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An Anti-nuclear Half-Life Celebration Rocks an East Bay Night

By Gar Smith
Thursday February 14, 2013 - 12:46:00 AM
Jackie Cabasso
Jackie Cabasso
Dennis Kucinich
Dennis Kucinich
Daniel Ellsberg
Gar Smith
Daniel Ellsberg

You know you've accomplished something when a birthday rolls around and Barbara Lee, Dennis Kucinich and Daniel Ellsberg all show up for the party. That was the case on February 10, when the Western States Legal Foundation marked its 30th year as a nuclear watchdog. WSLF's spirited "Half Life" gala drew an energized gathering of activists that filled Oakland's First Congregational Church from the pulpit to the furthest pews. 

Festivities began with a catered "Taste of Oakland" feast and concluded with two extraordinary presentations. KALW "Your Call" host Rose Aguilar introduced the evening's four speakers: WSLF Executive Director Jackie Cabasso, Representative Barbara Lee, Congressmember Dennis J. Kucinich and Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. 

Cabasso began by explaining the event's "half-life" the theme. "I'm about to celebrate my 60th birthday," Cabasso admitted with a smile, "and I've spent the last 30 years of my life working on these issues." 

It's been an eventful three decades since that day in 1984 when Cabasso was first busted for protesting nuclear weapons at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL). In 1995, Jackie became a "founding mother" of the Abolition 2000 Global Network to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons. In 2008, she received the International Peace Bureau's Sean MacBride Peace Award. In addition to working as WSLF's Executive Director, Jackie also serves as the North American Coordinator of Mayors for Peace. 

WSLF's exploits and accomplishments are legendary. Formed in 1982 to defend protestors arrested while attempting to block construction of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, WSLF soon found itself providing legal support to more than a thousand activists arrested for protesting at the gates of LLNL. WSLF went on to block a food irradiation plant in Dublin, torpedoed plans to base a nuclear-armed battleship (and 16 other warships) in San Francisco Bay, forced state and federal environmental reviews for LLNL, defended Oakland's Nuclear Free Zone from attack by Washington, became one of the first groups to challenge the government's "Stockpile Stewardship" plan to "modernize" the Pentagon's atomic arsenal, and worked to end US, French and Russian nuclear testing. And all of that was in just the first decade. 

WSLF has become the preeminent nuclear weapons watchdog and a major grassroots player in national and global campaigns to reduce and eliminate the threat of nuclear weapons. Over the course of the last 20 years, WSLF has published books, written endless reports, helped craft international treaties, addressed the United Nations and worked tirelessly with governments and citizens groups around the world. (A more complete retrospective of WSLF's accomplishments can be found online at: 

Representative Barbara Lee followed Cabasso to the microphone where she offered the standard stump fare of political praise and encouragements, drawing cheers and applause from the crowd. But her main duty was to introduce Kucinich, the first of the evening's two Keynote Speakers. As Kucinich began walking down a side aisle to the stage, the audience rose to its feet, mixing loud applause with whoops and shouts. 

Kucinich's Address: A Catechism of Poetry, Polemics and Politics 

Dennis Kucinich spent 18 years in Washington, DC as one of the most fearlessly outspoken progressive voices in Congress. He has sponsored legislation to provide national health care, to control corporations, to cut military waste, to repeal the USA PATRIOT Act and to radically refocus foreign policy — most significantly, by creating a cabinet-level Department of Peace. 

Kucinich began by addressing the diverse throng of graying vets and college-aged activists with a chuckle-provoking salutation: "Welcome," he declared, "to the Reunion of the Graduating Class of Human Liberation." Kucinich extended "best wishes" on behalf of his wife, Elizabeth, who couldn't make the event because of a conflict. "Her film just premiered at the Berlin Film Festival a few hours ago," Kucinich explained. The film is a documentary that takes a critical look at Genetically Modified Organisms. With obvious delight, Kucinich told the crowd the title of the film: "It's GMO-OMG!" 

[Note: lacking a tape recorder and working with a borrowed pen, I scribbled furiously in an attempt to keep up with Kucinich's and Ellsberg's comments – in both cases, a stream-of-consciousness flood-tide of thoughts, quotes and observations. While the following quotations may not be verbatim, I hope they fairly capture the essence of the speakers' concerns.] 

Kucinich expressed alarm that President Obama's latest National Defense Authorization Act includes $130 billion for new spending on nuclear weapons. He also mentioned (and lamented) the government's announced plan to create a Manhattan Project National Historical Park in New Mexico to commemorate an event that, instead, should be a subject of shame — the once-secret scientific effort to build the world's first atomic bomb. 

This prompted Kucinich to ask how many in the pews remembered the Cold War classroom excercise called "duck and cover"? As scores of hands were raised, Kucinich continued: "My nightmare was that the missiles would come during recess!" — when there would be no desks to dive under. But then, Kucinich observed, "duck-and-cover was really nothing more than an exercise in stress reduction." 

The Congressman then spun off into a fascinating discussion about the relationship of energy and matter, citing Indian philosophy and drawing attention to "the sanctification of the material world." 

"We are the stars and the stars are us," Kucinich argued earnestly. "There is an underlying unity in everything — including humans and the natural world." Kucinich quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Ode to Beauty" and marveled about the "music of the spheres made into a chorus with color and majesty." 

Next, he quoted the poet James Russell Lowell's observation that "every clod feels a stir of might." Turning to John Keats, Kucinich concurred with the poet's claim that "beauty is truth" and noted "there is something innate in life that suggests truth" — despite the fact that our Earth is sometimes a place where "ignorant armies clash by night." 

Expanding on the theme of universality, Kucinich insisted "There is no 'other.' This is simply a construct designed to alienate us from who we are." The authorship of our Constitution, after all, is ascribed to "We, the people." "The fate of the individual and the group is the same. E pluribus unum means 'out of many, we are one.'" 

Kucinich deplored "the schism that's visited on us by dichotomous thinking" and reflected on the historical watershed-moment when humans first "split the atom," thereby bursting a fundamental unity and creating a non-natural element in a natural world that was thereby rendered as "dichotomized" as humankind's intellectual reality. 

Kucinich dismissed the debate over the "fiscal cliff" as an artificial argument, pointing out that Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution "says we have the right to create wealth" by issuing government currency. In a move reminiscent of Sixties satirist Mort Sahl, Kucinich reached into a pocket and began waving a copy of the Weekend Edition of the Investors Business Daily — by way of illustrating how fortunes are still being made, even while the defenders of the rich were proclaiming poverty. 

"The natural world is being cartelized to create wealth for a few at the expense of the many," Kucinich declared. "We become victims of the way we see the world. This can only lead to anger and hate." 

Kucinich next referenced William Butler Yeats' vision of a world "turning and turning in an every-widening gyre" such that "the center cannot hold." The truth is, Kucinich observed, "The center is not holding now." 

With uncommon mental dexterity, Kucinich went on to quote UN Chief Dag Hammarskjold, Marshall McLuhan, T. S. Elliott and Alfred North Whitehead. "We must be masters of the world, not to be mastered by it," Kucinich summarized. "We reject this anatomy of human destructiveness. We are conscious procreators of our own existence." Citing physicist Werner Heisenberg, Kucinich reminded the audience that, "our actions affect the world." 

Kucinich urged the audience to reject the white noise of political defeatism, the passivity of people who looked at the plague of gun violence only to conclude: "We have no control; there's no way to stop it." 

"As if," Kucinich marveled, "we've lost the ability to evolve." 

Clearly, Kucinich granted, we are living in "an economy that is devoted to the destruction of nature" — a system that has placed humanity and all living things on "a long, slow slide toward ecocide." And quoting Herbert Wells, Kucinich acknowledged the risk that "We are becoming architects of our own destruction." 

What is needed, he argued, is a renaissance of "interconnected thinking" — a new epoch of activism defined by "cohesion, cooperation, coherence. By changing our thinking, we change the outcome." 

Kucinich echoed Thomas Berry's call for a "reconciliation with the natural world" and paused to recall a statue that hovers over the entrance of the Capitol Building in Washington, DC — it depicts a woman standing protectively over a small child engrossed in a stack of books. The title of the sculpture is: "The Goddess of Liberty Protecting Genius." 

Kucinich concluded his remarks with one last poetic reference, a quote from Alfred Lord Tennyson: "Come, my friends, 'tis not too late to seek a newer world." 

Once again, the audience rose to its feet, hands in the air, applauding and shouting enthusiastically as Kucinich left the podium. 

I think it is fair to say that, in our lifetimes, we've not seen another politician so versed in the wisdom of poets and philosophers as Dennis J. Kucinich. Rose Aguilar acknowledged as much when she leaned into her microphone and asked coyly: "Are we going to hear some of this poetry on The O'Reilly Factor?" 

Kucinich raced back to the microphone with a grin. "Stay tuned!" he said, with an impish wink. (Yes. It sounds unbelievable, but Kucinich, who is retiring from Congress, has been invited to join Fox News as a political analyst.) 

Daniel Ellsberg: From Wargamer to Whistleblower to Arch-Activist 

Anti-war freedom-of-information-fighter Daniel Ellsberg — the Washington insider who revealed the Pentagon Papers, faced a prison sentence of 130 years, and was reportedly targeted for assassination on the steps of the Capitol by a Nixon "hit-squad" — received another tsunami of applause from the cheering crowd. With a broad grin and a wave to friends in the crowd, Ellsberg rose and rode the wave of appreciation as it carried him all the way to the podium. And he didn't disappoint. 

Speaking calmly and softly, Ellsberg brought the huge audience to a state of silent awe as he shared a signal, defining moment from his extraordinary life. It was back in 1961, when he served the Kennedy Administration as a member of the government's nuclear war-planning team. Ellsberg had become concerned with the implications of the Pentagon's prevailing war strategy. It anticipated a US pre-emptive strike against Russian forces using nuclear weapons. Ellsberg had a question that no one else had thought to ask: "How many would die?" 

When the answer came back, it was contained on a paper stamped "Top Secret. Classified. For the President's Eyes Only." But because Ellsberg had asked the question, President Kennedy handed him the paper. Standing in the Oval Office, Ellsberg read the paper he held in his hand. 

"It concluded that 600 million would be killed." 

Compare this to the 60 million deaths in WW II, Ellsberg suggested. It would be the equivalent of ten WW II's — in the course of a single day. 

But this figure only dealt with the effect of the initial blasts, Ellsberg noted. The Pentagon had failed to factor in the inevitable firestorms that would magnify the devastation. The revised likely outcome was the near-immediate extinction of 1.2 million human lives, "almost entirely civilians; mostly allies and neutrals." 

Ellsberg recalled Dr. Edward Teller (aka "The Father of the H-Bomb") referring to the consequences of a full-out nuclear war. So what, Teller shrugged, it would kill "only one-quarter of the world's population." 

"I heard him say it," Ellsberg told the stunned and silent audience. 

While "Europe would be gone," he said, "it was assumed that the US would largely be sparred." But this raises certain elemental moral questions. "What if this had been discussed by Nazi Germany?" Ellsberg wondered. Would not the US — and the rest of the world — have recoiled in horror and risen up in indignation? 

But the full consequences of the Pentagon's nuclear strategy were even worse. In 1982, scientists revisiting America's war planning considered, for the first time, the effect of the smoke clouds thrown into the irradiated skies from continental firestorms. They warned of a "nuclear winter," where global temperatures would plummet, threatening lives and the world's food harvests. 

In response to the understandable public alarm, the government relied on a propaganda strategy known as "Merchants of Doubt." It was the same strategy the tobacco industry used successfully for years to dismiss concerns over cancer; it is the same ploy used today to discredit scientific findings that suggest a human-caused connection to global warming. 

More recently, Ellsberg continued, a new crop of scientists — armed with the latest computer modeling technology — have revisited the question and confirmed the earlier warnings. In fact, the latest projections conclude the consequences of nuclear war would be even worse than previously believed. Where earlier estimates feared a nuclear winter that would last a year, the best estimates now foresee the onset of a series of a nuclear winters that would linger for a decade or more. Imagine: no harvests on the majority of the planet for ten years. Imagine the collapse of human society. 

Ellsberg expressed alarm over the fact that Pakistan and India (each armed with about 50 Hiroshima-scale nuclear weapons) have the potential to create a nuclear winter that could diminish the amount of sunshine reaching the Earth's surface by 7% — for years. The resulting loss of harvests could mean the starvation deaths of 1 billion of the Earth's 7 billion human residents. "And it would be the poor — the most marginally challenged — who would be the first to go." 

"By 1961, the US had built a Doomsday Bomb that would have extinguished most life on Earth," Ellsberg noted. And the Russians had done the same. Those warplans from the Sixties "still remain unchallenged and unchanged." Are we insane? "There should not exist a Doomsday Machine in the world!" Ellsberg said. "Let alone two." 

Ellsberg addressed rumors surrounding President Obama's revised Nuclear Posture Review. It could turn out that the US will commit to cutting its nuclear arsenal by as much as one-third by 2017. But while that may sound like progress, Ellsberg cautioned, it would merely mean cutting the number of nuclear missiles from 1,550 to 1,000. And all of these missiles are still operational and sitting on "hair-trigger" alert. (The Pentagon has another 5,000 nuclear weapons in storage, all of which could be easily "operationalized.") 

Ellsberg called the "reduction" to 1,000 nuclear missiles "totally meaningless. We will all be gone!" 

Ellsberg recalled a meeting with Herb York, the first director of the Lawrence Livermore National Labs. The meeting involved a discussion of arms reduction options. Asked for an estimate of the smallest number of nuclear weapons the US would consider deploying (Less than 100? Fewer than 10?), York referenced a comment by McGeorge Bundy (National Security Advisor to presidents Kennedy and Johnson). Bundy replied pragmatically that, for effective deterrence, "only one nuclear bomb is needed." 

Need proof of this argument? Ellsberg simply pointed to recent history. Saddam Hussein didn't have the bomb and Iraq was invaded; North Korea, by contrast, hasn't been touched. 

"It's a miracle that we are still here today," Ellsberg mused. Given the risks and the odds of having two Doomsday Machines at the height of the Cold War primed with 30,000 nuclear bombs on hair-trigger alert, Ellsberg is amazed that the planet has managed to escape (either by design or accident) the total annihilation that would result from a nuclear war. "It shows that miracles are possible." 

Still, Ellsberg is still not optimistic. The odds, he emphasizes, still suggest that (human behavior being what it is) "we will still destroy ourselves and our planet." 

Ellsberg marveled darkly at how the creation of "The Bomb" has been celebrated as an example of the "brilliance" of the human enterprise — a remarkable achievement of intellect and technology. As Ellsberg sees it (from the perspective of a former insider), even had we not built the Bomb, if we have only imagined it, the thought alone "would shame us as a civilization." 

"The Doomsday Machines are still here," Ellsberg warned. "We are traveling on the Titanic — traveling very fast, in the dark, surrounded by icebergs." But there is an important lesson in the sinking of the Titanic, he added: one that's seldom mentioned. 

"There were other ships sailing in those waters that day," Ellsberg said. But all the other ships survived. Why? Because they stopped sailing east when night fell and turned south. The Titanic continued to plow towards its destruction only because the captain was under orders by the ship's owners who were intent on setting a transatlantic speed record on the ship's historic maiden voyage. They wanted the Titanic to go down in history. (They got their wish.) 

"We need Congress to hold hearings on these weapons!" Ellsberg insisted. "It's never been done! We need a Nuclear glasnost." (Glasnost, is the Russian word that describes Mikhail Gorbachev's radical introduction of government transparency in the second half of the 1980s.) 

The twentieth standing ovation of the night greeted Ellsberg's concluding comments and brought the event to a close as well-wishers, friends and fellow activists swarmed the stage to exchange handshakes, hugs, insights, strategies, phone numbers, emails, leaflets and handbills. 

The energy was high as people filed into the night waving to departing friends and shouting encouragements. Thanks to WSLF and the evening's keynote speakers, we'd all been reminded of the demons we face. And we left primed to confront the Nuclear Dragon with renewed vigor. 

For more information: WSLF, 655 13th St., Suite 201, Oakland, CA 94612, (510) 839-5877.,