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Ending the Dance with Death

As I turned 12 on 27 October 1962, I asked my Dad if he thought I’d live to go to high school. The memory of him looking at me—he was a Navy veteran of World War II in the Pacific and spent most of his time in and around the Philippines—stays with me at more than a half century remove, and a decade since my father passed.

My 12th birthday is sometimes referred to by historians as Black Saturday, the day humankind came closest to nuclear war—so far. As humankind watched in horror, the Cuban Missile Crisis came to its climax with a series of sweeping strategic confrontations on the world stage and direct combat skirmishes involving various conventional and nuclear weapons in, around, and above Cuba. Soviets shot down a US U-2 jet, the US depth-charged a nuclear-armed Soviet sub, and nuclear air-to-air missiles were narrowly missed in more provocative and mistaken combat force encounters.

We survived a series of close calls that all went narrowly the right way, pure, blind luck for humanity. When bellicose leaders use huge militaries to do the nation-state version of the blustering chest-to-chest man-dance, they flirt with cataclysm. They almost achieved it that day.

My father tried to reassure me. It didn’t work then, it didn’t work for the next few decades, and it still doesn’t work. A parent’s natural love and protective attempts can only go so far when governments refuse to act with sanity, sense, or vision. Ask any Syrian today. The Syrians I know are wonderful people—and the leader of their homeland is a sociopath who bombs and poisons his own people, just as his father did before him. Ask a Russian—I’ve known many peace people who have visited Russia (as a part of the Soviet Union and now as a sovereign state) and they all fell in love with the Russian people, even as those Russians are ruled by a tyrant who poisons or guns down dissidents and nosy journalists.

Our “leaders” have utterly failed to do what we have asked them to do many times, which is to rid this world of the single swiftest anthropogenic existential threat ever—nuclear weapons. Indeed, even as we now see the 71st commemoration of the only time atomic bombs have been used in hot conflict—on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—we are again betrayed by our government, which is about to commence a massive “upgrade” of all facets of the clearly insane nuclear weapons system, from lab to missiles to jets to submarines. It will gut our paychecks—reminiscent of Iran or China forcing the families of executed political enemies to pay for the bullets that killed their loved one. But now it’s the China/Iran Family Plan writ large. We pay every year, indeed more than $2 million every single hour of every day and night, for the very weapons that target our entire biosphere, that directly threaten all of life on a daily basis—and that expense is about to increase.

It is time to end this dance with death. Good people deserve good leaders. Good leaders would quickly negotiate and effect nuclear disarmament. When we make this a priority, not just a nice wish, we will make history instead of ending it.

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Tom H. Hastings is core faculty in the Conflict Resolution Department at Portland State University and founding director of PeaceVoice

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