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Thursday, May 10, 2018


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.


s. wallerstein said...

It's obvious why an imperial power educates the masses to believe that they have God on their side and that their elites always act from noble motives.

What is not so obvious is why the elites of imperial powers don't educate themselves and their advisors about their real motives and the history of their rapaciousness and greed, since in order to stay on top any elite needs to know the facts of the case. Yet, as you point out, journalists, commenters and even many academics in the field of political science, have no idea at all of the other people's point of view, of how Iranians see the world or how North Koreans see the world or how Latin Americans see the world. They just don't seem to want to know that for many people in the world the U.S. are the bad guys, the imperialists, the pigs. In my Chilean internet group, for example, almost everyone refers to the U.S. as "el imperio" or to U.S. foreign policy as
"el imperialismo": that's a code which everyone who participates understands, because for Latin America "imperialism" means the U.S.A.

howard b said...

Dear S. Wallerstein.

As an American who with some stretch of the imagination might be considered elite, let me speak for myself at least. To some degree it is selfishness, but more than that it is a kind of egocentrism. People naturally see themselves and their group as the center of the world and they want to be good without paying the sacrifice of being wrong or on the wrong side or giving something up to others and their humanity.
I speak more honestly as a Jew, which is my primary allegiance but it applies more and in a more vulgar way to Americans. All the Trump camp are basically hysterically screaming USA USA as if world politics were the 1980 Olympics against the Soviets-
Empires expire with a death rattle of patriotism

Anonymous said...

It is not so long ago that the US was supplying WMDs to Saddam, who used them to commit war crimes against civilians in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war.

Has anyone looked through those Facebook ads that were just released, showing what the Russians were apparently using to 'sow dissent' in America? Clearly if those ads were capable of doing so and possibly of swaying an election, the bigger problem to address in our country (and of course which is essential in any democracy) is Education. In Europe courses on "media literacy" are a requirement; in the US, we seem to enjoy having a people susceptible to propaganda. This can be used against us...

howard b said...

Do you believe, Professor Wolff, in collective responsibility, that I am responsible for something America did before my birth and before your majority?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Of course not. That was not the point of the post.

Jerry Fresia said...

The history of CIA sponsored coups and assassinations in Syria is another relevant story censored by omission. Given that empire building began with the founding, the notion that all this skullduggery is not consistent with "American values" is a tad ironic.

LFC said...

Completely off topic, but thought might be of interest.

Via the site Daily Nous, an article about the first black African woman to earn a PhD in philosophy in South Africa:

Her dissertation's title: "Towards a Normative Theory of the Uniqueness of Persons." Which I found interesting partly b/c, at least arguably, it's not a topic that has any necessary or particular connection to S. Africa or women or race...

She was raised in a township in a single-parent family, went to a previously Afrikaans-only boarding school.

Anonymous said...

Hiroshima and Nagasaki involved atomic weapons, not nuclear. Nuclear weapons have significantly larger effects (except neutron bombs which kill things without destroying so many buildings).

LFC said...

@ Anonymous

Not so. "Nuclear weapons" is an umbrella term covering both fission and fusion (e.g., hydrogen) bombs. The fission bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were indeed nuclear weapons.

LFC said...

Fusion weapons are also called thermonuclear, and fission ones are called atomic. But both are nuclear weapons involving nuclear reactions. See the opening paragraph of:

Anonymous said...

"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."
That's what was/is presented in Public. However in Private they know perfectly well that what is being done is done solely for Power and Money. Sometimes this honesty is found in obscure biographies of notables in Britain and America.

howard b said - "Yet, as you point out, journalists, commenters and even many academics in the field of political science, have no idea at all of the other people's point of view, of how Iranians see the world or how North Koreans see the world or how Latin Americans see the world. "
They live most of their lives in a Bubble in which conformity decides much. This is probable true in all countries, though there is no way for me to prove this. My intuition tells me so.

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