Interview with Martin J. Sherwin, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, on the U.S. Presidential race

by Akira Tashiro, Executive Director of the Hiroshima Peace Media Center

Martin J. Sherwin shared the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography in 2006, with co-author Kai Bird, for their book on the life of Robert Oppenheimer, “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.” His scholarship is centered on the evolution of the Nuclear Age and he served on the faculty of Tufts University in Massachuetts until 2007. Professor Sherwin now teaches at George Mason University in Virginia.

Akira Tashiro, Executive Director of the Hiroshima Peace Media Center, spoke with Martin Sherwin on issues involving the U.S. Presidential race, particularly as it relates to American nuclear weapons policy.

What issues seem to be of importance to the American people during this year's U.S. Presidential race?
There are the usual concerns and the 2008 special concerns. The “usual” category includes the economy and the “culture wars” battles, meaning abortion, gay marriage and so on. If the cold war was still hot, I would have listed security among the usual concerns, but since the invasion of Iraq, security is a stand-alone issue. How it will play is anyone's guess at the moment. What is clear is that the Republican candidate will try to use it against any Democratic opponent as Bush did in 2004. The special 2008 issues will include either the gender or the race question depending on whether Hillary or Obama is the Democratic candidate. The environment will be an issue, but as a result of Al Gore's good work it is doubtful that even the dumbest Republican will run against doing something about the environment. Finally, the Democratic candidate will force medical insurance coverage to the forefront.

How visible is the issue of nuclear weapons and disarmament among the Presidential candidates and the American people?
I don't think anyone knows the answer to that question, if you mean how will it impact the election. The American public has been brainwashed to believe that nuclear weapons have kept the peace for more than 50 years and that it would be dangerous to abandon them. But if Obama is the Democratic standard bearer I think he will raise the issue--a part of his constituency will force him to do that. However, it will be a dangerous initiative because the Republicans will jump all over him citing an anti-nuclear weapons stance as proof that he is naive and unfit to protect US national security.

Could you comment on any observable change in this Presidential race, regarding the discussion of nuclear issues, compared to past elections?
Most of the candidates are afraid to challenge the consensus in America about the value of nuclear weapons. One of the great disappointments of the Clinton presidency was his failure to promote nuclear abolition after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Logic suggests that there should be a real difference between the Cold War years and the post-Cold War with respect to how we see and value nuclear weapons. But the differences are marginal. On the other hand, I'm sure you are aware of the Op Ed piece of January 4, 2007 that Schulz, Kissinger, Perry and Nunn wrote in the “Wall Street Journal” calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. That piece suggested the possibility of a new consensus, and if they stick to this conviction, and if Obama becomes president, some real progress on nuclear abolition is possible.

What concrete views have the current Presidential candidates expressed in regard to nuclear weapons and disarmament? What are your impressions of these views?
Obama has been out front on this issue and the other Democratic hopefuls criticized him. My view is that he believes that nuclear weapons are more of a threat than an advantage to the USA and if the political climate permitted, he would be willing to lead the effort toward global nuclear abolition.

What about Dennis Kucinich, the Democratic Representative from Ohio? He's an outspoken voice on nuclear disarmament.
Yes, but he's treated as a minor candidate.

What sort of shift in nuclear policy might occur from a new President? Can you foresee a shift in policy that may create stronger momentum towards nuclear disarmament?
If Obama is elected and the moon and stars line up correctly, yes.

How is the Iraq War, or the War on Terror, linked to nuclear issues among the presidential candidates and the American public?
Any existing threat works against nuclear abolition in the United States. This doesn't make sense because the danger of nuclear weapons, or weapons grade nuclear material falling into the hands of terrorists, is a great threat to this country. But, as I said earlier, Americans have been brainwashed to believe that nuclear weapons somehow protect them.

The city of Hiroshima is now engaged in coordinating Atomic Bomb Exhibitions in 101 cities across the United States in hopes of raising awareness of the nuclear issue among the American people during this election year. In what other ways might Hiroshima and the rest of the world help foster a stronger sense of urgency among the leadership and citizenry of the United States in regard to the growing peril of nuclear weapons?
The American people have to be convinced that what they have believed to this point about the value of nuclear weapons to their security is no longer valid. This is a more difficult challenge even than convincing them that they have to change their lifestyle to protect the environment. The environmental movement had the advantage of scientific proof and visual consequences (melting icebergs, polluted air, etc.). How do you convince people that nuclear weapons are a threat when they believe that they contribute to their security? Perhaps pointing out that nuclear weapons are “the MOST inconvenient truth” is one strategy. Another is for the people of Japan, France, England, Germany, etc. to convince their governments to actively support nuclear abolition as the non-proliferation treaty mandates. Keeping the issue prominently on everyone's political agenda is key.

What sort of role do you think the Hiroshima Peace Media Center and the city of Hiroshima should play in the disarmament movement?
I believe that it's always best to speak from experience and Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the only two cities that have experienced nuclear war. So the foundation of your message must be to convey that experience to the world. Beyond that, and because of that, Hiroshima is in a position to organize global awareness events that will bring people together to discuss how nuclear weapons can be limited and finally eliminated. The goal is to keep this issue current and to develop a reputation for realistic proposals that forward-thinking governments could adopt on the road to nuclear abolition.