If You Can’t Explain the Opposition to Your Case

Posted on December 5, 2023 By

by Rachel MacNair

Our student group organized a program explaining what was wrong with nuclear energy back in the late 1970s at Earlham College, a Quaker school where I majored in Peace and Conflict Studies. We did such a fine job of explaining the dangers that a student in the audience asked a very sensible question: how on earth could anyone support this?

So I launched into a three-minute pro-nuclear diatribe. And I did it so effectively that my fellow activists started worrying that I needed to stop and explain what was wrong with what I was saying.

On another occasion, several of us Earlham students were putting together a program to educate about what was wrong with nuclear weapons. Unlike nuclear energy, which is intended to be helpful, the whole point of nuclear weapons is to kill a huge number of people. One of my friends thought that was quite sufficient to make the case against it.

So a member of the audience asked the question: wouldn’t it be dangerous for us to not have such weapons for deterrence as long as the Soviets have such weapons?

This wasn’t an out-of-left-field question. There might be all kinds of questions an audience member could come up with that you might not have thought of before, but this isn’t one of them. This was basic. This was about as common a question as there was from the people who supported nuclear weapons. And my friend had no answer for it.

I’ve often thought that if I taught some kind peace studies course, this would be one of the assignments: Pick a topic about which you care passionately. Write a three-page paper making the case for that position. Then write a three-page paper making the case against it. If, when I read both, it’s painfully obvious which one is your position and the one for your opponent is mangled, you flunk the assignment.

All this was brought to mind recently when I was in a large room with about 150 people who understood themselves to be peace activists who were discussing taking a pro-access position on abortion. I wasn’t squelched entirely – I got about two minutes to make the most basic consistent-life pacifist case and point out how there were more complexities they hadn’t considered.

That they went against my view wouldn’t have bothered me so much – I mean, am I so arrogant as to be so very assured that I’m right and they’re wrong? What bothered me is that they only acted against my view. They didn’t argue against my view. As far as I could tell, they didn’t even understand that there was a counter-view that they needed to grasp and articulate.

My position is that on any of our issues, and anything that’s controversial, anyone who wishes to take a position of any sort should regard it as part of taking that position to first educate themselves on what other perspectives are, and feel confident in being able to make the case while taking those perspectives into account. Either argue against them well, or address underlying interests that could make someone holding those interests know that you’ve considered their point of view.

I fear that taking a position while utterly ignoring what opponents of that position think isn’t conducive to peace-making.


For posts on abortion complexities that abortion access advocates might want to consider, see:

Societal Impact on Women

How Abortion is Useful for Rape Culture

Abortion Facilitates Sex Abuse: Documentation

The Message of “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”: Abortion Gets Sexual Predators Off the Hook

Gendercide: Millions of “Missing” (Dead) Women

Abortion and Violence Against Pregnant Women

The Back Alley and the Front Alley

The Myth of Sexual Autonomy 

Isolating Women and Encouraging Jerks

What Studies Show: Impact of Abortion Regulations

Is an Embryo More Important than a Woman?


Societal Impact on Born Children

 Preventing Child Abuse


Societal Impact on People with Disabilities

 Women with Disabilities Speak

How Ableism Led (and Leads) to Abortion

Abortion and People with Disabilities

Bigotry against Babies with Down Syndrome

Bigotry against Babies with Down Syndrome: International Experiences





A Complex Man’s Complex Legacy: What the Movie Rustin Leaves Out

Posted on November 28, 2023 By

by John Whitehead

The great civil rights activist and thinker Bayard Rustin (1912-1987) has received renewed attention thanks to the recently released movie Rustin. The movie is an engrossing look at Rustin’s role as an advisor to Martin Luther King and the organizer of the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, DC. Rustin organized one of the most successful peaceful mass demonstrations in US history despite immense logistical challenges, political obstacles, and the hostility he faced, inside and outside the civil rights movement, as an openly gay man.

The revived attention to Rustin is an occasion to remember his career in all its complexity. Although the March for Jobs and Freedom was probably Rustin’s greatest achievement, his work both before and after 1963 is worth remembering. Rustin’s career contains much both to inspire and to sadden Consistent Life Ethic activists.

Rustin Movie

The Years before the March: An Advocate for Peace and Justice

Rustin’s coordination of the 1963 March was the culmination of decades of peace activism, as the movie mentions but largely does not portray. In fact, the Rustin movie implies that the peace movement was some dreary backwater community unworthy of its hero’s abilities. The reality was dramatically different.

Raised a Quaker in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Rustin started working in the 1940s for the peace organization the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). Rustin lectured and conducted workshops for the FOR at schools and churches around the United States. During World War II, he refused to cooperate with US conscription law, writing that “War is wrong. Conscription is a concomitant of modern war…Its design and purpose is to set men apart—German against American, American against Japanese.” (Rustin, “Letter to the Draft Board,” in Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin, p. 12) He subsequently served time in federal prison.

Rustin combined peace activism with work for racial equality. In prison, he engaged in civil disobedience to integrate the prison cafeteria and chapel. In 1942, he traveled in the south on an interstate bus, sitting in the “whites” section. This defiance of segregation earned him beating and arrest from police officers, yet his composure apparently so rattled his captors that, as Rustin recounted the incident, an exasperated police captain declared “you’re supposed to be scared when you come in here!” (Rustin, “Nonviolence vs. Jim Crow,” in Time on Two Crosses, pp. 2-5)

Along with other activists, Rustin repeated his defiance of segregated transportation in 1947 as part of the “Freedom Ride” organized by the FOR and the affiliated Congress on Racial Equality. The interracial group rode a bus through southern US states, being arrested six times and being attacked once.

Working for the FOR and later the War Resisters League, Rustin agitated for peace in the 1940s and 1950s, as the Cold War and nuclear arms race escalated. Determined to challenge US development of the hydrogen bomb, Rustin wrote in 1950 that “We must find some way to let people know that now we are prepared to go to jail or even to give up all—to get shot down if necessary—but to cry out.” (Vincent Intondi, African Americans against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement, p. 42)

Rustin in Life Magazine

He contemplated civil disobedience at Los Alamos to “obstruct the coming in of materials” and eventually organized an eight-day “Fast for Peace” in Washington, DC, to protest nuclear weapons. The fast included a Good Friday vigil, led by Rustin, in front of the Pentagon and inspired similar actions across the United States and in other countries.

Rustin’s peace activism took him to India, Ghana, Nigeria, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union. He also visited Montgomery, Alabama, during the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott and thus became a key advisor to King.

Speaking at a 1958 anti-nuclear march in Britain, Rustin linked the peace and civil rights struggles, saying,

There must be unilateral [disarmament] action by a single nation, come what may. There must be no strings attached. We must be prepared to absorb the danger. We must use our bodies in direct action, non-cooperation, whatever is required to bring our government to its senses. In the United States, the black people of Montgomery said, “We will not cooperate with discrimination.” And the action of those people achieved tremendous results. They are now riding the buses with dignity, because they were prepared to make a sacrifice of walking for their rights. (Intondi, p. 50)

The following year, Rustin took part in a campaign to protest French nuclear testing in Africa that brought together the peace and anti-colonial struggles.

After the March: A Disappointing Record

The March for Jobs and Freedom was Rustin’s triumph, “the most exciting project I’ve ever worked on,” as he put it. (Time on Two Crosses, p. 31) The March was also a turning point for Rustin.

In 1964, Rustin wrote “From Protest to Politics,” arguing that Black Americans should move away from seeking equality through civil disobedience and similar protests to working within the political system, in alliance with labor unions and the Democratic Party. He subsequently became head of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, an AFL-CIO affiliated group focused on anti-poverty efforts. Economic issues dominated Rustin’s work for the rest of his life.

During his later years, Rustin adopted many stances that dismayed his admirers and should dismay Consistent Life Ethic activists.

Like so many social justice advocates, Rustin sadly had a blind spot toward children in the womb. In 1970, he stated “I am entirely for free abortions on demand, since I think women should be able to choose whether they want to have children.” (“Feminism and Equality,” in Time on Two Crosses, p. 238) That Rustin should be indifferent to some of the most vulnerable humans is deeply disappointing.

Equally disappointing and more surprising was Rustin’s move away from peace activism. Although an early Vietnam War critic who never exactly abandoned this position, Rustin became cautious as the war progressed. He was equivocal about linking opposition to the war to the anti-poverty cause. While supportive of King’s opposition to the war, he criticized his colleague for linking the civil rights and anti-war causes, calling such an approach “distinctly unprofitable and perhaps even suicidal.” (Intondi, pp. 77-78)

Rustin’s attitude frustrated his allies. Fellow activist Eleanor Holmes Norton commented, “The Vietnam War seemed to me to be so wrong that on that one I really did expect to be led by Bayard…That was a very disillusioning notion.” (Interview in documentary Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin [2003]) Years after the war’s bitter and bloody end, Rustin remained ambivalent about whether the US involvement in Southeast Asia was wise or just and was still critical of King’s approach. In the 1980s (amid the depths of the nuclear arms race), Rustin similarly opposed linking civil rights and peace work.

Yet Rustin was willing to link civil rights to a different foreign policy issue: he strongly supported Israel, founding the Black Americans to Support Israel Committee. This stance included advocating in 1970 for the United States to send military jets to Israel for defense against Arab nations. Rustin commented, “I believe that sending jets to Israel when it was requested would have been best for the world situation and would have upheld democracy.” (I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters [2012, ebook edition], p. 204) Rustin wrote President Gerald Ford urging him “to provide Israel with whatever supplies she needs in order to maintain safe, secure borders.” (I Must Resist, p. 215) He later expressed sympathy for Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

A possible reason, identified by friendly and unfriendly critics alike, for Rustin’s shifting views is that he became wary of positions that might jeopardize his vision, expressed in “From Protest to Politics,” of working within the political system.

For example, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson’s ability to deliver pro-Black and pro-poor economic policies may have made Rustin wary of too vocally opposing the war Johnson was prosecuting in Southeast Asia. Rustin reportedly warned civil rights leaders about the dangers of alienating Johnson and told peace groups “You guys can’t deliver a single pint of milk to the kids in Harlem and Lyndon Johnson can.” (Time on Two Crosses, p. xxxiv) Mainstream political commitments may have carried a price.


By highlighting Rustin’s questionable positions, I am not seeking to tear him down or argue he is unworthy of celebration. Bayard Rustin was a man of extraordinary intelligence and courage whose accomplishments are worthy of cinematic and other celebration.

Rather, Rustin’s failures in advocating against violence and for the lives of all humans teach the very humbling lesson that even the most admirable people can have their moral and political blind spots. These failures perhaps also teach that efforts to be politically effective can come at the expense of moral clarity.


For more posts covering about the same historical period, see: 

“An Inferno That Even the Mind of Dante Could Not Envision”: Martin Luther King on Nuclear Weapons

Where Does Martin Luther King Jr. Fit Into the Consistent Life Ethic? 

Is it Too Late? 1971 Speech of Fannie Lou Hamer

The Poor Cry Out for Justice, and We Respond with Legalized Abortion

historymovie review

Rehumanize Conference 2023

Posted on November 21, 2023 By

Comments and screenshots from Consistent Life Network board members who attended:


John Whitehead

In her introductory remarks for the 2023 Rehumanize International conference, Creative Director Maria Oswalt offered some valuable practical advice for Consistent Life Ethic advocates. She emphasized the importance of working across differences, whether political, religious, or philosophical.

She gave examples of this broad cooperation, noting that Rehumanize has worked with a variety of single-issue groups that focus on certain ways to protect life but don’t (at least explicitly) advocate for the Consistent Life Ethic.

Maria also gave the significant example of her own involvement in Rehumanize. When she first became involved in the group, as a self-described conservative Republican, she had not yet fully embraced the Ethic. Yet her initial involvement grew into a commitment to the Ethic and years of active participation as a leader in Rehumanize.

All this provides important guidance for activists. We need as many allies and collaborators as possible. We should be willing to work with groups and people who are with us on some issues even if they are not with us on all of them. As Maria put it, “We need everybody on board if we are going to bring an end to even just one form of violence against human beings.” Collaboration can yield good practical results and, with time, might even change some of our collaborators’ minds.

Rehumanize International

Maria Oswalt

Bill Samuel

The online Rehumanize International Conference was 12.5 hours of sessions without a break, with some periods having choices between breakout sessions. This means no attenders took in everything, but Rehumanize will make the sessions available for a full year so that all can have an opportunity to see sessions they missed.

All the sessions I attended were informative, and some were quite moving. Charles Keith of Death Penalty Action shared the story of his brother being convicted of murder for a crime he had nothing to do with and being sentenced to death, and the 30-year struggle to get that reversed. The experience devastated the family. Mansoor Adayfi shared about being a prisoner in Guantanamo where treatment was brutal, including torture. His resilience was shown in his joyful countenance. Sr. Pauline Schroeder shared thoughts on Palestine and Israel based on the three years she spent with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Hebron on the West Bank. Our Board members Lois Kerschen and Lisa Stiller discussed their struggles with trying to stand for life in the Democratic Party. Once again, Rehumanize International did a great job of planning a conference that covered many elements of the consistent life ethic.

Lois Kerschen & Lisa Stiller

Lois Kerschen & Lisa Stiller


Rachel MacNair

I presented an overview of what’s known about killing as trauma (Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress), followed by Theresa Burke sharing about her therapy retreats that in proper consistent-life fashion covers three groups: women who’ve had abortions (and others involved) in Rachel’s Vineyard, victims of sexual and other abuse in Grief to Grace, and combat veterans in Duty to Heal. Peter Chacon then talked about how he was a veteran who had been through the program and how it had helped him. Such programs aren’t just necessary for people who need them, but for the healing of society as a whole so we can prevent future violence.

I also in a different session presented on a new tool for fostering noncooperation with Planned Parenthood: a Problems at Planned Parenthood website that documents in a facts-only way medical dangers, sexual abuse, racism, etc.

Top: Theresa Burke, Peter Chacon. Bottom, Aimee Murphy, Rachel MacNair


Additional Screenshots

And from all of us, best wishes to Herb:


Heartbreakingly Common: Suicide Among Veterans

Posted on November 14, 2023 By

by Sarah Terzo

As of 2012, more active duty military personnel and veterans have died from suicide than from combat.

Here are more statistics that show how large the problem is:

  • Veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have the highest suicide rate.1
  • Twenty-five percent of people who die by suicide in the US are veterans, but veterans make up less than 1% of the population.
  • Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, the suicide rate among veterans has increased by 600%.2
  • In 2020, there were 6,146 veteran suicides. This was on average 16.8 per day.
  • In 2020, the suicide rate for veterans was 57.3% higher than for non-veteran adults.
  • Veteran suicide deaths rose from 6,001 in 2001 to a peak of 6,796 in 2018, to 6,146. However, from 2001 through 2020, the veteran population decreased by 24.6%. The number of suicides hasn’t decreased in proportion.
  • The suicide rate for veterans was 23.3 per 100,000 in 2001 and 31.7 per 100,000 in 2020.
  • In 2020, suicide rates were highest among veterans between the ages of 18 and 34 (52.3 per 100,000 among men and 19.5 per 100,000 among women.)
  • 71% of veterans who died by suicide used guns.


Veterans Give Possible Reasons for High Suicide Rates

In the New York Times, veteran Shannon P. Meehan writes:

War erodes one’s regard for human life. Soldiers cause or witness so many deaths . . .  that it becomes routine. It becomes an accepted part of existence. After a while, you can begin to lose regard for your own life as well. So many around you have already died, why should it matter if you go next?

That is why so many soldiers self-destruct. The deaths that I caused also killed any regard I have for my own life . . . I fell into a downward spiral, doubting if I even deserved to be alive. The value, or regard, I once had for my own life dissipated.

Veteran Phil Ditto give some possible reasons for high suicide rates:

[T]here is a tremendous loss of purpose when one leaves the military . . . [T]he loss of camaraderie and the loneliness that follows. You pair these factors with the stress of service, combat, unstable home environments, guilt, and a lack of strong support, and we might as well load the guns ourselves.3

Ditto lost a friend and fellow veteran to suicide. ‘Joe’ was a veteran of Iraq who Ditto calls a “stellar soldier, leader, and friend . . . loyal to the core.”

Ditto noticed that Joe was acting strangely when they were driving one day. Joe had a loaded handgun and seemed on edge and paranoid. Joe ranted that “they” were everywhere.

Ditto was alarmed, but the next time he saw Joe, he seemed fine. Joe was sent to another military assignment, and they lost touch.

A few years later, Ditto learned of Joe’s suicide. Ditto writes:

[H]e had killed himself near the memorial to those killed in the war on terrorism of the fabled unit he had been a part of all those years ago. Stricken with what I am sure is an undeniable grief and guilt at the loss of the friends he could not save, etched into the marble wall in front of which he now lay dead . . .

[M]any of us, far too many, have such similar stories. We are tragically and unbelievably connected by the exponential guilt that bonds those left behind.4

Ditto now wonders if he could’ve intervened. He will live with his grief and uncertainty forever.

The Attitude Towards Suicidal People in Boot Camp

S.M. Boney joined the military after 9/11. In his memoir, he writes, “I wanted to help . . . to do something to help my country. Too many innocent people lost their lives on 9/11. I was ready to serve; to do my part.”5 Wanting to protect America and help people, Boney became a medic.

Boney wrote about his struggles with PTSD after his deployment. He had vivid flashbacks and hallucinations where he saw attacking enemy soldiers and thought he was back in combat.

But it’s his observations about boot camp that give insight into the military’s attitude towards suicide. Boney explains how in boot camp, when one recruit made a mistake, all of the recruits were punished. One boot camp soldier couldn’t seem to learn the proper way to march. Every time the recruit, who Boney called Baker, made a mistake or misstep during a marching drill, the drill sergeant forced everyone in the unit to do grueling physical exercises for hours or punished them some other way. After each terrible punishment, the drill instructor had the other recruits shout out, “Thank you, Baker.”

No matter how hard Baker tried, he couldn’t get the steps right, and the other members of the unit began to hate and harass him. Baker couldn’t take the hostility, and attempted suicide by jumping off a roof. As Baker lay there with a broken leg, the drill sergeant screamed:

‘What the f*ck? … Now I’ve got to deal with your sh*t Baker, you f*cking pussy!’

We started laughing. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing; he didn’t care about him one bit.6

The sergeant mocked Baker while the other soldiers stood around and laughed. The drill sergeant yelled at Baker some more, told him to stay put, and walked away. Boney recalls the conversation among the soldiers:

‘Where the f*ck is he going to go, Sergeant?” Bauer joked. We all chuckled.

‘Why the f*ck would he do that?” I asked . . . “That’s f*cking stupid . . . Why wouldn’t he just try to stick it out. What a pussy. Who tries to kill themselves?’ . . .

‘I’m glad he jumped, at least now we can do drills without getting smoked,’ Miller said jokingly. We all laughed.7

When the sergeant came back, he said, “For any of you little sh*ts that want to pull a stunt like that, go ahead! I don’t care. Kill yourself . . . If you want to die so bad, you might as well.”8

He then told the following story:

Last year I had a cadet who was going through some family shit. One day I was walking over from the DEFAC and saw this fucker jump off a two-story building . . . He was crying on the ground, fussing about how much he didn’t want to be alive. He said he wished that he was dead.

I told him that next time, he should jump headfirst, if he really wants to die so bad . . .

Three days later I’m walking through the CP when I hear an ambulance. I see people standing around a body on the ground. It was the same troop lying on the ground in a pool of blood . . . He took my advice.

If you really want to go, you might as well do it the right way so you’re not a problem for other people.9

He finally stormed off, complaining about the paperwork he had to do because of the “sorry piece of sh*t” Baker.

There was a second suicide attempt in boot camp. Private Bauer attempted to shoot himself in front of two drill sergeants. One sergeant kicked the gun out of Bauer’s hand, and the other shoved him to the ground.

Boney recounts:

‘What the fuck are you doing, you piece of shit!” Drills Thompson and Dickens snatched him off the ground by his collar, forcing him to stand.

‘You stupid f*cking kid,’ Drill Thompson barked in his face, ‘Trying to kill yourself?’

Bauer fell back to the ground and cried. The Drills put him in handcuffs and dragged him off to the side. He sat on the ground red-faced, bawling like a baby.

I lay on my stomach watching the Drills rag on Bauer as they dragged him off the range.10

Neither of these two suicidal men received anything but abuse and mockery from the drill sergeant and their fellow recruits.

Veterans who experience this kind of attitude while in the military, who witness officers mocking and insulting suicidal people, who are surrounded by an attitude of hostility and condemnation of those who struggle emotionally, may be far less likely to seek support or help either from the military hierarchy or their fellow soldiers/veterans.

During boot camp, Boney couldn’t imagine why anyone would die by suicide. When he came home struggling with PTSD, however, he contemplated suicide himself and even says, “I almost became a statistic.”11

A “Toxic Environment” in the Barracks

Boney isn’t the only veteran to comment on the heartless attitude of military personnel towards suicidal soldiers.

Veteran Gabe Merigian writes:

I lost my friend Jon Gee to suicide two months after I got out. Jon was experiencing mental health issues and took his own life in his barracks room, largely because of the toxic environment that existed there at the time.

There were two other suicides in that barracks while I was living there. It just felt like you couldn’t rely on the higher-ups to care about your well-being.12

Between the trauma of war and the hostility of military culture toward those who are struggling, it’s no surprise that the suicide rate among veterans is so high.


  1. Robert Gebbia “Military Suicide—The War within Our Ranks” appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee, June 28, 2020. Cited in Marguerite Guzman Bouvard The Invisible Wounds of War: Coming Home from Iraq and Afghanistan (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2012) 127.
  2. Bruce Shapiro “Casualties of War” Nation January 28, 2008, pp. 7–9.
  3. April E Brown and Ethan Casey Voices of America: Veterans and Military Families Tell Their Own Stories (Fort Worth, Texas: TCU Press, 2020) 314.
  4. Ibid., 314-315.
  5. SM Boney IV Combat Medic: A Soldier’s Story of the Iraq War and PTSD (2016) 17.
  6. Ibid., 53.
  7. Ibid., 53-54.
  8. Ibid., 55.
  9. Ibid., 55, 56.
  10. Ibid., 74.
  11. Ibid., 296.
  12. April E Brown and Ethan Casey Voices of America, 293.


For posts on similar topics, see:

Suicide Prevention and Other Kinds of Killing

Reaching Out Needs Compassion

“I Became Like a Soldier Going to Battle”: Post-Abortion Trauma

“But I was Empty”: The Story of a Doctor Who Left Planned Parenthood

For a website that delves into how killing can be traumatic for those who do it, see:

Perpetration Trauma


combat veteranssuicide

Sleepwalking toward Nuclear War: The Lessons of the Able Archer Scare

Posted on November 7, 2023 By

by John Whitehead

Since nuclear weapons were created, nations have repeatedly come close to nuclear war. The most famous episode was the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Another terrifying near miss occurred 40 years ago this November.

In 1983, with extreme Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, a NATO military exercise called “Able Archer” further alarmed the Soviets. Soviet leaders feared it was a cover for a surprise US nuclear attack. They responded with their own nuclear war preparations.

Unlike the Cuban Missile Crisis, which unfolded largely in public, with both sides aware of the stakes, American leaders were unaware at the time of their Soviet counterparts’ fears and actions. The Able Archer episode offers a lesson in how nations can miscommunicate and misunderstand each other, and how perilous the results are.


(My account is drawn from Taylor Downing’s 1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink and Marc Ambinder’s The Brink: President Reagan and the Nuclear War Scare of 1983.

Escalating Tensions

US-Soviet relations worsened during the late 1970s. The Soviet Union deployed medium-range nuclear missiles known as “Pioneers,” which could hit targets in western Europe. In response, the United States planned to deploy its own medium-range nuclear missiles, including missiles called “Pershings,” to western Europe.

While US policymakers presumably saw the missile deployment as a reciprocal response, Soviet leaders had a different view. The Pioneer missiles couldn’t hit the United States, but Pershing missiles could hit the Soviet Union. US missiles could hit Moscow and kill Soviet leaders before the Soviets could retaliate. To the Soviets, the Pershings were a sign of US preparations for a surprise attack.

The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan further deepened Cold War hostilities. Cold Warrior Ronald Reagan’s election as US president the next year heightened Soviet fears of an attack.

In 1981, KGB chief Yuri Andropov launched Operation RYaN, an international intelligence gathering project. Under RYaN (a Russian acronym for “nuclear missile attack”), KGB agents and their allies monitored western nations for signs of an imminent attack, such as heightened alerts at military bases.

Dueling Words and Weapons

Reagan was somewhat open to cooperation with the Soviets and pursued arms control talks early in his administration. Nevertheless, his goal of deploying Pershings to Europe, and his massive military spending, didn’t ease tensions. Arms control talks about the European missiles made no progress.

Andropov became the preeminent Soviet leader in 1982. Matters came to a head between the leaders in 1983, the year the US missiles were due to be stationed in Europe.

Reagan escalated the rhetorical war in a March speech that infamously denounced the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and the “focus of evil in the modern world” (Downing, pp. 66-67). Soon after, he announced US plans to develop the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a military system meant to prevent nuclear missiles from hitting the United States.

Reagan understood SDI as a defensive system that could make nuclear weapons obsolete. However, the Soviets saw SDI as another sign of American plans to attack them: a US “shield” against nuclear weapons would allow the United States to attack the Soviet Union without fear of retaliation. Andropov declared “It is time they stopped devising one option after another in the search for the best ways of unleashing nuclear war in the hope of winning it” (Downing, pp. 104-105).

Meanwhile, Operation RYaN gathered information. RYaN suffered from two flaws, though. First, many indicators of war preparations the Soviets were tracking were so broadly defined that innocuous activities could be interpreted as threatening. A British drive for blood donors, for example, was reported to Moscow as a sign of possible stockpiling of blood supplies for wartime. Second, KGB and other agents tended to tell their superiors what they wanted to hear, thus confirming the superiors’ existing suspicions. The operation thus fueled Soviet fears.

An incident that summer further worsened Soviet relations. The night of August 31/September 1, a civilian Korean Airlines plane went off course and strayed into Soviet airspace. The Soviets apparently mistook the plane for a US spy plane and shot it down, killing all on board. The incident was a horrible accident, but Reagan denounced it as a “crime against humanity” (Downing, p. 182).

Able Archer

Tensions peaked in early November. NATO conducted Able Archer, an annual exercise to practice procedures for authorizing and using nuclear weapons against the Soviets. The exercise involved military personnel at various European locations and consisted mostly of these NATO units exchanging messages.

In theory, Able Archer shouldn’t have been threatening. However, amid worsening relations and the many ominous signs collected by Operation RYaN, the Soviets were in a state of near panic. They feared Able Archer would serve as cover for an actual nuclear attack. Captain Viktor Tkachenko, who commanded a Soviet nuclear missile unit, later recalled being briefed on this danger. Another nuclear unit commander, General-Colonel Ivan Yesin, recalled the fear that “under the pretenses of [NATO] exercises that a sudden nuclear strike could be delivered” (Ambinder, p. 203).

The Soviet military was accordingly on alert, with nuclear weapons at increased readiness. About half the Pioneer missiles were in wartime positions. Some nuclear weapons had been deployed to East Germany and Czechoslovakia. Soviet fighter planes in these countries were kept ready for immediate takeoff if conflict broke out. Soviet listening posts monitored transmission of messages during Able Archer.

Able Archer unfolded until, on November 8, it reached the stage when participants practiced requesting authorization from NATO leadership to use nuclear weapons. At this stage, participants switched to using a new format for sending such messages. The format had been introduced that year. The unexpected break from past practice may have increased Soviet monitors’ fears that Able Archer wasn’t just an exercise.

Tkachenko remembered that on November 8 “We were told to immediately go to raised combat alert.” Yesin similarly remembered that “during the climax of the NATO exercise our state of alert was increased. The commanders of missile forces were told to stay in their bunkers full time in constant radio communication” (Downing, pp. 243, 245).

The Able Archer participants received the mock authorization to use nuclear weapons on November 9. They followed procedures to confirm targets and carry out nuclear strikes. That day, the KGB sent out an urgent message to agents warning the situation was critical and demanding immediate reports of threatening western activities.

Had something unexpected happened at that point—if a NATO military unit had acted provocatively; if a technical malfunction had caused a false alarm; if some freak accident such as the Korean airliner going astray had occurred— the situation might have flared into a real military conflict. Mercifully for humanity, nothing like that happened.

One small but important event might have helped lessen tensions. An eastern bloc spy working with the top levels of NATO sent his superiors a reassuring message on November 9 saying he saw no evidence of actual preparations for war.

Able Archer ended on November 11, without incident and with NATO participants oblivious to the panic their actions had caused.

Relaxing Tensions

After Able Archer, US-Soviet relations initially continued their downward spiral. The Pershings and other US missiles were sent to Europe by year’s end. In protest, the Soviets quit arms control negotiations and promised to deploy more missiles of their own.

However, US policymakers gradually realized how alarmed the Soviets had become. US and NATO intelligence noticed the heightened state of Soviet military readiness. Also, a British spy within the KGB passed along to the west information about KGB fears of a possible nuclear attack.

US National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane was disturbed by this information and spoke to Reagan about it. Reagan was also rattled, writing in his diary that the Soviets are “so paranoid about being attacked, that without being in any way soft on them we ought to tell them that no one here has any intention of doing anything like that” (Downing, p. 262).

In January 1984, Reagan gave a speech that, along with criticisms of the Soviet Union, included more conciliatory comments. Reagan stressed the importance of regular dialogue, cooperation on shared interests, and arms control. He stressed the importance of “practical, meaningful ways to reduce the uncertainty and potential for misinterpretation surrounding military activities and to diminish the risk of surprise attack.” Andropov would never reciprocate these sentiments; he died a few weeks later.

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became the new Soviet leader and met Reagan in November. Despite disagreements, the two leaders affirmed the importance of arms control and that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” (Downing, pp. 302-307). US-Soviet relations began to move away from the threat of nuclear war.

Avoiding Disaster

Three lessons stand out from this bizarre, frightening episode. First and foremost is the profound danger nuclear weapons pose to humanity.

Second is the necessity of international communication. As Taylor Downing notes, “Because there had been almost no dialogue between American and Soviet officials since the invasion of Afghanistan, there were no contacts through which either side could understand how the other was thinking” (Downing, p. 112). Clearer, more frequent communication can help avoid serious misunderstandings.

The third lesson is the need to consider how an adversary might view one’s actions. Steps that US leaders didn’t regard as inherently threatening, such as sending new missiles to Europe or pursuing SDI, were interpreted as serious threats by Soviet leaders. Reagan’s apparent surprise at Soviet fears is notable, given how harshly he had condemned the Soviet Union. Why wouldn’t Soviet leaders fear attack from someone who called their country an “evil empire”?

US behavior may have fallen prey to the understandable human tendency to view one’s actions as benign and to assume everyone else will view them the same way. Remembering an adversary might not view one’s actions that way and trying to imagine how that adversary would interpret those actions is vital.

With international tensions, including tensions among nuclear-armed nations, being a continuing condition of world affairs, the lessons of the Able Archer scare are well worth remembering today. We must never come that close to the brink again.


For some of our other posts on the history of nuclear weapons, see: 

Stepping Back from the Brink: The Cuban Missile Crisis and Lessons for Today

Movie Review: Oppenheimer

Fallout at Home Base: Nuclear Testing within the United States

Lethal from the Start: Uranium Mining’s Danger to the Most Vulnerable

“The Affairs of a Handful of Natives”: Nuclear Testing and Racism

A Global Effort to Protect Life: The UN Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons



historynuclear weapons

Victoria Woodhull – First Woman to Run for U.S. President

Posted on October 31, 2023 By



This is an excerpt from ProLife Feminism: Yesterday and Today. The introduction was written by Mary Krane Derr.





Victoria Woodhull (1838-1927) and Tennessee Claflin (1845-1923)

Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin, sisters from a poor, chaotic Ohio family, became the first female stockbrokers on Wall Street after a stint as Spiritualist mediums (ministers). In 1870, Woodhull declared herself a candidate for the presidency — the first woman ever to do so.

The next year she presented a speech to the U.S. Congress, arguing that women already had the vote under the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments, which had recently enfranchised Black men.

Some feminists welcomed the sisters; others found them unpalatably outrageous. The sisters’ notoriety came from their colorful personal lives and the views they expressed on their speaking tours and in their flamboyant newspaper, whose motto was, “Progress! Free Thought! Untrammeled Lives! Breaking the Way for Future Generations.” Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly (1870-1876) advocated Spiritualism, alternative medicine, and radical economics. The first American periodical to run a translation of the Communist Manifesto, it promoted woman suffrage and “free love.”

“Free lovers” wished for sexual relationships to be based on personal, mutual choice, respect, and affection, rather than the man’s legal ownership of the woman. They attacked the sexual double standard, especially as practiced by nineteenth-century counterparts of today’s sexually abusive clerics. Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly broke the news of the Beecher-Tilton scandal after the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher excoriated the sisters for their “free love” views. Anthony Comstock, an adulating member of Beecher’s congregation, was incensed by the sisters’ accusation that Beecher was a hypocrite who had had an affair with Elizabeth Tilton, another congregant. Comstock arranged for the sisters’ arrest on obscenity charges.

Among their published “obscenities” was their repeated observation that the prime cause of “so much murder of unborn children, is that to have them is to make a slave of the mother.” Community responsibility for child care and education would “result not only in increased benefit to such children as escape ante-natal death,” but “decrease the desire . . . to commit this class of murders” and “relieve the worn-out mothers of the country.” 2 So, too, would the exposure and abolition of clerical sexual abuse and hypocrisy.

The Slaughter of the Innocents

Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, 20 June 1874.
by Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin

If there is one fact in modern society more horrible, and at the same time more sorrowful than any other, it is that one which relates to the deathrate among the young from the time of conception up to five years of age. It is one of those things against which almost everybody willfully shuts his eyes and professes to think that it does not exist: and everybody pretends to everybody else that he knows nothing about it; while on every hand — in every household — the young drop off like leaves before the autumn wind . . .

But this enforced ignoring of one of the horrible facts of modern society is engendering in society itself a morbid condition of mind regarding children which, if not speedily checked, will prove fatal to civilization itself . . . [Humanity] . . . is seemingly indifferent to the life or death of the young.

Its practices cut them down like grass before the scythe. Parents deposit one-half of their young in the grave-yards before they reach the age of five years.* What a commentary this is on the social condition! . . . Childhood ought to be the healthiest period of life, but in our condition it has degenerated until it is ten times more fatal than any other period. And yet we talk of the sacredness of human life as if it were so regarded at all! A human life is a human life and equally to be held sacred whether it be a day or century old; and that custom which cuts off one-half of the young almost in infancy, is as virtually murder as would be the same death-rate among adults resulting from compelling them to the use of life-destroying food.

Victoria Woodhull

Victoria Woodhull

Children die because they are not properly cared for. If adults received equally improper treatment as children received, they would die at the same rate; but adults, being capable of judging for themselves as to what is proper and what is improper, by choosing the former, decrease the deathrate ten times below that which obtains among the classes who depend upon others for their treatment . . .

But this fact regarding the indifference to life that exists among parents is not perhaps the worst feature of modern society. It is not only a fact that this terrible death-rate persistently continues among children, but that there is still another death method not included in its horrible details, which, if possible, is still more revolting, and which is nonetheless a slaughter of the innocents  . . .

Wives . . . to prevent becoming mothers . . . deliberately murder [children] while yet in their wombs. Can there be a more demoralized condition than this? . . . Why should the birth-rate decrease as the people become more enlightened? . . . Simply because with increased knowledge comes increased individuality; and with increased individuality, increased repugnance to submission to the slavery that child-bearing almost necessarily entails in our society as at present organized; and with these also the knowledge that pregnancy can be broken up, sometimes with little present evidence of evil to the, otherwise, mother . . .

Tennessee Claflin

If this practice prevail so widely among wives, who have no need to resort to it “to hide their shame,” but merely to prevent an increase in the number of their children, how prevalent it must be among the unmarried class who have social death staring them in the face when they become pregnant without the consent of the canting priest or the drunken squire? . . .

Is it not equally destroying the would-be future oak, to crush the sprout before it pushes its head above the sod, as it is to cut down the sapling, or cut down the tree? Is it not equally to destroy life, to crush it in its very germ, and to take it when the germ has evolved to any given point in its line of development? . . .

We ask the women of this country to consider carefully the subjects thus hastily presented, and see if they do not find in them an unanswerable argument for sexual freedom for themselves . . . We speak of these things in connection with the subject of child-murder, because originally they are the foundation for it  . . . And yet there are still to be found apparently intelligent people who seem honestly to think that the social question ought not to be discussed publicly! . . .

For our part, so long as the terrible effects of our unnatural sexual system continues to desecrate humanity, there is no other question to be considered in which the health, happiness, and general well-being of the race is so intimately involved.


* Editor’s note: Official statistics show the child mortality rate in the United States, accounted from birth to age 5, was 462.9 deaths per thousand births in 1800 – that is, over 46%. By 1875 when this is written, it was 347.49 per thousand, so over a third.



 For more of our posts on individual historic women, see: 

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Dr. Charlotte Denman Lozier (1844-1870): Restellism Exposed

Jane Addams

Valentine Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass 

Dorothy Day and the Consistent Life Ethic: Rejecting Conventional Political Paradigms

Is it Too Late? 1971 Speech of Fannie Lou Hamer

historywomen's rights

The Back Alley and the Front Alley

Posted on October 24, 2023 By

by Rachel MacNair

When Roe v. Wade first passed, I was actually pleased, because I thought it would put the back-alley butchers out of business. But here in Kansas City, there was an abortion doctor named Richard Mucie who was in fact put out of business pre-Roe because a woman had died a horrific death from an abortion he did on her. I will spare you the details. After Roe, he successfully sued to get his medical license back. And literally opened up a clinic on Main Street in Kansas City. In this case, Roe put a back-alley butcher back into business.

When Poland and Nicaragua banned abortion after several decades of legal availability, the over-all pregnancy-related death numbers went down. In Mexico, states that left bans on abortion had lower maternal mortality than states that legalized them. There were other things going on besides the legal status of abortion in all cases – most particularly, policies giving attention to maternal health – but I would argue that taking women’s pregnancies seriously rather than dismissing them as something that could have been thrown away goes along with policies to help maternal health.

Meanwhile, the image of “safe” abortion clinics is, to my understanding, about as realistic as a Hollywood depiction of war as a drama in which the “good guys” win and the clear-cut villains lose. The human mind is commonly sickened by committing killing in all kinds of contexts – combat, executions, etc. – and such trauma symptoms can show up in terrible care for patients.
See for example:

Memoir: We Do Abortions Here; A nurse’s story, by Sallie Tisdale
Harper’s Magazine, October, 1987

Sallie Tisdale wrote the article from which this is excerpted while working as a registered nurse in an abortion clinic.



It is when I am holding a plastic uterus in one hand, a suction tube in the other, moving them together in imitation of the scrubbing to come, that women ask the most secret question. I am speaking in a matter-of-fact voice about “the tissue” and “the contents” when the woman suddenly catches my eye and asks, “How big is the baby now?” These words suggest a quiet need for a definition of the boundaries being drawn. It isn’t so odd, after all, that she feels relief when I describe the growing bud’s bulbous shape, its miniature nature. Again I gauge, and sometimes lie a little, weaseling around its infantile features until its clinging power slackens.

But when I look in the basin, among the curdlike blood clots, I see an elfin thorax, attenuated, its pencilline ribs all in parallel rows with tiny knobs of spine rounding upwards. A translucent arm and hand swim beside . . .

I have fetus dreams, we all do here: dreams of abortions one after the other; of buckets of blood splashed on the walls; trees full of crawling fetuses. I dreamed that two men grabbed me and began to drag me away. “Let’s do an abortion,” they said with a sickening leer, and I began to scream, plunged into a vision of sucking, scraping pain, of being spread and torn by impartial instruments that do only what they are bidden. I woke from this dream barely able to breathe and thought of kitchen tables and coat hangers, knitting needles sniped with blood, and women all alone clutching a pillow in their teeth to keep the screams from piercing the apartment-house walls. Abortion is the narrowest edge between kindness and cruelty. Done as well as it can be, it is still violence — merciful violence, like putting a suffering animal to death . . .

For documentation on the abortion providers with the best reputation, see Problems at Planned Parenthood – and the list of problems that include some horrific health violations found by authorities at some centers, many ambulance calls and malpractice suits, and most horrifying, some cases in which sexual abuse of minors continued because Planned Parenthood gave an abortion without reporting the crime. When sexual predators are aware that abortion is handy to cover up, then the abortion facility amounts to an accomplice to the crime.


For more of our posts on a similar theme, see: 

Abortion Facilitates Sex Abuse: Documentation

How Abortion is Useful for Rape Culture

The Message of “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”: Abortion Gets Sexual Predators Off the Hook

Isolating Women and Encouraging Jerks


Medical Dangers, Sex Abuse, Labor Problems, Racism: Documenting Planned Parenthood

Posted on October 17, 2023 By

by Rachel MacNair


Problems at Planned Parenthood is a new website that lets the facts speak for themselves. This site offers extensive documentation, organized under each of the almost 600 U.S. Planned Parenthood centers. It’s sponsored by the Problems at Planned Parenthood Committee.

The site also offers thousands of patient reviews from Google and Yelp, and hundreds of Indeed reviews from employees.

The intended audience is:

  • Those who refer people to Planned Parenthood
  • Researchers of any kind – journalists, legislators, students, or people who want to verify something they thought was unbelievable.
  • Individuals and foundations considering donating to Planned Parenthood
  • Individuals considering using Planned Parenthood’s services.

The site contains documentation that is almost entirely without interpretation. The intended audiences may be turned off by explicitly pro-life insights.

These are primarily related to specific centers, though occasionally they may cover the region or state. The home page has a list that lets you link to the state or region of interest. There’s also an index with each different problem listing the centers that have documentation on that problem.

There are two similar sites – Check My Clinic and abortiondocs.org. Both of these offer documentation on all abortion facilities, whether they’re Planned Parenthood or not. This site covers all Planned Parenthood centers, whether they do abortions or not. About a third of the centers don’t do them, but all at least refer for abortions.

This site is also more comprehensive; for example, labor problems are the kind of thing that might be found troublesome to people who are otherwise Planned Parenthood supporters.

Note: also still available is Grassroots Defunding: Finding Alternatives to Planned Parenthood. This site is entirely for pro-life activists and organizers. It lists nearby Community Health Centers and other resources and information for each Planned Parenthood center, and is frequently updated with feedback from prolife activists. It’s sponsored by the Consistent Life Network.  


Planned Parenthood

Gaza War: Outrageous and Foolish

Posted on October 10, 2023 By

Statements of heartache and horror abound around the world. Every war is monstrous, and it hurts so badly when a new one is declared  Here we offer comments focused on the one that flared up so badly this last weekend.

Stephen Zunes Facebook Posts

Professor of Politics, University of San Francisco

Zunes is co-editor of our book, Consistently Opposing Killing: From Abortion to Assisted Suicide, the Death Penalty, and War. 


Hamas once again has failed to recognize that killing civilians is not just morally reprehensible but politically counter-productive. They aren’t like Israel and Saudi Arabia, which can kill thousands of civilians with impunity and still receive massive military and diplomatic support from the United States.

Hamas attacks on civilian targets in Israel, like any attacks against civilians by anyone, are completely unjustified. The Biden administration is totally wrong, however, to say they are “unprovoked.” Israel has been killing many scores of Palestinian civilians, including children, in recent months and Hamas has been warning it would retaliate if they continued.

Just a few months ago, I was talking with an Israeli friend who worried that if the Biden administration didn’t press Netanyahu to stop the repression, land confiscations, and other provocations things would explode. Yesterday, her kibbutz was overrun by Hamas. She is missing – apparently kidnapped or killed.

The Republican efforts to claim Iran is somehow behind the Hamas attacks misses the basic fact that Iran is not a big supporter of Hamas. They were on opposite sides in the Syrian Civil War. Unlike Hezbollah in Lebanon and allied militia in Syria and Iraq, Hamas has never received sophisticated weapons or Iranian advisors. This claim also denies agency to the long-suffering

Palestinians in the open air prison that is the Gaza Strip, who – however immoral and irrational their ongoing terror operations may be – have their own motivation to attack Israel.

Islamic Jihad, which also based in Gaza, has received some Iranian assistance, but Hamas is definitely taking the lead currently.

Also, historically, Hamas has gotten more support from sources in the Arab Gulf states – autocratic kingdoms backed by the United States – than they have from Iran or Syria.

If Iran was behind this, they would have pushed Hezbollah, which has far more sophisticated missiles and other ordinance, to attack as well.

This line being taken by the Republicans is a disingenuous effort to try to blame this ongoing tragedy on Biden for supposedly being “soft” on Iran. They are taking advantage of the suffering by both Israeli civilians and Palestinian civilians, who are taking the brunt of the war, to try to score political points.

I have friends in Kibbutz Kissufim and Kibbutz Kerem Shalom located just to the south of the Gaza Strip. They are progressives who have fought for decades against the occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza. Both kibbutzim are currently under Hamas control and Israel is fighting to get them back. Haven’t heard from any of them. Don’t know if they have been kidnapped, killed, or are in hiding. It’s not looking good. They have been steadfast allies to the Palestinian struggle. They don’t deserve this.

World Beyond War

Palestine, Like Much of the World, Needs a Radical Change

 While WBW is not a member group, they have made excellent presentations at the Rehumanize International conference.


[N]othing excuses the violence committed by Hamas. The Israeli government has not chosen to learn that its violence may produce more violence. Hamas has not chosen to learn that its violence may produce more violence . . .

In the first Palestinian intifada in the late 1980s to early 1990s, much of the subjugated population effectively became self-governing entities through nonviolent noncooperation. In Rashid Khalidi’s book The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, he argues that this disorganized, spontaneous, grassroots, and largely nonviolent effort did more good than the PLO had done for decades, that it unified a resistance movement and shifted world opinion, despite co-option, opposition, and misdirection by a PLO oblivious to the need to influence world opinion and utterly naive about the need for applying pressure on Israel and the United States. This contrasts sharply with the violence and the counterproductive results of the Second Intifada in 2000, in the view of Khalidi and many others. We can expect counterproductive results from the latest attacks on Israel as well . . .

The challenge to everyone on Earth in these moments is to not think childishly, to not figure out which side to entirely condemn and which to entirely praise. The enemy, as always, is not a group of people, not the people of Gaza, not the people of Israel, and not any government. The enemy is warfare. It can only be ended by advancing superior alternatives.

Combatants for Peace

These are former Israeli and Palestinians fighters who have laid down their arms. This comes from an email.

 We wept and watched in horror as Palestinian militants killed hundreds of Israeli civilians and kidnapped innocent women, children, and the elderly. We now hurt and grieve as the lives of so many innocent Palestinian civilians are taken in Gaza. As politicians stoke the flames of hatred, violence, and division, it is the innocent that suffer. For our movement of Israelis and Palestinians, the pain is unbearable. And yet, no matter what, our activists’ commitment to one another and to a nonviolent future of peace and freedom for all is unwavering . . .

Our movement knows that there is no future without an end to the occupation. We have witnessed nearly six decades of military control over an entire civilian population and a suffocating, unlivable blockade on Gaza for 16 years. CfP was formed almost 20 years ago by those who know, firsthand, that violence only begets violence, no one wins in war, and that we must protect all life by forging another way. We still believe in another way, even now, especially now.

In our bi-national WhatsApp groups, Israeli and Palestinian members are sending each other prayers and words of grief and love. In Hebrew and Arabic, they are forwarding safety protocols and practices for calming a trauma response. We are seeing a longing from both sides to see each other safe and for the violence to stop. They are checking on each other’s families, especially those who live on opposite sides of the Gaza border. We are all meeting later today to listen to one another and to discuss actions we can take as a community.


We have many posts on war, of course, but here are couple of interest. See our full list of blog posts for more.  

Looking Beyond Anti-Imperialism: A Response to Some Arguments about the Ukraine War

Wars Cause Abortion



war policy

A Plea for Quiet – and for Peace: Consistent Life Ethic Themes in Fahrenheit 451

Posted on October 3, 2023 By

by John Whitehead

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s classic dystopian science fiction novel, turns 70 years old this October. The novel has been described as being about censorship, which is an accurate but limited characterization. The book contains other themes, some of which may interest consistent life ethic activists.

The novel imagines a future United States in which owning and reading books is a crime and any books discovered by the authorities are burned by a branch of the security forces known as “Firemen.”

The protagonist, Guy Montag, is a fireman who becomes disillusioned with his way of life and the anti-book policies he enforces. Montag eventually allies with dissidents who try to preserve books and knowledge. All this leads to an inevitable confrontation with his colleagues.

Along with its concern about the evils of censorship, Fahrenheit 451 contains two less obvious but significant themes, one about the importance of reflection and another about the devaluation of human life.

Stimulation Over Reflection

The censorship regime in Fahrenheit 451 has revealing characteristics. The dystopian government notably suppresses books as such: not books by any particular author or about any particular subject or expressing any particular ideology but all books.

Montag and the book-reading dissidents he encounters are similarly value-neutral about the books they preserve. One dissident, the retired schoolteacher Faber, enthuses over obtaining a copy of the Bible even though he acknowledges that he is not religious. Other books being preserved by the novel’s resistance movement are varied and contradictory in their content and significance, ranging from Plato to Buddhist thought to Bertrand Russell.

What the authorities are trying to stamp out—and the resistance is trying to preserve—is not any particular heterodox thought but thought in general, of which books are the prime representative.

Another distinct characteristic of the censorship regime is that it exists, in a sense, by popular demand, or at least through a kind of vicious circle between the people and their rulers.

The future United States imagined by Bradbury is a society of near-constant electronically produced stimulation. People listen to streams of news and music through the “Seashells,” miniature radios that fit in their ears. Television screens are floor-to-ceiling length, for maximum effect; three walls within Montag’s house are occupied by such screens and his vapid wife Mildred aspires to install a fourth wall-screen. Commercials play over the PA system on the subway, and so on.

During a scene when Mildred and her friends watch TV, we get a sense of the contemporary entertainment:

On one wall a woman smiled and drank orange juice simultaneously . . . In the other walls an x-ray of the same woman revealed the contracting journey of the refreshing beverage on its way to her delighted stomach! Abruptly the room took off on a rocket flight into the clouds, it plunged into a lime-green sea where blue fish ate red and yellow fish. A minute later, Three White Cartoon Clowns chopped off each other’s limbs to the accompaniment of immense incoming tides of laughter. Two minutes more and the room whipped out of town to the jet cars wildly circling an arena, bashing and backing up and bashing each other again. Montag saw a number of bodies fly in the air (pp. 93-94 [all page numbers are from the 1991 Ballantine Del Ray edition]).

In a society where ever-more-vivid and overwhelming entertainment is delivered at any ever-increasing pace, people are incapable of sustained interest in something that requires time, patience, and concentration, such as a book. As a result, reading becomes suspect, something eccentrics or contrarians do. The government then steps in to suppress the bizarre practice of reading, in accord with its own interests in keeping the people passive.

The insidious force here is not technology per se but rather the exaltation of stimulation at the expense of quiet and reflection. In 2023, when access to an online world of social media posts is only as far as our mobile phones, when earbuds do the work of the Seashells, and TVs can take up much of a wall, the relevance of this aspect of Fahrenheit 451 is hard to miss.

Life Is Cheap

The death of reflection and critical thought in Fahrenheit 451 ties into the theme of how life is devalued.

The novel’s dystopian United States is marked by pervasive violence. The most obvious violence is the repressive violence visited by the authorities on dissidents. This aspect of the story was provoked partly by Bradbury’s experience of being harassed by a Los Angeles police officer (an incident that also inspired his story “The Pedestrian.”)

However, violence also comes from private citizens. People, especially teenagers, drive too fast for the thrill of it—in one key scene, a group of joy-riding teenagers almost kill Montag. Some pursue even more dangerous activities. As a teenager comments, “Six of my friends have been shot in the last year alone. Ten of them died in car wrecks” (p. 30).

Another type of violence comes up when Montag confronts Mildred’s similarly vacuous friends. Reproaching Mrs. Bowles, who jokes about her lack of interest in her own children, Montag mentions “the dozen abortions you’ve had” (p. 101).

These different types of casual private violence are presumably meant to be symptoms of a society in which no one thinks about life or their responsibilities to others in anything but the most superficial of ways.

Fahrenheit 451 also addresses the violence of war, although this topic stays in the background until the end. A possible war between the United States and other nations looms over the characters for much the book, foreshadowed in the frequent presence of military planes overhead. Toward the novel’s climax, war moves inescapably from the background to the foreground of the story, leading to (for me, at least) the book’s most riveting and frightening passages.

Contemplating the situation, one member of the book-loving resistance expresses the hope that by preserving human knowledge and culture they can help humanity reach a point where we “dig the biggest grave of all time and shove war in and cover it up” (p. 164).

The connection between the anti-war theme and what has come before is easy to draw. The same ignorance, passivity, and irresponsibility that keeps people from reading also keeps them from paying attention to world events and from speaking out against the war before it came. An unreflective, unthinking public can give a war-mongering government the blank check it needs. As one official comments, “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war” (p. 61).

The connections among Fahrenheit 451’s themes about censorship, public ignorance, and war are especially striking when one considers the historical context in which Bradbury wrote the book. In 1953, the Cold War was in one of its coldest periods, with the United States and Soviet Union embroiled in a bloody proxy war in Korea. Meanwhile, fears of Communist subversion were intense in the United States, and Senator Joseph R. McCarthy was then at the height of his influence. Bradbury’s novel echoed this real-world combination of events and trends.

As Bradbury later recalled, “The threat of atomic war was very fresh in my mind when I wrote the novel . . . We all were living in anticipation of being hurt or destroyed by this device. And the hydrogen bomb was in the process of being invented. It was a threat to all of us and I wrote the book under the cloud of this concept.”

He later thought the book’s war threat was an unnecessary addition, but I think it adds a very powerful extra significance to Fahrenheit 451.

Seventy years later, violent threats to life, whether from police repression, abortion, war, or other dangers, remain pressing problems in the United States and elsewhere. Such a dangerous world calls for people willing to engage in reflection, study, and criticism and to raise their voices against violence. Reading books is a good place to start.


For more of our book reviews, see:

Book Review – Rehumanize: A Vision to Secure Human Rights for All 

Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-life Movement Before Roe v. Wade 

The Tragedy of Carrie Buck: A Review of Imbeciles 

How to Move from Theory to Practice: Reading “A Consistent Life”  

Catastrophe by Mistake: The Button and the Danger of Accidental Nuclear War 

book reviews