Each day I go for an hour long walk. It can get boring at times, but I’ve found it really helps to listen to different lectures, audio books, and music, which moves the time along. My favorite person to listen to is Alan Watts, an Eastern philosopher who discusses culture, life, and religion. Here is a lecture excerpt where he’s discussing our culture and what’s wrong with it.
It’s very rare for a speaker or author to fundamentally change the way I view myself, the world, and others, but Alan Watts does that for me. When I think like him, I feel at peace with the world, with other people, and with everything around me. I’m kinder, more empathetic, less judgmental, and more thoughtful. I’d recommend downloading his talks and listening to them when you’re out and about. They’re available online for free.
The other day I was discussing isolation with my friend Greg, and I want to share some of the things we were thinking about in my next post. Maybe I’ll write about it tomorrow or this weekend.
What is it that makes us who we are? Last night I watched a movie which explores that idea, and I figured I’d recommend it to all of you. It’s called Dark City and it came out in 1998. So what’s it about?
In the distant past, a group of advanced aliens called the ‘Strangers’ came to Earth and found human beings intriguing because they seemed to have some element to their nature which was beyond the physical world. Others were in doubt, so they kidnapped a large number of human beings from Earth and took them to a special world where some very interesting experiments were scheduled to take place.
Each night everyone was put to sleep and the memories and content of each of the human brains were reset and reprogrammed. For example, the main character in the movie had all of his memories wiped and then he was placed in a motel room where he had just murdered a call girl, or at least, the aliens programmed his brain to make it feel like he did.
His body was placed in a bathtub where he was cleaning the blood off of himself. A bloody knife was placed at the bedside next to the dead hooker, and there was blood on the carpet. He was also programmed with an entire set of fake memories, having a rough childhood, conflicts with his wife, etc. They even created a fake “wife” for him, and her brain was also programmed with an entire set of memories of them falling in love, living together, fighting, etc.
Here’s the experiment. Does this man’s cruel past dictate who he will become, or is there something else to him? Can he choose to change, or is his nature purely subject to his brain, his past experiences, and his memories? Everyone in the entire city was subjected to these sorts of experiments. Do people control who they are and what they do from then on, or will their programmed “natures” control them and will it dictate how things will unfold from then on out?
So we begin. The strangers watch as the man wakes up and finds the knife, the dead girl, and even reflects through his memories, but something doesn’t feel right. He has this intuitive feeling that he’s not a killer, though every bit of evidence points to the contrary. What was going on?
He runs home to his “wife” (in reality, this was the first time they’d ever met), who greets him, and he tells her about this strange feeling inside him, how he’s not a killer, that something is up, and so on. He wasn’t sure whether or not he’s crazy. The evidence seems to point to him being a killer, but intuitively he just “knew” he wasn’t a killer. His wife believes him and protects him from the cops who are after him.
I won’t ruin the rest of the movie, but I find the film to be a great example of thought experiments I’ve entertained over the years, and all of it has left me pretty confused. When I think of myself as having free will, I’m forced to conclude that I am not my body, I’m not my thoughts, and I’m not my memories. All of that is interchangable. Just like the main character of the movie, if I have free will, they cannot make me into a killer, despite how they change my brain, or my memories, or even my body. But then what am I? I don’t know exactly, but whatever that is, that’s what the Strangers were searching for.
The film makes a powerful point. If there isn’t something special to us humans (and other complex life), if it’s true that we have no free will, then there is simply this vast unfolding of the universe, a big machine following simple rules, playing out step by step. We’re puppets dragged along for the ride, and our memories and identities are just accidents, mostly due to the randomness within the universe itself.
It’s interesting to think about the Strangers. They shared memories between one another and had no individual identities, sort of like the Borg in Star Trek. If they wanted to have the memories of another one of their kind, they simply extracted them and injected the other’s memories into their own head. They could change their identities to whatever. It didn’t matter. But they also lacked any true individuality. One’s memories were interchangeable with another’s, and they passed them between each other like we do files on a computer.
What’s interesting is that if the Strangers came to Earth and performed these experiments on us, our psychologists would take that “killer” and put him in an asylum where they’d keep telling him, “Accept who you are! You killed that woman and you know it! We can’t move forward until you accept that truth.” He’d then tell them, “I don’t how to explain this exactly. I have memories of chopping that woman to bits. I have memories of cleaning myself off in the bathtub. I even remember having every sort of motivation to do those acts. But you have to believe me. I didn’t do it!”
The bizarre conclusion to thought experiments like this is that we can’t have any sort of absolute identity unless we accept that we’re not our bodies, we’re something else, and whatever that is, it’s undefinable and not subject to any observation outside of our own subjective awareness of it. Otherwise there’s just the universe, a big “thing” running its operational rules on itself. (But then again, what is the physical stuff of the universe? Physics tells us that the world is made of some really weird stuff.)
If the Strangers came down to Earth and grabbed my friend Greg, reprogrammed his genetics, body, and brain to be identical to my current body and brain, slowly changing him with nanomachines, and they did the same to me, but my body and brain were step by step made into his, and we both woke up in one another’s beds, I would be him and he would be me. “I” would then take over living his life, and “he” would be living my life.
It would be interesting to run an experiment where a successful man was “interchanged” with a homeless bum in that way by the Strangers, and then they watched to see anything changed. Would the homeless bum turn around and change everything for the better while the successful man or woman’s life begins to fall apart?
I don’t think that would happen. Take the case of Phineas Gage. He was a railroad foreman in the 19th century who had a stake fly through his skull injuring his pre-frontal cortex. Every aspect of his personality and identity changed. He could no longer restrain himself, his mannerisms changed, and he became very rude and obnoxious. This is to be expected considering that this area of the brain is where we plan our actions and rethink our decisions. It is the center of our moral awareness. He ended up getting fired from his job and the only line of work he could hold down was as a side-show attraction in a carnival. The same man with a little brain damage became a totally different person.
There may be ways to blend these ideas together in a way that would be compatible with what we observe in neuroscience, but still allow for some sort of freedom of will. Here are my own thoughts on the issue.
My best guess is that consciousness is created by specific types of information processing, specifically when that information flows in such a way that it “models” the world. At that point, that physical process “connects” to one of us, and we subjectively experience that flow of information consciously as existing in that world. How that connection takes place, I haven’t the slightest clue. I don’t know why brain activity in my head gives rise to experiences within “me” whereas your brain activity has no effect on me at all. I’m sure there are starving children in Africa right now suffering immensely, their brains flowing with information which leaves them with a dismal existence of sickness, pain and misery. I’m not experiencing that at all. I’m well fed and healthy, sitting in an air conditioned bed room, typing this post on a brand-new, fancy computer.
How would free will work? If it exists, I think it has something to do with quantum mechanics. There are states of matter which exist in a superposition of states, where different things are possible at a given time without defying the law of physics. If you look at photon say, it could take this path or it could take another path, either one being acceptable. Maybe “we” sometimes “choose” what things do in certain situations?
Then again, I’ve written posts here on my blog, pointing to research papers which indicate that our neural hardware in our brains is deterministic and quantum effects are irrelevant.
You may argue that our physics equations only model a tiny fraction of the physical stuff of the universe. After all, we don’t have any idea about dark matter or dark energy. But the problem is that neuroscientists have linked just about every aspect of consciousness to activity within our brains. So, dark matter and dark energy don’t seem to really matter.
Anyways, this is what happens when you think about anything too hard. You find yourself at the edge of a cliff, and if you go any farther, you’re falling headfirst into a pit of insanity. I sometimes risk my own sanity, slowly repelling with a rope down that cliff, seeing what’s down in this dark abyss. When I repel down too far, I can no longer breathe or think straight, and I start hallucinating. That’s about the time I chicken out and head back up.
Most people like to praise the scientist or thinker who isn’t afraid to ask the tough questions and pursue them will full force. They say we’re defined by the difficulty of our questions and the depth of our answers! What they fail to tell you is when you go too far down the rabbit hole, everyone around you just thinks you’re insane, you’re totally alienated, and before long you’re all alone.
Ayn Rand is probably the most famous libertarian author of all time. She was a fierce advocate of “radical capitalism”, individual liberty, and equal rights for women. She advocated reason as the only means of acquiring knowledge and rejected faith and religion. A hero to many entrepreneurs and business folk, she’s known all over the world as the author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. But this woman has a strange twist — she was also, quite strangely, the head of a cult not unlike that of Hare Krishna or the Manson family.
You might have to step back and pause for a moment to read that again. Ayn Rand? Really? No way. Isn’t she about individuality, critical thought, and thinking for yourself? Who could imagine her running a cult, brainwashing her followers, surrounded by mindless, weak-minded drones, worshiping every aspect of her life. Well, it’s true. Many years ago, she ran her cult right out of her New York City apartment.
Murray Rothbard wrote a long piece in 1972 detailing Rand’s cult from the inside. She controlled how her followers thought, how they acted, and even what they should and should not enjoy in their spare time. She told them who to marry, what to read, and what films they were allowed to see. She dictated every aspect of her followers lives.
It all began when she wrote her book the Fountainhead. This attracted a group of young men and women who craved deep discourse on freedom, human nature, and society. They wanted to be heroes, just like the characters in her novels. They came like wet clay to the hands of a skilled potter, wishing to learn what they could from this incredible woman. Showing up day after day, they sat at her feet to discuss the novel as well as other things of interest, such as new novels Rand was writing. Later when she wrote Atlas Shrugged, she attracted even more followers as well, and over the course of a decade, the cult became quite large. Soon all the nearby apartment buildings were filled with her followers with Rand’s apartment serving as the central hub.
These young men and women had very impressionable minds and she went to work right away. Using guilt and fear, she controlled their thoughts and filtered what they were and were not allowed to read.
The philosophical rationale for keeping Rand cultists in blissful ignorance was the Randian theory of “not giving your sanction to the Enemy.” Reading the Enemy (which, with a few carefully selected exceptions, meant all non- or anti-Randians) meant “giving him your moral sanction,” which was strictly forbidden as irrational. In a few selected cases, limited exceptions were made for leading cult members who could prove that they had to read certain Enemy works in order to refute them.
And even if they were to discuss Rand’s ideas, they had to presented in her exact wording. They couldn’t make the material their own. Her works and opinions were like that of the pope, infallible and not subject to question.
One method, as we have seen, was to keep the members in ignorance. Another was to insure that every spoken and written word of the Randian member was not only correct in content but also in form, for any slight nuance or difference in wording could and would be attacked for deviating from the Randian position. Thus, just as the Marxist movements developed jargon and slogans which were clung to for fear of uttering incorrect deviations, the same was true in the Randian movement. In the name of “precision of language,” in short, nuance and even synonyms were in effect prohibited.
Everything revolved around “reason”, which basically meant, “You have to think like me or you’re stupid and irrational.” If you tried to talk about her ideas, she let you know that you were treading on thin ice. She would intimidate the young followers, telling them that they better communicate her ideas with the “precision of language”, aka, they weren’t ideas to debate and question, they were principles to memorize, learn from, and place your faith in. If you were reading books she didn’t approve of, you were “giving the enemy your moral sanction”. If you were making jokes or engaging in fun activities she didn’t herself enjoy, she called it “whim worship” and condemned your actions, sometimes even threatening to excommunicate you from the group.
To give you some perspective of how these young men and women viewed her, just listen to how their weddings were.
The Biblical nature of Atlas for many Randians is illustrated by the wedding of a Randian couple that took place in New York. At the ceremony, the couple pledged their joint devotion and fealty to Ayn Rand, and then supplemented it by opening Atlas – perhaps at random – to read aloud a passage from the sacred text.
This reminds me of my cousin’s wedding. My family members are devout Christians, and during my cousin’s wedding you’d have to wonder if he was marrying his wife or Jesus Christ instead. The two of them got on stage and sang songs to Jesus. They took their marriage vows on an open Bible and quoted scripture as they broke down into tears. Then they pledged their lives to the church and to spreading the gospel as they prostrated themselves at the altar in prayer. Then I hear about Rand’s followers and it’s the exact same thing, but their Bible is Rand’s novel Atlas Shruggled and Jesus is interchanged with either John Galt or Rand herself. To those people, she was their God.
But it gets even stranger. Rand had a very grave and solemn personality and she imposed it forcefully on all her followers.
Wit and humor, as might be gathered from this incident, were verboten in the Randian movement. The philosophical rationale was that humor demonstrates that one “is not serious about one’s values.” The actual reason, of course, is that no cult can withstand the piercing and sobering effect, the sane perspective, provided by humor. One was permitted to sneer at one’s enemies, but that was the only humor allowed, if humor that be.
Personal enjoyment, indeed, was also frowned upon in the movement and denounced as hedonistic “whim-worship.” In particular, nothing could be enjoyed for its own sake – every activity had to serve some indirect, “rational” function. Thus, food was not to be savored, but only eaten joylessly as a necessary means of one’s survival; sex was not to be enjoyed for its own sake, but only to be engaged in grimly as a reflection and reaffirmation of one’s “highest values”; painting or movies only to be enjoyed if one could find “rational values” in doing so. All of these values were not simply to be discovered quietly by each person – the heresy of “subjectivism” – but had to be proven to the rest of the cult. In practice, as will be seen further below, the only safe aesthetic or romantic “values” or objects for the member were those explicitly sanctioned by Ayn Rand or other top disciples.
She kept her flock busy at all times. There were always meetings and social functions taking place in her apartment, as well as those of other movement leaders. At the meet ups, lecturers gave talks on everything from psychology, fiction, and sex, to art, economics, and philosophy.
Failure to attend these lectures was a matter of serious concern in the movement. The philosophical rationale for the pressure to attend these meetings went as follows:
1. Randians are the most rational people one could possibly meet (a conclusion derived from the thesis that Randianism was rationality in theory and in practice);
2. You, of course, want to be rational (and if you didn’t, you were in grave trouble in the movement);
3. Ergo, you should be eager to spend all your time with fellow Randians and a fortiori with Rand and her top disciples if possible.
But what if you didn’t like these people? Well, you must be irrational. After all, emotions are the by-product of how you think, and if you think like Rand, you will feel like Rand. If you’re not enjoying the meetings, you need education and therapy.
Under Randian theory, emotions are always the consequence of ideas, and incorrect emotions the consequence of wrong ideas, so that therefore, personal dislike of other (and especially of leading) Randians must be due to a grave canker of irrationality which either had to be kept concealed or else confessed to the leaders. Any such confession meant a harrowing process of ideological and psychological purification, supposedly ending in one’s success at achieving rationality, independence, and self-esteem and therefore an unquestioning and blind devotion to Ayn Rand.
One incident of suppressed doubt of Randian tenets is revealing of the psychology of even the leading cult members. One top young Randian, a veteran of the movement in New York City, admitted privately one day that he had grave doubts on a key Randian philosophic tenet: I believe it was the fact of his own existence. He was deathly afraid to ask the question, it being so basic that he knew he would be excommunicated on the spot for simply raising the point; but he had complete faith that if Rand should be asked the question, she would answer it satisfactorily and resolve his doubts. And so he waited, year after year, hoping against hope that someone would ask the question, be expelled, but that his own doubts would then be resolved in the process.
Like all cults, she had to force her followers to cut ties with their family members and friends. There was always the risk that they may try to dissuade them or argue against the Randian doctrines, and that was prohibited. Don’t give your mind to the enemy!
In the manner of many cults, loyalty to the guru had to supersede loyalty to family and friends – typically the first personal crises for the fledgling Randian. If non-Randian family and friends persisted in their heresies even after being hectored at some length by the young neophyte, they were then considered to be irrational and part of the Enemy and had to be abandoned. The same was true of spouses; many marriages were broken up by the cult leadership who sternly informed either the wife or the husband that their spouses were not sufficiently Randworthy. Indeed, since emotions resulted only from premises, and since the leaders’ premises were by definition supremely rational, that top leadership presumed to try to match and unmatch couples. As one of them asserted one day: “I know all the rational young men and women in New York and I can match them up.” But suppose that Mr. A was matched with Miss B and one of them didn’t like the other? Well, once again, “reason” prevailed: the dislike was irrational, requiring intensive psychotherapeutic investigation to purge oneself of the erroneous ideas.
Rand’s followers were pushed to abandon their old lives in order to subject themselves to reason. From then on, the leaders would tell them who it was rational to marry and associate with from then on.
Being a member of Ayn Rand’s inner circle was a serious affair. If you tried to do your own thing, she may excommunicate you. You always had to check with headquarters before you did anything of any importance. And remember, she had already separated these people from their old lives. The cult members were all they had left, and Rand would constantly threaten to excommunicate them if they would not conform to “reason”.
The psychological hold that the cult held on the members may be illustrated by the case of one girl, a certified top Randian, who experienced the misfortune of falling in love with an unworthy non-Randian. The leadership told the girl that if she persisted in her desire to marry the man, she would be instantly excommunicated. She did so nevertheless, and was promptly expelled. And yet, a year or so later, she told a friend that the Randians had been right, that she had indeed sinned and that they should have expelled her as unworthy of being a rational Randian.
But the most important sanction for the enforcement of loyalty and obedience, the most important instrument for psychological control of the members, was the development and practice of Objectivist Psychotherapy. In effect, this psychological theory held that since emotion always stems from incorrect ideas, that therefore all neurosis did so as well; and hence, the cure for that neurosis is to discover and purge oneself of those incorrect ideas and values. And since Randian ideas were all correct and all deviation therefore incorrect, Objectivist Psychotherapy consisted of (a) inculcating everyone with Randian theory – except now in a supposedly psycho-therapeutic setting; and (b) searching for the hidden deviation from Randian theory responsible for the neurosis and purging it by correcting the deviation.
It is clear that, considering the emotional and psychological power of the psychotherapeutic experience, the Rand cult had in its hands a powerful weapon for reinforcing and sanctioning the moulding of the New Randian Man. Philosophy and psychology, explicit doctrine, social pressure, and therapeutic pressure, all reinforced each other to generate obedient and loyal acolytes of Ayn Rand.
As you can imagine, this was not a very joyful place. There was constant fear.
… the dominant subjective emotions of the Randian cultist were fear and even terror: fear of displeasing Rand or her leading disciples; fear of using an incorrect word or nuance that would get the member into trouble; fear of being found out in the “irrationality” of some ideological or personal deviation; fear, even, of smiling at an unworthy (i.e., non-Randian) person. Such fear was greater than that of a Communist member, because the Randian had far less leeway for ideological or personal deviation. Furthermore, since Rand had an absolute and total line on every conceivable question of ideology and daily life, all aspects of such life had to be searched – by oneself and by others – for suspicious heresies and deviations. Everything was the object of fear and suspicion. There was the fear of making an independent judgment, for suppose that the member was to make a statement on some subject on which he did not know Rand’s position, and then were to find out that Rand disagreed. The Randian would then be in grave trouble, even if the only problem were that his language was a bit differently nuanced. So it was far more prudent to keep silent and then check with headquarters for the precisely correct line.
You may wonder why anyone would subject themselves to this? Well, like all religious cults, they were the chosen elect, the bearers of some special knowledge, the only ones who knew the “truth”.
But if the Randian lived in a state of fear and awe of Rand and her leading disciples, there were psychological compensations; for he could also live in the exciting and comforting knowledge that he was one of a small number of the elect, that only the members of this small band were in tune with reason and reality. The rest of the world, even those who were seemingly intelligent, happy, and successful, were really living in limbo, cut off from reason and from understanding the nature of reality. They could not be happy because cult theory decreed that happiness can only be achieved by being a committed Randian; they couldn’t even be intelligent, since how could seemingly intelligent people not be Randians, especially if they commit the gravest sin – failing to become Randians once they were exposed to this new gospel.
Cult members would even change their legal names to please their master.
Some Randians emulated their leader by changing their names from Russian or Jewish to a presumably harder, tougher, more heroic Anglo-Saxon. Branden himself changed his name from Blumenthal; it is perhaps not a coincidence, as Nora Ephron has pointed out, that if the letters of the new name are rearranged, they spell, B-E-N-R-A-N-D, Hebrew for “son of Rand.” A Randian girl, with a Polish name beginning with “G-r,” announced one day that she was changing her name the following week. When asked deadpan, by a humorous observer whether she was changing her name to “Grand,” she replied, in all seriousness, that no she was changing it to “Grant” – presumably, as the observer later remarked, the “t” was her one gesture of independence.
Rand’s personal preferences were universally pushed on all her followers. For example, to be a member of the cult, you had to smoke. Why? Rand herself liked to smoke, and one of the heroine characters in her novel smoked, so naturally they all had to as well.
The all-encompassing nature of the Randian line may be illustrated by an incident that occurred to a friend of mine who once asked a leading Randian if he disagreed with the movement’s position on any conceivable subject. After several minutes of hard thought, the Randian replied: “Well, I can’t quite understand their position on smoking.” Astonished that the Rand cult had any position on smoking, my friend pressed on: “They have a position on smoking? What is it?” The Randian replied that smoking, according to the cult, was a moral obligation. In my own experience, a top Randian once asked me rather sharply, “How is it that you don’t smoke?” When I replied that I had discovered early that I was allergic to smoke, the Randian was mollified: “Oh, that’s OK, then.” The official justification for making smoking a moral obligation was a sentence in Atlas where the heroine refers to a lit cigaretteas symbolizing a fire in the mind, the fire of creative ideas. (One would think that simply holding up a lit match could do just as readily for this symbolic function.) One suspects that the actual reason, as in so many other parts of Randian theory, from Rachmaninoff to Victor Hugo to tap dancing, was that Rand simply liked smoking and had the need to cast about for a philosophical system that would make her personal whims not only moral but also a moral obligation incumbent upon everyone who desires to be rational.
Interesting to hear all of this from a woman who advocates reason, individuality, and free thought, isn’t it? She had a strange conception of reason. For example, though she condemned religion as irrational, she would tell her members that they could deduce every aspect of reality from thought and logic alone, which in principle isn’t all that different from divine revelation. In both cases, people come up with ideas out their own head, and neither feels any need to justify their positions with observations, experiments, or testing. There’s no need for falsification. You can just deduce the laws of physics and every aspect of human nature just by thinking hard about them from your recliner at home.
For many ex-cultists remain imbued with the Randian belief that every individual is armed with the means of spinning out all truths a priori from his own head – hence there is felt to be no need to learn the concrete facts about the real world, either about contemporary history or the laws of the social sciences. Armed with axiomatic first principles, many ex-Randians see no need of learning very much else. Furthermore, lingering Randian hubris imbues many ex-members with the idea that each one is able and qualified to spin out an entire philosophy of life and of the world a priori.
All of this really makes you wonder how much she really believed in free thought, and whether she actually valued individuality. She’s known as an advocate of limited government, civil liberties, and unregulated capitalism, but there’s a lot more to her than that. She’s interesting, that’s for sure. Keep all of this in mind if you ever decide to read her books and letters.
The other day I was telling a friend of mine that I’m surprised the human race is still around. When you look at the Cold-War era, you can’t help but wonder how reason prevailed.
President Eisenhower was consistently using what his vice-president Nixon would later refer to as Madman Diplomacy, threatening Korea, China, and the Soviet Union with nuclear attacks. He later would adopt the same strategy himself in the Vietnam war. Nixon described the tactic to his chief of staff H.R. Halderman,
“I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, “for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button” and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”
– Richard Nixon’s description of ‘Madman’ Diplomacy
As I mentioned a short while back, I’ve been reading The Untold History Of The United States, the companion book to Oliver Stone’s recent documentary series with the same title. I’d just like to quote directly from the text.
“…under Eisenhower the United States went from having a little more than 1,000 nuclear weapons to approximately 22,000, aimed at 2,500 targets in the Soviet Union. But even the 22,000 figure is misleading. Procurements authorized by Eisenhower continued into the 1960s, making Eisenhower responsible for more than 30,000 nuclear weapons during the Kennedy administration. Between 1959 and 1961, the United States added 19,500 nuclear weapons to its arsenal. The United States was producing new weapons at the rate of 75 per day and doing so at bargain-basement prices. As Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes notes, “Nuclear warheads cost the United States about $250,000 each: less than a fighter-bomber, less than a missile, less than a patrol boat, less than a tank.” Total megatonnage increased sixty-five-fold in five years, reaching 20,491 megatons in 1960. In pure megatonnage, that was the equivalent of 1,360,000 Hiroshima bombs. Although the total megatonnage began to drop in 1961, as 950 10-megaton B36 bombs were retired, the bombs’ destructive capability actually increased as the introduction of ballistic missiles made targeting more accurate. Doubling the accuracy of delivery allows for an eight-fold reduction in yield without sacrificing the bombs’ destructive capability.”
– The Untold History Of The United States
Where were all these missiles and bombs pointed and who was in authority to launch a nuclear attack? Basically, nuclear missiles were aimed at every populated area of the Soviet Union and China, and the scary thing is, literally dozens of different commanders had the authority to launch nuclear strikes on their own! There was a complicated subdelegation which included the commanders of air forces, fleets, and navies. Pilots, submarine commanders, squadron leaders, base commanders, and carrier commanders all had power and authority to launch a nuclear attack. RAND analyst Daniel Ellsberg was hired by the Pentagon to analyze the chain of nuclear command and concluded, “It was a doomsday machine on a hair trigger with delegation.”
This all began years earlier with President Harry Truman. As World War II progressed, there were reports that Hitler was working on an atomic bomb. Fearful, we decided to develop one ourselves. Hitler ended up canceling their development in favor of missiles instead, but we continued with the project anyways.
Toward the end of the war, Japan was on the verge of surrender. Truman listened to his advisers and dropped the first atom bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not to avert American causalities, but to send a message to Stalin, “Look at this bomb. Do you see its destructive capabilities? Good. Now do what we say.”
The Kremlin went berserk. How were they going to counter such a weapon? They were forced to make several post-war concessions to the United States and Britain, under constant nuclear black-mail. Truman basically kept flaunting it in their face, “We’ll drop it on you! We’ll drop it on you! You better not try anything!”
Physicists like Robert Oppenheimer were urging Truman to change his foreign policy and stop using the atom bomb as a form of black-mail. He told Truman outright that the problem of atomic weapons was simply an engineering problem and that the Soviets would soon develop their own atom bombs. Truman told Oppenheimer to leave his office and notified his secretary that he never wanted to see that “sissy scientist” ever again.
As expected, a few years later the Soviets developed their own atom bombs, and later hydrogen bombs. Truman was first in denial, not believing the reports. But they were true. Stalin was tired of being black-mailed and told the White House that he was no longer going to be bullied.
From then on there were constant threats and posturing between the two super-powers and the complete annihilation of all life on Earth laid in the hands of a few men.
To get back to our original story, Eisenhower had nuclear weapons aimed at all of China and the Soviet Union. Just one false move and all of human civilization, and likely all life on Earth, would have been wiped out. Quoting from the text again,
“In August 1960, President Eisenhower approved the preparation of a National Strategic Target List and Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP). The country’s first SIOP detailed a plan to deploy the country’s strategic nuclear forces in a simultaneous strike against the Sino-Soviet bloc within the first twenty-four hours of a war. Its goal was maximum destruction. The targets included Soviet nuclear forces, government control centers, and the urban-industrial base. When briefed on the magnitude and redundancy of destruction, Eisenhower admitted to his naval aide, Captain E.P. Aurand, that it “frightened the devil out of me.” As well it should have. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were subsequently asked to estimate the death toll from such an attack. The numbers were shocking: 325 million dead in the Sovet Union and China, another 100 million in Eastern Europe, a similar number in Western Europe from fallout, and up to another 100 million from fallout in bordering countries including Finland, Sweden, Austria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Japan. Those figures did not include the deaths caused by Soviet nuclear weapons or by U.S. tactical weapons. Nor did they include the then-unknown fact that an attack of this magnitude would almost certainly have triggered a nuclear winter, raising the possibility of extinction. Though horrified by the prospect of millions dying if the SIOP were enacted, Eisenhower passed the plan, unaltered, on to the new administration.”
– The Untold History Of The United States
According to President Kennedy’s biographer Theodore Sorensen, his primary reason for running for president was, “…he thought that Eisenhower-Dulles policy of massive retaliation and all of that was heading the country toward nuclear war. He felt the policy of massive retaliation — in which we supposedly kept the peace by saying if you step one foot over the line in West Berlin or somewhere else, we will respond by annihilating you with nuclear weapons — he felt was mad.”
This nuclear buildup eventually culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis under President Kennedy. As I’ve talked about in previous posts, at the start of the twentieth century the United States got in the business of empire. We had made Cuba into a remote colony to exploit, owned almost exclusively by companies like United Fruit. A revolutionary named Castro lead a Communist uprising to free the people. We ran several failed coup attempts, but Castro sought help from the Soviet Union.
Eventually this all lead to the Soviets sneaking an entire arsenal of nuclear missiles into Cuba. President Kennedy was in a real mess. Noam Chomsky explains the event in this video.
People like to think that this is all in the past, but it’s not. President Bush and now President Obama continue to push Russia and Putin’s not one to mess with. Russia has been ramping up their nuclear program and increasing military expenditures three times.
I don’t have time to fully assess threats of nuclear war at the moment. Suffice it to say, even today there are very real dangers of all out nuclear carnage.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter tells reporters that,
“America does not have a functioning democracy at this point in time.”
He also spoke with CNN about Edward Snowden.
“He’s obviously violated the laws of America, for which he’s responsible, but I think the invasion of human rights and American privacy has gone too far,” saying that nations were within their right to offer asylum to Snowden. “I think that the secrecy that has been surrounding this invasion of privacy has been excessive, so I think that the bringing of it to the public notice has probably been, in the long term, beneficial.”
Maybe some of you saw President Obama squirming on the Tonight Show the other night, denying Snowden’s revelations of domestic spying programs, claiming that he’s put safeguards in place, that Bush is the real culprit, and so on. Really? You’re going to blame former President George Bush? You’ve been in office for five to six years now, but you just haven’t had a chance to put an end to any of the spying and domestic surveillance his administration put in place? Give me a break. Here’s a short clip with some thoughtful analysis.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’ve been reading MIT Professor Noam Chomsky’s books lately. My opinion on the Edward Snowden situation is identical to his, which he elaborates in this clip below.