"... a power over nature out of all proportion to their moral strength"
PRINCETON New Jersey, February 25, 1967: Six hundred people gather to commemorate the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, "father of the Atomic Bomb." George Kennan, veteran diplomat, ambassador and "father" of the postwar containment policy against the Soviet Union, said: "On no one did there ever rest with greater cruelty the dilemmas evoked by the recent conquest by human beings of a power over nature out of all proportion to their moral strength. No one ever saw more clearly the dangers arising for humanity from this mounting disparity. This anxiety never shook his faith in the value of the search for truth in all its forms, scientific and humane. But there was no one who more passionately desired to be useful in averting the catastrophes to which the development of the weapons of mass destruction threatened to lead. It was the interests of mankind that he had in mind here; but it was as an American, and through the medium of this national community to which he belonged, that he saw his greatest possibilities for pursuing these aspirations.
"In the dark days of the early fifties, when troubles crowded in upon him from many sides and when he found himself harassed by his position at the center of controversy, I drew his attention to the fact that he would be welcome in a hundred academic centers abroad and asked him whether he had not thought of taking residence outside this country. His answer, given to me with tears in his eyes: 'Damn it, I happen to love this country.'" -- American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, 2006, p. 5.
As much as we would like to forget it, the bombs are still there, in fact proliferating. Shouldn't we, the voters, have some anxiety about whose finger we are electing to put on the button?
Editorial: Presidential stakes are high for nuclear arsenal
WHEN PRESIDENT Truman approved the use of the world’s first atomic bomb, the weapon first had to be transported to the island of Tinian. Stowed in the hold of the USS Indianapolis in July 1945, the journey from San Francisco took 10 days. Flying time from the airfield to the city of Hiroshima clocked in at about six hours, and the bomb itself fell for 43 seconds before exploding.
These hours, minutes, and seconds of history will be front and center this Friday, when Barack Obama becomes the first sitting US president to visit Hiroshima. Yet aside from anniversaries, Americans don’t think much about nuclear weapons today. Perhaps it is the cultural hangover from the Cold War, which often seemed to test the limits of how much fear societies could endure. Perhaps with the bombing of Hiroshima passing from living memory, we’ve simply lost the vocabulary for talking about the mechanics of midnight, as the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists famously christened the end of the world.
Instead, what is left is the absurdist shorthand: “the finger on the button.” What that cliched phrase means today is this: The US president could order a nuclear strike on, say Moscow, and the 12 million inhabitants there would be incinerated about 15 minutes later.
The apparatus of calamity constructed over the past seven decades is more lethal now than it was in the summer of 1945, and it is far easier to use. Its future is worth considering, especially by those seeking the White House. Today, the United States has more than 7,000 nuclear weapons. Of those, 2,000 are deployed, which means they can be launched on a 15-minute alert on the authority of one human being.
Nine months after Obama’s finger was first placed on the button, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in part for his stated goals of nuclear nonproliferation. The administration’s deal with Iran and its efforts to get more than a dozen nations to surrender bomb-grade material are important steps toward checking the spread of cataclysmic weapons.
At the same time, however, the Obama administration oversaw the development of the
B61 model 12, a new nuclear weapon that is small, accurate, and adaptable. In truth, this is what might be called a contradiction bomb: It is the most expensive nuclear weapon project in history, yet it is intentionally designed to get the least bang for the buck. It is a nuclear weapon that looks and feels and can be used like a conventional smart bomb. This ease — even plausibility — of use is what makes this weapon so dangerous.
The Pentagon is also in the process of taking advantage of the already extreme accuracy of missile warheads by changing their fusing mechanisms so as to increase their ability to successfully destroy the hardest targets by a factor of three. This program will vastly increase the killing power of the entire missile arsenal and, in so doing, create the appearance that the United States is preparing to fight and win a nuclear war against Russia.
Americans today have lots of pressing concerns — paying their bills, paying their debts, deciding whom to vote for. The Atomic Scientists even changed their clock in 2007 to reflect the threat posed by climate change rather than just nuclear annihilation.
The country meanwhile spent its Cold War peace dividend on decades of forgetting the stakes, on trivializing the power of the presidency. After all, what really is an affair with an intern, a torture program, a terrorist attack on a remote embassy, when there’s an immediate and existential threat one push away?
Which brings us to Peak Triviality — Donald Trump’s pursuit of the White House.
Not only did Trump not know the basics of the US nuclear triad (the Pentagon’s land, sea, and air contingent of nuclear forces), he also rejects nonproliferation, a strategy fundamental to Western military thinking since Hiroshima. Conservative military thinker Max Boot calls Trump the country’s top national security threat, though surprisingly few Republicans publicly share that view.
Lest drawing attention to this topic be perceived as fear-mongering, consider this interview Trump sat for in March with Chris Matthews:
TRUMP: Look, nuclear should be off the table. But would there be a time when it could be used, possibly, possibly?
MATTHEWS: OK. The trouble is, when you said that, the whole world heard it. David Cameron in Britain heard it. The Japanese, where we bombed them in ’45, heard it. They’re hearing a guy running for president of the United States talking of maybe using nuclear weapons. Nobody wants to hear that about an American president.
TRUMP: Then why are we making them [nuclear weapons]? Why do we make them?
Just because one political party feels that Trump is the most suitable soul to command the world’s most powerful nuclear arsenal doesn’t mean the wider electorate should lose sight of the stakes.
President Richard Nixon was famous for his “madman” theory of foreign policy, whereby his administration tried to convince leaders of enemy nations that he was mentally unstable and thus not to be antagonized. Should he win in November, Trump will have to go to extraordinary lengths to persuade friend and foe alike that he is both predictable and worthy of trust. The fate of nations may depend on it.
May 27, 2016
Silencing America as It Prepares for War
Returning to the United States in an election year, I am struck by the silence. I have covered four presidential campaigns, starting with 1968; I was with Robert Kennedy when he was shot and I saw his assassin, preparing to kill him. It was a baptism in the American way, along with the salivating violence of the Chicago police at the Democratic Party’s rigged convention. The great counter revolution had begun.
The first to be assassinated that year, Martin Luther King, had dared link the suffering of African-Americans and the people of Vietnam. When Janis Joplin sang, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”, she spoke perhaps unconsciously for millions of America’s victims in faraway places.
“We lost 58,000 young soldiers in Vietnam, and they died defending your freedom. Now don’t you forget it.” So said a National Parks Service guide as I filmed last week at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. He was addressing a school party of young teenagers in bright orange T-shirts. As if by rote, he inverted the truth about Vietnam into an unchallenged lie.
The millions of Vietnamese who died and were maimed and poisoned and dispossessed by the American invasion have no historical place in young minds, not to mention the estimated 60,000 veterans who took their own lives. A friend of mine, a marine who became a paraplegic in Vietnam, was often asked, “Which side did you fight on?”
A few years ago, I attended a popular exhibition called “The Price of Freedom” at the venerable Smithsonian Institution in Washington. The lines of ordinary people, mostly children shuffling through a Santa’s grotto of revisionism, were dispensed a variety of lies: the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved “a million lives”; Iraq was “liberated [by] air strikes of unprecedented precision”. The theme was unerringly heroic: only Americans pay the price of freedom.
The 2016 election campaign is remarkable not only for the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders but also for the resilience of an enduring silence about a murderous self-bestowed divinity. A third of the members of the United Nations have felt Washington’s boot, overturning governments, subverting democracy, imposing blockades and boycotts. Most of the presidents responsible have been liberal – Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Clinton, Obama.
The breathtaking record of perfidy is so mutated in the public mind, wrote the late Harold Pinter, that it “never happened …Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest. It didn’t matter … “. Pinter expressed a mock admiration for what he called “a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.”
Take Obama. As he prepares to leave office, the fawning has begun all over again. He is “cool”. One of the more violent presidents, Obama gave full reign to the Pentagon war-making apparatus of his discredited predecessor. He prosecuted more whistleblowers – truth-tellers – than any president. He pronounced Chelsea Manning guilty before she was tried. Today, Obama runs an unprecedented worldwide campaign of terrorism and murder by drone.
In 2009, Obama promised to help “rid the world of nuclear weapons” and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. No American president has built more nuclear warheads than Obama. He is “modernising” America’s doomsday arsenal, including a new “mini” nuclear weapon, whose size and “smart” technology, says a leading general, ensure its use is “no longer unthinkable”.
James Bradley, the best-selling author of Flags of Our Fathers and son of one of the US marines who raised the flag on Iwo Jima, said, “[One] great myth we’re seeing play out is that of Obama as some kind of peaceful guy who’s trying to get rid of nuclear weapons. He’s the biggest nuclear warrior there is. He’s committed us to a ruinous course of spending a trillion dollars on more nuclear weapons. Somehow, people live in this fantasy that because he gives vague news conferences and speeches and feel-good photo-ops that somehow that’s attached to actual policy. It isn’t.”
On Obama’s watch, a second cold war is under way. The Russian president is a pantomime villain; the Chinese are not yet back to their sinister pig-tailed caricature – when all Chinese were banned from the United States – but the media warriors are working on it.
Neither Hillary Clinton nor Bernie Sanders has mentioned any of this. There is no risk and no danger for the United States and all of us. For them, the greatest military build-up on the borders of Russia since World War Two has not happened. On May 11, Romania went “live” with a Nato “missile defence” base that aims its first-strike American missiles at the heart of Russia, the world’s second nuclear power.
In Asia, the Pentagon is sending ships, planes and special forces to the Philippines to threaten China. The US already encircles China with hundreds of military bases that curve in an arc up from Australia, to Asia and across to Afghanistan. Obama calls this a “pivot”.
As a direct consequence, China reportedly has changed its nuclear weapons policy from no-first-use to high alert and put to sea submarines with nuclear weapons. The escalator is quickening.
It was Hillary Clinton who, as Secretary of State in 2010, elevated the competing territorial claims for rocks and reef in the South China Sea to an international issue; CNN and BBC hysteria followed; China was building airstrips on the disputed islands. In its mammoth war game in 2015, Operation Talisman Sabre, the US practiced “choking” the Straits of Malacca through which pass most of China’s oil and trade. This was not news.
Clinton declared that America had a “national interest” in these Asian waters. The Philippines and Vietnam were encouraged and bribed to pursue their claims and old enmities against China. In America, people are being primed to see any Chinese defensive position as offensive, and so the ground is laid for rapid escalation. A similar strategy of provocation and propaganda is applied to Russia.
Clinton, the “women’s candidate”, leaves a trail of bloody coups: in Honduras, in Libya (plus the murder of the Libyan president) and Ukraine. The latter is now a CIA theme park swarming with Nazis and the frontline of a beckoning war with Russia. It was through Ukraine – literally, borderland — that Hitler’s Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, which lost 27 million people. This epic catastrophe remains a presence in Russia. Clinton’s presidential campaign has received money from all but one of the world’s ten biggest arms companies. No other candidate comes close.
Sanders, the hope of many young Americans, is not very different from Clinton in his proprietorial view of the world beyond the United States. He backed Bill Clinton’s illegal bombing of Serbia. He supports Obama’s terrorism by drone, the provocation of Russia and the return of special forces (death squads) to Iraq. He has nothing to say on the drumbeat of threats to China and the accelerating risk of nuclear war. He agrees that Edward Snowden should stand trial and he calls Hugo Chavez – like him, a social democrat – “a dead communist dictator”. He promises to support Clinton if she is nominated.
The election of Trump or Clinton is the old illusion of choice that is no choice: two sides of the same coin. In scapegoating minorities and promising to “make America great again”, Trump is a far right-wing domestic populist; yet the danger of Clinton may be more lethal for the world.
“Only Donald Trump has said anything meaningful and critical of US foreign policy,” wrote Stephen Cohen, emeritus professor of Russian History at Princeton and NYU, one of the few Russia experts in the United States to speak out about the risk of war.
In a radio broadcast, Cohen referred to critical questions Trump alone had raised. Among them: why is the United States “everywhere on the globe”? What is NATO’s true mission? Why does the US always pursue regime change in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Ukraine? Why does Washington treat Russia and Vladimir Putin as an enemy?
The hysteria in the liberal media over Trump serves an illusion of “free and open debate” and “democracy at work”. His views on immigrants and Muslims are grotesque, yet the deporter-in-chief of vulnerable people from America is not Trump but Obama, whose betrayal of people of colour is his legacy: such as the warehousing of a mostly black prison population, now more numerous than Stalin’s gulag.
This presidential campaign may not be about populism but American liberalism, an ideology that sees itself as modern and therefore superior and the one true way. Those on its right wing bear a likeness to 19th century Christian imperialists, with a God-given duty to convert or co-opt or conquer.
In Britain, this is Blairism. The Christian war criminal Tony Blair got away with his secret preparation for the invasion of Iraq largely because the liberal political class and media fell for his “cool Britannia”. In the Guardian, the applause was deafening; he was called “mystical”. A distraction known as identity politics, imported from the United States, rested easily in his care.
History was declared over, class was abolished and gender promoted as feminism; lots of women became New Labour MPs. They voted on the first day of Parliament to cut the benefits of single parents, mostly women, as instructed. A majority voted for an invasion that produced 700,000 Iraqi widows.
The equivalent in the US are the politically correct warmongers on theNew York Times, the Washington Post and network TV who dominate political debate. I watched a furious debate on CNN about Trump’s infidelities. It was clear, they said, a man like that could not be trusted in the White House. No issues were raised. Nothing on the 80 per cent of Americans whose income has collapsed to 1970s levels. Nothing on the drift to war. The received wisdom seems to be “hold your nose” and vote for Clinton: anyone but Trump. That way, you stop the monster and preserve a system gagging for another war.