Understanding Of History Necessary If Movement Is Going To Succeed

By Ken Hancock | 1985-04-01 12:00:00

IT IS VERY DIFFICULT, IN A time when people's lives are increasingly atomized and privatized, and when the future can be negated by the pushing of a button, to affirm the importance of history in our work and in our lives. In a culture which denies the past, threatens the future and gives no clarity to the understanding of the present, we lose all sense of belonging within history.

Einstein was, I think, both right and wrong when he said that the Bomb has changed everything but our way of thinking. Certainly warfare, which to any rational mind has been made obsolete by the Bomb, continues to dominate the globe. But, in other ways, we have changed our way of thinking, for each new generation now grows up with the knowledge that it may have, literally, no future. And without a future, what good is thinking about the past? We are left in an historical vacuum.

We are also left with only the blind and blinding pursuit of personal happiness and "fulfillment" (defined, of course, by an ever-present consumerism which eats at us and the earth). This is a deeply alienating situation, which traps us in an unending cycle of meaninglessness.

Tragically, our knowledge of the end time has not brought with it the only other knowledge worth our efforts: the knowledge to stop the end time. Cruise missiles continue to be tested, and the peace movement responds by saying "it's a long haul and we'll succeed in the long run."

But people do not believe there will be a long haul. The things people can manage to commit themselves to for any period of time represent sadly displaced loyalties. People will watch a television series longer than they will stay involved in politics.

If people cannot stay involved with political movements, they cannot experience their own history, their own attempts to influence the world in which they live. The long story of how people have struggled to change the world--to make it in their own image and not in the image of the very few who control and dominate it -- is of little value to a society which expects to eliminate cruise missiles in two years. In this context, the teaching of history becomes an act of resistance.

The key historical link for the peace movement to make is to place itself in struggle for self-determination in the face of the tyranny of the Bomb and the nation-state. All the tyrants throughout the past could not have dreamed of the power inherent in the Bomb. Literally hundreds of millions of people -- people who have had no decision-making role in the arms race -- can be murdered in a period of time that is too absurdly short to contemplate. And if the Bomb is the will to tyranny, the nation-state makes mass murder legal. Along with revolutions in science, global economic power and a communication system of incredible influence, the nation-state has nurtured and expanded its creation, the Bomb, to a point where, to most people, nothing can stop It.

This point is of utmost importance. The Bomb has a rationale and a history. It is a product of forces that have been active in human affairs for all of recorded time. Our mistake has been to take it out of history, to portray it as the product of irrational men, of insane men. But these men are only part of an historical evolution. They have made decisions within their historical framework which seem rational and logical to their objectives. And they have become dictators. And it is the nature of the Bomb which assures their dictatorial behaviour.

There has not been one decision about the Bomb which has been democratic. Not one weapon has been put to a vote. Not one weapon will ever be put to a vote. To do so would be to contradict the very nature of the Bomb itself. At this point the question is one of freedom, not simply disarmament.

And it will continue. There will be more weapons tests, there will be more defence contracts Reagan's policies will kill more people in the Third World. And we will continue to accept all of this in a manner that actually legitimizes a government in this country which is obviously committed to actively taking its place in the dark ages of the Bomb.

And we will accept this because we do not understand history. The socialist of the turn of the century understood history. So did the suffragists who struggled to end the oppression of women. They understood that the end of violence was inseparable from their desire to be free. And they understood that the historical expression of their yearnings could only be found through struggle.

Gandhi also understood this. He knew that he was confronting historical forces which would do all in their power to stop him. He understood that the British colonialists had power, and he knew that they had used history to build upon this power with their armies, economic systems and courts and prisons. But Gandhi also understood that his people too had power, and they too would have to call on history. This is also our task. To join in the long historical march through which people have struggled to be free.

Ironically, this fact is most relevant to a peace movement in this country, for we are a colonialized people. The foundations of our material lives are, in .the vast majority, controlled by forces literally out of the country.

We are truly emotional and psychological victims of the Cold War. US plans to wage a nuclear war over the North American continent have always assumed that it will happen over our heads. Like the lives of all colonized people, ours are the much more expendable. Two specific historical examples are worthy of closer inspection.

The first example is an event which occurred at the end of the 1960s, during the period of controversy over the Anti Ballistic Missile. In testimony before Congress, Melvin Laird, then Secretary of Defence in the Nixon Administration, stated that (despite our involvement in a massive support of war materials for the US slaughter in Southeast Asia) no thought had ever been given to consulting Canadians about the deployment sites for the ABM systems. Laird said this in light of the fact that sites near the Canadian border were under serious consideration. This of course endangered the security of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Canadian lives.

The second example of Canada's victimization by the Cold War occurred during the 1963 Canadian federal election. The United States government made no illusions about the fact that it wished to get rid of John Diefenbaker. Their choice was that "de-frocked prince or peace" (to use Trudeau's words), Lester Pearson, who had decided to allow nuclear weapons in Canada. One week before the election, Robert McNamara, then US Secretary of Defence, testified that one reason that nuclear weapons would be placed in Canada was that they would be sure to draw fire in the event of a nuclear war.

This statement must be given its historical "respect." Here we have a man, McNamara (now lauded in many disarmament circles), who has stated that there is a value in deploying US nuclear weapons in a manner which will kill millions of Canadians. In the context of Nuremberg and the war crimes tribunals, it surely ranks with any statement that any Nazi official would be loath to acknowledge. Somehow, however, we do not see it that way. The Bomb in history seems to have dulled the very moral outrage required to eliminate it. And as Canadians we have to be so comfortable with US control of our destiny that, despite what McNamara says, most of the people in this country will still ask "What about the Russians?"

The Bomb maintains history as a permanent state of siege, whose root sources are not understood. It is not the Russians who threaten us. It is the tyranny of power which is manifest in the Bomb. Pearson, in deciding to place nuclear weapons in this country, made Canadians a more probable nuclear target. Yet he made his decision in the privacy of power -- as did Trudeau, as will Mulroney, Reagan and the Kremlin. It is against this tyranny that we must act.

By placing ourselves in history as part of a struggle for freedom and self-determination we act in history and for it. We declare it worth preserving and understanding. The Bomb enters in history, but by its very nature sets out to end it. We find our rightful place by saying no to the Bomb. Indeed, we fight for our rightful place by taking sides with others in the fight against the anti-human and anti-history forces implied by the Bomb.

We come from a past and, with hope, anger and vision, we head toward a

Peace Magazine April 1985

Peace Magazine April 1985, page 7. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Ken Hancock here

Peace Magazine homepage