I’m reading a memoir/autobiography, Writing Straight With Crooked Lines, by Jim Forest. Jim died recently, after a long life spent in peace work, including much collaboration with Quakers.
After the attack on a huge Ukrainian nuclear power plant, two passages in it leapt out at me this morning. The first was merely a blip — but an unnerving one— from almost 40 years ago. The second, however, tells of a passing encounter in that same era which could be repeated today.
Tell it, Jim:
“My fellow Americans,” Ronald Reagan said in Florida in August 1984, “I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”
He thought the microphone had been turned off and meant it as a joke, but a joke told by the president of the United States about starting a war with America’s mortal enemy didn’t fill the world with laughter.
Cataclysmic war was only a button-push away. Day and night the United States and the Soviet Union had nuclear-armed missiles ready to launch plus hundreds of H-bombs in the air aboard target-assigned B-52 bombers. Like millions of others, for decades I lived in expectation of nuclear war caused by miscalculation, error, or madness, and here was America’s president joking about it.” . . . .
I recall an American couple I encountered one Monday morning on my way to work. They were carrying a map of Alkmaar [Holland, where Jim had settled], but looked lost. “Can I help you?” I asked. “We’re trying to find a café where we can get a cup of coffee,” the man replied. Offering them coffee in the [International Fellowship of Reconciliation] office just across the street, I explained that nothing was open yet—in those more restful days, Dutch shops and restaurants didn’t open before noon on Mondays. Once we were settled down, coffee mugs in hand, they told me a little about themselves. Both were Air Force pilots stationed in Germany. They were curious about the several antiwar posters hanging on the walls. I told them about the widely supported Dutch campaign to get all US nuclear weapons removed from Holland and other European countries. I was surprised at how positive was their response.
“God bless the Dutch,” said the husband. “May their efforts succeed!” He told me that he and his wife expected nuclear war in the near future in which they were sure to be among the first casualties. “Our base in Germany is certainly a primary target for Russian missiles when war breaks out.” (I noted he said “when” rather than “if.”) “Even if we’re in the air at the time, we’ll have no place to land and just about everyone we know or care about will be dead.” . . .