This is the transcript of a talk given by Peter Kuznick at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s symposium “The Fierce Urgency of Nuclear Zero: Changing the Discourse” on October 25, 2016. The audio of this talk is available here. For more information about the symposium, click here.
This session is called ‘Keeping Faith With the Future’, but after hearing so many presentations yesterday I decided I was going to do something a little different and talk about keeping faith with the past. We’ve been talking a lot about the public ignorance about nuclear war, nuclear winter, the risk that we face now. I’m always appalled by the public ignorance about history. In the national report card that was issued in 2011, among American high school seniors the area they came in last in was not math and science or languages, the area they came in last in was their understanding of US history. 12% of high school seniors were judged to be proficient in US history, but even that number is misleading, because only 2% could identify what Brown versus Board of Education was about, even though it was obvious from the way the question was posed.
So we’ve got this vast problem of historical ignorance in this country, and that’s why Oliver Stone and I decided to do our project, ‘The Untold History of the United States’, because we wanted to address this. Oliver had… We come from different perspectives. Oliver comes from a conservative Republican family. He was a Goldwater supporter, he volunteered for combat in Vietnam, the only person probably in the history of Yale at least during the Vietnam War to volunteer for combat. I came from a left-wing New York family, and we decided we were going to look at this partly… Oliver wanted to figure out if George Bush was an aberration or if we looked at the patterns of American history, if George Bush was reflective of those patterns.
He also saw his daughter’s high school history textbook and it repeated all the same lies, all the same myths that we all grew up with in the 1950s and 1960s. So we decided we were going to look at the broad range of American history. So we did a history… The Untold History Project is a history of the American empire and national security state. And one of the things we began to take on that was brought up yesterday is the question of American exceptionalism, because that’s so key to the American mindset in the world, the idea of exceptionalism, the idea that the United States is not only different from all other countries but the United States is better than all other countries.
Other countries are motivated by greed, by geopolitical considerations, by territory. The United States, however, is motivated only by altruism, benevolence, one that’s bred freedom and democracy. But this is so deeply believed that it’s not even questioned in our society that the United States is different. It goes back to Woodrow Wilson saying after Versailles, “Now the world will see the United States as a savior of the world.” In more recent manifestations of that, Madeline Albright, “If we use forces because we’re America, we’re the indispensable nation. We stand taller and see farther than other countries.” Hillary Clinton repeating that over and over again that we’re the indispensable nation. Barack Obama. I don’t know if you remember when Obama welcomed the troops home at Fort Bragg at the first end of the Iraq war and he said to them, he said, “Your willingness to sacrifice so much for a people that you had never met is part of what makes us special as Americans. Unlike the old empires, we don’t make these sacrifices for territory, for resources, we do it because it’s right. There could be no fuller expression of America’s support for self-determination than our leaving Iraq to its people, that says something about us.” He says, “Wars make us stronger and more secure about our values,” he goes on and on.
But this notion of American exceptionalism is so deeply ingrained in our psyche, in our culture, that we have to begin to really take it on. And that’s what Oliver and I tried to do in this project. So the idea started back in 2007. Oliver and I were having dinner and he said, “Let’s do a documentary.” It was going to be a one-hour documentary about Henry Wallace and Hiroshima. Then when I went to see him in New York two weeks later he now had an idea for a 10-hour, 10-part documentary series.
I thought I could get it done during my sabbatical. It ended up taking us five years. Halfway through the project we decided we had to add a book, so we wrote this 800-page book in addition. And what you can say in a documentary in 58 minutes and 30 seconds, is very, very limited. I thought Oliver was going to narrate them like a New Yorker on speed, so my initial drafts were each about three times as long as you could do in 58 minutes. But then we had to obviously re-think it and do it a little bit differently. But, so we started with… And then it aired on Showtime in the United States, it’s aired all over the world. The books, there’s various versions of the book. There’s the Concise Untold History, based on the documentary scripts, the Young Readers book, the first of four volumes is out now. The graphic novel is on the way. So we’ve been doing this around the world and we start really initially with the myths about World War II, again so deeply ingrained in the United States.
The first myth was that the United States won the war in Europe, right? That’s really unquestioned in the United States. The reality of, course, is that the Soviets won the war in Europe with some help from the United States and Britain. Throughout most of that war, the United States and Britain faced 10 German divisions combined; the Soviets were facing 200 German divisions combined. That’s why Churchill said that the Red Army tore the guts out of the Nazi war machine. Americans don’t know that. I did an anonymous survey with students recently. College students, all A students in high school. You would think they would know something. And I asked them how many Americans died in World War II. The median answer I got was 90,000. So it’s okay, they’re only 300,000 off, that’s in the ballpark. I asked them how many Soviets died in World War II. The median answer I got was 100,000. Which means they were only 27 million off. These kids, they can’t understand anything about the Cold War. They don’t know, can’t understand what’s going on in Ukraine now. This level of ignorance, I think, is pervasive throughout American society.
The second myth, we look at the same kind of ignorance about Vietnam. College students now don’t really remember much or know much about Vietnam. The Gallup poll that came out last year said that 51% of 18-29 year olds in this country think the Vietnam war was worth fighting, that it wasn’t a mistake. 51%. And so yeah, you have to try to conceptualize this in a way they can understand. When I deal with World War II, I try to explain that the 27 million Soviet losses. You think of 9/11 in the United States, about 3,000 people lost. After that we turned the world upside down. We invaded several countries, we bombed many more countries, droning the world, special forces in 135 countries. And I tell them that, quantitatively, 9/11, that the Soviet losses in World War II are the equivalent of one 9/11 a day, every day for 24 years. One 9/11 a day, every day for 24 years.
The Vietnam, how do you make that graphic for them? McNamara, when he came into my class, said he accepts that 3.8 million Vietnamese died in the war. Most of my students have gone down to the Vietnam Memorial Wall. And I asked them, “What is the message of that?” They say it’s got the names of 58,280 Americans who died in the war. The lesson of that is the tragedy of Vietnam is that 58,280 Americans died. And I say, “What if… And that wall is 492 feet long. If it included the names of the 3.8 million Vietnamese, the million Cambodians and Laotians, the Americans, Brits, Aussies, everybody who died, the wall would be more than eight miles long. That would be a fitting memorial to the Vietnam war.” But that’s not obviously what we have.
So Oliver and I decided to take these things on. We go around to campuses all over the country. Our focus is largely our nuclear history, from an apocalyptic perspective. We’re trying to show, if you look at the broad range of American history, you can understand the question of nuclear winter and how deeply rooted that is. And if you study the history, he knows what we were talking about yesterday is not a surprise. And there were times when Americans weren’t even that ignorant. But the main one we show when we go to different campuses is our episode about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I’ve been working on this question for a long time. Back in 1995 I started taking students on a study abroad class to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I’ve done that every summer since then, since 1995. So American students, we travel with Japanese students from Japanese universities and we deal with this whole thing.
But if you look at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, what we’re really talking about is World War II. It’s this tiny bomb and the destruction and damage it caused is minuscule compared to what a nuclear war would look like today, as we all understand. In our episodes, so we go around to campuses and to high schools and to community centers here and other countries and we show our episode about the decision to drop the bomb. And we make clear there is, first of all, that there was no military necessity to drop the bomb. One of… The fundamental myth about the bomb is that the atomic bombs ended World War II, and therefore they were justified and that they avoided an invasion, that if the United States had not dropped the bomb we would have had to invade Japan.
Truman says Marshall told him that we’d lose a half million men in an invasion. Therefore the bombing was necessary, it was actually humane because it not only saved American lives, it saved Japanese lives. It’s the fundamental myth. And what does Obama say when he goes to Hiroshima? I was in Hiroshima. NHK, the Japanese public broadcaster who brought me over there to do some tv shows while Obama was there, and I probably did 50 interviews here as well about this. And what does Obama say there? It was great that he went. I was pushing him to go from the day he got elected. He should have really given his Prague speech in Hiroshima and it would have been even more meaningful and powerful. But what Obama says there from the very beginning is full of lies. The first sentence, “Death fell from the skies.” Death didn’t fall from the sky, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. But he says there that we have to look history straight in the eye and that we have to tell the truth and tell a different story.
And what does he say? He says, “World War II reached its brutal end in Hiroshima and Nagasaki”. That’s the lie. That’s what the people have been taught. What is the reality? The reality is that what ended the war, is what we show in our episode, was the Soviet invasion. But not only was the Soviet invasion of Manchuria that ended the war as prime minister Suzuki and others said, the military people said. But Truman knew that in advance. That was the crazy thing about this, is that Truman knew that the Soviet invasion would end the war. He knew there were two ways to end the war, to speed it up. One was changing the surrender terms, tell the Japanese they can keep the emperor. The other was wait for the Soviet invasion. Truman said he went to Potsdam to make sure that Stalin was coming into the war. Stalin had promised Roosevelt at Yalta in February that the Russians would come into the Pacific war three months after the end of the war in Europe, and he gets the agreement from Stalin, and he writes in his journal that night, “Stalin will be in the Jap war by August 15th. Fini Japs when that occurs.” He writes home to his wife, Bess, the next day, says, “The Russians are coming in, we’ll end the war a year sooner now, think of all the boys who won’t be killed.” He looks at the intercepted July 18th cable, and he calls it “the telegram from the Jap emperor asking for peace”.
He’s fully aware that there are other alternatives to using the bomb, but he chose to use the bomb, and that’s what historians have been debating, why did he want to use the bomb so desperately? And he wanted to use the bomb because he wanted to send a signal to the Soviets that if they messed with American plans in Europe or the Pacific, this is what they’re going to get. And they understood that better than anybody, because the Japanese had adopted an unfortunate strategy of trying to get the Soviets to negotiate on their behalf for better surrender terms, so they could keep the emperor, and they had a couple other demands that they were hoping for.
So the Soviets interpreted the atomic bombing exactly that way, that this bomb was not dropped on Japan because Japan was defeated, but it was dropped on them. So right from the very beginning, this is key to understanding the arch of the Cold War, but the perspective that Oliver and I have that’s different from other historians… John Dower, great historian from MIT, said that there are two basic narratives about the decision to drop the bomb. One is the tragic narrative and the other is the heroic narrative.
So the heroic narrative, which we all know is the standard one, it saved American lives and we were the good guys in the war against fascism. The tragic narrative is that it didn’t have to be dropped, and it was a tragedy because of all the people who were killed and wounded and suffered ever since. But Oliver and I have done what we call the apocalyptic narrative, which ties directly into what we were talking about yesterday.
The apocalyptic narrative argues that Truman knew, understood, and said on several occasions that he was not just dropping a bigger, more powerful bomb, but he was beginning a process that could end all life on the planet, and that was inherent in the bomb from the very beginning. In the summer of ’42, Edward Teller didn’t even want to waste time on the atomic bomb, he wanted to push for the fusion bomb, for the hydrogen bomb from the very beginning, was Teller’s idea.
On May 31st, 1945, Robert Oppenheimer briefs America’s military and political leaders, and says that within three years, we’re likely to have weapons between 700 and 7,000 times as powerful as the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. We knew what was happening. And America’s military leaders knew this too, so at Potsdam, Truman gets the briefing on how powerful the Alamogordo test was, and he writes in his journal, he says, “We’ve discovered the most terrible weapon in history, this may be the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates valley era after Noah and his fabulous ark.”
Not a bigger more powerful bomb, the fire destruction. So Truman uses it, right, to kill innocent people is a war crime, but to threaten all of humanity with extinction, which is what we were doing from the start of the nuclear age, is far, far worse. And from the standpoint of it being necessary, even in a military sense, America had eight five star admirals and generals in 1945. Seven of the eight are on record saying the bomb was either militarily unnecessary or morally reprehensible, or both. So we’re not talking about pacifists, we’re talking about Eisenhower, MacArthur, Leahy. We’re talking about… Nimitz. The key American military leaders, but does the American public know this?
Well, maybe they’re starting to, because if we look at the polling over the years, it’s usually about 55% to 45% in favor of the atomic bomb in the public opinion polling. There was one that came out last year that was actually 57% in favor of the bomb, to 34% percent opposed. But in late May of this year, May 27th, CBS News released a poll that showed that 44% of Americans were opposed to the dropping of the atomic bomb, and only 43% support it.
So I think our collective efforts of trying to get this message out there, perhaps is finally starting to reach people. I gave a talk in a senior citizens living center this summer, and before the talk I asked them, “How many of you think that Truman did the right thing in dropping the atomic bomb, and these are people in their 70s, 80s and 90s, and of the 27 people in the room, 26 hands went up supporting Truman in dropping the bomb. But you can get, sometimes on campuses, I get just the opposite response, and Oliver and I used to go around to campuses all over the country, and we’d get a fabulous response.
That’s one of the reasons why I’m more optimistic about some of this, because a lot of it just has to do with our ability to reach people, because once they are exposed to things that they’ve never heard before, it wakes them up, it opens their eyes. And even the US, the museum, National Museum of the US Navy in Washington DC, says that now, in its exhibit, says, “The vast destruction wreaked by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki made little impact on the Japanese military; however, the Soviet invasion on Manchuria on August 9th changed their minds.” So even the National Museum of the US Navy is finally talking a little bit of truth about this.
So we talk about that. Then we go into the Cold War and the arms race. One of the people we highlight, is a man who’s been lost to history and I think it’s very, very unfortunate, and that’s Henry Wallace. I go to audiences and I ask them, “Who is Roosevelt’s vice president from ’41 to ’45?” Nobody knows. Most people have never even heard of Henry Wallace. So Oliver and I really featured him very prominently. I assume that this group does know more about Henry Wallace, but I’ll just tell you a little since I don’t have much time.
Roosevelt in 1940 knew we were about to get to war against fascism and he wanted a progressive on the ticket as vice president. So, he chose former Secretary of Agriculture, Henry Wallace, who was a leading anti-fascist in the New Deal administrations. It’s an interesting story, because the convention didn’t want to give him Wallace as vice president. So Roosevelt wrote a remarkable letter to the convention turning down the nomination for the third term saying, “We already have one conservative, money-dominated party in this country, the Republicans. So if the Democrats are not going to stand for liberal, progressive ideas and social justice, then this party has no reason to exist and I’m not going to run as a candidate for president on this ticket.” Eleanor went to the floor of the convention and convinced them that he was serious and they put Wallace on as vice president.
In 1941, Henry Luce announced that the 20th century is going to be the American century, where the United States is going to dominate the world in every way. Wallace countered that, said that the 20th century must be the century of the common man. He called for a worldwide people’s revolution in the tradition of the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Latin-American Revolutions and the Russian Revolution, said we have to end monopolies and cartels, go for global full employment, said we need a worldwide people’s revolution… It is visionary, this progressive vision, and so in ’44, the conservatives in the party want to get Wallace off the ticket. They knew that Roosevelt was not going to survive another term and they wanted somebody much more conservative. The problem was that Wallace was the second most popular man in the United States.
And on the day the Democratic Party convention started, July 20th, ’44, Gallup released a poll asking potential voters who they wanted on the ticket as vice president. 65% said they wanted Wallace back as vice president, 2% said they wanted Harry Truman, but how could the party bosses control the convention in order to get Truman on there? The first night, Wallace makes a seconding speech for Roosevelt. The place goes wild and a big demonstration goes on for an hour. In the middle of it, Claude Pepper, the senator from Florida, realized if he could get to the microphone, get Wallace’s name in nomination, Wallace would sweep the convention, defy the bosses, be back on the ticket as vice president and would’ve become president on April 12th, 1945.
So Pepper fights his way to the microphone. Mayor Kelly and the other bosses are screaming, “Adjourn this convention immediately, it’s a fire hazard!” Sam Jackson is chairing it, he didn’t know what to do, said, “I have a motion to adjourn, all in favor say ‘Aye’.” About 5% said aye, all opposed no, everybody else yelled out, “no”. He said, “Motion carried, meeting adjourned”. Pepper was literally 5 feet from the microphone at that point. What we argue here, is that had Pepper gotten five more feet to the microphone, then Wallace would have become president instead of Truman. There would have been no atomic bombing in 1945 and very possibly no Cold War, because Wallace had that rare ability to see the world through the eyes of our adversaries, which most American presidents can’t do at all. And Wallace agreed with Roosevelt that we were going to have to… The post-war period would have to be one in which the United States and the Soviets led the world as friends and allies in order to maintain peace and stability in the post-war world.
We tell that story because part of the problem, if people’s vision of history is such that they think that the way the world’s turned out is the only way the world could have been, and they can’t imagine a better world. One of the things that’s missing now is this utopianism that we felt so strongly in the 1960s, the idea that we could make a better world, we could make a different world. Students now don’t see that nearly as much. They want to do piece-meal reforms. They don’t have a broad, radical vision that many of us had then, and hopefully still do have. So we wanted to show how many times, how close we’ve come to very, very different histories. How close we came, somebody mentioned yesterday about Eisenhower’s wonderful speech in 1953, which was the first one that Eisenhower gave after Stalin died. After a long silence, Eisenhower gives that speech about building roads and post offices at the cost of one bomb, but what we don’t know is that two days later, Dulles gives a speech and contradicts everything in Eisenhower’s speech and again waves a red flag of confrontation with the Soviets. Eisenhower’s speech was front page news all over the Soviet Union. They were thrilled. They were so excited. We had that possibility when Stalin died in 1953. We had that potential over and over again to create a different history, and that’s part of what we we’re about. We want to grab history now and bend it in a very, very different way than it’s been going.
I have a lot more that I was going to talk about what the Cold War was really about. This is something that I’ve seen Noam use, but almost no historians use it. George Kennan’s secret memo in 1948 when he was talking about the Cold War. And he says, “We have about 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population. We cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity.” He said, “To do so, we will have to dispense will all sentimentality and day-dreamings. We should cease to talk about vague and unreal objectives, such as human rights, the raising of the living standards and democratization. We’re going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.”
What was the Cold War really about? What was Vietnam really about? What was going on in the 1950s? The background to what Dan was talking about yesterday. Somebody mentioned there some numbers, I think Hans threw out some numbers about Eisenhower’s nuclear build-up. When Eisenhower became president, the United States had about a thousand nuclear weapons. When Eisenhower left office, the United States had 22,000 nuclear weapons. When Eisenhower’s budgeting cycle was finished two years later, the United States had 30,000 nuclear weapons. So most people when… Or my students, when I ask them what they know about Eisenhower, they talk about the military industrial complex. Yeah, Eisenhower knew about the military industrial complex, because he created it.
And as Dan has shown, we went from one finger on the nuclear button with sub-delegation and delegation to dozens of fingers on the nuclear button. Nuclear weapons went from being our last resort to our first resort. They went from civilian control to military control. The last psyop or the first psyop that Dan actually was able to reveal said that in the event of a nuclear war we would immediately shoot off our entire arsenal. It was the Eisenhower strategy, and it would lead to between 600 and 650 million deaths from the American weapons alone. So, as Dan says, a holocaust is what the American strategy was.
So this apocalyptic vision, this idea of nuclear winter that we’ve been so fixated on is something that was very well-known in the 1950s when there was discussion of cobalt bombs, when there was a world-wide movement to try to control nuclear weapons, where there was a broad discussion that even a nuclear launch by the United States would be suicidal. And that understanding during the Cuban Missile Crisis, it continues in the 1980s, where we still have… Remember the movies like ‘The Day After’, ‘Threads’, ‘Testament’, this was broadly part of the culture. But since the end of the Cold War it has largely vanished. Our goal and our responsibility is to figure out how to bring that back, how to rekindle it. Thanks.