Posts Tagged ‘John F. Kennedy’

Daniel Ellsberg’s The Doomsday Machine

February 6, 2019

In 1961, the philosopher Bertrand Russell said President John F. Kennedy and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, because of their commitment to nuclear weapons, were worse than Adolf Hitler..

“…Macmillan and Kennedy, through misguided ignorance and deliberate blindness, are pursuing policies which are likely to lead to the extermination of the whole human race,” Russell said.  “Hitler set out to exterminate the Jews.  On a purely statistical basis, Macmillan and Kennedy are 50 times as wicked as Hitler.”

I recently got around to reading Daniel Ellsberg’s 2017 book, THE DOOMSDAY MACHINE: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, which indicates that Russell was basically wright.

Kennedy, like Truman and Eisenhower before him and every President since, was willing to threaten nuclear war.  Ellsberg wrote that this not only could have led to the death of virtually the whole human race, but, on Kennedy’s watch, very nearly did.

I remember the 1950s and the 1960s, and the public’s well-founded fear of nuclear war back then.  The fear has gone away, but the danger hasn’t, as Ellsberg made clear..

The book is in two parts.  The first is a personal history of nuclear policy, leading up to the Cuban missile crisis.  The other is a historical look at how American leaders in World War Two came to regard mass killing of civilian populations as morally acceptable, and how no American leader since then has been willing to give it up.

The Eisenhower administration had a war plan called “massive retaliation.”  That meant that in the case of military conflict with either the USSR or China, the U.S. would implement a plan that called for the nuclear bombing of every town in Russia with a population of more than 25,000, and also every large population center in China.

The Air Force, in response to a query by President Kennedy, estimated that this would result in the deaths of 324 million people in China or Russia through blast and radioactive fallout, which is more than died at the hands of Hitler, Stalin and Mao combined.  It estimated that up to an additional 100 million people in Communist ruled nations in eastern Europe, in allied nations in western Europe and also in neutral nations, depending in which way the wind was blowing.

This amounted to more than 600 million people, a quarter of the human race at that time.

But wait.  There’s more.  The Air Force did not attempt to estimate casualties due to fire.  Nuclear bombing would have set off fire storms that would have made World War Two Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo seem like the victims of children playing with matches. Ellsberg wrote that, if you count direct deaths to fire, a nuclear attack on the Communist bloc would have taken the lives of between one third and one half of humanity.  I can’t get my mind around such an enormity.

All of these estimates were based on a successful U.S. first strike that destroyed the Communist countries so completely that their military would not be able to retaliate.  If that didn’t work, there would have been tens of millions or hundreds of millions of American deaths as well.

Later on certain scientists awoke to the possibility of “nuclear winter”.   Firestorms resulting from a nuclear attack would send so much soot and smoke into the upper atmosphere that they would literally blacken the sky.  The dark layer would be above the clouds, so there would be no rain to wash it down.  It would remain for 10 years or more, making it impossible for plants to grow or for most complex life-forms to survive.

So an all-out nuclear attack could literally be a Doomsday Machine.

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Why do African-Americans still honor JFK?

December 23, 2015

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I have long been puzzled by why so many African-American families have portraits of John F. Kennedy in their homes in a place of honor alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.?

President Kennedy was a hesitant and lukewarm supporter of civil rights, which is better than nothing.  If you wanted to honor a white champion of civil rights, why not honor Abraham Lincoln or even Lyndon Johnson?

The historian and writer Vijay Prashad asked this question of an African-American friend and social justice warrior when he was living in Providence, Rhode Island.

Alice Hicks has two pictures on the wall of her living room: portraits of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. [snip]

I remember Alice, even as she struggled with her own health, coming to meetings, sitting down and quietly fulminating about problems, or being on the street at a press conference or demonstration.  She was a pillar of strength. 

Each time I went to pick her up at a meeting, and as I waited for her to get her things or to get me something to drink (which was part of her obligatory kindness), I stared at the portraits.

One day, casually, I asked her why she had a picture of JFK on the wall.  I could understand the King picture, but not that of a man who had not given King and his movement the kind of support necessary.  And besides, I said, it was LBJ who pushed Congress to pass the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.

She smiled at me, ready to indulge my impertinence.  “Of course President Johnson did those things.  And those acts were important.  But were they enough?  What did they get us?  This … ”   Her weak arms opened expansively to encompass not only her living room but her neighborhood, her world.

“President Johnson gave us something.  I accept that.  But it was Dr. King and President Kennedy who allowed us to dream.  President Johnson’s real gift was not even a pale shadow of those dreams.”  [snip]

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Fear of showing weakness is itself a weakness

October 17, 2014

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Why is President Obama arming proxy armies in Syria to fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Assad government, despite warnings from his advisers that such policies have not worked in the past?

I think he is following in the footsteps of American presidents for the past 50 years, who have waged war and sponsored covert operations not to protect the American people and not in all cases to further the interests of U.S.-based corporations, but to avoid the appearance of seeming week.

Take the Vietnam Conflict.  Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson are now known to have had misgivings about military intervention in Vietnam.  What they feared was the effect on American prestige of suffering a defeat, and the effect on their own popularity of having “lost” a country to Communism.

When Richard M. Nixon was became President in 1969, he inherited the Vietnam War, he was not responsible for the hopeless situation, yet he kept on fighting nevertheless.  What was wanted, according to Henry Kissinger, was to save the USA and the Nixon administration from humiliation by having a “decent interval” between the withdrawal of the last American troops and the triumph of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese.

Our country would have been better off if Presidents Kennedy and Johnson had never committed the United States to defending South Vietnam, or if President Nixon had wound up the war quickly.  Our nation would not have been so divided, our military would not have been demoralized and our leaders would not have been preoccupied for the next 40 years with wiping out the humiliation of that defeat.

Or take the 35-year cold war waged by the United States against Iran.  I see no inherent conflict of interest between the governments of Iran and the United States.  In fact, Iran and the USA share common enemies in Al Qaeda and its successor, the Islamic State (ISIS).  But for the United States to reconcile with Iran would seem weak, after the humiliation suffered by the taking of U.S. embassy personnel as hostages by Iranian radicals in 1979.  It is that, more than any public interest or business interest, that prevents the United States from seeking peace with Iran.

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‘…will make violent revolution inevitable’

August 23, 2013

President John F. Kennedy famously said in 1962: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” His words, if not his actions, were wise and inspiring, and I thought of them in connection with the Arab Spring and the Egyptian coup.

Thousands and thousands of Egyptians conducted peaceful—relatively peaceful—demonstrations in order to replace the dictatorship of President Mubarak with a democratically elected government.

The result has been set aside by the Egyptian military, which receives more than $1 billion a year from the U.S. government to buy military equipment which has been used mainly against Egypt’s own people.   In return the U.S. Air Force gets to use Egyptian air space and the Navy gets to use the Suez Canal.

If the U.S. government were genuinely interested in promoting democracy and helping the Egyptian people, and winning their good will, we would spend $1 billion a year to help Egypt pay down its external debt and to import food and the other necessities.

Instead we have empowered General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the leader of the Egyptian military, to make peaceful revolution impossible and violent revolution inevitable.

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What liberalism ought to be

February 17, 2012


Fundamentally liberalism is an attitude.  The chief characteristics of that attitude are human sympathy, a receptivity to change and a scientific willingness to follow reason rather than faith or any fixed ideas.
    ==Chester Bowles

***

This, perhaps, is the testament of Liberalism.  For underlying all the specific projects which men espouse who think of themselves as Liberals there is always, it seems to me, a deeper concern.  It is fixed upon the importance of remaining free in mind and action before changing circumstances.
This is why Liberalism has always been associated with a passionate interest in freedom of thought and freedom of speech, in scientific research, in experiment, in the liberty of teaching, in an independent and unbiased press, in the right of men to differ in their opinions and to be different in their conduct …
    ==Walter Lippmann

***
The essence of the Liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held, but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment.  This is the way opinions are held in science, as opposed to the way they are held in theology.
    ==Bertrand Russell

***

What do I understand by the Liberal principle?  I understand, in the main, it is a principle of trust in the people only qualified by prudence.  By this principle which is opposed to the Liberal principle, I understand mistrust of the people, only qualified by fear.
    ==William E. Gladstone