A Lesser Evil or a War Crime?

by Yves Boisvert
La Presse, Montreal, August 6, 2015

Translation of
par Yves Boisvert
La Presse, Montréal, le 06 août 2015

HIROSHIMA -- Mitaki might be the most beautiful place in Hiroshima. The 19th century Buddhist temple is surrounded by a small wood and moistened by nearby waterfalls. The urn buried there contains the ashes of unknown Jewish victims from the Nazi prison camp at Auschwitz.
The strange journey that brought this urn here sums up the misunderstandings and ambiguities related to the victims of the atomic bomb.
The journey took place in 1962. Four young Japanese pacifists undertook a “walk for peace from Hiroshima to Auschwitz.” Their goal was to “unite the victims” of the tragedy of the Second World War.
To the crowds that turned out to follow them they declared, “We Japanese, with our double status as aggressors and victims, have, more than others, a duty to call for peace in the world.”
They arrived at Singapore, but it was at the time when mass graves of the victims of Japanese soldiers had been found. Their welcome was not particularly warm.
They came to Israel at the invitation of the ambassador, but they got a cold reception. Their pacifist and anti-nuclear speeches didn’t have much appeal in a nation that felt threatened on all sides, a nation that had drawn different lessons from the war: a people without military power is at the mercy of assassins. Israel was developing its nuclear program, and they weren’t going to listen to the former allies of the Germans telling them to halt it.
Then they arrived in Poland. This time, their arrival was triumphal. The communist nation found these “victims of Anglo-American nuclear imperialism” to be formidable political symbols. They went to the Nazi prison camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and this is where they were given the urn.
They thought about having it placed in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in order to symbolize the unity of all victims of the war, but they met with opposition from all directions. What right did they have to use these ashes of unknown Jewish victims? The affair became politically untenable and the mayor had to renounce the idea. With nowhere else to go, the urn ended up at Mitaki.
If the victims of the atomic bomb had an ambiguous status after the war, it was because the memories of the aggression by the fanatical Japanese army were more salient. Among the dead at Hiroshima were thousands of “forced laborers”—Koreans conscripted into slavery in factories.
The American version of history is that the atomic bomb was the lesser evil—the only way to end the war in the Pacific. Tokyo and almost seventy other cities had been bombed, but still the Japanese refused to surrender. A report claimed that a land invasion would lead to the deaths of one million American soldiers and 250,000 British soldiers. The destruction of Japan in an invasion would have been worse than the effects of the atomic bombs.


For Robert Jacobs, this version doesn’t hold up. The 55-year-old American historian, born in suburban Chicago, has been at the University of Hiroshima since 2005. We met in an ordinary-looking café, but the walls were the cut-stone façade of a bank, a rare vestige of Hiroshima before August 6, 1945.
Jacobs describes himself as a self-confessed “nuclear obsessive” and concentrates on the effects of nuclear tests that took place throughout the world, and on the fate of nuclear workers like those who work in Fukushima.
“When a woman falls to the bottom of the social ladder, sex work is the last resort. For men it is nuclear work.”
Jacobs added, “I remember the day when I was eight, when they taught us to hide under our desks in case of a Russian nuclear attack. At that instant I became aware of my mortality and the possibility that my entire city could disappear. I went home in a state of terror. Since the age of fourteen I have considered the atomic bombings as war crimes. It is very easy to blame the imperial Japanese government. They launched a ridiculous war and refused to surrender. It is true that the bomb put an end to the war. But the Americans were pursuing other objectives at the time. Stalin’s army was advancing rapidly. They had to show the Russians that the bomb was strategically important.”
General Douglas MacArthur, like many military leaders, was opposed to the use of the bomb, which was a decision made by President Truman. After the war, it was discovered that negotiations for surrender were taking place. The estimates of casualties of a land invasion were contested, and some historians state that an invasion probably wouldn’t have been necessary.


How is it to be living in Hiroshima as an American specializing in nuclear history?
“A small minority expresses its anger against the United States, but in this country with many faces, you cannot always trust appearances. Sometimes forgiving is a way of affirming moral superiority… They say they are happy to have us here.”
The Americans quickly went from being enemies to being occupiers until 1952. During this period, mention of the bomb was banned from the media and works of fiction. Accounts of the hibakusha, or survivors of the bomb, appeared only later, a fact which added to the strangeness of their status.
The United States then became the ally and protector of the country from the communist threat posed by China and the USSR. All of this occurred in a very short time.
“It is interesting to see the reaction of Americans who visit the memorial. Some feel guilty when faced with the destruction of civilian life. Many are disoriented. They are confronted with a new version of history.”
A visit to this sobering memorial does not cover the creation of the bomb. All of a sudden not only the horrifying power of the bomb appears, but also the human disaster that ensued from the only two occasions when it was used.


Ran Zwigenberg, "The Hiroshima-Auschwitz Peace March and the Globalization of the 'Moral Witness'" Dapim: Studies on the Holocaust, Volume 27, Issue 3, 195-211, 2013. DOI:10.1080/23256249.2013.852767

Kenzaburo Oe, Hiroshima Notes (Grove Press, 1965).

Translation of:
by Yves Boisvert
La Presse, Montréal, le 06 août 2015


A Rescript for the Termination of Nuclear Energy

Over the past six months, Japan has marked several famous anniversaries that occurred during the tragic months leading up to defeat in WWII: the bombing of Tokyo in March, the Battle of Okinawa in June, the atomic bombings in early August, and the surrender on August 15th. During this time, the hawkish government of Prime Minister Abe has re-interpreted the constitution so as to allow Japanese military forces to fight outside of Japanese territory, and it has been pushing steadily to restart nuclear power plants. Meanwhile, the Emperor has been traveling often, domestically and internationally, to express messages of regret for wartime aggression and dedication to the cause of peace. The Emperor is not allowed to comment on government policy, so some have wondered if this effort is a veiled attempt to work against Prime Minister Abe and strengthen the nation’s commitment to pacifism. [1]
One could also wonder if he may be having some private thoughts about how the crisis in the nuclear energy sector resembles the nation’s irrational gamble on war in the 1940s. Most of the military and political leadership knew in 1941 that war with America would end in ruin, yet because of a rotating cast of reckless deciders, and leaders who refused to lead and halt the madness, the government drifted toward Pearl Harbor. Once the war had begun, the sunk costs made it impossible to surrender no matter how obvious it was that Japan could never win. [2]
In the same way, it is quite obvious to anyone who is paying attention that you can’t have a corrupt and derelict nucleocracy operating fifty nuclear reactors on a small land mass of earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis and typhoons, and leave all the accumulated nuclear waste (which is also bomb fuel) piling up with no way to dispose of it. It is a crime against nature and future generations, an insult to neighboring countries, and a betrayal of Japan’s commitments to non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. It is just as suicidal and irrational as the determination to keep fighting a war that was lost from the day it was declared.
The Abe government wants to resume operating nuclear power plants in a vain hope to recover the sunk costs and to supposedly “stimulate the economy” by selling this dirty technology to the developing world. The dead-ender military men of 1945 wanted to keep fighting, on empty stomachs and fuel tanks, against both a Soviet and American invasion, along with the prospect of a continuing rain of nuclear bombs. For them a national mass suicide seemed to be preferable. They descended on the palace on August 14th to launch a coup, and the vinyl recording of the Imperial Rescript on the Termination of the War had to be smuggled out in a women’s laundry hamper to be broadcast over the radio.
The irony nowadays is that in the nuclear dilemma there is no one to compare to the few men who had the sense to find a way to surrender. There is no monarch with constitutional powers to step in and make the decision that would avoid a greater catastrophe. I have to wonder if the Emperor has ever wished he could walk over to NHK studios and deliver a speech like the one his father gave on August 15, 1945. I’ve got the draft of it all ready to go (see below).
It is easy to read the surrender speech of 1945 and be dismayed by the evasion of unpleasant topics, such as the recent Soviet invasion of Manchuria, or we can laugh at the understatement of phrases such as “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.” But in seriousness I suggest it may be just this sort of face-saving language that we should look to as a shining example of a way out of our modern world war that is our destruction of nature. I look forward to the day when the five members of the UN Security Council might muster the courage to make similar admissions. Self-deception can get us into vicious circles of tragic errors, but along with plenty of evasion, euphemism and face-saving lies, it can also provide a way out.

(玉音放送 gyokuon-hōsō, Jewel Voice Broadcast)
Imperial Rescript on the Termination of Nuclear Energy (draft proposal, final decision still pending)
To our good and loyal subjects: After pondering deeply on the general trend of the world and the actual conditions pertaining to our Empire today, we have decided to effect a settlement of the present situation by resorting to an extraordinary measure. We have ordered our government to inform the government of the United States, Britain, China, and the Soviet Union that our Empire accepts the provisions of their joint declaration (the Potsdam declaration).
To strive for the common prosperity and happiness of all nations, as well as for the security and well-being of our subjects, is the solemn obligation which has been handed down by out Imperial ancestors and which lies close to our heart. Indeed, we declared war on America and Britain out of our sincere desire to ensure Japan’s self-preservation and the stabilization of East Asia, it being far from our thought either to infringe upon the sovereignty of other nations or to embark upon territorial aggrandizement. But now the war has lasted for nearly four years. Although the best has been done by everyone—the gallant fighting of the military and naval forces, the diligence and assiduity of our servants of the state, and the devoted service of our hundred million people—the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage, while the general trends of the world have all turned against her interests.
The enemy, moreover, has begun to employ a new most cruel bomb, the power which to do damage is indeed incalculable, taking toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, it would only result in the ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation . . . but would lead also to the total extinction of human civilization. Such being the case, how are we to save millions of our subjects, or ourselves, to atone before the hallowed spirits of our Imperial ancestors? This is the reason we have ordered the acceptance of the provisions of the joint declaration of the Powers.
We cannot but express the deepest sense of regret to our allied nations of East Asia, who have consistently cooperated with the Empire toward the emancipation of East Asia. The thought of those officers and men who have fallen on the field of battle, of those who have died at their posts of duty, or those who have met with untimely death, and of their bereaved families, pains our heart night and day. The welfare of the wounded and war victims and of those who have lost their homes and livelihood are objects of our profound solicitude. The hardships and sufferings to which our nation is to be subjected hereafter will certainly be great.
We are keenly aware of the inmost feelings of all our subjects. However, it is according to the dictates of time and fate that we come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable. Having been able to save and maintain the structure of the Imperial State, we are always with you, our good and loyal subjects, relying upon your sincerity and integrity. Beware most strictly least any outburst of emotion, which may engender needless complications, or any fraternal contention and strife, which may create confusion, lead you astray and cause you to lose confidence of the world. Let the entire nation continue as one family from generation to generation, ever firm in its faith in the imperishability of its divine land, and mindful of its heavy burden of responsibilities and the long road before it. Devote your united strength to construction for the future. Cultivate ways of rectitude, further nobility of spirit, and work with resolution, so that you may enhance the innate glory of the Imperial State and keep pace with the progress of the world.
To our good and loyal subjects: After pondering deeply on the general trend of the world and the actual conditions pertaining to our nation today, we have decided to effect a settlement of the present situation by resorting to an extraordinary measure. We have ordered our government to inform the International Atomic Energy Agency that we accept the provisions of our citizens opposed to our further production of nuclear energy and so-called "nuclear waste."
To strive for the common prosperity and happiness of all nations, as well as for the security and well-being of our subjects, is the solemn obligation which has been handed down by our ancestors and which lies close to our heart. Indeed, we have recklessly endangered the natural world with our energy policy, it being far from our thought either to infringe upon the rights of others to live in an unspoiled environment, or to embark upon aggrandizement at the expense of future generations. But now we have been on this path for nearly sixty years. Although the best has been done by everyone—the gallant efforts of our engineers, scientists, corporate leaders, the diligence and assiduity of our servants of the state, and the devoted service of our hundred twenty million people—the nuclear catastrophe situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage, while the general trends of renewable energy technologies have all turned against our interests.
Our competitors, moreover, have begun to employ a new and most innovative technology, the power of which to not do damage is indeed incalculable, taking no toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to create plutonium, it would only result in the ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation . . . but could lead also to the total extinction of human civilization. Such being the case, how are we to save millions of our subjects, or ourselves, to atone before the hallowed spirits of our ancestors? This is the reason we have ordered this radical departure from our established policy.
We cannot but express the deepest sense of regret to our citizens, and other nations of the world, who have consistently cooperated with us since the great disasters of the year 2011. The thought of those people who lost their lives, their loved ones or their homes, of those who were terrified and harmed by radiation spreading throughout the world, pains our heart night and day. The welfare of those who have lost their homes and livelihood are objects of our profound solicitude. The hardships and sufferings to which our nation is to be subjected hereafter would certainly be great if we were to continue down our erroneous path.
We are keenly aware of the inmost feelings of all our subjects. However, it is according to the dictates of time and fate that we come by changing what we thought unchangeable and suffering what is actually bearable. Having been able to save and maintain the structure of the state, we are always with you, our good and loyal subjects, relying upon your sincerity and integrity. Beware most strictly least any outburst of emotion, which may engender needless complications, or any fraternal contention and strife, which may create confusion, lead you astray and cause you to lose confidence of the world. Let the entire nation continue as one family from generation to generation, ever firm in its faith in the imperishability of its divine land, and mindful of its heavy burden of responsibilities and the long road before it. Devote your united strength to construction for the future. Cultivate ways of rectitude, further nobility of spirit, and work with resolution, so that you may enhance the innate glory of our land and keep pace with the progress of the world.


[1] Emperor prodded Abe with WWII ‘remorse’ remark, The Japan Times, June 5, 2015. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2015/06/05/national/politics-diplomacy/emperor-prodded-abe-wwii-remorse-remark-commentator/#.VcoLXFSqpBd

[2] Eri Hotta, 1941: Countdown to Infamy (Vintage, 2014). See location 543/7672, Kindle edition:

“Japan’s fateful decision to go to war can best be understood as a huge national gamble. Social factors made the gamble harder for the leaders to resist, but their final decision to take the plunge was a conscious one. Believing that Europeans fighting Hitler had left their colonial possessions relatively unguarded, some bellicose strategists in the military planning bodies effectively pushed their aggressive proposals forward, convincing their superiors that the more time they took, the fewer resources they would have left to fight with and the more the United States would gain to prepare for what was in their minds an “inevitable” clash—a geopolitical necessity to determine the leader of the Asia-Pacific region… Objectively speaking, it was a reckless strategy of enabling a war by acquiring new territories to feed and fund that war… Not everyone gave up completely on a diplomatic settlement with the United States until fairly late, but nobody was ready to assume responsibility for Japan’s “missing the bus,” in a popular expression of the time, to gain strategic advantage… An unlikely Japanese victory was predicated entirely on external conditions… that were beyond Japan’s control, such as wishful scenarios of the United States quickly suing for peace or of Nazi Germany conquering Europe.”


The New York Times Gloss on Hiroshima and Nagasaki

The New York Times Gloss on Hiroshima and Nagasaki

August 6th and 9th, 2015. Seventy years since the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. The obvious things to say are being said elsewhere, so what follows is an analysis of some American coverage of the dreadful anniversary that has appeared so far.
As this anniversary rolls around each year, the question on everyone’s mind, the aging elephant in the room, is whether an American president will ever visit the bombed cities and admit that, yes, maybe, possibly, WWII could have ended sometime around August 1945 without the atom bomb. And maybe the global existential dread of the following years could have been avoided if America hadn’t scared Stalin into thinking the USSR was the next target. [1] But we may have to wait a long, long time for any words of contrition to be uttered by an American politician. Some officials may visit and go through the usual contortions to show sympathy and express hope that it may never happen again, but it is still impossible for American leaders to describe it as a war crime, or even as a strategic blunder that wasn’t necessary to end the war with Japan. [2][3]
To get an idea of the present limits on American public discourse on this topic, it’s interesting to note who gets to write about it in the perpetrator’s paper of record, The New York Times, one week before the 70th anniversary. The Times could have told the story of its own reporter, William L. Laurence, who was on the payroll of both the Times and the Manhattan Project in the 1940s. He dutifully reported on all the information he had been privy to as soon as the bombs were dropped, then he passed on to the public the military’s lies about the effects of radiation from the bomb blasts in New Mexico, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Journalists and authors who uncovered this gross breach of journalistic ethics have called for The New York Times to apologize for its role as a state propaganda organ, and for Laurence’s Pulitzer Prize to be revoked, but the issue has been studiously ignored by the Times. [4]
In the past two weeks leading up to August 6, 2015, the Times has run several articles about the 70th anniversary, but they have all been short on historical analysis and long on biographical sketches of survivors or scientists from the Manhattan Project. In the example discussed here, the honor of commemorating the occasion went to Ian Buruma, who in 2010 was ranked by the journal Foreign Policy as one of the “top 100 global thinkers.” [5] He was described therein as a “classical liberal” in the political and economic sense of the term.
Included on the list were several members of the political and business establishment (Henry Kissinger, Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Robert Gates, David Petraeus, Bill Gates, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos…) and intellectuals who can be generally described as those who downplay what Western civilization has done to the “developing world” yet hold up Western liberal democracy and economics as the beacon of hope for those who are yet to experience the benefits (Niall Ferguson, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Steven Pinker, Malcom Gladwell, Christopher Hitchens, Thomas Friedman, David Cameron…). Conspicuously absent from the list are famous dissidents such as Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader, as well as many others who are too far outside ideological boundaries to be included.
In the July 28th edition of The New York Times, Ian Buruma addressed the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombs by reviewing the non-fiction book Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War. [6] He paid the obligatory respect to the victims and the peace movement, and he acknowledged the “barbarism” of the atomic bombings and the neglect of the victims during the censorship of the American occupation. The curious omission, however, was the avoidance of the one thing historians have become more certain of over the years: the bombs were not essential for bringing the war to a quick end.
More curious still is the way Buruma accuses the peace movement of being naively manipulated by both rightist and leftist politics. The atom bombs, defeat and the American occupation supplied both left and right in Japan with anti-American grievances, so Buruma asserts, without any explanation, that the peace movement was manipulated by the extreme right, as well as the left.
The problem here is that Buruma confounds two competing views of Japanese history as being one thing called “the peace movement.” Most people who follow Japanese society think of the peace movement as leftist, against all forms of militarization, and very prone to denouncing Japan’s wartime atrocities. In contrast, the views of conservative political parties and right-wing groups are never associated with anything one would call a peace movement. The real peace movement has in fact fought constant battles to portray Japan’s wartime atrocities accurately in textbooks and museum exhibits.
Elsewhere in the review Buruma laments that monuments in Nagasaki Peace Park were donated by the likes of the Soviet Union, Poland, Cuba, the People’s Republic of China and East Germany, and then he drops in the completely irrelevant sentence, “Whether the world would have been a safer place on the terms of the Soviet Union and its satellites is less clear.” There is something strange about the placement of this statement here, and the implication that is attempted. First, was Nagasaki supposed to humbly accept these expressions of sympathy and shared hopes for a peaceful future, or was the city obliged to denounce the givers as insincere hypocrites? It’s not as if the “peace movement” was so politicized that monuments from the USA and other Western countries would have been refused because of their ideology or past deeds. For some strange reason (it’s so hard to imagine what it could be), their contributions are absent. Second, there is the inconvenient fact that the Eastern Bloc and China, for all their flaws, never used atom bombs in an act of war. That’s just something that the cheerleaders of capitalism and liberal democracies have to live with. Finally, it is ridiculous to imply that the acceptance of a few peace monuments meant that “the peace movement” was duped into supporting a world order based on “the terms of the Soviet Union.”
In a similar scaremongering slight directed at the peace movement, he added, “preaching world peace and expressing moral condemnation of nuclear bombs as an absolute evil are not a sufficient response to the dangers facing mankind.” He seems to suggest here that the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have to speak out on every other problem in the world before they should be taken seriously.
The dangers Buruma referred to were actually left unspecified, but it seems the point was made as a deflection to minimize responsibility for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Supposedly, nuclear abolitionists are deluded if they are not fighting threats that lurk somewhere outside the influence of liberal democracies. One would normally think that the only other threat that comes close to the danger of nuclear war is ecological collapse, which is certain to come if current trends continue. But since this is a problem that has been created by the industrial revolution that rode along with classical liberalism, it goes unmentioned. It’s better to just refer vaguely to “dangers facing mankind.” By implication perhaps we are supposed to understand that this refers to the common euphemisms found in American discourse: “instability in the Middle East” or “saber-rattling” by Russia and China.
Finally, Buruma discusses Japan’s attitude toward its post-war liberal reforms. He refutes Southard’s claim that these were forced on Japan by an occupying nation, but again, the facts get in the way. Japan was an occupied nation and the new constitution was imposed in the absence of democratic representation. Most Japanese people may have liked the reforms, but it is an undeniable fact that they had no choice in the matter. Buruma wrote, “They didn’t have to be forced, for they cooperated quite willingly with the Americans who helped instigate them [the reforms].” But it depends on what you call “willing cooperation.” People tend to willingly cooperate in many circumstances where there are no alternatives. The fact remains that they were denied pride of ownership of these reforms because they had no voice in creating them.
What is more important here is that Buruma neglects the national pathology that arose from this lack of agency. It can’t be remedied as long as Japan remains saddled with its American-supplied constitution, occupied by American military installations and subordinate to American policy. The right feels the nation has been emasculated, and the left suffers from the delusion that Japan has been a pacifist country during an era in which the occupation never really ended. Japan has hosted American military bases, and colluded in, supported and profited from American wars ever since the Korean conflict in the 1950s. The left, and the new generation of protesters decrying the recent re-interpretation of Article 9 (which forgoes the use of force as a way to settle international disputes) is upset that Japan is parting from its post-war tradition of pacifism, but they seem unaware of how complicit Japan has been in American wars. In one sense, it will be a good thing if Japanese soldiers are asked to join the next one. In that case, military cooperation with America might become less popular than it is now, and politicians will finally be held accountable for aiding and abetting American strategic goals.
For someone who is considered a leading intellectual and a Japan specialist, Buruma’s discussion of Japanese history here is surprisingly facile and evasive. On the surface, the review is what passes these days as a compassionate think piece on one of the greatest atrocities of history, but on further reflection, it becomes apparent that the review actually serves up mostly backhanded compliments to the victims and the millions of people who have worked to eliminate nuclear weapons. This wouldn’t be the case if he had not decided to use this opportunity to deflect blame onto his ideological opponents from a bygone era and to chastise the anti-nuclear movement for being “politicized” and naïve about unspecified “dangers facing mankind.”


[1] Kate Brown, “The Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters,” interviewed on TalkingStickTV, January 18, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O6Ys8ii6r_M As early as September 1945, Soviet spies had found American contingency plans for targeting Soviet cities with atomic bombs, and this shock came on top of the Soviets’ bitter feelings of betrayal and abandonment by America, a wartime ally that suddenly seemed to want to take maximum advantage of the USSRs devastation in the post-war era. See also Kate Brown’s book Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters, pages 97-98.

[2] Roger Goodman (director), “Hiroshima: Why the Bomb was Dropped,” ABC News, August 1995. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-WnLNLe3sk This documentary is an exceptional case in which a report produced for a mainstream American news channel gave comprehensive coverage of the decision to use the bomb. While leaving the question open for viewers to decide, the evidence presented strongly suggests that American motives were based on objectives beyond the war with Japan, which was sure to end soon thanks to the threat of Soviet involvement.

[3] William Burr (editor), “The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II,” National Security Archive, George Washington University, August 5, 2005, updated August 4, 2015. http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb525-The-Atomic-Bomb-and-the-End-of-World-War-II/ This resource provides a wide range of primary sources that have been used by researchers to support their interpretations of the way America chose to end WWII.

[5] ahughey, “The FP Top 100 Global Thinkers,” Foreign Policy, November 23, 2010.


Bernie Sanders' No-Nuclear Option

Bernie Sanders’ No-Nuclear Option

While Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic nomination has once again made some Americans audacious enough to hope for progressive change, there has been a conspicuous absence in Sanders’ platform of any intention to revise foreign policy and connect it to the concern with domestic issues that has dominated his platform so far. Sanders is yet to tell the American public where he stands on a number of fundamental foreign policy questions, issues related not only to the use of the military but also to human rights and independence movements. It may not be readily apparent to the American public, but domestic problems are all deeply connected to the US role on the foreign stage over the last seventy years.

Foreign policy in the 1968 presidential race

This weakness in Sanders’ campaign is evident if we compare it to one that is similar in many respects. In 1968, Senator Eugene McCarthy launched a campaign for the Democratic Party nomination, and like Bernie, he surprised the nation when his campaign turned into an insurgency that startled the presumptive hares in the race into panic mode. Robert Kennedy was assassinated during the primary race, and President Johnson decided not to run for re-election when he noticed the level of opposition to his Vietnam policy. At the convention, the favorite of the party leadership, vice president Hubert Humphrey, faced a serious challenge from the dark horse candidate McCarthy who had risen from obscurity in a matter of months.
During the convention in Chicago, protesters on the streets were met with the violent suppression of a police force under the command of Democratic mayor Richard Daley. Inside the convention, the party leadership was focused on the need to nominate a moderate candidate who could beat the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon, in the November election. The party brass feared that McCarthy wouldn’t stand a chance running against Nixon, and they did everything possible to make sure the nomination would go to Humphrey, who lost to Nixon anyway. McCarthy alleged that the nomination had been rigged by party bosses. In his article The Ghost of Liberal Democrats Past, Lance Selfa wrote a more thorough account of McCarthy’s campaign, as well as the stories of other leftist Democrat candidates whose platforms disappeared into the mainstream of the party:

… it is worth noting that much of what is being said on the left today about Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign was said about Jackson’s campaigns in the 1980s… consider how the 2000s campaigns of former Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich disappointed their left supporters. Both Jackson and Kucinich ultimately delivered supporters to the more conservative Democrats against whom they had mounted their challenges in the first place. They did this so effectively and seamlessly that it must be said their campaigns aimed to do this from the start. Candidates like Jackson or Kucinich occasionally flirted with the rhetoric of breaking with the Democrats, but their clear commitment in practice was to bring people disenchanted with the party into the Democratic orbit. And meanwhile, Sanders, for his part, won’t even use the rhetoric—he has ruled out running outside the Democratic Party… For those who want to build a stronger left in the U.S., there is no substitute for the work of… organizing a political alternative independent of the Democratic Party. [1]

The starkest difference between McCarthy and Sanders is that the campaign of the former was almost entirely based on a single foreign policy issue: withdrawal from Vietnam. Young men from all social strata were eligible for the draft, even though the lower socio-economic levels and African-Americans were much more likely to end up in boots on the ground in Vietnam. The draft meant that every family had a stake in the game, so an anti-war candidate like McCarthy gathered enough support to be a serious contender for the Democratic nomination. This may be why the draft was never reinstated. One might think that conservatives would prefer to have compulsory military service, but a nation with a certain degree of democratic control can’t be at constant war because draftees, and the people who care about them, vote against wars that have no obvious connection to self-defense.
The focus on foreign policy in 1968 was possible also because domestic issues were, relative to today, not as much of a concern. Racial inequality was, legitimately, the main domestic problem, but in other respects it was a comparative golden era. If there were economic worries, they were coming from corporations that were beginning to fear the impact of the war on profits.
Many critics of today’s Republicans point out that on domestic policies, Nixon would today seem quite liberal, even to the left of Bill Clinton in the 1990s. In 1968, the public education system was functioning, unemployment was low, and government was spending big on NASA and other research programs. It was before the oil shock and inflation of the 1970s, and the neoliberal assault on the domestic and global economy (the promotion of privatization, fiscal austerity, deregulation, free trade, and reduced government spending) was yet to begin. With the basic needs of the public largely met, a greater segment of the electorate had the luxury of not being pre-occupied with personal economic survival. They could focus on the big issues that stood a chance of fixing systemic problems: nuclear disarmament, détente with the Soviet Union, and curtailing foreign military ventures.

The economy? It’s foreign policy, stupid

By 1990, the Cold War had apparently ended, but there are still 16,000 nuclear weapons in the world today. One could ask if eliminating the redundant capacity for overkill, while leaving thousands of nuclear warheads intact and calling this “the end of the Cold War,” was merely a ploy to divert public attention from the excessive military expenditures that were set to continue.
Since the collapse of the USSR, America has maintained its control of the world, as the sole remaining superpower, through military and economic means—although this era may be ending now as China, Russia and BRIC countries are forming several forms of economic integration outside the American sphere of influence. The impact America’s imperial era still has on domestic politics should be obvious because foreign policy requires the labor of the domestic population to be organized according to its demands. It is a policy which, in addition to being a method of controlling the world, is also way to feed and house the population by directing the labor force into military service, national security agencies and weapons production. In a sense, since WWII it has been the social safety net, the sector in which one needed a job if one was to have health insurance, job security, a good salary, and access to decent housing and schools. As long as this policy succeeded as an economic stimulus for the private sector and in delivering social benefits to a large segment of the population, there was little political will to establish other sectors of the economy and other forms of social security.
In recent decades, the growing number of people living outside of this security blanket has created great inequality and social disruption, a trend which has turned the security apparatus against the domestic population—a downward spiral in which a security-obsessed nation houses an increasing share of the population in prisons. A cynic might also say that the increase in domestic economic insecurity was created deliberately, or welcomed, as a way of deflecting attention from America’s role in the world so that the problem of 1968 would never be repeated. Back then, when the domestic population wasn’t kept in such a precarious state, people started paying too much attention to foreign policy.
A case in point that illustrates the domestic dependence on the security state is New Mexico. A recent report in Reveal (by The Center for Investigative Reporting) stated:

For New Mexico, the second-poorest state after Mississippi, nuclear weapons and military bases are undeniably a lifeblood. Out of the $27.5 billion in federal dollars poured into the state in 2013, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts study, about $5 billion went to Los Alamos, Sandia and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the nuclear weapons waste facility east of Carlsbad, where accidents last year exposed dozens of workers to radiation. [2]

The article goes on to describe in depressing detail just how deeply the military complex is embedded in American life. It is easy to denounce all this as rooted in corporate greed and the corrupting influence of lobbyists, but the problem is all the more implacable because no one wants to see the jobs disappear. No one wants to see Albuquerque breaking bad, or breaking worse than it has already since the defense cutbacks of the 1990s.
This is why not even the progressive hero of the hour, Bernie Sanders, is talking about foreign policy or discussing an alternative to the military economy. He has some great ideas for reform, but has little to say about how to achieve it. Higher taxes on the rich and corporations are a good start, but what happens after that?
Some commentary in alternative media has noted Sanders’ silence on foreign policy, particularly his reluctance to say where he stands on Palestine, but the problem goes beyond this one issue. While the US has failed to support Palestine, it has also failed to support Tibet, West Papua, and a long list of other human rights tragedies where the US could do good just by withdrawing economic ties and/or military support from countries such as Israel, China and Indonesia. Doing the right thing would require a complete abdication of America’s self-assigned role as master of the global order, and this would also entail a re-imagining of the domestic economy. One might add that a principled stance on independence struggles elsewhere would require America to face up to what is owed to Native Americans, or to the fact that the Kingdom of Hawaii has been illegally occupied since 1898.
Former inhabitants of the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean protest against the past eviction by Britain and the US for the establishment of the Diego Garcia military base. Photo from The Guardian.
The article in Reveal about New Mexico’s economy gives an idea of what the stakes are. It also raises some mind-bending questions about the Kafkaesque absurdities that arise from the quest for security with a stockpile of 5,000 aging, operationally deployed but untestable nuclear warheads. [3] The defense labs in New Mexico are set to receive hundreds of billions of dollars for the modernization of the nuclear arsenal, but because of international agreements and belated environmental awareness, these weapons can never be tested. They just have to be maintained so that they are certain to function if they are needed. Nuclear scientists say it is like maintaining a car in perfect condition but never being able to turn the key. [4] If it ever were necessary to use the device, it would mean a global nuclear exchange had begun, which would negate the purpose of having the weapons in the first place.
Thus if it is a matter of operating a trillion-dollar economic enterprise on something that can never be used, we can ask whether this is really a massive fetish or virtual-reality game that only creates the illusion that meaningful work is being done. Since the nuclear tests actually are run only on computers, it seems that the enterprise really is virtual, and nothing but a make-work program for technocrats. They could just as well be paid their salaries for playing Second Life for eight hours a day before they return to their suburban homes in Albuquerque. This virtualization is perhaps an ironic correlate of the financial system which also no longer has a connection to the production of tangible goods that people need. However, while a few banks could easily be eliminated, the bombs overseen by the nuclear labs are real, as is the chance of an accidental launch. Furthermore, the accumulated nuclear waste from both the military and “peaceful” uses of the atom poses its own existential threats.
Future uncertain for cleanup sites dependent upon WIPP
Bernie Sanders says he will confront climate change, but he seems unprepared to tell Americans the really bad news that makes it much harder to imagine that a new New Deal could repeat the gains in prosperity of the mid-20th century. It is one thing to admit that global warming is going to be disruptive, but there are no politicians willing to suggest that life might be harder in a less energy intensive society, requiring everyone to have less but share more. No one wants to talk about the other catastrophes developing while we are preoccupied with the climate. For example, if sea levels rise, a great deal of social disruption will ensue, and it is doubtful that there will always be competent authorities watching over spent nuclear fuel during the next century. Seventy years into the nuclear era, there is still no final disposal site for all the nuclear waste accumulated from the military and civilian nuclear programs, yet this issue is completely off the radar during election campaigns. Political commentators sometimes refer metaphorically to issues that are “too radioactive” to talk about, but in this case the meaning is quite literal.

Repudiation of war as a means of settling international disputes

Once we understand that the United States is capable of creating money and directing its human resources toward the useless game of nuclear arsenal maintenance and nuclear waste generation, it is easier to start asking why only such deadly technologies are considered to have economic value. Could there be another endeavor for Americans to devote their labor to? What does America want to be when it grows up? Eventually, empires lose their steam and become ordinary countries. Rome became Italy, which in its modern constitution “repudiates war as an instrument offending the liberty of the peoples and as a means for settling international disputes.” Empires transform themselves or are transformed by outside forces.
After WWII, the US occupation forced post-imperial Japan to accept the famous Article 9 of its new made-in-America constitution, which made it, like Italy, renounce foreign military deployments. Conservative elements have fought against it ever since, and the present Abe government just succeeded in “re-interpreting” it so that Japan could join allies under attack in vague ways yet to be defined.[5]
Article 9 didn’t magically make Japan the peace-loving nation that it claims to be. It is a vassal state, dotted with American military bases and American nuclear weapons. It has rarely opposed American foreign policy or American sanctions imposed on “uncooperative” nations, and it has profited from American wars in Korea and Vietnam. During Gulf War I America asked for military support from Japan, but it was impossible to get because of the American-imposed constitution. Instead, Japan agreed to write a check to the American treasury for $13 billion. [6] When America handed West Papua over to Indonesia in 1967, Japanese corporations got a share of the natural resources.[7] The same sorts of benefits went to other American allies who have passively stood by while the world got carved up. Being a “peace-loving” nation should entail more than just staying out of the fight while sharing in the spoils and being rewarded for cooperation. Friends don’t let friends drive drunk on imperial ventures, but then again, nations that resisted America’s plans have always paid a heavy price.
Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, flawed though it is because of the circumstances of its creation, is at least a beacon of hope, embraced by the majority of a nation that had aspirations for peace after a ruinous quest for empire. America might be able to start solving its domestic problems if it started downsizing its military, like Japan, to what is only needed for true self-defense. Some might say this is ludicrous while Russia and China supposedly pose an existential threat, but parity with these other powers would mean only having the same number of foreign military bases as them—that is, almost none. If America really is destined to lead the world, it could unilaterally start to cut its nuclear arsenal and set the example for other nuclear powers to follow. If such a transformation happened, the Department of Defense could finally be concerned with defense rather than the projection of power to all corners of the globe, and there would be no need for the Orwellian-named Department of Homeland Security.

War and Money

The economic collapse of Greece has made many people realize that the financial assault on the country is just another kind of warfare, yet this shouldn’t come as a surprise. In fact, it appears that markets and warfare were always two sides of the same coin. The chartalist theory of money claims that money came into existence because it was a necessity for military expansion. [8] In order to send armies over long distances, kings needed a way to incentivize local people along the marching route to resupply the soldiers. Kings made coins with their likenesses on them, gave them to soldiers who then exchanged them for food and supplies. For the locals, the coin was a promise by the king to pay the bearer of the coin at a later time in goods of value. At the same time, the kings imposed taxes, and people were now doubly incentivized to earn coins—both for personal profit and to pay taxes to the king. This method succeeded in creating markets, expanding frontiers, projecting power, and getting previously independent communities to willingly submit to this new order because individuals saw in it a possibility of enriching themselves. I don’t see how any modern-day wage-earner, soldier, citizen or consumer could deny that the situation is much the same in the modern plutonium and carbon-based economy.
When people now say that we are at the end of capitalism, that we need a new system that is yet to be invented, perhaps they are asking for a new kind of currency, a system for sharing resources, that is de-coupled from the endless creation of weaponry and military expansion. This is the sort of fundamental issue that Bernie Sanders and other “radical” candidates seem determined to avoid. Instead they offer simple slogans about “getting big money out of politics” and giving Americans “a living wage” without mentioning the transformation of national values that would be needed to achieve such goals. Perhaps they think it is essential to dwell on fixing campaign finance reform first before actually talking about the policies that could arise from a government free of the influence of big money—a government that apparently exists out there somewhere over the rainbow.
Americans should be wise to this game by now after the “hopey, changey stuff” [9] they lived through in 2008, as well as all previous attempts by Democratic Party outliers to change the system from within. The two-party system in the US is run by an oligarchy, and with one party clearly no longer competent enough to run a small-town school board, its remaining purpose is to be a cast of useful idiots who can keep the center from moving to the left. Hilary Clinton will adopt some of Bernie Sanders’ rhetoric, but in the later months of the campaign she will point to a stage full of Republican clowns in order to scare the electorate into voting for the only “realistic” and “pragmatic” choice. I’ll leave the last word to Bruce Gagnon who came to similar conclusions after attending a Sanders rally in early July 2015:

My bullshit meter went off the charts last night. I’ve seen this song and dance before. But it doesn’t really matter what I think because those 9,000 mostly liberal democrats left the Civic Center last night thinking they have found another shining knight on a white horse to lead them to victory. But victory won’t be within their grasp unless we can talk about the US imperial war project that is draining our nation, killing people all over the world, and helping to increase climate change as the Pentagon has the largest carbon bootprint on the planet. Sure taxes on Wall Street speculation will help some but until we get our hands on the Pentagon’s pot of gold nothing really changes around here. [10]

[1] Lance Selfa, “The Ghost of Liberal Democrats Past,” Socialistworker.org, May 11, 2015.

[2] Len Ackland and Burt Hubbard, “Obama pledged to reduce nuclear arsenal, then came this weapon,” Reveal, Center for Investigative Reporting, July 14, 2015.

[4] Joseph Masco, Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico (Princeton University Press, 2006), page 252.

[5] Gwynne Dyer, “Gutting Japan’s Article 9,” The Georgia Straight, July 22, 2105.

[6] Hiroshi Nakanishi, “The Gulf War and Japanese Diplomacy,” Nippon.com, December 6, 2011 http://www.nippon.com/en/features/c00202/

[8] David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years, (Melville House, 2011), pages 46-52.

We can thank Sarah Palin for being right like a broken clock once in a while.


Showa Industrial Devolution site gets UNESCO Heritage status

Showa Industrial Devolution site gets UNESCO Heritage status,
The Yomimuri Shimbun, JULY 6, 2020

BONN — The UNESCO World Heritage Committee approved World Cultural Heritage status Sunday for a Showa Era Industrial Devolution site in Fukushima Prefecture.
The site, now mostly forgotten by a public pre-occupied with preparations for the Olympic Games, is the infamous ruins of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. It was proposed as a World Heritage site for the way it illustrated the hubris and folly of the nation’s industrial and energy policy of the late 20th and early 21st centuries (1945-2011).
The committee was to discuss Japan’s bid on Saturday, but deliberations were postponed until Sunday after opposition from South Korea, China, Taiwan, Russia, India, Pakistan, France, Belgium, Sweden, Finland, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada on the grounds that granting World Heritage status on the nuclear catastrophe of 2011 might imply that their own pursuit of nuclear energy is destined to end in similar tragedy.
The committee’s members, including the above named countries, approved Japan’s bid unanimously after Japan made a concession that admitted the catastrophe occurred only because of a defect in national culture and psychology, not in any inherent flaws in humanity’s ability to control a complex technology that has the potential to contaminate the entire planet. Other nations, ones which never developed nuclear energy programs, insisted also that Japan acknowledge the injustices that arose from the catastrophe. Japan agreed to set up an information center to deepen the understanding that “a large number of society’s most disadvantaged laborers were brought to the Fukushima Daiichi ruins to work under harsh conditions, and many residents in the region were denied compensation and forced to return to lands still contaminated with radionuclides.”
The information center will open in 2025, and by 2075 it is expected that radiation levels will have declined enough for visitors to safely stay for at least a few hours.

Related stories:
Mutant Butterflies Found Near Fukushima, The Onion, August 2012.


After the Rainbow Warrior Attack and French Nuke Tests, Les Responsables Thrived in the Homeland

Thirty years ago this month, France conducted an act of state-sponsored terror on a Western ally, and other members of this free, democratic non-communist alliance would eventually turn a blind eye to the deed and help France escape with impunity.
The tale is well commemorated in the report published recently in the New Zealand Herald, Rainbow Warrior—30 Years On. Some of the highlights are listed below:

  • Evidence shows that the operation was ordered at the highest level by Francois Mitterand.
  • Greenpeace photographer Fernando Pereira drowned when the boat sank.
  • The French had long been antagonized by New Zealand and Australia’s protests against nuclear testing in the South Pacific, and especially by New Zealand prime minister (1984-89) David Lange’s principled and vocal opposition.
  • The operation was clumsily executed, tripped up by the agents’ inability to operate in a calm and orderly environment where people noticed outsiders and took down license plate numbers when they saw suspicious people.
  • The French were caught red-handed, and blame quickly passed up the chain of command. France paid compensation and had to accept the convictions for manslaughter and other high crimes, but they would eventually keep their loyalty to their agents and extract them from their prison cells. The French used economic and diplomatic warfare to pressure New Zealand. When it became obvious that the French had muscled the EU into slapping a boycott on New Zealand agricultural products, New Zealand had to put priority on saving its economy, so the prisoners were all soon back in France. One of them is the brother of the current Minister for Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy, Ségolène Royal. The perpetrators and the French intelligence and political establishment remain unapologetic, and have always maintained their attitude of an entitlement to impunity.
  • From 1966-96, France conducted almost 200 nuclear tests at Moruroa and Fangataufa, some of them hydrogen bombs, some of them conducted above ground and some below—all for the sake of carrying out useless nuclear tests that destroyed the natural environment, and destroyed the health of the islanders and military personnel who had to participate in the blasts—damage which the French government has always steadfastly denied.
  • By the time the Rainbow Warrior attack occurred, independent organizations and the governments of Australia and New Zealand had been aggressively protesting French nuclear tests in the South Pacific for two decades. The state-sponsored terror attack on New Zealand could be viewed as the culmination of this bitter dispute.

It would be tempting to think that this is all in the past and things are different now, but the chickens eventually come home to roost, and it is becoming clearer to French citizens that they will be the ultimate victims of the nuclear establishment that used to do its damage in far-away places.
As I have followed the trials and tribulations of the French citizens who stand up to the French nucleocracy, I have come to know the geologist Antoine Godinot who has been very active in the struggle to make ANDRA, the French agency responsible for nuclear waste, admit to the errors of its ways. An alliance of citizen groups has been fighting a legal battle to make them stop denying that the massive nuclear waste repository project in Bure has been sited over an aquifer that could be a future source of geothermal energy. In addition, it will likely be contaminated in the distant future if the waste is buried. (Previous reports on the legal case can be found here).

Recent correspondence from Antoine Godinot points out the links between the military and civilian nuclear establishment. Personnel from the old weapons program in French Polynesia have ended up in Bure where they have been busy pushing the project ahead in spite of whatever public opposition arises. Do French citizens have any reason to feel they will be more respected than the crew of the Rainbow Warrior?

From Antoine Godinot (with permission):
The world is small. Jacques Delay, our present international secretary of ANDRA (still based in Bure where he was originally scientific director) was in Moruroa at that time of the Rainbow Warrior bombing to do some drilling. His boss there was Yves Caristan, the head geologist for the “substratum” of Moruroa/Fangataufa where atomic bombs were detonated underground. Yves Caristan later became Director of the CEA in Saclay (overseeing 5000 personnel) from 2005 to 2012. He was also director of Material Sciences at the CEA, and is involved in the creation of the University of Paris-Saclay. In other roles, he was in the management of Bureau de Recherches Géologiques et Minières (BRGM,  the French geological survey) when he returned from Moruroa. It was he, the direct superior of Jean-Claude Baubron, who intervened, at the CLIS in Bure*, May 26, 2003, to answer Andre Mourot and affirm that, according to him, there was absolutely no geothermic potential at the site. This was similar to the way Yves Caristan said to the media in 1995 that the cracks in Moruroa were not moving one iota, whereas the CEA acknowledges today that the northeast of the atoll could collapse, and that the fractures have never moved as much as they did in 1995. In Moruroa, one learned to lie.
Why did the little Greenpeace boat have to be bombed, with people sleeping on board likely to be killed, if there was nothing to hide in Moruroa/Fangataufa? Every detonation is an act of nuclear waste burial, but officially only 1 in 3 leaked very quickly. As for the others, probably none of them were totally contained (first of all, some cables linked the bombs to the surface). The government refused access to CRIIRAD, an independent laboratory (here) which made several requests to go to Moruroa/Fangataufa . Yves Caristan and Jacques Delay were on the team that buried other radioactive wastes from the surface in the karst coral aquifer of Moruroa. 

*Comité Local d'Information et de Suivi du Laboratoire souterrain de recherché sur la gestion des déchets radioactifs de Bure
This is a public relations office of the nuclear industry which was established to facilitate the flow of information to citizens and involve them in issues concerning nuclear waste disposal in Bure, France. In France, and elsewhere, opponents of nuclear energy view such operations as charades that only create an illusion of public involvement and consent.