The phrase ‘weapons of mass destruction’ is one with which we are all too familiar. After the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 it found its way to the forefront of topical conversation. Today, with North Korea making threatening noises, the phrase is again making headlines. It may be surprising for some to discover, not only how old the term is, but that it was likely to have been used in public for the first time by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang.
Lang, who was Archbishop between 1928 and 1942, is probably best remembered today for his involvement in the abdication crisis. However, he has also left an indelible mark on the English language. In a sermon preached on 26 December 1937, entitled ‘Christian Responsibility’ (LPL ref: Lang 271 ff. 286 – 293), Lang emphasised the importance of individual moral responsibility within ‘the vast machine of modern civilisation’ (LPL ref:Lang 271 f. 287) and discussed with sadness a seemingly elusive peace. He was speaking in the wake of Japan’s invasion of China and the civil war in Spain was raging. It was an uncertain, turbulent world in which few believed that the fragile peace left following The Great War could be maintained. In the sermon Lang reflected on the conflicts in China and Spain and asked, ‘Who can think without horror of what another widespread war would mean, waged as it would be with all the new weapons of mass destruction?’
It is often stated that Lang’s use of the phrase was a direct reference to the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by the Luftwaffe in April 1937 in support of Franco. However, Lang does not make direct reference to the bombing of Guernica but instead refers to ‘the manifold misery brought by war to Spain and to China’. Nevertheless, the civilian slaughter at Guernica must have been on Lang’s mind and has in any case become emblematic of the destructive power of modern warfare.