In a Perilous Time

by Joseph Gerson
Speech at the World Conference against A- & H- Bombs in Hiroshima

“Freedom of thought is the only guarantee against an infection of mankind by mass myths, which, in the hands of treacherous hypocrites and demagogues, can be transformed into bloody dictatorships.”

Andrei Sakharov

I want to thank Gensuikyo for the opportunity to return to the World Conference.  It is a pleasure to be joined by my experienced and dedicated U.S. friends and colleagues. I also want to take this opportunity to thank Taka-san for his important contributions to our Two Minutes to Midnight conference in New York in May.

The Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-Bombings

As a U.S. American, I want to acknowledge that, on its own terms and by the standards of World Court’s advisory opinion on the use and threatened use of nuclear weapons, the indiscriminate A-bombings here and in Nagasaki were nothing less that unconscionable crimes against humanity.  While making no excuses for Japanese militarism and imperial aggressions, we should remember that in the months prior to the A-bombings the Japanese government attempted to surrender on terms the U.S. ultimately accepted AFTER the atomic bombings:  unconditional surrender with the exception of the Emperor remaining on his throne. Most senior U.S. military leaders thought that the A-bombings were unnecessary and wrong.[i]

Craven domestic political calculations, racism, and bureaucratic momentum contributed to Truman’s decision to usher in the nuclear age with the annihilation of the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but as General Groves, who led the Manhattan Project remarked in 1943, the A-bomb project was no longer about Germany or Japan. It was about Russia. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were vaporized, incinerated, poisoned and traumatized to ensure that the U.S. would not have to share influence with the Soviet Union in Northern China, Manchuria, and Korea. And, Truman thought that the A-bomb gave him a “a hammer” with which he could dominate the Kremlin with the threat of nuclear annihilation.[ii]

Despite the Hibakusha’s fundamental truth that human beings and nuclear weapons cannot coexist, the illusion that nuclear weapons have worked and can serve as the ultimate enforcer of empire, compounded by lies and mistaken beliefs about nuclear deterrence, have repeatedly brought us to the brink of nuclear omnicde and driven nuclear weapons proliferation. In Helsinki, Vladimir Putin again illuminated the madness and injustice of nuclear apartheid. “As major nuclear powers,” he said, “we bear special responsibility for maintaining international security.”[iii] He and Trump believe that their nuclear arsenals give them the right to intimidate and dictate how the world’s nations and peoples live and possibly die.

A Perilous Time

Friends, we meet in a perilous time of rising great power tensions, the ascendency of right-wing autocracies, uncertainties, and renewed nuclear and high-tech arms races.  This is compounded by the reality that there are no longer any givens in U.S. foreign and military policies[iv] or to the future of liberal democracy in the U.S.

The Trump administration is marked by chaos.  Following Trump’s secretive summit with Putin and the political and media circus that followed, Trump was confronted by his most senior staff who insisted that he deny or reverse a number of statements and commitments he had made in Helsinki, from possible Russian interrogation of the former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow to his support for a referendum in Eastern Ukraine.  Pompeo and Bolton are at odds on the Korea negotiations. And, the Pentagon is reeling from Trump’s unexpected and whimsical orders, musings about reductions of troops in Germany, his order to organize a costly Kremlin-like military parade on Armistice day, and his announcement of the creation of a new space command.

Independent of Trump, the gears of empire grind on. The Pentagon budget has been increased by an amount equal Russia’s total military budget. Despite Trump’s embrace of Putin, the Pentagon’s new National Strategy prioritizes preparations for great power war against China or Russia which “challenge American power, influence and interests.”[v] This explains the $1.2 trillion spending plan for the new generation of U.S. offensive nuclear weapons and their delivery systems and Trump’s new “Space Command” to dominate Earth from space. As we saw in Trump’s theatrical summitry with Kim Jung-un, his trade war tariffs and denunciation of the European Union as a foe, in Trump’s American First Empire, the only good allies are those who know their proper place as vassals.  More than his predecessors, Trump embraces dictators and authoritarian rulers from Putin and the Saudis, to Orban in Hungary and Duterte in the Philippines. And while he describes his 391-word vague agreement with Kim Jung-un as a “good deal”, he calls the fully implemented P5+1 deal with Iran a “bad deal” and has violated it.  We’re now told that there is no reason to rush complete North Korean denuclearization, while the unspoken commitment to regime change in Iran to restore U.S. regional and global U.S. hegemony is an urgent priority.

Meanwhile, in the tradition of dictators, truth, the rule of law, organized labor, citizenship, and even the right to vote are being attacked by Trump and his minions. He blatantly contradicts himself in the same sentence and averages 6.5 recorded lies per day.[vi]  From Charlottesville to Budapest and the Kremlin, Trump embraces and encourages white and ostensibly Christian supremacists. His assaults on the press, science and his separation of families, his imprisonment of children in cages and the packing of courts with right-wing ideologues have brought us to a proto-fascist moment reminiscent of the rise of European fascism in the 1920s and 30s.

During the 2016 election campaign, Trump said “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody…and I wouldn’t lose any voters…”[vii]  Now, with his one-on-one meeting with Putin – the details of which have been kept secret from his most senior advisors and the U.S. people,  combined with his Helsinki statement that he trusts Putin more than U.S. intelligence services, his description of the press as an enemy of the people, and the failure of Republicans to call him to account, Trump may be doing the political equivalent of pulling that trigger on Fifth Avenue. Some liberals and conservatives are warning that the lesson Trump may take from Helsinki and from Republican silence is that he can shut down the special counsel’s inquiry into possible election collusion with Russia and related corruptions. This would ignite massive demonstrations that could result in the declaration of martial law, and the emergence of an Erdogan type dictatorship a country that was once the model and inspiration for liberal democracy.[viii] Remember, Trump is the President who failed to fully condemn Nazi violence – including a murder – in Charlottesville a year ago and recently pardoned armed right-wingers who had been convicted of arson.

In this climate, it should be no surprise that we are talking about the lessons from the collapse of the Weimar Republic in 1933. We have organized many massive protests across the country – especially in the wake of the imprisonment of children and babies. The civilized world is rightly alienated by, and increasingly isolating, the United States.

I should note that in many ways, Trump is a symptom, not the sole cause, of the American crisis.  With the United States’ Pax America identity increasingly besieged by the country’s relative decline in economic, military and cultural power and influence the cognitive dissonance of no longer being #1 has reinforced ancient currents of racism and national chauvinism.  This has been compounded by the Supreme Court’s removal of limits on what the superrich can spend in elections, by the post 9-11 militarist culture which permeates nearly all sectors of American life and resulted in the military becoming the country’s most widely respected institution. And, of course, there are the “subversive tentacles” of the military-industrial complex. Our political crisis is thus systemic. Impeachment of Trump would leave us with all these forces still in place, with Pence in power, and the increasingly militarized mainstream of the Democratic Party pursuing confrontations with both Russia and China.

Two Minutes to Midnight

All of this is deeply related to continuing U.S. preparations for omnicidal nuclear war. This past winter, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists sent the world a warning by moving the hands of their Doomsday Clock to two minutes to midnight. This is the closest to apocalyptic nuclear war since 1953 and worse than during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Why the warning? They cited the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, decrying increased US reliance on nuclear weapons; its staggering investments in new nuclear weapons that are driving “modernization” of the world’s other nuclear arsenals; the return to Cold War rhetoric and the total absence of US-Russian arms control negotiations. They warned about the dangerous lack of coherent US foreign and military policies that undermine global security, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program; South Asian rivalries; Trump’s threat to the nuclear deal with Iran. and climate change.[ix]

The NPR follows on the Pentagon’s new National Strategy that prioritizes preparations for great power war and includes a more aggressive U.S. first-strike nuclear war-fighting doctrine. It builds on Obama’s commitments to deploy new and more usable B-61 nuclear weapons to Europe. The Navy’s sea-launched ballistic missiles will be armed with still more devastating first-strike W-76-1 warheads. And the mandate to replace the entire nuclear triad remains in place. New is a sea-launched cruise missile and Trident submarines ballistic missiles armed with Hiroshima-like A-bombs. And, to compensate for China’s increasing area denial capabilities in the western Pacific, there is to be a standoff, air-launched, nuclear armed cruise missiles that can be fired against the Chinese military and civilians from thousands of miles away.[x]

Perhaps the most dangerous element of Trump’s $1.2 trillion NPR is the blurring the distinction between conventional and nuclear war and the increased role for nuclear weapons in U.S. war fighting strategies. The initial leaked version of the NPR mandated first-strike attacks in response to devastating cyber-attacks as well as to chemical or biological weapons attacks.

Even before Trump’s NPR, Daniel Ellsberg pointed to continuities in U.S. nuclear doctrine: Thousands of nuclear weapons on hair trigger alert. The U.S. retains its first strike policy. So-called “extended deterrence” Europe and East Asia relies on first use. U.S. doctrine calls for launch on warning. U.S. policies have “always precluded an effective nonproliferation campaign.” And, the president is not the only person who can launch the country’s nuclear weapons.[xi]

The U.S. is not the only culprit. All of the other nuclear weapons states are upgrading their nuclear arsenals. There is increasing debate in right-wing German circles about the creation of a German or European bomb. Iran will unleash its cyclotrons if the P5+1 deal collapses. Saudi Arabia is putting its nuclear infrastructure in place. And, the Turkish Labor Party reports that Erdogan wants a nuclear weapon

Singapore – After Fire and Fury

We’ll be discussing the fraught US-Korean diplomacy on Sunday, but we should appreciate that President Moon’s inspired Olympic diplomacy and that the Singapore summit prevented – at least for the time being – a catastrophic war, walking Trump back from his incendiary fire and fury nuclear threats. The summit also made it possible for Seoul and Pyongyang to proceed in “determining the destiny of the Korean nation on their own accord.”

As we think about North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, and the threat it poses to Japan, South Korea and other countries, we need to recognize that it reflects fear. Even as we criticize Pyongyang’s hideous human rights record, we need to acknowledge that Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons grew from the trauma of Japanese conquest and colonialism, the devastating Korean War, U.S. and South Korean regime  change commitments, repeated U.S. preparations and threats of first strike nuclear attacks, and the failures of U.S. diplomacy, beginning with the Clinton and Bush I failures to implement the 1994 Agreed Framework, Bush II’s  vetoing Kim Dae Jung’s Sunshine policy and rejection of the comprehensive agreement negotiated by former U.S. Secretary of Defense Perry, and the Obama administration’s “benign neglect.” As Perry and the renowned historian Bruce Cumings explain, the purposes of North Korea’s nuclear program are to preserve Kim dynasty and the country’s independence.[xii]

But the diplomacy is fraught. Bolton insists complete North Korean nuclear denuclearization needs to take place within a year, while Pompeo says meaningful progress must be made within two years, and Trump says he is in no hurry.  Kim Jung-un has denounced Pompeo’s “gangster” demands – apparently a rejection of U.S. demands for serious denuclearization steps before the U.S. relaxes sanctions – is now demanding a U.S. commitment to replacing the Armistice with a peace treaty before he makes serious concessions. And, contrary to U.S. expectations of immediate gratification, Dr. Siegfried S. Hecker – former head of Los Alamos and the US physicist with greatest exposure to DPRK nuclear infrastructure has argued that given the size of the North Korea’s infrastructure, its complete destruction could take fifteen years.[xiii]

While some doubt the seriousness of Kim Jung-Un’s denuclearization commitments, Joel Wit, who has played a leading role in US negotiations with the DPRK since 1993, reports that “Everyone underestimates the momentum behind what North Korea is doing. It’s not a charm offensive or a tactical trick.” In 2013, when Obama didn’t have a potential negotiating partner in South Korea, DPRK diplomats informed the US that they would give up nuclear weapons in exchange for end to U.S. hostile approach. They said their build up would be of “limited duration” until better relations with U.S. were possible. And they envisioned three stages in response to the U.S. removing nuclear threat and ending sanctions: a freeze on nuclear weapons development; disabling key facilities & nuclear weapons; and mutual diplomatic recognition.[xiv]

The day following the Singapore summit, I was in Washington with Michelle Cunha and sixty members of the Korea Peace Network from twenty states to meet with Congressional staffers.  We were dismayed by the Democrats who, fearful that the summit would boost Republicans’ chances in the November election arrogantly claimed that Trump had made all of the compromises, gotten nothing in response, and shouldn’t have suspended the joint military exercises.

We urged them to challenge Trump from the left by pressing for more substantive negotiations: putting together the necessary team of experts to conduct serious negotiations, proposing a road map and schedule for successful negotiations, supporting the suspension of the provocative military exercises which should be made permanent, and pressing for an end to Trump’s travel ban and taking other steps to provide humanitarian foundations for peacemaking.

The U.S. Movement

I wish that I could report that we have a massive US movement committed to our government fulfilling its Article VI NPT commitment and to signing and ratifying the Ban Treaty.  But, as you see from the size of the U.S. delegation here, in response to Trump’s fire and fury threats, his nuclear weapons upgrade, and the growing dangers of great power and other wars, there is in fact greater attention to and more actions devoted to reversing the nuclear dangers.

For example, 80 members of Congress have co-sponsored legislation to remove the president’s ability to launch first-strike nuclear war on his own authority and Congressman Kohana has introduced No Preemptive War Against Iran legislation.  One of the country’s most popular television programs ran a chilling episode about the danger of nuclear war resulting from miscalculation. And Daniel Ellsberg has returned to national prominence with his new book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.

Fears about Trump and the bomb are such that we held a no first strike conference at Harvard University with the surreal spectacle of me, a Vietnam era draft resister, chairing a panel featuring the former high priest of U.S. nuclearism William Perry, the former missileer Bruce Blair, and Zia Mian of Princeton University.

In Massachusetts, we have been briefing Congressional primary candidates, a state legislator running for Congress introduced a no first use bill. And, as Michelle will report, we have a campaign of legal and civil disobedience actions challenging the nuclear weapons upgrade at a base near Boston.

In the coming months we will be working to ensure that the nuclear agreement with Iran survives Trump and Bolton as well as doing our best to prevent a regime change war. In the tradition of walking and chewing gum at the same time, while working to oust Trump and his corrupt coterie, we will support diplomacy to extend the New START Treaty, the survival of the INF Treaty, work for deeper cuts in the great powers’ arsenals, and find ways to encourage our partners in the nuclear umbrella states to break ranks with their masters by signing and ratifying the Ban Treaty.

Finally, with democratic culture and institutions in peril, with people of color and immigrants most vulnerable, and with Trump’s economic assaults on the 99%, we know that we must shatter our self-isolating movement silos. In unity there is strength, More, the reality is that root causes of preparations for nuclear annihilation; racist cultures those of domination and injustice; and of the assaults on the environment are deeply and inter-related. Intersectional movement building is thus a priority for us, including opposing funding for new nuclear weapons as well as opposing Trump’s racist anti-immigrant ethnic cleansing. It means insisting that our elected leaders oppose Trumpian austerity and demand that the money be redirected to pay for food stamps, for education and for infrastructure investments and not for empire and its ultimate enforcers – nuclear weapons. Finally, it means listening to others that we can act in solidarity with those who are most immediately in danger.


[i] Joseph Gerson. Empire and the Bomb: How the U.S. Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World, London: Pluto Press,2007, pp. 53-55; Joseph Gerson. With Hiroshima Eyes: Atomic War, Nuclear Extortion and Moral Imagination, Philadelphia. New Society Publishers, 1995, pp 33-36

[ii][ii] Ibid.  p. 41


[iv] Richard Hass.




[viii] Jack Beaty, On Point” National Public Radio, July 20, 2018.


[x] See, among others Joseph Gerson. “Doomsday and the Apocalyptic Trump Nuclear War Fighting Doctrine,” Truthout, January 26, 2018

[xi] Daniel Ellsberg. The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, New 11-17York, Bloomsbury, 2018, pp

[xii] 7