by Stephen Wing — August 6, 2020
It was the end of the world as we knew it: August 6, 1945.…..
A child born on that day would turn 75 this month, so most of us now alive grew up not in the world that ended that day, but in the strange new world that dawned in its place. The world we know, the one we regard as normal and strive in our myriad ways to transform into a better one, lives in the shadow cast by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To us, of course, the shadow appears to be ordinary sunlight, because we never knew a world without it.
But when the world changed forever 75 years ago, most people were acutely aware of it— even the children. Friends only a few years older than me have vivid memories of hiding under their school desks, drilling for an atomic bomb attack. One friend, Garrick Beck, began his recent memoir with a scene from his childhood in the 1950s, when drills were conducted for the entire city of New York. His parents were among the few who refused to obey the injunction to stay indoors. Instead they joined a gathering of protesters outside City Hall, organized by the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy Day.
It was only the world that had changed, however; one thing remained dangerously unchanged. In 1946, Albert Einstein warned, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” It was obvious to Dorothy Day and a growing number of resisters that hiding under a desk or inside their houses was no defense against such a catastrophe. But those in power on both sides of the Cold War continued to believe that atomic war was just a logical extension of the mode of thinking that had led from war to war to war for so many centuries.
The ideological divide between East and West was superficial compared to the deepening divide between these leaders and vast numbers of ordinary citizens on both sides of the Cold War whose mode of thinking was radically transformed by the Bomb. The world had changed, and they knew it. For five decades after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the protests grew bigger and bigger, spreading to every continent, culminating with a gathering a million strong in New York City on June 12, 1982, during the United Nations’ Second Special Session on Disarmament. Hundreds of people joined the Great Peace March from Los Angeles to Washington in 1986. Others walked across Europe to Moscow. People protested at the Nevada Test Site, camped on the tracks at the Rocky Flats bomb-trigger plant, sailed to the South Pacific on the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior to block French weapons tests.
The Plowshares movement, heir to the Catholic Worker legacy, has carried out 100 nonviolent break-ins at U.S. nuclear weapons facilities since 1980, symbolically transforming “swords into plowshares.” The 100th action took place here in Georgia on April 4, 2018, at Kings Bay Naval Base, home to the East Coast fleet of Trident submarines. Seven Catholic activists await sentencing as I write. It was no accident that they planned their action for the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King was an early opponent of the nuclear arms race, joining African-American activists such as W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, Bayard Rustin, and a host of lesser-known names.
Unlike their white counterparts, these activists of color recognized in the bombing of Japanese civilians a racial element which they found wearily familiar. As Dr. Vincent Intondi documents in his illuminating book African-Americans Against the Bomb, their struggle was not only against Jim Crow segregation and systemic racism at home, but against the European colonial powers who then occupied most of Africa. The pattern of racist violence was part of the world they knew, integral to that mode of thinking which refused to change in the light of the Bomb— a pattern that continued as U.S. war planners debated the use of nuclear weapons against Korea and Vietnam, and France detonated its early weapons tests in colonial Algeria. In support of the African struggle for independence, Bayard Rustin organized an international group of protesters who attempted to occupy the testing zone in the Sahara Desert.
Sen. Joe McCarthy used the nuclear issue to split the civil rights movement in the 1950s, when anyone who dared to oppose nuclear holocaust was therefore a Communist. But in the 1960s, after winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership in the civil rights movement, Dr. King himself re-connected the dots by declaring that racial equality had not one opponent but three: the “giant triplets” of racism, materialism, and militarism. In the 1970s, President Carter’s U.N. ambassador Andrew Young, a protegé of Dr. King, vigorously opposed the ongoing French nuclear tests in the Sahara. In 1988 another King protegé, Jesse Jackson, made nuclear disarmament the centerpiece of his second campaign for the presidency, winning seven Democratic primaries and four caucuses to come in second in the race to succeed Ronald Reagan.
In 2020, against a backdrop of white supremacist ranting from the White House and a backward slide into school re-segregation and legalized lynching, people of all races have once again crowded into the streets to demand justice for African-Americans. And like the Black activists who protested the Bomb in the 1950s, this new generation too has been branded with the all-purpose slur of “Marxism.”
But as the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 prophetically remind us, racism is still inextricably linked to militarism and materialism. Militarism in the U.S. can only reach its goal of global domination on behalf of the corporate elite if We the People are divided against ourselves along the traditional lines of color and class. Materialism, meanwhile, is driving the destabilization of the planetary climate, benefitting no one except the same corporate elite. Which leads directly back to racism: people of color around the globe are the primary victims of climate change as floods, droughts, and superstorms besiege the former colonies of Europe, spawning war, malnutrition, and crowds of homeless refugees.
By luck or grace, Einstein’s “unparalleled catastrophe” has not yet come to pass— though we continue to drift in that direction. The world as we knew it on August 5, 1945, has been swept three generations into the past, and most of us today are only dimly aware that we live under the daily threat of nuclear holocaust. Yet this new world we’ve grown accustomed to quietly smolders with the fallout of 2,056 nuclear bomb tests conducted by eight nations, over 500 of them in the open atmosphere, many in the territory of indigenous nations. France’s open-air testing continued until 1974, China’s until 1980. Each of us carries particles of this experiment in mass irradiation in our bones and tissues. No one knows whether it plays a role in the worldwide cancer pandemic, because everyone on Earth is an experimental subject; there is no control population.
Meanwhile, President Trump has announced his desire to resume testing nuclear weapons. The United States is one of the eight nuclear-armed nations that never ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1996. Under Trump and his two predecessors in the White House, the Pentagon has abandoned the strategy of nuclear deterrence to surround both Russia and China with first-strike weapons systems. Arms treaties negotiated by Democratic and Republican administrations alike have been scrapped rather than re-negotiated amid mutual accusations of cheating by Russia, China, and the United States. The current Pentagon budget includes billions of dollars to upgrade and replace our nuclear arsenal and its delivery systems, including a new class of Trident submarines to be deployed at Kings Bay. North Korea and Iran are regarded as mad power-mongers for wishing to defend themselves against the world’s most aggressive military power.
The famous “doomsday clock” of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which has tracked the danger of nuclear holocaust since 1947, has never been closer to “midnight”— the end of the world as we know it, and very possibly the end of our knowing anything at all. The world, of course, would continue in some form without us. But the “nuclear winter” which is expected to result from multiple detonations of warheads with many times the explosive power of the original Bomb would certainly accelerate the rate of mass extinction now caused by climate change and habitat encroachment.
So it’s time once again for the human species to invoke our most precious and dangerous gift: the ability to change the world as we know it. Humans have engineered the insanity of the Bomb, and twice unleashed its destructive power on innocent humans— not to force the Japanese to surrender, as the history written by the victors would have us believe, but to demonstrate to our next and future enemies exactly who we are as a nation. And humans have engineered a carbon-based global economy which today is systematically demolishing the stable climate that has enabled human civilization to develop over the millennia.
But humans have also engineered a system of majority governance based on voting. At a special United Nations conference in July of 2017, using a system of “one nation, one vote,” the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was approved by 122 of the 124 participating nations. The treaty prohibits the development, testing, production, stockpiling, stationing, transfer, use or threat of nuclear weapons, much as previous treaties have banned land mines, cluster munitions, biological and chemical weapons. When ratified by the legislatures of 50 nations, using the same system of majority voting, it will become binding as international law. To date, 44 nations have ratified it.
Sadly, the world’s nuclear-armed nations, including the United States, refused to participate in this exercise of global democracy. Here in the U.S.A., the birthplace of modern democracy, the true potential of using our votes to change the world remains untested, because a clear majority of eligible voters do not believe it can work, and the actual wishes of the majority thus remain unknown. Chances are, I suspect, that most of us would prefer to disarm the nuclear powers and redirect their military budgets to other priorities. A 100% voter turnout this November would be a useful experiment . . . and just might also be our last chance to reverse our 75-year drift toward catastrophe.
Humans possess the divine ability to change the world . . . but it only works if we know it.
Stephen Wing serves as a member of the board of Nuclear Watch South.