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And there were moments of symbolism.
May 23, 2011 6:30 AM   Subscribe

It is a strange, dubious and totally unaccepted moral purpose which holds the whole of the world to ransom.
On 1 March 1985, New Zealand Prime Minister Rt Hon David Lange (Previously) addressed the Oxford Union in support of the proposition that "Nuclear Weapons are Morally Indefensible". That speech is online at publicaddress.net (audio, transcript, highlights) and still resonates today.

When the United States requested clearance for a visit by the USS Buchanan, a ship they could not guarantee was nuclear free, he refused in accordance with the Labour Party's nuclear free policy, announcing at a press conference that:
If a ship is nuclear-capable, it will not come unless we can be assured it does not carry nuclear arms. Your question: can we establish that? Answer: no. QED. No come.
The resulting diplomatic furore included veiled threats from both the United Kingdom and the United States, and served to galvanise public opinion in New Zealand. It also prompted the Oxford Union to invite Lange to debate evangelist and Reagan confidant Jerry Falwell. His reluctance evaporated after a visit from a British diplomat:
It came to be known that I was considering it and they had offered the return fare. Margaret Thatcher sent a note through her High Commissioner, which he delivered to me, asking me not to do it. And that sealed it as far as I was concerned. I told him what I thought of him and of his new hair dye and various other things like that and I decided definitely to go.*
Although a masterful impromptu orator, he wrote some notes (with speech writer and future wife Margaret Pope) on the flight over, and when he arrived he was forced to sleep in what he described as "a small broom cupboard" after a bomb scare, but when he spoke the Oxford members stood in support and for the first time in its short history, New Zealand stood alone in foreign policy, nuclear free.

*Revolution, by Marcia Russell
posted by doublehappy (30 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
I can't promise there won't be any Flight of the Conchords jokes.
posted by kersplunk at 6:41 AM on May 23, 2011


David Lange had a way with words, as well. I wouldn't want to face him in a debate...
posted by The Shiny Thing at 6:54 AM on May 23, 2011


There is, Mr President, a quality of irrationality about nuclear weapons which does not sit well with good intentions. A system of defence serves its purpose if it guarantees the security of those it protects. A system of nuclear defence guarantees only insecurity. The means of defence terrorise as much as the threat of attack. In Europe, it is impossible to be unaware of the intensity of military preparedness. In New Zealand, the visitor must make an effort to find a military installation or indeed any sign of military activity, although it does exist. There is no imperative in New Zealand to prepare for war; the result is that I feel safer in Wellington than I ever could in London or New York or Oxford.

Considering that from the Second Boer War, to WW1, WW2, Korea, Rhodesia, Yugoslavia, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, New Zealand has routinely and willingly sent it soldiers to fight for the nuclear-armed English Commonwealth, it is a bit of an odd-innocence he claims for his country.
posted by three blind mice at 7:05 AM on May 23, 2011


'English Commonwealth'? What's that then, three blind mice? I wasn't aware Cromwell's England had any nuclear weapons between 1649 and 1653. The First and Second World Wars would have been a bit shorter if Britain had had nuclear weapons back then as well and Britain didn't send any troops to Vietnam.

In 1985 New Zealand was in the happy position of not having 40,000 Soviet nuclear missiles aimed in its general direction and, for all the posturing by CND at the time, it was the resolution showed by President Reagan and Mrs Thatcher which helped win the Cold War in 1989, not least in deploying Pershing and Cruise missiles in response to the Soviet SS-20s. Gorbachev would not have embarked on the reforms he thought necessary to strengthen the Soviet Union (and which opened the cracks which soon brought it crashing down) if he'd thought the west was going to unilaterally disarm in the fashion advocated here.

If the west had unilaterally disarmed we may or may not have been conducting this conversation in Russian right now, but the Soviet Union would almost certainly still be around. Lange may well have been a master orator, but on this subject he was absolutely and completely mistaken.
posted by joannemullen at 7:47 AM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Location, location, location.
posted by ShutterBun at 7:50 AM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't understand the hand wringing around nuclear technology. For over fifty years there's a lot of evidence that it's relatively safe as a source of power (caveat for longterm storage of waste) and that it may be a mitigating factor in large scale conflict.

Yes, I know there have been incidences (especially recently in Japan) of the consequences of using nuclear energy.

Yes, I know that since WWII, hegemonic powers have created or been involved in lots of small-scale conflicts that have made life miserable and been destructive for many people.

I feel safer in Wellington than I ever could in London or New York or Oxford

I've at least spent a decent amount of time in NYC and I have no idea what he's talking about. I'd say that you're probably more aware of the police force in US cities, but this has no strong tie to nuclear issues.

People have a tendency to compare disagreeable segments of reality to their ideal scenarios. This is not practical and misses the enormous complexity underlying things like this.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 7:52 AM on May 23, 2011


I believe that nukes are morally indefensible but that nuclear power is a damned fine idea. Probably not on the ring of fire though.

But that's irrelevant to Lange's stand against the US. If you have rules about what you will allow in your territorial waters, why the hell should you change your mind just because a bigger boy refuses to tell you if he's breaking them or not?

The 'superpowers' (and I'll let you argue amongst yourselves what constitutes a superpower) are very good at telling others what is the right thing to say or do. I'll never tire of cheering for the little guy who tells one of them to fuck off.
posted by sodium lights the horizon at 8:08 AM on May 23, 2011 [5 favorites]


I don't understand the hand wringing around nuclear technology.

Lange is talking about nuclear weapons, not energy.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:09 AM on May 23, 2011


Lange is talking about nuclear weapons, not energy.

See the entire rest of my post.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 8:14 AM on May 23, 2011


If the west had unilaterally disarmed we may or may not have been conducting this conversation in Russian right now, but the Soviet Union would almost certainly still be around. Lange may well have been a master orator, but on this subject he was absolutely and completely mistaken.
Otto: Don't call me stupid.

Wendy: Why on earth not?

Otto: Oh, you English are *so* superior, aren't you? Well, would you like to know what you'd be without us, the good ol' U.S. of A. to protect you? I'll tell you. The smallest fucking province in the Russian Empire, that's what! So don't call me stupid, lady. Just thank me.

Wendy: Well, *thank* you for popping in and protecting us.

Otto: If it wasn't for us, you'd all be speaking *German!* Singing "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles..."
Had you read at least Lange's side of the debate, you would have seen that he does not in fact advocate for unilateral disarmament:
And I freely acknowledge that that decision [Western European nuclear armament] is pursued in good conscience with the honourable intention of preserving the life and freedom of the people of Western Europe. Because those governments are faced with the close presence of an alien and relentlessly oppressive regime and obviously feel it their duty to prepare for their own defence by membership in what for most governments' policy now is straightforwardly a nuclear alliance. That is an assessment I understand and I do not come here to argue for any proposition in favour of unilateral disarmament.

And if I make that acknowledgement, I must then deal with the argument that it is the intention which determines the moral character of the action. My contention is very simply that the character of nuclear weapons is such that it is demonstrably the case that they subvert the best of intentions. And the snuggling up to the nuclear arsenal which has gone on with my friends on the opposite side tonight shows at what level of sophistication and refinement that subversion takes place.
Later, he goes on to argue that the strength of the West was *not* its military might, particularly nuclear weaponry, in the face of the Soviet Union, but rather its ideals of freedom, including free speech. Free speech like arguing a position that ran contrary to the us-vs-them, good-vs-evil, rampant Reaganism of the time (never mind the Reaganist Revisionism going on nowadays).
And there's no humanity at all in the logic which holds that my country, New Zealand, must be obliged to play host to nuclear weapons because others in the West are playing host to nuclear weapons. That is the logic which refuses to admit that there is any alternative to nuclear weapons, when plainly there is.

It is self-defeating logic, just as the weapons themselves are self-defeating: to compel an ally to accept nuclear weapons against the wishes of that ally is to take the moral position of totalitarianism, which allows for no self-determination, and which is exactly the evil that we are supposed to be fighting against.

[Applause]

Any claim to a moral justification for the West’s possession of nuclear weapons is thereby eliminated. In those circumstances we would be no better than they are.
Speaking of morally indefensible positions, telling us we should bow down at the feet of Reagan's and Thatcher's militarism and praise them for the fall of the Soviet Union... well, let's just say there was a bit more history, economics, and diplomacy going on than Reagan "bravely" telling the Ruskies to tear down the Berlin Wall. The collapse was inevitable -- the Soviet's notion of economy was unsustainable.

It's like giving credit for a forest fire being put out to Smokey the Bear -- not the character, the guy in the bear costume.
posted by Celsius1414 at 8:37 AM on May 23, 2011 [16 favorites]


Never mind the morality of nuclear weapons - they are strategically indefensible. They have no modern purpose. In today's world, by the time you've decided to launch one, you've already lost the game.

Empty nuclear missile silos, on the other hand, can keep superpowers at bay.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 8:40 AM on May 23, 2011


Don't forget the rather spiffy remix by The Tomorrow People.
posted by Happy Dave at 8:49 AM on May 23, 2011


Somewhere needed to remain clean so that On the Beach had a chance of being realised in the event of the USSR or USA blinking first. Not that it ever realistically had a chance, as we all knew by the mid-80s.
posted by rory at 8:55 AM on May 23, 2011


Later, he goes on to argue that the strength of the West was *not* its military might, particularly nuclear weaponry, in the face of the Soviet Union, but rather its ideals of freedom, including free speech.

I'm sympathetic to this argument and Lange's as emotionally attractive. However, pragmatically, taking the real politik of the 19th and early 20th century in Europe as evidence, I don't see liberalism as strategically incisive as is a nuclear deterrent. This is not to underestimate the power of these two policies in tandem (not to say that the former has anything to do with Reagan or Thatcher).


nuclear weapons - they are strategically indefensible. They have no modern purpose. In today's world, by the time you've decided to launch one, you've already lost the game.

Empty nuclear missile silos, on the other hand, can keep superpowers at bay.


Can you say more? I'm not sure why this is so.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 9:19 AM on May 23, 2011


Empty nuclear missile silos, on the other hand, can keep superpowers at bay.

This, I don't buy, even for a moment.

I think it's quite likely that the invention and deployment of nuclear weapons prevented at least two regional conflicts -- one on the Korean peninsula and one in and around Vietnam -- from becoming world wars. Not least of which because I don't think the U.S. would have felt as much restraint as it did in those conflicts had the Soviets not had nuclear weapons. I can't really speak to what their effect was on Soviet strategy in those conflicts but I doubt it was insignificant. And there were incidents now remembered as less severe (e.g. the Berlin blockade), which might well have resulted in armed conflict without the Mexican standoff produced by nuclear arms that could obliterate cities.

We came close enough to the brink of world war even with nuclear weapons that I very much doubt that we wouldn't have crossed that line, had they not been there to sober up all but the most insane hawks.

It was certainly a Faustian bargain: the continuous risk of global annihilation as the price for keeping the Cold War relatively cold. But it worked, in the sense that we did not have a world war, and the conflicts between the Soviets and the U.S. were mainly played out, sometimes bloodily, through proxies rather than directly.

Now, with the risk of a third great European (or Asian) land war all but gone, the question now becomes how to undo the other side of the bargain. Perhaps at this point there is very little benefit and much risk involved in keeping the deterrent around on hair-trigger, or at all. Maybe bilateral disarmament is a possibility, and the deterrent from a future war would be just the risk that the weapons could be rebuilt, rather than their actual existence. Maybe that would work.

But I cannot agree to call nuclear weapons 'immoral,' insofar as they seem to finally have reached a limit that the cap-and-ball rifle, the machine gun, and the heavy bomber could not: they have made unlimited war too expensive for sane people (and most insane people) to pursue. With nuclear weapons, there can never be another battle of Verdun or the Somme, nor another Operation Barbarossa. There can now only be one war on that scale, and it is a war nobody will win. The logic of nuclear war between superpowers, with both sides equally armed, is one that not even Hitler or Napoleon could have avoided.

It is a testament to human folly that it seems to have required thousands of multi-megaton city-killers to finally reach the limit where we no longer hurl ever-larger massed armies consisting of millions of men and machines at each other, but I think we're deceiving ourselves -- and giving insufficient credit to those who attempted, however futilely, to avert past wars via diplomacy and other means -- to try and think otherwise.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:35 AM on May 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


My point is that it is pointless (and very expensive) to create and maintain an actual functioning fleet of long-range nuclear missiles, when their only purpose is to serve as a deterrent. All you need is the appearance of nuclear capability. For example, the US could save billions by secretely converting its nuclear fleet into fuel rods. Come to think of it, who's to say we haven't already.....

If NZ wanted the security of nuclear weapons, They could just conspicuously purchase a nuclear weapon, then secretely dismantle it.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 9:39 AM on May 23, 2011


The collapse was inevitable -- the Soviet's notion of economy was unsustainable.

Yes, it's easy to say that in retrospect. It was hardly so clear at the time. And who knows for how many years or decades it would have tottered on, threatening the world?

To give zero credit to Reagan and the arms race for the bankruptcy and fall of the Soviet Union is like arguing that Obama should be given no credit for killing bin Laden, because it's clear bin Laden was going to die someday regardless.
posted by shivohum at 9:43 AM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


To give zero credit to Reagan and the arms race for the bankruptcy and fall of the Soviet Union...

Wait, what? Now you're saying that if I supported the arms race, I've got to give Reagan credit for it? I'll give him credit where it's due, but I'm pretty sure the arms race was the card he was dealt.
posted by atbash at 10:21 AM on May 23, 2011


Never in history has there been an empire that we can look back on and say, gee, I wish they had nuclear arms, how things would have been improved! What makes us think that this empire is any different? What will happen to the nukes when (not if) this empire collapses?

The Fate of the Earth
posted by mhjb at 10:21 AM on May 23, 2011


Yes, it's easy to say that in retrospect.

It was easy to see at the time for anybody not buying into the propaganda machines of both superpowers.

It was hardly so clear at the time. And who knows for how many years or decades it would have tottered on, threatening the world?

Well, to look around nowadays, you might ask the question how many years or decades the USA and other Western powers' economies will totter on. For some of the same reasons. None of it was sustainable. None of it *is* sustainable.

If the USSR drives off a cliff at full speed, the USA/West probably shouldn't spend too much time celebrating as their own car hurtles toward the brink.

Some believe it's already in flight.

To give zero credit to Reagan and the arms race for the bankruptcy and fall of the Soviet Union is like arguing that Obama should be given no credit for killing bin Laden, because it's clear bin Laden was going to die someday regardless.

Giving 100% credit to Reagan is what we were talking about.
posted by Celsius1414 at 10:35 AM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


It was hardly so clear at the time.

Yes, it was. The common view of the US intelligence community in the late 70s was that the Soviet Union was economically weak and disinterested in wars of aggression. George H.W. Bush created Team B in order to manufacture an alternative view, one that history has shown to have been dead wrong. Unsurprising when you look at the list of chuckleheads that ran the thing, such as Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. That's right, the same idiots who took us to Iraq also mismanaged the Cold War.

To give zero credit to Reagan and the arms race for the bankruptcy and fall of the Soviet Union

I give him no credit because the Soviet Union would have been bankrupt anyway and in the process Reagan came very close to bankrupting us. What's more, it brought us disastrously close to nuclear war and led to a lot of meddling in other countries' affairs, meddling that has come back to bite us repeatedly (see, e.g, Afghanistan). We could have accomplished the same result with less risk via diplomacy.
posted by jedicus at 10:35 AM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Just posted here on MetaFilter: Obama's car gets stuck pulling out of Dublin Embassy.

While pulling out of the American Embassy in Dublin this morning, Barack Obama's bullet-proof, missile-proof, nuclear launch-code enabled limo got stuck on an overly steep concrete incline.

There's a metaphor for the entire Cold War fin de siècle right there.
posted by Celsius1414 at 10:41 AM on May 23, 2011


Now you're saying that if I supported the arms race, I've got to give Reagan credit for it?

Reagan initiated a pretty massive military buildup. Military expenditures as % of GDP went up from 4.9% in 1980 to around 6% for most of the 1980s. That's a substantial increase, and it certainly wasn't supported by everyone.
---

If the USSR drives off a cliff at full speed, the USA/West probably shouldn't spend too much time celebrating as their own car hurtles toward the brink.


The question is always when and how. Every nation and civilization eventually declines. If in 30,000 years the West is no more I'm sure people then will say: "oh yeah, back in 2011 it was obvious!"
---

The common view of the US intelligence community in the late 70s was that the Soviet Union was economically weak and disinterested in wars of aggression.


That's not the same as the believing that the USSR would collapse in 10 years, or that it no longer constituted a major threat to world peace. Wounded animals are dangerous and irrational.
---

We could have accomplished the same result with less risk via diplomacy.

There's little reason to believe we should have made bet on the winning power of diplomacy alone at the time.
posted by shivohum at 10:48 AM on May 23, 2011


Nuclear arsenols in the US have developed away from a mutually assured destruction model of deterrence toward more theater specific applications - specifically I'm thinking of tactical nukes and the bunker-buster warhead. These smaller yield nukes increase the likelihood of their use. This is relevant to a discussion of their morality nowadays.
The risk of accidental launch is unacceptable (to me atleast) and we've been dangerously close to accidental - the Swedish geese, the playboy at NORAD, etc. Were there an accidental launch during the cold war the discussion of their utility/morality would be decidedly smaller.
Whether or not the ussr collapsed from MAD and whether or not they would have been expansionist in a world where the West disarmed unilaterally are academic debates with valid arguments on either side - the morality of possessing these weapons is a lot more black and white to me.
posted by ten year lurk at 10:59 AM on May 23, 2011


Never in history has there been an empire that we can look back on and say, gee, I wish they had nuclear arms, how things would have been improved

Speak for yourself. If the Central Powers and, say, Russia and France (or maybe Russia and England) had nuclear weapons in 1914, sufficient to totally obliterate each other the second someone else stepped over the line, it seems rather doubtful that the Austrians would have been so quick to invade Serbia, or Germany to declare war on Russia, or ... well, you know the rest of the story.

If two World Wars and everything that flowed from them, all those millions of lives lost, could have been prevented by a few extra decades of nuclear tension (and even if it meant a Germany still run by a Kaiser), I think that might be a fair trade.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:00 AM on May 23, 2011


Considering that from the Second Boer War, to WW1, WW2, Korea, Rhodesia, Yugoslavia, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, New Zealand has routinely and willingly sent it soldiers to fight for the nuclear-armed English Commonwealth, it is a bit of an odd-innocence he claims for his country.

"Fighting for the English Commonwealth" is an odd way to put it, but as a New Zealander I somewhat agree with this sentiment. The pacifist views of Archibald Baxter historically have been far outweighed by the simple words of M J Savage as we entered WWII: "With gratitude for the past and confidence in the future we range ourselves without fear beside Britain. Where she goes, we go; where she stands, we stand. " Except nowadays, we range ourselves alongside the US. We are not initiators of conflict, being tiny and isolated, but we love to join in. In recent years, it seems almost as though it's just to prove we're a real country.

I feed bad writing this, because Lange belonged to the anti-war tendency, which I am largely sympathetic to, but Lange was making debating point for rhetorical effect, not stating a historical truth. I'm safe in Wellington because by the time our biggest natural resource, water, is valuable enough for imperial wars, it will no longer be feasible to invade over the expanse of sea that separates us from the nearest land masses.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:01 PM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


My favourite Lange line ever was when a reporter asked him as he was walking down a corridor, "Mr Prime Minister, can we have a quick word?"

He turns around, says, "Avocado," and then leaves through the door.
posted by Wataki at 4:24 PM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


No, wait. It was "wombat". Just as cool.
posted by Wataki at 4:25 PM on May 23, 2011


I think the key thing was that Lange was willing to stick to his guns and the moral views of most of NZ's public on any form of nuke devices being within NZ waters, and he didn't back down on the views because some bully says he should. If you had a nice clean house and someone comes knocking on your door with muddy boots and wants to walk inside with them all over your nice carpet, and you say No, but then they try bully you into letting them in with muddy boots, and try get their mates to hassle you to let them in, more fool you to agree and let them come in and muddy your carpets. I thought when being taught manners as a kid you repect the host's wishes, not go I'm more important that you so listen to my wishes as a guest.
On the subject of sticking to their stance on matters, Helen Clarke gets a big thumbs up from me too, on not jumping straight onto the war on terror band wagon and join the invasion with minimal proof.
posted by Merlin The Happy Pig at 5:55 PM on May 23, 2011


It's interesting reading the cables from the Auckland Consulate how important this issue still is when it comes to NZ-US bilateral relations.
posted by fido~depravo at 12:16 AM on May 24, 2011


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