Prelude to a Challenge

jackdt of book by Carlson & Comstock
jackdt of book by Carlson & Comstock

Don Carlson wanted to help end the Cold War. He had a personal fortune of ninety million dollars from starting, selling, and managing a set of real estate investment trusts, and he had the political experience of being an activist in Business Executive for National Security (BENS). I had the honor of working with him for five years, mainly as director of a foundation that he endowed, as co-editor of a pair of books (Citizen Summitry and Securing Our Planet), as visitors to Moscow, and with him as interviewees on over a hundred radio and TV shows. The foundation supported some thirty groups in the area of peace-making and, in particular, of citizen diplomacy with what was then our Cold War enemy.

In 1984 when we began, almost nobody thought the Cold War would ever end, or even speculated about such a development. Three experiences moved me to join in working for a goal that was widely thought to be “impossible.”

The first was the nation-wide agitation widely known as the “nuclear freeze” movement. Organized by Randall Forsberg, this movement involved support from many groups and by governing bodies below the Federal level, and it culminated in an enormous demonstration in Central Park.

The second was a personal experience, in 1982, that is hard to write about, not because it was scandalous, not because it is uninteresting, but because it falls in that strange category called “ineffable.” This experience taught me, in my early forties, that I could be fundamentally surprised by what was possible. My shorthand for the experience is “koya,” from the name of the movie in which it occurred, “Koyanisqatsi.”

I’d never herd of this movie or its director, Gpdfrey Reggio, and I’m sure it’s possible to see it with no reaction other than puzzlement. What can you say about a movie that ahs no dialogue, no characters, no plot? I have written about it in detail in Enlarging Our Comfort Zones (2016), and will here give only some highlights.

Without trying to describe the nature of the experience, suffice it to say it showed me that, despite decades of superb institutions of higher education, travel, wise mentors, a couple of books, and varied work, I learned, in the space of a single evening, that the range of human experience is much bigger than I had supposed.

The third thing that prepared me to accept Carlson’s challenge was research published in 1983 about “nuclear winter.” This concept is simple. A full-scale nuclear exchange would set hundreds of cities ablaze, of which many would suffer firestorms that sucked winds toward the conflagration and that sent columns of smoke so high that rain would not quickly wash out the soott. The concept is associated with one of the authors, Carl Sagan, because he was prepared to publicize it. The soot would reduce sunlight, leaving too little for most crops to grow, and thus cause mass starvation.

In other words, as Daniel Ellsberg argues in his 2017 book, any full-scale exchange of nuclear devices would kill most of our species, perhaps all of it. Nuclear devices and mutual threats have become so normal that we even accept the fallacious argument that they bring stability. In fact, as many authors have shown, citing specific examples, they have brought close-calls.

The nuclear winter concept increased the stakes of what had faded away into familiarity, and the “koya” experience had taught me that developments assumed to be impossible can happen. So I was primed for the opportunity held out in 1984 by a wealthy and courageous potential partner.

It is not widely known that in 1986, at their summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan contingently agreed to eliminate the means to have a full-scale nuclear exchange. The contingency, introduced by Reagan, was that the U.S. would be allowed to continue, out of the lab, its research on anti-missile defense. Gorbachev could not agree.

In the 31 subsequent years, this research has not produced the “shield” for which Reagan had hoped. If it had, as a moment’s thought would reveal, the system of deterrence would be eliminated: if one side felt secure against retaliation, why not launch a first strike? Or so the opponent would fear.

However, important agreements were reached after Reykjavik, even prior to the end of the Cold War, at least of iteration number 1. Much remains to be done. Progress seems to occur in bursts. One burst was begun in 1962 with JFK’s speech at American University, “A Strategy of Peace” and by the test ban treaty. Another came in the 1980s. A third is long overdue.

In order for there to be a third, individuals will have to become urgently active, based no doubt on different experiences than mine back in the early 1980s. Meanwhile, it might be useful for people who care to share stories of what has led them to political activity.

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