Janine Jackson interviewed SUNY’s Karl Grossman about nuclear war for the August 12, 2022, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: Seventy-seven years after the devastating atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres says, “The prospect of nuclear conflict, once unthinkable, is now back within the realm of possibility.”
It’s being floated by Vladimir Putin as part of his warmongering in Ukraine, and slipping with a disturbing lack of friction into media discussion—as when Britain’s the Economist runs the headline, “A New Era: Why the War in Ukraine Makes Nuclear Conflict More Likely.”
Has the annihilating power of nuclear weapons changed? Or has the public lost touch with it, in part due to corporate media that include mention of the possibility without talking about how to avoid it?
Karl Grossman is professor of journalism at SUNY College at Old Westbury, columnist and author of numerous books, including Weapons in Space and The Wrong Stuff: The Space Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet.
He’s a longtime host of the show Enviro Close-Up, and a board member of the media watch group FAIR. He joins us now by phone from Long Island. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Karl Grossman.
Karl Grossman: A pleasure, Janine.
JJ: Is reality different? Are nuclear weapons safer or more containable or somehow less nightmarish than when we feel what we feel, thinking about hundreds of thousands of dead men, women and children in Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
KG: It’s far worse, in terms of the power of nuclear weapons today, compared to the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
For example, the Ohio-class submarines, which are built just across the Long Island Sound from where I’m speaking on Long Island, built in Connecticut, and I’m just reading here from an account in the National Interest, a middle-of-the-road publication, which speaks of the Trident II missiles on these submarines having the speed when they re-enter the atmosphere of Mach 24, splitting up into eight independent reentry vehicles with 100 to 475 kiloton nuclear warheads.
“In short,” says the National Interest,
a full salvo from an Ohio-class submarine—which can be launched in less than one minute—could unleash up to 192 nuclear warheads to wipe 24 cities off the map. This is a nightmarish weapon of the apocalypse.
Without being hyperbolic, nuclear war, it’s global suicide. Years ago, Robert Scheer wrote a book, With Enough Shovels, and this was some character who was involved in so-called Civil Defense saying, well, with enough shovels, everybody could dig holes in the ground. And that was ridiculous then. Now the reality is apocalypse.
And what I pointed to in the piece that I wrote for FAIR is that this very, very important treaty was put together and passed, enacted by the United Nations in 2017. It took force last year, it’s called the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and it could put the nuclear weapons genie back in the bottle, in the same way in the 1920s chemical weapons were put back after World War I, and it was realized by the world the horrific impacts of chemical weapons. Tens of thousands of soldiers killed by mustard gas and so forth.
So there was a succession of treaties, and they have not been perfect, but basically chemical warfare hasn’t existed the way it could have existed. And the same thing could occur with these nuclear weapons.
JJ: Why is that Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, first of all, I think you’re going to talk about why many listeners might not have heard about it. But then also, it has a primary difficulty, which is, most of the world is calling for an effort to say never to nuclear weapons, but key players are not.
KG: Yeah, well, it was passed in the General Assembly, this treaty, by over 120 nations and additional supporters exist today. But the so-called nuclear weapons states, the United States, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom, have not signed on, have not ratified this treaty. And without the nuclear weapons states signing on, the treaty doesn’t provide for a ban on nuclear weapons. They’re not going to abide by it. And there we are.
As to getting these nations to sign on, I feel, and an organization which involves many peace groups from around the country, the Nuclear Ban Treaty Collaborative, believes that key [are] media, the press. But as the coalition charges, the media are acting like the treaty does not exist.
And I think, and this collaborative feels, that if the press would do its work and inform people about the treaty, also about the nature of what nuclear war would mean these days, then maybe these countries could be prodded to sign onto the treaty, and the vision of the United Nations, which it goes way back at in the UN, in terms of abolishing nuclear weapons; it was resolution one of the United Nations in 1946 to abolish nuclear weapons.
But in any case, back to media, they’ve been asleep. In my piece, we cite the Nexis news database of US newspapers mentioning nuclear weapons over 5,000 times since this February, when Putin began talking about their possible use in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And as of last week, only 43 of those times included a mention of the treaty. And the great majority of those 43 times were letters to the editor and opinion columns.
JJ: Right. So not straight reporting. Not the news reporting, where they’re actually talking about the possible use of nuclear weapons. They’re not including in the same story where it could be meaningful that there is and has been an effort to prevent this from happening.
And, Karl, I just want to add, as I know that you’ve reported, it isn’t just that the US, and that’s where we live, and that’s the country that we have our foremost concern with, it isn’t just that the US has not signed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
The US boycotts meetings, the US pressures other countries not to sign. There’s a whole lot of story to tell there about the role that the US plays in obstructing, in fact, the world coming together to prevent the employment of these devastating weapons.
KG: Absolutely. The pressure that’s been applied by the nuclear weapons states, actually, not just our beloved country, is enormous. What’s happening now, instead of abolishing nuclear weapons, is the United States has been involved in—so has Russia—a modernization program to build bigger and more deadly nuclear weapons. I mean, we’re going backwards.
Well, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists really gave us warning. They have had this doomsday clock since 1947. And in 2020, it was pushed forward to 100 seconds to midnight, which the Bulletin defines as nuclear annihilation.
And the following year, 2021, stayed at, this is the closest it’s been to midnight since ’47, it stayed at 100 seconds to midnight, and this year before the invasion, again, at 100 seconds to midnight.
Then, furthermore, in the ’50s, as a kid in PS 136 in Queens where I went to school, they gave us, they gave all the New York City school kids, dog tags to wear, and we did these duck and cover exercises.
Here I was writing about all this, started writing the book a couple of years ago, and then suddenly, we’re not only in a new cold war, but it could become very quickly a hot nuclear war.
And the kind of awareness—I mean, I teach journalism, and my students, not only did they not have the scary experience of wearing dog tags and fearing doomsday, but hardly any of them have seen Dr. Strangelove, or even an excellent ABC film The Day After, about the consequences of nuclear war.
Often, the word used these days is that certain things are of “existential” importance. If anything is of existential importance, it’s abolishing nuclear weapons and avoiding a nuclear holocaust. And I use that word advisedly.
And this collaborative, in addition to the Nexis findings, does an analysis of reporting on the treaty by the New York Times, by CNN, at National Public Radio, and basically they’re all out to lunch.
They report plenty on issues of, particularly now with Ukraine and Putin, threatening the possibility of nuclear war, but they don’t mention, “Hey, we’ve got this treaty, which—if the nuclear weapons states would agree, of course—would avoid this horrific nightmare of nuclear war.”
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Karl Grossman. His recent piece, “Why Is There More Media Talk About Using Nuclear Weapons Than About Banning Them?” can be found on FAIR.org. And you can also follow his work on karlgrossman.com. Karl Grossman, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
KG: A pleasure, Janine.
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