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Nuclear Disarmament Urged by Catholic Archbishop in New Mexico, Birthplace of Nuclear Weapons

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As the Biden administration reviews U.S. nuclear weapons policy, over 60 advocacy groups, including Veterans for Peace and CodePink, recently issued a joint statement calling for the elimination of hundreds of U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles. “The notion is if you get rid of those ICBMs, you reduce the risk of accidental nuclear war, and it’s a first step towards more rational nuclear policy,” says William Hartung, research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. We also speak with Father John Dear, longtime peace activist and Catholic priest who led a campaign for 15 years in New Mexico calling for the disarmament of the national laboratories at Los Alamos. Dear was an adviser to Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico, on his new pastoral letter titled “Toward Nuclear Disarmament” that calls for the abolition of nuclear weapons arsenals around the globe. The letter is part of a sea change in the Catholic Church under Pope Francis, which condemns “the mere possession of these weapons” as “totally immoral,” says Dear.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’d like Bill Hartung to remain with us now as we look at the escalating tension between Russia and the United States, the world’s two largest nuclear superpowers, coming at a time when the Biden administration is preparing to release an updated outline of U.S. nuclear weapons policy, a document known as the Nuclear Posture Review.

A number of disarmament groups and scientists have called on President Biden to take action to reduce the U.S. nuclear stockpile. In December, nearly 700 scientists and engineers, including 21 Nobel laureates, called on Biden to cut the U.S. nuclear arsenal by a third and pledge never to use nuclear weapons first. In addition, 60 groups recently issued a joint statement calling for the elimination of the hundreds of U.S. intercontinental ballistic nuclear missiles now armed and on hair-trigger alert.

William Hartung is still with us. He has closely followed U.S. nuclear weapons policy for decades.

Can you talk about where this stands? This certainly doesn’t bode well for reducing nuclear weapons, the conflict between NATO and Russia and the position the U.S. has taken.

WILLIAM HARTUNG: No, that’s correct. I mean, it should be the reverse. I think any time there’s nuclear tensions between nuclear-armed powers, it should make us step back and rethink what U.S. nuclear strategy and U.S. nuclear procurement is. But I think, unfortunately, in the short term, the tensions with Russia are going to make it harder in Washington to get people to entertain changes in our nuclear policy.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Bill, former Secretary of Defense William Perry once called ICBMs, quote, “some of the most dangerous weapons in the world.” Why would even a defense secretary say that?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, you know, he’s been involved in the nuclear field for decades himself, and he understands that in a crisis, if the president thinks we’re being attacked with nuclear weapons, he or she would have minutes to decide whether to launch the ICBMs. So that greatly increases the possibility of an accidental nuclear war based on a false alarm. And the Cold War period has been — was replete with false alarms, potential nuclear accidents, so it’s something that actually could happen. And so, the notion is, if you get rid of those ICBMs, you reduce the risk of accidental nuclear war, and it’s a first step towards a more rational nuclear policy. And that’s why 60 groups, led by groups like Roots Action, Just Foreign Policy, Peace Action, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Beyond the Bomb and others, are calling for the elimination of ICBMs as a first step towards a more sane and less risky nuclear weapons policy on the part of the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to the archbishop of New Mexico, John Wester of Santa Fe, who recently called for the abolition of nuclear weapons around the globe. In a pastoral letter, Wester says, quote, “To love our enemies means we have to begin the process of ending our preparations to kill them … and doing everything we can not to harm them, but to actively love them, including the people of Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and others.” Archbishop Wester spoke to reporters in Santa Fe earlier this month.

ARCHBISHOP JOHN WESTER: The Catholic Church has a long history of speaking out against nuclear weapons. Indeed, the Vatican was the first nation-state to sign and ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. … The Archdiocese of Santa Fe has a special role to play in advocating for nuclear disarmament, given the Los Alamos and Sandia nuclear weapons laboratories and the nation’s largest repository of nuclear weapons at the Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about Archbishop John Wester’s letter, we’re joined by Father John Dear, who advised the archbishop on the letter. Father Dear led a campaign for 15 years in New Mexico calling for the disarmament of nuclear laboratories at Los Alamos. He now lives in California, where he’s the executive director of the Beatitudes Center.

Father John Dear, it’s great to have you with us. We’re also with Bill Hartung of the Quincy Institute. If you could talk about the significance of this, what, 50-page pastoral letter calling for denuclearization of the world?

FR. JOHN DEAR: Thank you so much, Amy, for having me on.

And this has never happened before. This is really good news. It’s an official document in the church calling for the total abolition of nuclear weapons. I think it’s the most important document in U.S. Catholic Church history. And many people are now saying that. As you know, the ban treaty has been so blocked and ignored, consciously and deliberately, by U.S. mainstream media, but so has Pope Francis’s dramatic calls in the last few years for nuclear disarmament, including at Hiroshima — has been totally ignored, especially by the churches here in the United States. Two weeks ago, Archbishop Wester of New Mexico issued this massive statement, which is an official church document, responding to both of these and issuing it in time for the anniversary of the ban treaty and Biden’s upcoming review of nuclear weapons. And as I said, this has never happened before.

What he’s highlighting is that Pope Francis has changed everything in the church, and it’s been a long time coming. So, for decades and decades, the church has — the Catholic Church has allowed deterrence, calling it morally acceptable, which some of us have found just outrageous because, you know, it’s not really about deterrence. The U.S. war machine is about first-strike nuclear warfare and making a lot of money on preparations for that. Francis has wiped all of that out, overnight — and people need to realize that — and says now deterrence, the mere possession of these weapons, is totally immoral, evil, sinful, blasphemous. The words that Francis used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki are shocking, two-and-a-half years ago. And Archbishop Wester has responded to this.

And it’s really the first mainstream response in our culture to the call of Pope Francis and the ban treaty. That’s why it gives me so much hope. People like Daniel Berrigan, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton dreamed of living to see something like this. And if it could get picked up by ordinary people across the country in the churches and the religious communities to start pushing on nuclear disarmament, this would be really hopeful and helpful.

What Archbishop Wester does is says, “I want to start a conversation in the United States. We have to put the question and existence of nuclear weapons front and center.” So he’s really taking Pope Francis’s message to the people of New Mexico and the whole country and saying, “We’ve got to deal with this, because it’s so urgent.”

And in the first sentence of — I mean, you may wonder, Amy, why did — where did he come from? Why did he do this? No other bishop has responded like this, and there have been very few pastoral letters ever in our history. His first sentence was, he went to Hiroshima a couple of years ago. And it’s so powerful, because he describes being so moved there by what he saw. And — this is typical in New Mexico — two days later, he’s back in Santa Fe. He had guests coming. He took them to the New Mexico Museum of History, and he’s standing before this fabulous display about the glories of the Manhattan Project, Los Alamos, the first nuclear bomb that was built to destroy Hiroshima, and then Nagasaki, and all the bombs since. And he had just been in Hiroshima, and he had a real change of heart. And then he started studying Pope Francis.

So, he outlines all of this, how the church, under Francis, has radically shifted. The other thing Francis is doing is now Francis, for the first time since the early church, in 1,700 years, is calling all Catholics not only to disarm and work for disarmament, but to practice nonviolence, like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Thich Nhat Hanh — of course, like Jesus. And Archbishop Wester takes that up, too, saying the goal here is universal love, love our enemies, all of us becoming nonviolent, working for a new world of nonviolence. And then he goes very seriously into what’s happening today. That’s why I urge people to read it. And it’s free. It’s on the internet. Just look up the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. He walks through the reality of nuclear weapons —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Father Dear, if I can, I’d like to —

FR. JOHN DEAR: — new nuclear arms race and so forth. Yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Father Dear, if I can, I’d like to just bring in Bill Hartung. I wanted to ask Bill: If you could react to the archbishop’s call, and also your thoughts about the importance of this coming from New Mexico and New Mexico’s role in terms of American nuclear weapons?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, I think the moral call is really kind of what needs to inject any movement for nuclear arms reduction or elimination. And so, in that sense, I think Reverend Dear has kind of eloquently spoken to the importance of it.

New Mexico is part of the nuclear warhead complex. You’ve got the Los Alamos and Sandia labs, that develop and do engineering for nuclear weapons. Those labs have lobbied heavily against things like a comprehensive test ban. You’ve got a broader nuclear complex that includes places like the bases in Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota, that have intercontinental ballistic missiles. The senators from those states have worked overtime in an ICBM coalition to stop any reductions, any changes in ICBM land-based nuclear missile policies, any reductions in spending, including spending on a new missile built by Northrop Grumman that could cost $264 billion over its lifetime.

So, I think at the same time you have this moral call, you have this kind of other pressure, kind of what I’ve called the nuclear-industrial complex, a subset of the military-industrial complex, that has made it particularly hard in Washington to rethink nuclear policy, make changes, reduce spending on these things.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, William Hartung, we want to thank you for being with us, research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, and ask Father John Dear, longtime peace activist and Catholic priest, to stay with us. When we come back, we’ll talk about and hear the words of the late Thich Nhat Hanh, the renowned Buddhist monk, antiwar activist, poet and teacher, who died Saturday. Stay with us.

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