Richard Tanter recalls Alan Roberts’ warnings about nuclear war (and his advice to critical thinkers on the Left)…
Alan has long been one of those people I have in my mind’s eye as I write and as I talk.
Wondering whether I am cutting an intellectual corner a bit too close, if I am beginning to slide thoughtlessly into orthodoxy, or if I am at risk if just becoming boring – all important sins for Alan.
He used to say that when he was preparing for a talk – especially to movement meetings where intense hope, the pulls of solidarity, and the comforts of unquestioned certainties may put intellectual honesty at risk – then you should think carefully about the audience expects you to say, and then carefully work just a bit against that grain, to put the truth of the matter – and the hard questions – first.
I first got to know Alan in the late 1970s as the anti-uranium movement was laying the foundations of a resurgent Australian peace movement, reading his work on nuclear power and then the Omega Navigation Station at Yarram. His articles and papers on nuclear power from that time and later still bear re-reading.
Dave Sweeney and Peter Hayes, who could not be here today, both asked me to pass on their personal regard for Alan and his work over many years.
Dave also said that he ‘can speak with confidence and personal experience that people at both Friends of the Earth and ACF had a lot of time for Alan and were grateful for his energy, expertise and generosity.’
Of course, Alan had been working on nuclear weapons for far longer than this, but all this was new to me, and I came to rely on his concise lucid writing combining scientific rigour, historical sharpness, and clear-headed political agenda setting.
In the early 1980s, Alan and Boris Frankel invited me and David Uren to join them on Triple-R as presenters on alternate weeks for their Hearts and Minds program. About the same time, a group Boris, Herb Feith and Joe Camilleri and I had started as apolitical economy study group morphed into the VictorianAssociation of Peace Studies, with the idea of providing space for talking through the issues of the burgeoning peace movement. For a time it worked.
We wanted to provide concise, authoritative and accessible material on the key issues, and began to publish the Peace Dossiers series.
I commissioned Des Ball to write the first on American bases in Australia. The second in April 1982 was Alan’s Why we have a war to stop, extracted from a longer Arena piece.
We sold thousands of both.
In 4,000 highly readable words of critical realism Alan not only presented the facts about actual and prospective nuclear war, and a clear account of the new weapons systems in development, but also a remarkably clear and hard-headed master class of just why states have armed forces.
Alan wrapped up his critique of the comforting idea that military spending is simply irrationally wasteful by citing Wyatt Earp’s reputation as a one-time cold-blooded killer, effective even if he rarely killed again.
And of course, making the more explicit point that in the use of armed force in the pursuit of US policy, ‘the sanctity of human life is basically irrelevant’.
However, once the Soviet Union got its nuclear weapons, and doctrines of nuclear deterrence prevailed, an intolerable situation faced US and Soviet strategic planners. Nuclear weapons were useless for any other purposes but deterrence. As Alan put it, they were a class of weapons that were not earning their keep.
The logic of exterminism then, and which we see anew today, generated the drive to make nuclear weapons usable in war – for nuclear war-fighting rather than simply deterring nuclear war – whatever the nuclear theologians may say.
What Alan feared most was not the very real possibility of nuclear weapons accidents or breaches of nuclear security whereby the ‘wrong people’ got their hands on them – but nuclear normality.
‘Our guides [to the next nuclear war] are not incompetent technicians or General Jack Rippers or Colonel Gaddafis. They are in the main sane and capable men without megalomaniac illusions and with no mastering urgency to blot out half the world from the pages of history…
They are confident of their ability to handle the instruments, whatever they may be, with moderation and proper care.
Step by step, each supported by the logic their assumptions dictate, but with no sign of appreciating the lessons of two world wars, these men are leading us towards a third but far more horrendous cataclysm.
At a bad time for me, Alan was both kind and generous, as I suspect he was with many others.
I owe Alan a great deal, and will miss him.
Richard Tanter is Senior Research Associate, Nautilus Institute, and Honorary Professor in the School of Political and Social Sciences at the University of Melbourne.