In his Riverside Church speech, Martin Luther King, Jr., reached the crux with these words: "Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, 'Too late'." In his view, with regard to civil rights, U.S. war-making abroad, and a predatory economic system, "we are confronted with the fierce urgency of now." That was in 1967.
Arguably, we have just witnessed a presidential transmission from what might be called the "fierce urgency of whenever" to the "fierce urgency of whatever I think is convenient to claim at the moment." When Obama was still swimming in public euphoria over his rhetoric, he spoke in Prague in 2009 about the nuclear danger, saying we had to get rid of nuclear weapons, but it might take a long time, perhaps until after his lifetime. Considering that about thirty years remained until Obama would reach the average life expectancy for American males, the President was claiming that we could tolerate the nuclear system for more than an additional few decades.
A similar failure of urgency now characterizes the two biggest dangers of our era, which are climate change (still regarded as a hoax by much of one major political party) and the system of mutual nuclear threats. Both situations seem tolerable, climate change because it's thought to be not a disaster in the near future, and nuclear weapons because only a fool would risk effective retaliation.
Here I want to focus on the nuclear danger as our example. For decades, strategic nuclear weapons have been orders of magnitude more destructive than any previous device including the city-destroying Hiroshima bomb. Unless missiles are launched on warning, some silos could be obliterated. Of course only a fool would start a nuclear exchange. However, warning systems have sometimes been proven defective. Political command has on occasion verged on paranoia. Control, systems do not always work right.
It's irresponsible, the assumption or judgment that we can tolerate another period of nuclear danger just because we have so far managed to avoid disaster. Or the assumption that we have no alternative. One exchange would be one more than civilization could tolerate. People used to say defiantly, "better dead than red," which assumes these are the only two alternatives. Are there?
The Fate of the Earth, an eloquent book by Jonathan Schell on nuclear abolition, was published in 1982. At the Reykjavik summit between Gorbachev and Reagan in 1986, nuclear abolition became a diplomatic item, scotched when the U.S. President insisted on the right to develop, outside the lab, defenses against strategic nuclear weapons, a development that was never successful (and is reportedly being revived now). McGeorge Bundy, who had been national security adviser to John Kennedy, said in his book, Danger and Survival (1988), that rational decisions had got us safely through the Cuban missile crisis.
Other men with intimate knowledge of nuclear weapons subsequently declared that we have to get rid of them, as when the Wall Street Journal between 2007 and 2013 published a series of op-eds signed by two ex-secretaries of state (Kissinger, Schultz), an ex-secretary of defense (Perry), and an ex-head of the Senate Arms Service Committee (Nunn). In 2009 the Carnegie Endowment published a book edited by George Perkovich and James M. Acton, in which experts commented on the editors' long paper, "Abolishing Nuclear Weapons," published in the previous year.
In 2010 the Huffington Post published "A Nuclear Secret," based on a conversation in Moscow with a Soviet man who had been at Khrushchev's elbow during the Cuban missile crisis. In 2013 Eric Schlosser produced a startling book called Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety. These are only some highlights.
In terms of understanding, this information was not wholly in vain, but nuclear stockpiles remain huge in the two major Cold War rivals, plus a much lesser number of warheads but huge destructive power deployed by allies of the U.S. such as France, Israel, and the United Kingdom, and in Asia, by China, India, North Korea, and Pakistan. Among nuclear-armed powers, the problem is posed as proliferation, as if those in the "club" can almost be trusted to be accurate, rational, and free of mistakes. However, as a recent article by Schlosser in the New Yorker reminds us, a third world war could start "by mistake." (Except it wouldn't be a war, but a sudden massacre on an unprecedented scale.) The assumption of rational control is a prejudice.
With regard to civil rights, Martin Luther King proclaimed the fierce urgency of now about a century after the Civil War. I recall him speaking from a flat-bed truck on the south side of Chicago in the summer of 1966. When he was assassinated a couple of years later, King was leading a campaign against poverty. Today there is no robust campaign against the nuclear system, only the assumption that we will somehow avoid an "exchange," despite the evidence of near misses. The months go by.
Meanwhile, we have learned about "black swan" events, which cause immense suffering but are said to be vanishingly low in probability. What are examples? In terms of economic crisis, 2008; in terms of the functioning of rockets, the Challenger explosion; in terms of nuclear power, Chernobyl and Fukushima; in terms of military occupation and "national-building," Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq; in terms of control of nuclear weapons, the Damascus "incident" and other moments described by Schlosser. Clearly, all thee things did happen, and the list of "black swans" could be continued.
Unless we find a way of dealing promptly with the nuclear threat, the system cannot be said to be working. Instead, we are hoping. Where is the fierce urgency?