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Wed. February 01, 2023
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IA-Forum Interview: Peter Kuznick
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International Affairs Forum: You are responsible for the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University, which was created in 1995. What was your first goal for this institute, and what did you want to create at AU? Peter Kuznick: It began in 1995, the year of the fiftieth anniversary of the atomic bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One of my closest students, who just had graduated from SIS, and I, had been working on nuclear issues together. She had a special interest in nuclear issues, as her grandfather was killed in Hiroshima, while her mother and grandmother survived the atomic bombings. She had, indeed, been very affected in her own history by the atomic bombings. At that time, I was writing about the politicization of scientists during the thirties, and also teaching about nuclear issues, which was not my area of expertise quite yet. We decided together to do something special to commemorate the 50th anniversary. The first year, our plan was a nuclear history institute: two courses, one on the nuclear history, the other on the American culture and nuclear age. And the third class would be a summer tour, in Nagasaki, Hiroshima and Kyoto. But, at the same time, there occurred a controversy with the Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian museum. Officials from Japan asked us if we might do an exhibit at American University. On this date, it would be the main Hiroshima and Nagasaki exhibit out of Japan. This is how the Institute began, thanks also to a lot of media attention. Many survivors from the atomic bombings came here, and we have been treated very generously in Japan during our study tours. The first summer, 10 students came with us. It was a very special experience that we wanted to pursue. The Nuclear Studies Institute keeps doing this Study Abroad tour every summer, in Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. IA-Forum: When you began the Nuclear Studies Institute at AU, how were nuclear studies conducted in The United States? Were there already special departments on nuclear issues? Mr. Kuznick: No, studies were quite limited. There were some science and physics classes, but very few on nuclear culture and history. We began courses during the summer, about nuclear culture in American democracy, or in relation to peace movements. And of course, we launched the Study Tour in Japan. In that sense, we are unique in the field. Another point is that the American University students travel and live with Japanese students during the Study tour, and recently with some students from the University of British Columbia, mostly Chinese. What is most interesting is how they share perspectives on their own history, their similarities and differences. But also, I found out that my students from the Institute came with a much deeper background on nuclear issues. In Japan, differently, there are a lot of peace studies, as a much bigger part of the Japanese curriculum, and of Japanese life. The Constitution, especially Article 9, states that Japan is not allowed to deploy military forces anywhere overseas, other than for self-defense purposes. Japan, also in this concern, has “peace museums” that we don’t really have in the United States. War and weapons museums are much more common here than in Japan. IA-Forum: You also created the Nuclear Education Project in 2004. Was it a part of the evolution of the Nuclear Studies Institute? Mr Kuznick: Yes and no. In 1995, there was a whole controversy about the Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian. The exhibit would raise a balanced perspective, including criticism about the decision to drop the bombs, pictures of Japanese women and children who were victims of the bombings. The American Legion and air forces protested against it. In 2003, the Smithsonian Institution decided to open a new annex to the Air and Space Museum, presenting the Enola Gay as a magnificent technological advance. We tried to protest against that, and got signatures from scholars, Nobel Peace Prize winners and Pulitzer Prize winners. I think it was very important to display the Enola Gay, as a part of our history, but not in an exhibitory fashion. I would rather promote an educational approach. We thought that the context, the historical background, should be displayed. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been done. So we set up a committee for national discussion on nuclear history and foreign policy. Many conferences were held at AU and in New York. The nuclear education project was then created, and the Mayor of Hiroshima participated into its creation. IA-Forum: What kind of feedback did you receive from students who participated in the Study Abroad Summer Program in Japan? Mr Kuznick: It was excellent feedback over the years. The most common response was that it’s a life changing experience, very powerful and emotional. We spent a lot of time with the atomic bomb survivors. Many were badly injured. One of them, a graduate student from American University who was in Hiroshima at the time, and whose father was the Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, met us in 1996. His own experience of Hiroshima had been displayed in the first book about the atomic bombings, in 1946. In 1955, Reverend Tanimoto set up the Hiroshima Maiden Project, showing women badly disfigured by the atomic bombings. He was a very critical figure in Hiroshima. Indeed, his daughter had a very powerful experience to tell. Now, she travels with us each summer, during the entire time we are in Japan. IA-Forum: In ways other than educational projects, how can we raise public awareness about nuclear issues and the threat of nuclear proliferation? Mr Kuznick: I feel like nuclear issues are sort of out of the consciousness for people. Barack Obama said he was committed to nuclear abolition efforts. He has, in his administration, a mix of views, both for and against nuclear development. But we will have to create a movement for him to take decisions. These issues have been discussed mostly in terms of the threat of nuclear terrorism - especially about the possibility of dirty bombs, which are not that difficult to create. They could cause tremendous panic, and affect crucial areas. The real concern remains nuclear annihilation. In 1955, researchers proved that, if there was a nuclear war, there was a danger - the possibility - that all life on this planet could be wiped out. Today, that consciousness has been lost, and the threat of nuclear weapons has somewhat vanished from the American consciousness, while nuclear power is thousands of times more powerful than it was in the fifties. There are still over 20,000 nuclear weapons in the world, and no real concern about that. What was stated in the non-proliferation treaties in 1968, the effort by the Western powers to destroy progressively their nuclear power, still hasn’t happened. Moreover, new countries have been added to the list of nuclear powers. If Iran, for example, gets nuclear weapons, there is a risk of proliferation within the Middle East, for instance in Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. We could have nuclear anarchy. It is a very dangerous situation. If we look at the situation between India and Pakistan, there is a lot pressure for actual confrontation, which is very worrying. But on the other hand, for people of these countries, nuclear power gives a lot of status. And due to alliance systems, a possible nuclear war would involve many powers, including China and the United States. These situations of large scale nuclear confrontations could not be controlled. So we have to try to pressure the Obama administration to take the lead in these nuclear abolition efforts. IA-Forum: Do we know of any strong lobby groups in Washington - either in favor of nuclear proliferation or in favor of abolition efforts - that could have an impact on the government’s decisions? Mr Kuznick: There are many groups on both sides. Some of my students who participated in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki program during the summer have now become very active in nuclear abolition struggles. Many groups call for change in U.S. nuclear policy, while some protest against it. But the problem is that the public is not very involved in these issues. We have to bring the nuclear problem back to the public again. For instance, I’m working with the filmmaker Oliver Stone on a ten-part documentary movie. This will present an alternative interpretation of American history: on the nuclear arms race for instance, we are trying to bring back the dark side of American history, which has been lost for the American people. We want to highlight, for instance, the fact that the United States spends more on military expenses than the rest of the world. We want to do that in a sense of history. IA-Forum: How would you describe the current trends in nuclear proliferation, and also in nuclear abolition efforts, throughout the world? Mr Kuznick: The United States has to take the lead. We have Iran, which is one of the closest countries to nuclear power. And while we still have thousands of nuclear weapons, we have to tell Iran they shouldn’t have nuclear power. It is certainly hypocrisy. The only country in history that has used nuclear bombs in warfare is the United States. They have used nuclear threats and pressure repeatedly, to force other countries to back down. We have to be more empathetic, to try to see the way Iran sees its position in the world, and sees its role in the Middle East. Countries we are opposed to have legitimate concerns of their own. The United States has to create a more peaceful environment, a different form of framework for the world, such as promoting health care, education and the building of infrastructure, rather than a focus on the military. IA-Forum: What is your view on Iran’s policy of nuclear development? Mr Kuznick: I think it is both a threat, and legitimate. The United States encouraged Iran to develop nuclear power in the 1970s at a time when Iran was our key ally in that region, and pushed for the creation of a nuclear network with Iran, a development far larger than today. But on its own, Iran does have a right to develop its own nuclear power, based on nuclear energy fuel cycles. The problem is that this energy can be transformed - not easily but it can - into nuclear weapons. Many countries have nuclear energy programs based on nuclear fuel cycles. What we need to do is to guarantee some nuclear international authority that could control nuclear fuel in these countries. Iran is not isolated in developing “illegally” its nuclear energy. There is a need for universal policies, in which The United States also has to participate. I think that Iran has legitimate grievances, but on the other hand, the world has legitimates concerns. I don’t think Iran really wants to develop its nuclear weapons. What they want is capability, is being in the same position as Japan is. There was strong pressure in Israel for attacking Iran; it has serious enemies surrounding them. Within this country, there are fatwa against nuclear development. But you have also forces that would like nuclear weapons. We can’t treat them as the “axis of evil”. A lot of positive forces are going on in Iran now - they have a strong, secular, vibrant young society that wants to be modernized and to relate to the United States. Iran can be brought into much more positive frameworks, and Obama seems to realize a need for discussions with them. IA-Forum: What do you think about Obama’s proposition to allow Iran to become a member of the World Trade Organization if it stops its nuclear development? Mr Kuznick: I think Iran should be more integrated into international organizations. But they have to recognize Israel, and stop supporting groups such as Hizbollah or Hamas. What we need is a comprehensive regional peace. We also need a peace program between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Moreover, Obama, by the fact of his tremendous popularity, is a true challenge to Al-Qaida in the region. He’s not George W. Bush with hi two wars policies. Bush has allowed Al-Qaida to develop itself even more. Choosing George Mitchell is a good point for Obama. The United States is a strong ally of Israel, which I support also. They have the right to defend themselves and call for peace and security in their territory. But the worst thing the United States can do is to support the right-wingers in Israel. In the U.S., there is a tendency to say that, if we criticize the Likud line of politics in Israel then that means we are anti-Israel. That is the craziest thing I have ever heard. I think that those who really support Israel are opposed to the right-wingers, who see military action as the only solution. The United States have to recognize the legitimate rights of the Palestinians, who live in terrible conditions. They have legitimate complaints. Also, there could be a major improvement if there was a common effort in bringing together Israeli and Arab educations, as soon as they stop spending so much of their budget on the military. IA-Forum: Which countries do you think are the most involved in nuclear abolition efforts? Mr Kuznick: Unfortunately, I don’t think any country is really involved in these efforts nowadays. None of the other nuclear powers are strongly reducing their nuclear arsenal. England and France could take a much more leading role. China is modernizing its military and nuclear weapons, as well as Russia. And the situation is more now dangerous. India, Pakistan and North Korea should take the lead for negotiations to diminish their nuclear power. But currently, there is no country leadership in nuclear abolition efforts. As Gorbachev took risks, we need Obama to be a hero of the 21st century, to move more towards nuclear abolition. We are secure enough to do that. IA-Forum: Are you also involved in environmental issues? Do you promote the abolition of nuclear energy? Mr Kuznick: Yes, I think we should get rid of nuclear energy. There is still the threat of a nuclear incident. We have no stability, there is no way to get rid of these nuclear materials, and they can live on for thousands of years. I still support a nuclear fusion program, which might provide the answer to clean nuclear energy. France still has a very high percentage of nuclear energy, and even Japan’s level is at 35%. I think that’s not the answer for the future. And, furthermore, one of the real dangers is the possibility of terrorist attacks on nuclear centers. We have no real defense against that and we shouldn’t have this vulnerability. IA-Forum: You are also a faculty advisor for the student association ‘Patriots for Peace’ at AU. When was it created, and what is the message of this association? Mr Kuznick: It was created two years ago and some of my undergraduate students get involved. I have organized a lot of events on campus, trying educationally to alert people of the dangers. Students, from the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003, became very concerned, very engaged, and Patriots for Peace led the movement. There have been a lot of lectures, film showings. It was a very strong movement on campus at the beginning, but it is sort of reduced now, which is very sad, especially at American University, where students are universally very liberal, and opposed to the war. The Princeton review has presented AU as the most politicized campus in America. But it should be more active. IA-Forum: How do you explain weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as a justification to engage in war, especially in regards to what is embedded in the American nuclear culture? Mr Kuznick: Americans were scared after September 11 and George W. Bush and Dick Cheney exploited this fear. There has been a manipulation and a political game that was really reprehensible. They manipulated the intelligence, they lied and exaggerated the information. Based on the information I had, it was possible to go through the claims of the Bush administration. Of course, there was a possibility for a small number of nuclear weapons in Iraq, but it was not in anyway proven. Contrary to what Bush said, Saddam Hussein never threw out the inspectors from nuclear inspections. We have records of the destruction of nuclear weapons in Iraq. And about the weapons left, many had been sold by us in the 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq war. We were defending Saddam Hussein during that time. As for the Taliban, we had a role in creating them during the Russian invasion in Afghanistan. Nowadays, I think the security and fear of terrorism is going down within American public opinion. In addition, Obama has a Muslim family; he can talk to the rest of the world in a different way. One of the problems during the Bush years was that he did many things that were illegal, and unconstitutional. The U.S. became a surveillance state. Obama, hopefully, will change these errors. We have to restore privacy rights for American citizens and people who have been involved in the United States should be prosecuted. Peter Kuznick is an associate professor and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University in Washington. He is the author of ‘Beyond the Laboratory: Scientists as Political Activists in 1930s America’, and coeditor of Rethinking Cold War Culture.

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