Nuclear Weapons & Human Nature: An Open Letter to Barack Obama

Dear Mr. Obama,

During your momentous visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial last May, the first by a sitting US president, you placed the quest for a nuclear-weapon-free world in the profoundest of contexts: the struggle of humanity to transcend the darkest vices of its own nature.

Japanese PM Shinzō Abe and US President Barack Obama shake hands at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, May 2016 (Photo by Pete Souza, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Japanese PM Shinzō Abe and US President Barack Obama shake hands at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, May 2016 (Photo by Pete Souza, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

As you leave office, anti-nuclear activists across the globe, including many survivors of the atomic attacks, judge many of your policies distressingly at odds with your pledge, first issued in Prague eight years ago, to “seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” They point, in particular, to your initiation of a $1 trillion, decades-long modernization of America’s strategically-obsolete nuclear ‘triad,’ an investment in mass destruction evidently incommensurate with America’s disarmament commitments under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. I am writing, though, to ask you to reflect not on these contradictions, jarring though they may be, but on your core assumptions about ‘human nature,’ set out with such exquisite succinctness in Hiroshima.

Asking us to “take stock of who we are and what we might become,” you took as a given what we have been—warriors and murderers, from stone-age cave to mega-city. “Conflict,” you claim, “appeared with the very first man,” weapons with the first tools, and on “every continent, the history of civilization is filled with war, whether driven by scarcity of grain or hunger for gold.”

Under the thin skin of even the most advanced societies, the cancer of war “grew out of the same base instinct for domination or conquest that had caused conflicts among the simplest tribes: an old pattern amplified by new capabilities and without new constraints.” In the hideous, shape-shifting form of the Mushroom Cloud, you conclude, we confront the ultimate symbol and proof of “humanity’s core contradiction: how the very spark that marks us as a species—our thoughts, our imagination, our tool-making, our ability to set ourselves apart from nature and bend it to our will—those very things also give us the capacity for unmatched destruction.”

It is true that, despite this wrenchingly dire diagnosis, your speech concluded in trademark ‘Yes, We Can’ fashion, arguing the “scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution, as well,” and insisting we are “not bound by genetic code to repeat mistakes of the past.” But what if one of the gravest of those mistakes is the portrayal of humanity as innately, habitually, naturally violent?

Peace is in Our Hands

(Illustration via Cross Cultural Communication

In 1986, inspired by a series of UNESCO Statements of Race and Racial Prejudice dating back to 1950, 20 prominent scholars from around the globe issued the ‘Seville Statement on Violence,’ declaring, in its first and most fundamental proposition, that “it is scientifically incorrect to say that we have inherited a tendency to make war from our animal ancestors,” and that while “war is biologically possible,” it “is not inevitable, as evidenced by its variation in occurrence and nature over time and space”: just as there “are cultures which have not engaged in war for centuries, there are cultures which have engaged in war frequently at some times and not at others.” War, in sum, “is a product of culture,” not biology, and it is no coincidence, the authors suggest, that the contrary, determinist view of ‘man-the-warrior’ emanates from the most violent (invariably patriarchal) societies, with the most to gain from continued aggression and conflict. Scientific theories and data have been misused to justify violence and war since the advent of modern science. For example, the theory of evolution has been used to justify not only war, but also genocide, colonialism and suppression of the weak.

The point, of course, is not that the theory of evolution is wrong, but that the conclusions drawn from it are. The conclusion, for example, refuted in the Statement’s second proposition, that “war or any other violent behavior is genetically programmed into our human nature;” or (third proposition) that “in the course of evolution there has been a selection for aggressive behavior more than for other kinds of behavior;” or (fourth proposition) that “humans have a ‘violent brain;” or (final proposition) that “war is caused by ‘instinct’ or any single motivation.”

If, then, the Statement is right, it gravely undermines the sense and substance of your sweepingly generalized vision. Just two prime examples, in fact, serve to demolish the myth of history as the history of war: ‘Old Europe,’ and the ‘New World.’ ‘Old Europe’ is archaeological shorthand for the stable, sophisticated, dynamically peaceful Goddess-worshipping culture-complex flourishing for millennia and cut short only by brutal, patriarchal invasion (from around 3,000 B.C.E.) from the Eurasian steppes: not a mythic Golden Age, but, in the words of Joseph Campbell, “an actual age of harmony and peace in accord with the creative energies of nature which for a spell of some four thousand prehistoric years anteceded the five thousand of what James Joyce has termed the ‘nightmare’ from which it is now certainly time for this planet to wake.”

Seated Mother Goddess flanked by two lionesses from Çatalhöyük (Turkey), Neolithic age (about 6000-5500 BCE), today in Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara By User:Roweromaniak (Archiwum "Roweromaniaka wielkopolskiego" No_B19-36) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Seated Mother Goddess flanked by two lionesses from Çatalhöyük (Turkey), Neolithic age (about 6000-5500 BCE), Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara (Photo by Roweromaniak, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons)

“The collapse of Old Europe,” pioneering archaeologist Marija Gimbutas argued, was a disaster with an obvious parallel, a “drastic cultural change” for the worse “reminiscent of the conquest of the American continent.” For life in the ‘New World,’ too, before its ravage and rape, was far from a ‘nightmare;’ was also attuned, with great subtlety and success, to the ‘creative energies of nature;’ and was in large part either profoundly peaceful or unscarred by the kind of indiscriminate, ecologically-devastating, sectarian mass-violence endemic across the Atlantic. While your Hiroshima speech traces the source of our troubles to the violent “old pattern” of the “simplest tribes,” a wealth of pre- and post-contact evidence from ‘Turtle Island’ suggests, to quote historian William Brandon, “a resolute democracy and peaceableness, an almost aggressive non-aggressiveness.” Writes Brandon in The Last Americans: “There has been a tendency for a long while to associate the most ancient instincts with the most savage, the underlying idea being that all men are ferocious by nature. But the history of Indian America is riddled with instances of inexplicable (to us) pacifism…”

And what makes such behavior inexplicable, such evidence inadmissible, was perhaps best summed up the Sioux activist and scholar Vine Deloria, Jr., in his excoriating 1969 ‘Indian manifesto,’ Custer Died for Your Sins. America, Deloria maintained, was “founded on” and “worships” violence;” in war, it has “always applied the principle of overkill and mercilessly”—nowhere more atrociously than at Hiroshima and Nagasaki—and “stamped its opposition into the dust.” “Yes,” Deloria concludes, “violence is America’s sweetheart.” But, sir, it has not been humanity’s curse and addiction.

As you are aware, we are currently witnessing a worldwide renaissance of indigenous protest and resistance, the re-articulation of an ancient vision of peace and cooperation with far deeper roots in both natural reality and human nature than your own, conventionally modern worldview. The insupportable irony encoded in your Hiroshima summation is that, while the dominant motif of your presidency was hope, the presentation of war as innate to humanity and definitive of its history makes the bold goals you adopted—most crucially, a nuclear-weapon-free world—seem naïve and misguided. The Seville Statement, as one of its authors, David Adams, reflected in 1996, “challenged” bedrock arguments long deployed “to justify violence and war” and generate “an atmosphere of pessimism” regarding appeals to peace, rather than calls to arms.

I know you do not share that potentially fatal pessimism, and worked tirelessly for eight years (and before that) to counteract it. But you evidently do share key assumptions generating and sustaining a culturally-ingrained disbelief in the ‘better angels of our nature.’ And the tragedy is—with your voice, of all voices; and in that place, of all places—you had a much better, immeasurably more hopeful story to tell.

Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton. He may be reached here.



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