This is the transcript of a talk given by Noam Chomsky 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.

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Maybe it would be useful to start with a case where there was action from bottom up and it may have had a significant effect, and I think it has lessons for the present, concern for moving from discourse to action. And what I have in mind is, the last time that a President apparently planned to launch a nuclear attack, not as a result of accident but as a result of design, the facts aren’t crystal clear, they never are in such cases, but the evidence is fairly compelling. I’m referring to 1969, the latter stages of the Vietnam War, President Nixon. It seems from the evidence available that he was pretty close to a decision to resort to nuclear weapons, but was deterred, not by the Russians, but by popular opinion. Huge demonstrations coming up in Washington, already had been one. Nixon and Kissinger already had launched highly provocative action against the Soviet Union, signaling to them but nobody else that, “We’re ready to go all out,” Operation Giant Lance.

This is something, actually, that Dan suggested years ago, that the popular demonstrations in November might have deterred Nixon from launching a war. And there’s confirmation in some recent studies, in particular a book by Jeffrey Kimball and William Burr, which has the interesting title, sub-title, ‘The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and The Vietnam War’. It’s worth, I’ll come back to that in a minute, but it’s worth remembering how quickly that popular opposition developed. It’s again a lesson for today, I think. So take, say, Boston, where I live, a pretty liberal city, the first international days of protest against the war were in October 1965 and the small group who were protesting the war, pretty small, mostly young people, decided to have a public demonstration on the Boston Common, the normal place for public events. So there was a march and a demonstration on the Common, it was violently broken up by counter-demonstrators, mostly students; the speakers, I was one of them, couldn’t be heard and were only saved from greater violence by a huge police presence. They didn’t like us, but they didn’t want bloodshed on the Boston Common.

The Boston Globe, the most liberal paper in the country, devoted the whole front page to it the next day, bitterly denouncing the protesters for their lack of patriotism. A couple of years later the Globe became the first newspaper in the country to call for withdrawal from Vietnam. On the Senate floor, people like Mike Mansfield were almost hysterical in their denunciation of people who dared to make what in fact were very mild, embarrassingly mild protests, mostly about the bombing of North Vietnam, which we all knew was a side-show, but at least you get somebody to listen to it. The bombing of South Vietnam, obviously far worse, you could barely raise at the time.

The next international day of protest was March, 1966. We realized we couldn’t have a public demonstration, so we decided to have an action at a church, Arlington Street Church. The church was attacked, tin cans, tomatoes, big police presence, could of gotten worse. That was early ’66. By ’67 things had changed, by ’68 substantially. By ’69, just a couple of years later, a huge public protest sufficient to, very likely, deter what could have been a resort to nuclear weapons. Actually, all of this bears a comment that Robert ended this morning’s session with, about lack of government response. That’s quite true, the government doesn’t want to do any of the things we’re talking about, and they don’t respond unless it reaches sufficient scale. And even a totalitarian state can’t ignore mass public opinion, actually; we even saw that in the case of Nazi Germany, and certainly a more free society can’t. And I think what all this suggests is that it’s possible to have a pretty rapid transition from not just apathy, but bitter antagonism, bitter, violent antagonism to massive public support by proper actions. And the actions were mostly taken by young people, and pretty effective ones.

Well, let’s go back to the subtitle, the ‘Madman Diplomacy and The Vietnam War.’ The Madman Theory is commonly attributed to Richard Nixon on the basis of pretty thin evidence, mainly Haldeman’s memoir, but there’s actually much stronger evidence for the same theory under Clinton, it actually was released by Hans M. Kristensen about 15 years ago, a document, one of the many, that doesn’t get sufficient attention, I think, ‘Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence’ came out in 1995, STRATCOM document, which calls for first use of nuclear weapons even against non-nuclear states, and gives a rationale. The rationale is essentially what Dan was talking about yesterday. It said, “Nuclear weapons provide a cover, a shadow that covers all of our ordinary conventional actions.”

In other words, if we make people think we might use nuclear weapons, they’ll back off when we carry off conventional actions. That’s Dan’s image of holding a gun, but not shooting it, but using it. This is STRATCOM talking about it. Then they go on to say we should project a national persona of being irrational and vindictive, so that people don’t know what we’re going to do next. That’s a madman theory from a better source than Haldeman’s memoirs. And remember it’s the Clinton years, first major post-Cold War document about so-called deterrence. And it’s worth remembering other things, say, about a Clinton liberal America, which tend to be forgotten. There was a huge and appropriate, popular uproar, at least in some circles, about George Bush II’s doctrine of preventive war. But go back to Clinton. There was also a Clinton doctrine. Every president has a doctrine. Now the Clinton doctrine was that the US has the right to resort to unilateral use of force in case of, I’ll read the words, “to ensure uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies, and strategic resources.” That goes way beyond the Bush doctrine.

But it was quiet testimony to Congress, no big flashy statements. But that’s the thinking that’s in the background, a version of the madman theory, make sure we get uninhibited access to energy resources, supplies, key market strategic resources or else we’re entitled to use force, all right in the background. We can run through a kind of a wish list of things that ought to be done, and they actually should be done, no question about them. Drew’s first aid kit yesterday is a good collection: Move forward with the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty; put an end to emplacing first-strike weapons on the Russian border disguised as a missile defense against non-existent Iranian missiles; a move towards eliminating the land-based component of a triad somebody mentioned this morning, certainly makes sense, useless, dangerous move towards establishing nuclear weapon-free zones in the world.

I think that’s important. For one thing it has, apart from the policy consequences, has a psychological effect that indicates we’re this part of the world, we’re getting out of this insanity. That can become effective and infectious if it’s known. Unfortunately like many things, it’s barely known. And again the most important one by far is for the Middle East, where there is no regional opposition, in fact strong regional support, with the exception of Israel backed by the United States. Iran is in the lead of advocating it. The Arab states have been proposing it for 20 years. And a lot is at stake.

The perpetuation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty is conditional on establishing that, and the fact that the United States blocks it is very serious. There are many examples of missed opportunities to shift from reflexive reliance on force to diplomacy and negotiations. And force means not just bombs, it also means, for example, sanctions, which can be very brutal and destructive. Just recently a UN report came out on the impact of sanctions on Syria, which doesn’t harm the Assad regime, they go ahead and do what they want with plenty of Russian support, but it does harm the population bitterly. And the worst such case was Iraq. Not discussed enough. The Iraqi sanctions were… Let’s just take the wording of the UN administrators who administered the humanitarian component of the Iraq sanctions, Denis Halliday, Hans Von Sponeck, both of whom resigned in protest against the US and Britain, arguing that the sanctions were, in their words, “genocidal”. Hans von Sponeck wrote an important detailed book about it, ‘Another Kind Of War’. Not a mention, I don’t think that there was a review or barely a mention in the United States or England.

They also protected Saddam Hussein. It’s not impossible, as they kind of suggested, that he might have undergone the same fate as a whole series of other tyrants who were overthrown from within. He was protected by the sanctions, the sanctions compelled the population to rely on his distribution system for survival, and undermined the civil society that could have overthrown him. What happened to Samosa and Marcos and Ceausescu, another darling of the United States, incidentally, Mobutu, a whole series. That was the effect of virtually genocidal sanctions and force, we have plenty of examples. The discussions here have made it amply evident, if it wasn’t already, that no possible variety of tactical planning and considerations can ever justify the insanity, as David put it yesterday, of even the threat of maybe using nuclear weapons, let alone trying to use them on a small scale or anything crazy like that.

The only hope that we have is a major shift in attitudes from reflexive resort to violence, the normal reaction to… What are taken to be publications or threats, to diplomacy, negotiations, and peaceful means. We certainly can see right in front of us constantly that resort to the sledgehammer is not the answer. It takes a so-called ‘Global War on Terror’. And when it was declared, radical Islamic terror was confined to a small tribal area in the northwest, in the region of Afghan and Pakistan border. But where is it now? All over the world. Every sledgehammer blow has expanded it, every single one. The Iraq War that was predicted by US Intelligence, we now know from the Chilcot Report by British Intelligence too, that it would extend terror, and it did, according to RAND statistics, quasi-governmental statistics, it increased terror by a factor of seven in the first year. It also instigated a sectarian conflict which didn’t exist, which is now tearing not only Iraq but the whole region apart. Libya, hit it with a sledgehammer in violation of our own Security Council resolution. Result: Huge, apart from destroying Libya, a huge flow of weapons and jihadis, mostly to West Africa, which is now the major source of Islamic terrorism in the world, according to UN statistics. And so, it is case after case. And there are plenty of alternatives. The same is true of killing leaders.

There’s a very interesting book which, if you haven’t read it, you might look at, by military historian Andrew Cockburn called ‘Kill Chain,’ who runs through a long record, starting with drug cartels, moving on to terrorist groups, of assassinations of leaders that try to terminate the threat. Consistently, when you murder a leader, what you get, without looking at the roots of what’s going on, what you get is a younger, more violent, more militant leader who goes well beyond what has happened before. The record is pretty impressive and it goes on. A couple of weeks ago, Hillary Clinton advocated assassinating Baghdadi. Sure, the head of Isis, and no doubt plenty of plans to do that. You look at US government terrorism specialists, like Bruce Hoffman, they strongly oppose that. They say, “You kill Baghdadi, you’ll get somebody without getting to the source of what’s going on, you’ll get somebody younger, more militant, more violent, more radical, who may even do what Baghdadi has refused to do, mainly form an alliance with al-Qaeda.” ISIS and al-Qaeda are virtually at war now. An alliance with al-Qaeda would create a terrorist group much worse than what we’re facing now. That’s consistent. And there are many opportunities, many missed opportunities, we just heard about one this morning.

Again, the current UN resolution on making the use, or even threat of possession of nuclear weapons illegal, that’s just gonna die. It’ll vanish, like all other opportunities, unless there is massive popular support for it, which has to begin with at least information. I doubt if a tenth of 1% of the population even knows it’s happening, there’s essentially nothing reported, nobody hears. But it can be done. What happened in 1969 is one of many illustrations. And there have been others, just keeping to recent years. The most important, which has come up several times, was the 1991, end of the Cold War, Gorbachev’s vision of a common Europe, an integrated security system for Europe and Eurasia, the whole region, no military alliances. Not much was known about it, scholarship has covered it, but the details are not known to the population. We now know that Bush and Baker not only rejected it and moved directly to expanding NATO, contrary to and in opposition to verbal promises to Gorbachev, which it now looks we’re deceitful and intended to mislead. Leading right up to what we have now: Confrontation on the Russian border which could easily lead the war.

Gorbachev’s vision didn’t die, it’s been reiterated. It was reiterated by Medvedev when he was Prime Minister, it was reiterated by Putin, the demon Putin in 2014 that came forth with a fairly similar proposal, not quite the same words, but same in spirit. We don’t know if these could work, you have to try them, But they passed, they were missed, not discussed, no popular opposition, government could do what it wanted, namely reject them and move on to greater confrontation. 1999, Putin proposed US-Russian co-operation against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Ignored. Could it have worked? Yeah, it could have averted 9/11.

Let’s turn to 2001, invasion of Afghanistan. Was that necessary? You can see the effects in Afghanistan. There was strong opposition to it from the leading anti-Taliban Afghan activists like Abdul Haq, the most respected of them, who bitterly condemned the bombing, said, “The US is just trying to show its muscle and harm Afghans, and it’s undermining our efforts to overthrow the Taliban from within, supported by others”. There were opportunities, we don’t know if they were real, for extradition, not pursuit. 2005, North Korea, big danger. Is there a way to deal with North Korea? Well, one way is to, the normal resort to more force. North Korea reacts, tit for tat. What happens when you move towards negotiations? It seems to succeed. In 2005, for example, there were actual negotiations between the Bush administration and North Korea. North Korea agreed to abandon all nuclear weapons, all existing weapon programs, allow international inspectors, in return for an end to aggressive talk and actions, international aid, a non-aggression pledge and a light water reactor for research and medical purposes. Bush immediately responded by dismantling the international consortium that was to provide the reactor, pressured banks to squeeze North Korean assets, North Korea returned to weapons development.

If you go back to 1994, that’s been happening consistently, no time to run through it, but it’s reviewed in the professional literature. Go on to 2010, Iran and its nuclear programs were the great fear, supposedly. There was a proposal in 2010 initiated actually by a friend of my wife, Valeria’s, Celso Amorim in Brazil. Valeria has now got his book translated into English. He reviews this and is organizing a speaking tour for him. What happened? 2010, at Brazilian initiative, Brazil, Turkey and Iran reached an agreement. The agreement was to send the low enriched uranium in Iran to Turkey in return for provision of isotopes for research and medical work. As soon as it was mentioned it came under bitter attack in the United States; the press, the government and so on.

Amorim was annoyed enough so that he released the letter from Obama, in which Obama had proposed precisely this, evidently expecting that Iran would turn it down and he’d get a propaganda coup. Well, they accepted it, so therefore we had to block it, of course the US has to run it, we don’t want peace. Again, no protests, no actions. Turn to Syria, one of the worst atrocities in the world. Is there a way to stop it? There might have been. 2012, Geneva 1, there was a meeting under the auspices then of Lakhdar Brahimi, a serious negotiator. Kofi Annan released a communique saying that there was agreement on a transitional government with the participation of members of the Assad regime, and any negotiation that tells the Assad regime, “Please commit suicide”, is just a death sentence for Syria, of course they’re not gonna do that.

So there had to be participation of the Assad regime, can’t avoid that, no matter how horrible they are. It was blocked by Hillary Clinton, speaking for the government. Shortly before that, according to Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish Prime Minister, a long record in peace negotiations, according to him, the Russian Ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, the UN proposed that in negotiations Assad would step aside during the negotiations, leaving some participation of his regime. According to Ahtisaari, Britain, France and the United States rejected it. They assumed at the time Assad was gonna fall, so we lost that one.

2015, again the five-year review period of the NPT conference, WMD free zone in the Middle East came up. It was blocked by the United States. Has to protect Israeli nuclear weapons from inspection. Again, threatening even the perpetuation of the NPT. No protest, no action, no knowledge. Another missed opportunity. And so it goes. There is a consistent record that goes back to the early ’50s of major opportunities that were ignored, rejected, unknown, no pressure, nothing happens. And it’s again worth remembering that pressure can build up even quickly and can be effective, and it’s imperative to keep trying.