Let me offer a few thoughts prompted by William Polk’s extraordinarily detailed and truly terrifying essay, posted here yesterday. I have been profoundly concerned about the threat posed by nuclear weapons since the late 1950’s. It was the subject of my second book [never published] and was in fact the issue that drew me into politics. Yet I was almost completely unaware of the details of the accidents Bill describes, any one of which could easily have totally transformed the world as we know it.
I have nothing to add to his litany of near-misses or to his analysis of the dangers created by Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear accord. Rather, I want to try for a moment to imagine how the world must look to North Korea, to Iran, or indeed to other nations tempted now to launch nuclear weapons development programs.
America exhibits the self-congratulatory rationalization of most imperial nations. It assumes, proclaims, insists upon its sole possession of the moral high ground in international affairs, taking it as axiomatic that its actions are motivated by an admirable concern for the welfare of all nations save those so blinded by self-interest or even madness as to oppose its hegemony. America is hardly alone in this moral and political blindness. Great Britain, during its glory days, exhibited the same confidence in its moral superiority, as did France, and indeed so has China during its periods of ascendancy. I am of the impression that the Romans shared this happy self-understanding. Perhaps the only exception is the Mongols. I do not know.
There are, however, several facts that it is useful to recall. Let me begin with a fact that everyone in the world knows, but which, miraculously, Americans in the mainstream of bi-partisan foreign policy thinking seem quite capable of forgetting. One nation, and one nation alone, has actually used nuclear weapons to kill people. That nation is the United States. Since we are quite confident that our hearts are pure, we find it easy to forget this fact, or to treat it as not worthy of notice. But it is perhaps understandable other nations have a trifle more difficulty forgetting it. Let us recall that on this single occasion when nuclear weapons were used to kill, it was Asians, not Europeans or Africans or Latin Americans, who were killed. We Americans of course recognize that this fact is utterly irrelevant to the purity of our intentions in the Far East, but it is perhaps understandable that others might, illegitimately of course, take a different view.
Second, in the seventy-three years since the end of World War II, the United States has, overtly or covertly, attempted to overthrow government after government around the world, failing sometimes, as in Viet Nam, but more often succeeding. Once again, commentators in the mainstream, all of them quite aware of this fact, seem capable of a complete compartmentalization of their awareness. I have now listened to hundreds of hours of cable news discussion of the Iran nuclear deal. Not once has anyone at all thought it relevant to mention that the United States, in collaboration with Great Britain, saw fit to overthrow a democratically elected government in Iran and replace it with a puppet regime of its own choosing. That was a long time ago, of course, but I would imagine that Iranians actually recall the event, and it might just conceivably – although of course without reason – lead them to imagine that unless they possess nuclear weapons, such an overthrow might occur again.
These thoughts do not in any way mitigate the importance of Bill Polk’s warnings. But it is useful on occasion to try to see the world as others see it.