What a gift: we have perspective. Young people haven’t yet experienced the visceral feelings of watching the events of their time unfold. Those feelings became the building blocks of belief systems over time. In our eight decades, there is one thread that has been reduced inexcusably to partisan politics with great risk to us all. And that is the subject of war.
We were alive during World War II when FDR turned to the brilliant physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer to run the Manhattan Project that would develop the atomic bomb. What no one knew, not even Roosevelt himself, was that Oppenheimer was also a humanist who would recognize the ramifications of what he and his team were about to unleash. He was not a warrior.
On the night before the first major test explosion, Oppenheimer did not know if it could or would unleash forces that would obliterate the planet in a chain reaction. Later, after two bombs had succeeded in destroying Hiroshima and Nagasaki and brought the Japanese surrender, Oppenheimer felt no joy. What he said to a colleague was, “What have we done?”
His warnings about the future made him a target of Joseph McCarthy. Along with our China experts who were ruined by HUAC, Oppenheimer became yet another victim of that era that branded contemplative people as Communist sympathizers. He came to oppose what he himself had done and for McCarthy that meant he was a traitor.
There is a documentary – The Day After Trinity – that illustrates the great strength of that genre by bringing archival footage and interviews with the players to our own experience. Everything in that film enriches the perspective we now have on modern warfare. Oppenheimer shows us the single most important reason that all disputes should be resolved by negotiation, not war. He knew that now that we have weapons that can destroy life on this planet, we probably will do just that unless we eliminate war as a solution to anything.
Think about the Cold War (1947-91) when the world saw the Communist threat through a common lens without understanding that no country can control and subdue forever its far away satellites. Think about Korea (1950 –53) when we were told that if we didn’t go to war there, the Southeast Asian countries would fall like dominoes. And of Vietnam for the same reasoning (1956 –73). And then our long war in Afghanistan (2001- present) as punishment for the destruction of the World Trade Center. And Iraq (2003 to the present) – that war for which from first day to last, there was no justification at all. We don’t need to politicize that history by blaming particular presidents or politicians, though that game can be fruitful. We just need to recognize and understand, finally, that all four of those wars killed thousands of our young soldiers for absolutely no reason whatsoever.
The Cold War ended when Gorbachev decided the Berlin Wall must fall. Vietnam ended when American war protestors forced Richard Nixon to declare an end to it. In Iraq, soldiers died for a decade while the U.S. insisted it had freed the country from dictatorship and we, the beneficent savior would clear the field for democracy. Afghanistan, the country we invaded in retribution against al-Quaeda, will soon be free of us after a decade to find its own path. These war victims – Americans and civilians – did not have to die.
The countries we have invaded are made up of shifting alliances and cultural backgrounds that we don’t understand. Who are we to think we can impose democracy on people who have never known it and don’t want it? Every time we invade, we learn quickly that we have to commit more soldiers to enforce it. Only in the Cuban Missile Crisis when President Kennedy disregarded the war hawks who were demanding that we invade Cuba did we learn the lesson of negotiation. Quiet backdoor negotiation avoided what many were anticipating as World War III. Why is it so hard for us to embrace the concept of skilled statesmen and national patience as solutions to global problems?
In the case of Iran, can’t we look at their rich cultural heritage and our common interests and talk – yes, talk endlessly – knowing that as the decades pass, the Iranian people will solve their own problems? Mossadegh tried once to democratize his country but CIA ousted him in 1953 and installed the puppet Shah, trained by CIA, who was hated by his own people. We sowed all the seeds of the present dilemma.
Our record as the world’s policeman is abysmal and thousands of our young people have paid the price for our ignorance. We are not the world’s policeman. It is not up to us to liberate captive countries. They will do that themselves in time. Can’t we deny power and position to people who see war as a solution to problems in the nuclear age? We need smart, patient statesmen, not warrior politicians.