August 6th has always haunted me. My mother’s father John Vanderpool Phelan was proud of his participation in the bombing of Japan. Lt. Phelan was and Intelligence Officer with the 468th Bombardment Squadron in 1944 and 45. When he returned from Asia and decorated the den at his home in Needham, Massachusetts with the 50 framed black and white photos of the fire booming of Tokyo. He took each photo to help determine the length of time his squadron would need to fly before dropping more fuel bombs on the civilian population of Japan. His photos were evidence that he helped burn nearly a million people alive. He bragged that he tool nearly 5 million souls but the “official” number was a one million. My family took me to several 468 Conventions to hear stories of near misses and missed targets. His men would talk about how their lieutenant had provided General Curtis LeMay with a flight plan for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima that would have taken “Little Boy” over the Himalayas to its target.
I visited my grandfathers home often during the time of the Vietnam War. Every Christmas “Grampy Phelan” would pace below his photos of the fire bombing in heated phone conversations to General LeMay or General McNamara and argue the value of dropping a nuclear bomb on Hanoi. As I remember the argument my grandfather feared the Soviet Union and China would not believe the United States was capable of using the bomb a third time and take advantage of America’s weakness. The mass murder of Viet Nam with an even larger nuclear warhead would “prove” the United States was so depraved no country would dare question another direct order of our leaders. Decisions about taking so many lives was a burden our family had to endure as the responsibility of the genetically superior New Englanders.
He tried to prepare me for the brutality that would be my responsibility by taking me fishing on Middle Lake on Cape Cod. Smashing each perch and bass to death on the side our our dingy would be the first lesson. Looking into the eyes of those helpless creatures as I followed my grandfather’s directions made my heart sink. Butchering my first seven roosters was enough to introduce me to the world of vegetarians as my mother’s hens and goats screamed in painful solidarity during the massacre.
One sunny spring day in 1977 I took a break from my job at the Old South Meeting House where I spent my days sharing the history of the BostonTea Party with tourists and walked over to Park Street Station to eat lunch on the Commons. A small woman stood on top of a plastic Hood Dairy Milk Crate explaining that there were thousands of nuclear missiles that could be launched in a minuted notice. The Soviet Union could kill millions of Americans if they believed the United States was about to attack and the U.S. Military could kill millions in the Soviet Union. I later found out she was Doctor Helen Caldicott who came to Boston in her campaign to end the threat of nuclear war.
I could see how regular people, people like my mother’s father could rationalize horrible acts like the use of nuclear weapons and the murder of a million civilians in a quest to defend corporate power. I slept next to the two filing cabinets of Digital Electronics formulas before my grandfather soled them to Ken Olsen during the years he argued for the use of the nuclear booming of Hanoi. A few years later I happened to have a job trimming produce at an organic grocery in Cambridge, Massachusetts and was alarmed by how many cases of nutritious produce I was expected to discard so I took it to the hungry residence at the housing projects near the store. Very skinny children played outside the dilapidated brick buildings in the shadow of a modern glass tower where scientists were developing guidance systems for intercontinental nuclear missiles. Our society clearly valued bombs over food. That August 6th our new group Food Not Bombs march from Cambridge City Hall to the front of that weapons laboratory. I took the Boston phonebook from a bucket of gas, held it up to those assembled. “If a one megaton nuclear weapon were to hit Boston today all the people listed in this phone book would die in a flash!” I set a match to the book and up it went in flames.
Thirty years later we still face this very real danger. As we feared Reagan started a policy of redirecting our resources from healthcare, education and the real security that Americans need to the world’s largest military build up. On the anniversary of the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki appeared in court in Orlando, Florida along with many others for the “crime” of sharing free vegan meals with the hungry in protest to war and poverty. It is hard to imagine that any city official could justify spending tens of thousands of dollars to drive hunger out of sight knowing their citizens are suffering and have no prospects of jobs and are unable to find regular meals or affordable housing. But Orlando Mayor Dyer and his friends have the nerve to arrest and prosecute those volunteering to help seek an end to hunger.
And the crisis is growing. This year I joined a small group at Los Alamos. Speakers reported on the current production of America’s new Reliable Nuclear Arsenal. Auditors also announced that it is not possible to account for all of the weapons grade plutonium and that over 150 bombs worth of materials have been lost. Scientists at the national lavatory are developing conventional bunker buster bombs with more power than those dropped on Japan as waves of radio active poison from the ongoing meltdown of Fukushima grows more dire. West coast Americans have already experienced a dramatic increase in birth defects from the disaster.
At the same time authorities have announced a suspiciously phony terrorist alert that seem to be designed to justify the demonization of NSA contractor Ed Snowden and other whistleblowers just as one intelligence officer after another is coming forward to denounce the political system they have been hired to protect. The amount of covert surveillance operations exposed this summer is stunning. Tens of millions of innocent Americans are being tracked by the police through vast license plate scanning systems, according to new documents obtained by the ACLU in July 2013. We learned that all cell phones are monitored and that local police can follow your every move. Every internet and web actions is recored and identified to every user. There was even a suggestion that the “leaders” of the Occupy movement be killed using “suppressed sniper rifles.”
Millions already face hunger and live in poverty but this could just be the beginning of a desperate future for billions of others as they are driven from the middle class by the failing economic and political system. Every week someone will come to eat with Food Not Bombs reporting they have not had a meal in days. This story is becoming more common as we collapse into another “Great Depression” our volunteers will be required to help an even larger number of people seeking their first meal in days. The U.S. empire is in it’s last days and not taking it well.
Fortunately the collapse of capitalism is providing an opportunity to reshape our future. Sure it is a race to transform our society before there is a complete ecological failure but the magnitude of the crisis is so great many more people are rising to the occasion wiling to risk their freedom and security to confront corporate power.
I invite you to join or start a local Food Not Bombs group. You can help us recover, prepare and provide food to the hungry and those who are protesting the dangerous policies of austerity, war and environmental destruction. There really is no time like the anniversary of America’s first atomic massacre to join the struggle to protect our future.
Thanks so much.
cofounder of the Food Not Bombs movement.
The seven steps to starting a local Food Not Bombs group
The Smashing Hunger, Squashing Capitalism tour