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William J. Astore

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Don’t Think About the Unthinkable

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Thirty years ago, I co-taught a course on the making and use of the atomic bomb at the US Air Force Academy. We took cadets to Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where the first nuclear weapons were designed and built during World War II, and we also visited the Trinity test site, where the first atomic device exploded in a test conducted in July of 1945. It was after that first test when J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, mused that he had become death, the destroyer of worlds. And that is what nuclear weapons are: they are death, and they can literally destroy our world, producing nuclear winter and mass sickness and starvation.

Over the last two years, the Covid-19 pandemic has killed millions of people across the globe. A general nuclear war could kill billions of people in a matter of days. As Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev reportedly said in 1963, “The living will envy the dead” after such a nuclear cataclysm.

Despite this, an intellectual fad of the Cold War era was to “think about the unthinkable,” to “war game” or plan for various nuclear “exchanges” resulting in the deaths of hundreds of millions of people, even to imagine that there could be a “winner” of such a war. Remarkably, in the context of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, that fad is returning today as pundits write articles that suggest the US needs to show the Russians it is willing and able to fight and win a nuclear war, as an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal argued on April 27th of this year.
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Silencing War Criticism: The Iraq Invasion of 2003

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Jesse Ventura, former governor of Minnesota (1999-2003), was a hot media commodity as the Bush/Cheney administration was preparing for its invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Ventura, a US Navy veteran who gained notoriety as a professional wrestler before he entered politics, was both popular and outspoken.  MSNBC won the bidding war for his services in 2003, signing him to a lucrative three-year contract to create his own show – until, that is, the network learned he was against the Iraq war.  Ventura’s show quickly went away, even as the network paid him for three years to do nothing.

I heard this revealing story from a new podcast, the TARFU Report, hosted by Matt Taibbi and Alex Pareene.  By his own account, Jesse Ventura was bought off by the network, which back then was owned by General Electric, a major defense contractor that was due to make billions of dollars off the war.

Of course, Ventura was hardly the only war critic to run afoul of GE/NBC.  Phil Donahue, the famous talk show host, saw his highly rated show cancelled when he gave dissenters and anti-war voices a fair hearing.  Ashleigh Banfield, a reporter who covered the Iraq war, gave a speech in late April 2003 that criticized the antiseptic coverage of the war (extracts to follow below).  For her perceptiveness and her honesty, she was reassigned and marginalized, demoted and silenced.

So much for freedom of speech, as well as the press.

As Phil Donahue said, his show “wasn’t good for business.”  NBC didn’t want to lose ratings by being associated with “unpatriotic” elements when the other networks were waving the flag in support of the Iraq war.  In sidelining Ventura and Donahue, NBC acted to squelch any serious dissent from the push for war, and punished Ashleigh Banfield in the immediate aftermath of the war for her honesty in criticizing the coverage shown (and constructed) by the mainstream media, coverage that was facilitated by the US military and rubber-stamped by corporate ownership.
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