Time for a global survival movement
To confront climate and nuclear dangers together
9 minute read
The 13 days 60 years ago
Sixty years ago today, October 22, 1962, my family clustered around our black and white TV to hear John F. Kennedy reveal that the Soviet Union had set up missile bases in Cuba. Said Kennedy, “The purposes of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.”
Kennedy went on to announce a naval blockade of the island and demand the missiles be removed. The 13 days of the Cuban Missile Crisis had been unfolding since October 15 when analysts identified the missile sites in aerial reconnaissance photos. JFK had been struggling against national security advisors who demanded an invasion of the island, which as later was found, would almost surely have set off a nuclear war.
Unknown at the time, Russian troops defending the island were armed with tactical nuclear weapons, and given permission to use them. Robert McNamara, secretary of defense at the time, only learned of this in the early 1990s, and was shocked by the implications. That would have been the trigger for lunatics such as General Curtis LeMay, then Air Force Chief of Staff, to stage the preemptive strike on the Soviet Union they had been aching to launch before the opposing power achieved nuclear parity. LeMay thought the U.S. would only lose some major cities, while in reality the black soot from the fires would have permeated the stratosphere, causing a nuclear winter, crashing agricultural production, and killing billions.
Fortunately, Kennedy and his brother, Robert, prevailed. A secret deal to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey caused Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to announce on October 28 that the missiles would be taken out of Cuba. The world went on. David Talbot tells the story in his landmark work, Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years.
When JFK went public, I had just passed my 10th birthday on October 19. We lived on the outskirts of the Philadelphia area, not far from Washington, DC or New York as the radiation cloud flies. We were all quite conscious that nuclear war could break out, and surviving it was questionable. That set off years of nuclear war nightmares. I even developed a fantasy play in which I was a secret agent in a post-nuclear-war world working to put it all back together again. What youth today feels about the existential threat of climate, my generation felt about the nuke.
Nuclear fears return
Today, nuclear fears have made a comeback. It is widely proclaimed we are in the most dangerous moment since the Cuban Missile Crisis, with the Ukraine War bringing the U.S. and Russia into close to direct conflict. In many ways, it seems more dangerous. Communications channels have broken down. Though a low-level proxy war between the U.S. and Soviets was going on in Vietnam in 1962, it had not yet reached anything of the scale of Ukraine. Now is certainly a moment of tension at least equal to the most conflict-ridden times of the Cold War.
This past week, even as the Cuban Missile Crisis is recalled, the U.S. and NATO have been conducting a drill known as Steadfast Noon, mimicking the escalation to nuclear war in Europe. B-52s and other planes have been flying over Europe loaded with dummy bombs. Command and control systems are being tested. Just in case. The exercise is conducted annually around this time.
In 1983, it was called Able Archer. The Soviets, honestly fearing the Reagan Administration was planning a first strike, put their nuclear forces on alert. The head of Soviet armed forces was in the central command bunker November 9, 1983, ready to order a massive strike if he saw signs the U.S. was ready to launch. It was a hair trigger moment that may have been even more dangerous than the Cuban crisis. Daniel Ellsberg, who operated at high nuclear strategy levels and advised the White House during the 13 days, thinks so. I recently published a three-part series on the Able Archer 83 danger starting here.
This week, while the nuclear nightmares that haunted my youth are surfacing again, I hit 70. In days it will also be the 70th anniversary of another entry into the world. On November 1, 1952, 13 days after I was born - that number again! - the U.S. exploded the first hydrogen bomb at Eniwetok Atoll in the South Pacific. Employing the principle of fusion, the hydrogen weapon offered explosive potential orders of magnitude beyond the fission bombs which had destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The force released by the Ivy Mike test was 700 times greater than the Hiroshima bomb. The Soviets would explode their own hydrogen bomb in 1953, and the arms race reached a new level of insanity.
My mother was a sensitive, intelligent woman who would have understood exactly what the hydrogen bomb meant. I can’t help but think she transmitted some of her dread to the young infant she cuddled in her arms.
The climate apocalypse
Certainly, a sense of apocalypse has pervaded my life. In recent years, it has more focused on that slow-moving catastrophe, climate disruption. Nuclear war, thankfully, remains only a theoretical possibility. Climate disruption, on the other hand, is something we’re doing to ourselves now. In fact, climate pollution is trapping the equivalent of five Hiroshima bombs worth of heat in the oceans each second, and that is accelerating from a long-term average of four.
A manifestation of that marked my birthday this past Wednesday when, rising early before dawn, I walked out into my yard to greet the morning. That acrid odor which wafted over the Seattle area all too frequently in recent weeks was hanging around, as it had been intermittently for weeks. It was the longest smoky period in the city since 2018, when wildfire smoke started to appear every summer. In line with long existing climate change projections for vastly increased rates of fire in the thick forests on the west slopes of the Cascades, wildfires in the Cascades were sending their smokes west. An abnormally hot and dry fall set up the conditions. Later in the day, Seattle would top the charts for the worst air pollution in any major city on Earth. Queen Anne Hill, across Lake Union from my house, was darkly silhouetted through the smoke. We knew this was coming. Now it was here.
Climate entered my writing and activism sometime around 1988 when NASA scientist James Hansen went up to Capitol Hill and declared human-caused global warming had arrived. Now, reaching age 70 nearly half a lifetime later, it was making me stay at home, air cleaner turned up full blast. The words of the first chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes came to mind, “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.”
It is easy to grow discouraged in times like these. Nuclear war dangers surface, and in some ways seem worse than ever. Climate disruption proceeds at an accelerating pace, and the response of the world’s institutions falls far short, even going in the wrong direction in many cases, spurred partly by the war. It’s easy to get drenched in doomerism. But I will not let myself.
I have to think of what the world would be like if not for all the people struggling to make it a better place. It might be bad now, but it would certainly be worse. Without the global uprising of the nuclear freeze movement in the early 1980s, we would probably not have the limited arms control framework we have now, the START agreement limiting the size of nuclear arsenals deployed by the U.S. and Russia. If it were not for the work of the climate movement in its diverse venues, from legislative lobbying to street activism, we would not have even the limited level of climate crisis response we now have.
As is often said, the only thing necessary for evil to prevail is if the good to do nothing. Often in history, situations seem overwhelming and getting worse. That is when it is most vital to act, struggling uphill against steep odds, recognizing it is always moral minorities that push the edge. And in a society where the hallmark often seems to be those words out of sports, "Winning isn’t everything; it's the only thing," where winners are esteemed and often the worse insult is “loser,” sometimes one just has to stand on what seems like the losing side, because it is the right side. These are thoughts that have sustained me in activism and writing for many years.
A survival movement versus a common foe
Certainly, we who care about our world and our children are going to have to take strong stands in coming years. The START agreement expires in 2026. As in the 1980s, people are going to have to rise in mass to demand a new treaty dramatically reducing deployed nuclear weapons while eliminating the even greater number held in reserve and setting a path toward eventual abolition. At the same time, we are going to have to also demand that the nations of the world undertake a rapid transition from fossil fuels and the climate pollution they cause.
We can no longer approach these issues as disparate movements. We face fundamental questions of human survival, as well as that of the rest of nature. We need to think in terms of a unified movement for survival that extends down into our communities, to ensure the survival of the poorest among us. It is going to take a mass people power uprising to overcome the common foe.
And I’ll name it. It is the money power, the economic interests that hold the political system in their grip to ensure continuation of the status quo, whether it is the military-industrial complex, the fossil-industrial complex, the prison-industrial complex, or the other accretions of wealth and power that buy politicians and control the political process. Only masses of people can break the grip of the money power. With our minds concentrated by the survival threats posed by that power, we can do it.
Dark times can crush us, or summon the best in us. It’s up to us each as individuals to make the choice, and to do whatever we can to shine the light, no matter how small. Heading into my 70s, I choose to keep on kicking, doing whatever I can to ensure our children have a world.
I will present on the Able Archer 83 close nuclear call as part of Vasily Arkhipov Day: After 60 Years, The Nuclear Threat Returns: A Virtual Teach-In on the Current Nuclear Crisis, sponsored by the Hiroshima Nagasaki Peace Committee, this coming Thursday, October 27, 7-9 pm Eastern, 4-6pm Pacific. The on-line event will take place at https://us02web.zoom.us/j/87474697301, and the public is invited. October 27 marks the 60th anniversary of the day Arkhipov single-handedly saved the world from nuclear annihilation. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the US Navy was attacking the nuclear torpedo equipped Soviet submarine B-59 with depth charges. The ship’s captain gave the order to fire the torpedoes at the Navy ship. As the flotilla commander, Vasily Arkhipov countermanded the order, thus preventing World War III. Today, Arkhipov is known as “The Man Who Saved the World.”
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