On Preventing the Worst from Happening

The following is offered as a very small and personal side commentary, on the occasion of the leaders of the U.S. and North Korea meeting in Singapore.

Have you met the Ploughshares Fund? If you’re not anxious to see the planet blown away in a thermonuclear flash, the Ploughshares folks are good people to know.

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by Snoron.com

Ploughshares was founded in 1981 by the indomitable sculptor/activist Sally Lilienthal, who was also a friend of my good husband. When I met her, soon after arriving in San Francisco in 1992, I became an instant fan.

1981 was the height of the Cold War, and Russia and the U.S. were on the brink of thermonuclear confrontation – each having enough nuclear weapons to obliterate this beautiful planet. Ploughshares set about the work of reducing those dangerous threats and has been remarkably successful. Stockpiles have been dramatically reduced – we’re down from the nearly 55,000 worldwide total in 1980 to the current figure of approximately 15,000. Over 90% are in the US and Russia; the rest are in China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and the United Kingdom. There may be fewer nuclear weapons, but there are plenty around to destroy life as we know it.

Which is why the world watched with some apprehension as two of perhaps the most erratic and unpredictable leaders of all time met to – we hope – find a way to avoid nuclear war.

Fran w Joe Cirincione 6.4.18

With Joe Cirincione

I was privileged to hear Ploughshares Fund President Joe Cirincione and Executive Director/Chief Operating Officer Philip Yun talk about the situation in general and North Korea in particular recently with a group of longtime supporters.

“We have a very simple philosophy,” Cirincione says: “prevent the worst from happening.” Re North Korea and the recent summit, “There might be some surprises. Trump could stumble into a good deal.” Pointing out that “we support policies, not presidents,” he said Donald Trump “could give North Korea something that Democratic presidents could not.”

This group, progressives to the core, swallowed hard. If you want not to see the planet wiped out in a thermonuclear frenzy, keeping North Korea from starting such an event trumps all distaste for our president.

Yun offered some history lessons and insight; he is a scholar of Korean affairs who has long been involved in U.S./N.Korea negotiations. “The North Koreans like symmetry,” he said. Any movement toward denuclearization “is going to have to be phased. (But) there are a lot of moving parts that could make us safer right now.”

Those were just several snippets of a conversation that was wide-ranging and in many ways encouraging. The fact that the Ploughshares people, and the people with organizations it funds, are working every day to keep the worst from happening is encouragement enough for now.dove of peace

So this writer, who watches in horror the environmental destruction and loss of human rights going on every day thanks to the policies of our current administration, swallowed hard and wished Mr. Trump & Mr. Kim every success in avoiding a thermonuclear planetary disaster.

Skipping towards Armageddon

Those people wandering around with giant signs proclaiming “THE END OF THE WORLD IS AT HAND!”? Sometimes you have to wonder if they’re onto something.

A recent Commonwealth Club program brought together two men proclaiming a similar message: the potential end of the world is at hand in the stockpiles of nuclear weapons — most of them in Russia or the U.S. — around the globe. They aren’t roaming the streets with hand-lettered signs, but they have written two informative, slightly scary new books. Ploughshares Fund President Joseph Cirincione opened his talk by saying, “If you buy one book about nuclear weapons, buy this book.” He held up co-presenter Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident and the Illusion of Safety.  Command and Control (full disclosure, I haven’t finished all 632 pages yet) is investigative journalist (Fast Food Nation) Schlosser‘s “ground-breaking account of accidents, near-misses, extraordinary heroism, and technological breakthroughs.” It covers the history of nuclear weapons accumulated by the U.S. since the days of the cold war, and it will make most other problems shrink to insignificance.

Cirincione’s own new book, Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late, covers the good news — only nine states now have nuclear weapons, down from 23, and “only” 17,000 such weapons still exist — and the bad: that’s enough to destroy the planet without much trouble. (Cirincione did later hold up his own fine, smaller work with the comment, “If you buy TWO books…”)

This not-so-comforting realization of what an edge of obliteration we live on was only one effect of the discussion. The other was sheer gratitude for the planet’s survival. Standing between you and me and the edge of oblivion are fallible human beings who have, so far, been able to avoid all the happenstances, large and small, that could trigger nuclear disaster. We can all hope they continue to guard the edge, but triggers for disaster are still everywhere: aging weaponry, international angst and mistrust, and the always possible lone crazy person.

Moderator David Holloway, Professor of International History at Stanford University, asked the elephant-in-the-room question: Would the author/experts agree with General Lee Butler, former head of the Strategic Air Command, who said the avoidance of nuclear disaster was thanks to a combination of skill, luck and divine intervention?

“I would not cite divine intervention,” Schlosser replied. “But we’ve been very lucky.” Like climate change, the threat of nuclear disaster is brought about by human actions, he said, and can be corrected by the same.  Both of the experts talked of the dangers existing around the globe from having 17,000 weapons stockpiled, from the tensions between many countries, and the possibility that terrorists could get their hands on a few weapons.

But the point was driven home to this audience member when Cirincione put it this way. It all started, he explained, because we wanted to deter the Soviet Union — now, presumably Russia — from annihilating us. So how many Russian cities would we need to obliterate, he asked, for an adequate deterrance? One? Two? Say, Moscow and St. Petersburg? Maybe three? He explained further that nuclear weapons make no attempt to pinpoint military targets and avoid collateral damage. They simply demolish everything and kill everybody. To accomplish this “deterrance”, wipe Russia’s three most significant cities off the map, would require eight nuclear weapons.

We have five thousand.

I’m still not counting out divine intervention.

JFK Counsel Ted Sorensen keeps the dream — and image — alive

Ted Sorensen, special counsel and adviser to John F. Kennedy before and during the Kennedy administration, told a packed house at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club last night that his old friend of Camelot days should be remembered as “a man of peace.”

“The biggest misperception of John F. Kennedy,” Sorensen said in response to an audience question, “is that he was essentially a Cold War hero.  That’s from the familiar paragraph at the beginning of his inaugural address, ‘…that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.'”

More important, Kennedy’s old friend said, are the words toward the end of that address in which he reached out a hand to (the nation’s then-#1 opponent) Russia seeking peace — “a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction”; movement toward arms control —“let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms”; and scientific collaboration — “together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce.”

Sorensen, whose earlier book Kennedy: the Classic Biography was on bestseller lists for months, was promoting a current memoir, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History, and was appearing in a program sponsored by the humanitarian nonprofit Roots of Peace. Much of the newer book focuses on his years with JFK, beginning with an interview at the age of 24, fresh out of the University of Nebraska law school. When he asked then-senator Kennedy what he would want him to do if hired, Sorensen recalls, he was given a long list of proposed meetings  with powerful figures and the task of “crafting a legislative program for the economic revival of New England, and I thought that was pretty tall cotton.”

Sorensen, who is acknowledged as author of most of Kennedy’s speeches (though not the inaugural), said the President was unjustly criticized for not writing his own. In those days before press secretaries, communication staffers and speechwriting committees, he said, “it was always a collaborative effort” between the two men. “My office was right down the hall from his in the West Wing, and it was just the President and me. Only the President revised and corrected.”

Kennedy, Sorensen said, resisted advice to send combat troops into Vietnam and bombers into North Vietnam, and to use force in other parts of Indochina. “Thank goodness I learned from the Bay of Pigs,” he quoted JFK as saying; “otherwise I’d have listened to (that) advice.”

But as to Kennedy’s assurance, in a 1963 speech, that “the world knows America will never start a war,” Sorensen said, “that was then… I’m not so sure about now.”

In response to an audience question about what he missed the most, Sorensen said he would want the world to remember that Kennedy began to lay the foundation for peace, through such programs as aid to education, civil rights programs and the Peace Corps, and was a man of peace. “I miss having a friend like that in the White House.”

The Peace prize & the 20th Century

While applauding Mr. Obama, I’m among those who wish the Nobel folks had waited. I do hope peace might actually, some day, happen in the world, but given last century’s record, things are chancy at best.

My father, born in 1897, used to talk a lot about world peace. His father, born just after the end of the Civil War, lost two of his five sons to World War I, but he took comfort in the certainty that peace would abound from then on. He died in the mid-1930s, presumably not looking very closely at Germany.

My father was an eternal, though not unrealistic, optimist. The afternoon we learned that Pearl Harbor had been bombed we gathered around the Philco radio to listen to Mr. Roosevelt, and my father talked about what a terrible thing war was. But for a few years we had that one, the last ‘good’ war. There was optimism after it ended but not much peace, because we plunged right into the Cold War.

In 1953 my father — Earl Moreland was his name, he was a good guy — was president of the Virginia United Nations Association and brought Eleanor Roosevelt to Richmond to speak on — world peace. It was a plum for my fresh-out-of-college first PR job and a memorable time for me, since I got to pick up Mrs. Roosevelt at the quonset hut that passed for Richmond’s airport at the time and watch that singular lady in action. She was eloquent and reservedly hopeful. For a while in the 1950s peace seemed dimly possible, if you could look beyond SEATO and the Geneva Accords and a few issues with Communism, and ignore (as many of us did) the plight of the Palestinians.

Then came Vietnam. If that war seemed endless, which it was, at least after we made our ungraceful exit there was another tiny hope that somehow there might be a little peace… as long as you ignored the North/South Vietnam problems and weren’t looking at Israel and Palestine.

My father was a big fan of Anwar Sadat. When Jimmy Carter managed that little sit-down with Mr. Sadat and Menachem Begin at Camp David, I was visiting my father at his home a hundred or so miles south. This time we hunkered in front of the little living room TV set, and I remember my father saying “By George! I think we could see peace over there one day.” Well, we did hope. Of course, by then it was getting close to time to start looking at Afghanistan, a country many Americans (certainly including this one) thought of more as a storybook land than a real place where one bunch of people have been fighting with another bunch of people since time immemorial.

The rest is (more recent) history. It will be evident that this space is not the History Channel, but more precisely one woman’s view of the 20th century and the peace in our time that didn’t exactly happen. American Nobel peace laureates Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, George Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr., Henry Kissinger — MLK, definitely a peacemaking sort but Henry Kissinger? — and Jimmy Carter didn’t formulate much 20th century peaceable wisdom for their 21st century follower.

Barack Obama is a believer, in hope, and peace, and possibilities. I wish him well.