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Nuclear alert

Matthew Rothschild

The New Nuclear Danger: George W. Bush's Military Industrial Complex

By Helen Caldicott The New Press. 224 pages. $16.95.

Face to Face with the Bomb: Nuclear Reality After the Cold War

Photographs and Text by Paul Shambroom, With an introduction by Richard Rhodes.

Johns Hopkins University Press. 144 pages. $34.95.

Toward Nuclear Abolition. A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1971 to the Present

By Lawrence S. Wittner Stanford University Press. 688 pages. $32.95.

When I arrived at The Progressive twenty-one years ago as a young associate editor, nuclear war was "Topic A." Month in and month out, the magazine devoted editorials and feature stories to the issue of disarmament. And the buzz about the H-Bomb case was still reverberating around the office.

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of The Progressive's H-bomb story, which prompted a classic First Amendment battle. It pitted this magazine against the mighty power of the U.S. government, in an unprecedented use of prior restraint, a federal judge accepted the government's arguments and gagged this magazine for eight months in 1979, prohibiting it from publishing "The H-Bomb Secret: How We Got It, Why We're Telling It," by Howard Morland. The government invoked the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, which made it illegal to disclose any data concerning the "design, manufacture, or utilization of atomic weapons," unless the government itself had declassified it. Even though Morland had obtained all his data from public sources and interviews, the government insisted that he was "breaching security." The judge, Robert W. Warren, in granting the injunction, said, "I want to think a long, hard time before I'd give a hydrogen bomb to Idi Amin."

Warren, like many other commentators, mischaracterized The Progressive's story. It was not a blueprint for a hydrogen bomb, and it did not let some terrorist make one in his basement. Any country with the wherewithal to build such a bomb could easily obtain the information that Morland, a freelance writer, gathered himself. And as the article explained, to make an H-bomb, you would need to have "the resources of at least a medium-sized government" and the expertise that is "beyond the capability of all but the most industrially sophisticated nations." Even then it would be no easy task. Recent revelations have borne this out: The difficulty that Iraq, Iran, and Libya have had in making a nuclear weapon while investing years and billions of dollars to do so testifies to the enormity of the scientific and technical challenges.

Morland's point was simple: "Secrecy itself," he wrote, "especially the power of a few designated 'experts' to declare some topics off limits, contributes to a political climate in which the nuclear establishment can conduct business as usual, protecting and perpetuating the production of these horror weapons."

Taught in journalism and law school classes around the country, the H-bomb story has become a landmark First Amendment case. For Erwin Knoll, who was the editor of The Progressive back then, it was his shining moment. And his only regret, he told me, was that he did not defy the injunction and go to press with the story. In an age of increasing government repression under George W. Bush and John Ashcroft, Knoll's spirit of defiance is all the more needed today.

For Sam Day, who was our managing editor and played an instrumental role in the Morland story, the First Amendment fight was secondary. He wanted to pierce the veil of nuclear secrecy so as to shock the American people into an awareness of the horror in our midst. A year after the big case, he left The Progressive to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience against nuclear weapons. He was arrested more than twenty-five times and served two six-month sentences for his actions.

"Eventually, these weapons are going to be used, just as every other weapon that's been developed by humankind eventually has been used," he told me in 1996. "And we still have no conception--we, as a society--of the incredible, uniquely devastating, destructive force of nuclear weapons."

To drive home the reality of nuclear weapons, photographer Paul Shambroom has come out with his amazing book, Face to Face with the Bomb. Like the H-Bomb story, this book is designed to awaken Americans who may be lulled into believing that the threat has passed.

"It's natural to want, to need, not to believe that hardware for our extinction exists, is made of real nuts and bolts, and is kept at the ready by living, breathing, human beings," Shambroom writes in his powerful prologue. "I've seen that nuclear weapons are real, and I'm terrified in a way that I never was before.... Seeing is believing."

And so Shambroom lets us see. He presents eighty-seven color plates from his journey through the U.S. nuclear war maze, which he completed prior to September 11 at a time when access was astonishingly easy.

He shows us the triad: the bombers, the intercontinental ballistic missiles, and the submarines that carry nuclear weapons. Often in the same picture, he juxtaposes the eerie with the quotidian; he underscores the hellishness by focusing on the immaculate.

For instance, the cover photo consists of a row of nine shiny white one-megaton nuclear bombs in a Louisiana hangar lying on their bellies, as a soldier sweeps the floor next to them.

Or take Plate 9, which shows two of these bombs on a forklift ready to go into the hangar, and a soldier tugging on one of diem with a rope as if the weapon were some recalcitrant horse that doesn't want to go into the barn.

Plate 35 shows a winter landscape at dawn or dusk on the prairies of North Dakota, with a railroad train in the distance and a Minuteman II missile silo in the right foreground. Plate 50, in Washington State, depicts a lake in the front, with evergreen trees on the hills behind, and white clouds in the sky, while a Trident submarine floats next to a pier on the far right. And Plate 56 is a beautiful fall scene in a northern Wisconsin forest, marred only by an antenna wire that crosses the picture like a laundry line. That antenna communicates launch orders to nuclear submarines.

In his prologue, Shambroom recognizes, as Morland did before him, how secrecy and shroudedness conspire to keep Americans unaware of the dangers. His purpose is to demystify nuclear weapons. "My modest ambition is only to help people see through the abstract haze of policy debate and think about them in concrete terms," he writes. "Real in an everyday, familiar, undeniable way." In this, he has succeeded.

Helen Caldicott has spent the last twenty-five years trying to make vivid the threat of nuclear war. In The New Nuclear Danger, published in 2002, she does so again, recapitulating the devastating consequences of such a conflict, including nuclear winter. "There is now enough explosive power in the combined nuclear arsenals of the world to 'overkill' every person on Earth thirty-two times," she writes.

She maintains that "the world is in a position even more dangerous than it was at the height of Reagan's buildup of nuclear weapons and Star Wars dreams." The Pentagon now is targeting 3,000 sites for nuclear attack, up from 2,500 in 1989, she writes. And even though the Soviet Union is more than a decade in the grave, 2,260 of those targets are in Russia.

Caldicott highlights perhaps the most dangerous risk today, that of accidental nuclear war. Most Americans are probably unaware that the United States and Russia each have about 2,000 nuclear weapons that are on hair-trigger alert, ready to be fired at an instant's notice. This places the Earth on a razor's edge.

On January 25, 1995, "we were within minutes of global annihilation," Caldicott writes. On that day, the United States had sent up a scientific missile over Norway, but Russian military technicians at a radar station thought it was the beginning of an all-out attack. "For the first time in history, the Russian computer containing nuclear-launch codes was opened," she writes. "President Boris Yeltsin, sitting at that computer being advised on how to launch a nuclear war by his military officers, had only a three-minute interval to make a launch decision. At the last moment, the missile veered off course."

The weapons contractors, the labs, and the rightwing think tanks all fuel the nuclear madness, Caldicott says, with Star Wars being a case in point. Debunking the rhetoric of a defensive nuclear umbrella, she recognizes it as an offensive device. "A working nuclear shield above the United States would be the equivalent of giving a sniper a bulletproof vest," she writes.

She provides a helpful chapter, as well, on the use of depleted uranium in the first Gulf War and in Kosovo. But she detracts from her point by exaggerating: She calls them both "nuclear wars." While she may be right that the use of depleted uranium created the first "radioactive battlefield" in history, that battlefield does not resemble the devastated one she describes in her account of what an all-out nuclear war would look like.

She also engages in hyperbole when she says Lockheed Martin "literally controls the fate of the Earth." It would not be the executives of Lockheed Martin who press the nuclear button.

But she is right on the money about the hawks in the Bush Administration, who believe "that America is the heart of the universe, that U.S. militarism must be used to protect American global business interests, that Russia is not to be trusted, and that China may need provoking into a new Cold War arms race."

She ends with a special plea to U.S. citizens. "If you or your child was threatened with a lethal disease, you would do everything in your power to save that life," she writes. "This is the analogy that you must now apply to the planet and in particular to your country."

For clues about how to save the planet from nuclear extinction, there is no better place to turn than to Lawrence S. Wittner's monumental three-volume study of the world disarmament movement from 1945 to the present. The theme throughout The Struggle Against the Bomb is that anti-nuclear activism played a large--and at times, critical--part in slowing the arms race and saving us from catastrophe, at least so far.

His first volume, One Worm or None, goes through 1953. Volume Two, Resisting the Bomb, takes us from 1954 through 1970. And his third and final volume, Toward Nuclear Abolition, just completed last year, brings it all up to the present.

Unlike other historians who focus on the intricacies of arms control agreements and the actors involved in drafting them, Wittner keeps his eyes trained on the grassroots movements for peace. "Recounting the history of nuclear arms control and disarmament without referring to the antinuclear movement is like telling the story of civil rights legislation without referring to the civil rights movement," he argues in the last volume.

Wittner provides impressive detail on the disarmament movements in Europe, India, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Brazil, among other places. But his discussion of the U.S. peace movement interests me most. He says the protests against the Vietnam War diverted attention from the nuclear issue. "The result was predictable enough: a gradually escalating nuclear arms race," he writes.

The anti-nuclear movement in the United States never completely faded, however. And new groups began to take shape during the 1970s: Greenpeace, the Center for Defense Information, Mobilization for Survival, the Rocky Flats Action Group, the Clamshell Alliance, and a revived Physicians for Social Responsibility. Wittner also gives direct action groups their due, citing the work of the Berrigan brothers and Women's Strike for Peace, among others.

During most of the Carter Administration, nuclear arms control policies "at key junctures" were "affected by the pressure of anti-nuclear public opinion and by its organizational expression, the anti-nuclear movement." Had the movement been stronger, he argues, "substantially more might have been accomplished."

Ronald Reagan's nuclear saber rattling galvanized the peace movement, Wittner writes. In 1982, 48 percent of the American people believed that nuclear war was likely in the near future, according to one poll This mass fear made the Nuclear Freeze Campaign of the 1980s so popular that even Reagan was forced to hear--and try to coopt--its anti-nuclear message. One way he did that was through his Star Wars initiative. Another was to discuss at the Reykjavik Summit in 1986 the possibility of getting rid of all nuclear weapons.

"U.S. policy shifted because of pressure generated by the anti-nuclear campaign," Wittner writes.

While Reagan and Gorbachev did not disarm the world, they did end up making significant reductions in some of the most threatening weapons systems, and Gorbachev led the way in halting nuclear testing and production.

With the end of the Cold War, which lessened the dangers even further, the movement receded again, Wittner notes. But public opinion remained overwhelmingly opposed to nuclear weapons. He cites one poll in the late 1990s that showed 87 percent of Americans supported a nuclear weapons ban.

Wittner has a little bit of trouble explaining why George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin agreed to reduce their number of nuclear warheads by two-thirds at a time when grassroots pressure was at a low ebb. He contends, though, that "the nuclear arms control provisions were modest" since "the warheads could simply be placed in storage, thus enabling the two nations to reconstitute their previous nuclear arsenals fairly quickly."

All in all, though, he defends his thesis well.

Like Caldicott, Wittner warns that thousands of nuclear weapons "remain on alert, ready to massacre hundreds of millions of men, women, and children and turn what is left of the Earth into a radioactive wasteland." And he calls us to organize once more to meet this challenge.

Given the myriad assaults of the Bush Administration, including the mendacious war against Iraq, it is perhaps too easy to lose sight of the nuclear threat that still envelops us.

That is why these books are so valuable, and why the effort that Howard Morland and The Progressive made back in 1979 is still as urgent today as ever.

We can't hide from the threat of nuclear war. We can't leave nuclear policy in the hands of politicians and arms contractors. We must, instead, revive what Wittner calls "the biggest mass movement in modern history."

Matthew Rothschild is Editor of The Progressive.

COPYRIGHT 2004 The Progressive, Inc.