Man working on the hull of a U.S. submarine at Electric Boat Co., Groton, Connecticut, August 1943 © Lt. Comdr. Charles Fenno Jacobs
I live in New London, Connecticut, where the Thames River flows into the Long Island Sound. It is a community with a deep-water port and a deep maritime history that includes the transatlantic slave trade, whale hunting, and nuclear powered, nuclear armed submarines.
On a clear day, I can stand on one of the downtown piers and make out workers on the other side of the river, building new bays and facilities for the construction of the Columbia-class submarine at General Dynamics Electric Boat. Sometimes, I can even hear them calling to one another over the din of heavy machinery. The company is the fourth largest weapons manufacturer in the United States, with more than $17 billion in contracts. The Columbia-class submarines will replace the Ohio-class fleet and can carry two thirds of the United States’ deployed nuclear arsenal. Decades after the end of the Cold War, the United States is investing hundreds of billions of dollars in a new generation of nuclear weapons and crafting new rationales for perpetuating and perfecting with the most destructive technology on the face of the earth. General Dynamics has already pocketed $10 billion in contracts for the new submarines and the costs of the whole project are spiraling upward. The U.S. Government Accountability Office’s (U.S. GAO) latest estimate puts the total cost for the twelve boats at $112 billion.
My family and I like to hike sometimes on Mamacoke Island, connected to the mainland by a marshy land bridge. We walk for a while, and then take off our shoes on the huge slabs of glacial rock that slide into the river and wade in. The 40-acre island feels primordial and unblemished if you keep your eyes cast down at the water or up at the trees. If you aren’t careful with your eye, all you can see is that the far side of the river—only yards away across the water—is dominated by the Naval Submarine Base New London. This base is home to 21,000 people and sixteen attack submarines. The submarine base means lots of pawn shops, used car lots, and adult entertainment. But it also means a kind of blinkered existence, where the water is open and free and accessible to all, except don’t get too close or point your camera over there.
We literally unfocus our eyes and choose where we look in order to navigate around the ugliness of militarism as we go about our life and work. I begin here, in my chosen hometown, because here in New London—superficially so far from the epicenters of today’s wars—war making is not a remote abstraction.
War making is this community’s bread and butter. War making is a dark specter that looms over every beautiful thing in our community. The “American way of life” is bought and paid for by an out-of-control militarism that demands that we penetrate our silence and acquiescence only to say “Thank you.”
This psychic numbing (to borrow Robert Jay Lifton’s resonate term) long predates Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but as James Carroll makes so clear, the nuclear-tinged war in Ukraine stokes the urgency of the critical work of the twenty-first century—nuclear abolition.
And, as Carroll explores, that is easier said than done!
There has always been a peace movement here in Southeastern Connecticut where war starts with welds and bolts, and a deep enough faith in technology that human beings consign themselves to submersibles for months at a time. There have been marches for disarmament, waves of blockades at the gates of Electric Boat, yearly “Stations of the Cross” at the Naval Base with huge crosses and die-ins across the main entrance, interruptions and delays at christenings and launches of submarines by activists with leaflets and speeches; there have been Plowshares activists who have canoed and swam on to submarines to symbolically disarm them, earnest listening projects carried out by activists and graduate students seeking common cause with submarines workers and union members, and a number of patient and hopeful efforts at converting the local economy to more benign forms of industry.
Today, we fold ourselves into this radical history and keep on trying. When the climate change allegory Don’t Look Up came to our community movie theater, members of our small anti-nuclear group handed out fliers we had written, drawing the connections between climate catastrophe and the looming nuclear threat. Our words struck a chord and led to three different articles in the local newspaper. We held a vigil in front of General Dynamics in New London and in front of the sub base. We keep trying.
But we keep coming up against one of the most pernicious consequences of militarism (at least for those far away from the bomb targets): the crippled imagination of the war-dependent.
People in our community, where General Dynamics Electric Boat is the largest taxpayer, can’t even imagine a different way forward.
When I ran for mayor as a member of the Green Party in 2019, I was asked at the first debate if I was a pacifist. There was a gotcha-quality to the question that I found laughable. I responded by saying, “Yes, I am a pacifist. I believe that war is a crime against humanity and a failure of the imagination.” I went on to say that as Mayor, I would not be afraid to criticize our largest taxpayer for the ways in which General Dynamics short-changes our community by not hiring local workers and always challenging their tax assessments. I said that the current Mayor and city leaders are too grateful to this multibillion corporation who only has one client—the U.S. government (wait, isn’t that us, the taxpayers?). I pointed out that their lowest paid workers are eligible for food stamps in our community—even after taxpayers have paid for their workforce readiness programs—while their CEO’s salary is more than 500 times the Area Median Income. I concluded by saying that we would be a stronger community if we were not dependent on General Dynamics Electric Boat.
You don’t have to be a pacifist to see that; but it helps.
I didn’t say all those exact words, but that was the gist. And it was big talk! It didn’t feel super radical to me, especially since I am related to all those people who sought to disarm submarines from canoes, but it was groundbreaking. When New Londoners complain about General Dynamics Electric Boat, they stick to grousing about how the workers take all the on-street parking, and they carefully caveat even those dim protestations with gratitude and patriotism just in case.
There is a new urgency to try and resolve the Russian war in Ukraine because of Putin’s nuclear threat-making. Matthew Bunn, Professor of the Practice of Energy, National Security, and Foreign Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, estimates that “there’s a 10 percent to 20 percent likelihood that Russia might use a nuke,” calling that “intolerably high.”
What is new is not that a nation armed with thousands of nuclear weapons is threatening to use them. That has been happening every day for the last 77 years since the United States dropped the first atomic weapon on Hiroshima, Japan. The whole world has lived under this threat for 28,105 days and counting. And because of that existential threat, the international community worked to create the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW)—the only comprehensive legally-binding prohibition that bans the development, possession, threats of use, and use of nuclear weapons, while also containing a framework for their verifiable dismantlement.
Archbishop John C. Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico has joined the work for nuclear abolition. In January, he issued a pastoral letter “Living in the Light of Christ’s Peace: A Conversation Toward Nuclear Disarmament.” The 50-plus-page document is part term paper on the history of U.S. nuclearism, part scholarly sermon and part call to action. “It is the duty of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, the birthplace of nuclear weapons, to support that Treaty while working toward universal, verifiable nuclear disarmament.” Wester has the resources and the platform to keep the conversation going. The pastoral letter was followed by panels, discussions, sermons, Sunday school lessons and public events bringing together Native American activists, environmentalists, and scholars to increase public awareness about the real,radical and necessary path to nuclear disarmament.
But the Archbishop’s work didn’t start in a vacuum. Was it motivated by decades of small groups of radical Catholic activists like the Plowshares? Was it prodded along by the mainstream calls for nuclear disarmament from Cold Warriors like Henry Kissenger and George Shultz? Was it inspired by the international consensus building that coalesced in the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons entering into force in January 2021? Was it ignited by the steadfast witness and truth telling of the hibakusha, Japanese survivors of the U.S. nuclear bombings 77 years ago? A little bit of all of these, and so much more?
In No Bars To Manhood, my uncle Father Daniel Berrigan wrote “we want the peace with half a heart and half a life and will; the war, of course, continues, because the waging of war, by its nature, is total—but the waging of peace, by our own cowardice, is partial.”
That phrase, part of a larger and even more powerful reflection from that 1970 book, has been running through my head since February 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine. The waging of peace is partial. I have a few other P’s that I can add: passive, performative and partisan. So much of the Left in the United States is either passive (Oh no, war is bad but what can I do?) or performative (lots of facebook and instagram based solidarity) or partisan (many of the demonstrations around here have been very pro-Ukrainian, very nationalist, and in bigger cities there has been a lot of pro-Russian rhetoric and adoption of Russian rationales for their “special military operation”).
What would it look like to strategically sacrifice and struggle for peace without bloodshed?
The short answer is: we do not know. The history of nonviolent successes is underreported, understudied, and under-understood.
The work of Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth show that major nonviolent campaigns achieved success 53 percent of the time, compared with a 26 percent success rate for violent resistance. They look at organized civilian populations who employed nonviolent methods to challenge entrenched power and exact political concessions, citing success in Lebanon in 2005, Madagascar in 2002, Nepal in 2006.
If these campaigns do not sound familiar, you are not alone! We have a lot to learn and little time to bemoan our ignorance.
Why does nonviolence work? Stephan and Chenoweth’s research proves what we already know intuitively: “a campaign’s commitment to nonviolent methods enhances its domestic and international legitimacy and encourages more broad-based participation in the resistance, which translates into increased pressure being brought to bear on the target.” The United Nations Peacekeeping forces are on the ground in Ukraine, and Myanmar, Iraq, the Philippines, and elsewhere. They are trying, as are so many others, a human scaled, face to face network of mutual aid and protection. This is not the kind of work that garners headlines. It is slow and complicated and small. But as feminist activist Barbara Deming observed, “Nonviolence is an exploration, one that has just begun.” We have to keep it going!
In contrast, violence is so simple! It is cause and effect. Action and reaction. And the simplicity of it is projected at us through every form of media we consume. But that is only part of the story. Death is final, and killing another person wounds the killer deeply. The media doesn’t project that message. Paul Lacy, a veteran of World War II and Professor of Peace Studies at Earlham College, would tell his students: “I am not a pacifist because I am afraid to kill. I am a pacifist because I know I can kill. End of story.” My father, Philip Berrigan, became a pacifist because he killed as an infantryman and field decorated Lieutenant during World War II.
As I read James Carroll’s essay, I kept thinking that there are principles and people worth dying for. I believe that. I hope that I will be brave and principled when push comes to shove. But what is worth killing for? How will I know who deserves to die and who might be redeemable?
Roger Fisher taught law at Harvard and headed their Negotiation Project. He suggested that the President of the United States should be accompanied at all times by a volunteer who carries the codes to launch nuclear weapons. Writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1981, Fisher suggested: “Put that needed code number in a little capsule, and then implant that capsule right next to the heart of a volunteer. The volunteer would carry a big, heavy butcher knife as he accompanied the President. If ever the President wanted to fire nuclear weapons, the only way he could do so would be for him first, with his own hands, to kill one human being.”
Roger Fisher died in 2012, but this idea endures, and it is helpful in breaking through both the mystique and the abstraction that surround nuclear weapons and the concrete entrenchedness of the military industrial complex.
Disarm Now! For the Ukrainians. For the Russians. For us in New London. For the future.
Frida Berrigan is community activist and the author of It Runs In The Family: On Being Raised By Radicals and Growing Into Rebellious Motherhood.
Read James Carroll’s six-part series reckoning with nuclear weapons, peace activism, and war in Ukraine.