No Nukes, No Empire

The Abolition of Nuclear Weapons Requires the End of the U.S. Empire

If we are serious about the abolition of nuclear weapons, we have to place the abolition of the U.S. empire at the center of our politics.

That means working toward a world free of nuclear weapons demands we not only critique the reactionary wing of the U.S. power structure, the Bushes and Cheneys and Rumsfelds — call them the reckless hawks. A serious commitment to a future free of nuclear weapons demands critique of moderate wing, the Obamas and Bidens and Clintons — call them the reasonable hawks. The former group is psychotic, while the latter is merely cynical. After eight years of reckless reactionary psychotics, it’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security by reasonable moderate cynics. But we should remember that a hawk is a hawk.

The next step is asking whose interests are advanced by the hawks. Even though in the post-World War II era the hawks have sometimes differed on strategy and tactics, they have defended the same economic system: a predatory corporate capitalism. Let’s call those folks the vultures. Different groupings of hawks might be associated with different groupings of vultures, giving the appearance of serious political conflict within the elite, but what they have in common is much more important than their differences. The political empire of the contemporary United States serves the corporate empires that dominate not only the domestic but the global economy, and it all depends on U.S. military power, of which the nuclear arsenal is one component.

George W. Bush was the smirking frat-boy face of the U.S. empire. Barack Obama is the smiling smart-guy face of the U.S. empire. Whoever is at the helm, the U.S. political/economic/military empire remains in place, shaky at the moment, but still the single greatest threat to justice and peace on the planet. Any serious project to rid the world of the particular threat of nuclear weapons has to come to terms with the more general threat of the empire.

We shouldn’t expect our leaders, Republican or Democrat, to agree with that assessment, of course. And they don’t. Here’s a paragraph from the Obama administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review:

The conditions that would ultimately permit the United States and others to give up their nuclear weapons without risking greater international instability and insecurity are very demanding. Among those conditions are success in halting the proliferation of nuclear weapons, much greater transparency into the programs and capabilities of key countries of concern, verification methods and technologies capable of detecting violations of disarmament obligations, enforcement measures strong and credible enough to deter such violations, and ultimately the resolution of regional disputes that can motivate rival states to acquire and maintain nuclear weapons. Clearly, such conditions do not exist today.

 Nowhere on the list is a recognition of a more crucial fact: nuclear abolition depends on the death of the American empire.

The reason that is not on the list is because nuclear weapons are a key component of U.S. empire-building. That is as true today as it was when Harry S Truman dropped the first nuclear weapon to end World War II and begin the Cold War. Although tonight we want to focus on the present, it’s useful to return to that moment to remind ourselves of the harsh reality of empires.

Though the culture can’t come to terms with this history, the consensus of historians is that the U.S. decision to drop atomic weapons on Japan had little to do with ending WWII and everything to do with sending a message to the Soviet Union. The barbaric act that ended the barbarism of WWII opened up a new chapter in the tragedy of empire, leading to more barbarism in the U.S. assault on the developing world over the past six decades.

Even though it was clear that after WWII the United States could have lived relatively secure in the world with its considerable wealth and extensive resources, the greed that drives empire demanded that U.S. policy-makers pursue a policy not of peace but of domination, as seen in this conclusion of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff in 1947: “To seek less than preponderant power would be to opt for defeat. Preponderant power must be the object of U.S. policy.”1 Preponderant power means: We run the world. We dictate the terms of the global economy. Others find a place in that structure or they risk annihilation. No challenge from another system or another state is acceptable.

In service of this quest, elites created the mythology of the Cold War -that we were defending ourselves against a Soviet empire bent on destroying us – which was grafted easily onto the deeper U.S. mythology about a shining city upon the hill and Manifest Destiny, about the divine right of the United States to dominate. As a result, much of the U.S. public is easily convinced of the righteousness of the U.S. imperial project and persuaded to believe the lie that we maintain nuclear weapons only as a deterrent. The reality should blunt the self-congratulatory instinct: U.S. nuclear weapons were created to project power, not protect people.

In his book Empire and the Bomb, Joseph Gerson lists 39 incidences of “nuclear blackmail,” of which 33 were made by U.S. officials.2 That helps explain the subtitle of his book, “How the US Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World.”

Not surprisingly, Obama has said he does not envision abolition in the foreseeable future. In his famous Prague speech in April 2009, he said:

So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. I’m not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly — perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, “Yes, we can.”

Yes, the world can change — if the dominant military power in the world, the United States, can change. If the United States could give up the quest to consume a disproportionate share of the world’s resources and disavow its reliance on securing that unjust distribution of wealth through the largest and most destructive military in the history of the world, things could change. 

That’s why most U.S. elites are interested in non-proliferation, not abolition. The goal of abolition will remain safely out of reach, on the horizon, just beyond our ability to accomplish in the near future — while the United States continues to imagine a future in which the rest of the world accepts U.S. domination. Since countries threatened by the empire won’t accept non-proliferation unless there is a meaningful commitment to abolition and a scaling back of imperial designs, the U.S. policy will fail. That’s because it’s designed to fail. U.S. policy is designed to keep a hold on power and wealth, and the people running the country believe nuclear weapons are useful in that quest.

That’s why the Nuclear Posture Review of the Obama administration is not all that different from the Bush administration’s, as Zia Mian (an analyst at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security) pointed out at a gathering of activists preceding the May 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference. That’s why Obama’s policy includes a commitment to nuclear weapons, conventional missile defense, and modernization of the nuclear complex. That’s why Obama is increasing expenditures on nuclear weapons, now over $50 billion a year, for modernization.

Our task is to make sure we aren’t conned by politicians, either those who push the fear button or pull on our hope strings. When we take up questions of military strategy and weapons, our task is to understand the underlying political and economic systems, name the pathologies of those systems, identify the key institutions in those systems, withhold our support from those institutions when possible, create alternative institutions when possible, and tell the truth. We may support cynical politicians and inadequate policy initiatives at times, but in offering such support we should continue to tell the truth.

This commitment to telling the truth about our leaders, Republican and Democrat alike, also means telling the truth about ourselves. I have argued that any call for the elimination of nuclear weapons that does not come with an equally vociferous call for the elimination of the U.S. empire is empty rhetoric, and that a call for the end of an empire also must come with a deep critique of our economic system.

I want to end by taking the argument one step further: Such critiques ring hollow if we don’t engage in critical self-reflection about how many of us in the United States have grown comfortable in these systems. We decry injustice but spend little time talking about how our own material comfort is made possible by that injustice. A serious commitment to the end of nuclear weapons, the end of empire, the end of a predatory corporate capitalist system demands that we also commit to changing the way we live.

We cannot wake up tomorrow and extract ourselves from all these systems. There are no rituals of purification available to cleanse us. But we can look in the mirror, honestly, and start the hard work of reconfiguring the world.

  • A version of this essay was delivered to the “Think outside the Bomb” event in Austin, TX, on June 14, 2010.
    1. Quoted in Melvyn Leffler, A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War (Stanford, CA.: Stanford University Press, 1992), p. 18-19. []
    2. Joseph Gerson, Empire and the Bomb: How the US Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World (London: Pluto Press, 2007), p. 37-38. []

    Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. His latest book is We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out (Monkey Wrench Books). Jensen is also co-producer of the documentary film Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing (Media Education Foundation, 2009), which chronicles the life and philosophy of the longtime radical activist. An extended interview Jensen conducted with Osheroff is online. He can be reached at: rjensen@austin.utexas.edu. Twitter: @jensenrobertw. Read other articles by Robert, or visit Robert's website.

    4 comments on this article so far ...

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    1. Maien said on June 15th, 2010 at 8:38am #

      I truly doubt that the majority of the american people would ever be willing to change. They are just too comfortable to move. The power brokers LIKE their empire very much.

      Cataclysmic events force change and demand that individuals either grow up and survive… or not. There are more cataclysmic events coming from the earth herself.

      I agree, telling the truth is key. Telling the truth will become one of the characteristics of the future survivors of the current empire. Telling the truth with a strong religeous background (Judeo-Christian) is difficult. The religion itself is responsible for teaching the population that they do not have to be responsible for their actions and thoughts.

      Thank-you for bringing your information to the public and being one of those who initiates change.

    2. James Keye said on June 15th, 2010 at 11:55am #

      The hubris of the Gulf catastrophe is concrete prelude to the hubris of nuclear catastrophe unless the understandings in this essay become operational.

    3. Eileen Fleming said on June 15th, 2010 at 6:21pm #

      On Armistice Day, 1948 General Omar Nelson Bradley warned US:

      “We live in a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants, in a world that has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. We have solved the mystery of the atom and forgotten the lessons of the Sermon on The Mount. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about dying than we know about living.”

      On February 9, 2009, Journalist Helen Thomas, asked President Obama about Middle Eastern states with nukes. Obama blew her off stating he didn’t want “to speculate” and her ‘colleagues’ remained mute, but the US State Department has published reams of material about President Kennedy’s concern about the Israeli bomb.

      In 2005, Mordechai Vanunu, the Whistle Blower of Israel’s WMD’s told me:

      “President Kennedy tried to stop Israel from building atomic weapons. Kennedy insisted on an open internal inspection.

      “When Johnson became president, he made an agreement with Israel that two senators would come every year to inspect. Before the senators would visit, the Israelis would build a wall to block the underground elevators and stairways. From 1963 to ’69, the senators came, but they never knew about the wall that hid the rest of the Dimona from them.

      “Nixon stopped the inspections and agreed to ignore the situation. As a result, Israel increased production. In 1986, there were over two hundred bombs. Today, they may have enough plutonium for ten bombs a year.”

      On April 5, 2009, President Obama stood on the world stage in Prague amongst thousands of flag-waving Czechs and spoke of good humor, home town Chicago, the will of the people over tanks and guns, old conflicts, revolution, moral leadership as the most powerful weapon, iron curtains that fell and the state of 21st century nuclear weapons and I excerpt:

      “We are here today because enough people ignored the voices who told them that the world could not change. We’re here today because of the courage of those who stood up and took risks to say that freedom is a right for all people, no matter what side of a wall they live on, and no matter what they look like. We are here today because the simple and principled pursuit of liberty and opportunity shamed those who relied on the power of tanks and arms to put down the will of a people.

      “Some argue that the spread of these weapons cannot be stopped, cannot be checked -– that we are destined to live in a world where more nations and more people possess the ultimate tools of destruction. Such fatalism is a deadly adversary, for if we believe that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable, then in some way we are admitting to ourselves that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable.

      “As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act…It will take patience and persistence. But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, Yes, we can.

      “Words must mean something.”

    4. observing said on June 16th, 2010 at 2:41pm #

      More importantly than the US Empire falling, those manipulating the puppets that are “government and free trade” worldwide must also be brought down and submitted to trial, conviction and incarceration. The US Empire is merely the latest elite in a long line of well-heeled snake-oil salesmen masquerading as monarchs, generals, politicians, bankers and businessmen. The Empire system and its international “friends” cannot operate and continually re-invent itself again and again without the philosophical and financial support of “our betters”.

      Very simply, if it is a fraud or harm on a small scale by one individual against another, it is also a fraud or harm by a corporation against a society. In other words, if I sold goods or services other than as advertised, I would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. If I destroyed public property by my own negligence, I would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

      Wither Goldman Sacs, BP and their corporate banker/stock-market minions, who repeatedly and purposefully defraud the world’s population and despoil the environment? Free of course, money talks, shysters walk. But our jails are full to overflowing with poor people of dubious guilt or guilty of comparatively innocuous infractions.

      The US Empire will not allow the “mighty” to be laid low by mere common law, as these are the same people who fund the campaigns, electoral and military with money skimmed from the sheep-like masses.

      Bread and circuses, guns and butter, the same old cons. Again, where’s a guillotine when you need one?