President Joe Biden spoke 6,500 words during his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, but not one of them acknowledged the dangers of nuclear war that have spiked upward during the last decade and even more steeply in recent days. The militarism that Martin Luther King Jr. warned us about has been spiraling toward its ultimate destination in the nuclear era — a global holocaust that would likely extinguish almost all human life on Earth.
In the midst of this reality, leaders of the world’s two nuclear superpowers continue to fail — and betray — humanity.
In the stark light of March 2022, Albert Einstein’s outlook 75 years ago about the release of atomic energy has never been more prescient or more urgent: “This basic power of the universe cannot be fitted into the outmoded concept of narrow nationalisms. For there is no secret and there is no defense, there is no possibility of control except through the aroused understanding and insistence of the peoples of the world.”
The phrase “narrow nationalisms” aptly describes the nuclear-weapons policies of the United States and Russia. They have been engaged in a dance of death with foreseeable human consequences on a scale that none of us can truly fathom.
Einstein expressed a belief that “an informed citizenry will act for life and not death.” But the dire nuclear trends have been enabled by citizenry uninformed and inactive.
Twenty years ago, the George W. Bush administration withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Despite his promising rhetoric, President Barack Obama plunged ahead to begin a $1.7 trillion program for further developing the U.S. nuclear arsenal under the euphemism of “modernization.” President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which had removed an entire category of missiles from Europe since the late 1980s — largely as a result of the international movement against nuclear weapons.
By killing the ABM and INF agreements, the U.S. government pushed the world further away from nuclear arms control, let alone disarmament. And by insisting on expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to Russia’s borders — and in recent months continuing to insist that Ukrainian membership in NATO should stay on the table — the United States ignored Russia’s longstanding and reasonable concerns about NATO expansion.
Placement of ABM systems in Poland and Romania, touted as defensive, gave NATO the capacity to retrofit those systems with offensive cruise missiles. Overall, NATO’s claims of being a “defensive” alliance have been undercut by three decades of broken promises, as well as intensive war operations in Serbia, Afghanistan and Libya.
Russia has its own military-industrial complex and nationalistic fervor. The duplicity and provocations by the United States and its NATO allies do not in the slightest justify the invasion of Ukraine that Russia launched a week ago. Russia is now on a murderous killing spree no less abhorrent than what occurred from the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Right now, an overarching truth remains to be faced and acted upon: The nuclear superpowers have dragged humanity to a precipice of omnicide. The invasion of Ukraine is the latest move in that direction.
Last week, the extreme recklessness of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s not-so-veiled threat to use nuclear weapons was an indication of just how dangerous the Ukraine conflict has gotten — for everyone, everywhere. Passivity will get us nowhere. In the U.S., supporting antiwar protests and demanding real diplomacy while organizing for peace are essential.
“However soon the war ends, its effects on the European security order and the world will be and already are profound,” San Francisco State University scholar Andrei Tsygankov wrote days ago. “In addition to human suffering and devastation, the European continent is entering a new era of social and political divisions comparable to those of the Cold War. The possibility of further escalation is now closer than ever. Instead of building an inclusive and just international order, Russia and most European nations will now rely mainly on nuclear weapons and military preparations for their security.”
Any “conventional” war that puts Russia and the United States in even indirect conflict has the very real potential of being a tripwire that could set off an exchange of nuclear missiles. Heightened tensions lead to fatigue, paranoia and greater likelihood of mistaking a false alarm for the real thing. This is especially dangerous because of land-based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), which are uniquely vulnerable to attack and therefore are on hair-trigger, “launch on warning” alert.
“First and foremost,” former Defense Secretary William Perry wrote in 2016, “the United States can safely phase out its land-based intercontinental ballistic missile force, a key facet of Cold War nuclear policy. Retiring the ICBMs would save considerable costs, but it isn’t only budgets that would benefit. These missiles are some of the most dangerous weapons in the world. They could even trigger an accidental nuclear war.” As Daniel Ellsberg and I wrote in The Nation last fall, “Contrary to uninformed assumptions, discarding all ICBMs could be accomplished unilaterally by the United States with no downside. Even if Russia chose not to follow suit, dismantling the potentially cataclysmic land-based missiles would make the world safer for everyone on the planet.”
But we’re not hearing anything from Congress or the White House about taking steps to reduce the chances of nuclear war. Instead, we’re hearing jacked-up rhetoric about confronting Russia. It’s all too clear that responsible leadership will not come from official Washington; it must come from grassroots activism with determined organizing and political pressure.
“I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction,” Dr. King said as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. “I believe that even amid today’s mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow.”
Realistic hope seems to be in very short supply right now. But at this dire moment, all that we love demands our determination to organize.