An Anniversary for Peace

This week marked the 30th anniversary of the historic June 12, 1982 rally to freeze and reverse the arms race. One million people gathered that day in New York’s Central Park for the largest demonstration for peace in U.S. history. I was part of the June 12 rally committee with my friend and colleague Cora Weiss.  Cora and I reminisced about the rally this past week in preparation for a speech she gave at a New York event commemorating the occasion.

The rally had an electrifying effect on public opinion, catalyzing the growing public opposition to the Reagan nuclear buildup and powerfully expressing the political demand for an end to nuclear insanity. Members of Congress I interviewed afterwards said that the specter of a million people in Central Park sent a strong message to Washington that the public wanted action to reduce the nuclear threat.

The rally coincided with the Second Special Session on Disarmament at the UN General Assembly. It was a rare but important example of synergy between civil society and the UN. The rally was an expression of public support for the Special Session and gave legitimacy to UN disarmament efforts.

The rally was a success because of the political climate of the time. Public fear of nuclear war was rising, and the nuclear freeze movement was spreading like a proverbial prairie fire. We knew the rally was going to be a success in the weeks before June 12 when local FM rock deejays began talking about it and vendors appeared on the streets selling buttons and t-shirts.

We received a huge boost from the support of James Taylor and other rock stars. They volunteered their talents for two big fundraising concerts in Nassau Coliseum a few days before the rally and then at the rally itself. Among the musicians participating with Taylor were Bruce Springsteen (at the rally), Billy Joel (at the Coliseum concerts), Linda Ronstadt and Rita Marley. Lots of stars gathered backstage, including Yoko Ono and Orson Wells.

The anniversary of the June 12 rally reminds us of the massive scale of the nuclear freeze movement during the 1980s. The Reagan and first Bush administrations tried to discredit the movement and denied its impact, but historian Larry Wittner has documented the movement’s significant influence. Public mobilization pressured the Reagan administration to negotiate with Moscow, helped to constrain the nuclear weapons buildup, and led Congress to cut off funding for nuclear testing. As I wrote in Peace Works, public opinion in the United States and Europe played a significant role in ending the Cold War. All good reasons to commemorate the Central Park rally.

Democracy in Burma…and Poland

The remarkable political evolution of Burma in recent weeks has interesting parallels with events in Poland in 1989.

Aung San Suu Kyi is now free, and has been elected to parliament along with members of her party, the National League for Democracy. The NLD scored a stunning victory in the April 1 by-elections, winning 43 of the 45 contested seats in the national parliament and regional assemblies. Party candidates polled well even at military bases and in districts near the capital with large populations of civil servants. Some members of the democracy movement had cautioned against joining elections in which so few seats would be openly contested. Suu Kyi took a leap of faith in deciding to participate, and so far her decision has paid off. The NLD has gained significant national prestige and influence.

This calls to mind Solidarity’s unexpected ascent to power in Poland in 1989. When the beleaguered communist regime finally yielded to Solidarity’s demand for free elections in June of that year, they restricted the number of contested seats to just one third of the parliament. Some activists wanted to reject the deal, but Solidarity wisely decided to take advantage of the narrow opening, hoping to widen the movement’s clout and political legitimacy. Solidarity won 160 of the 161 parliamentary seats that were openly contested, defeating even top communist officials in their home districts. The regime unexpectedly capitulated and Solidarity took responsibility for governing.

What both of these stories have in common is their genesis in nonviolence. Nonviolent movements inspire public participation and dialogue and are far more likely than armed struggle to generate successful democratic transitions.

The drama in Burma is still in its early days, but already we have seen surprising progress. Let’s hope more will come in the months ahead as the democracy movement navigates the torturous path of persuading the military to go back to the barracks.

A History Lesson for Iran Hawks

Calls for military strikes against Iran are based on the assumption that Israel’s bombing of a nuclear reactor near Baghdad in 1981 ‘worked’ to end Iraq’s nuclear program. Here is the actual story.

Soon after Israel bombed the Osirak reactor the Baghdad government accelerated its nuclear production program. Saddam Hussein intensified Iraq’s efforts to manufacture weapons-grade uranium and to build the means for assembling and delivering nuclear weapons. His government invested billions of dollars to develop a secret, self-sufficient nuclear program out of the sight of International Atomic Energy Agency  (IAEA) inspectors.

After Iraq’s forces were driven out of Kuwait in early 1991 IAEA inspectors arrived in the country and were shocked to discover a highly developed program that by some estimates was only a year or so from successfully achieving nuclear weapons capability. Over the following years UN inspectors systematically identified and dismantled all elements of the Iraqi nuclear weapons program. No nuclear weapons capability was found when the US invaded in 2003.

In 2006 the eminent security scholar Richard K. Betts wrote “The Osirak Fallacy” in The National Interest. It’s an important article that should be required reading in Washington. Among its conclusions:

  •  The attack on Osirak increased Saddam Hussein’s determination to build nuclear weapons. There is no evidence that the destruction of the reactor even delayed Iraq’s nuclear program.
  • The destruction of the Osirak facility was unnecessary because there were no reprocessing facilities at the site.
  • The Israeli attack on Osirak did not preempt a near-term nuclear threat. According to most estimates, at the time Iraq was a decade away from producing a nuclear weapon.

The lesson: Attacking Iran’s nuclear program could worsen the danger we seek to avoid.

SANE is Back

I was delighted in early February to see that Representative Ed Markey has introduced a new bill in Congress, the SANE (Smarter Approach to Nuclear Expenditures) Act. Markey’s bill calls for significant reductions in nuclear weapons, for a savings of about $100 billion over the next 10 years. Markey remains, as he has been for more than 30 years, the most significant leader and articulate voice in Congress for nuclear arms reduction. I’m glad to see he is still at it.

As the former executive director of SANE, I was thrilled to see renewed reference to the venerable SANE brand. When I was with SANE in the 1980s we worked closely with Markey. I continued to cooperate with him on disarmament initiatives after that—including the Urgent Call, a nuclear abolition appeal launched in 2002 with Jonathan Schell and Randy Forsberg.

When I contacted Markey’s office recently to congratulate him for introducing the SANE Act and making reference to our organization, his staff said the SANE acronym was intentional, to recall the halcyon days of the 1980s when the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign was sweeping across the country like a populist prairie fire and SANE was growing rapidly into a formidable mass membership organization.

In 1982 Markey was the original sponsor of the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Resolution in Congress. Later that year he spoke before a million people in New York’s Central Park for the June 12 rally to freeze and reverse the arms race, the largest peace and disarmament rally ever held in the United States. SANE was actively involved in helping to organize that rally.

In the late 1980s SANE merged with the Freeze Campaign to form a united organization that still exists today as Peace Action. At that time some board members of SANE were reluctant to see the name go. They didn’t want to lose the legacy and history of SANE dating from the late 1950s, reflected in the involvement of such luminaries as Norman Cousins, Steve Allen, Ben Spock, and Coretta Scott King.

Many assumed over the years that SANE was an acronym but that was not the case. We were officially the Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy. The name came from Cousins and other early founders and was inspired by Erich Fromm’s influential book of the time, The Sane Society. In 1980s some of us toyed with possible acronyms, like Stop All Nuclear Explosions, or Society Against Nuclear Extermination, but officially the name remained the same, SANE, a single word that powerfully conveyed the broad public outcry against the insanity of the nuclear arms race.

Now there is an official SANE acronym, thanks to Ed Markey. Let’s hope the brand and the ideas behind it gain new traction and support, and that the United States can make real progress toward reducing and eliminating nuclear weapons.

Henry Kissinger against war?

President Obama will announce soon the beginning of US troop withdrawals from Afghanistan. This is a crucial turning point for American foreign policy. Many of us are urging the President to make a substantial reduction as part of a coherent transition strategy to enhance security in the region.

Even Henry Kissinger is now discussing the need for military exit. In a June 7 article in the Washington Post , Kissinger outlines a strategy for negotiating the “withdrawal of all or most American and allied forces.” He proposes setting a deadline to reach a “residual force” level within 18 to 24 months.  It seems that members of the imperial elite now recognize the need to end the war.

It’s weird to find myself agreeing with Henry the K after all these years. I had the same feeling a few years ago when Kissinger joined George Shultz and other senior statesmen in advocating a world without nuclear weapons. Actually, it’s not that I’m agreeing with him but rather that he is coming around to support positions many of us have advocated.

Kissinger writes that a negotiated agreement in Afghanistan needs an “enforcement mechanism.” I have a related but different idea: the deployment of an interim Muslim-led security force under UN authority.  The mission of the proposed force would be to protect civilians and enforce the ceasefire provisions of a negotiated settlement. It would prevent a security vacuum as foreign troops depart and provide political and security assurances within Afghanistan and among neighboring states.

Details about this concept and other elements of a peace strategy for Afghanistan are contained in my new book Ending Obama’s War: Responsible Military Withdrawal from Afghanistan, available from Amazon.

I hope Kissinger gets a copy as well.

Women, men, and the spirit of Egypt’s revolution

Today I spent several hours with a group of students from Cairo University who were actively involved in the uprising. Four men and three women, all in their twenties—those who made a revolution.

I asked the women about gender relations during those extraordinary days.

In Egyptian society, one of them remarked, relations between men and women are ‘not positive.’ Another put it more bluntly: ‘we are always being hassled and harassed.’

During the revolution, though, a miraculous transformation occurred. Men were more considerate, and women could participate freely without being harassed.

One woman described her experience on the terrible night of January 28 in Tahrir Square, when dozens of protestors were killed and she herself had been knocked down and injured.  At 3 in the morning, tired and aching, she searched for a ride home. A young man offered to help. He put  her in a car with three other guys and drove her home. No hassles, only caring support.

‘Something like this never would have happened before.’

Continue reading “Women, men, and the spirit of Egypt’s revolution”

Dispatches from Egypt, land of revolution

So many lessons learned already in the first day of our symposium on the unarmed revolution at Cairo University. Here are a few flashes:

Egypt’s uprising has been described as an internet revolution, but the regime did not fall because of Facebook messages and tweets. It was overthrown by the determined resistance of millions of people in the streets. Estimates we’ve heard range from 8 to 12 million across the country. One of the professors said yesterday, no fewer than 15 million. We’ll reserve judgment on the final number pending more research, but this much is clear: This was one of the largest outpourings of mass civil resistance in human history.

The people faced brutal police repression and attacks by thugs. They died by the hundreds from bullets and beatings. Thousands were injured. Yet they returned to the streets day after day in ever increasing numbers. An incredible display of mass civic courage—similar to what we are witnessing today in the streets of Syria and Yemen. Continue reading “Dispatches from Egypt, land of revolution”

In Liberated Egypt

I’m in Egypt this week for a symposium the Kroc Institute is co-sponsoring with Cairo University and the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict on “learning lessons from the unarmed revolution in Egypt.” It is exciting to be in Cairo in the wake of the remarkable 18-day uprising that brought down the Mubarak dictatorship. As I stepped off the plane last night I felt a special sense of excitement and joy at entering a newly liberated country.

I know Egypt faces many problems and contradictions. The revolution was incomplete, and many crises and challenges lie ahead. All of this will become clear, I’m sure, as we study the political and social dynamics of the revolution in the coming days. For now, though, I want to bask in the enormity of what the Egyptian people have accomplished. They have demonstrated the power of mass nonviolent resistance. They have proven again that a people united in their determination to be free are a mighty force for change.

Let us hope the people of Egypt can succeed in forging a successful transition to a more democratic, prosperous and secure future.

Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The following are excerpts from remarks I delivered at the 4th annual tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Cathedral of the Holy Angels in Gary, Indiana, on January 9.

Dr. King inspired and challenged us with a vision of love and hope, leading us toward a society no longer torn by racial hatred and segregation, toward a country distinguished not by its accumulations of superfluous wealth but by how well it treats the least of these, a nation that measures its strength not by the capacity to wage war but by its commitment to justice and peace.

King insisted on the inseparability of ends and means. “Nonviolence demands that the means we use be as pure as the ends we seek.” We cannot achieve a just end with unjust means, a peaceful result with violent means. History has seen too much of armies and conquerors “who came killing in the name of peace,” of revolutionaries who won power with the gun and ruled by the same. To achieve a moral end we must use moral means. As the great A.J. Muste said, “there is no way to peace, peace is the way.” Continue reading “Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

Hope and Faith in Gary, Indiana

Last Sunday I had the honor of being the guest speaker for the annual tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Cathedral of the Holy Angels in Gary, about an hour’s drive from Notre Dame. I was deeply moved by the experience, both by the event itself and by the condition of the surrounding community. My family and I arrived early for the event (I wanted to be certain of getting there on time), so we drove around the city for about 20 minutes. It was a shocking experience to see the extent of the city’s decay, a landscape of empty brown fields, decaying buildings, and wrecked and abandoned homes, surely one of the most devastated urban settings in America.

I was depressed and shaken as we approached the Cathedral for the event, but everything changed the moment we entered the door, the gloom of the surrounding city giving way to hope and a spirit of friendship and love from the people inside. We were warmly welcomed and escorted to our places in the magnificent sanctuary of the Cathedral. During the program we were treated to the glorious sounds of the Wirt-Emerson Concert Choir, one of the finest high school musical ensembles I’ve ever heard. As I prepared to give my remarks I felt wonder and gratitude for the many people who make the Cathedral a joyous place of hope, a fortress of faith.

I came away from the event convinced that we at Notre Dame can and must do more to support our neighbors, who live so near, share our values, and urgently need our help to realize Dr. King’s dream of a better tomorrow.

Here is a news account of the event. In my next post, I’ll excerpt a few passages from my remarks.