Podcast • April 11, 2014
Richard Rhodes is the go-to analyst of nuclear weapons for most of thirty years now ever since the publication of his acclaimed history of the Manhattan project and the mostly men and the science and the political emergency behind it. His first masterpiece was called The Making of the Atomic Bomb. He’s even written a play about the Reykjavík Summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, perhaps the closest we’ve been so far to the total abolition of nuclear arms.
April 10, 2014
• 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:
• 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.
From the Archives • April 8, 2014
Ahead of our show with Elaine Scarry this week, we’re reminding ourselves of how we got into the nuclear standoff called the Cold War, and how Ronald Reagan dreamed we would get out of it:
The danger of a nuclear weapon being used, whether against us or against somebody else, is actually greater now than it was in the Cold War. But the big difference is that it’s only going to be one or two, and it’s not going to be five thousand or seven thousand … We have to take this very seriously, but at the same time, it’s not a Cold War scenario.
John Lewis Gaddis on Open Source
Ronald Reagan dreamed of disarmament. A final, total abandonment of nuclear weapons…
He and Gorbachev would come to Iceland, and each of them would bring the last nuclear missile from each country with them. Then they would give a tremendous party for the whole world…. The President would be very old by then and Gorbachev would not recognize him. The President would say “Hello, Mikhail.” And Gorbachev would say, “Ron, is it you?” And then they would destroy the last missile.
John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War
With a nuclear cold war taking rhetorical shape between Israel and Iran, with Pakistan and India ever in range of the brink, it is no academic or merely historical question: how did the US and USSR get out of their four-decade staring contest without a single one of their many thousands of nuclear guns going off?
Richard Reeves’ revisionist appreciation of Ronald Reagan, subtitled “The Triumph of Imagination,” compounds the impression in Gaddis’ history that part of the answer was Ronald Reagan’s Hollywood intuition that the picture of two cowboys each pointing 10,000 six-guns at each other — forever — made for a lousy screenplay. The script needed a doctor, Reagan realized. Around the same time Mikhail Gorbachev remembered saying to his wife, Raisa, “We can’t go on living like this.”
Gaddis writes that to break the human habit of escalating violence, and of using all the tools that worked: “It took visionaries — saboteurs of the status quo — to widen the range of historical possibility.”
The heroes of his story are: Pope John Paul II, who “set the pattern by rattling the authorities” throughout the Soviet bloc. Margaret Thatcher, “who relished being tougher than any man” in reviving the reputation of capitalism in the world. Ronald Reagan, who used his theatrical skills to rebuild confidence at home, to spook Brezhnev and enlist Gorbachev. And Gorbachev himself, who put his private instincts ahead of the party line in softening communism’s emphasis on the class struggle and its old claims of historical infallibility.
But most of the other players in the last half-century — including Truman after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Stalin and Eisenhower and most assuredly Reagan — came to realize, each in his own epiphany, that the damned nukes were un-usable.
The lesson among all of us Cold War survivors, Gaddis writes, was that “war itself — at least major wars fought between major states — had become a health hazard, and therefore an anachronism.”
First of my questions, awaiting yours: do the nuclear players and wannabes on the 21st Century stage know the futility of those weapons as well as, say, Reagan and Stalin did?
Second question, especially for Richard Reeves, who recruited me for the New York Times in the late 1960s: as Ronald Reagan’s reputation is revalued upward, what needs to be said of Reagan’s worst enemies in the Republican power elite (figures like Nelson Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger) who envisioned “limited” nuclear conflicts but successfully labeled Reagan for most of his career as the “extremist.”
And which of those Republican forebears — Rockefeller’s imperial personification of oil power and Wall Street, and Ronald Reagan’s cowboy populism — is the true ancestor of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld crowd that rules our roost today?
John Lewis Gaddis
Podcast • November 9, 2010
It is well known that the term ‘Pakistan’, an acronym, was originally thought up in England by a group of Muslim intellectuals. P for the Punjabis, A for the Afghans, K for the Kashmiris, S for Sind and the ‘tan’, they say, for Baluchistan… So it was a word born in exile which then went East, was borne-across or trans-lated, and imposed itself on history; a returning migrant, settling down on partitioned land, forming a palimpsest on the past. A palimpsest obscures what lies beneath. To build Pakistan it was necessary to cover up Indian history, to deny that Indian centuries lay just beneath the surface of Pakistani Standard Time. The past was rewritten; there was nothing else to be done.
Salman Rushdie, in Shame, his “modern fairytale” of Pakistan. (1983)
Pervez Hoodbhoy is among the eminent cosmopolitan Pakistanis who press two urgent points about today: (1) that the clear and present danger at home is truly scary; that nuclear-tipped Pakistan (not Stone-Age Afghanistan, nor youthful, half-modern Iran) is the epicenter of Islamic extremism; that as Salman Rushdie said in closing a talk at Brown last Spring, “if Pakistan goes down, we’re all f**ked.” And (2) that it might help if Americans and their government understood what most Pakistanis observe: that it was a “CIA jihad” in the late ’70s and ’80s that implanted the virus of killer-force fundamentalism in Pakistan and Afghanistan, in the last battle of the Cold War.
Physicist, film-maker and leading public citizen in Pakistan, Pervez Hoodboy is recounting how Pakistanis, “across the board,” came to hate intrusive America long before today’s drone missiles. 1979 was a turning point when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and then American arms and Saudi money constructed a counterforce in Pakistan:
You had the CIA bringing in the strongest and most ideologically charged of fighters from across the globe. It was billions and billions of dollars that got pumped into the creation of the mujahedeen, celebrated by Ronald Reagan and Charlie Wilson. You had the CIA distributing millions of Korans in the madrasas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. It was this monster that grew so big that it was out of control. It ate up its master, the United States and now Pakistan… Osama bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri and all these people who are being sought after so eagerly by the United States — these were creations of the CIA.
And now the whirlwind:
PH: I’m tremendously worried about how Pakistani culture is being morphed into something that looks suspiciously like Saudi culture. We used to be taught about the world; we used to be taught about history, geography. Now … everything is regarded through the prism of religion—and a particular variant of the religion. And that is the Saudi, Wahhabi way of looking at things. It’s infiltrated our language. We used to say while parting, Khuda Hafiz, that is, God be with you. Now we say Allah Hafiz. Now there is a subtle difference over here. The Persian God, Khoda, has been replaced by the Arabic God, Allah… There are now burkas everywhere. So, when I teach my class in the University, physics classes, I cannot see half the faces of my women students.
CL: You have seen this face of Islamism that most Americans haven’t. What makes it so powerful, so threatening?
PH: I’m threatened because Islamism threatens to drag us back to the 7th century… After the 2005 earthquake, which affected many areas of Pakistan, there were the mullahs who came out and said: this happened because you were watching television. And so there were thousands of televisions that were broken. After I returned from those areas and went back to my class — I was teaching Atomic Physics and Statistical Mechanics — I said to my students: “You know I have been over there, seen this terrible devastation and we have two duties. One, as Pakistani citizens, is to help our brethren. The other is, as students of science, we have got to tell these people that is was not the wrath of god. It wasn’t that people were sinful that the earthquake happened. It happened because tectonic plates were moving on a fluid surface of the earth and this is how mountains grow… And there was outrage in the class, against me. They said: but Professor, don’t you know that it is written in the Koran that this is how God punishes doers of bad. At the next class, I got exactly the same response. A few students later on came to me and said to me: Professor, we are really sorry; we thought you were right, but we couldn’t speak up. kwame
Podcast • October 8, 2008
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.
Podcast • April 25, 2008
Today’s visiting fireman at the Watson Institute is under more pressure than most.
Christopher Hill, between East and West
Our man in East Asia, Christopher R. Hill, negotiating North Korea’s nuclear disarmament, is evidently having a tougher time with the Bush principals in Washington than with the Pyongyang end of the wobbly old “axis of evil.” David Sanger in the New York Times yesterday wrote that Bush administration support has “wavered” for the Hill-crafted deal that would take North Korea off the state terrorism hit list in return for a final dismantling of its now abandoned nuclear program. In Washington, Sanger writes, it is Hill, the asssistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, who is feeling abandoned by President Bush and Secretary of State Rice — and beset by the opposition of Vice President Cheney and former UN Ambassador John Bolton, on the lookout for “appeasement.” It was Cheney, by implication, who has cleared for publication what sounds like awkward video evidence that North Korean technicians were working around the Syrian nuclear plant that Israel blew up last September.
There’s no abandonment, no appeasement in the conversation here. But there’s a short course on diplomatic chess in three dimensions — between Middle and Far East, between Rice and Cheney for the president’s ear, between the rise of China as the “second agent of development” in Asia and the forseeable end of a century of American hegemony in the Pacific Rim.
Podcast • April 23, 2008
Nicholson Baker: history by hyperlink
A wing commander in the [British] Royal Air Force [in Iraq], J. A. Chamier, published his views on how best to deal with tribal rebellions.
The commanding officer must choose the most inaccessible village of the most prominent tribe, said Chamier, and attack it with all available aircraft. “The attack with bombs and machine guns must be relentless and unremitting and carried on continuously by day and night, on houses, inhabitants, crops and cattle,” Chamier wrote. “This sounds brutal, I know, but it must be made brutal to start with. The threat alone in the future will prove efficacious if the lesson is once properly learnt.” It was 1921.
Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke, page 8.
Frederick Birchall, Berlin correspondent for The New York Times, published an article about Germany’s preparations for war. It was October 8, 1933.
Birchell quoted from a recent book by Ewald Banse, a teacher at the Technical High School in Brunswick, Germany. The book was called Wehrwissenschaft — “Military Science.” War was no longer a matter of marches and medals, Banse observed: “It is gas and plague. It is tank and aircraft horror. It is baseness and falsehood. It is hunger and poverty.” And because war is so horrible, Banse said, it must be incorporated into the school curriculum and taught as a new and comprehensive science: “The methods and aims of the new science are to create an unshakable belief in the high ethical value of war and to produce in the individual the psychological readiness for sacrifice in the cause of nation and state.”
Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke, page 44.
Neville Chamberlain told the House of Commons that England was officially at war with Germany… It was September 3, 1939.
Churchill’s mood, as he listened, wasn’t sad at all. He felt, he wrote later, a sense of uplifted serenity and a detachment from human affairs. “The glory of Old England, peace-loving and ill-prepared as she was, but instant and fearless at the call of honour, thrilled my being and seemed to lift our fate to those spheres far removed from earthly facts and physical sensation,” he said.
Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke, page 138.
Dorothy Day, the editor of the Catholic Worker, wrote an editorial called “Our Stand.” “As in the Ethiopian war, the Spanish war, the Japanese and Chinese war, the Russian-Finnish war — so in the present war we stand unalterably opposed to the use of war as a means of saving ‘Christianity,’ ‘civilization,’ ‘democracy.'” She urged a nonviolent opposition to injustice and servitude: She called it the Folly of the Cross.
“We are bidden to love God and to love one another,” she wrote. “It is the whole law, it is all of life. Nothing else matters.” It was June 1940.
Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke, page 192.
“This ordeal by fire has, in a certain sense, even exhilarated the manhood and the womanhood of Britain,” [Churchill] said [in a radio speech, seven months into the German Blitz.] It had lifted them above material facts “into that joyous serenity we think belongs to a better world than this.”
“There are less than seventy million malignant Huns — some of whom are curable and others killable,” Churchill said. The population of the British empire and the United States together amounded to some two hundred million. The Allies had more people and made more steel, he said. The Allies would win. It was April 27, 1941.
Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke, page 192.
Some people want to make an issue of method and form around Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke, subtitled The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. But the real problem is, of course, his message. In an afterword on almost 500 pages of vignettes, Nick Baker offers his own judgment that the pacifists and other resisters had the right strategic answer to the war-madness of the 20th Century — people like Gandhi, the Quakers, ex-President Herbert Hoover who wanted to break the British food blockade on starving Europe in October, 1941 (“Can you point to one benefit that has been gained from this holocaust?” Hoover asked in a radio speech) and the diarist Howard Schoenfeld, who went to prison in Danbury, CT for standing against the draft and “against war, which I believe to be the greatest evil known to man.”
Human Smoke reads like a wall of Post-It notes — pointilistic dots on a 40-year canvas — which Louis Menand in the New Yorker, for example, says should not be confused with responsible history. I felt it, on the contrary, as a very familiar, virtually cinematic, quick-cutting, frame-shifting, angular and episodic style of story telling. It’s not so unlike the method of Ken Burns’ PBS epic on The War, which took its perspective from GI letters home and family memories today in just four American cities, like Waterbury, Connecticut and Mobile, Alabama.
The difference is that the Burns TV film summoned up and revarnished a lot of old feelings. Baker tears into every bit of received sentiment about the war, and about its heroes — Churchill most especially — in the book and our conversation:
He’s fascinating. He’s brilliant. He had a mind well stocked with poetry… So one doesn’t want to dismantle Churchill in the sense of saying he was not a great man. He has hugeness of personality, but he was a man of many phases… In this period that I’m looking at him, he was really a maniac. He was absolutely intent on widening the war and on getting as many people — his own citizens and other countries — involved as possible. I don’t think I’m being unfair to him. It’s just that if you quote him properly you realize he was just hell bent on this confrontation. As the prime minister of Australia [Robert Menzies] said on first meeting Churchill: “This man is a great hater.” It was so fascinating to watch Menzies’ visit. He first reaction was: “humorless… a great hater.” A few nights later: “he’s a great hater, but he does know an awful lot.” And then, late night, 2:30 or 3 in the morning, he’s up again listening to war stories from Churchill, and he writes, “the man has greatness.” Finally, he’s saying, “the Hun must be taught through his hide!” Menzies is now speaking the language of Churchill. So obviously this man Churchill has an incredible power over other human beings.
Nicholson Baker, in conversation with Chris Lydon, April 16, 2008
Human Smoke is a departure for Nicholson Baker, the high-stylist of The Mezzanine and of Vox, the phone-sex novel that Monica Lewinsky gave to Bill Clinton. He says, “I’ve always liked writing about the things that I hope make life worth living — the reflections on the edge of moving objects, or the little theories you develop when you shoelace breaks… So I tried to use my same approach, my method, in writing about probably the worst 5-year period in human history.”
And yes, Iraq was at the root of it all. Baker conceived the project, he says, “in the run-up to the Iraq war, when the Second World War was repeatedly invoked as the one necessary war. I’ve never really understood the Second World War. It never made sense to me that we had to demolish cities in order to bring a regime down, but I always chalked it up to my own ignorance of history. But if this war is going to be invoked over and over again, then let’s actually look at it. How does it begin? What happened in what order?” And more pointedly: whence came the disastrous doctrines of exemplary war, strategic starvation, bombing and indiscriminate abuse of civilians, that persist in our own long war on Iraq? Baker’s format invites you to put Human Smoke down, annotate it, and keep picking it up. I for one cannot get its arguments out of my head.