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, and in fact there was a precedent for this much earlier in the 1944 convention when Harry Truman got the vice presidential nomination instead of the New Deal progressive Henry Wallace. That fateful manipulation is seen by some historians as the change that set America on its ruinous path of Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union. [1]
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. [2]

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. [3]

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. [4] 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. [5] 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.[6]
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. [7] When America handed West Papua over to Indonesia in 1967, Japanese corporations got a share of the natural resources.[8] 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. [9] 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” [10] 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. [11]


[1] Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States, (London: Edbury Press, 2013), ch. 4 and 5.

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

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

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

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

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

[9] 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. 

UPDATE: September 6, 2015

Jean-Luc Kister, the agent who placed the explosives on the Rainbow Warrior, gave an interview to the French journalist who broke the story in 1985. He expressed his remorse, saying, "I have the blood of an innocent man on my conscience, and that weighs on me," but he also reproached the French government for having rejected less dangerous interventions that were suggested at the time. What President Francois Mitterand knew about the plan remains an unanswered question to this day.

*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.


Barack Obama on Nuclear Disarmament, 1983

In 1983, when Barack Obama was a student at Columbia University in New York, he wrote an essay for an independent student newspaper on the anti-nuclear movement of the era. Copies of the essay can be found at a few places on the Internet in pdf format, but it seems like no one has created a more legible text version. I downloaded the pdf, ran an OCR scan of the image, and fixed up errors in order to produce the text below.
There are many sad ironies to be found here in the words of this future American president. He decries the policies of the Reagan administration of the day, but the record ended up showing that Obama achieved much less than Reagan and Bush the elder in the way of nuclear disarmament, in spite of having done academic work in the field and having been given a Nobel Peace Prize right at the start of his presidency.
The young Obama lamented the “moribund institutions” that prevented good people from bringing about the necessary changes, and now this seems like a prophetic comment on the limitations he would face in his own future. As president he has been utterly incapable of stopping the deep state from swaggering recklessly from one war to the next. During Obama’s lifetime we have seen the cold war fade out in the Reagan-Gorbachev friendship then fade back in again during the present hostilities between Obama and Putin. Quite an achievement. Reagan himself, if he could see this happening, might crack that wry smile and say to the young Obama, the young President Obama, and to all Americans, “Well, there you go again…

Most students at Columbia do not have first-hand knowledge of war. Military violence has been a vicarious experience, channeled into our minds through television, film, and print.
The more sensitive among us struggle to extrapolate experiences of war from our everyday experience, discussing the latest mortality statistics from Guatemala, sensitizing ourselves to our parents’ wartime memories, or incorporating into our framework of reality as depicted by a Mailer or a Coppola. But the taste of war—the sounds and chill, the dead bodies—are remote and far removed. We know that wars have occurred, will occur, are occurring, but bringing such experience down into our hearts, and taking continual, tangible steps to prevent war, becomes a difficult task.
Two groups on campus, Arms Race Alternatives (ARA) and Students Against Militarism (SAM), work within these mental limits to foster awareness and practical action necessary to counter the growing threat of war. Though the emphasis of the two groups differ, they share an aversion to current government policy. These groups, visualizing the possibilities of destruction and grasping the tendencies of distorted national priorities, are throwing their weight into shifting America off the dead-end track.
“Most people my age remember well the air-raid drills in school, under the desk with our heads tucked between our legs. Older people, they remember the Cuban Missile Crisis. I think these kinds of things left an indelible mark on our souls, so we’re more apt to be concerned,” says Don Kent, assistant director of programs and student activities at Earl Hall Center. Along with the community Volunteer Service Center, ARA has been Don’s primary concern, coordinating various working groups of faculty, students, and staff members, while simultaneously seeking the ever-elusive funding for programs.
“When I first came here two years ago, Earl Hall had been a holding tank for five years. Paul Martin (director of Earl Hall) and I discussed our interests, and decided that ARA would be one of the programs we pushed.” Initially, most of the work was done by non-student volunteers and staff.” Hot issues, particularly El Salvador, were occupying students at the time. Consequently, we cosponsored a lot of activities with community organizations like SANE (Students Against Nuclear Energy).”
With the flowering of the Nuclear Freeze movement, and particularly the June 12 rally in Central Park, however, student participation has expanded. One wonders whether this upsurge stems from young people’s penchant for the latest ‘happenings,’ or from growing awareness of the consequences of nuclear holocaust. ARA maintains a mailing list of 500 persons and Don Kent estimates that approximately half of the active members are students. Although he feels that continuity is provided by the faculty and staff members, student attendance at ARA-sponsored events, in particular a November 11 convocation on the nuclear threat, reveals a deep reservoir of concern. “I think students on this campus like to think of themselves as sophisticated, and don’t appreciate small vision. So they tend to come out more for the events. They do not want to just fold leaflets.”
Mark Bigelow, a graduate intern from Union Theological Seminary who works with Don to keep ARA running smoothly, agrees. “It seems that students here are fairly aware of the nuclear problem, and it makes for an underlying frustration. We try to talk to that frustration.” Consequently, the thrust of ARA is towards generating dialogue which will give people a rational handle on this controversial subject. This includes bringing speakers like Daniel Ellsberg to campus, publishing fact sheets compiled by interested faculty, and investigating the possible development of an interdisciplinary program in the Columbia curriculum dealing “with peace, disarmament, and world order.”
Tied in with such a thrust is the absence of what Don calls “a party line.” By taking an almost apolitical approach to the problem, ARA hopes to get the university to take nuclear arms issues seriously. “People don’t like having their intelligence insulted,” says Don, “so we try to disseminate information and allow the individual to make his or her own decision.”
Generally, the narrow focus of the Freeze movement, as well as academic discussions of first versus second strike capabilities, suit the military-industrial interests, as they continue adding to their billion dollar erector sets. When Peter Tosh sings that “everybody’s asking for peace, but nobody’s asking for justice,” one is forced to wonder whether disarmament or arms control issues severed from economic and political issues, might be another instance of focusing on the symptoms of a problem instead of the disease itself. Mark Bigelow does not think so. “We do focus primarily on catastrophic weapons. Look, we say, here’s the worst part, let’s work on that. You’re not going to get rid of the military in the near future, so let’s at least work on this.”
Mark Bigelow does feel that the links are there, and points to fruitful work being done by other organizations involved with disarmament. “The Freeze is one part of a whole disarmament movement. The lowest common denominator, so to speak. For instance, April 10-16 is Jobs For Peace week, with a bunch of things going on around the city. Also, the New York City Council may pass a resolution in April calling for greater social as opposed to military spending. Things like this may dispel the idea that disarmament is a white issue because how the government spends its revenue affects everyone.”
The very real advantages of concentrating on a single issue is leading the National Freeze movement to challenge individual missile systems, while continuing the broader campaign. This year, Mark Bigelow sees the checking of Pershing II and Cruise missile deployment as crucial. “Because of their small size and mobility, their deployment will make possible arms control verification far more difficult, and will cut down warning time for the Soviets to less than ten minutes. That can only be a destabilizing factor.” Additionally, he sees the initiation by the U.S. of the Test Ban Treaty as a powerful first step towards a nuclear free world.
ARA encourages members to join buses to Washington and participate in a
March 7-8 rally intended to push through the Freeze resolution which is making its second trip through the House. ARA also will ask United Campuses to Prevent Nuclear War (UCAM), an information and lobbying network based in universities, nationwide, to serve as its advisory board in the near future. Because of its autonomy from Columbia (which does not fund political organizations) UCAM could conceivably become a more active arm of disarmament campaigns on campus, though the ARA will continue to function solely as a vehicle for information and discussion.
Also operating out of Earl Hall Center, Students Against Militarism was formed in response to the passage of registration laws in 1980. An entirely student-run organization, SAM casts a wider net than ARA, though for the purposes of effectiveness, they have tried to lock in on one issue at a time.
“At the heart of our organization is an anti-war focus”, says junior Robert Kahn, one of SAM’s fifteen or so active members. “From there, a lot of issues shoot forth—nukes, racism, the draft, and South Africa. We have been better organized when taking one issue at a time, but we are always cognizant of other things going on, and collaborate frequently with other campus organizations like CISPES and REEL­POLITIK.”
At this time, the current major issue is the Solomon Bill, the latest legislation from Congress to obtain compliance to registration. The law requires that all male students applying for federal financial aid submit proof of registration, or else the government coffers will close. Yale, Wesleyan, and Swathmore have refused to comply, and plan to offer non-registrants other forms of financial aid. SAM hopes to press Columbia into following suit, though so far President Sovern and company seem prepared to acquiesce to the bill.
Robert believes students tacitly support non-registrants, though the majority did not comply. “Several students have come up to our tables and said that had they known of the ineffectiveness of prosecution, they would not have registered.” A measure of such underlying support is the 400 signatures on a petition protesting the Solomon Bill, which SAM collected the first four hours it appeared. Robert also points out that prior to registration, there were four separate bills circulating in the House proposing a return to the draft, but none ever got out of committees, and there have not been renewed efforts. An estimated half a million non-registrants can definitely be a powerful signal.
Prodding students into participating in events is tricky, but SAM members seem undaunted. “A lot of the problem comes not from people’s ignorance of the facts, but because the news and statistics are lifeless. That’s why we search for campus issues like the Solomon Bill that have direct impact on the student body, and effectively link the campus to broader issues.” By organizing and educating the Columbia community, such activities lay the foundation for future mobilization against the relentless, often silent spread of militarism in the country. “The time is right to tie together social and military issues,” Robert continues, “and the more strident the Administration becomes, the more aware people are of their real interests.
The belief that moribund institutions, rather than individuals are at the root of the problem, keeps SAM’s energies alive. “A prerequisite for members of an organization like ours is the faith that people are fundamentally good, but you need to show them, and when you look at the work that people are doing across the country, it makes you optimistic.”
Perhaps the essential goodness of humanity is an arguable proposition, but by observing the SAM meeting last Thursday night, with its solid turnout and enthusiasm, one might be persuaded that the manifestations of our better instincts can at least match the bad ones. Regarding Columbia’s possible compliance, one comment in particular hit upon an important point with the Solomon bill, “The thing we need to do is expose how Columbia is talking out of two sides of its mouth.”
Indeed, the most pervasive malady of the collegiate system specifically, and the American experience generally, is that elaborate patterns of knowledge and theory have been disembodied from individual choices and government policy. What the members of ARA and SAM try to do is infuse what they have learned about the current situation, bring the words of that formidable roster on the face of Butler Library, names like Thoreau, Jefferson, and Whitman, to bear on the twisted logic of which we are today a part. By adding their energy and effort in order to enhance the possibility of a decent world, they may help deprive us of a spectacular experience—that of war. But then, there are some things we shouldn’t have to live through in order to want to avoid the experience.