Should Limiting North Korea’s Nuclear Ambitions Be the Responsibility of the U.S. Government?

By Lawrence Wittner

(This article was originally published on History News Network)

In recent months, advances in the North Korean government’s nuclear weapons program have led to a sharp confrontation between the government leaders of the United States and of North Korea.  This August, President Donald Trump declared that any more threats from North Korea “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”  In turn, Kim Jong Un remarked that he was now contemplating firing nuclear missiles at the U.S. territory of Guam.  Heightening the dispute, Trump told the United Nations in mid-September that, if the United States was forced to defend itself or its allies, “we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”  Soon thereafter, Trump embellished this with a tweet declaring that North Korea “won’t be around much longer.”

From the standpoint of heading off nuclear weapons advances by the North Korean regime, this belligerent approach by the U.S. government has shown no signs of success.  Every taunt by U.S. officials has drawn a derisive reply from their North Korean counterparts.  Indeed, when it comes to nuclear weapons policy, escalating U.S. threats seem to have confirmed the North Korean government’s fears of U.S. military attack and, thus, bolstered its determination to enhance its nuclear capabilities.  In short, threatening North Korea with destruction has been remarkably counter-productive.

But, leaving aside the wisdom of U.S. policy, why is the U.S. government playing a leading role in this situation at all?  The charter of the United Nations, signed by the United States, declares in Article 1 that the United Nations has the responsibility “to maintain international peace and security” and, to that end, is “to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace.”  Not only does the UN charter not grant authority to the United States or any other nation to serve as the guardian of the world, but it declares, in Article 2, that “all members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”  It’s pretty clear that both the U.S. and North Korean governments are violating that injunction.

Moreover, the United Nations is already involved in efforts to limit North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.  The UN Security Council has not only condemned  the behavior of the North Korean government on numerous occasions, but has imposed stiff economic sanctions upon it.

Will further UN action have any more success in dealing with North Korea than the Trump policy has had?  Perhaps not, but at least the United Nations would not begin by threatening to incinerate North Korea’s 25 million people.  Instead, to ease the tense United States-North Korea standoff, the United Nations might offer to serve as a mediator in negotiations.  In such negotiations, it could suggest that, in exchange for a halt to the North Korean nuclear weapons program, the United States agree to a peace treaty ending the Korean War of the 1950s and halt U.S. military exercises on North Korea’s borders.  Giving way to a UN-brokered compromise rather than to U.S. nuclear blackmail might well be appealing to the North Korean government.  Meanwhile, the United Nations could keep moving forward with its Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons―a measure both Kim and Trump despise (and might, in their opposition to it, even bring them closer together), but is very appealing to most other countries.

Critics, of course, say that the United Nations is too weak to deal with North Korea or other nations that ignore the will of the world community.  And they are not entirely incorrect.  Although UN pronouncements and decisions are almost invariably praiseworthy, they are often rendered ineffective by the absence of UN resources and power to enforce them.

But the critics do not follow the logic of their own argument for, if the United Nations is too weak to play a completely satisfactory role in maintaining international peace and security, then the solution is to strengthen it.  After all, the answer to international lawlessness is not vigilante action by individual nations but, rather, the strengthening of international law and law enforcement.  In the aftermath of the vast chaos and destruction of World War II, that’s what the nations of the world claimed they wanted when, in late 1945, they established the United Nations.

Unfortunately, however, as the years passed, the great powers largely abandoned a United Nations-centered strategy based on collective action and world law for the old-fashioned exercise of their own military muscle.  Unwilling to accept limits on their national power in world affairs, they and their imitators began engaging in arms races and wars.  The current nightmarish nuclear confrontation between the North Korean and U.S. governments is only the latest example of this phenomenon.

Of course, it’s not too late to finally recognize that, in a world bristling with nuclear weapons, savage wars, accelerating climate change, rapidly-depleting resources, and growing economic inequality, we need a global entity to take the necessary actions for which no single nation has sufficient legitimacy, power, or resources.  And that entity is clearly a strengthened United Nations.  To leave the world’s future in the hands of nationalist blowhards or even prudent practitioners of traditional national statecraft will simply continue the drift toward catastrophe.

Dr. Lawrence Wittner (http://www.lawrenceswittner.com) is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press).

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BURNS AND NOVICK, MASTERS OF FALSE BALANCING

By Jerry Lembcke

This article was originally published on Public Books.

When Karl Marlantes takes the screen during the new PBS film series The Vietnam War, he says coming home was nearly as traumatic as the war itself. Later, he describes being assaulted by protesters at the airport, invoking the image of spat-on Vietnam veterans, an image that Los Angeles Times editorial writer Michael McGough said in 2012 was based on a myth. An edifying myth, McGough called it, but still a myth.

With The Vietnam War, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have created a film that rehashes some old, tired tropes. In doing so, they distort what soldiers, veterans, and antiwar activists alike know about the war and its aftermath, especially inside the United States.

In their May 29 New York Times op-ed advertisement for the series, Burns and Novick give a lofty rationale for their film. Succumbing to another cliché, they claim it is about healing. But the discourse of healing misleads as much as it informs, presupposing a prewar America that was a seamless unity, where everyone got along. As sociologist Keith Beattie showed in his 1998 book The Scar That Binds: American Culture and the Vietnam War, that America was mythical. The real one was already torn by racism and McCarthyism, and frayed by modern technology. Domestic class conflict and racial and gender anxieties, too, continued right through the war, as the historian Milton Bates pointed out in his 1996 book The Wars We Took to Vietnam.

That fractured America was complicit in its going to war, not simply a passive victim of it. Burns and Novick intentionally exclude scholars like Beattie and Bates, however. “No historians or other expert talking heads” mar their film, they told the Times’s reviewer Jennifer Schuessler. “Instead,” Schuessler reports matter-of-factly, their “79 onscreen interviews give the ground-up view of the war from the mostly ordinary people who lived through it.”

Ground-up views are susceptible, especially after 40 years, to the very myths they are supposed to belie. Memories that are 40 years old are too influenced by movies, novels, newspapers, and television—or those dreaded historians—to count for documentation. Lawyers, judges, and courts concluded years ago that eyewitness accounts of crimes that are only hours old are unreliable—so, 40 years? Or 50? In the hands of filmmakers, however, such accounts are too easily and too often used as a veneer to manage viewer perceptions.1 Here Burns and Novick offer false equivalences, or “balance” in journalistic parlance. In promoting healing instead of the search for truth, The Vietnam War offers misleading comforts.

The contradictions of The Vietnam War pile up from the start. Its creators might claim a ground-up view—and the film does give us lot of grunt-level footage, like Marines in rice paddies and GIs jumping out of helicopters—but the prevailing interpretations of these scenes come from elites. Some of these notables would be better cast into confessional booths than onto PBS screens, too. For example, John Negroponte, a prominent interpreter in the film, used diplomatic appointments as cover for covert activities over a half-century of US-engineered (or –attempted) regime-change operations.

Just over 30 years old when he began his Vietnam assignment, Negroponte developed a reputation as a “hardliner” in negotiations to end the war in Vietnam, once breaking with his superior officer Henry Kissinger for making too many concessions to communist North Vietnam. Later in his life, he took lessons from Vietnam to America’s adventures across the world. As ambassador to Honduras between 1981 and 1985, Negroponte built the small and friendly nation into a bustling military platform for cross-border operations against the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua; when popular opposition to the US military presence in Honduras arose, he enabled and covered for the murderous death squads of General Gustavo Álvarez Martínez, a graduate of the US Army School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia. As a delegate to the United Nations in the early 2000s, he helped sell the invasion of Iraq on the false claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Once characterized by journalist Stephen Kinzer as “a great fabulist,” Negroponte’s prominence in The Vietnam War will have viewers of many political stripes scratching their heads.

A historical documentary in search of consensus, The Vietnam War indulges in Cold War common sense. It pits East against West and the United States against Communism. It could have been made in the 1980s. More recent scholarship might have provided a fresher frame and more comprehensive account of the war. For instance, Gareth Porter, in his 2005 Perils of Dominance, argues that the US stepped into a swamp of local-level conflicts, where East-West ideological tensions were largely irrelevant. Philip Catton’s 2002 Diem’s Final Failure and Philip Taylor’s 2001 Fragments of the Present put peasant-landlord conflicts characteristic of Vietnam’s disintegrating feudal system on the research agenda. Had they brought to life this new thinking about the war, Burns and Novick would have made a more enduring contribution.

Instead, The Vietnam War gives us a throwback to the days when fighting the Communist bogeyman justified all manner of US military intervention. The film is organized around a drumbeat of the Communists did this, the Communists did that—Communist aggression, Communist assassinations, Communists kill their enemy wounded. A former Vietnamese officer describes a 1970 battle as setting the “good” Vietnamese against “the worst of the Vietnamese … the Communists.”

Antiwar activists, anxious about how the movement is treated, will be among the most eager viewers of The Vietnam War, but they will find only cool acknowledgment and some common misrepresentations. War opponent Bill Zimmerman provides one of the most thoughtful and sincere interviews in the film; war veteran W. D. Ehrhart, now a well-published poet, mans up with a touching recollection of his participation in an atrocity; veteran and author Tim O’Brien talks about his own “failure of nerve” when faced with the option of resisting the military, reads from his 1990 novel The Things They Carried, and slams the legal proceedings that allowed the My Lai murderers to go unpunished.

We get the inspiring story of Jack Todd, who dutifully followed other men in his family into the army but later deserts from Fort Lewis, Washington, and goes to Canada; and of Valerie Kushner, who comes out against the war and endorses peace candidate George McGovern for president while her husband, Hal, is still held as a POW in Hanoi. But if you think these paeans to the peacemakers put Marlantes’s betrayal fantasies behind us, think again.

Burns and Novick are the masters of false balancing, the technique of countering one story line with another to create the impression of objective evenhandedness. The same good-guy, bad-guy lens through which the war was viewed also filtered perceptions of the antiwar movement at home. Jack Todd is one of 30,000 Americans who deserted to Canada but, we are reassured, 30,000 Canadians volunteered to go to Vietnam. Never mind that, by other estimates, over 100,000 Americans are estimated to have gone to Canada during the war. The first figure apparently called for such dubious balancing because, as we later learn, Todd regrets having renounced his US citizenship.

The one-dimensional picture of draft resisters in Canada that the film paints would have become fuller and more nuanced had the filmmakers consulted John Hagen’s 2001 book Northern Passage: American War Resisters in Canada. In it, Hagen shows that group to be full of highly creative and capable young men, most of them model citizens in Canada, recognized for their contributions to education, politics, and the arts. We have to wonder, though, if the clarity of scholarship might have conflicted with the message Burns and Novick wanted to send.

Valerie Kushner appears to be a strong and principled fighter for peace—a challenging image to “balance.” But Burns and Novick are up to the task of turning her resistance inside out. They assert, with no supporting evidence, that Kushner was “exploited” by the North Vietnamese, and take at face value the claim of husband Hal, returning from captivity, to have been shocked at the sight of American girls in miniskirts.When the couple’s marriage dissolves, Valerie Kushner comes out looking, well, not so good.

This is how mythmaking works. The film goes directly from the Valerie Kushner story to “Hanoi Jane,” to, er … the opening scene of the 1968’s Barbarella, where we see Jane Fonda as the underdressed namesake of the film. This clumsy invocation of the femme fatales of wartime perfidy running across the millennia—from Lysistrata to Malinche, Mata Hari to Tokyo Rose—if the reminder is needed, helps build the gendered narrative of the war being lost to home front weakness, our POWs forsaken and forgotten, and troops returning from Vietnam scorned by protesters, and spat on by girls.

Some veteran protesters receive better treatment in the film, including those associated with Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The group’s 1971 medal-turn-in ceremony is treated well, but Andrew Hunt’s 1999 The Turning: A History of Vietnam Veterans Against the War would have provided documentation, as would have the testimony of founders like Jan Barry or leaders like Barry Romo, who went to Hanoi with a peace delegation in 1972. Donald Duncan, the Green Beret who “quit” the Army in protest of the war in 1965, inspiring many others to do the same, is missing from the story, and that’s a shame.

By the end of the film, even the glimpses we’ve been given of veterans politicized and empowered by their time in Vietnam are overridden by victim veteran imagery—itself a stand-in for the America that was wounded and left traumatized by the war. The Vietnam War echoes Jimmy Carter’s “mutual destruction” thesis that Vietnam and the United States were equally damaged by the conflict, and its final scenes leave little doubt that the injury to America was inflicted by its own people, not the Vietnamese. With “The Wall” as backdrop, we hear “Bridge over Troubled Water” and Columbia University student activist, now housing lawyer, Nancy Biberman’s repentance for calling veterans “baby killers”—another trope attributed to the antiwar movement for which there is no supporting evidence.

Stories that Vietnam veterans were called “baby killers” are now as common as the spitting stories. They seem to fill some need for the people who tell and believe them. Perhaps it is a need for conformity to the now-dominant narratives about the war and those who opposed it, or guilt that the war was fought by those less privileged than those who fought against it. Whatever the reason, the stories keep alive the idea that the war could have been won if home front support had not wavered—and that wars like it can be won in the future if We the People stay loyal to the mission.

  1. For a masterful classic book that employs interviews, see Christian Appy’s Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides (Viking, 2003).
  2. Such claims contributed to the myth that POWs were kept isolated and psychologically fixed in a (mythical) prewar innocence that was then shattered when they returned home. In fact, most of the POWs were shot down after miniskirts had become fashionable; and even while they were captives, the North Vietnamese made American news magazines available to them.

Featured Image: Operation “Yellowstone” Vietnam: Following a hard day, a few members of Company “A,” 3rd Battalion, 22nd Infantry (Mechanized), 25th Infantry Division, gather around a guitar player and sing a few songs (January 18, 1968) (detail). National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD

Playing Nuclear “Chicken” With Our Lives

by Lawrence Wittner

What kind of civilization have we developed when two mentally unstable national leaders, in an escalating confrontation with each other, threaten one another―and the world―with nuclear war?

That question arises as a potentially violent showdown emerges between Kim Jong Un of North Korea and Donald Trump of the United States.  In recent years, the North Korean government has produced about 10 nuclear weapons and has been making them increasingly operational through improvements in its missile technology.  The U.S. government first developed nuclear weapons in 1945, when it employed them to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and currently possesses 6,800 of them, mostly deployed on missiles, submarines, and bombers.

According to the North Korean government, its nuclear weapons are necessary to defend itself against the United States.  Similarity, the U.S. government argues that its nuclear weapons are necessary to defend itself against countries like North Korea.

Although, in recent decades, we have grown accustomed to this government rhetoric about the necessity to possess nuclear weapons as a deterrent, what is particularly chilling about the current confrontation is that Kim and Trump do not appear deterred at all.  Quite the contrary, they brazenly threaten nuclear war in an extremely provocative fashion.  Responding on August 8 to North Korean threats, Trump publicly warned that North Korea “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”  Later that day, North Korea’s state media announced that its government was considering a strategy of striking the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam with mid- to long-range nuclear missiles―a strategy that a spokesman for the Korean People’s Army said would be “put into practice” once Kim authorized it.

This kind of reckless and potentially suicidal behavior is reminiscent of the game of “Chicken,” which achieved notoriety in the 1950s.  In the film Rebel Without a Cause (1955), two rebellious, antisocial male teenagers (or juvenile delinquents, as they were known at the time) played the game before a crowd of onlookers by driving jalopies at top speed toward a cliff.  Whoever jumped out of the cars first was revealed as “chicken” (a coward).  A more popular variant of the game involved two teenagers driving their cars at high speed toward one another, with the first to swerve out of the way drawing the derisive label.  According to some accounts, young James Dean, a star of Rebel Without a Cause, actually died much this way.

With news of the game spreading, Bertrand Russell, the great mathematician and philosopher, suggested in 1959 that the two sides in the Cold War were engaged in an even crazier version:  nuclear “Chicken.”  He wrote:  “As played by irresponsible boys, this game is considered decadent and immoral, though only the lives of the players are risked.”  But the game became “incredibly dangerous” and “absurd” when it was played by government officials “who risk not only their own lives but those of many hundreds of millions of human beings.”  Russell warned that “the moment will come when neither side can face the derisive cry of `Chicken!’ from the other side.”  When that moment arrived, “the statesmen of both sides will plunge the world into destruction.”

It was a fair enough warning, and only several years later, during the Cuban missile crisis, the game of nuclear “Chicken” played by Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy could have resulted in a disastrous nuclear war.  However, at the last minute, both men backed off―or, perhaps we should say, swerved to avoid a head-on collision―and the crisis was resolved peacefully through a secret compromise agreement.

In the current situation, there’s plenty of room for compromise between the U.S. and North Korean governments.  The Pyongyang regime has offered to negotiate and has shown particular interest in a peace treaty ending the Korean War of the 1950s and U.S. military exercises near its borders.  Above all, it seems anxious to avoid regime change by the United States.  The U.S. government, in turn, has long been anxious to halt the North Korean nuclear program and to defend South Korea against attack from the north.  Reasonable governments should be able to settle this dispute short of nuclear war.

But are the two governments headed by reasonable men?  Both Kim and Trump appear psychologically disturbed, erratic, and startlingly immature―much like the juvenile delinquents once associated with the game of “Chicken.”  Let us hope, though, that with enough public resistance and some residual sanity, they will back away from the brink and begin to resolve their differences peacefully.  That’s certainly possible.

Even if the current confrontation eases, though, we are left with a world in which some 15,000 nuclear weapons exist and with numerous people who, in the future, might not scruple about using them.  And so the fundamental problem continues:  As long as nuclear weapons exist, we teeter on the edge of catastrophe

Fortunately, this past July, in an historic development, the vast majority of the world’s nations voted at a UN conference to approve a treaty banning nuclear weapons.  Nations will begin the process of signing onto the treaty this September.  Although, sadly, all of the nuclear powers (including the United States and North Korea) oppose the treaty, it’s long past time for nuclear weapons to be prohibited and eliminated.  Until they are, government officials will remain free to play nuclear “Chicken” with their lives . . . and with ours.

Dr. Lawrence Wittner (http://www.lawrenceswittner.com) is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany.  He is the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press). This article was originally published on History News Network.

Hot Off the Presses: The International Peace and Development Training Centre Schedule of Programs for Late 2017-2018

The International Peace and Development Training Centre (IPDTC) is launching our calendar of training programs for the second half of 2017 and 2018. Trainings in 2017 include a series of Advanced Certificate Programs at the IPDTC Global Academy in Cluj-Napoca, and Executive Leadership and Intensive Core Skills Trainings in London.  

In October of this year we are hosting the two Advanced Certificate Programs:  Making Prevention, Early Warning & Peacebuilding Effective: Lessons Learned, What Works in the Field and Core Skills; and Designing Peacebuilding Programs: Improving the Quality, Impact and Effectiveness of Peacebuilding and Peace Support.

We have provided customized programs for UN Missions and Agencies all over the world, as well as for governments, negotiating parties, intergovernmental organizations, and local, national and international organizations working in peacebuilding, violence prevention, social cohesion, and post-war stabilization, recovery and peace consolidation. 

There is a reduction of -15% if three or more members of an agency / organization register. For more information see www.patrir.ro/training or email training@patrir.ro

 Claire Payne, IPDTC Coordinator

Teaching and Living Totalitarianism in a World Heritage Site

by Ayanna Yonemura

On Saturday, July 8, the United Nations’ cultural agency, UNESCO, added Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, to its list of World Heritage sites. Despite the wars that have plagued Eritrea’s short history, Asmara’s modernist and art deco architecture remain amazingly well-preserved. For six months in 2002, from the moment I woke up, during my walks through town to teach at the University of Asmara and while I ran errands on its main avenue, Asmara’s architecture dazzled me. However much I admire it though, this extraordinary aesthetic beauty doesn’t prevent me from thinking of my Fulbright months in Eritrea as my time of teaching and living totalitarianism.

Living in the Italian totalitarian era-constructed environment added a bizarre twist to my surreal and disturbing experience of Eritrea’s totalitarian political environment. Teaching about Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin’s regimes as part of a modern world history course was part of my unplanned participant observation of living under a totalitarian regime; as was lodging for four months in a government-owned hotel, the Emba Soira. Experts describe much of Asmara’s notable architecture with words like “futurist” and “bold” and, while the hotel hasn’t garnered the same amount of attention, they would be similarly impressed with the Emba Soira’s interior.

The hotel interior’s main feature is streamlined, light, wood furniture coordinated in every room throughout the hotel from the restaurant, lobby and bar on the main floor to the two stories of guest rooms. Pastel-trimmed Italian linens and modern light fixtures gently accent the furniture. Visually, it was like living in a dream. While the phones were tapped, at least the hotel staff let me know if I had gotten phone messages—a courtesy I did not enjoy when I rented an apartment and shared a phone line with my landlady.

Located on the Horn of Africa and with a lengthy Red Sea coastline, Eritrea is the world’s third youngest country after East Timor and South Sudan, and government officials have spent many years of the nation’s short history lobbying UNESCO for Asmara’s World Heritage site status. Italian architects and Eritrean laborers built most of Asmara’s remarkable architecture in the 1930s during Italy’s totalitarian years under Mussolini (1922-1943) and while Eritrea was an Italian colony, 1889-1941. Italy lost Eritrea in WWII.

After Ethiopia annexed Eritrea in 1962, Eritrean guerrilla fighters waged a thirty years war for independence that ended in 1991 when they defeated Ethiopian forces. In 1998, Eritrea fought a border war against Ethiopia. I set off for the Fulbright on New Year’s Eve of 2001, a year after this latest war’s ceasefire, having postponed my original departure date after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001.

I had postponed my trip, because while most of the world focused on New York in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Eritrea’s President Afewerki seized the opportunity to crackdown internally. Students of the University of Asmara, his nation’s only university, were among the groups whom he targeted. The university students spent several months under armed guard in an Eritrean desert, literally one of the hottest places on earth, doing forced labor. Teaching at the university was a condition of receiving a Fulbright in Eritrea, and I had looked forward to it. I delayed my departure until the President released the students.

Once I reported at the University of Asmara, I was given the assignment of teaching modern world history to former guerrilla fighters who were, then, government employees at the Ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs. I knew that my students could quickly report every word I said during lectures to the authorities. Following my predecessor’s syllabus as the department chair had instructed, we spent weeks on the German and Italian totalitarian governments of the 1930s. As I lectured about these historical European regimes, I could not help but think of that I was living in a very similar moment. While I described the characteristics of totalitarianism, the parallel examples of Eritrea immediately came to mind. Each time I mentioned “totalitarianism,” I preceded it with “German” “Italian” or “European” making an effort to implicitly but, consistently, stress that I wasn’t talking about Eritrea. I’m sure that at least some my students made the connection but, of course, we never discussed it or anything that was happening in Eritrea.

 

Eritrea Pics 2002
The author (center) with Dr. Gordon Sato (right), the founder of a non-profit dedicated to aiding Eritreans, and one of Sato’s staff members (left) along the Eritrean coast of the Red Sea.

 

Having been a German Studies major as an undergraduate, East Germany was my only reference point for navigating Eritrea. I had learned about its secret police and its state-controlled economy and propaganda through East German literature and some day trips into East Germany, but my studies were limited. As an American who had grown up in West Germany and California, my understanding of anything like a police state was superficial. Still, that limited knowledge gave me some context, some framework, for understanding when the Eritrean government banned Ethiopian music, listened to my phone calls, and I strongly suspect, sent a spy to chat with me at a cafe. Even in friends’ homes and cars, we whispered any unflattering comments we were brave enough to make about the president. I even averted my eyes the time I had to walk right by him to get to the restroom at a restaurant.

My research agenda suffered. The paranoia of librarians kept me out of the main archive for most of my stay and, trained to take copious ethnographic notes, I wrote down almost nothing, aware that government agents had showed up at the home of a previous foreign researcher and confiscated her notes. My notes, in the wrong hands, could lead to the imprisonment or death of Eritrean friends or colleagues. A U.S. security officer had warned me, “Perception is reality.”

For years, fear for friends and colleagues prevented me for publishing anything about Eritrea. Now, it seems that almost every Eritrean I know has escaped. My graduate school buddies successfully sought political asylum long ago and recently, while living in Kenya, I met young Eritreans whose affluent parents had bought their escape and bribed their way into Kenya. Still, during their flights, they were beaten up. In Kenya, they ran businesses but had no legal rights to own a business as they didn’t have legal papers to live or work there.

Since its people voted for Independence in a 1993 referendum, Eritrea has been a one party state and has had the same president, President Afwerki. In 2015, the UN accused the Eritrean government of pushing its people to migrate in order to flee human rights abuses yet also punishing those who try to leave the country without government permission. Then as now, Eritrea is high among the countries of origin for people applying for political asylum in Europe, in the US and, even more so, in East African nations like Ethiopia. Eritreans also make up a disproportionate amount of the African refugees crossing the Mediterranean and in many European camps.

“Cynical political travesty” is how the Eritrea government characterized the 2015 UN report. In 2016, the UN released another report on Eritrean human rights violations to which a New York Time’s opinion piece responded with, “. . .things aren’t as bad as the report claims.” In June 2017, Newsweek published an article on Eritrea called “Africa’s North Korea” citing the Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index.

The UNESCO decision to place Asmara on the World Heritage list is rare positive publicity for the Eritrean government, which responded with a celebratory press release. I doubt if anyone who has been to Asmara would argue about its incredible beauty. Recalling it, I feel in awe of how architecture and design can lift the human spirit, but my strongest memories are of living and teaching totalitarianism.

Ayanna Yonemura holds a Ph.D. in Urban Planning, a M.A. in African Studies and a B.A. in German Studies from the University of California. She has been honored with two Fulbright Fellowships and a Civil Liberties Public Education Fund National Fellowship. Currently, she teaches Ethnic Studies at California State University Sacramento.

Nebraskans and “The Ribbon” for Peace

by Megan Brookhouser

August 4, 1985 was an unremarkable date for many Americans. A normal summer day in the nation’s capital, in other words, scorching hot. However, amid the heat, some 15,000 men, women, and children created a 15-mile chain of banners threading through the tourists and politicians going about their day. The members of the chain knew the significance of the date, for it was the 40th anniversary of the United States dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With it, destroying thousands of civilian lives, decimating entire cities, and wiping away the natural beauty of the land. An event should never have happened, and should never be repeated. That is what these peaceful protesters were advocating through their contributions of time, money, and, most importantly, fabric to the grassroots project simply entitled, “The Ribbon.”

The brainchild of a Colorado grandmother, Justine Merritt, The Ribbon was meant to send a message of peace in an era brimming with the constant threat of violence. Several years before the actual event, Merritt mailed letters to 100 of her closest friends. The pamphlets explained her idea for a nationwide demonstration of peace. She asked each individual to create an 18 x 36-inch banner depicting the things that each person could not “bear to think of as lost forever in a nuclear war.” Each banner was to include small ribbons sewn to all four corners in order to tie the finished products together. Merritt hoped to receive enough banners to surround the entire Pentagon. The mission spread rapidly throughout the nation.

 

History-1
The Ribbon’s organizer, Justine Merritt

 

The idea was especially popular with women’s religious groups. It utilized a stereotype in a productive way, giving old church ladies a purpose for their sewing circles. Bible schools, religious orders, and community organizations joined the cause, creating unique banners through every artistic medium imaginable. Dedicated women created intricate images of needlework. School children painted watercolor landscapes. Each banner contributed a new perspective on the beauty of the world.

As the project grew in popularity, it gained structure. State chairmen were appointed to recruit new participants and collect all the banners at the appropriate time. Rev. Sharee Kelly, a pastor from Loup City, took on the position of Nebraska’s state chairman. With her help, Nebraska contributed an impressive 350 banners to the demonstration in Washington D.C. With the slogan “sew to speak,” Kelly garnered support all across the state. She hosted a Ribbon Dedication Ceremony on July 21, 1985 at St. Josaphat’s Catholic Church in Loup City, NE. Following the dedication, the banners traveled to Lincoln, NE for a state-wide peace demonstration and Ribbon Ceremony on July 24. Governor Bob Kerry presided over the event, contributing his own banner to the chain with the handwritten quote, “We cannot make peace with or as machines.” As the ribbon surrounded the state capitol, Kerry proclaimed August 4th National Peace Day. The next stop for Nebraska’s banners was the nation’s capital.

 

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Nebraska’s chairman, Rev. Sharee Kelly of Loup City, NE

 

Around forty-two Nebraskans make the trip to Washington D.C. for the culminating ribbon ceremony. Local churches volunteered to host out-of-town participants and Nebraskans were generously taken in by Calvary Baptist Church. On August 3, all the project’s participants gathered for a religious service at the National Cathedral. The non-denominational service featured two guests of honor: Fumimaro Maruoka of Hiroshima and Teru Morrimoto of Nagasaki. They spoke of their experiences as survivors of the bombings and of their hope for a peaceful future. Their moving testimonies stayed in the participants’ minds that next day as they prepared for the long-awaited demonstration.

The demonstration was an international effort. The ribbon included banners from twenty different countries, including a 130-foot long section sent from the Soviet Union. It took about 3 hours for the 25,500 panels to be tied together. They stretched for 15 miles. Far exceeding Justine Merritt’s expectations, the ribbon strung from the west steps of the Capitol, to the Lincoln Memorial, and around the Pentagon. The impressive display stopped traffic for several minutes as it crossed the Potomac. Nebraska’s banners generally hovered around the Lincoln Memorial. When the final banner, Justine Merritt’s own, successfully connected the ribbon, balloons were released from the steps of the memorial.

 

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Map of The Ribbon’s route published in The Washington Post

 

The Ribbon effort deserves more recognition than it has received. Few people today even know of the event. However, in a time of protests for gender equality and peaceful law enforcement, The Ribbon is unbelievably relevant. These elderly church ladies used their talents and their stereotypes to their advantage. They created an amazing display of international solidarity and exhibited the power of a peaceful demonstration. The program for the National Ribbon Ceremony included a quote from Albert Einstein, saying, “We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.” While this is true for many reasons, I believe that recognizing and remembering the significance of a date like August 4, 1985 is a good starting point for this new manner of thought.

The Nebraska ribbons are cataloged at the Nebraska State Historical Society.

Remembering the U.S. Entry into World War I

The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict.” These are the first words of British historian John Keegan in his book The First World War.” In a war that lasted over 4 years, 1914-1918, 10 million died, 20 million were injured, and 50 million died of Spanish flu, incubated and made worse by war time conditions.

Today a 100 years ago on April 6, 1917 the USA entered World War I. It is a fateful day in human and American history. It was not the war to end all wars that President Wilson promised. World War II followed WWI, then came the Cold War. The map of the Middle East was redrawn in and after WWI and is a cause of grave difficulties today in Iraq and Palestine/Israel for example.

Our World War I Muted Voices Symposium, October 19-22, 2017, will remember those who resisted, dissented, and conscientiously objected to the Great War. The Symposium is being held at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City.

We have had over 80 paper proposals from the USA and internationally – a wonderful response. Proposers will be hearing by June whether their submission has been accepted. Also attached is an advert that you are welcome to use with your constituency.

Our keynote speakers will challenge. Our panels will inform. The gathering company of scholars, activists, and those just interested, will be rich and encouraging.

Registration is now open. Go to: theworldwar.org/mutedvoices for registration and the conference program. Early Bird registration discount ends September 8. Information on hotels and transportation is also available with registration.

We look forward to joining with you at this event.

Sincerely

Andrew Bolton

Should We Keep Wasting Money on Missile Defense―or Invest in Something Useful?

By Lawrence Wittner

When Americans criticize wasteful government spending, they often fail to realize that the biggest sinkhole for public funds is what’s described as “national defense”―a program that, all too often, does little or nothing to defend them.

Take national missile defense, a program begun with much fanfare during the mid-1980s, when President Ronald Reagan realized that U.S. nuclear weapons could not prevent a nuclear attack upon the United States. According to the President, his Strategic Defense Initiative (lampooned as “Star Wars” by Senator Edward Kennedy) would safeguard Americans by developing a space-based anti-missile system to destroy incoming nuclear missiles. Most scientists doubted its technical feasibility, comparing it to using one speeding bullet to destroy another speeding bullet. Critics also pointed out that development of such a system would simply end up encouraging hostile nations to build more missiles to overwhelm it or, if they wanted to avoid the additional cost, to use decoys to confuse it. In addition, it would create a false sense of security.

Although “Star Wars” was never built, the fantastic dream of a missile shield took hold in Congress, which began to pour billions of dollars into variants of this program. And, today, more than thirty years later, the United States still lacks an effective missile defense system. The U.S. government, however, ignoring this dismal record, continues to lavish vast resources on this unworkable program, which has already cost American taxpayers over $180 billion.

One of the major components of the missile defense program is the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system. Better known as GMD, it is designed to use ground-based “kill-vehicles” to destroy incoming nuclear missiles by colliding with them. In 2004, before any indication that GMD would work, President George W. Bush ordered the deployment of its interceptors. Today, there are four located at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base and 26 at Ft. Greely, Alaska, and the Obama administration has given orders to increase the total to 44 by the end of 2017. The GMD cost thus far is $40 billion.

All of this might be viewed as water under the bridge―or perhaps water down the drain―were it not for the fact that a third GMD site is now being considered. Military contractors are ferociously lobbying for it, communities in New York, Ohio, and Michigan are actively competing for it and, given long-time Republican enthusiasm for missile defense, this expansion seems very likely to be implemented by the Trump administration. The cost? An additional $4 billion.

Is this a good investment? GMD, it should be noted, was designed to defend against a nuclear attack by Iran or North Korea. But, thanks to the Iran nuclear agreement, its nuclear program is frozen until 2030 or later. North Korea is also not a nuclear threat to the United States, for it does not possess long-range missiles. Of 14 North Korean missiles tested during 2016, some failed to clear the launch pad while others traveled distances ranging from 19 miles to 620 miles. Naturally, as a small-scale system, GMD would be of no value against Russia’s enormous nuclear arsenal.

In fact, at this point GMD is of no value against anything. Thus far, the Pentagon has conducted 17 tests of GMD interceptors since 1999―all in conditions that should produce success. In a situation quite unlike armed combat, the people conducting the tests knew the speed, location, and trajectory of the mock enemy missiles ahead of time, as well as when they would be launched. Nevertheless, the GMD system failed the tests eight times―a 47 percent failure rate.

Nor has the GMD test record been improving in recent years. Quite the contrary. GMD has failed six of its last 10 tests and three of its last four. In mid-2016, a report written by three physicists and released by the Union of Concerned Scientists declared that the GMD system is “simply unable to protect the U.S. public.” Indeed, they concluded, “the system is not even on a path to achieve a useful ability” to do so.

Why, then, despite the enormous cost and the lack of useful results over many years, is this project continuing? One factor is clearly the U.S. fear of hostile governments. Beyond this, however, as David Willman―a journalist who has done extensive investigations of GMD―has reported, lies “the muscle wielded in Washington by major defense contractors, which have billions of dollars of revenue at stake.” Three of them, in fact―Boeing, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman―donated $40.5 million to congressional campaign funds from 2003 through October 2016.

GMD “will not work,” U.S. Representative John Garamendi, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told Willman. “Nevertheless, the momentum of the fear, the momentum of the investments, the momentum of the industry” carry it forward.

A key factor keeping billions of U.S. tax dollars flowing to this ill-conceived project is the desperation of declining American communities, anxious to attract the jobs a GMD installation would provide. The three communities vying to house the third GMD site are all in the hard-hit Rust Belt, and their public officials are eager to secure it. “Our community has been dying a little bit at a time,” an Ohio mayor explained. “So we’re hoping that the [local] site is selected.”

But if the only good reason for missile defense is that it provides a jobs program, why not invest those billions of dollars in jobs doing useful things? Why not invest in factories turning out solar and wind power components, high-speed rail cars, and inexpensive medicines? Why not invest in health care clinics, day care centers, libraries, schools, job-training facilities, community centers, concert halls, bridges, roads, inexpensive housing, assisted living facilities, and nursing homes?

This country has made useful investments before. With the political will, it could do so again.

Dr. Lawrence Wittner (http://www.lawrenceswittner.com) is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is a satirical novel about university corporatization and rebellion, What’s Going On at UAardvark? An earlier version of this article was posted to the History News Network.

A Peace Agenda for the New Administration

By Lawrence Wittner

The looming advent of the Trump administration in Washington threatens to worsen an already deeply troubling international situation. Bitter wars are raging, tens of millions of refugees have taken flight, relations among the great powers are deteriorating, and a new nuclear arms race is underway. Resources that could be used to fight unemployment, poverty, and climate change are being lavished on the military might of nations around the world―$1.7 trillion in 2015 alone. The United States accounts for 36 percent of that global total.

Given this grim reality, let us consider an alternative agenda for the new administration―an agenda for peace.

One key ingredient is improving U.S. relations with Russia and China. This is not an easy task, for these countries are governed by brutal regimes that seem to believe (much like many politicians in the United States) that a display of military force remains a useful way to deal with other nations. Even so, the U.S. government has managed to work out live-and-let-live relationships with their Soviet and Chinese predecessors―some of which were considerably more bellicose―and should be able to do so again. After all, the three countries have a good deal to gain by improving their relations. This includes not only avoiding a catastrophic nuclear war, but reducing their spending on useless, vastly expensive weapons systems and cooperating on issues in which they have a common interest: countering terrorism; halting the international drug trade; and battling climate change.

It is not hard to imagine compromise settlements of their recent conflicts. Behind the hard line Russia has taken in Ukraine, including the annexation of Crimea and military meddling in what’s left of that country, lies NATO’s expansion eastward to Russia’s borders. Why not show a willingness to halt that expansion in exchange for a Russian agreement to respect the sovereignty of Ukraine and other nations in Russia’s vicinity? Similarly, when dealing with the issue of war-torn Syria, why not abandon the U.S. government’s demand for the ouster of Assad and back a UN-negotiated peace settlement for that country? The U.S. government’s growing dispute with China over the future of islands in the South China Sea also seems soluble, perhaps within a regional security framework.

The three nations could avoid a very dangerous arms race and, at the same time, cut their military costs substantially by agreeing to reduce their military expenditures by a fixed percentage (for example, 10 percent) per year for a fixed period. This “peace race” would allow them to retain their current military balance and devote the savings to more useful items in their budgets.

A second key ingredient in a peace agenda is moving forward with nuclear arms control and disarmament. With over 15,000 nuclear weapons in the arsenals of nine nations, including 7,300 held by Russia and 7,100 by the United States, the world is living on the edge of nuclear annihilation.

Although the Kremlin does not seem interested right now in signing further nuclear disarmament agreements, progress could be made in other ways. The President could use his executive authority to halt the current $1 trillion nuclear “modernization” program, take U.S. nuclear weapons off alert, declare a “no first use” policy for U.S. nuclear weapons, and make significant reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. An estimated 2,000 U.S. nuclear warheads are currently deployed and ready for action around the world, but the Joint Chiefs of Staff have concluded that only 1,000 are necessary. Why not cut back to that level?

The new administration could even engage in international negotiations for a treaty banning nuclear weapons. Peace and disarmament organizations have pushed for the opening of such treaty negotiations for years and, this October, the UN General Assembly rewarded their efforts by passing a resolution to begin negotiations in 2017. Why not participate in them?

A third key ingredient in a peace agenda is drawing upon the United Nations to handle international conflicts. The United Nations was founded in 1945 in the hope of ending the practice of powerful countries using their military might to bludgeon other countries into accepting what the powerful regarded as their national interests. National security was to be replaced by international security, thereby reducing aggression and military intervention by individual nations. Critics of the United Nations have argued that it is weak and ineffectual along these lines and, therefore, should be abandoned―except, perhaps, for its humanitarian programs. But, instead of abandoning the United Nations, how about strengthening it?

There are numerous ways to accomplish this. These include eliminating the veto in the Security Council, establishing a weighted voting system in the General Assembly, and giving General Assembly decisions the force of international law. Two other mechanisms, often discussed but not yet implemented, are creating an independent funding mechanism (such as an international financial transactions tax) for UN operations and establishing a permanent, all-volunteer UN rapid deployment force under UN jurisdiction that could act to prevent crimes against humanity.

Of course, at the moment, little, if any, of this peace agenda seems likely to become U.S. government policy. Donald Trump has promised a substantial increase in U.S. military spending, and his new administration will be heavily stocked with officials who take a hardline approach to world affairs.

Even so, when it comes to peace, the American public has sometimes been remarkably active―and effective. In January 1981, when the Reagan administration arrived in Washington, it championed an ultra-hawkish agenda, highlighted by a major nuclear weapons buildup and loose talk of waging and winning a nuclear war. Ultimately, though, an upsurge of popular opposition forced a complete turnabout in administration policy, with Reagan joining the march toward a nuclear-free world and an end to the Cold War. Change is always possible―if enough people demand it.

[Dr. Lawrence Wittner (http://www.lawrenceswittner.com) is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press). A different version of this article appeared recently in the magazine Democratic Left.]

Call for Papers – Remembering Muted Voices: Conscience, Dissent, Resistance, and Civil Liberties in World War I through Today

During this year’s centennial of the U.S. entrance into World War I, the Peace History Society is cosponsoring a symposium dedicated to “the muted voices of those who resisted the Great War and the implications of these stories for today.” Entitled “Remembering Muted Voices: Conscience, Dissent, Resistance, and Civil Liberties in World War I through Today,” the symposium will be held from October 19-22 at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri. Those interested in attending or participating can check out the full call for papers online or check out the following flyer.

Interested participants can send a 1-page proposal focused on the theme of the conference by March 20, 2017 to John D. Roth at johndr@goshen.edu. For more information, contact Andrew Bolton at abolton@cofchrist.org.