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How to Destroy a Planet Without Really Trying

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Posted on Jun 5, 2013
Wonderlane (CC BY 2.0)

By Noam Chomsky, TomDispatch

(Page 2)

So that was the offer.  Kennedy and his advisors considered it—and rejected it.  At the time, Kennedy himself was estimating the likelihood of nuclear war at a third to a half.  So Kennedy was willing to accept a very high risk of massive destruction in order to establish the principle that we—and only we—have the right to offensive missiles beyond our borders, in fact anywhere we like, no matter what the risk to others—and to ourselves, if matters fall out of control. We have that right, but no one else does.

Kennedy did, however, accept a secret agreement to withdraw the missiles the U.S. was already withdrawing, as long as it was never made public.  Khrushchev, in other words, had to openly withdraw the Russian missiles while the U.S. secretly withdrew its obsolete ones; that is, Khrushchev had to be humiliated and Kennedy had to maintain his macho image.  He’s greatly praised for this: courage and coolness under threat, and so on.  The horror of his decisions is not even mentioned—try to find it on the record.

And to add a little more, a couple of months before the crisis blew up the United States had sent missiles with nuclear warheads to Okinawa.  These were aimed at China during a period of great regional tension.

Well, who cares?  We have the right to do anything we want anywhere in the world.  That was one grim lesson from that era, but there were others to come.

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Ten years after that, in 1973, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called a high-level nuclear alert.  It was his way of warning the Russians not to interfere in the ongoing Israel-Arab war and, in particular, not to interfere after he had informed the Israelis that they could violate a ceasefire the U.S. and Russia had just agreed upon.  Fortunately, nothing happened.

Ten years later, President Ronald Reagan was in office.  Soon after he entered the White House, he and his advisors had the Air Force start penetrating Russian air space to try to elicit information about Russian warning systems, Operation Able Archer.  Essentially, these were mock attacks.  The Russians were uncertain, some high-level officials fearing that this was a step towards a real first strike.  Fortunately, they didn’t react, though it was a close call.  And it goes on like that.

What to Make of the Iranian and North Korean Nuclear Crises

At the moment, the nuclear issue is regularly on front pages in the cases of North Korea and Iran.  There are ways to deal with these ongoing crises.  Maybe they wouldn’t work, but at least you could try.  They are, however, not even being considered, not even reported.

Take the case of Iran, which is considered in the West—not in the Arab world, not in Asia—the gravest threat to world peace.  It’s a Western obsession, and it’s interesting to look into the reasons for it, but I’ll put that aside here.  Is there a way to deal with the supposed gravest threat to world peace?  Actually there are quite a few.  One way, a pretty sensible one, was proposed a couple of months ago at a meeting of the non-aligned countries in Tehran.  In fact, they were just reiterating a proposal that’s been around for decades, pressed particularly by Egypt, and has been approved by the U.N. General Assembly.

The proposal is to move toward establishing a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the region.  That wouldn’t be the answer to everything, but it would be a pretty significant step forward.  And there were ways to proceed.  Under U.N. auspices, there was to be an international conference in Finland last December to try to implement plans to move toward this.  What happened? 

You won’t read about it in the newspapers because it wasn’t reported—only in specialist journals.  In early November, Iran agreed to attend the meeting.  A couple of days later Obama cancelled the meeting, saying the time wasn’t right.  The European Parliament issued a statement calling for it to continue, as did the Arab states.  Nothing resulted.  So we’ll move toward ever-harsher sanctions against the Iranian population—it doesn’t hurt the regime—and maybe war. Who knows what will happen?

In Northeast Asia, it’s the same sort of thing.  North Korea may be the craziest country in the world.  It’s certainly a good competitor for that title.  But it does make sense to try to figure out what’s in the minds of people when they’re acting in crazy ways.  Why would they behave the way they do?  Just imagine ourselves in their situation.  Imagine what it meant in the Korean War years of the early 1950s for your country to be totally leveled, everything destroyed by a huge superpower, which furthermore was gloating about what it was doing.  Imagine the imprint that would leave behind.

Bear in mind that the North Korean leadership is likely to have read the public military journals of this superpower at that time explaining that, since everything else in North Korea had been destroyed, the air force was sent to destroy North Korea’s dams, huge dams that controlled the water supply—a war crime, by the way, for which people were hanged in Nuremberg.   And these official journals were talking excitedly about how wonderful it was to see the water pouring down, digging out the valleys, and the Asians scurrying around trying to survive.  The journals were exulting in what this meant to those “Asians,” horrors beyond our imagination.  It meant the destruction of their rice crop, which in turn meant starvation and death.  How magnificent!  It’s not in our memory, but it’s in their memory.

Let’s turn to the present.  There’s an interesting recent history.  In 1993, Israel and North Korea were moving towards an agreement in which North Korea would stop sending any missiles or military technology to the Middle East and Israel would recognize that country.  President Clinton intervened and blocked it.  Shortly after that, in retaliation, North Korea carried out a minor missile test.  The U.S. and North Korea did then reach a framework agreement in 1994 that halted its nuclear work and was more or less honored by both sides.  When George W. Bush came into office, North Korea had maybe one nuclear weapon and verifiably wasn’t producing any more. 

Bush immediately launched his aggressive militarism, threatening North Korea—“axis of evil” and all that—so North Korea got back to work on its nuclear program.  By the time Bush left office, they had eight to 10 nuclear weapons and a missile system, another great neocon achievement.  In between, other things happened.  In 2005, the U.S. and North Korea actually reached an agreement in which North Korea was to end all nuclear weapons and missile development.  In return, the West, but mainly the United States, was to provide a light-water reactor for its medical needs and end aggressive statements.  They would then form a nonaggression pact and move toward accommodation.


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