The Nuclear Challenge 70 Years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki (7): Nuclear Civil Disobedience

4 Sep


In the years after World War II there was a widespread belief that rational minds would prevail, and that nuclear weapons would not be further developed, and their possession as well as their threat or use prohibited. The onset of the Cold War, the Soviet acquisition of the bomb, and the Eisenhower threat to use nuclear weapons if necessary to end the Korean War basically extinguished any real prospect of nuclear disarmament. Of course, the diplomacy of peace advocacy and of nuclear nonproliferation made it expedient to continue to affirm nuclear disarmament as a goal of foreign policy. And indeed up through the 1960s both Washington and Moscow tabled disarmament proposals with some fanfare, yet clearly lacked the political will to confront what had already become the powerful nuclear establishment that was a principal component of the military-industrial-complex that was so memorably depicted in Eisenhower’s still relevant Farewell Address.


It is against this background that it became increasingly clear that nuclear weapons would remain part of the geopolitical scene so long as their role was left to governments and normal statecraft. Before long all five permanent members of the UN Security Council opted for possession of nuclear weapons, which as a result seemed to connect great power status on a global level with entry into the nuclear club. Its expansion beyond this circle of World War II victors was more problematic as the further spread of the weaponry collided with the geopolitical priority of nonproliferation and with the oligopolistic mentality that was shared by the nuclear weapons states, and belied the central claim of the West that nuclear weapons were needed and effective in a deterrent posture, keeping the peace by discouraging attacks and provocative international initiatives. The strategic rationale for nuclear weaponry relied upon by the United States and Europe stressed the need to offset Soviet superiority in conventional weaponry and territorial access from their base in the Asian landmass.


Ever since the 1980s peace activists, especially those with deep religious convictions, have mounted civil society campaigns centered on the immorality of threatening or using nuclear weapons, and even on possessing and contemplating possible use. Those activists with the deepest convictions have repeatedly resorted to nonviolence civil disobedience, sometimes in provocative forms (spilling their own blood at nuclear facilities, damaging warheads, blocking trains carrying missiles), to communicate the depth of their opposition, and their own willingness to accept prison sentences to get their message better heard. I was deeply moved and influenced by the purity of several of the leading personalities who followed this line of thought and action, and participated in a supportive role by being an expert witness in several high profile legal cases. Among those I came to know through this contact, and particularly admired, were the Berrigan brothers, Daniel and Philip, Elizabeth McAlister, and James Douglass. They were and remain for me among the most charismatic and inspirational figures in my life experience, not only for their anti-nuclear clarity (accompanied by strong earlier stands against the Vietnam War and wider commitments of service to the poor), but for the ways they connected such strong spiritual identities with their daily life styles and citizen engagements that harmoniously fused religious values with deeply felt and reflected upon moral/political understanding of how to live in the world.


I was particularly drawn to the work and outlook of the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Protest founded by James and Shelley Douglass in Bangor, Washington and reaching out to many in the greater Seattle area with their uncompromising and sustained opposition to nuclearism, with a focus on so-called first-strike weapons. There worldview combined their embrace of pre-Constantine Christianity, the early pacifist Christian communities that were persecuted and yet adhered to their beliefs and practices, and Gandhi whose life, work, and thought established the radical transformative potentiality of militant nonviolence. I was impressed during my years of contact with the people of Ground Zero by their deep belief that the point of confrontation is always conversion to truth and right action, and not passing judgment as to evil. By virtue of such efforts they managed to generate widespread sympathy with their work, eventually persuading the formerly apolitical Archbishop of Seattle, Raymond Hunthausen, to join them in nonviolent civil disobedience and gaining the respect and even the support of some local prosecutors.


An important element in their dedicated lives was the strong belief in living up to the Nuremberg ethos, including respect for the UN Charter and for international law generally. It was my role to show that their beliefs in what I called ‘the Nuremberg obligation’ created a civic, if not a legal, duty to oppose within reasonable bounds policies and behavior by a government if it directly violated international law, and the more so, if the context involved warmaking. I also gave my opinion that it was reasonable for individuals to believe that all activities associated with nuclear weapons involved or were leading to the commission of the most severe of war crimes, and that these persons being prosecuted did so believe.


From a somewhat more secular point of view, Daniel Ellsberg, followed in these footsteps, taking a journey that has led him from the pinnacles of state power in Washington as a top level strategic advisor to his brave and precedent-setting decision to release the Pentagon Papers that divulged the secrets wrongly withheld from the American public, a shocking documentary record of the policies and conduct of the U.S. Government in relation to the Vietnam War.

I have known Ellsberg since we were both students at Harvard in the 1950s, and were originally at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Dan was a starstudent of Cold War strategy within the reigning realist paradigm and I was an obscure and alienated critic, but we managed to keep some contact in subsequent years, and I was one of those who Dan entrusted with the cache of top secret documents that constituted the Pentagon Papers, and was later called to testify before the Boston Grand Jury (convened to investigate the criminality of the release) and later as an expert in the criminal trial that the government started and lost with respect to Ellsberg and the NY Times.


Ellsberg also has worked while at the Pentagon on nuclear war plans, the secret of secrets, irresponsibly sharable over the years with such reckless military adventurers as Curtis LeMay and Dick Cheney, and their less extremist colleagues. It is a wonder that with this kind of incubated knowledge of the most deadly reality the human species has ever confronted, that species endangering catastrophes have not yet darkened the horizon.


Ellsberg’s perseverance with respect to nuclear weaponry has become iconic. Besides, lucidly lecturing throughout the world he has committed civil disobedience about 100 times, engaged in long vigils and fasts devoted to dramatizing the failures of the UN and U.S. Government to achieve nuclear disarmament. Most recently, at an event on August 7th observing the 70th anniversary of the nuclear attacks, Ellsberg joined with 50 other protesters in a ‘die-in,’ outside of Lawrence Livermore Labs where nuclear warheads have for decades being continuously developed to attain ever higher levels of annihilating perfection. It is worth observing that the Livermore Labs are located in Livermore, California, which is in the Bay Area, and that the large budget for work on weapons, often more than $1 billion is federally funded by Department of Energy, and the operation is carried on as a partnership between the University of California and several large corporations, an alliance suggestive of the bondings between the government, universities, and the private sector. Ellsberg’s words at Livermore deserve contemplating and heeding as best we can however we are situated:


“The killing at Hiroshima was mass murder.… In the target plans that I worked on, and ones I worked on in Russia, the smoke will go into the stratosphere as it did in Hiroshima by higher firestorm. But simultaneously, thousands of cities, with pillars of smoke, will join around the globe blotting out the sunlight sufficiently to kill harvests around the world, and condemn nearly the entire population of the world to death. It’s the Doomsday Machine, The End. We’ve known that, not at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but for the last twenty-five years, and yet these threats go on; the threats go on. They are threats of ending nearly all life. It’s never a good day to die, but it is a good day to get arrested.”


It is a somber message, but an informed recognition of where we are as a nation, and what this portends for species vulnerability, but also what it means culturally when national security is unethically conflated with a latent threat to commit a massive genocide, even omnicide.


70 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki it is lamentable that more than ever it is the voices in the wilderness that speak most clearly to those who are the global managers of security for the peoples of the world. We can be thankful for those who have put their bodies on the line in this unbroken tradition of anti-nuclear civil obedience. An aspect of the problem has followed from the fact that the media puts almost all of its weight on the side of the nuclear militarists, and refuses to give attention or space to those who for decades selflessly seek to awaken us from this lengthy, hazardous, and immoral ‘nuclear sleep.’


9 Responses to “The Nuclear Challenge 70 Years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki (7): Nuclear Civil Disobedience”

  1. Kata Fisher September 4, 2015 at 5:35 pm #

    Professor Falk,

    I think and also believe that humanity will wish that their ancestors harnessed natural energy – from the strength of Sun or Wind, and have never weakened natural elements with man-made agents whether below the earth or above the earth. Oil and nuclear enegry should be put of for much more resurch developt era, and rainy days.

    I never do think about Dooms Day because I do not feel one should be distressing, but it is always interesting to read something about that.

    Personally, I do not like sink holes, and I have just bad feeling about those introductory occurrences. They seem to be more relevant as to presently / imminent of Dooms things that are everlasting (in a way.)

    I do not think that humans understand that they are wasting world-resources due to few of greed.

  2. Robert Nowak September 5, 2015 at 9:14 am #

    A great post. Motivating!

  3. Laurie Knightly September 5, 2015 at 1:58 pm #

    The Wholistic Peace Institute is collaborating with the Hiroshima Ground Zero Museum to bring the “Educating For Peace: Never Again” traveling exhibit to the US, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the bombing, and it is now on exhibit here at Concordia University. Ed Kawasaki, a certified hibakusha [atomic bomb survivor] was interviewed concerning both what he remembers, at age 16, plus his dedicated research and activism since then. He states: ‘The thing that not too many people talk about is this….

    [He reads from a paper]: “Harry Truman and his atomic bomb decision: Was it necessary or was it unnecessary? There’s been a theory that Japan was defeated long before the bombing of Hiroshima and apparently the Japanese leaders knew it too, However, the war in the Pacific theater continued to be very heavy. According to the US intelligence report, during the whole war, not a single Japanese unit had surrendered. Our guess was the war would not end for at least another year. And from a casualty point of view, the invasion of the American forces on the mainland of Japan, there may have been a million casualties of US forces and maybe millions more on the Japanese side.
    And so it was an imperfect world, and an imperfect decision had to be made to end the war.” Later in the interview he added:

    “The rumor was that the American soldiers were wild savages. But that was squelched as soon as the occupation took over. The soldiers did not carry weapons when they went into the cities, to the bars and restaurants. That’s the first time in history that the occupation forces did not carry arms, other than the military police. And the Japanese people really respected the emperor’s stature. So when the emperor said, ‘The war ended; drop your arms,’ that took place and nobody was in the mode of killing the soldiers that came in to occupy Japan. It was a very peaceful occupation.”

    While Hiroshima was chosen for its military and industrial operations, it destroyed five square miles of the city and most of the people killed and wounded were civilians. Kawasaki says we should forgive each other, however, for the war and work toward eternal world peace. He has dedicated much of his life toward that end and making people aware of atomic bomb destruction is integral to his much decorated activism.

    • Kata Fisher September 6, 2015 at 7:21 am #

      A note:

      Forgiveness is not a requirement toward those who are not in forgiveness.

      However, forgiveness can act as fruit in no season. It becomes a bad business when one cannot find fruit in no season. The tree itself is without purpose.

      When you forgive, you give people grace (fruit) but if you do not find grace (fruit) on them, it becomes bad. Its best to curse the tree then partake in its purpose.

      One can forgive nations, and it was done over and over – but nothing was realised in works of forgiveness. Forgivnes does not work toward those who are without grace.

      • Richard Falk September 6, 2015 at 10:52 am #


        You overlook that the act of forgiving and receiving forgiveness may both be the embodiment of grace.


      • Kata Fisher September 6, 2015 at 12:15 pm #

        Professor Falk,

        Expecting fruit in no season is not of human nature or will.
        We do not expect fruit in no season nor naturally can have fruit in no season.
        This condition changes with God’s Presence.

        Humans can’t (cannot) forgive or retain any sins, but Spirit of God can forgive and retain sins.
        Meaning, if Spirit of God forgives then, it is forgiven, but when Spirit retains sins – sins are retained. (This is independent from human feelings or will). All my conclusions are based on Apostolic Writings, Teaching, and Acts only because my conscience can witness that they are true. This truth it is nothing that can be learned by human effort alone.

        Professor Falk, I will not back this up with the Scriptures because it is not always appropriate for me to do that. Still, I hope that this is helpful.

        I do not think that you are wrong in your conclusion.

    • Richard Falk September 6, 2015 at 7:23 am #

      As usual, illuminating. I had never heard the interpretation of the atomic events
      set forth by Mr. Kawasaki, and his own experience lends special credibility to what
      he has to say. There are many interpretations around about how ready or unready Japan
      was to surrender in that pre-H period and how ready Washington was to back away from
      its demand for unconditional surrender and the abandonment of the emperor system.

  4. Beau Oolayforos September 5, 2015 at 8:16 pm #

    Dear Professor Falk,
    Since ‘Civil Disobedience’ inevitably evokes its most famous essay, we all should ask ourselves whether our meek, year-by-year payment of taxes to this government does not support and encourage the wrongs which we abhor. And if we are not courageous enough individually – I admit that I have not been – then is there some collective means to deny the beast its lifeblood?

    • Kata Fisher September 6, 2015 at 7:10 am #

      Mr. Oolayforos

      This is what I understand:

      If one throws things into the bottomless pot – never is enough. A pot needs a bottom.

      If one has to look at the taxing system/s, it can be very difficult to discern/understand capability and capacity of the taxing system/s to do efficient allocations. How can state / federal needs be efficiently funded/allocated?

      Just for example on the state-level allocations – this can act as a bottom to the pot or cut the bottom out.

      What one pays to the state is just a small fringe in comparison to what is paid to the federal level (US case). The reason for that can be difficult.

      The state (local communities) or poor counties, do not have enough – and they should have enough to attend to the needs of local people. Oner will argue that there is enough what is allocated – and federal help can be implemented. But why?

      Paying taxes is no issue – even high percentage taxes should not be the issue that can or should distress individual or collective conscience. Still, practices of bottomless pot are of the bottomless pit.

      It is important to review and evaluate how funds are located and why. Perhaps, those who propose a certain level of taxes do not even understand what they are asking for – or are they fully aware of their actions? – we do not know that.

      Some people I hear arguing that government has no brains or ability to allocate the taxes, but I am not so sure of that. That does not seem accurate, at all.

      I really do think and believe that for any country and any system of governing that the higher local retention of the tax funds is better for their people because their capability to attend to their local needs. Still, this is not stripping off a federal level/s of governing (in any country) from their needs – that should not be, either because it would be wrong.

      Still, one should look at historical patterns to figure out what is reasonable and right due to conditional circumstances.

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