A Conversation with David Krieger

By |2019-07-10T10:27:32-07:00July 10, 2019|

A short version of this interview appears in the 2018 Annual Report

Why did you choose to go to Hiroshima just after college? Was there any one person who touched you the most? You’ve talked about above and below the bomb. What other feelings did you have? Did you have an awareness at the time that the visit would change your life?

David KriegerI went to Japan when I was just out of college because I was interested in learning more about Japanese culture.  I didn’t go specifically to see Hiroshima or Nagasaki.  I did, however, visit both atom-bombed cities during my stay in Japan and became more deeply aware of the destructive and inhumane power of the atomic bomb.  In school in the U.S., I learned the lesson that the creation of the atomic bomb was a great technological achievement.  In Japan, I was moved strongly by the pain, suffering and death caused by the atomic bombs.  I came to realize that the U.S. technological perspective was from above the mushroom cloud, while the Japanese perspective was a reaction from beneath the mushroom cloud and was a far more humane perspective.  Over the years, I’ve met many hibakusha, survivors of the atomic bombings, and I’ve found them to be compassionate, forgiving and committed to assuring that nuclear weapons are abolished so that no one in the future experiences the horrors that they did.

One emotion that I experienced in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was fear – fear for the future of humanity and all life.  I also felt great empathy for the people beneath the bombs and admiration for their forgiveness of those who used the weapons on them.  In viewing the damage done in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I felt that I came face to face with evil, but I had no idea at the time that seeking the abolition of nuclear weapons would become the central focus of my life’s work.

Tell us a little about becoming a conscientious objector. What led to that decision and how did it impact your life?

When I left for Japan in the summer of 1963, the draft age for the military was 23 and I was 21.  When I returned from Japan about a year later, I was 22 and so was the draft age.  I was on the verge of being drafted, but managed to get into a reserve unit as an alternative.  At the time I was naïve and didn’t consider being a conscientious objector.   It was only some years later when I was called to active duty in 1968 that I realized that I could not fight, or lead others to fight, in what I saw as an illegal and immoral war based on lies by our government.  In early 1969, I filed for conscientious objector status.  My application was initially denied, and I sued the U.S. Army in federal court.  I lost in the lower court, but that decision was reversed and remanded by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.  I was one of the first officers in the Vietnam War to file for conscientious objector status. I am proud of taking that personal stand against the Vietnam War.  I was fortunate to have a wife who stood by me as I struggled against the military, and to have had a great lawyer, Brook Hart, who was dedicated to the anti-war cause.

Tell us about your decision to found NAPF. Was your family supportive of the decision? How did you choose the name?

Shortly before founding NAPF, I worked for a wonderful Dutch Foundation called the RIO Foundation.  RIO stood for Reshaping the International Order.  The Foundation was led by Jan Tinbergen, the first Nobel Laureate in Economics, and was a spinoff of the Club of Rome.  The RIO Foundation was dependent on the Dutch government for its funding, and when the government changed in 1981, the Foundation lost its funding.  Suddenly, I was without a job, which was extremely worrisome since we had three children still at home.  By this time, I knew that what I really wanted to do was address the issues of global peace and nuclear weapons abolition.  I prepared a pamphlet on these subjects titled “Peace Now,” and began talking with a few people about the idea of creating a new organization to address these critical issues.  One of the people I spoke with was Frank Kelly, who had been a vice president of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions when I worked there.  Frank was interested.  Eventually we were joined by three other individuals – Wally Drew, a former executive with Revlon; Charles Jamison, a Harvard-trained lawyer; and Kent Ferguson, an innovative educator and headmaster of Santa Barbara Middle School.  We met weekly for about a year and decided to create the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.  Frank, Wally and Charles were all World War II veterans.  They had seen enough of war and recognized the dangers of the Nuclear Age.  Kent was younger, but passionate about peace and education.

Charles Jamison did the legal work to establish the new non-profit corporation, the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.  I was the founding president.  The problem we confronted was that we had no resources to start with, so there was considerable risk that we wouldn’t survive.  To begin, I volunteered my time, as did everyone else.  I had to work at other jobs to keep food on the table at home.  For a while, I was working at two jobs, going to law school in the evenings and trying to build the Foundation.  Somehow we were able to keep the Foundation alive and moving forward.

We began with three beliefs: first, peace is an imperative of the Nuclear Age; second, we must abolish nuclear weapons before they abolish us; and third, it will require extraordinary ordinary people to lead their leaders.  The name of the Foundation reflects the first of those beliefs.  Our principal goals were to build a thriving institution that would realize our dreams of creating a peaceful world, free of nuclear weapons, an organization that would grow and speak to people everywhere and win their trust and support.

Were there many different phases at the Foundation?  Did you ever consider closing? Did you ever consider an office in D.C.?

From the beginning, the Foundation has been an experiment in institution building.  We were very fortunate to have found a donor, Ethel Wells, who believed in our goals, and was generous in helping the Foundation to grow and take on new projects.

Our work is intangible.  It is education and advocacy.  It has to do with waking people up to the dangers of the Nuclear Age and convincing them that they can play a role in achieving a more peaceful and secure future.  Our very first project was to start a Waging Peace series of booklets.  The first booklet in the series, written by Charles Jamison, was called “Can We Change Our Thinking?”  It was a reflection on Einstein’s famous quotation, “The splitting of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”  Soon after that publication, we had our first Evening for Peace, honoring Senator Claiborne Pell as our first Distinguished Peace Leader.  Over the years we’ve honored a stellar group of Distinguished Peace Leaders, including Desmond Tutu, the XIVth Dalai Lama, Jody Williams, Mairead Corrigan Maguire, Helen Caldicott, Jacques Cousteau, Dan Ellsberg and Noam Chomsky.  Many more projects would follow.

We’ve never actually considered closing our doors.  We’ve been fortunate to have been able to keep them open for 37 years and I hope there will be many more years to follow.  We did have an office in Washington, D.C for a few years, but we felt it limited our vision to the politically possible rather than the necessary, and decided to close it.

What are some of your most favorite career memories?

David Krieger presented Noam Chomsky with the World Citizenship Award in 2014.

High on my list of favorite career memories are the enthusiasm with which we created the Foundation; the $50,000 prize we were able to offer for the best proposal for science and peace and our role in creating the International Network of Engineers and Scientists for Global Responsibility; lobbying at the 1995 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review and Extension Conference and at many other international meetings; creating Abolition 2000; inspiring the youth of Soka Gakkai to gather more than 13 million signatures on the Abolition 2000 petition and delivering these to the president of the 2000 NPT Review Conference; engaging in a dialogue with SGI President Daisaku Ikeda, published in Japanese, English and Italian as Choose Hope: Your Role in Waging Peace in the Nuclear Age; engaging in a dialogue with Princeton professor emeritus Richard Falk, published as The Path to Zero: Dialogues on Nuclear Dangers; working with my friend and the Foreign Minister of the Marshall Islands on suing the nine nuclear-armed countries to fulfill their nuclear disarmament obligations; building a strong team of younger people to carry on the work of the Foundation.

Tell us about some of the people who were part of your journey.

I’ve been struck by what extraordinary people I’ve met on the path to peace.  There are too many of these to mention, but a few of the people I view as heroes include Desmond Tutu, Jacques Cousteau, Joseph Rotblat, A.N.R. Robinson, Daniel Ellsberg, Yehudi Menuhin, Mairead Corrigan Maguire and Carl Sagan.

Who were the biggest influences on your life? Is there any one particular person who stands out as the most influential person?

There were many people who exerted influence on my life, but three women stand out:  my mother, my wife and the woman I worked for and with at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.  My mother believed that I could do whatever I set my mind on doing, and she made possible my first trip to Japan.  My wife, Carolee, stood by me through the uncertainty of my refusing to participate in the Vietnam War and the uncertainty of creating and developing the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.  Elisabeth Mann Borgese showed me the possibility of following one’s dreams to create a better world.  In her case, it was the dream of peace through harmonizing the functional uses of the oceans in a much needed new law of the sea.  She saw the oceans as the “common heritage of mankind,” and believed that just as life began in the oceans and then came onto the land, a new law of the seas would spark a new international law for humankind.

How soon after founding NAPF did you revisit Hiroshima? Can you describe the feelings you had, after you’d learned so much more about what happened there? Have you revisited Hiroshima and Nagasaki numerous times over the years? Do you still find yourself impacted by what happened there?

We founded NAPF in 1982 and it wasn’t until 1997 that I returned to Japan at the invitation of Daisaku Ikeda, the president of Soka Gakkai International (SGI).  On that occasion I spoke to a SGI youth group about nuclear weapons abolition and told them about a new Abolition 2000 International Petition, which called for ending the nuclear threat, signing a new nuclear abolition treaty, and reallocating resources from nuclear weapons to meeting human needs.  Led by the youth of Hiroshima, the SGI young people gathered more than 13 million signatures on the petition.  It was remarkable.  The next year I was invited back to Japan to receive the petitions, which would be symbolically presented to the United Nations.  On that trip in 1998, which I called “A Journey of Hope,” I again visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as Tokyo and Okinawa.  Since then I’ve revisited Hiroshima and Nagasaki many times, including being a speaker five times in Nagasaki Global Citizens’ Assemblies for the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.  On these occasions, I have always been moved by the tragedies that occurred in these cities and the forgiveness and strong spirits of the survivors of these tragedies.

What have you learned from the Hibakusha you’ve spoken with over the years? What is the lesson that we need to learn from them and pass on to the next generation?

I’ve learned from the hibakusha I’ve met the power of humility, forgiveness, and deep concern for humanity’s future.  The lesson we need to learn from them and pass on to future generations is that nuclear weapons are just the opposite of the hibakusha.  Nuclear weapons reflect arrogance, are unforgiving and put humanity’s future at risk.   These weapons are also omnicidal.  Their effects cannot be restricted in time or space.  And they can destroy everything we love and cherish.

What do you believe are the most critical issues that stand in the way of getting to nuclear zero?

The most critical obstacles that stand in the way of getting to nuclear zero are what I call ACID: apathy, conformity, ignorance and denial.  These four obstacles stand in the way of citizens awakening to the very real dangers nuclear weapons pose to humanity, but they can be overcome by education and advocacy.  We need to move from apathy to empathy; from conformity to critical thinking; from ignorance to wisdom (knowledge isn’t enough); and from denial to recognition of the danger.  People everywhere must awaken and confront nuclear dangers as citizens of their countries and of the world.  And they must do so on behalf of their children and all future generations.

What is the single most important information you think would motivate young people to take action to abolish nuclear weapons?

It would motivate young people to understand that it is their very future that is at stake.  A nuclear war could occur due to mistake, miscalculation, madness, malice or manipulation (hacking).  The risks are too great and they are real.  These weapons do not provide physical protection to their possessors, only the possibility of vengeance.  It’s time to wake up to the dangers posed by nuclear weapons, even – or perhaps especially – those possessed by one’s own country.

The U.S. was responsible for 67 nuclear weapons tests in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958. This is a fact most Americans are unaware of, nor do they understand the consequences of this testing on the Marshallese people. Can you tell us what you think every American citizen should know regarding these horrific nuclear tests and how it should affect the current U.S. nuclear weapons policy?

The 67 U.S. nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands were the equivalent power of detonating one Hiroshima bomb daily for 12 years.  Many of the people of the Marshall Islands lost their homes and their health.  All of this happened while the U.S. was the United Nations trustee for the Marshall Islands, making the nuclear testing there an act of extreme bad faith and arrogance.  To make it even worse, the U.S. treated the Marshall Islanders like human guinea pigs to study the effects of radiation on the human body.  Adequate compensation cannot give the Marshall Islanders back their homes or health, but it would be an excellent starting point.

The U.S. has plans to spend over $1.7 trillion modernizing its nuclear arsenal over the next 30 years. Tell us why this insane amount of spending is immoral, what we could be doing with that money and what NAPF is doing about this issue.

There are so many actual human needs not being met, starting with hunger and health care.  In addition, there is the need to protect the environment to assure clean air, clean water and a general healthy environment.  We also need to make the switch to renewable energy sources more rapidly to protect against the adverse effects of climate change.  In addition, there is the need to replace failing infrastructure.  With all these actual needs going unmet, it should be considered a crime against humanity to be throwing substantial resources at revamping our nuclear arsenal and engaging in a new nuclear arms race.  NAPF has been trying to draw attention for many years to the utter waste of throwing much-needed resources at “modernizing” our nuclear arsenal.  The U.S. should be leading the way toward achieving nuclear zero rather than continuing to bolster and make more usable its nuclear forces.

You have written many wonderful poetry books. Tell us what drew you to writing poetry? What does writing poetry mean to you? Do you have a favorite among your poems? Do you feel it’s an effective way of teaching people about this critical and complex issue?

I have been drawn to poetry as a means of connecting more directly with the hearts of my readers.  I felt that it was not enough to connect only through the mind and intellect, but it would be even more powerful to connect emotionally on the issues of war, peace and nuclear dangers.  I want to engage people in the work of peace, and I see poetry as a means of doing so.  Among my favorite of my own poems are: “To an Iraqi Child,” “The Deep Bow of a Hibakusha,” “August Mornings,” and “I Refuse.”  To the extent that poetry can cut through the chaff and get to the heart of an issue and is capable of reaching people on an emotional level, I do find it an effective means of teaching.  Poetry can strengthen a message and make it more memorable.

There are other nuclear abolition organizations in the U.S. and internationally. Can you characterize how NAPF is different than others? Have you carved out a particular niche or philosophy for the Foundation that makes it unique? Is this something that has helped guide the Foundation over the years and do you see it as key to the future of the Foundation?

We share elements in common with other organizations working for nuclear weapons abolition.  One area in which we may differ is in our perspective on U.S. policy and our willingness to challenge that policy.  We are also essentially a grassroots organization and we are trying to build support for abolition from below, that is, from common people who will lead their leaders.  We are also an organization located far from the seat of U.S.  power, and I believe that gives us a broader perspective than organizations located in or near Washington, D.C., which tend to be  pulled into the D.C. vortex.

We are also unique in being a peace organization and recognizing the importance of peace to nuclear weapons abolition.  From the beginning we have put an emphasis on peace leadership.  We’ve honored peace leaders and tried to develop new peace leaders.  I think we have a very unique program in Peace Literacy, headed up by Paul K. Chappell, a graduate of West Point.  Our Peace Literacy Program is taking root nationally and internationally.

Further, we have been willing to take a strong stand against nuclear power, given its relationship to nuclear proliferation and potentially to nuclear terrorism.  Finally, we pursue both education and advocacy, and in our advocacy we’ve been willing to include the arts, particularly poetry.  Because there is no clear approach that has been consistently successful, we’ve been willing to experiment with different approaches.  One of these that stands out in my mind was our consulting relationship with the Marshall Islands in their lawsuits against the nuclear-armed countries in the International Court of Justice and in U.S. federal court.

Philosophically, what has set us apart are our willingness to be flexible, to take bold action, and to persevere in our commitment to create a more decent world for future generations.  So long as we can raise sufficient funding to support our great staff, I think these qualities will serve us well going forward.

Anything you would have done differently? 

Looking back, I’m reasonably satisfied with what we’ve been able to accomplish in an area that has proven to be very difficult.  Now, I just hope the Foundation will be energized by a new generation of peace leaders and will be able to build on the progress we’ve made and develop it further.

Describe your own belief system/life philosophy – words that you live by?

The words I try to live by are these: “Be kinder than necessary.”  I’ve not always succeeded, but I’ve tried.  I’ve also tried to persevere in the focused pursuit of peace and a nuclear free world.

How have you taken to social media? What challenges does it present to you?  What opportunities?

I’ve occasionally used social media, particularly Twitter, but actually I mostly find it not worth the effort.  I also find it unsettling to see how hard an organization like NAPF has to work to develop followers and how large the followings are of celebrities.

Give us a few thoughts on our current President? How has his character (or lack thereof) and his policies effected the work of the Foundation?

Trump is a racist, a bigot and an authoritarian, who has a very poor relationship with truth.  He frightens and disgusts me.  He certainly undermines the decency of the country.  With Trump in office, I am constantly reminded about how close we are to the precipice of nuclear war.  He has the sole authority to order the use of U.S. nuclear weapons, and one has to seriously question his rationality, prudence and sanity.

Do you believe we are closer than ever to a nuclear war?

So long as nuclear weapons exist and remain on hair-trigger alert we will be close to a nuclear war.  The threat is in the weapons themselves.  Trump only adds to that threat.  So does the Indian-Pakistani conflict over Kashmir. So does the U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty, and the new arms race between the U.S. and Russia.  There are too many factors that keep us close to the nuclear precipice, so we continue to live precariously.

What is your view on the relationship between peace and justice?

You cannot have peace without justice.  It is too unstable, too precarious.  If we want peace, we must work for justice.  Peace without justice is a war by other means and a true war waiting to occur.

What new projects are you looking forward to?

I’m looking forward to spending more time with my grandchildren, working in the garden, and doing some new writing projects.

Finally, what gives you hope today in these dangerous times?

There is not much on the political horizon to give me hope, but that could change abruptly.  I am a proponent of choosing hope, because it gives rise to action; and it’s circular: action also gives rise to hope.  In addition, young people give me hope.  They seem to recognize that our planet and its myriad life forms are worth saving.