Disarmament and Truth

Talk Given at Books not Bombs Rally and Hiroshima Commemoration Livermore, California, August 8, 2004, by Andrew Lichterman*

      I have been coming out here to Livermore for events like this for more than two decades now. The magnitude of the danger that nuclear weapons like those designed here pose for humanity and the planet is undiminished. Thousands remain deployed around the world, still more than enough to destroy most of human civilization in a day or two, and to devastate the web of life on this planet in ways that would change it forever. Yet at the same time, the range of debate in this country over what we can do about these terrible weapons, what we are told we can hope for or should talk about in the way of disarmament, seems always to grow smaller.

      There are few visible on the national political stage who are even willing to mention disarmament. The most we are likely to hear is vague talk about reductions. The main focus of debate is not over getting rid of the huge and diverse nuclear arsenal we still have, but over whether building new kinds of nuclear weapons will better serve a declared goal of global military dominance. The goal of military dominance itself is debated hardly at all; the range of respectable discussion is limited to the least risky and expensive ways to achieve it.

      Late last night as I was struggling with this, with how to respond not only to the crisis we are in, but to the lack of a visible principled opposition, I turned as I often do to the work of Martin Luther King. What I found there had the directness and immediacy so lacking today. It felt like water in the desert.

      These passages are from a speech King delivered at the National Cathedral in Washington, a speech he called “Remaining Awake Through A Great Revolution.” He gave this speech on March 31, 1968, four days before he was killed. That same day, Lyndon Johnson, the nation split and his presidency in crisis due to the Vietnam war, announced that he was not going to seek re-election.

            This was also three months before the United States, together with the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom, signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, in which they promised, over thirty-six years ago now, to negotiate the early cessation of the arms race and the elimination of nuclear arsenals.

            I found these words every bit as compelling as when they were spoken, perhaps more so in the barren political landscape of the present. All you have to do is change the name of the war. King said:

“I am convinced that it is one of the most unjust wars that has ever been fought in the history of the world. Our involvement in the war in Vietnam has torn up the Geneva Accord. It has strengthened the military-industrial complex; it has strengthened the forces of reaction in our nation. It has put us against the self-determination of a vast majority of the Vietnamese people, and put us in the position of protecting a corrupt regime that is stacked against the poor.

It has played havoc with our domestic destinies. This day we are spending five hundred thousand dollars to kill every Vietcong soldier. Every time we kill one we spend about five hundred thousand dollars while we spend only fifty-three dollars a year for every person characterized as poverty-stricken in the so-called poverty program, which is not even a good skirmish against poverty.

Not only that, it has put us in a position of appearing to the world as an arrogant nation. And here we are ten thousand miles away from home fighting for the so-called freedom of the Vietnamese people when we have not even put our own house in order. And we force young black men and young white men to fight and kill in brutal solidarity. Yet when they come back home that can’t hardly live on the same block together....

And we could go right down the line and see that something must be done--and something must be done quickly. We have alienated ourselves from other nations so we end up morally and politically isolated in the world....

This is where we are. ‘Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind,’ and the best way to start is to put an end to war in Vietnam, because if it continues, we will inevitably come to the point of confronting China which could lead the whole world to nuclear annihilation.

It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence. And the alternative to disarmament, the alternative to a greater suspension of nuclear tests, the alternative to strengthening the United Nations and thereby disarming the whole world, may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation, and our earthly habitat would be transformed into an inferno that even the mind of Dante could not imagine.”

King than offered some thoughts on the criticism he had taken for speaking out against the war:

“One day a newsman came to me and said, ‘Dr. King, don’t you think you’re going to have to stop, now, opposing the war and move more in line with the administration’’s policy? As I understand it, it has hurt the budget of your organization, and people who once respected you have lost respect for you. Don’t you feel that you’ve really got to change your position?’”

In reply to views of this kind, King said,

“On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right?”

            Social movements, ordinary people acting together by the millions, are the only force that can change history for the better. Our role is not to cut deals, or even to think about what deals might be cut. Our task is to change the terrain on which the entire debate takes place, to move the boundaries of what is politically possible, even if it takes years or decades or lifetimes.

            Today, we have to be willing to say, we don’t need nuclear weapons, we don’t need any more high-tech conventional weapons, we don’t need any more any more missiles, we don’t need any more foreign bases. We have to be willing to say that don’t need to have an empire.

*Andrew Lichterman is a long-time San Francisco Bay Area peace and environmental activist. More of his work can be found at http://al.marginalnotes.org