More Ringo, Less John: Nuclear Disarmament Don't Come Easy

More Ringo, Less John: Nuclear Disarmament Don't Come Easy

Peace, remember peace is how we make it,
Here within your reach
If you're big enough to take it.
I don't ask for much, I only want your trust,
And you know it don't come easy.

-Ringo Starr (April 1971)
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...
-John Lennon (October 1971)

It has become impossible to talk about a world free of nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants without facing the urgent problems that stand in the way. The grim meat-hook realities [1] of conventional war, environmental degradation and inequality lie in wait for anyone who wishes for a world free of nuclear technology. Earlier this year the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, a proponent of the elimination of both nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants, pointed out that American military spending is the greatest obstacle to a nuclear free world. [2] Smaller nations will not even think about reducing their arsenals while one nation maintains its stockpile of thousands of nuclear warheads and has higher military expenditures than all others combined.

If we could imagine a future time when the global network of American military bases was rolled back to the homeland, and American military power shrank to a size sufficient to defend only itself, then other nations might be ready to reduce their arsenals as long as America and Russia agreed to reduce theirs to hundreds of weapons rather than thousands. At this level they would be at parity with other nations, so all nuclear-armed states could start talking seriously about the path to zero. But this is a long, long way off. In spite of Vladimir Putin's recent rebuke telling America to "look at what you have done," [3] the American political establishment has no interest in reading Chomsky and taking that long, hard look in the mirror to see the role it has played in the world over the last century.

Even if we could get to serious talks about nuclear arms reduction, the present framework promotes nuclear energy and promises that all nations that give up nuclear weapons will still have access to the "peaceful" uses of the atom. This path became entrenched in the 1950s during the first serious moves to slow the arms race. At that time even the most dissenting scientists had faith that peaceful applications of nuclear energy could be developed. They had to keep this faith because otherwise the bombs they had made would weigh too heavily on their conscience. Thus no one was motivated to ask the necessary questions about accidents, internal radionuclide contamination, and waste disposal. Nuclear fission was understood 15 years before the structure of DNA was discovered, so no one was thinking much about what a beta particle could do to a strand of DNA. In the 1950s there had been no commercial nuclear reactor meltdowns, the toxic operations and accidents of uranium mining and nuclear fuel facilities were poorly understood, and environmental awareness was yet to be a political force.

The first signs of an anti-nuclear energy movement emerged in 1957 in California with the successful protests to cancel the proposed Bodega Bay power plant. [4] Later, scientists like Alice Stewart, Ernest Sternglass and John Gofman broke away from the nuclear science establishment when their research findings convinced them that nuclear power posed unacceptable risks to the public. Gofman was notable for being against nuclear power but in favor of nuclear deterrence and underground testing. [5]

Several nuclear reactor and fuel facility accidents occurred during the 1950s and 1960s, but the public knew little or nothing about them. Then the big catastrophes happened at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. These all had an impact on the political and financial viability of nuclear energy, but they didn't lead the international community to call for a ban on nuclear power. The attitude all along among governments and the United Nations seems to have been that eliminating nuclear weapons is the priority: we will work on that first then maybe talk about nuclear power later—which, at the current pace, means never.

Even though nuclear power plant catastrophes continued to happen every one or two decades while nuclear disarmament talks proceeded, their obvious danger never registered in the official consciousness. No nuclear bombs had been used in war since 1945 and none had been accidentally detonated, but in contrast there were three nuclear power plant catastrophes, all of which came very close to being exponentially worse. With these nightmares staring them in the face, the only lesson the so-called global community seemed to draw from them was that they were miniature demonstrations of how bad a nuclear war would be: look at that exploding nuclear power plant over there, doesn't that remind you of the need to eliminate nuclear weapons?

So this is how far we have to go to get to a nuclear free world, but first there is that problem brought up by Mr. Gorbachev, the same problem that Russel and Einstein emphasized in 1957: Peace first, then get rid of the bombs. [6] The dreadful news out of Syria, Yemen, Turkey, Lebanon and France in recent weeks is a grim reminder of how far humanity is drifting from these goals. Every drone and suicide bomb delays the elimination of nuclear bombs.

The transcript below is a translation of an interview with the former prime minister of France (2005-2007), Dominique de Villepin, one which was aired on television in 2014, before the Charlie Hebdo murders and the attacks of November 13, 2015. Monsieur de Villepin was also famous for being the foreign minister at the time when France refused to go along with the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. One could easily find some of the same views expressed in other intelligent commentary on world affairs, but this interview is striking for the fact that these are the views of a political conservative. The reasoned approach that is expressed here is no longer found in either of the mainstream political parties in America, and even that radical socialist Bernie Sanders prefers to say as little as possible about foreign policy.

Obviously, it is easy for ex-prime ministers to be critics. If M. de Villepin were in power now, I doubt that he would do anything differently than President Hollande is doing because the situation created by the invasion of Iraq in 2003 has forced Russia, France and others to take drastic measures to reverse the descent into further chaos.

Some of France's former colonial sujbects might beg to differ with M. de Villepin's view that "we are peacemakers, interested in dialog, we are mediators." The use of a modal verb (are should be peacemakers…) might have expressed the ideal and aspiration more accurately, but nonetheless, his understanding of the present situation passes as the height of reason in the present political climate. If Monsieur de Villepin is wrong on the historical interpretation, he is right on the ideals. France should stick to its Enlightenment values because after all else is put aside, these are what need defending from extremists on both sides of the conflict.

Former Prime Minister of France (2005-2007), Dominique de Villepin, spoke about Syria and terrorism during a television interview held on September 29, 2014
translation by Dennis Riches
English version:  https://youtu.be/xE0zOktY4K0 (with English and French subtitles)
French version: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x26sp1d_de-villepin-a-propos-de-l-etat-islamique-6-minutes-d-intelligence-et-de-lucidite_webcam (original source, no subtitles)

Dominique de Villepin, you think this war is a mistake, another mistake, so could you tell us why?

Military interventions, when they are circumscribed, with a targeted and limited objective, can be effective. They are one of the tools that all democracies should be able to use in certain circumstances with reason and in the most restrained way possible, but in the present case, we are engaged—and the head of state has stated it very clearly, and the Americans have told us in the clearest way—we are engaged in a war against terrorism. The war against terrorism cannot be won. There is not even a chance of winning. Failure is guaranteed from the outset. Why? Because terrorism is an invisible hand, mutating, changing opportunistic. We don't know how to fight an invisible hand with the weapons of war.

We have to be capable of using all our mental faculties, statecraft, and peaceful means to break up the solidarity which is forming around these terrorist forces. So we need a political strategy, a political vision, a capacity to think of actions far beyond the use of bombs and military action in the strictest sense. All we know—and there is no counter-example—all we know of this type of war that has been waged for decades, in particular in Afghanistan, is that it leads to failure. There is no example today—Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya—that has not led to more war and more chaos. So we are favoring a situation in which, by war, we hope to do better than in the previous war that we waged, while being aware that this Islamic State has been let loose. We ourselves played a large part in feeding it from one war to the next, from 2003 to 2011, in the support of Syrian rebel groups. We are trapped in a vicious circle.

And it is not only ineffective. It's also dangerous because beyond the Middle East region we have to consider the whole Arab-Muslim world where there are many crises, injuries, and scars. It is in a profound crisis of modernization which has at its heart a violent social crisis which hits the most disadvantaged, and even the middle classes because of corruption and the fall of oil prices. The region has deep inequalities.

Many of the jihadis come from the middle classes. So we are feeding the cycle of escalation. We want to believe that the images of horror that we see here, unfortunately, are decreasing the appeal of jihad, but this is also a phenomenon with magnetic appeal for certain people. They don't see the same images on the other side of the Mediterranean. They don't see the same spectacle. They don't interpret them in the same way because their identities are wounded. What is true over there, is also, unfortunately, true here in France. The escalation helps in recruiting jihadis over there, and there are consequences here too.

We strike in Syria and Iraq, and we hit a terrorist enemy. What is the result? The horror when we found out our compatriot Herve Gourdel was cowardly assassinated. Where? In the mountains of Algeria. This means that tomorrow all these minorities who, brandishing the banner of Islam, acting in the name of Islam, aren't actually doing so. Islam is not the problem. It is the flag of Islam that is brandished. And these minorities exist in Myanmar, in Malaysia, in Thailand and Indonesia, in all of the Arab world and also in Maghreb (North Africa) and throughout Africa. In all these places these minorities can find common cause. This means that we are helping in this war against terrorism to bring about a crystallization of these diverse groups who are finding ways to link up and escalate the violence to a level that is the most cruel, the most murderous and the most violent because this is the way to attract fighters and financial support. Behind all this there is a race toward death, a race to recruit more jihadis, which is utterly horrifying.

I would like to finish by saying I would like to be able to boast this evening. I would like to be able to say that we are ready. I would like to be able to say that we are not afraid, but this would be a lie because the French are a democratic society that has not engaged in security as other democratic societies have, like the Americans. Overseas communities of Americans are bunkerized and barricaded, in a way no others come close to, and so the risk is much less for them than for us. Israel has chosen the same path. Israeli society has chosen the policy of the security state. But the situation is different in France. We are exposed to the four winds, particularly in Maghreb, in the Middle East, in Asia, and so we are in a vulnerable situation. And what is true there is true in France as well.

So, as a fundamental understanding of this complexity, I would like us to take the lead in a crusade, but I want us to take account of the risks and know that this crusade can't win anything. Right now we are feeding a process of destruction. We are feeding a process of hate. And this is not because there is not anything else to do. There is obviously a lot that we can do, moving in a completely different direction—with a political strategy, accompanied by military strategy, highlighting who should be taking the lead: the countries of the region themselves. There are about 500-600 fighter aircraft in the region that belong to the Gulf countries. They are perfectly capable of leading the response.

But we follow the Americans, who, as always, look for enemies all over the world, and they are engaged in a sort of universal messianic quest. France does not play this role. It is not our vocation. We are peacemakers, interested in dialog. We are mediators. Now we are being used against this objective, led down a path that has no logical end because this war against terrorism has no end. It is a perpetual war. We know that it cannot stop. Hatred leads to more hatred. War leads to more war.


[1] The phrase originated with Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971).

[2] "Gorbachev calls US military might 'insurmountableobstacle to a nuclear-free world,'" Russia Today, August 6, 2015, http://www.rt.com/news/311796-gorbachev-nuclear-free-world/.

[3] Luciana Bohne, "A Game of Dice With Russia: 'Do YouRealize What You Have Done?'" Counterpunch, October 1, 2015, http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/10/01/a-game-of-dice-with-russia-do-you-realize-what-you-have-done/

[4] Paula Garb, "Review of Critical Masses: Oppositionto Nuclear Power in California, 1958-1978, by Thomas Raymond Wellock." Journal of Political Ecology: Case Studies in History and Society, 6 (1999), http://jpe.library.arizona.edu/volume_6/wellockvol6.htm 

[5] Pat Stone, "John Gofman: Nuclear and Anti-NuclearScientist," Mother Earth News, March–April 1981, http://www.motherearthnews.com/nature-and-environment/john-gofman-anti-nuclear-zmaz81mazraw.aspx

[6] "The Russell Einstein Manifesto," Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, July 9, 1955, http://pugwash.org/1955/07/09/statement-manifesto/.


  1. Thanks for the video. I got the translation in spanish, how can i upload to youtube?

    thanks again.

  2. You can contact me by email and then I'll explain how to do it. dennis.riches[at]gmail.com

  3. Replies
    1. Sorry, I haven't got your email. You can try again or post your translation here in the comments, then I'll put it on the youtube video.