This is a transcript of the 18th Annual Frank K. Kelly Lecture on Humanity’s Future, delivered by Elaine Scarry on May 9, 2019 in Santa Barbara, California. A video of the lecture is available here.
It’s a tremendous pleasure to be a guest of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and the group of people who run it—David, Rick, Richard Falk, Rob Laney, Sandy, Sarah, and others—and I’m also very grateful to all of you for coming out tonight. It’s a special honor to be talking in terms of humanity’s future, and because that’s the title, I thought that I would begin by just mentioning the fact that when I work on nuclear disarmament, I’ve often noticed that one of the groups of people that is most worried about nuclear weapons is composed of astronomers and astrophysicists. When I first noticed this I was kind of surprised by it, because whereas the rest of us is are thinking all the time about the Earth, I take it that astronomers are often thinking about worlds way beyond the Earth, like other galaxies outside the Milky Way. This one galaxy, for example, contained several hundred billion stars, many of which have planets. So it seemed remarkable that astronomers should care about this little piece of ground in the universe.
This next particular photograph—although it’s showing a very tiny piece of the sky—contains thousands of galaxies, just within one galaxy cluster, and each of those galaxies has billions of stars. When I asked somebody named Martin Reese, who’s a royal astronomer of Britain, why he was so concerned about it, given that he spent so much of his mental life outside of our own terrain, he said that if you’re an astronomer looking at that other world, you actually care more about the Earth because you realize that what we have here is nowhere else to be found in the universe. That there is no life, certainly no intelligent life, elsewhere in the universe, so the miracle of it being back here seems especially precious.
I also asked another astronomer at the Hubble telescope, Mario Livio, the same question. And he gave the same answer: how extraordinary it was to be always having once mental life projected out into this world of other universes, and to find again and again that there was no other life, or certainly intelligent life, out there. Mario Livio went on to explain that several decades ago a famous scientist named Fermi pointed out that it’s almost incomprehensible, given the number of planets that recreate the conditions necessary for life, that we haven’t yet encountered other life. This has come to be known in science as Fermi’s paradox—the fact that there are so many millions of places that ought to be showing us life, and yet we haven’t found it. Mario Livio said that different explanations are given for this, and one is that very early in the history of life on a planet, a bottleneck occurs, in particular a bottleneck that occurs in going from one-cell organisms to multi-cell organisms.
On our own planet, one cell organisms appeared almost the moment the Earth was created—almost the moment it cooled down enough to support life—but multi-celled creatures only occurred millions of years later. It may be that the jump from one cell to multi-cell is just too hard to get through. We luckily got through it, but Mario Livio said there’s also another bottleneck that occurs not at an early moment, but in a late moment. This, by the way, is the reason that most people speculate why we’re not finding life on other galaxies. The explanation is that any group of creatures intelligent enough to have interstellar communication will also be smart enough to blow themselves up. They will, and they have—it is almost certain that other civilizations have existed and have not made it through the particular eye of the needle that we’re trying to get through right now. It’s for that reason that everybody on Earth—all our resources on Earth—all our ingenious scientists, and humanists, and theologians should be working together to get our planet through something that other planets haven’t gotten through, rather than working at odds.
Now, I don’t know what the weapons system looked like on these other planets, but this is what it looks like on our planet. The screen isn’t perfect here, but I have just a couple of key things to say about it. Each of the little icons has to be multiplied by five. The total arsenal on Earth is over 14,000 right now, so if this were representing each of the warheads you’d have to take this number and multiply it by five, it would go away beyond any piece of paper that could hold it—we can just multiply it in our minds.
The key thing to know is that the United States and Russia together own 93% of all the missiles. Everything from about three o’clock around to about seven o’clock is owned by the United States, and everything from there up to one o’clock is owned by Russia. That little wedge you see between one and two o’clock are the other seven nuclear states. The other thing to know about that is that countries that we’re always hearing about are not on there. Iraq isn’t on there, because Iraq doesn’t have nuclear weapons. Iran isn’t on there, because Iran doesn’t have nuclear weapons. North Korea is on there, but it’s the country with the smallest arsenal. Some people put North Korea’s estimates as high as 60, but the most reliable estimates say that it’s 20 or fewer. Comparatively, the United States right now has over 6,000.
It is a specific kind of architecture that is most to the credit (or discredit) of the United States and Russia, who have one third of their arsenals on hair trigger alert. Now, the next thing to know about is this particular physical architecture. Tonight I’m going to be talking about both the physical architecture of nuclear weapons, and the mental architecture that keeps that physical architecture in place, but for a few minutes I’m just going to be talking about the physical architecture.
We’ve started with the simple fact that every weapon has two ends: the end from which it’s fired, and the end to which it does the injury. That’s true of a gun: there’s one person injured at this end, and there’s one person firing at this end. Sometimes things are slightly out of ratio, for example, if it’s a machine gun, there’s one person firing at this end, and there might be 50 people who are injured at this end.
Nuclear weapons are extraordinary at both ends of the weapon, because there is a catastrophically high number of people who are being injured. And not just people, but plants, animals, birds, and bio-plankton in the oceans, that are being slaughtered by the weapon. The most recent estimates on nuclear winter say that if even a tiny fraction of the world arsenal is used, and the fraction that used is 1/100th of 1% of the total blast power that you saw pictured there, 44 million people will be casualties on the first afternoon, and 1 billion people will die within the first month. The level of injury is extraordinary. Now, the firing end of the weapon is also extraordinary, because it’s done by one person. We only think that in this country we came close with the Cuban missile crisis because that was the only crisis that was made public, but we know that Eisenhower twice considered using nuclear weapons—once in the Taiwan Strait in 1954 and once in Berlin in 1959. John Kennedy, according to Robert McNamara, three times—not once in Cuba, but three times—came within a hair’s breadth of all out nuclear war. Lyndon Johnson considered dropping a nuclear weapon in China in order to prevent it from getting a nuclear weapon. Nixon has said that he four times considered dropping a nuclear weapon. By “considered using a nuclear weapon”, he doesn’t mean just a stray thought that went through his mind. In Nixon’s case, he sent 18 B-52s loaded with nuclear weapons out over Russia, and back again. In his mind it was a feint—an exercise—but it could have led to utter disaster.
I begin by stressing this because the language we use tends to underscore only the first fact—the fact that an extraordinary number of people are killed—and we need language like “Weapons of Mass Destruction” that registers the fact that there is this outrageous level of injury posed by these weapons.
Yet we also have to look at the extraordinary, and almost equally obscene, fact that one person in our own country stands ready to launch the weapons. That’s of course true of Trump, but it’s also true of every president who’s been in the Nuclear Age. If we were to go back two slides to the chart, and if we took this whole thing as the weapon, were that whole arsenal to be used the Earth would be completely destroyed, and all creatures on it. How many people would be responsible for the launch? There are nine nuclear states, and so it would be close to nine individuals, but it might even go as high as 20 or 30 people in some cases. For example, in the UK, we know that the prime minister has a sealed envelope that tells their submarine captains—if they can’t reach them in a nuclear exchange—whether they should go ahead and obliterate Russia or not. So now maybe we have to not just count the Prime Minister, but also the submarine captain—but maybe 30 people. If you imagine that on another planet, and you imagine there were billions of people on that planet, wouldn’t you think the billions of people there could come up with something to get the 30 people to go into a room, sit them down, and say to them: “You’re not coming out until you figure out how to dismantle these things.” Something like that is what we probably need to do.
The other reason I wanted to start by emphasizing the fact that a nuclear weapon, or any weapon, has both the end from which it’s fired, and the end to which it’s injured, is because the laws that address this, and that can help us get rid of these things, fall into two categories. This a slight overstatement, but I still think it’s true. By and large, international law addresses the injuring side of the weapon. International law, like the current ban on nuclear weapons that is being ratified country by country, is addressed to the humanitarian consequences of these weapons, and to the illegality, in terms of international law, of that kind of suffering. In 1995, when there was a case at the International Court of Justice where 78 countries went to the court to ask that nuclear weapons be declared illegal, the international legal rules that were used all addressed the suffering end of the weapon. For example, the Geneva protocols, The Hague, and the conventions against genocide were all things that said you’re not allowed to cause disproportionate suffering, or you’re not allowed to cause suffering that that passes over the boundaries of a country into a neutral country, or you’re not allowed to destroy the ozone layer, or you’re not allowed to destroy the environment. Those are all crucial international laws, and the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation has done an amazing thing by working to get states to support this international ban. California is the first, and so far the only state that has signed on in support of the ban and it’s got a crucial chance of doing some real good.
The national laws, and the ones I’m going to speak about, address the other side of the weapon. They they address the agency side—the firing end of the weapon. They essentially prohibit the kind of arrangement that we currently have, which is a thermonuclear monarchy. It’s one person who was empowered to not just carry out a war, but to carry out acts of genocide without getting anyone else’s okay about it. It’s wholly illegal, and it’s wholly incompatible with our own Constitution—the two are mutually exclusive. Because they’re mutually exclusive, the Atomic Age, or the Nuclear Age, has just put the Constitution aside.
As I talk about it, one thing to be aware of is that my basic point is that we need both international and national law converging on this problem, and that the together they may help us. You can’t walk up one side of a building, but if you’ve got two sides of a building, you can use them both to get up. There’s a real difference between the two in that the injuring end of the weapon has overt ethical content. We get it. You can’t have that kind of disgraceful injury caused to a foreign population. What could these people have done that would ever mean they had deserved such a thing?
The other one—the Constitutional law—seals it; you can’t break these rules. Yet I’m going to try to ask you to understand that they have the same magnificent ingenuity. Centuries– actually Millennia—of thinking has gone into this thing called the “social contract”, that resulted in our own constitution and the constitutions of other countries. Whereas one seems to have overt ethical content, and the other seems procedural, in fact both of them have dramatic ethical content. The constitutional one even has one slight advantage, in that international law is something that US citizens have a hard time getting traction on—that they can state their support of it, but don’t directly have a claim for demanding that it be stopped right away. The national one is an actual prescriptive requirement; the laws are already in place that can be used to say these things are illegal. In other words, the one is more aspirational, the other is more prescriptive, and together they may be able to have the force of disabling these things.
The US Constitution essentially says this: you cannot injure a foreign population unless you have gotten a huge portion of your own population to agree that this is something necessary to do. In other words, social contracts try to put brakes on the act of injuring other people, but they allow for us to override the brakes if people are really persuaded that it is necessary. But you have to persuade many people.
Let’s say for example, that it’s the beginning of World War II. It’s often said of World War II that essentially the whole adult American population was involved, because there were people working in factories, and people monitoring the coastlines, etc. Today, the adult population is 250 million. We have one person who stands ready to do a nuclear launch that can massacre 44 million people on one afternoon, whereas when we had conventional weapons, it would have taken, today, 250 million people to do a much lower level of injury. Or even if we went back to a much earlier war, like the 17th century. In the 17th century, people estimate that maybe only 3% of the population was involved, but 3% of our population is 9 million people. There’s nothing like that kind of democratic consultation.
What our constitution says is you don’t just injure another population, you don’t injure another population unless two things are in place. There are two provisions that are going to possibly sound mysterious to you, because in the whole Nuclear Age–for seven decades—they have been desecrated, tarnished, and misrepresented. The first break on going to war is the requirement for a Congressional declaration of war. I’ll come back and talk about that in a few minutes. The second break on war was the right to bear arms, which today we wildly misunderstand. What the Second Amendment said was, however much injuring power our country has, it has to be equally divided among every one of us. Each of us will oversee our own small portion of it and we’ll say yes or no on it. At the time of the founding of the Constitution—of course they talked only in terms of men, which was later changed—it was inclusive, as it had to be men of all ages. It had to be man of all wealth classes. It had to be man of all geographies in the United States. Otherwise it was it was deeply unfair. You couldn’t have just some people overseeing questions of going to war or not. I’ll come back and talk about this because I know that with the tremendous misunderstanding of the right to bear arms today, it’s hard to assimilate.
I’m going to talk for a few minutes about the first one, the Constitutional requirement for a declaration of war, which is utterly incompatible with the present arrangements we’ve had for seven decades that allows one person to initiate nuclear war. I’m going to do that by contrasting the quality of deliberation that happens in Congressional deliberation, with the quality of non-deliberation that occurs when Presidents have deliberated whether to drop an atomic weapon. In making that description, I’m drawing on a study I made on the five cases where we’ve had a Congressional declaration of war. That’s the War of 1812, the 1846 Mexican-American War, the 1898 Spanish-American War, and WWI and WWII. There has not been a declaration of war since the invention of nuclear weapons–we’ve only had authorizations of force and things like that—because presidents think, as Nixon said, “I can go into the next room, pick up the telephone, and in 25 minutes, 70 million people will be dead. Why, if I have that power, do I have to get authorization merely to invade this or that country with conventional arms?”
And I’m going to contrast that quality of deliberation with the kind of deliberation that occurred when Eisenhower considered dropping a bomb on the Taiwan Strait crisis in 1954, and again, with the kind of non-deliberation that occurred when he considered dropping a nuclear weapon in 1959. These are the differences among them: first, Congressional deliberation is visible to the public today with radio and television. We watch it or listen to it as it occurs, but before there was radio and television, the record of what had taken place in the debate would be immediately written up, published, and distributed.
In contrast with presidential deliberation, Eisenhower’s papers were released only 30 years after he contemplated using nuclear weapons. That’s true of the other examples I gave you as well. There’s a big time lag. Did anybody consider using atomic weapons on 9/11, when Bush stopped at Offutt Air Force Base, which was the central nervous system of our nuclear retaliation against both states and terrorists? Were they thinking about atomic weapons?
Well, we’ll only find out 30 years from now, and by then people will say, “Well, that was long ago, I guess we don’t need to worry about that.” So one of them is public immediately. The other is considered none of the citizenry’s business or responsibility. Second, in the Congressional declaration, there’s a set of sentences that everybody during the deliberation understands is the thing that they’re thinking about. It says, “Be it enacted, in Congress, but in the House and Senate assembled, that we hereby declare that we are at war.” That’s the set of sentences they’re agreeing on. There’s no clear statement of action in the presidential deliberations.
In the congressional deliberations, there’s a conspicuously staged vote. After the deliberations, people are called on to walk to the microphone and say yes or no. We know, to this day, that Jeanette Rankin is the one person who voted against going to war against Japan and against Germany, just as we know all the yes votes in that case. There’s a fixing of responsibility—there’s a taking of responsibility, and a vote. There’s no vote in the case of the Presidential deliberation. In the Congress, people consider themselves equal, and so they’re willing to fight with each other, and they may have the most noble of reasons. They want to get to the truth, they want to say what they think on the issue, or maybe they just want to show off. But even if they just want to show off, it gives them a motive for testing and contesting what the side that wants to go to war is saying. In the Presidential deliberation, the participants consider themselves subordinate to the president, and they don’t say anything.
This leads to the most important difference between them—that’s the final item there—that in the Congress there’s constant testing, and contesting, and dissent. Because Congress hasn’t enacted so nobly in recent years you might find this hard to believe, but when you read the Congressional deliberations of the past, there’s a lot to be admired in the quality of deliberation. I can go into it in more detail later if you wish. In the Presidential deliberation, there is no dissent whatsoever.
In order to bring that point home, I’ll give you the thing that is the closest to an act of dissent. In 1954, in the Taiwan Straits crisis, the Secretary of the Treasury named Humphrey says to Eisenhower, “Aren’t we going to have a hard time explaining to the American people why islands with names they’ve never even heard of, like Quemoy and Mazu, were so important that we dropped an atomic weapon?” Eisenhower reprimands and he says, “Amir, look at the maps on the wall. We’ll convince you of the strategic importance of these islands.” End of dissent. Humphrey doesn’t say anything more; no one else sitting at the table says anything more. Furthermore, two months earlier when this debate was originally going on, Eisenhower himself had said, you know, I might have a hard time convincing the American people why islands with names they’ve never heard of were important enough that I used an atomic weapon. Essentially, Humphrey had just done his homework and read the previous notes, and probably thought he was agreeing with the President. Whether we should call it an act of dissent is unclear, but for sure there was no follow up.
In 1954, Eisenhower said that he thought he would be impeached if he dropped a nuclear weapon, but that he was willing to be impeached. He was willing to do his duty and drop the atomic weapon even though he’d be impeached. Why did he think he’d be impeached? Because he knew that the Constitution requires a Congressional Declaration of War. By 1959, e had kind of decided that if he just included a couple of Congressmen at the table, maybe that will kind of count as a Congressional participation in declaration. There was a Senator there named Senator Fulbright, a name many of you will know. At a certain point, Senator Fulbright says, “I just want to make sure I understand what’s being said here. Are we saying that the GDR, or East Germany, might take out the roadways in West Berlin, and that we might, for example, begin to repair the road? Then, that maybe a soldier on the East German sidewall shoot a rifle at the repairman—and then we’ll drop an atomic bomb?” Eisenhower said, “Well, we’re not exactly sure of the steps that will lead to the dropping of the atomic bomb.” He doesn’t say, “Senator Fulbright, you’ve lost your mind, what a ridiculous scenario!” He accepts it and the discussion proceeds, and yet again, there’s no additional dissent.
This idea that the President acts without being tested, and without there being a kind of evaluation and rigor in trying to understand if what is being really does warrant so terrible an injury, has led, in the Nuclear Age, to even the celebration of presidents for being incomprehensible. For example, according to Arthur Schlesinger, Roosevelt came to be celebrated for the feature of inscrutability. Now we have somebody who’s able to drop an atomic weapon, and we are even okay with the fact that we don’t have a clue why he’s doing what he’s doing. He’s inscrutable—that’s the way thermonuclear monarchs are.
If you think of George Bush (the younger George Bush) when he was President, you might remember the moment when he said, “I’m the commander. See, I don’t need to explain. I do not need to explain why I say things.” That’s also why, when constitutions were being written, they considered, “Should we give the power to declare war to the president?” They decided no. “Should we give it to the Senate?” They decided no. They decided to give it to the biggest governing body there was—today that would be roughly 535 people—because it meant that you had the greatest participation and deliberation.
When we go to the right to bear arms, just as a moment ago I said that the Constitutional Convention wanted the largest possible body, when the Constitution went out for ratification, the States said, “Wait a minute, there’s something missing from the constitution.” That was the thing we call the Bill of Rights—the first 10 Amendments—and one of the most important was the right to bear arms. The idea of the right to bear arms is that, on a theoretical level from the point of view of social contract theory, it introduces many intervening layers of possibly resistant humanity. In other words, the Congress can declare war, but only if people agree to fight. Will there actually be a conventional war? Only if people agree to fight—is the declaration actually going to be carried out? It’s essentially a distributive amendment that gives to all of us oversight on whether we do indeed want to go to war, and it means that the arguments by of what this other country has done have to be convincing. We’re not just going to go in and slaughter people in Iran, or slaughter people in North Korea, and not even be given an argument about what on Earth people think they’ve done to deserve that. Not with the leaders have done, but what the people have done, because it’s the people who are going to be slaughtered by it.
Do soldiers dissent? Yes, soldiers do dissent, and wars are only fought when soldiers agree to go. There are many examples of this; Vietnam of course is a famous example. As late as 1971 there were 33,000 Vietnam war soldiers who had deserted. In the Iraq war in 2004, 2,300 soldiers deserted. By two years later, within the first six months, that number was doubled, and the Department of Defense took down the figures from their website. There are many other examples, for example, the Civil War. We now know that the north won, because 250,000 soldiers on the Southern side deserted. James C. Scott talks about that in his book, Weapons of the Weak, and a wonderful Civil War historian, a woman named Ella Lonn, writing in the 1920s, documents this. Robert E. Lee wrote dispatches saying “50 more soldiers deserted! 20 more soldiers deserted! I look behind me, and there was no one there.” The soldiers said no, and we don’t usually hear about this. We don’t hear about the fact that at the end of WWI, Churchill wanted to get soldiers to go with him into Russia to stand with the Whites against the Reds, but the soldiers wouldn’t let him. Churchill writes to Lloyd George, “I wanted to go into Russia, but the soldiers wouldn’t let me.” There were soldiers strikes all over England, and also in Canada and India to a lesser extent, and again, the soldiers acted as a break. They said enough, we’re not doing additional things.
When I first started working on this, I wrote and published on it in a University of Pennsylvania law review. I happened to be at a research center in Berlin in 1989 or 1990, which is the year the Wall came down, and I gave a lecture about this. Of my colleagues listening to the lecture, some of whom were German, some were Americans, and some were from other countries, all of them wanted to argue that soldiers just blindly obey and blindly follow what they’re told to do. Just that year, a few months later when the Wall opened, East German soldiers, which until that point had been seen as the most disciplined army in Europe, went from 180,000 to 90,000 by desertion in six months. In the Ceausescu regime in Romania, it was soldiers brought down the regime. In Lithuania, 2000 soldiers were ordered to fire on their own populations, and they not only refused to do it, but they went into the Parliament and signed their names as saying they wouldn’t do it. It simply is not the case that soldiers blindly obey. They don’t. They think about whether the thing for which they’re being asked to fight for is really worth fighting for, and they dissent when they have to.
It is an idea that of course is supported by militarists; Maribou in the French Revolution said you can’t have an aristocratic elite who has weapons, and the population doesn’t have weapons—that’s not fair. It’s also something that is supported by pacifists; Gandhi said of all the evil deeds committed by England against India, the worst was the disarming of the population. Give us back our arms, and we’ll tell you whether we’re going to use them or not. Gandhi’s desire was that they not be used, because he was a pacifist. He had served in the military as a young man, but he of course became a great pacifist. But his point was, you don’t even have the power to demand a pacific outcome if you’ve given up all your military rights.
Everybody in this country right now has been deprived of their military rights. Not only have we lost the capacity for self-defense, because I don’t think anyone here thinks you can defend yourself against an incoming missile, nor can you exercise mutual aid by helping one another. The right of self-defense is the right that underlies every other right. The reason we want to have freedom of speech—there are many reasons to want freedom of speech—but the first and foremost is that it increases my ability to defend myself. I want a fair trial for many reasons, but it enables me to defend myself. We want a fair press for many reasons, but the main reason is it enables me to defend myself. So if we’ve lost the right of self-defense, that’s a big right.
Civic stature in the United States has always followed from military stature. The 15th amendment gave blacks the right to vote primarily on the basis that 180,000 blacks had served in the Civil War, and having served militarily they had to be given the right to vote as well. The 19th Amendment gave the right to vote to women, and in suffrage pageants and plays the argument was made that women can defend themselves, and they can help defend the country. It was not as clear and tight and argument as in the case of African Americans, but it was still a very prominent thing that you can see in suffrage pageants. The 26th amendment lower the voting age from 21 to 18. What was the basis for it? The basis was that 18 year olds had served in Vietnam, and 18 year olds had argued on college campuses about the rightness or wrongness of Vietnam, and they had therefore—and I’m using Congressional language, this isn’t my language—earned for themselves and all subsequent generations the right to vote at a younger age. Civic stature follows very directly from military stature.
Now with either of these two Constitutional rules, if I had more time I would try and convince you that these are great inventions. They’re ingenious, they should be honored and should be brought back. They’ve both been trashed in the Nuclear Age, so that we just look on them as nearly laughably empty assertions, or in the case of the right to bear arms, kind of wildly dangerous things that let people shoot school children, which is about as far from the meaning of the right to bear arms as could be. Each of them is hugely important and ingenious, but together they’re even better because they provide a double break. It means you have to get through the break of Congress, which is hard, and then you also have to get through the break of the population, and actually get them to agree to serve if they’re drafted or called upon to serve. They’re crucial because these things are so fundamental to the social contract, quite apart from the local example of the United States.
By the way, I don’t want to minimize the importance of the US Constitution. Thomas Paine once said that the US Constitution is to human rights or democracy what an alphabet is to language. The US Constitution had the basic building blocks of what democracy is, and the two provisions we’ve just been talking about were, for centuries, seen as the most important ones. For example, Justice Story, one of our great Justices from the 19th Century, said the Constitutional requirement for a Congressional declaration of war is the cornerstone of the constitution; it’s what Congress is there to do. It does all of this other stuff, but it’s main thing is to safeguard our entry into wars. The same goes with the right to bear arms, that was repeatedly referred to as the Palladium of Liberty, but is now something very far from that.
Because this is such an essential part of what our social contract is, it’s not surprising that these same provisions show up in the constitutions of other states. I read through the constitutions of the other nuclear states, and in the French constitution, Article 35 says to go to war you have to have Parliament’s authorization to go to war. In the Indian Constitution, Article 246 says it’s up to the Parliament to oversee matters of the country’s defense. The Russian Federation says that the leader of the country can act to defend the country up to its own borders if it’s been invaded, but if it’s going to go one step over the border, if it’s going to begin to hurt someone outside its borders, it has to have the authorization of the body that is the equivalent of our Senate. Amazingly, the Russian Federation even has a constitutional provision that looks a lot to me like the right to bear arms. What it says is, if Russia goes to war, every adult citizen of Russia is responsible for helping to defend the country. That’s also what the meaning of the right to bear arms was.
Just so you know that these things have practical consequences, you may know that right now there are two bills in Congress, the Markey-Lieu Bill and the Warren-Smith Bill, that say this Presidential first-use of nuclear weapons has to be dismantled. Many people in the United States think that these weapons are for defense. No, during the whole Nuclear Age, we have had a Presidential first-use policy, while some of the other nuclear states do not. These are two bills that try to dismantle Presidential first use, and they do it on a Constitutional basis that it’s Congress who has to oversee our entry into war. This is something that any of us can work on very directly. For example, right now the Markey-Lieu Bill has 13 co-sponsors in the Senate, 55 cosponsors in the House.
In my own state of Massachusetts, although both Senators are cosponsors, only two of the state’s nine representatives in the House have so-far co-sponsored it. In your state, California, only one of the two California’s Senators have co-sponsored it, and only 18 (I say “only” now—actually California has the highest number of representatives of any state cosponsoring it, but still you have a long way to go) of California’s 53, representatives have done it.
That’s all to talk about the physical architecture of nuclear weapons, this gigantic architecture of weapons that are in place and ready to go. They are utterly incompatible with the constitution—they’re mutually exclusive—so we just got rid of the Constitution. They are utterly incompatible with the single most important role of the congress, so we just got rid of Congress, and it’s utterly incompatible with the citizenry, so we just got rid of the citizenry. That is, we no longer want to have a draft where people are called on to serve and give their opinion about what they think of the war. There was a little bit too much opinion-giving among all the people about Vietnam, so we just closed that down. Now we’ll use drones and weapons that can go right from what the President thinks to an assassination, illegal by international law. But I want to go on now and talk about the silence of the citizenry, and the mental architecture that keeps the physical architecture in place.
I think that there are basically six answers. There are probably a lot of other answers, but here are six. Maybe one of them will strike you, and when you talk to relatives, or siblings, or colleagues about trying to enlist their help in this, it might be that one of these will be the thing that you have to approach. One of the things is that in general, the public isn’t given much information. If you ask people in the United States, “who has nuclear weapons?”, many people get the list of countries wildly wrong. Some people even think the United States doesn’t have weapons! I think the average that’s given by most people in the United States is something like 200 rather than in the thousands. The New York Times, that didn’t used to pay attention to our own weapons, but fortunately has begun to do so, recently asked the question of how many of our nuclear weapons would be needed to decimate Libya. Then they asked how many would be needed to decimate Syria, then Iraq, then Iran, then North Korea, then Russia, then China.
They then went to how many would be leftover? 70% of the arsenal, after we massacred a quarter of the population (they use the word “decimate”, which would seem to be one in 10, but they specifically meant that it was a quarter of the population), this is how many would be leftover. Of course, this just stands for hundreds and hundreds of pieces of information that the public isn’t given—it simply isn’t talked about.
Another big one is people in the United States think that we kind of have weapons, and we kind of have enemies, but they’re just kind of loosely connected. No, that’s completely wrong. The weapons are assigned to the cities—weapon by weapon, city by city—they are assigned. In fact until the Clinton administration, when nuclear missiles were loaded onto Ohio class submarines— I should stop and say that we have 14 Ohio class submarines, each of which carries the equivalent of 4,000 Hiroshima bombs. Each can destroy a continent single-handedly. There are only seven continents on Earth; we have 14 Ohio class submarines and we’re making 12 new ones right now. When the missiles were loaded onto nuclear submarines, it used to be that the longitude and latitude was already programmed into the nuclear weapon. During the Clinton administration, they got worried because they were afraid that a hacker would be able to launch it, and it would go to whatever city it was designated for. So they changed the longitude and latitude to open ocean targeting—someplace where they hoped nobody would be. This is an amazing fact. This change was made not because all of us demanded that they stopped putting the line of longitude and latitude of actual cities in. It was not because the Congress did, and not because the Supreme Court did, but because of the fear of hackers. I’m afraid of hackers too, but I have to say that in this case, the hackers brought about a good result. I read Cheney’s autobiography, and he said that when he was Vice President he would hear these references to these missiles being assigned, and so he asked his people, “How many warheads are going to hit Kiev?”—just taking Kiev as an example. It was a difficult question to answer, because I don’t think anybody had ever asked it before. But finally he got a report back that said under the current targeting plan, we had literally dozens of warheads targeted on this single city. That is just indicative of the situation that we’ve had.
I want to go to the next, item on our list of possible reasons: the false justification of deterrence, where too many people in the United States accept the argument that nuclear weapons somehow keep us safer because they deter nuclear war. It would seem that the fastest way to avoid nuclear war would be to eliminate all nuclear weapons worldwide, but instead we’re given this argument that actually, the way you avoid nuclear war is to have nuclear weapons.
If this were really true, then it would be a reason why every country should get nuclear weapons. Certainly, it’s why North Korea thinks that it has to have nuclear weapons to try and deter the United States from firing them. The illogic of this kind of the falsity of the deterrence theory just stands for the fact that people are made to believe that this would defend us. If I had more time, I would explain to you, and you could probably explain to me all the ways in which the idea that these could defend us is falsely given. But I’ll just stay for now with deterrence. If we go to the next slide, this is a statement made by General Lee Butler, who was Commander in Chief of the US Strategic Command of Nuclear Weapons. If you read his account of deterrence, he says, “The nuclear priesthood extolled its virtues and bowed to its demands,” and then if you skip to the last sentence, “it was premised on a litany of unwarranted assumptions, unprovable assertions, and logical contradictions.” That’s from somebody who had complete control of the nuclear arsenal saying, “Please, we should get down on our knees and weep for the horror of this thing we’ve created that has this deeply false justification of deterrence at the center of it.”
I think the third thing that keeps people from doing anything is the belief that what is future is unreal. So people think that that it’s somehow, possibly sometime in the future this could happen, but there will be time to intervene, and they confuse this fact of his being future with being unreal. But here’s the reality of the situation. If it takes 10,000 steps to put a nuclear arsenal into place (obviously it takes many more than 10,000, but let me just say 10,000), it takes 10,000 steps to put a nuclear arsenal into place. 9,999 of them have been done. They are in place. They are present tense. There’s only one step left that hasn’t been done. And that’s the launch. So people have to understand that the 9,999 steps are present tense right now, and that only the last step is future. We know that that last step takes a matter of about 10 minutes, so there isn’t time, of course, to intervene later on. Interestingly, people who believe this are kind of aligning themselves, unknowingly, with our own Department of State and Department of Defense in that 1995 International Court of Justice case that I alluded to earlier, when all these countries went and asked the court to declare these things illegal. The litigants had mentioned Geneva protocols, St. Petersburg, the Hague, Genocide Convention, Ozone protection, etc., etc.
We went systematically through every one of those, and showed why those things did not make our nuclear weapons illegal. They did not make our weapons illegal, they did not make our use of weapons illegal, they did not make our use of the weapons first illegal, did not make our threat of the use of them illegal. They had specific arguments for each of those international protocols, but the one they used over and over again was: it’s all in the future, therefore it’s unreal. Therefore, it’s just speculation, despite the fact that they’re spending billions of dollars to keep it in a present-tense state of readiness.
I thought I would put in here some way in which we can grasp the present-tense reality of this invisible architecture that we can’t see. That is the infrastructure of our own country that has been deteriorating because all our money is being spent on weapons. The American Society of Civil Engineers has reviewed our bridges and given them the grade of C-plus (this is on their website, you can look at it). This is not an impressionistic grade. They actually enumerate the total number of bridges, which is 614,000 bridges, and they say that 188 million trips are made across structurally deficient bridges every day. This is the highest grade (the C-plus), and they give our roads a D. They say that one out of every five miles of highway pavement is dangerously deteriorated, with potholes and so forth, in a way that is increasing accidents. They give our transit a D-minus, and our levies a D. Again, these are not impressionistic grades. They give all the facts and figures and they give the amount of money that’s going to have to be spent to reclaim these things.
Now we will go onto the fourth argument: the difficulty of imagining other people’s pain. I think that this is one of the reasons to why if our fellow citizens see something about the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, they may not get why that might matter. By the way, sometimes people say, “Well, you know, this has been an issue that’s been around for a long time. We’ve been hearing about this for decades.” When you hear that argument, here’s an analogy: imagine somebody in 1860 saying that the reason that they didn’t care about abolishing slavery was because they’d been hearing about this since 1820, and they thought it was a stale subject. We will never give people in the past a pass for not attending to something like that because they thought it was a stale subject.
Anyway, onto this subject—the difficulty of imagining other people’s pain. Here, I think a statement by a very wonderful physician named Hugh McDermott, who was a physician of public health at Cornell medical school, is fitting. He pointed out the difference between narrative compassion and statistical compassion. Narrative compassion is something that asks us to care about and understand what’s happening to one person or two people or three people, and he says, we could be better at it, but we’re pretty good at it and we get practice at it all the time. We’re listening to stories by our siblings, we’re listening to our neighbors, and we’re reading literature that asks us to have narrative compassion. He contrasts this with statistical compassion, at which we’re horrible. We’re incapable of statistical compassion. Furthermore, we don’t get any practice. We don’t do anything to help ourselves begin to get hold of what it means to be responsible to millions of people to whom we’re responsible in political life. What does it mean to have these people of a foreign state talked about so blithely as recipients of our nuclear weapons, or what does it mean to just shrug when you hear that 44 million people will be killed on the first afternoon if one 100th of 1% of our current arsenal is used? Well, it means that people have just kind of searched their heart and soul, and they look inside and say, “Nope, nothing in there of statistical compassion.”
I think that one place to start would be just understanding what happened in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. In this country, we actually haven’t begun to come to terms with what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With a colleague of mine, Joseph Gerson of the American Friends Service Committee, we together decided to do an exhibit at one of the libraries in the town where I live, Cambridge, Massachusetts. And this library very kindly agreed to let us dedicate a month to an exhibit, with books and pictures. We also had films and we had a lecture each week. We put up the exhibit the first night, and by the next morning when we came in, any photograph that showed injury had been taken down. Now on one level I understand this, because people coming into the public library aren’t prepared for seeing something like that. But even in cases where people are prepared, they’re not allowed to see it. For example, in 1994, the Smithsonian was going to have an exhibit on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it caused such controversy that they had to cancel it, and the only thing they allowed to be exhibited was the Enola Gay—the airplane that delivered the bomb. I think that one reason why people from Japan—not just people who were there and suffered, but generations of people in Japan—are much more alert to this is because they are educated about the situation. For example, there was one march in New York where I and other people tried for about three months to get people from the Cambridge/Boston area to go to New York, and we got about a hundred people to go to the march in New York. That morning, 1,000 people arrived from Japan, and their trips had been paid for by 6 million people who signed the petition that they delivered.
If you’ve been to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and have been to one of the atomic bomb museums, you almost certainly would find yourself among school children. They take in a lot of things that are hard to take in, and this next slide is just one example of what they’re asked to look at, which is the burns of people, who did survive. It might be one place to start in exercising our capacity for statistical compassion.
The fifth reason that I think people are not attentive to this. That is the population’s false belief that once nuclear weapons are made, they can’t be unmade. This is so untrue. They’re easy to unmake. I don’t mean there aren’t problems, of course is an incredible problem of where to store all the fuel, and so forth. But in terms of disarming them, it’s the simplest thing in the world. Compare it to global warming, where we all agree things need to be done, but it’s hard to get a hold of what the solutions are. This one’s very easy. There was a study done in Scotland, by someone named John Ainslee, that looked at the amount of time it would take take to completely dismantle the UK’s nuclear arsenal. Some parts of it would take hours—that is dismantling the nuclear triggers. Other parts would take a matter of days, such as the weapons deployed at sea to come into port. Other parts would take longer, but the whole thing could be done in two to four years. Now our arsenal is much, much huger and would take longer, but still it would be a finite amount of time.
Another piece of evidence that we have that it is possible to have a world without nuclear weapons is shown by the whole Southern hemisphere, which is blanketed by nuclear weapons free zones brought about by the Treaty of Tlatelolco, the Treaty of Pelindaba, the Treaty of Bangkok, the Treaty of Rarotonga, and so forth. This next slide shows the nuclear states in red, and the nuclear free weapons treaty signers in blue. When you see that nuclear weapons are a North-South architecture; the North has nuclear weapons and the South has the freedom from nuclear weapons.
If we go to the last reason, Circularity, as I said before Constitutions and nuclear weapons are mutually exclusive. Right now we’ve taken away the Constitutional provisions. Congress and nuclear weapons are incompatible, so we’ve taken away Congress’s single most important job of overseeing our entry into war. Citizenry and nuclear weapons are incompatible, so we’ve infantilized our whole citizenry by telling them that they should just turn on the TV if they want to find out if we’re at war. But it also means that if we bring back Constitutions, you can only do it by getting rid of nuclear weapons. If you bring back Congress, you can only do it by getting rid of nuclear weapons because they’re mutually exclusive. And if you bring back the citizenry, you’ll get rid of nuclear weapons. And yet in the time when these things were gotten rid of, they’ve been diminished in our eyes. They’ve been sullied in our eyes. We think of the citizenry as not much use. We think of Congress as a bunch of overtalking fools—there are many books on how Congress is dead, or dying or something like that. And we think of Constitutions as just a piece of paper, because that’s the result of the Nuclear Age. That’s what it means to destroy a Constitution, and a citizenry, and Congress. And we have to take it on trust that when those things come back, the scale of their power will be visible to us once more. But I just refer this as the Circularity Problem. The fact that the very things that would save us, by being eliminated, now look kind of pathetic, and therefore we don’t see that they have tremendous power to do the work. If we see our actions, not just in terms of our own planet, but in terms of the universe—a universe it appears that has never gotten through the problem that we’re now facing—and if we see that we can use Constitutional tools in their international covenants, we can see that these legal documents actually have some of the technicolor beauty of the galaxies themselves.
For more information on the Frank K. Kelly Lecture on Humanity’s Future, including links to prior years’ lectures, click here.