Archive | September, 2015

The Nuclear Challenge (8): 70 Years After Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Civil Society Activism on Behalf of Nuclear Zero

6 Sep


The Jeffersonian faith in the future of democracy rested on the cumulative impact of education on citizen participation encouraging a robust and vigilant civil society. The United States has developed a number of institutional paths to academic excellence, and can claim world leadership in crafting the modern university experience. At the same time, this type of excellence has become increasingly a disappointment from a Jeffersonian perspective, with the quality of American democracy declining in many respects since the earliest years of the republic despite several crossing several humane thresholds: including ending slavery, enfranchising women, and more recently, legally entrenching same sex marriage. Yet the role of money as linked to corporate power as well as the lavish funding of special interest lobbies has undermined the functioning of government and university education of, by, and for the people. There are several plausible explanations of this outcome that have nothing, or little to do, with the nature of the educational experience, yet I believe that our high schools and universities bear a significant responsibility for qualitative decline of democracy, which is also a result of education itself being relegated to a role of providing a skilled labor force for the neoliberal world economy that includes what I would label as ‘normative pacification.’


I would relate this contention to the tendency of most universities, with a few notable exceptions, to conceive of their primary role as one of imparting knowledge, by and large avoiding normative domains of ethics and citizenship. In the midst of the Vietnam War there was a brief period of epistemological revolt on the part of students on many college campuses that was carried out under the unifying banner of ‘relevance,’ which was a code word for what I would prefer to call engaged citizenship. This rallying cry for relevance translated into demands by students for participation in all aspects of their educational experience, and more broadly with respect to societal life. Underneath this call was an insistence on normative knowledge, how American society might be made more equitable and satisfying for all of its residents. Although the initial motivation for the student movement of the 1960s was the perceived imprudence and wrongfulness of the Vietnam War, unjustifiably endangering life and limb of young American males via the draft, the activist agenda was deeper and broader, being constructed around a proposed invigoration of democracy in the critical spirit of “as if people mattered.” The triple revolution (calls for universal controlled disarmament, reform of the Democratic Party, and university reform) proclaimed in the Port Huron founding document of Students for a Democratic Society in 1962 or the Mario Savio clarion call at Berkeley two years later on behalf of the Free Speech Movement to ”put your bodies upon the gears” of the machine that was destroying meaningful life were signifiers of this preoccupation with what needed to be done to make democracy work on the home front.


This student movement and its wider reverberations became increasingly threatening to mainstream American society, especially as it lengthened its agenda to accommodate an emergent militant feminism, glimmerings of LBGT movement, Black Panther radical anti-racism, and a grassroots cultural Spring featuring flower girls, psychedelic drugs, and rock music. Although these movements persisted, and realized many goals, there occurred a well-funded backlash orchestrated under the auspices of what Richard Nixon called ‘the silent majority,’ which itself seemed to derive from Jerry Falwell’s ‘moral majority.’ We should also not forget that the 1960s were a decade of political assassinations that were unwittingly very effecting in bursting the balloon of an incipient cultural revolution: John F. Kennedy (1963), Malcolm X (1965), Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy (1968). It must also be acknowledged that the bright promise of this period also collapsed under its own weight, a series of internal contradictions dramatized by two grisly incidents in 1969: the Manson Family murders and a homicide committed by the Hells Angels in the course of an unruly Rolling Stone concert at the Altamonte Speedway. These occurrences, in particular, epitomized what middle America thought was ‘the new normal’ being brought about by those who were celebrating the 1960s as inaugurating a new era of permissivness.


An active and anxious political consciousness associated with the menace of nuclear war was an integral part of the early phases of the Cold War, highlighted by the Berlin crises climaxing in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 that might well have produced a nuclear exchange had not cooler heads prevailed in Moscow and the most belligerent voices in Washington kept in check. The peace movement expressed its anti-nuclear mood by adopting the survival slogan “better red than dead.” Despite this display of biopolitical common sense, the operational code of the established order, at least in the West, mindlessly based its strategic doctrine and geopolitical activities on the opposite sentiment of “better dead than red,” privileging regime survival over human survival. Any doubt as to this morbid orientation was removed by building an elaborate underground shelter structure designed exclusively to enable the political leadership of the country to carry on the work of government in the aftermath of a nuclear attack even if American society was substantially destroyed—its people slaughtered, its cities reduced to rubble, and its smoke-filled skies saturated with intense radiation. School children were instructed in these years to duck beneath classroom desks, a pathetic gesture of official concern for protecting the wellbeing of the nation’s young people, which did more to call attention to their vulnerability than it did to offer them safety in the event of nuclear war.


Many of us who were old enough to assess this period of bipolar confrontation and mad doctrines of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) came haltingly to the conclusion that only the peoples of the world could emancipate the world from the militarists who were exerting almost total control over the governing process in the countries possessing nuclear warheads. It was this turn to civil society, accompanied by mobilizing efforts in an atmosphere of grassroots fear and apprehension, that produced a measure of political pushback that mounted principled challenges to the moral, political, and cultural postulates of nuclearism, challenges that could be met in the end only by the elimination of the weaponry.


Such anti-nuclear radicalism, although gaining many adherents throughout the world and a few surges of support, never threatened the nuclear weapons establishments around the world in any sustained way. What seemed more effective from a political perspective were liberal incremental initiatives that focused on the excesses of nuclearism such as first strike technology and doctrine and an unregulated arms race, and didn’t view it as realistic to question nuclearism itself. The ‘freeze movement’ that peaked in 1980 was a characteristic liberal effort to curtail the nuclear arms race without directly challenging the wisdom, morality, legality, and most of all the structure of belief and bureaucratic commitment to continuing to ground the security of the West on its reliance on nuclear weaponry. Societal support for such liberal initiatives ebbed and flowed, seemingly tracking the rise and fall of fears in the general public that nuclear warfare would occur as a consequence of Cold War geopolitics. This liberal orientation may have moderated the arms race and mitigated the risks of unintentional nuclear war, but it proved irrelevant, or worse, with respect to the existence and partial normalization of nuclear weaponry as the ultimate foundation of the global security system.


In many respects, the civil society focus shifted from activism to education, a process accelerated by the end of the Cold War, which induced a different set of concerns that can be comprehended as societal complacency or denial. Such attitudes gave rise to a new variety of false consciousness with respect to nuclear weapons, understating risks and ignoring opportunities. The immediate aftermath of the Cold War in the decade of 1990s provided the best geopolitical opening since Hiroshima for the elimination of nuclear weapons, but the leadership in nuclear weapons states saw no reason to depart from its nuclear comfort zone by engaging with a disarmament process. The absence of pressure from below meant that the nuclear status quo would not be significantly questioned despite the erosion of the deterrence rationale that had served as the principal justification for nuclearism put forward by the realist consensus throughout the entire Cold War.


Seeking out of deep resolve to fill this political and normative vacuum with respect to nuclear policy, which is itself a disturbing sign of the times, are a few largely educational efforts of which the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy are two of the longest lasting, most dedicated, and most respected. In my view, although strongly supportive of such an educational outreach, premised on the supreme sanity of the belief that only a world of zero nuclear weapons is morally and political sustainable, these organizations do not clearly enough draw a line separating the stabilizing managerial impulses underlying arms control and the maintenance of the nonproliferation regime from their proclaimed and genuine transformative raison d’ětre of nuclear disarmament. As a result the educational message conveyed is incomplete, and in my view, confusing. To some extent this ambiguity it understandable, and even commendable: nuclear disarmament is not currently on the political agenda in any meaningful sense, and so nudging the nuclear status quo may in certain respects reduce immediate risks (for example, moving away from hair trigger alert for strategic missile forces). From this angle, it makes a certain sense to exert a short-term policy influence by supportive arms control measures while reserving purely educational efforts to explaining the strong case for a world without nuclear weapons with or without an accompanying demilitarization of securitization and geopolitical interaction. What is left insufficiently explored is whether arms control/nonproliferation has the negative effect of sucking most of the energy away from more drastic repudiations of nuclearism.


There are two issues that relate to filling the educational gap created by the failure of universities to prepare students to be citizens in the nuclear age:

–first, the shift of the center of pedagogic gravity from academic institutions to civil society organizations, most notably the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation;

–secondly, to explore whether the path to nuclear disarmament can proceed in tandem with arms control and the nonproliferation regime, or that a choice must be made and explained as between these two approaches. I believe the long record since 1945 of incremental small steps forward combined with the structural rigidity of the nuclear establishment points in the direction of incompatibility. As counter-intuitive as it may sound, the most credible strategy for achieving a world without nuclear weapons requires, in my view, a renunciation of the logic of arms control and nonproliferation. And even a step further, the advocacy of nuclear disarmament must become joined at the hip with the recognition that global demilitarization and conventional disarmament are part of a retrofitted political package of unconditional anti-nuclearism.





The Nuclear Challenge 70 Years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki (7): Nuclear Civil Disobedience

4 Sep


In the years after World War II there was a widespread belief that rational minds would prevail, and that nuclear weapons would not be further developed, and their possession as well as their threat or use prohibited. The onset of the Cold War, the Soviet acquisition of the bomb, and the Eisenhower threat to use nuclear weapons if necessary to end the Korean War basically extinguished any real prospect of nuclear disarmament. Of course, the diplomacy of peace advocacy and of nuclear nonproliferation made it expedient to continue to affirm nuclear disarmament as a goal of foreign policy. And indeed up through the 1960s both Washington and Moscow tabled disarmament proposals with some fanfare, yet clearly lacked the political will to confront what had already become the powerful nuclear establishment that was a principal component of the military-industrial-complex that was so memorably depicted in Eisenhower’s still relevant Farewell Address.


It is against this background that it became increasingly clear that nuclear weapons would remain part of the geopolitical scene so long as their role was left to governments and normal statecraft. Before long all five permanent members of the UN Security Council opted for possession of nuclear weapons, which as a result seemed to connect great power status on a global level with entry into the nuclear club. Its expansion beyond this circle of World War II victors was more problematic as the further spread of the weaponry collided with the geopolitical priority of nonproliferation and with the oligopolistic mentality that was shared by the nuclear weapons states, and belied the central claim of the West that nuclear weapons were needed and effective in a deterrent posture, keeping the peace by discouraging attacks and provocative international initiatives. The strategic rationale for nuclear weaponry relied upon by the United States and Europe stressed the need to offset Soviet superiority in conventional weaponry and territorial access from their base in the Asian landmass.


Ever since the 1980s peace activists, especially those with deep religious convictions, have mounted civil society campaigns centered on the immorality of threatening or using nuclear weapons, and even on possessing and contemplating possible use. Those activists with the deepest convictions have repeatedly resorted to nonviolence civil disobedience, sometimes in provocative forms (spilling their own blood at nuclear facilities, damaging warheads, blocking trains carrying missiles), to communicate the depth of their opposition, and their own willingness to accept prison sentences to get their message better heard. I was deeply moved and influenced by the purity of several of the leading personalities who followed this line of thought and action, and participated in a supportive role by being an expert witness in several high profile legal cases. Among those I came to know through this contact, and particularly admired, were the Berrigan brothers, Daniel and Philip, Elizabeth McAlister, and James Douglass. They were and remain for me among the most charismatic and inspirational figures in my life experience, not only for their anti-nuclear clarity (accompanied by strong earlier stands against the Vietnam War and wider commitments of service to the poor), but for the ways they connected such strong spiritual identities with their daily life styles and citizen engagements that harmoniously fused religious values with deeply felt and reflected upon moral/political understanding of how to live in the world.


I was particularly drawn to the work and outlook of the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Protest founded by James and Shelley Douglass in Bangor, Washington and reaching out to many in the greater Seattle area with their uncompromising and sustained opposition to nuclearism, with a focus on so-called first-strike weapons. There worldview combined their embrace of pre-Constantine Christianity, the early pacifist Christian communities that were persecuted and yet adhered to their beliefs and practices, and Gandhi whose life, work, and thought established the radical transformative potentiality of militant nonviolence. I was impressed during my years of contact with the people of Ground Zero by their deep belief that the point of confrontation is always conversion to truth and right action, and not passing judgment as to evil. By virtue of such efforts they managed to generate widespread sympathy with their work, eventually persuading the formerly apolitical Archbishop of Seattle, Raymond Hunthausen, to join them in nonviolent civil disobedience and gaining the respect and even the support of some local prosecutors.


An important element in their dedicated lives was the strong belief in living up to the Nuremberg ethos, including respect for the UN Charter and for international law generally. It was my role to show that their beliefs in what I called ‘the Nuremberg obligation’ created a civic, if not a legal, duty to oppose within reasonable bounds policies and behavior by a government if it directly violated international law, and the more so, if the context involved warmaking. I also gave my opinion that it was reasonable for individuals to believe that all activities associated with nuclear weapons involved or were leading to the commission of the most severe of war crimes, and that these persons being prosecuted did so believe.


From a somewhat more secular point of view, Daniel Ellsberg, followed in these footsteps, taking a journey that has led him from the pinnacles of state power in Washington as a top level strategic advisor to his brave and precedent-setting decision to release the Pentagon Papers that divulged the secrets wrongly withheld from the American public, a shocking documentary record of the policies and conduct of the U.S. Government in relation to the Vietnam War.

I have known Ellsberg since we were both students at Harvard in the 1950s, and were originally at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Dan was a starstudent of Cold War strategy within the reigning realist paradigm and I was an obscure and alienated critic, but we managed to keep some contact in subsequent years, and I was one of those who Dan entrusted with the cache of top secret documents that constituted the Pentagon Papers, and was later called to testify before the Boston Grand Jury (convened to investigate the criminality of the release) and later as an expert in the criminal trial that the government started and lost with respect to Ellsberg and the NY Times.


Ellsberg also has worked while at the Pentagon on nuclear war plans, the secret of secrets, irresponsibly sharable over the years with such reckless military adventurers as Curtis LeMay and Dick Cheney, and their less extremist colleagues. It is a wonder that with this kind of incubated knowledge of the most deadly reality the human species has ever confronted, that species endangering catastrophes have not yet darkened the horizon.


Ellsberg’s perseverance with respect to nuclear weaponry has become iconic. Besides, lucidly lecturing throughout the world he has committed civil disobedience about 100 times, engaged in long vigils and fasts devoted to dramatizing the failures of the UN and U.S. Government to achieve nuclear disarmament. Most recently, at an event on August 7th observing the 70th anniversary of the nuclear attacks, Ellsberg joined with 50 other protesters in a ‘die-in,’ outside of Lawrence Livermore Labs where nuclear warheads have for decades being continuously developed to attain ever higher levels of annihilating perfection. It is worth observing that the Livermore Labs are located in Livermore, California, which is in the Bay Area, and that the large budget for work on weapons, often more than $1 billion is federally funded by Department of Energy, and the operation is carried on as a partnership between the University of California and several large corporations, an alliance suggestive of the bondings between the government, universities, and the private sector. Ellsberg’s words at Livermore deserve contemplating and heeding as best we can however we are situated:


“The killing at Hiroshima was mass murder.… In the target plans that I worked on, and ones I worked on in Russia, the smoke will go into the stratosphere as it did in Hiroshima by higher firestorm. But simultaneously, thousands of cities, with pillars of smoke, will join around the globe blotting out the sunlight sufficiently to kill harvests around the world, and condemn nearly the entire population of the world to death. It’s the Doomsday Machine, The End. We’ve known that, not at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but for the last twenty-five years, and yet these threats go on; the threats go on. They are threats of ending nearly all life. It’s never a good day to die, but it is a good day to get arrested.”


It is a somber message, but an informed recognition of where we are as a nation, and what this portends for species vulnerability, but also what it means culturally when national security is unethically conflated with a latent threat to commit a massive genocide, even omnicide.


70 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki it is lamentable that more than ever it is the voices in the wilderness that speak most clearly to those who are the global managers of security for the peoples of the world. We can be thankful for those who have put their bodies on the line in this unbroken tradition of anti-nuclear civil obedience. An aspect of the problem has followed from the fact that the media puts almost all of its weight on the side of the nuclear militarists, and refuses to give attention or space to those who for decades selflessly seek to awaken us from this lengthy, hazardous, and immoral ‘nuclear sleep.’