From Brinkmanship to Peace: The Evolution of Nuclear War Stance

Published 4:28 pm Monday, December 18, 2023

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By Tom H. Hastings

I could see where you could have exchange of tactical weapons against troops in the field without it bringing either one of the major powers to pushing the button.

Ronald Reagan, 1981

Nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, 1985

Yeah, like we’ve been saying all along.

–the peace movement

How did Ronald Reagan learn so much in just four years and completely flip his position on waging nuclear war? That would be the peace movement, fairly large in the US thanks in part to Randall Forsberg as she launched the Nuclear Freeze movement, which resulted in the largest demonstration of direct democracy in American history, when about half the states put a version of it on the ballots where referenda were allowed. Every state but one–Arizona–overwhelmingly approved.

The Nuclear Freeze resolution, backed by most US citizens in the 1982 elections, called for the immediate freeze of all research, production, and deployment of any new nuclear weapons.

As serious as the movement was in the US, it was massive in Europe, probably since Reagan was referring to Europe as the place where nuclear war could be fought with no likely danger to the US.

What we are seeing now is the abject failure of another sort of war–urban warfare. When any warring party uses civilians as human shields, they invite the other warring party to commit war crimes.

The Hague and Geneva Conventions, as well as the Nuremburg Accords, outlaw using weapons against civilians (some of the laws are more focused on certain types of weapons that tend to produce grotesque “collateral damage,” which is what warmakers call the dead civilians they knowingly include in their attacks, and some international rules of war specifically delineate protected people). These are binding international laws–but like any laws, they are only as binding in reality as long as there is enforcement.

In an international system that might actually nonviolently enforce the rules of war the coercive power of sanctions are the realistic alternative. Economic sanctions, trade sanctions, cultural sanctions, and other sanctions that don’t involve threats of shooting or bombing are the governance fallbacks of the future.

Relying on violence obviates the future.

What is the carbon bootprint of war in Ukraine? In Sudan? In Gaza? Indeed, what is the carbon bootprint of even preparing to wage war?

The largest consumer of fossil fuel on earth is the US military, and that has been true for the scant years we’ve been “at peace” as well as the astronomical expansions of that carbon bootprint when we invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. And yet the COP meetings have historically persistently failed to address that 8000-lb. gorilla in the room.

But what about the 800-lb. guerrilla, the Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, al-Qaida, or any other terror group without a massive military but with the willingness to commit real enough atrocities to provoke the huge militaries into wars that inevitably slaughter civilians and add massively to global heating?

If you want peace, work for justice.

Pope Paul VI, 1 January 1972

Humankind will either seriously address the pervasive injustices that it can, or it seals our fate.

There are certain things that must equalize or relative deprivation will drive destructive conflict. Addressing hunger, potable water, human rights, and unacceptable levels of income and wealth inequality must underwrite our future endeavors or there will be no future worth living.

John Muir famously said when he picked up anything he realized it was connected to everything else. This is a truth we can only avoid if we are willing to relinquish hope for our planet, hope for our species.

Devoting far more of our public funds to uplift than to killing capacity is our first serious step toward a course correction that can allow our species to thrive much longer on a planet that will never stop evolving.

We are on a path right now that will produce a planet that will reject humans fairly soon. Only we can change that, or it will be changed for us with tragic results. Gaia–our planet as an organism–will be deploying its immune system against us more and more fiercely as we fail to evolve past war and into peace. It’s entirely our choice.

Dr. Tom H. Hastings, PeaceVoice Senior Editor, is Coördinator of Conflict Resolution BA/BS degree programs and certificates at Portland State University.