A philosophy for disarmament?

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‘People who say two times two is not four do not intend to say that, but without doubt, mean and want to express something else.’


FOR the last half century, the world has lived in the shadow of nuclear weaponization. Since the first explosion at Almogardo, the atomic bomb has metarmorphosed into more lethal versions – the Eniwetok thermonuclear explosion was 800 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb – threatening a universe already riven with suspicion and fear. An urge for supremacy has impelled nations to continue with test explosions, one detonation leading to the next as echoes responding to each other. This race was eventually joined by nations which could scarce manage to feed, look after and educate their populations, but who saw in the bomb a vindication of their theories of national sovereignty, a concept which has occasionally led to discrimination between ‘national bombs’ by their respective protagonists, sometimes unfortunately by even activists against nuclear war. As flashpoints abound across the globe, with one nation determined to impose its will on the rest and others equally determined to resist, a confrontation could inevitably degenerate into a nuclear war despite numerous plans drawn up to prevent the nuclearization of a conventional clash of arms.

Almost in conflation with nuclear weaponization, the disarmament movement came into existence. A deep sense of unease about the bomb was shared by many scientists – including Oppenheimer, the director of the Los Almos atomic laboratory – who were instrumental in building it. Even the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was unable to dissuade lawmakers from sanctioning advanced weapons programmes. Even as the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), foreshadowing McCarthysim, victimized scientists to the detriment of academic freedom – seeking to stifle peace protests and ruining distinguished careers in the process – Ullam and Teller developed the fusion bomb in the interests of ‘national security’ and the ‘free world’. Hans Bethe, a leading physicist, who overcame early scruples and helped design this bomb, could but say in lame justification, ‘There can be only one justification for our development of the hydrogen bomb and that is to prevent its use.’ Subsequently, he worked tirelessly to prevent atomic scientist turned peace activist, Philip Morrison’s eviction from Cornell University, by the very state for which he had helped to produce the bomb. The father of the H-Bomb, Andrei Sakharov, too became a leading pacifist.

Has the bomb brought into sharper focus the debate on the future course of life? Perhaps the precise context of nuclearization is, in Bronowski’s words, ‘a civilization face to face with its own implications.’ Aware of the vulnerability of finer distinctions to ignited passions, Bronowski had in 1945, proposed to preserve Nagasaki in its bombed, destroyed state, as a concrete reminder of the human horror of the bomb, where conferences on disarmament and important issues ought to be held. However, official colleagues thought nothing of his scheme; on the contrary they pointed out that ‘delegates would be uncomfortable in Nagasaki.’

It may be instructive to go back in time. The Hungarian scientist Leo Szilard, emigrated to America from Germany having had a foretaste of facism. Quintessentially liberal, he felt a kind of horror when he conceived the bomb. He wrote to Joliot Curie, proposing a prohibition on publication of such research, and urged Fermi not to publish as well. However, feeling the world imperilled by fascism he drafted a letter to President Roosevelt on 2 August 1939, a month prior to the commencement of the Second World War, which was signed by Einstein. It urged the president to sanction a nuclear facility capable of building a bomb in the context of German nuclear endeavour and impending war.

Samuel Goudsmit’s book ALSOS, details how an allied scientific mission codenamed AlSOS, communicated to the British and American governments in 1944 that the Germans would not have an atom bomb in the war. The tart comment made by Bainbridge, the physicist in charge of the Trinity test, ‘Well, now we’re all sons of bitches,’ mirrors the agony of the scientists at having made the bomb possible. Einstein, before his death, was to support Pugwash against militarization. Szilard himself wrote letter upon letter to President Roosevelt to preempt the use of the bomb and finally gave up physics for the study of biology to ameliorate human suffering – moving to the Salk Institute, motivating others to do likewise.

Why did such decent thinking men recommend to the government a weapon of unimaginable destructive potential? Why did their apprehension of an evil adversarial power blind them to the danger posed by such weapons to the vast civilian populace, which was already burdened by draconian laws and had not endorsed such inhuman governance, and whose guilt of jingoism would have to be shared by most allied nations.

They obscured for a short while that the threat to the world could come not only from fascism, but basically from the thirst for domination of which fascism is not the sole embodiment, and which tends to afflict self-obsession. They gave an annihilating weapon to a power which wantonly used it.

In India, the Right has habitually indulged in war posturing, and favoured nuclear power as a show of machismo to further its goals of ethnic engineering. However, it might be hasty to associate only the Right with dreams of nuclear power and external aggrandisement. Almost all political formations have endorsed, with varying degrees, the nuclear programme. Nehru was a true humanist, but his weakness for ‘national sentiment’ finds reflection in the ‘Sonmarg Note’ – a guide to his foreign policy – which subscribes to the accretion of power for external domination, indifferent to world opinion. He even alleged that the peace movement was being utilized to ‘promote communism and not peace.’ Indira Gandhi touted the 1974 nuclear tests as a symbol of anti-imperialism before proceeding to clamp restrictive laws during the Emergency barely a year after. V.P. Singh also supported the bomb. Ironically, Vajpayee, the architect of the Hindutva Pokharan II, opposed nuclear weaponization along with Morarji Desai in the cabinet committee on security in the Desai government. Signalling his acceptance of a nuclear war to end capitalism, Mao is reported to have told the Italian communist leader Togliatti: ‘Who told you that Italy must survive? Three hundred million Chinese will be left, and that will be enough for the human race to continue.’

Human tragedies tend to occur when preconceived monotonal notions dominate discourse. A cast iron argument precludes doubt and assumes immutability. Unfortunately, few ideologies desist from violence if it is undertaken to further hallowed goals, undertaken as sacred duty. It is futile to seek labels for the bomb. Notwithstanding varying ideological subscriptions, the bomb is primarily the bomb. Period.

The disarmament movement should formulate a broad-based argument addressing common social and moral concerns rather than essentialize the debate between two ideological poles. Intolerance of thought and language denotes inadequacy and ought to be eschewed. At the National Convention for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace held in Delhi in November 2000, amidst reasoned, sensible talk by other members of the panel of speakers, Arundhati Roy, in her response to L.K. Advani’s alleged comment terming her anti-national, retorted that he ought not have had the audacity to label her so as she brought in more foreign exchange to the country than he did. It was rather odd that a person battling big money on the issue of the Narmada dam should make earning foreign exchange the litmus test of patriotism. More frightening was the applause by many in the audience to this remark. It may have been in such a context that a fellow delegate, an eminent old gentleman, remarked that he would refrain from characterizing the disarmament effort as a ‘movement’ since it was yet to formulate a cogent philosophy, a prerequisite for a movement. Has it retained this handicap despite the sincere commitment of journalists, eminent scientists, former soldiers, artists and devoted public leaders, among others?

Perhaps it should move towards the roots of the problem reflected in our priorities – the schooling we give to our children, the atmosphere in which our scientists live and work, the aims and orientation of public servants, and the concepts of exclusionary nationalism which have overweening influence on international relations. Some basic questions arise: Do we interrogate our energy-guzzling, resource-grabbing lifestyles when we inveigh the feasibility of nuclear power stations? Can the protest against big dams be sustainable if the demand for electricity shows no signs of abatement?

Maybe we should address ourselves to the aggression engendered by competitive schooling, and explore models wherein students discover identity in relationships and not in confrontation.

A Tagore or a Gandhi talked of national identities as bonds of togetherness and not as foci of hatred towards the alien. A Martin Luther King did not excoriate communism, but pointed to the humane necessity for social change which was the heart of the Vietnamese revolution and which the USA should have helped blossom and not sabotage, as it was myopically intent on doing.

Oppenheimer once lamented that ‘a common sensibility and culture... a common meaning of symbols... a community of experience,’ on which the artist and the scientist depend, have ‘dissolved in a changing world,’ and stressed that ‘his audience must be man, and not a specialized set of experts among his fellows.’

Maybe literature ought to explore a holistic vision rather than concentrate on discovering itself in a thousand extravagances – on ever new ways of expressing extreme individualism – a vision, which seeks neither to legitimize the ‘grand narrative’ nor remains a mere critique of Gramscian ‘hegemony’, but treads that middle ground beyond all ambiguity.

An inclusionary vision needs to be studied in depth, otherwise war will have no end while newer weapons will be invented to realize nightmares of hate, born of the aggression innate in man.

Gangeya Mukherji