This Week's Show •

Two Guys Walk Into a Summit in Singapore

From “fire and fury” to a “terrific relationship” in less than a year sound like a happy turn in the Trump-Kim dance around nukes and North Korea. Better news coming is implied in the Singapore ...

From “fire and fury” to a “terrific relationship” in less than a year sound like a happy turn in the Trump-Kim dance around nukes and North Korea. Better news coming is implied in the Singapore summit: an end of the North-South Korean War after 70 years,  on what could be a nuke-free peninsula. A win for de-proliferation, an end of US war-games in South Korea, developing games for the North instead, all in a deal that great neighbor China like a lot.
Question: why do so many in our opinion class not like it at all: a dictator’s victory, goes the liberal line, a bust for the US. Is that because Trump did it? Or is there a deeper dread out there that as China rises, the American century in the Pacific is coming to an end.

If there were a simple sports score—who won, who lost?—between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim, we wouldn’t believe the scorekeepers anyway. Imagine: If it were Barack Obama going face-to-face with Kim Jong-un for a de-nuclearized Korea, would Rachel Maddow not be swooning? The Fox guys would surely be saying: Barack got “snookered.”  But then, if Donald Trump had negotiated the no-nukes-for-Iran nuclear deal, wouldn’t Sean Hannity still be crowing at the sheer mastery of it. When politics gets so personal and so poisonous, the staging so obvious, the words so mechanical and indefinite. It’s Year 72 of the Nuclear Age, in Asia where the first furious mushroom clouds announced a surreal new era. Where are we really?

Our guides this hour are historians of different sorts: the diplomat Chas Freeman lived it, as translator between Richard Nixon and Chairman Mao in the breakthrough talks in 1972.  Jeanne Guilleman—in her Pulitzer-nominated history Hidden Atrocities—has written the germ-warfare horror story from the 1930s which East Asia doesn’t forget. The novelist James Carroll is reimagining our American bomb dilemma since the forties. And Richard Rhodes won all the big prizes for his 3-volume nuclear history.

This Week's Show •

The Doomsday Machine in 2017

Nukes are on people’s nerves again, for good reason.  Our tremors, though, could be a symptom of sanity.  What do you mean: fire and fury, the incineration of nations, on one man’s decision? What they ...

Nukes are on people’s nerves again, for good reason.  Our tremors, though, could be a symptom of sanity.  What do you mean: fire and fury, the incineration of nations, on one man’s decision? What they never told us was that the Cold War could end, but the worst thing about it—the Age of Nuclear Anxiety—could keep right on going. Why is the worst of all weapons still out there, 25 years later?  

Daniel Ellsberg after releasing the Pentagon Papers (Wally Fong / AP)

Daniel Ellsberg knew he was risking life in prison for leaking the Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam War. But even then, most of 50 years ago, he was compiling a more awful story he wanted to liberate. And now, at the age of 86, he’s done it with the publication of The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. His latest book gives us the official and documentary version of our nuclear nightmare. The real story strangely resembles the black-humor script of Doctor Strangelove.  Hearing Ellsberg’s stories, you may be reminded of the War Room scene from Kubrick’s film with our president and the Russian ambassador talking total world destruction, on autopilot:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ozg7gEchjuM&t=88s

The strangest part of Daniel Ellsberg’s Confessions is his argument that the movie parody is still running in real life: the doomsday machines are still on hair-triggers.

Elaine Scarry is a literary scholar who happens to be an expert on what nuclear weapons have done to democracy. Her book, Thermonuclear Monarchy, is an essential guide to this terrifying power.  In October, Elaine Scarry, helped convene a huge conference of citizens and experts around this mystery of presidential authority over nukes.

Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts is the lonely-looking Democrat in Congress who wants to contain the president’s nuclear authority. He announced recently that he was filing a bill to prevent President Trump from launching a first strike on North Korea without first getting a congressional declaration of war. 

William Perry helped build Silicon Valley as the tech capital, then ran the Pentagon in Bill Clinton’s presidency.  He was one of four old establishment figures who ten years ago called for “a world free of nuclear weapons”—alongside George Shultz, Sam Nunn and Henry Kissinger. Time Magazine called them “The Four Horsemen of the Nuclear Apocalypse.”  Today, William Perry, at age 90, says the danger of nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War and that most people are blissfully unaware of it.

Vincent Intondi takes on a lot of unconventional angles in his book, African Americans Against the BombHe reminds us that black American artists and political leaders—from Langston Hughes and Charlie Parker to Bayard Rustin and MLK— have long been on the front lines of the disarmament fight. Today, he says, it’s still people of color—primarily in the global south—leading the charge for nuclear abolition.

 

April 10, 2014

Are We Numb to Nukes?

We’re thinking our way through a plausible nuclear emergency with Elaine Scarry who reminds you – we’ve got a weapons monarchy in this democracy. How can we call it a democracy, the rule of the people, when there’s one man’s finger on the trigger that could destroy us all?
Eric Schlosser: Nuclear Nightmares
Cold Wars, and How to Survive Them
Richard Rhodes
Nukes by the Numbers

Guest List

Elaine Scarry, the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University, and author of Thermonuclear Monarchy, along with The Body in Pain and On Beauty and Being Just;
Hugh Gusterson, anthropologist, professor at George Mason University, and author of People of the Bomb and Nuclear Rites.

We’re thinking our way through a plausible nuclear emergency with Elaine Scarry who reminds you – we’ve got a weapons monarchy in this democracy. Two decades after the fall of the Berlin wall and a nuclear football still accompanies the president at all times,  nuclear missile silos still dot the great plains, and hundreds of nukes remain constantly on alert. How can we call it a democracy, the rule of the people, when there’s one man’s finger on the trigger that could destroy us all?

Other people have shown, without alluding to nuclear weapons, how odd the picture of Hobbes had gotten around the 1950s and beyond. He seemed to have been turned into a monster. And yet, if you look at the timing, that is the nuclear age, and he was made to serve that purpose. These things take many different forms, and if our structures of thermonuclear monarchy demand that we give up the Constitution, it’s not that an executive goes out and says  (except maybe Nixon), “Okay, now I’m saying let’s get rid of the Constitution.” That would be preposterous. But, people start giving all different kinds of accounts of why we don’t need to follow the Constitution. “Oh, that was something from several centuries ago,” “Oh, that was something associated with nation-states and we’re above thinking of nation states now.”

Now, sometimes, you do have executives willing to say, “Look, we can’t do things constitutionally because I have a lot of power here.” There’s the amazing moment when Dick Cheney said—and I cite this in the book—on a television program, in response to questions about torture in the Bush administration and Guantanamo, instead of saying, “You’re over-estimating executive power,” says, “You guys are not thinking clearly. What we did is nothing compared to the power the president has. Day and night, he’s being followed around with a nuclear briefcase. Don’t deceive yourself. His power is far beyond what you imagine.”

We seldom have people talking so candidly, and when they do, we think, “Oh that’s just a bizarre stylistic feature of Dick Cheney.” That’s not a bizarre feature; that’s a candid statement of fact.

Elaine Scarry in The American Reader

Take a look at Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto’s animated view of every nuclear test from 1945 to 1998 — no less terrifying because of its retro look:

 Reading List

• More of Elaine Scarry’s interview with The American Reader, and a feature on the book in Harvard Magazine;

• Hugh Gusterson’s audit on an Orientalist double standard in nuclear weapons:

The presumed contrast between the West, where leaders are disciplined by democracy, and the Third World, where they are not, does not hold up so well under examination. The governments of Britain, France, and Israel, not to mention the United States, all made their initial decisions to acquire nuclear weapons without any public debate or knowledge. Only in India was the question of whether or not to cross the nuclear threshold an election issue. Pakistan also had a period of public debate before conducting its first nuclear test… There also have been problems with U.S. command and control.

• Louis Menand’s review of Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control, “Nukes of Hazard,” The New Yorker, and an excerpt from the book;
• The Memory Palace (audio), “Babysitting,” a radio story on Donald Hornig, babysitter to the bomb.

 

 

Podcast • October 8, 2008

Bernard Lown’s Prescription for Survival

Bernard Lown: Rx for sudden nuclear death The world-renowned cardiologist Bernard Lown won the Nobel Prize for Peace, (outside his field, so to speak) for putting doctors (starting with the Russian Eugene Chazov, above, who ...

The world-renowned cardiologist Bernard Lown won the Nobel Prize for Peace, (outside his field, so to speak) for putting doctors (starting with the Russian Eugene Chazov, above, who was Leonid Brezhnev’s heart doctor in the 1980s) into the fight against nuclear weapons in a global force called International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). His professional obsession had been sudden death, one by one, by coronary events. As Dr. Lown says, how could he not try to make a healing connection with the real danger of sudden death, in the hundreds and thousands, maybe millions, by nuclear events? The Nobel recognized in Bernard Lown the doctor-as-citizen to the nth degree, the world citizen, a saint of public health.

Many heart doctors (also Bernie’s mother) have said he should have won another Nobel Prize, for Medicine, for developing the defibrillator — the now implantable (and universal) electrical restart button for the heart. That’s the story of Bernard Lown the researcher and innovator, the doctor-as-scientist to the nth degree, an experimenter and inventor in the family of Thomas Edison.

And then there is Bernard Lown the doctor-as-doctor, the patient’s friend, the hands-on healer to the nth degree. If you haven’t had a touch of Bernie’s doctoring, you’re missing something. The finest interviewer in America is not on radio or television – sorry, Terry Gross; sorry, Ted Koppel. The best interviewer in America is Bernie Lown. He examines you inch by inch. And then he sits there with you in what feels like a sealed room. No interruptions, no distractions of any kind. “Half like a general, half like a bishop,” as Henry James writes about a doctor in The Wings of the Dove. Like Henry James’ doctor, Bernie sets on the desk between the two of you “a great empty cup of attention.” Bernie listens and watches.

“You have a unilateral stare,” he said to me a few years ago.

“Meaning what?” I asked.

“Meaning you lead with your right eye. Your right eye does more of the looking than the left.”

“And what does that tell you,” I wanted to know.

“Not easy to say,” he said. “It could be a sign of aggressiveness.”

A year later, I asked him: “Okay, Bernie, where’s the unilateral stare now – which eye?”

“It’s your right eye,” he said.

“How could you be sure?” I asked.

“I looked,” he said.

“Does that cost extra?” I checked.

“No,” he said, “it’s part of my exam.”

Bernie has written in The Lost Art of Healing that the taking of a patient’s history is the most important diagnostic device ever invented; and that touching – the laying on of a doctor’s hands – is the most effective tool in medicine. He is a doctor on the William Carlos Williams model, who is willing and able to become us, to become the patient, for half an hour, or an hour at a stretch. You leave his office, as Henry James’ Milly Theale did in The Wings of the Dove, feeling that you’ve confessed and been absolved.

Best of all: months later I realized that under Bernard Lown’s care, my tachycardia was gone.

Our conversation here is about 87-year-old Benard Lown’s new memoir, Prescription for Survival, about the nuclear obsession that led to his Nobel. I urged him to begin with the revelatory freak happenstance, at a press conference on the eve of the Nobel ceremony, when a Russian journalist had a heart attack and both Lown and his opposite number, Evgeny Chazov, heart doctor to Brezhnev and the Politburo, jumped to the rescue. Lown’s impromptu speech in that moment is a capsule of his life:

We have just witnessed what doctoring is about. When faced with a dire emergency of sudden cardiac arrest, doctors do not inquire whether the patient was a good person or a criminal. We do not delay treatment to learn the politics or character of the victim. We respond not as ideologues, nor as Russians nor Americans, but as doctors. The only thing that matters is saving a human life. We work with colleagues, whater their political persuasion, whether capitalist or Communist. This very culture permeates IPPNW. The world is threatened with sudden nuclear death. We work with doctors whatever their political convictions to save our endangered home. You have just witnessed IPPNW in action.

The patient and the planet survived a while.