Remarks at Hiroshima-Nagasaki Commemoration at Peace Garden at Lake Harriet, Minneapolis, Minn., Aug. 6, 2017
Thank you for inviting me to speak here. I’m grateful and honored, but it is not an easy task. I’ve spoken on television and to large crowds and to important big shots, but here you are asking me to speak to hundreds of thousands of ghosts and billions of ghosts in waiting. To think about this subject wisely we must keep all of them in mind, as well as those who tried to prevent Hiroshima and Nagasaki, those who survived, those who reported, those who forced themselves to remember over and over in order to educate others.
Perhaps even more difficult is thinking about those who rushed to make all those deaths and injuries happen or who went along unquestioning, and those who do the same today. Nice people. Decent people. People superficially similar to you. People who do not abuse their children or their pets. People perhaps like the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet who was asked last week if he would launch a nuclear attack on China if President Trump ordered him to. His response was a very principled and reasonable yes, he would obey orders.
If people don’t obey orders, the world falls apart. Therefore one must obey orders even when they rip the world apart — even illegal orders, orders that violate the U.N. Charter, orders that ignore the Kellogg-Briand Pact, orders that annihilate forever all existence of or memory of every beautiful childhood memory and every child.
In contrast, Jeremy Corbyn, the head of the Labour Party in the U.K., and the next prime minister if current trends continue, has said he would never use nuclear weapons. He was widely denounced for being so unreasonable.
We can and must eliminate nuclear weapons from the face of the earth before they are intentionally or accidentally used. Some of them are thousands of times what was dropped on Japan. A small number of them could create a nuclear winter that starves us out of existence. Their proliferation and normalization guarantees that our luck will run out if we do not eliminate them. Nukes have been accidentally launched in Arkansas and accidentally dropped on North Carolina. (John Oliver said not to worry, that’s why we have TWO Carolinas). The list of near misses and misunderstandings is staggering.
Steps like the new treaty advanced by most of the world’s nations to ban possession of nuclear weapons must be worked for with everything we’ve got, and followed with campaigns to divest all funding, and to extend the process to nuclear energy and depleted uranium.
But bringing the nuclear nations, and in particular the one we are standing in, to join the world on this will be a major hurdle, and it may be insurmountable unless we take steps not only against this worst of all weapons thus far manufactured but also against the institution of war itself. Mikhail Gorbachev says that unless the United States scales back its aggression and military dominance with non-nuclear nations, other nations will not abandon the nuclear missiles that they believe protect them from attack. There is a reason that many observers view the latest sanctions against Russia, North Korea, and Iran as a prelude to war on Iran, and not on the other two.
It is the ideology of war, as well as the armaments and agencies of war, that condemns Jeremy Corbyn while applauding a man who professes blind obedience to an illegal order. One wonders whether such good soldiers and sailors view Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov as a degenerate or a hero. He was of course a Soviet Navy officer who refused to launch nuclear weapons during the Cuban missile crisis, thereby quite possibly saving the world. As enjoyable as we may find all the lies and exaggeration and demonization directed at Russia by our elected and unelected officials and their media outlets, I think erecting statues of Vasili Arkhipov in U.S. parks would be much more useful. Perhaps next to statues of Frank Kellogg.
It’s not simply the ideology of war we have to overcome, but parochialism, nationalism, racism, sexism, materialism, and the belief in our prerogative to destroy the planet, whether by radiation or by fossil fuel consumption. This is why I have misgivings about something like a March For Science. I have yet to hear of a march for wisdom or a rally for humility or a demonstration for kindness. We even had a rally for Nothing, in opposition to rallies, organized by a comedian in Washington, D.C., prior to ever having had one demonstration for these other important causes.
There’s a line in a book and movie by Carl Sagan called Contact that has the main character sagely wanting to inquire of a more technologically advanced civilization how they made it past the stage of “technological adolescence” without destroying themselves. But this is not technological adolescence we are in. Technology will continue to produce more and more dangerous devices as time goes by. Technology will not become mature and begin producing only helpful stuff, because technology is not a human being. This is MORAL adolescence we are in. We empower delinquents who urge police to crack heads and their buddies to assault women, and who try to solve problems with giant walls, junior-high-level propaganda, denial of healthcare, and the frequent firing of people.
Or we empower equally adolescent prom-king characters like the U.S. president who went to Hiroshima a little over a year ago and declared quite falsely that “Artifacts tell us that violent conflict appeared with the very first man,” and who urged us to resign ourselves to permanent war with the words: “We may not be able to eliminate man’s capacity to do evil, so nations and the alliances that we form must possess the means to defend ourselves.”
Yet a dominant militarized nation gains absolutely nothing defensive from nukes. They do not deter terrorist attacks by non-state actors in any way. Nor do they add an iota to the U.S. military’s ability to deter nations from attacking, given the United States’ ability to destroy anything anywhere at any time with non-nuclear weapons. They also don’t win wars, and the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, and China have all lost wars against non-nuclear powers while possessing nukes. Nor, in the event of global nuclear war, can any outrageous quantity of weaponry protect the United States in any way from apocalypse.
We must work to eliminate nuclear weapons, President Barack Obama said in Prague and Hiroshima, but, he said, probably not in his lifetime. We have no choice but to prove him wrong about that timing.
We need to evolve beyond what our leaders tell us about nuclear weapons, including what our schools tell our children about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Weeks before the first bomb was dropped, Japan sent a telegram to the Soviet Union expressing its desire to surrender and end the war. The United States had broken Japan’s codes and read the telegram. President Harry Truman referred in his diary to “the telegram from Jap Emperor asking for peace.” Japan objected only to surrendering unconditionally and giving up its emperor, but the United States insisted on those terms until after the bombs fell, at which point it allowed Japan to keep its emperor.
Presidential advisor James Byrnes had told Truman that dropping the bombs would allow the United States to “dictate the terms of ending the war.” Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal wrote in his diary that Byrnes was ‘most anxious to get the Japanese affair over with before the Russians got in.’ They got in the same day Nagasaki was destroyed.
The United States Strategic Bombing Survey concluded that, “… certainly prior to 31 December, 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November, 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.” One dissenter who had expressed this same view to the Secretary of War prior to the bombings was General Dwight Eisenhower. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral William D. Leahy agreed: “The use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender,” he said.
The United States needs to stop lying to itself and start leading a reverse arms race. This will require humility, deep honesty, and openness to international inspections. But as Tad Daley has written, “Yes, international inspections here would intrude upon our sovereignty. But detonations of atom bombs here would also intrude upon our sovereignty. The only question is, which of those two intrusions do we find less excruciating.”