible for him to negotiate the strategic arms limitations treaties with the Soviet Union.

Schweitzer assumed that most people were intelligent enough to understand that nobody wins when a nuclear bomb is exploded and that the more nuclear bombs there are in the world, the more likely it is that one of them will explode sooner or later. "It would be of immense importance if the United States in this hour of destiny could decide in favor of renouncing atomic weapons to remove the possibility of an eventual outbreak of atomic war," he said in one of the broadcasts. "The theory of peace through terrifying an opponent by a greater armament can only heighten the danger of war."

We ignore Schweitzer's warnings and thoughts at our peril. Our leaders are taking us down a dangerous path. The tragic consequences are not only for us, but for our children.

David Ives is executive director of the Albert Schweitzer Institute and an adjunct professor of international business, philosophy, and Latin American studies at Quinnipiac University. He served in Peace Corps.

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