Vantage Points

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Mark Hatfield, Nukes, and the Art of Dissent

Apr. 17, 2019

Edited by Corey Markum

Thirty years ago this August, Senator Mark O. Hatfield (R-OR) gave a speech before Congress, directed at then-president and fellow Republican, Ronald Reagan. My students read this speech as one part of a packet of primary source materials on nuclear weaponry and American defense policy, prior to writing a reflective essay on the historical ethics of nuclear armament and usage. Reading through it again this evening, I'm struck by how prophetic, indicting, and tragically relevant the words seem to me, even (especially?!) three decades later.

From the speech (emphasis added in bold):

"Mr. President, 23 years have passed since I first arrived in the Senate, a former Governor who came to Washington determined to extricate American boys from the chaos and confusion into which this country- wrongly in my view- had sent them in Southeast Asia. Those were difficult times for the Nation- and difficult times for me personally. ... A couple years later, when the administration began to have problems getting the money it wanted from Congress to prosecute the war, people began to talk about a peace dividend. If we can just win this thing, they would say, there will be a peace dividend for the Nation- money to spend here at home, money which will help wind down the giant war economy. Victory is right around the corner. Light is at the end of the tunnel. ...

In 1970—before some of the interns now working in my office were even born—I rose on this floor to question this peace dividend idea, to express my doubts about this notion that we would one day begin to rechannel our resources—not away from a strong national defense, but toward a more comprehensive, more human, definition of it. Few people listened then. People wanted to believe that our massive war spending would one day end. ... Mr. President, from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War to the Spanish-American War through World War II, through Korea, through Vietnam, and through the cold wars in between: At no time did the spending for military purposes reduce or diminish after those wars. They reached a peak during a war, and then remained at that peak following the war. No build down- only a build up. And no peace dividend, Mr. President. None at all.

“We have played on the margins so long, Mr. President, that I am afraid we do not even know what the real issues are anymore. We seem to have lost sight of the fact that many of the programs we have authorized—and are authorizing again here today—are intended for one purpose only: mass destruction. We seem to have lost sight of the fact that every dollar we spend on bombs and bullets means that we are underfunding programs to meet the Nation's desperate human needs: health care, education, our war on drugs, low income housing, prison construction, AIDS research- all of these things are part of our national defense. ...

Peace through strength is a fallacy, Mr. President, for peace is not simply the absence of a nuclear holocaust. Peace is not a nation which has seen its teenage suicide rate more than double in the past two decades. Peace is not a nation in which more people die every 2 years of gunshot wounds than died in the entire Vietnam War. Peace is not the town in Pennsylvania which last year was forced to cancel its high school graduation because officials believed that a group of students planned to commit suicide at the ceremony. And peace is not here in Washington- where after leading the nation in murders last year, children are beginning to show the same psychological trauma as children in Belfast, Northern Ireland. ...

"To those who may suggest that I am naive, I respond: I have been there. As a young naval officer, I walked through the rubble of Hiroshima- a month after the bomb was dropped. I saw the death—the slow, agonizing pain—and the charred bodies. As we stand here playing on the margins, Mr. President, as we stand here voting 98 to 1 for the development of more lethal weapons, the stench of death haunts me still. ... SDI. Asat weapons, the Midgetman, the MX missile, the Stealth bomber, nerve gas, the D-5 missile, the Trident submarine: I will cast my vote against them all. Since 1980, Mr. President, I have given more than 30 speeches during our annual consideration of this bill: 7 against nerve gas production, 5 against underground testing, 3 against ASAT weapons, 3 against the MX missile, 3 against the draft, 2 against SDI- the list goes on and on. But I have felt over the years like I am speaking in a vacuum- we have approved them all. And I speak in a vacuum today- my colleagues will listen politely and then vote for it all. ...

“Mr. President, unfortunately we only have had one President of the United States, who in my view, understood national security, national defense. He was a five-star general: Dwight David Eisenhower.

"Mr. President, these are his words: ‘Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.’ This was the man who led the troops. This was the man who led the Allied troops in World War II - he understood war, but he also understood peace.

“We are kidding ourselves, Mr. President. Today we are vulnerable. The national defense of this Nation, has left us vulnerable, but not because we lack an arsenal. The vulnerability of this Nation today is that we rank at the bottom of the list in math and science, and that at least 20 million Americans cannot read or write. The vulnerability of our Nation is the deterioration and erosion of our infrastructure, our highways, bridges, airports, our ports. Our vulnerability today is a nonproductive economy, a non-competitive economy. Our vulnerability is the people who are without homes, nutrition, education, health care.

“Ultimately the security of the Nation is not found in its materialism. It is found in a spirit. It is found in a strength of heart and mind. It is found in its people—we the people.

“We the people are vulnerable today. Let us at least be honest: we are not addressing those vulnerabilities with this bill or any other bill.”

You can read the full speech here.

I am especially impressed, in this modern era of tacit compliance or at most a lukewarm “tut-tut” approach to dissent against an intraparty president, by Senator Hatfield’s explicit defiance and rejection of Reagan’s proposed legislation. To be sure, Hatfield was no stranger to the role of party dissenter. Hatfield was something of a political enigma, a party member that defied easy identification with that party, a “maverick” in a deeper and more consistent sense than some others who have borne that title in recent years. Yet Hatfield is also a reminder that nonpartisan policy, consistency of conviction, and autonomy of voting are not merely abstract and theoretical concepts. Indeed, I might humbly, if not quite discreetly, suggest that these qualities are regrettably lacking in much of the current political system, regardless of party persuasion.

If politics is a kind of performance, perhaps there remains some hope for the redemption of the broader qualities of artistry in politics as well. In Senator Hatfield’s speech, we see one such example: the lost, but hopefully not dead, art of dissent.

For further reading on Hatfield, especially regarding the way his career both reflected and challenged modern conceptions of the interplay between evangelicalism and politics, see Stand Alone or Come Home: Mark Hatfield as an Evangelical and a Progressive by Lon Fendall.