Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D
www.igc.org/gadfly

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Classical Guitar:
"The Other Profession
"

 

 

 

Remembering Who and What We Are

Ernest Partridge

 

Early in the past decade, Stewart Udall paid The Gadfly the great compliment of asking him to comment on Udall's evolving manuscript of The Myths of August  (published by Pantheon in 1994).   The sub-title of that book reads, "A Personal Exploration of Our Tragic Cold War Affair with the Atom."  Udall, who served with distinction as JFK's Secretary of the Interior, and who later gave landmark legal service to the Navaho victims of the nuclear industry, is high on my list of "Earth Heroes."   Accordingly, I was moved to share a  voluminous correspondence with the great man.  The following reflections have been collected from that correspondence.  I have diligently attempted to separate my words from those of Mr. Udall, and apologize for any unattributed  words that may have slipped past my notice.

 

"Justice is the first virtue of social institutions.... Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. For this reason, justice ... does not allow that the sacrifices imposed on a few are outweighed by the larger sum of advantages enjoyed by many."

John Rawls (1971)

 

"The Government will not re-establish respect for law without giving the law some claim to respect. It cannot do that if it neglects the one feature that distinguishes law from ordered brutality. If the Government does not take rights seriously, then it does not take law seriously either."

Ronald Dworkin

 

"We have met the enemy, and he is us."

Walt Kelly ("Pogo")

 

By promulgating its policy of nuclear deterrence abroad, and by promoting nuclear energy at home, a series of United States governments forgot what they stood for. They abrogated the moral principles on which this republic was founded, and they betrayed the citizens that they were sworn to protect.

These are serious charges. To sustain them, we must first review the founding principles of the United States of America, and survey the moral revolution in Western Europe and the new world, from which these principles emerged.

 

"The Wartime Defense" — a Rebuttal.

What might the perpetrators of the "casualties" of the atomic age have to say in their defense?  What might they tell to the surviving families of  the Navaho Uranium miners and the "downwinders" who resided in southern Utah and Nevada?    We’ve heard it many times: "The loss of lives and property, caused by the development of atomic energy, and the deception and secrecy of the government agencies, were most unfortunate. And yet they were justifiable: after all, we were at war! And as we all know too well, at times of national emergency, liberty and due process have to be sacrificed, paradoxically, in the defense of liberty."

This excuse is unsupportable on its face. First of all, it is an argument by analogy, for we were not, of course, literally "at war." The "Cold War" was only metaphorically a "war." The economic sacrifices and centralized power typical of wartime mobilization were never proposed for the "Cold War," and for good reason: such measures would never have been tolerated by the public. Even so, the huge investments, and the arrogant abuses of power by the AEC and the military, needed some justification, and so we were told of "the Communist Menace." Information that has freely passed across the fallen "Iron Curtain" since the fall of Communism, shows that this "menace" was, in large part, an invention born of caution, xenophobia, investments, and careerism.

In economic and technological terms, "the Red Menace," a it turns out, was a toothless tiger. True, in strategic terms, the Soviets had the capacity to reduce our civilization to radioactive ruble. But the threat could have been completely contained with only a fraction of our retaliatory force. A far greater threat, to both sides, was the obscene scale of nuclear armaments — tens of thousands of warheads, piled upon each other, resulting in a danger of war by miscalculation, technical failure, or mid-rank derangement, that far exceeded the risk (if any) of a deliberate first-strike. In short, the hypertrophic nuclear arms race was a result, not on any "present danger," but of our mutual fears combined with a resulting military-industrial complex which took on a life of its own. And before this institutional and economic behemoth, the lives and liberties of ordinary citizens and of our posterity were trampled.

The excuse that "we were at war" fails for more fundamental reasons. For even in war, soldiers are informed of the hazards they face. In fact, in especially hazardous wartime missions, volunteers are sought. And throughout our history, not even soldiers in wartime have been made the unconsenting subjects of medical experiments.

Furthermore, "national defense" would have in no way been compromised by warning the citizens of Utah and Nevada beforehand of the hazards of atmospheric testing, nor by adopting more circumspect safety measures in the uranium mines and weapons manufacturing facilities. Nor would "national security" have been compromised by compensating these citizens and workers after the dreadful effects of their exposure to radiation became apparent. In short, even if we concede the dubious defense of "national emergency," the atomic officials were not without alternatives to the assaults they mounted upon our own citizens.

Finally, the rationalization, "we were at war," has no application to the development of "the peaceful atom." And yet, in the development of commercial nuclear power, numerous anonymous lives were lost, and many more lives and much property were put in peril, with the citizens’ right to financial compensation constrained by the Price-Anderson Act.

No, the "national security" excuse will not survive critical scrutiny. Instead, under the cloak of "national security," normal safeguards, checks and balances, and legal redress, were all swept aside, as the combined force of institutional, economic, technological and career imperatives ran roughshod over the lives and property of our innocent and unconsenting fellow citizens. In the name of "defending" our own people and our free institutions, the atomic establishment assaulted our citizens and subverted those institutions.


At War With Ourselves

When, in the remote future, historians list the accomplishments of great civilizations, they will take special note of the philosophy of classical Greece, the political institutions of the Roman Empire, the art of Renaissance Italy, and the literature of Imperial Russia. And they will note, as the greatest accomplishment of the American civilization, the realization in Law of the political ideas of liberty, equality, inalienable rights, all based upon a recognition of the innate dignity and value of the human individual.

Immersed as we are in this tradition, we too easily forget how rare and fragile are these cherished institutions — rare, both in history and among contemporary societies, and vulnerable to assaults from outside and from within.

The ideals of our founding documents come from many sources. And it was our very great fortune to have established our nation at that most opportune time in history that has come to be called "the Age of Enlightenment," and to be founded by individuals well-verse in the thought of Rousseau, Monstesquieu, Locke, and other illustrious thinkers of the European enlightenment.

The Declaration of Independence, and later the Bill of Rights, issue from a fundamental assumption (proclaimed at the same time by the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant), that deliberative, rational beings possess an intrinsic worth and dignity that can not legitimately be violated for any demands of convenience or status or office — that liberty is only legitimately curtailed in the name of the like liberty of others or in the defense of liberty. And that, in the words of the contemporary philosopher, John Rawls, "each person possesses and inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override."

While these ideas and ideals are familiar to all of us, they are worthy of reiteration as we reflect upon the political consequences and implications resulting from the introduction and development of nuclear weaponry and power. And as we review the sad chronicle of usurpations and violations which have been brought on by the atomic [and defense] establishments, and the legitimate complaints of aggrieved citizens against their government, we find a melancholy parallel with the complaints of the American colonists against King George III.

In the latter half of the Declaration of Independence — a portion rarely cited — Thomas Jefferson lists a bill of complaints against the English Crown. While many of these complaints are peculiar to that time and circumstance, others ring true in the context of the history of the atomic age. Among them:

— "[The Sovereign] has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good...

— "He has affected to render the military independent of and superior to the Civil Power...

— "[He has deprived] us in many cases, of the benefits of trial by Jury...

— "[He has taken] away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and alter[ed] fundamentally the Forms of our Governments.

— "[He has suspended] our own Legislatures, and declared Himself invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

— "He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

— "He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people."

In this last indictment, substitute for "seas" and "coasts," "our land (above and below surface), our atmosphere, our gene pool, and the parallel becomes painfully compelling.

Might not these complaints against the British Crown have been made, just as validly, against the atomic establishment, but the victims of unprotected uranium mining, fallout, genetic mutations, and by future generations, still to be contaminated with the by-products of nuclear mining and productions.


The Nuremberg Code

Not only were the political ideals of liberty, equality and human dignity enshrined in our founding documents, these documents have, in turn, been echoed in the constitutions of many emerging nations, and they have inspired such manifestos as "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights," and "the Nuremberg Code" of 1946.

In view of the assaults by the atomic establishment upon our citizens, it would be useful to quote relevant sections of the Nuremberg Code.

— "[In experiments with human subjects] the voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential.... There should be made to him the nature, duration and purpose of the experiment; the method and means by which it is to be conducted; all inconveniences and hazards reasonably to be expected; and the effects upon his health or person which may possibly come from his participation in the experiment. the duty and responsibility for ascertaining the quality of the consent rests upon each individual who initiates, directs or engages in the experiment...

— "No experiment should be conducted where there is an a priori reason to believe that death or disabling injury will occur...

— During the course of the experiment the scientist in charge must be prepared to terminate the experiment at any stage, if he ha probably cause to believe ... that a continuation of the experiment is likely to result in injury, disability, or death to the experimental subject."


On the Dangers of Dogmas and Dogmatists — and the Remedies

". . . Through our media and educational institutions, we must be constantly reminded of just who we are as a people, and what we stand for — that when we are called upon to sacrifice for "national defense," what we are defending are moral and philosophical traditions that proclaim the dignity of human beings and the inviolability of their rights.  Any official who claims a license to infringe upon those rights, and to compromise that dignity, must be prepared to face that public whose rights he is violating, and to defend his usurpation before them.

"In short, in the sad history of the atomic age and the cold war, our political institutions have not failed us; our leaders have betrayed those institutions, and thus the American people. The remedy lies, not in a replacement of those political institutions or a reconstruction of our laws, but rather in a re-affirmation of those institutions and a determination to enforce and extend the rule of law.'

Stewart L. Udall
The Myths of August, 358

 


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .