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We Need Another President Kennedy
To Avert a Nuclear Catastrophe
Last week the UN’s Disarmament Commission’s 2023 session was roiled by deep concern about escalating nuclear rhetoric over the war in Ukraine. A bit of recent context is in order.
On October 27, 2022, the Department of Defense published its ‘Nuclear Posture Review’ which adopts a “First Use” policy, meaning the US reserves the right to make a pre-emptive nuclear strike against its primary nuclear adversaries China and Russia. In the case of Russia, it explicitly stated such policy is to deter a nuclear attack on NATO.
That same day, Russian President Putin, speaking at the Valdai Conference, disclaimed any intention of using nuclear weapons in Ukraine. However, he has made it clear that if the “very existence” of Russia is threatened by either a nuclear strike or a conventional war he could exercise a nuclear option.
On February 21, 2023, Russia suspended its participation in the 2010 New START Treaty, stopping inspections of its nuclear capabilities and announcing it would resume nuclear tests if the US resumed tests. Russia’s treaty commitment to cap its long range nuclear warheads, numbering 1,550, would stay in place, said Putin.
On March 23, 2023, a parliamentary exchange in the United Kingdom revealed that the UK was planning to send depleted uranium munitions to Ukraine for use against Russian tanks. These munitions are a byproduct of uranium processing in the creation of nuclear weapons and nuclear fuel.
Russia’s Putin responded immediately to the news, with a warning about the collective West’s use, terming depleted uranium munitions “weapons with a nuclear component.” The dialectic of nuclear conflict is cycling upwards.
Depleted uranium munitions have been called “tank killers” because they pass through armor like a hot knife through butter. Such weapons are also known to be carcinogenic, radiologically toxic and can contaminate food and water supplies.
The US has used depleted uranium in the bombing of Serbia in 1999 and in the First and Second Gulf Wars. Lawsuits have been filed by Serbian and Italian soldiers against NATO for extreme health effects, including cancer, linked to the alliances’ use of depleted uranium munitions. Depleted uranium weapons were fired into largely civilian areas by the US in both Iraq wars, and in Afghanistan. Exposure to depleted uranium continues to cause multigenerational birth defects and cancer.
The war in Ukraine continues, propelled with depleted uranium.
The US will not permit Ukraine to negotiate either a ceasefire or the conflict’s end. Instead, it pushes an extended war, more casualties, and the increasing possibility of a nuclear conflict.
Think the U.S. could not stumble into a nuclear war? Then reflect, for a moment, upon the government’s leadership failures which led to the deaths by incineration of several dozens of members of the Branch Davidians during the siege at Waco, Texas in 1993. Project those types of miscalculations to an international crisis fraught with multiple opportunities for misreading of cues, strategic mistakes, miscommunication, fake news, AI-inspired provacateurs and you get the idea.
It is fair to say that for the U.S. government, the development and use of nuclear weapons is, literally, a walk in the park. The Manhattan Project National Historical Park celebrates the creation of the atomic bomb through the collective efforts of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the Hanford Nuclear Reactor in Washington state and the Oak Ridge Laboratory in Tennessee.
As a member of Congress, I strongly opposed this new national park. The atomic bomb should have never been developed, nor used. In debate in Congress, I pointed out that top US generals including Douglas MacArthur, and Henry Arnold, and Admirals William Halsey, Ernest King, William Leahy, and Chester Nimitz all dissented as to the bomb’s military necessity.
Nagasaki and Hiroshima were destroyed in August of 1945 and nearly a quarter of a million Japanese perished, most of them civilians. The naming of a U.S. national park to memorialize the development and dropping of the atomic bomb illustrates a mentality which ignores the human tragedy of immense proportions which occurs when such weapons are used.
Seventeen years later, in October of 1962, the U.S. and Russia were entangled in a deadly crisis over the emplacement of Russian nuclear missiles in Cuba. US intelligence discovered the missiles, which were capable of striking US cities.
President Kennedy, on October 22, 1962, informed the American people of the danger, while demanding that Russia remove the nuclear missiles. Russia’s Nikita Khrushchev countered with a similar request that the U.S. remove then- secret nuclear missile installations in Turkey, while also demanding there be no U.S. invasion of Cuba.
For fourteen days, beginning with the discovery of the Russian nuclear missiles in Cuba, the world moved toward a precipice, a direct confrontation between the nuclear weapon states of Russia and the United States. The U.S. military prepared for war with the Soviet Union. Then, few knew for sure, outside of the Japanese people, just how devastating a nuclear war would be for civilian populations.
President Kennedy, and his administration’s skillful use of diplomacy, engaged Russia directly and caused Premier Khrushchev to back away from the brink, through identifying mutual concerns, achieving concessions and making concessions and allowing counterparts to save face. Cognitive skills and a large quality of heart was used to negotiate a resolution of conflict.
The difference between then and now is that there was a President Kennedy, a President who wanted to avert war, not advance into the breech, directly or by proxy. Kennedy pushed back at his advisors and military officials, who encouraged escalation.
One general, Thomas Power, head of the U.S. Strategic Air Command, had famously said: “At the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian left alive, we win.” This is exactly the type of foreign policy perspective under which the we presently continue to suffer.
President Kennedy held firm for a peaceful outcome in the Cuban Missile Crisis. As a result, Russia removed its missiles from Cuba. The U.S. removed its then-secret nuclear missile base from Turkey and made a commitment not to invade Cuba.
Some believe that to fight is to show strength. America’s doctrine of ‘Peace through Strength’ is an invitation to war. Transformed, ‘Strength through Peace’ emphasizes restraint and inner fortitude, which Kennedy demonstrated at a moment of peril.
We need another President Kennedy, with the grace, the inner strength and the intelligence to guide us from our contemporary dangerous encounter with potential nuclear catastrophe … to peace. America and the world are more at risk than ever from the threat of nuclear annihilation brought about through mentalities of greed and hubris.
The current US administration, lacks the diplomatic skills necessary to avoid nuclear escalation. They have pointedly ignored and over ridden several opportunities to de-escalate and to end the war in Ukraine, preferring purblind brinkmanship more worthy of a rogue nation than the greatest military power in the world.
Ignoring a diplomatic settlement with Russia, the Administration piles into Ukraine, one weapons system after another. We are destroying Ukraine to save Ukraine.
Errors and miscalculations can and do occur between nations, leaving the world vulnerable to destruction. We remember the legendary Soviet Air Defense Lt. Colonel Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov who correctly assessed a false reading on the Soviet air defense system, which had errantly alerted Russia to five incoming missiles from the U.S.
If Colonel Petrov informed his superiors of the incoming missiles, Russian defense protocols called for a retaliatory nuclear strike against the U.S. and its NATO allies. He chose not to do so. It was later discovered that sunlight reflecting against high altitude clouds caused a radar misreading which had generated a false alarm.
The poet Thomas Hardy forecast such confusion in ‘Hap.’ He wrote of “crass causality,” which embraces human error, miscalculation and the idea that the survival of our world hangs by a thread.
This week, Washington D.C. continues its celebration of the Cherry Blossom Festival.
In 1912, Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki gifted 3,000 cherry blossom trees to our nation’s Capitol as a symbol of U.S.-Japanese friendship. The delicate pink and white blossoms of the Yoshino cherry trees encircle The Tidal Basin below the Jefferson Memorial.
I was privileged to join with Japanese Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki in 2012 to celebrate in the Capitol building the centennial of that gift, to renew our friendship and the hope of peace, for the entire world.
Cherry blossoms are a symbol of Spring, renewal, and, in their short blossoming and fading, they are a poignant reminder of the beauty and the brevity of life itself.
Those who currently lead this nation have forgotten the primal bonds of humanity, which give us all, regardless of country, a common origin and a common destiny.
Rapture over technological power can diminish understanding of the science of human relations, the power of the human heart and the benefits of calm, stable, and mature statesmanship.
May Spring reawaken in all of us the love of beauty and a love of life, lest our next winter be a nuclear one.
“… let us strive to build peace, a desire for peace, a willingness to work for peace in the hearts and minds of all of our people. I believe that we can. I believe the problems of human destiny are not beyond the reach of human beings.” From President Kennedy’s Final Address to the United Nations General Assembly, September 20, 1963.
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