Operation Crossroads: 21 Kiloton “Baker” Bomb Detonated Ninety Feet Underwater, Bikini Atoll Lagoon, South Pacific, July 25, 1946. Image Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 2004

It is thrilling to see an intellectual throw all that he has into an effort to shatter the widespread complacency regarding the threat of nuclear catastrophe. Prior to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and threats of using nuclear weapons, I had pushed fear of nuclear annihilation to the very edges of my consciousness. James Carroll bids us to recall this fear, to bring it back to the center of our concerns, and to extinguish it through effective action.

And he reminds us that dissidents in the past have managed to wrest important concessions from the powers that be and thereby made the world a safer, better place: the Clamshell Alliance, the Ploughshares movement, Greenpeace, Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, Global Zero, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons—all these and kindred groups have struggled and are continuing to struggle on behalf of social justice which is almost always facilitated by peace.

I found his essay a wonderful exercise in consciousness raising.

It is thrilling to see someone subject himself to “vigilant moral self-scrutiny” and in so doing try hard to figure out what they think about a large, complicated, volatile subject with which they have been contending for decades.

A veteran anti-war activist, Carroll acknowledges that the nobility of the Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion has prompted him to revise his attitude regarding resistance to international bullying.

He has long held that the institutions of liberal democracy are worth dying for. Now, though, he contends that “violence in defense of democratic principles can be warranted.”

What remains to be said, however, is under what circumstances and to what extent can violence in defense of democratic principles be warranted. Is Ukraine in a different moral posture than any country that is invaded by an aggressive neighboring nation-state? What is it precisely that ennobles and justifies the Ukrainian resort to the sword?

These are complex questions that Carroll has raised without fully answering. But I take some solace in reading James Carroll insist that “by the strange alchemy of an indefatigable human self-surpassing, the war’s end in Ukraine, when it comes, can provide a way out” of what appears to be a dead end. “As happened before in the aftermath of two savage wars, history’s door may be swinging open for an entirely reimagined structure of international concord. A much broader one. A truly global one.” 

I find his optimism uplifting, and I hope, as he does, that “the impossible, in the transforming spaciousness of imagination and courage, is possible.”

Randall Kennedy is Michael R. Klein Professor at Harvard Law School.

Click here to read James Carroll’s six-part series reckoning with nuclear weapons, peace activism, and war in Ukraine.