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Book tag: Shock Doctrine, Arsenals of Folly

Posted by Thomas Nephew on March 5th, 2008

Having answered Jim Henley‘s call, Nell Lancaster has graciously tagged me, Gary Farber, and JanInSanFran with the task of supplying text — to wit, the 6th, 7th, and 8th sentences on page 123 — from the book closest to where each of us is sitting. I hear and obey — and tag eRobin, Avedon Carol, Tom, and Paul in turn.

At the time I read the tag, that book was “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism,” by Naomi Klein. For the designated sentences, the context is the Ford Foundation’s prior support for the “Chicago Boys” and “Berkeley Mafia” economics teams that helped bring about major impoverishment and repression of the lower and middle classes in Chile and Indonesia:

After the left in [Chile and Indonesia] had been obliterated by regimes that Ford had helped shape, it was none other that Ford that funded a new generation of crusading lawyers dedicated to freeing the hundreds of thousands of political prisoners being held by those same regimes.

Given its own highly compromised history, it is hardly surprising that when Ford dived into human rights, it defined the field as narrowly as possible. The foundation strongly favored groups that framed their work as legalistic struggles for the “rule of law,” “transparency,” and “good governance.”

I once threatened to try to write about this excellent book, but by now I’d need to reread it to do it justice. The book enraged many libertarian writers for its well-documented portrayal of Milton Friedman as the intellectual godfather of Pinochet/Argentine style economic warfare — and hence of the repression that went hand in hand with that warfare. Yet Klein’s critique of the Iraq disaster bonanza ought to have rung a bell with many of those same writers, if they got that far.

I actually finished that book a while ago; in case this is supposed to be about the book I’m reading, that one is “Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race,” by Richard Rhodes. The text is from a 1984 address by Jerome Wiesner, arguing that it would take just 50 nuclear weapons to put American or Russian society “out of business,” and 300 to destroy it.

It would take a bigger bomb for Los Angeles or New York. If you are a weapons expert you know you should “pepper ‘em down”; you would get a better effect. In any event, it does not take many.

As Joseph Cirincione points out in his review of the book**, the United States and the Soviet Union had a combined 65,000 warheads at the height of the Cold War — and still have 25,000 today.

I actually happened to talk with Cirincione about the book, and mentioned that one thing I thought about it was “what about us?” — by which I meant the Nuclear Freeze movement that I spent a great deal of time in during the 1980s. Rhodes’s book spends a great deal of time focused on Reagan and Gorbachev — their head-to-head negotiations in Geneva and Reykjavik, even a chapter length bio of the Russian leader. But Rhodes barely acknowledges or discusses the mass movement that opposed a U.S. nuclear weapons buildup, or even the congressional donnybrooks over MX missile deployment that were defining moments of the Reagan years. I suppose that would have complicated the scope of the book, but whether it’s intended or not, the omission seems to signal that we didn’t matter.

If so, I would beg to differ, even if I can’t prove a causal connection between the Freeze and eventual successes like the INF and CFE treaties. There was a time when nearly every Congressman or -woman was deeply aware of nuclear weapons and of their constituents’ beliefs that there were too many of them and we didn’t need any more of them. Like the narrator in “Masters of War,” we spoke out of turn, and we won those victories, too — even if we’re still in the shadow of thousands of remaining nuclear weapons.

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* Hers was quite unusual and interesting, you should have a look.
** Along with three others, which are more about Pakistani/A.Q. Khan proliferation.

EDIT, 3/5: Final sentence of Klein discussion split into two sentences, ‘if they got that far’ added to 2d. Also, “impoverishment” and “economic warfare” moved to the first spots in prior sentences, ahead of “repression”; I’d summarize much of Klein’s point as being that the order matters, just as the motive matters in any crime.
EDITS, 3/6: 25,000, not 26,000; the other 1,000 are divided among the other nuclear powers. Also, on re-reviewing the index, I found 3 references to the nuclear freeze movement; the effect in the text is that Rhodes “barely acknowledges” rather than “doesn’t acknowledge” it.

TAG WATCH: Tom has probably nailed down the Most Eclectic Response Award: “La vie du pape Saint Gregoire, ou la legende du bon pecheur.” Paul checks in with a little light bedtime reading: Walter Isaacson’s “Einstein: His Life and Universe.”

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