The Abnormal Normal of Nuclear Terror

Almost goofily, behind Official Washington’s latest warmongering “group think,” the U.S. has plunged into a New Cold War against Russia with no debate about the enormous costs and the extraordinary risks of nuclear annihilation, Gray Brechin observes.

By Gray Brechin

When Lewis Mumford heard that a primitive atomic bomb had obliterated Hiroshima, the eminent urban and technology historian experienced “almost physical nausea.” He instantly understood that humanity now had the means to exterminate itself.

On March 2, 1946, seven months later, he published an essay titled “Gentlemen: You Are Mad!” Not only did madmen, Mumford insist, “govern our affairs in the name of order and security,” but he called his fellow Americans equally mad for viewing “the madness of our leaders as if it expressed a traditional wisdom and common sense” even as those leaders readied the means for “the casual suicide of the human race.”

Illustration by Chesley Bonestell of nuclear bombs detonating over New York City, entitled "Hiroshima U.S.A." Colliers, Aug. 5, 1950.

Illustration by Chesley Bonestell of nuclear bombs detonating over New York City, entitled “Hiroshima U.S.A.” Colliers, Aug. 5, 1950.

In the 70 years since the Saturday Review of Literature published Mumford’s warning, that madness has grown to be normative so that those who question the cost, safety and promised security of the nuclear stockpile are regarded as the Trojans did Cassandra — if they are noticed at all.

“The bottom line on nuclear weapons is that when the president gives the order it must be followed,” insisted Hillary Clinton in the third presidential debate as a means of affirming her own — rather than her opponent’s — qualifications to give that order. “There’s about four minutes between the order being given and the people responsible for launching nuclear weapons to do so.”

Four minutes to launch is a minute more than the three to midnight at which the Doomsday Clock now stands. Clinton no doubt calculated that voters would be more comfortable with her own steady finger on the nuclear trigger. I can think of no better proof of Mumford’s contention than the fact that those voters would give any individual the power to abruptly end life on Earth unless it is that her statement went unremarked by those keeping score.

The Nobel Mistake

Less than nine months into Barack Obama’s presidency, Norway’s Nobel Institute bestowed the Nobel Peace Prize on him largely on the strength of his pledge during his first major foreign policy speech in Prague to rid the world of nuclear weapons. In a 2015 memoir, former secretary of the Institute Geir Lundestad expressed remorse for doing so, saying “[We] thought that it would strengthen Obama and it didn’t have that effect.”

President Barack Obama uncomfortably accepting the Nobel Peace Prize from Committee Chairman Thorbjorn Jagland in Oslo, Norway, Dec. 10, 2009. (White House photo)

President Barack Obama uncomfortably accepting the Nobel Peace Prize from Committee Chairman Thorbjorn Jagland in Oslo, Norway, Dec. 10, 2009. (White House photo)

Like all modern presidents, Obama quickly learned the political economy of the entrenched nuclear establishment, committing a trillion dollars to the “modernization” of the arsenal and its delivery systems 30 years beyond his presidency.

As Obama prepared to leave office, his Defense Secretary Ashton Carter rejected pleas for reducing the stockpile and announced that the Pentagon planned to spend $108 billion over five years to “correct decades of underinvestment in nuclear deterrence … dat[ing] back to the Cold War.” The last Cold War, that is.

Such staggering expenditures are, however, even more unlikely to purchase the order and security that Secretary Carter promised than when Mumford issued his warning. That was well before thousands of thermonuclear weapons waited on hair-trigger alert for the order to launch or a glitch that would do so without an order.

In his recently published book My Journey At the Nuclear Brink, Bill Clinton’s Defense Secretary William Perry detailed the numerous close calls by which the world has dodged partial or all-out Armageddon and claimed that the likelihood of disaster is growing rather than diminishing. Most of these events are unknown to the public.

Former head of the U.S. Strategic Command General James Cartwright bolstered Perry’s claim when he told a San Francisco audience that “It makes no sense to keep our nuclear weapons online 24 hours a day” since “You’ve either been hacked and are not admitting it, or you’re being hacked and don’t know it.” One of those hackers, he said, could get lucky.

A Non-existent Debate

When Hillary Clinton was asked at a town hall event in Concord, New Hampshire, if she would reduce expenditures for nuclear arms and rein in the corporations that sell the government those weapons, she replied “I think we are overdue for a very thorough debate in our country about what we need and how we are willing to pay for it.”

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix, Arizona. March 21, 2016. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix, Arizona. March 21, 2016. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

Such a debate has never been held and — given the peril, complexity and cost of nuclear technology — it is never likely to happen unless a president of exceptional courage and independence demands it. The profits of weapons production are simply too great and few of the prospective victims understandably want to dwell on the unthinkable when so much more diverting entertainment is available on their Smartphones.

Nuclear weapons by their nature are inimical to transparency and thus to the public discussion, control and democracy they ostensibly protect. Nor does Doomsday make for winning dinner banter.

The Brookings Institute in 1998 published a study of the cumulative costs of nuclear weapons entitled Atomic Audit. It put the bill to date at $5.5 trillion, virtually none of which was known by the public or even to members of Congress or the President. The cost simply grew and continues to grow in the dark, precluding spending on so much else that might otherwise return in public works and services to those who unwittingly pay for the weapons while also mitigating the causes of war abroad.

If she wins, Hillary Clinton’s election to the Presidency will be hailed as historic, but not nearly as historic as if she would sponsor that “overdue” and “very thorough debate” of which she spoke in the city of Concord. Such a debate might begin to lift from her own shoulders — and from those of her successors if there are to be any — what she called “the awesome responsibility” of four minutes to launch. That way lies sanity after 70 years of its opposite.

Dr. Gray Brechin is the Project Scholar of the Living New Deal University at the UC Berkeley Department of Geography. He is the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin which explains the historical context of the University of California’s long but little-known involvement with nuclear weaponry.

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23 comments for “The Abnormal Normal of Nuclear Terror

  1. Matt Krist Germany
    October 28, 2016 at 3:28 pm

    Okay,okay!We can hear,read and see it everywhere,that some of your poorly intelligent politicians try to force Russia into a war,why not a nuclear one.Sounds very busy,cool,trendy.Must be great fun for sure!
    Hallo??If your aces really try that,Russia will go some steps backwards.Then your hyenas will sceam in bloodrush : WE WIN!Then Russia surprisingly sets the FINAL SHOT!ONE!Game over!
    Who Needs that Scenario (exept some satanic persons)?We European People are not really interested in those things.For me it is unbelievable the Americans are.Probably ist my fault.Probably I am simply to stupid to understand.But for sure the Russians won’t understand either….(Please excuse my bad English,but i made my exercises 40 years ago)

    • Bart in Virginia
      October 29, 2016 at 11:15 am

      Matt, citizen ignorance is encouraged by our leaders. Instead we have endless foolish TV and electronic toys for distraction.

      You can help by working on NATO to take foot off the gas in the east. Here we are powerless.

  2. Zachary Smith
    October 28, 2016 at 3:39 pm

    I looked up the Mufmord essay and found it to be an incoherent rant. Judge for yourself:

    https://www.unz.org/Pub/SaturdayRev-1946mar02-00005

    Mankind was perfectly capable of enormous destruction before the splitting atom was used in weapons. Climate change has shown we’re able to destroy ourselves without the slightest assistance of those splitting atoms.

    Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush the Dumber, and Obama have demonstrated that millions of people can be destroyed along with the nations they formerly lived in without using The Bomb.

    Hillary having access to nukes gives me nightmares, but hoping she’ll muster any ‘dialogue’ other than On To Iran is wishful thinking, in my opinion.

  3. Sally Snyder
    October 28, 2016 at 3:40 pm

    Here is an article that looks at the Obama Administration’s addition to America’s nuclear weapon inventory:

    http://viableopposition.blogspot.ca/2016/05/the-b61-12-and-barak-obamas-broken.html

    This weapon is a breach of Obama’s promise in 2009 to deescalate the global nuclear weapons threat and may be a breach of non-proliferation treaties.

    • Gregory Herr
      October 29, 2016 at 1:03 am

      He’s just been one breach after another. Should get the Nobel Breach Prize.

  4. October 28, 2016 at 4:15 pm

    I think the the craziness of the Beltway Warriors has gone too far, is too well entrenched and in fact has become something like a religion with it´s dogmatic approach to world affairs. There are even some who are Christian Evangelicals that truly believe that God will step in and save the USA in the event of nuclear war. ( because after the Israelis they are God´s chosen people living in God´s chosen country). Or they believe that it will bring Armeggeddon and Jesus will save Americans and the USA. Either way should lunatics like these have anything at all to do with forming foreign policy for the USA?

    The important questions are. Can they start it? Could they rationalize starting it? Would they start it? I am afraid for my children and grand children,(I am too old for it to make much difference how I die) that the answer to those questions is a frightening and emphatic yes to all of those questions.

    • Bill Bodden
      October 28, 2016 at 7:28 pm

      I think the the craziness of the Beltway Warriors has gone too far,…

      History is replete with examples of “craziness” in the higher levels of governance that assume an unstoppable momentum until a Pyrrhic victory is achieved.

    • October 29, 2016 at 1:48 am

      The only way to cure us from Washington insanity is to throw a Molotov Cocktail at the city and that would be voting in Trump. Does anyone have any other solutions?

      • Bill Bodden
        October 29, 2016 at 1:13 pm

        The cure would call for the American people to get in touch with reality, to develop a set of principles based on the oft-touted credos of all people having a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and one nation with liberty and justice for all then act accordingly. That, of course, is much easier said than done. The Second Coming, assuming there was a First, is likely to occur before the American people get their acts together and conduct themselves as citizens instead of consumers of junk.

        The nation is run by plutocrats and the bosses in the political oligarchies and they aim to keep it that way. A revolution to change the ruling elite would be just that – a change in leadership. The system would remain the same.

  5. Bill Bodden
    October 28, 2016 at 7:13 pm

    On March 2, 1946, seven months later, he published an essay titled “Gentlemen: You Are Mad!” Not only did madmen, Mumford insist, “govern our affairs in the name of order and security,” but he called his fellow Americans equally mad for viewing “the madness of our leaders as if it expressed a traditional wisdom and common sense” even as those leaders readied the means for “the casual suicide of the human race.”

    On October 28, 2016 not only do madmen “govern our affairs in the name of order and security,” but our fellow Americans are equally mad for viewing “the madness of our leaders as if it expressed a traditional wisdom and common sense” even as those leaders readied the means for “the casual suicide of the human race.”

  6. Mahatma
    October 28, 2016 at 8:42 pm

    Everywhere, everywhere we hear over and over – The New Cold War – bull! Yes, the US through NATO mainly has Russia encircled and its missile defense systems in place. But this is anything but a repeat of the world when there was a Soviet Empire it is much worse now.

    There is one really big accomplishment of Obama’s that no one wants to mention, that is the election of Modi and India and the deal made – finally – after negotiations had started under Bush but stalled, Obama picked them up again with Modi and successfully brought Modi (who was inclined to do so anyway) fully into the Neoliberal imperial camp. He did so by offering India nuclear fuel they do not need and getting into the Nuclear Suppliers Club. This will insure that India will have ample fuel for more bombs – when your an Empire you can play some big cards – like proliferation.

    With the strength of India and its 1.2+ billion people and the geographic advantages it offers the US has become quite aggressive toward Russia and China as well. These territories are the last remaining on earth over which the US led Empire does not exercise full hegemony and they alone stand in the way of “Global full spectrum domination.” the stated goal of the Pentagon.

    Trillions in weapons and personnel now encircle both China and Russia with an aggressive warmonger about to take power.

    There is nothing cold about the coming war – I do not believe the US Empire is going to stop now – they have them surrounded.

    • John
      October 28, 2016 at 10:42 pm

      India will not play those Big Cards in favor of the most corrupt country that has ever existed…….America’s hay days are over…

  7. John
    October 28, 2016 at 10:37 pm

    The real America is rapidly unfolding before our eyes…..A country whose grand image is used by criminals to pull off every dark deed from banking to out right murder of citizens of foreign countries….The economic hit men of America are in for a rude adventure very soon…. .Brace yourselves for sudden impact…….

  8. Junius
    October 29, 2016 at 9:21 am

    I think it is important to remember that despite their novelty, the destruction caused by the atomic bombs dropped on Japan was scarcely greater than that wrought by the massive air raids the USAF launched against other cities in World War II. It is all but forgotten that the most devastating conventional air raid in all of history, the thousand plane bombing mission against Tokyo led by the egomaniacal General Henry Harley “Hap” Arnold, took place after the two atomic bombings, on August 14, 1945. Japan’s surrender was confirmed before the last of those bombers returned to their bases. This rather begs the question of what the purpose was of killing another hundred thousand Japanese when the war was unquestionably over.

    What is different is that all this destructive power was concentrated in a single weapon, which ultimately lessened the huge cost of building and arming entire air fleets in order to obliterate enemy population centers. This is the unspeakable evil of atomic weapons and their far deadlier nuclear successors: they were developed primarily to reduce the cost of mass murder. And here some of us are, all these years later, congratulating ourselves still on our Yankee ingenuity and courage at wisely saving a buck during our most enthusiastic overseas killing spree.

    The conflict that FDR provoked with Japan was a grotesque race war against a foe uniformly depicted in the American media of the day as animalistic and subhuman. The “Japs” were, by and large, portrayed as offensively as the grotesque caricatures of Jews contemporaneously published in Streicher’s infamous Stormer newspaper in Germany. The war’s goal was to assert American business’s dominance of the China trade and to seize control of the Pacific Ocean. The war with Japan was for nothing nobler than more corporate profit for America’s owner class. One wonders if this is part of the price they demanded for allowing FDR’s domestic economic reforms to go forward.

    • Zachary Smith
      October 29, 2016 at 12:52 pm

      This is the unspeakable evil of atomic weapons and their far deadlier nuclear successors: they were developed primarily to reduce the cost of mass murder. And here some of us are, all these years later, congratulating ourselves still on our Yankee ingenuity and courage at wisely saving a buck during our most enthusiastic overseas killing spree.

      Reducing the cost of “mass murder” was NOT the primary reason for developing the atomic bombs. A good starting point for getting a bit more educated is a book by Richard Rhodes.

      http://www.simonandschuster.com/books/The-Making-of-the-Atomic-Bomb/Richard-Rhodes/9781451677614

      The conflict that FDR provoked with Japan was a grotesque race war against a foe uniformly depicted in the American media of the day as animalistic and subhuman. The “Japs” were, by and large, portrayed as offensively as the grotesque caricatures of Jews contemporaneously published in Streicher’s infamous Stormer newspaper in Germany.

      This is perfectly true, but massively incomplete. Roosevelt did indeed “provoke” a war with Japan, but since he knew Japan was going to war anyhow, he merely attempted to arrange the timing of when that war would begin so as to assist the interests of the United States. The “Japs” were universally displayed just as you claim, but the American racism was a mirror image of that of the Japanese. They shared the same total contempt for the “whites” as Roosevelt et. al. did for the “Japs” – each side thought the other was full of hot air and would immediately collapse. The Japanese view did appear to be validated with their early run. Pearl Harbor seemed to be a great success and their striking force departed almost untouched. The great British battleships were sunk and Singapore was easily captured, the Dutch scattered, and the puny Australian forces routed. Even in the Philippines MacArthur’s incompetence led to a big victory over the “white” American soldiers.

      I can’t locate an internet link at the moment, but in the 1930s the American cartoonist “Ding” Darling drew a cartoon of a huge buck-toothed Japanese balloon being inflated in Japan. An Uncle Sam figure was holding a slingshot and looking at the viewer with a mischievous grin. Title of the cartoon: An Awful Temptation.

      The racism leading into WW2 in the Pacific was shared by both sides.

      • Zachary Smith
        October 29, 2016 at 1:07 pm
      • Gray
        October 29, 2016 at 2:01 pm

        Junius is correct in saying that the saturation fire bombing of Japanese and European cities paved the way for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Mumford said the same but went on to say that “In the very act of dying the Nazis transmitted the germs of their disease to their American opponents: not only the methods of compulsive organization or physical destruction, but the moral corruption that made it feasible to employ these methods without stirring opposition.” That was pretty heady stuff for 1964 and a pretty good description of what the U.S. has done to Iraq and so many other countries now.

        The book to read on the race war in the pacific is John W. Dower’s “War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War.” Its description of what the Japanese did to captured prisoners they considered subhuman is haunting. In my own book, “Imperial San Francisco,” I try to show how such a war was virtually inevitable from the moment Commodore Perry forced the Japanese to open their nation to U.S. trade in 1854 and certainly after the U.S. seized the Philippines, Guam, and Hawai’i as needed stepping stones to China in 1898.

  9. Reconing
    October 29, 2016 at 4:34 pm

    The ‘Governments’, the main tool of the oppressors aren’t concerned about nuclear war because they aren’t going to self-destruct. But they are concerned withcontrol and more control and less world population. So they will convince the worthless brainwashed masses that a nuclear war is imminent, and then they will engineer a limited nuclear war. This will increase their control over the masses and simultaneously reduce the masses. The only recourse against this is to violently eradicate these governments.

    • Matt Krist Germany
      October 30, 2016 at 3:53 pm

      Reconing,i think you are right with your Analysis.But that is not the whole Story.Russia never would fight a “limited” nuklear war.They would answer asymetric.USA never is able to destroy complete Russia because of simple geographic reasons.But for Russia it is relatively simple to destroy North America.Also because of geographic reasons.They calculate one Impact in the st.andrew trench and one in the yellowstone park.Earth crust will open and your beautiful Country would be buried under clouds of poison and deadly dust.No life for Generations,NO LIFE.Radioactivity?Not really important in this Scenario.Where do the Governments want to live the nights after?In their bunker?Must be great fun!Or… have I forgotten somthing?

      • Zachary Smith
        October 31, 2016 at 1:50 am

        Russia never would fight a “limited” nuklear war.They would answer asymetric.

        Sure they would attempt a “limited” nuclear war. The Russians have almost certainly translated and read Sun Tzu’s Art Of War, and that includes the maxim “36. When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.”

        Any sane war player will keep matters at a “tit for tat” stage for as long as possible, praying that the enemy will conclude the cost of a loss outweighs the gains of a ‘victory’. It may not work for neocon nuts, but any Russian leader would at least try to leave a door open for the US to decide to stop.

        As for the asymmetric business, they do have the advantage there, and the US as a nation would not survive. But neither would Russia. The leadership over there certainly must understand that.

      • Bob Loblaw
        November 3, 2016 at 8:23 pm

        EMP strikes in key locations could cripple power grids, the resulting lost civil order can pit well armed Americans against each other. A thirst for diesel and gasoline will go unquenched and if we don’t starve we’ll destroy ourselves leaving the land intact.

  10. Joe_the_Socialist
    October 30, 2016 at 1:02 pm

    ***

    Read the book “Command and Control”. From day 1 of the nuclear weapons program, the loss of a major American city because of an accident or human malfunction has been factored into the equation as an acceptable loss.

    ***

    FREE AMERICA

    DIRECT DEMOCRACY

    ***

    • Zachary Smith
      October 31, 2016 at 2:00 am

      I checked Google Books and found that you’ve grossly oversimplified the situation. But thanks for the name of the book – I’m going to try to locate this title and see what else author Eric Schlosser has to say about the issue.

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