Loose Talk of Nuclear War
Murray Polner is the author of No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran, Branch Rickey: A Biography, and co-editor of We Who Dared Say No To War.
"So that you and your children will live." – Nuclear Freeze movement poster 1980s
In October 1962 a friend and I stood silently near the UN's Isaiah Wall anxiously awaiting news of the Russian ships loaded with nukes heading for Castro's Cuba.
Two decades later we were still at it, our Cold War administrations and foreign policy elites urging us to prepare for a possible Russian nuclear attack. The US Postal Service faithfully complied when it announced plans to issue emergency change-of-address cards to its patrons, which presumably could prove useful after our power grids were destroyed by nuclear bombs along with our homes, neighborhoods, hospitals, schools, water and food suppliers-- all turned to ashes.
The US National Security, Presidential Review memorandum #19, June 1977, estimated to a distracted majority of Americans that 140,000,000 people would die if the US and Russia chose to fight it out with nukes. My hunch is that somewhere today in the bowels of an obscure federal agency or think tank study estimates of deaths are more up to date and even greater in number, especially in East Asia and the Middle East. I imagine that such revised guesstimates now take into account the misery and unrelieved suffering that will follow nuclear war with men, women and children screaming to be killed to relieve their suffering, a snapshot of civilizations approaching their end.
We also told school kids to hide under their desks after the sirens went off and that apartment houses need to set aside their basements as bomb shelters We were reassured by a State Department consultant's article in 1980 in the journal Foreign Policy that a nuclear war could only kill about 20 million people, "a level compatible with survival and recovery."And in 1982, Thomas K. Jones, Deputy Under Secretary for Strategic Nuclear Forces, told Robert Scheer of the LA Times we could survive a nuclear attack if we dug a hole and covered it with enough dirt. Meanwhile, the Express in Great Britain recently published an article, "How to survive a nuclear attack? What to do when a nuclear missile strikes" – yet another hawkish delusion by our overseas friends.
But more sophisticated and sure-fire techniques are apparently still needed. The New Yorker ran a piece about how some of our ultra-rich are building what they hope will be nuke-resistant homes very very far from urban enemy targets. Their assumption seems to be that after LA, Seattle, Miami. Washington, Chicago and New York lay in ruins they will still be alive, their kids still catching school buses and their commuter trains on time – a living testimony to Trump's fictional Great America.
And so our never-ending wars continue – years after year, decade after decade. I've been absorbed by the Ken Burns-Lynn Novack epic TV documentary, "The Vietnam War," which details our criminal adventure against South East Asians and the American cannon fodder about whom I wrote in 1971 in No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran:
"Never before in American history have as many loyal and brave young men been as shabbily treated by the government that sent them to war, never before have so many of them questioned as much... the essential rightness of what they were forced to do."
And now it's time for Kim Jong-un and his feral twin Donald Trump, two alleged tough guys threatening millions of us, sounding much like end-times lunacy. Our doves and middle of the roaders are silent, forgetting that "Silence" as Dr. King rightly warned us decades ago, "was betrayal."
Watching the Burns-Novack film, I think of Bao Ninh, once a 17 year old North Vietnamese combat soldier and later novelist (The Sorrows of War) who says of the killing he experienced: "Only a stone would not be terrified" – though the majority of Americans, non-combatants, supported the war to the very end while allowing other parents' sons and daughters to be sacrificed for a cause few appreciated or understood.
Among the few US survivors of Vietnam's Hill 825, some soldier in the documentary eerily echoes the remaining troops at WWI's bloody Battle of the Somme when so many on both sides died for a few pieces of worthless land, saying, "we accomplished nothing," even while a majority of unquestioning and patriotic Americans circled the wagons and believed what their lying leaders told them.
In the film LBJ listened to General Westmoreland's endless requests for more and more troops, including a growing numbers of draftees, and always seemed to ask, before giving way, "Where does it all end?" In defeat, Under Secretary of State George Ball once prophetically answered years earlier to LBJ and a deaf foreign policy elite audience eager to save Southeast Asia from communism.
Back in October 1962 my friend and I stood at the Isaiah Wall, obviously relieved when a radio report announced that the Russian ships had turned back, a diplomatic solution apparently reached. Still, it left us with no real protection against a future nuclear war save our national fantasy of being indestructible. As we left, I turned to my friend and recited Isaiah's subversive aphorism about beating swords into plowshares.
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