YouTube video

TRNN Replay: We tend to think that nuclear war is a remote possibility. However, on the anniversary of the atomic bomb drops on Japan, historian Peter Kuznick reflects on how the nuclear threat is more immediate now than at any other time since the 1950’s


Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you with us.

We are commemorating the 73rd anniversary of the atomic bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where as many as 226,000 people were killed because of that blast. It launched the nuclear arms race. We have with us Peter Kuznick, professor of history and director of Nuclear Studies Institute at American University, who is also the author of Beyond the Laboratory: Scientist as Political Activist in 1930s America. And he is currently joining us from Nagasaki, Japan, where he’s gone with some of his students. And Peter, welcome to the program. Good to have you with us.

PETER KUZNICK: Mark, I’ve been taking students to Hiroshima and Nagasaki every summer on what we call the peace tour every summer since 1995. This is the 24th time I’ve brought students from American University to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to commemorate the anniversary of the atomic bombings. And in some ways it’s as relevant now as it’s ever been. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock to two minutes before midnight. That’s the closest it’s ever been. It was first moved to two minutes before midnight back in the early 1950s, after the United States and the Soviet Union tested their hydrogen bombs. And many of us feel that given what’s going on in the world, the situation in Korea, the situation in Iran, the tension between the United States and Russia in Syria, Ukraine, the Baltics, this is a very, very dangerous moment. So nuclear issues should be in the forefront of people’s thinking and concerns. And we lost it again.

MARC STEINER: So let me pick up from that point, because I think it’s really important to examine this. I mean, when- if you’re of a certain age in this country, in this world, you remember that time when people hid under their desks. We remember the time people lived under the threat of an atomic war taking place between countries. So that consciousness is really not with us at this moment. People don’t have the same intense feelings and fears about it that they once did. So how do you begin to build that political, cultural understanding to try to start this new conversation about where we are?

PETER KUZNICK: It’s interesting. On the campuses there is just not the kind of concern that there was in previous decades. I see that with my students. I see that. Students are focused on other things, and that’s great. But we’ve got two primary concerns that threaten the future existence of our species. The number one concern is the nuclear threat. The number two concern is climate change.

The situation now, the latest understanding of nuclear winter, the latest scientific studies, show that a limited nuclear war between India and Pakistan, in which 100 Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapons were used, could cause partial nuclear winter. The temperatures on the earth’s surface will plummet. Agriculture would be destroyed for a long period of time. And up to two billion people could be killed. That’s a limited nuclear war with 100 Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapons. We now have 14,450 nuclear weapons in the world, and they’re not Hiroshima size. They’re between 7 and 80 times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb.

So people need a wakeup call, whatever that takes. They have got to understand that the immediate threat to our existence is still the nuclear threat. And you’ve got leaders- well, we’ve got two leaders in the world now- who have absolute veto power over the future existence of our species. The United States and Russia control 93 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. That means Donald Trump, the unpredictable Donald Trump, has got access to the nuclear codes and could end life on the planet almost immediately. And Vladimir Putin has the same power. That is insane that two people have that kind of power.

But beyond that, the threat of even limited nuclear wars, the threat of accidental nuclear wars. We saw the situation in Korea. Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said that he felt there was a 50/50 chance that we were going to go to war in Korea. Everybody feared that that was going to turn into a nuclear war. And then you’ve got Trump, after creating that crisis, sanely trying to tamp that down; and then creating a whole new crisis by ripping up the Iran nuclear deal.

So the timeliness of being in Hiroshima and Nagasaki now is that the world has got to start focusing again on these kinds of issues and concerns.

MARC STEINER: So now we have a president sitting in the White House here in the United States who wants to build the nuclear arsenal here in the United States. Has threatened North Korea, before he met with the leader of North Korea. But threatened in the kind of absurd, childish tweets that he made about ours is bigger than yours. And I was wondering if the, if the clock was pushed to two minutes before the hour because of Trump’s victory? Is it deeper than that? I mean, we also know Israel has atomic weapons that they could use if they feel deeply threatened. So I mean, it could come from any number of areas.

PETER KUZNICK: There are currently nine countries that have nuclear weapons. Nine countries. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said that 40 countries have the technological capability of developing nuclear weapons. The possibility of nuclear anarchy, in that sense, is real. Having Donald Trump in the White House with his finger on the proverbial nuclear button is very frightening, but the situation was dangerous before that. You look at George Bush’s 2002 Nuclear Posture Review. The New York Times had an editorial after that saying that the United States was the world’s nuclear rogue power because of the provocative nature of Bush’s Nuclear Posture Review.

We wound it down a little bit under Obama. Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize because of his Prague speech calling for nuclear abolition. Obama was a huge disappointment. Not only did Obama not abolish nuclear weapons, Obama maintained all the myths about nuclear weapons. And Obama also called for a 30-year, trillion-dollar modernization of every aspect of America’s nuclear arsenal, which means that nuclear weapons under Obama became more usable, not less usable. And now Trump is continuing that policy. The estimate now officially is $1.2 trillion, but we know that we’re talking more in the range of $1.7 trillion to $2 trillion for this nuclear modernization.

The point is- and we’re even legally committed under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, all the nuclear powers are supposed to move quickly to abolish their nuclear arsenals. That was back in 1970. We’re breaking international law.

MARC STEINER: All right. What it also says, though, Peter, I mean, so in the last 48 years nothing has diminished. Since the beginning of the ’50s, the arsenals have only been developed with greater strength around the world. It’s proliferated, as you pointed out earlier. So I’m wondering again, I mean, what moves have to be made? Because even, whether you have a liberal Democrat in the White House, or a conservative Republican, or no matter who’s sitting in the Kremlin, no matter who’s sitting anywhere, there are people who feel like they have to have these weapons in order to defend themselves and to be powerful enough to dissuade people from using them. That’s the argument that would be used.

PETER KUZNICK: Nuclear deterrence theory is a great theory until it doesn’t work. Once deterrence fails there’s nobody left alive to tell those people in power that this was not a good idea. You know, people should actually go back and listen to Fred Astaire.

MARC STEINER: Did you say Fred Astaire?

PETER KUZNICK: I said Fred Astaire. He plays a physicist, Julian, in the great 1959 movie On the Beach. And there in Melbourne, they’re waiting for nuclear radiation to hit Melbourne, the southernmost major city. The rest of the world is already dead. And they ask Julian- Fred Astaire’s character- how did we do this? How were we so stupid to blow it up? And Fred Astaire gives a brilliant critique of deterrence theory. You know, try to defend ourselves with weapons that we know if we use we’re committing global suicide makes no sense at all.

You know, as Khrushchev said after the Cuban missile crisis, he said if the weapons go off and the bombs start falling, who’s going to care if we’re capitalists or communists? Who’s going to care if we’re Christians, or Jews, or Muslims, or Buddhists? There’ll be nobody left alive to tell us apart at that point. And so there’s a certain wisdom to people like the Fred Astaire character in On the Beach, or Khrushchev, or Kennedy after the Cuban missile crisis. But we haven’t learned those lessons or the people in power have not learned those lessons.

Donald Trump- you know, Donald Trump. Donald Trump said, what’s the point of having nuclear weapons if we can’t use them? To a normal, sane human being, that means let’s get rid of the nuclear weapons. To Donald Trump, that means let’s make them more usable. And so that’s, that was the danger in the Korea crisis. That’s still the danger in the Iran crisis. Trump wisely, in some ways, sanely even, has called for improving relations with the United States and Russia. And that’s essential, given the nature of our conflicts and given the nature of our capabilities to destroy each other.

You have to remember that we still have more than a thousand nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert from the United States and Russia pointed at each other. Those weapons have to be used almost instantaneously, or they’re lost. And there are so many things we could do to lessen the threat. Long run we’ve got to eliminate the threat. First thing we have to do is get the nuclear arsenal down below the level for nuclear winter. That’s the first thing we have to do. During the, after Trump got elected, he and Putin were on the phone. And Putin said, we need to extend the New START Treaty beyond its expiration in 2021. And so then Trump puts down the phone and asks his advisor, what’s the New START Treaty? And he gets back on the phone. He says, no, it’s a terrible treaty. We don’t want to extend it.

That’s the situation we’re in. Not only is Donald Trump ignorant when it comes to nuclear weapons, his instincts are all wrong. And the fact is that if Donald Trump gives an order to use nuclear weapons, there’s nobody who can block it. There are people who can commit what would be considered treason, possibly, and refuse to carry out Trump’s orders. But there’s no intermediary. The process is that the president has that power on his own, his own authority.

MARC STEINER: I’m very curious, when you’re in Nagasaki and the conversations you’re having with people, what are people’s thoughts about how to revive the understanding about how important this is, what we’re actually facing, what we talked about at the very beginning of our conversation. I mean, because you don’t, you don’t read about it a great deal in most of the popular press. You don’t feel it kind of bubbling up. So what are people talking about in terms of how you bring this consciousness to bear?

PETER KUZNICK: Well, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki there, these are the two places in the world where everybody is thinking and talking about this. So this is sort of, you’ve got to go back to Baltimore, you’ve got to go to Washington to find out what’s going on in people’s heads, why they’re not concerned about it. Robert Lifton had some brilliant theories about, about why people are so blocked when it comes to nuclear issues, why we can’t continue to think about them, why we can’t think more creatively. What is it about the nature of nuclear annihilation? Why can’t we contemplate about the fact that we’re actually preparing for our own extinction as a species?

In fact, in 1947, the great analyst Louis Mumford wrote an editorial called Gentlemen, You Are Mad. And he says that mad men run the world. They look like normal human beings. They’re dressed in suits and ties the uniforms. They go to work. And they plan for annihilation. They have the names of presidents and generals and this and that, but they’re planning annihilation. And that’s still the reality. Daniel Ellsberg laid this out brilliantly in his recent memoir. But this is something that we’ve known for a long time, that that there is something very irrational and self-destructive about our species. As a species we’ve got a death instinct. Why are we spending so much money perfecting the means of killing, making weapons systems that are more and more lethal? Vladimir Putin on March 1 gave his State of the Nation address.

MARC STEINER: And so to me this is really fascinating, because I’ve thought about this a great deal. Been reading a lot about it. Obviously was very involved in this many, many decades ago, as a younger man. As a young boy, as well. And so the question is, I think that, as you were describing that, is how you popularize this among people. I mean, because we are facing something that is as disastrous, perhaps more immediately so, than the climate disaster that we’re facing on the planet. And so when you gather in places like Nagasaki, are people coming from across the globe? What is the state of the, of the movement at this moment that is questioning and against the development of nuclear power and weapons?

PETER KUZNICK: We’ve been grappling with this since the 1980s. The nuclear freeze movement and the anti-nuclear movement was very potent in the 1980s. It was the salient movement on American campuses. People were reading about it, studying about it. Partly there were great movies. Or not, or certainly powerful movies. The British movie Threads; American movies like The Day After. There were quite a few good American movies during that time. And it was a combination of popular culture with dedicated organizers who were driving this home day after day after day. And we saw the impact even on Ronald Reagan, where by 1985 we make all this big deal about the fact that Trump and Putin met with just their translators, and no record. Well, in 1985, Gorbachev and Reagan met alone with translators for four hours and 51 minutes. And they laid the basis for what’s later going to come almost to fruition at Reykjavik, where they came within one word of abolishing nuclear weapons. And the following year they did eliminate an entire category of nuclear weapons.

We need to put the same kind of pressure on Trump and Putin, and all the other leaders today. But it’s a combination of popular culture, education, and people looking squarely into the eye. The media doesn’t cover this. You know, where we see it on the mainstream media, a serious discussion of nuclear weapons? We see a threat from Iran, supposedly, or a situation in North Korea. But we don’t see the role that the United States is playing right now, heating up crises around the world; many of which, given the situation, could develop into nuclear confrontations.

MARC STEINER: Thank you, Peter, so much for joining us. It’s always a pleasure to have you with us here on The Real News. Peter Kuznick is professor of history and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University, and joins us from Nagasaki, Japan in the wee hours so we can have this update. Peter, thanks so much. Enjoy your time in Japan, and we look forward to talking to you when you get back to the States.

PETER KUZNICK: Thanks, Marc. Take care.

MARC STEINER: Take care. And I’m Marc Steiner for The Real News Network. Take care. We’ll be talking soon.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Peter Kuznick is Professor of History and Director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University in Washington, DC. He and Oliver Stone co-authored The Untold History of the United States.