The Third Threat

by Joan Harvey                                                                                                                                                        

When the air becomes uraneous

We will all go simultaneous

Yes, we all will go together

When we all go together

Yes we all will go together when we go

—Tom Lehrer, “We Will All Go Together When We Go”

You know what uranium is, right? It’s this thing called nuclear weapons. And other things. Like lots of things are done with uranium. Including some bad things.

—Donald J. Trump

The tide has turned, the Democrats have the House, Mueller showers us with gifts each day, hope lurches upward, though past trauma urges us to perpetually rein it in. We’re glued to the news, good or bad, to a level of destruction, corruption, drama, and scandal so great, it’s impossible to keep up with even a small part of it. We can’t process it all; we can barely find effective ways to act besides logging in with the Resistance, enjoying clever tweets, and imbibing good quantities of gin.

It’s hard to argue with Yuval Harari that the three main threats to our existence are climate change, artificial intelligence (and with it biotechnology), and nuclear war. And yet for most of us, saving some shreds of democracy (and decency) come first. Climate change certainly is on our minds, in the news every day, present to us as we watch so many people and animals suffer and homes and habitats destroyed. Then there’s AI, newest of the threats, still kind of sci-fi and sexy, and because we all work with computers and also have watched Facebook turn into a monster, the dangers of AI also do not feel so distant. But, left behind, neglected, is the oldest of these three manmade megathreats to the world, the peril of nuclear war. It’s a danger that has not diminished over time and is in actuality increasing. But even though it has the potential to be the most immediately destructive, it can feel the most remote.

I’m one of the few people who grew up on a homesite with a bomb shelter, a dark cold cave dug into a hill on my parents’ property. There may still be canned goods in there from the ‘60s, for all I know.

As little kids we’d sometimes open the heavy steel door that led into the hollowed-out hill, but it was hard to imagine spending more than a few minutes in that dark, clammy, unfriendly space. And hard to imagine that if there had been a nuclear bomb and we’d made it in before radiation spread, that anything at all would be okay upon emerging. (Coincidentally, the property I have now, once owned by the editor of Soldier of Fortune magazine, also had a bomb shelter on it, though reduced to rubble before my arrival.) My mother was passionate about nuclear disarmament, was a member of SANE (Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy), and was good friends with Ruth Adams, a brilliant former editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The first protest I remember participating in was in 1969 against an underground 40-kiloton nuclear bomb test (nearly twice as powerful as the one dropped on Hiroshima) in Rulison, Colorado. And yet even with all this personal history, I rarely give much thought to the nuclear threat. Perhaps Tom Lehrer, a major influence on my childhood (and, for better or worse, on my whole personality), is to blame; his songs about nuclear destruction were so damned cheerful.

We’ve lived for many decades under the threat of nuclear war but have experienced no accidents (other than those at nuclear power facilities and weapons manufacturing sites) or intentional strikes; perhaps that why it has so little reality for us. There have been many close calls, but mostly they have been invisible. For example, the Future of Life Institute, an organization that counts Max Tegmark among its founders and which is “working to ensure that tomorrow’s most powerful technologies are beneficial for humanity,” recently gave an award to Stanislav Petrov who, in 1983, “chose to ignore the Soviet early-warning detection system, which had erroneously indicated five incoming American nuclear missiles. With his decision to ignore algorithms and instead follow his gut instinct, Petrov helped prevent an all-out US-Russia nuclear war.”[1] Of course the dangers of nuclear war and faulty AI are linked. And Petrov was not the only individual who has saved our lives. Vasili Arkhipov is credited with casting the single vote that prevented a nuclear attack on the United States during the Cuban Missile Crisis. And there are other examples of individuals discovering computer glitches and preventing new world wars.

California Governor Jerry Brown, the new Executive Chair of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, remarks on the distance we feel from any threat: “I would say that for most people, the possibility of a nuclear accident or blundering into some kind of regional nuclear war or some kind of confrontation among the larger powers is inconceivable and totally remote from anything they’re thinking about.”[2]

And yet The Bulletin’s famous Doomsday Clock this year has been moved up to 2 minutes to midnight (it has been set as far back as 17 minutes to midnight in 1991), the closest it has been to Doomsday since 1953 during the Cold War. The clock takes into account threats from climate change as well as technology, but the risk of nuclear war still has the most weight. The shift in the clock’s hands acknowledges the dangers from North Korea and from conflict between Russia and the US, as well as from the buildup of nuclear weapons in India and Pakistan and our bowing out of the Iran nuclear deal.

Two recent incidents, which in normal times would have been major news and elicited enormous concern, got lost in the ongoing craziness of the moment. The first is the decision by the Trump administration to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). This destructive withdrawal, which under any previous administration would have been a subject of major public discussion and debate, came and went, a tiny blip in the news. The INF, an important (though imperfect) treaty, was achieved under Reagan, of all people. “The INF required destruction of US and Soviet ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, and their launchers and associated support structures and equipment; it has long been considered central to the East-West arms control regime.”[3] Obviously Trump’s move to end this agreement doesn’t improve chances of world safety. Some have argued that he is playing into the hands of the Russians, allowing them to escape blame, and releasing them from any constraints on further weapons development.

The second alarming piece of recent news involves the Saudis, who have been negotiating with our Energy and State Departments to get designs for nuclear power plants. The Saudis have warned that they will develop their own nuclear weapon if Iran acquires one. They provided financing for Pakistan to build its nuclear arms, and now many retired Pakistani professors and military personnel go to Saudi Arabia to supplement their retirement income. It is certainly quite possible they could carry information about nuclear weapons from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia; after all, Pakistani A.Q. Khan has been a prime engine of nuclear proliferation, helping build the programs in Libya and Iran. Trump’s backing out of the Iran deal has made the possibility of both Iran and Saudi Arabia acquiring bombs much stronger, and movement toward reform in Iran will be lost.

The politics of nuclear threat are extraordinarily complex and far beyond the scope of this column. Fortunately there are people and organizations who work tirelessly in the disarmament field, people like Frank von Hippel and Zia Mian, both of Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security. Mian just received the prestigious Leo Szilard lectureship award from the American Physical Society “for promoting global peace and nuclear disarmament particularly in South Asia, through academic research, public speaking, technical and popular writing and organizing efforts to ban nuclear weapons.” Mian works and writes often on nuclear issues with Pakistani Pervez Hoodboy, a leading nuclear physicist and eloquent critic of many repressive structures in Pakistan. Hoodboy has suffered death threats; the only thing keeping him alive may be his international fame. While social justice structures exist and are funded in Pakistan, anti-nuclear and peace commitments are both underfunded and under attack. And the US. presence there post-9/11 has fostered a climate in which torture and killing have become increasingly acceptable.

There have been huge past popular movements to fight the bomb. Before awareness of climate change and the potential of AI to destroy the world, and after the horrors of Hiroshima, nuclear annihilation was much on people’s minds. The peace movement transcended nationality, race, gender, and occupation, and elevated life and rationality above division lines. It brought in people able to think across time and across geographic boundaries, who could handle the real facts and understand the magnitude of the threats; heroes such as Randy Forsberg, Tasuzhiro Suzuki, Bayard Rustin, Frank von Hippel, Ruth Adams, and Bernard Laponche. The Peace Information Center founded in 1950 with W. E. B. DuBois at its head promoted the Stockholm Peace Appeal, a petition asking world governments to ban all nuclear weapons. The petition gathered (allegedly) an astounding 250 million signatures worldwide.[4] Later, prominent African-Americans such as Toni Morrison, Dick Gregory, Chaka Kahn, and Rita Marley participated in demonstrations against Reagan’s huge cuts to programs that benefited the poor while the military budget was vastly increased. These protests eventually helped push Reagan toward the INF treaty. As Russian physicist Pavel Podvig writes, “Reagan did not make the double-zero proposal—no medium-range missiles on either side—that later became the INF Treaty out of the kindness of his heart. The United States and NATO were under tremendous pressure from their own publics to do something about nuclear missiles in Europe.”[5]

African Americans also have consistently made the connection between nuclear weapons, colonialism, and lack of funding for social programs. As Vincent J. Intondi shows in his book African Americans Against the Bomb, they recognized the racial aspect of the attack on Hiroshima — that it was Japanese people, and not Europeans, who were bombed. In 1946 the NAACP called for nuclear disarmament, and major figures including Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, Marian Anderson, and Charlie Parker spoke out early against the bomb. Paul Robeson tied it specifically to colonialism: “Our government is getting uranium from the Belgian Congo for atomic bombs. American companies are prospecting for oil in Ethiopia and for minerals in Liberia….”[6] When France chose Africa as a testing place for its first nuclear weapon, Bayard Rustin led a protest that did not succeed in stopping the test, but did succeed in tying it to colonialism and to the eventual ceasing of tests on that continent. Martin Luther King spoke against nuclear weapons throughout his career, beginning in 1957. Many of these leaders were threatened by the government for their peace efforts.

In the U.S. today there are wonderful organizations and individuals working toward disarmament and attempts to avert nuclear war, but most are underfunded and unknown. Some of them are connected with nuclear facilities. Nuclear Watch New Mexico is a watchdog of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and, to a lesser extent, the Sandia National Laboratories. The Los Alamos Study Group is another group whose proximity to a nuclear facility makes abstraction impossible. Tri-Valley CARES is a sister watchdog at the Livermore Lab in California. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has done outstanding work, including dialoguing with nuclear weapons experts from China and Europe and working extensively in India and Pakistan. The Federation of American Scientists works to provide the public with factual information on nuclear weapons. The Nautilus Institute has been working primarily on the North Korean threat. The Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellowship provides fellowships to train young scholars in policy and advocacy on peace and security issues. The National Security Archive Fund uses the Freedom of Information Act to open historic and current policy documents from US government files related to nuclear weapons, and to reveal the presidential decision-making process on nuclear use. The Ploughshares Fund has for decades been the largest donor to anti-nuclear groups.

Beatrice Finn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017, stresses the need for a public push to move governments toward a nuclear ban. She has hope for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, a treaty that would ban nuclear weapons under international law. So far 69 countries have signed, though only 19 have ratified. Once 50 countries have ratified it, the treaty will go into effect. “We need to articulate the human ramifications of nuclear war, move away from an understanding of international relations as a series of zero-sum battles, and accept that nuclear weapons know no borders.” Finn puts the fight against nuclear weapons in a feminist context, urging women to “Refuse to be constrained by the ruling order’s lack of vision and belief in humanity.”[7]

Scientists, physicists, and other specialists working today towards disarmament emphasize that public pressure on our increasingly belligerent governments is essential. While adding one more worry to our already impossible load may seem overwhelming, awareness and participation are crucial. To quote Zia Mian:

There is opportunity now for new kinds of initiatives and making of common cause by non-weapon states, together with social movements from inside and outside the weapon states, to confront the threat from new nuclear weapons, the sharpening of nuclear-armed great power rivalry, and arms racing. Three important players in such an effort are the United Nations, the European Union, and the countries of the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. They will find public support in the United States in the resistance to Trump and in the persistent peace groups and anti-nuclear activists who are part of the networks once inspired and led by Randy Forsberg in the 1980s in the Nuclear Freeze movement to end the arms race. Across Europe, there are still many who were involved in the mass protests of the 1980s against US and Soviet nuclear weapons. They also may find allies in the democracy movement struggling against Vladimir Putin’s rule in Russia.[8]

The authors of the last Doomsday Clock statement stress that the Clock has moved back to a safer place in the past, and that movement toward a saner, safer world is possible again. While there are only so many threats we can mentally cope with at a time, it is still important not to forget this danger which, unfortunately, is only increasing with time.

I’ll let Tom Lehrer give us the last bit of advice:

We’ll try to stay serene and calm

When Alabama gets the bomb!

* * *






6 Vincent J. Intondi, African Americans Against the Bomb (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015),23

[7] Beatric Finn ,”Women Against the Bomb: How a feminist foreign policy can save the world,” The Nation, December 3/10, 2018,12-15, 25.