The eminent scholar on the worsening threat of nuclear warfare, how to end the war in Ukraine, the self-justifying myths propagated by imperial powers, why the Global South finds American moralizing laughable, and more.

Nathan Robinson Interviewing Noam Chomsky, Current Affairs


You often discuss the fact that there are two twin existential threats to human civilization. There is the threat of climate catastrophe. And then there is the threat of nuclear weapons and global warfare. One of these gets discussed more than the other. We actually had another Professor Chomsky on last week to discuss the climate crisis—Professor Aviva Chomsky, who discussed her book Is Science Enough? Forty Critical Questions About Climate Justice. We talk a lot on this program about the climate crisis, but I want to talk about nuclear weapons and war. And I want to start in kind of an unusual way. I want to go back to 1945. I was reading Daniel Ellsberg recently. In his book The Doomsday Machine, he talks about how when he was in middle school, he was assigned a paper and his teacher told them that they were talking about the possibility of making a new kind of bomb that could destroy an entire city. He said his entire class wrote the paper about this bomb. And they all agreed that if such a thing came into existence, it would be so totally destructive for human civilization that it would need to be eliminated completely. And then, of course, a few years later, the bomb was in fact dropped. And so I want to start by taking you back to that time. You witnessed it—the beginning of the era of the nuclear threat. Do you remember what it was like when you realized what had been done to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when you saw the opening of this terrible possibility, this change in the whole world?


I remember it very well. I was a junior counselor at a summer camp. In the morning, there was an announcement over the camp loudspeaker that an atom bomb had been used in Hiroshima and had destroyed the city. Everyone went on to their morning activity—baseball games, swimming, whatever it was. I was so appalled. I couldn’t believe it. First of all, nobody knew the details of what had happened but the general picture was clear. So, first of all, what had happened. Secondly, about the reaction. In fact, double terror.

Headshot of Noam Chomsky in glasses, sans beard

I was so appalled by it, I just left the camp, walked off into the woods by myself, sat there for a couple hours thinking about it. It was pretty clear that human intelligence and its glory had reached the point where it would soon be able to destroy all life on Earth. Not yet. I mean, the atom bomb had limited capacity. The bombing of Hiroshima in many ways was not worse than the firebombing of Tokyo a couple months earlier, and in scale probably didn’t reach that level. But it was clear that the genie was out of the bottle, that modern technology and science would advance to the point where it would reach the capacity to destroy everything, so double terror. It did reach that point in 1953, with the explosion of thermonuclear weapons. My feeling at that time was, we’re lost. I mean, if human intelligence is that far ahead of human moral capacity, the chance of closing that gap is slight, particularly witnessing the reaction just increasing in following days. Basically, nobody cared.

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