Alva Myrdal

Disarmament, Technology and the Growth in Violence - Dec. 11, 1982

Alva Myrdal
December 11, 1982— Oslo, Norway
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Alva Myrdal's Nobel lecture

Mr. Chairman, Honored guests:

In the first place it is my obvious and at the same time most pleasant duty to express my gratitude for the honor that has been accorded me by the award of the 1982 Nobel Peace Prize.

May I then mention that I shall deal not only with the general subject of disarmament, but I shall also direct the attention to the connection between armament problems and the headlong on-rush of technology and the growth in violence. We must never forget the trampling down of human dignity and rights, the increase in acts of violence and the use of torture. All of this testifies to an incredible persistence in contempt for the suffering of individual men and women.

But I would also like to express my very special thanks to the Nobel Committee for hitting on the idea of dividing the prize between Dr. García Robles and myself. This indicates that we have not received the prize only as personal tributes to ourselves, but that the entire movement which aims at promoting peace and reducing the use of violence has been given a great encouragement. This was emphasized, too, by the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Egil Aarvik. The whole popular movement of protest, which at present is and has to be directed mainly against the use of the extreme weapon of terror, the atom bomb, has acquired a recognized legitimacy. This is bound to influence the attitudes and decisions not least of leading politicians and military chiefs in the superpowers.

I am intentionally not using the phrase “striving for peace” too frequently. The longing for peace is rooted in the hearts of all men. But the striving, which at present has become so insistent, cannot lay claim to such an ambition as leading the way to eternal peace, or solving all disputes among nations. The economic and political roots of the conflicts are too strong. Nor can it pretend to create a lasting state of harmonious understanding between men. Our immediate goal must be more modest: aimed at preventing what, in the present situation, is the greatest threat to the very survival of mankind, the threat of nuclear weapons.

I should in the beginning like to emphasize also that I am particularly gratified that on this occasion the award goes to two citizens of nations which are both denuclearised and non-allied. The mass media calls attention to this fact all too seldom, as they are so one-sidedly concerned with the rivalry between the two superpower blocs. There are, after all, so many other countries in the world, and most have refused to serve as hostages to the superpowers.

Maybe I should add – and I hope this does not sound boastful – that we are two delegates who have shown at the disarmament negotiations and in the United Nations that rhetoric is by no means enough. We have tried to speak for greater emphasis on analysis, and constructivity.

More must be done in concrete terms in order to promote the cause of disarmament. García Robles has ingeniously constructed and tenaciously sought to follow up the Tlatelolco agreement, with a view to making the whole of Latin America a denuclearized zone. He has actually succeeded so far as to get the nuclear weapon powers to enter into binding agreements to refrain from attacking with nuclear arms nations that have joined a zone free from nuclear weapons.

I for my part, with some colleagues of mine, have presented many concrete and elaborated proposals. Sometimes we have had some success, though more rarely on major questions. But I have, for example, managed to get the Swedish government budget to pay the costs of SIPRI (Swedish International Peace Research Institute) as well as the less known seismological Hagfors station. That enables us to monitor independently, and systematically even the smallest subterranean nuclear tests, using the most modern equipment, and to publish the results internationally, unhampered by any political considerations. This work has more recently been followed by efforts to build up an international network for open verification of nuclear test explosions.

These efforts of our two countries are mentioned as examples of the opportunities that exist for objectively refuting so many of the attempts by the nuclear weapon powers to conceal or give false explanations of actual facts. Or at least their attempts to delay the truth breaking through. The smaller nations can in fact exercise greater influence on disarmament negotiations than they have hitherto done. But then we must exert ourselves to break through the wall of silence which, unfortunately, the great powers have erected to ward off the small powers’ influence in the international debate.

It is of the greatest importance that people and governments in many more countries than ours should realize that it is more dangerous to have access to nuclear arms than not to possess them. Without nuclear arms we run less risk of being drawn into the orbit of the great powers, with their hyper-dangerous weapons. And after all, there is no defense against them.

The world generally speaking is now drifting on a more and more devastating course towards the absurd target of extermination – or rather, to be more exact – of the northern hemisphere’s towns, fields, and the people who have developed our civilization.

The distressing situation of our era, which recalls the fate that overtook Rome, is rising from a clearly irredeemable misconception, viz. that the use of weapons, violence, can lead to victory.

How would it be possible, even at immense expense, to inaugurate a new and happy existence for the world on the ruins of one that would be at least half-destroyed? The misconception that a victory can be worth its price, has in the nuclear age become a total illusion.

There is no doubt that what the superpowers are now planning, and in which they are investing billions, is precisely the preparation for waging war. New super-technological weapons systems committed to the service of new strategies are now quite openly aimed at the waging of war, and at an imagined “victory”.

The new generations of intercontinental missiles do not change the basis for, but just continue the same old strategy, for example the United States MX (which will not be ready for deployment before 1986, if ever) or its counterparts, the SS-17, SS-18 and SS-19, which are already in place. They do not alter the fact that both superpowers have possessed a decisive basic capacity since about 1960, viz. to deal a decisive blow at one another’s mainlands. At that time, a so-called “balance of terror” may be said to have existed. As I and so many others have pointed out, the two great powers already at that time had “sufficient” capacity to deter one another from launching a nuclear strike.

Soon after Kennedy had been elected President, General Taylor in 1960 advised him that between 100 and 200 long-range missiles would be sufficient; and various experts ever since have made similar assessments. One or two scientific writers have even gone so far as to say that one missile on each side would be enough (e.g. McGeorge Bundy and Herbert York).1 As the arms race proceeded, however, the experts have as a rule stayed at the conclusion that the target for a sufficient deterrent would involve something like 400 missiles, capable of reaching from one continent to the other. All developments over and above this have simply meant one more step in the direction of increased instability. They have been unnecessary, and at what a cost!

A great amount has been talked and written about what constitutes a sufficient balance and what really is meant by the concepts of “balance” and “deterrence”. And despite the fact that the experts have disclosed what is the simple truth, misconceptions arise and are proliferated: the idea that more is needed when one already has more than sufficient.

After having read reams and personally written so much on this subject on numerous occasions, without obtaining a hearing, I am actually starting to find it a trifle wearying. But the truth must be brought home and emphasized again and again. This I have done most recently in the revised preface to the third edition of my book The Game of Disarmament which had so far only been available in English. Today, of all days, it is appearing in a Swedish translation, in an issue of the periodical Tiden.

That the argument is mainly carried out with the long-range intercontinental missiles in view, does not mean that other nuclear arms are not subject to the same reasoning. I shall go on repeating the truth until the politicians get it into their heads, that when one has sufficient, one does not need more.

The conclusion of where the rivalry of the two superpowers is leading us is terrifyingly realistic. Just now the ongoing process is moving from deterrence to the capacity for waging actual war. This has been described in a flood of new books, particularly in America. Here I would like to give just one quotation; it is from the highly respected, and by no means dangerously radical, daily paper The Washington Post of April 13, 1982:

“A point was reached long ago at which both the United States and the Soviet Union had such monstrous arsenals that further accretions became senseless. These have been 37 years of lunacy, of idiots racing against imbeciles, of civilized nations staggering blindly toward a finishing line of unspeakable peril.

The immediate necessity is to call a truce, to stop the further buildup of nuclear weapons by either side”.

I agree with the many who consider freezing all sorts of weapons systems a first step in a realistic disarmament policy. If only the authorities could be made to realize that the forces leading them on in the armament race are just insane. I have lately come to understand this all the more clearly since being in contact with the international campaign among medical doctors against nuclear arms, both in Boston and Stockholm. They now encompass a membership of 38.000, being specialists from both East and West. At the present moment they are, in fact, holding a meeting in Stockholm.2

Physicians have now clearly explained how human beings react to the threat of nuclear weapons. On the one hand by just closing their eyes, and this, in fact, has long been the reaction of the “ordinary man”. Or, on the other hand, by a kind of nationalistic paranoia. As the experts so bluntly put it: persecution mania. There is a constant magnifying of the enemy, exaggerating the threat he poses, persuading people that he is “the absolute enemy”, ready to gobble them up. And so the reasoning goes, more armaments are required. But this is insane when we know that both superpowers already have so much more than “enough”.

The medical specialists have also clearly demonstrated how completely insufficient our resources are for giving medical care to the wounded, even in highly developed countries, in the event of a strike with nuclear weapons.

The persecution mania supported by what already Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex is what now motivates leading politicians to indulge in an unlimited arms race. It is brought forth from the nationalism that flares up during any conflict of interests between states. But it goes far beyond the boundaries of any natural patriotism, which is based on love of one’s own country and its cultural traditions. We have recently seen examples of that kind of distorted nationalism in the conflict between Great Britain and Argentina.

A mighty protest movement, speaking the language of common sense in more and more countries, has now arisen to confront all these forces that are engaged in the armament race and the militarization of the world. For the moment this movement has won most remarkable strength in countries like the Netherlands and Norway, but more recently in West Germany and the United States as well. It also lives in the hearts of the people in the East, although there it has so much greater difficulty in making itself heard.

In this new popular movement of protest against nuclear weapons women and, more and more churches and professional organizations are playing a leading role. I have unfortunately not the time to describe at greater length this flood of mighty protests against the acceptance of nuclear weapons. But in all sincerity, I personally believe that those who are leaders with political power over the world will be forced some day, sooner or later, to give way to common sense and the will of the people.

Violence and technology

War is murder. And the military preparations now being made for a potential major confrontation are aimed at collective murder. In a nuclear age the victims would be numbered by the millions.

This naked truth must be faced.

The age in which we live can only be characterized as one of barbarism. Our civilization is in the process not only of being militarized, but also being brutalized.

There are two main features which mark this senseless trend. Let me briefly – just as everything in my lecture must necessarily be abbreviated and simplified – refer to them as rivalry and violence. Rivalry for the power to exploit the headlong on-rush of technology militates against cooperation. The result is increased violence, with more and more sophisticated weapons being used. This is precisely what sets out our age as one of barbarism and brutalization. But the moment of truth should now have arrived.

I know that these are strong words. I know, too, that there are good forces at work, trying to check this ill-starred development.

May I at this juncture make a personal confession? I have always regarded global development as a struggle between the forces of good and evil. Not to be simplified as a struggle between Jesus and Satan, since I do not consider that the process is restricted to our own sphere of culture. Rather perhaps to be symbolized in the most general terms as a struggle between Ormuzd, the good, and Ahriman, the evil. My personal philosophy of life is one of ethics.

It seems to me as if the evil forces have now concentrated more and more power in their hands, Dare we believe that the leaders of the world’s great nations will wake up, will see the precipice towards which they are heading and change direction?

The driving force in the development of our civilization, at least since the Renaissance, has evidently been the progress of technology. But technology is two-edged. It can always be exploited either by good forces or by evil forces. And we human beings do not seem to have succeeded to make a choice quite consciously, nor how to steer the considerable consequences.

The credit side of this necessarily double-entry form of bookkeeping has naturally to record the tremendous progress that has helped to overcome so much misery and raise millions of people to a comfortable living standard. The inventions and the great discoveries have opened up whole continents to reciprocal communication and interchange, provided we are willing. The scientific innovations, not least in the field of medicine, and a great deal more must, of course, be placed to the credit of technology.

But on the other hand, the triumphs of the evil forces are visible in numerous areas. I shall confine myself here to what I really know something about, and which is also the most ominous development: the growing role played by armaments. First and foremost arms are tools in the service of rival nations, pointing at the possibility of a future war. War and preparations for war have acquired a kind of legitimacy. The tremendous proliferation of arms, through their production and export, have now made them available more or less to all and sundry, right down to handguns and stilettoes. The cult of violence has by now so permeated the relations between human individuals that we are compelled to witness an increase in everyday violence, violence in the streets and in the homes. These are the models we set for our young people. It does not just happen. It is disclosed by science that practically one-half of trained intellectual resources are being mobilized for murderous purposes. During the post-war years we have been in a position to observe a development ranging from the simple Hiroshima bomb to all sorts of advanced technological devices. As an example I could select the invisible STEALTH aircraft, or the increasingly razor-sharp competition being played out in the oceans of the world, ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare).

I have indicated how armaments promote – though admittedly not cause – collective military violence. But we should never forget the interconnections with the fact that the aforementioned personal violence, the crimes of violence committed in our cities, are to a large extent a result of the spread of arms.

How great is not the importance of weapons being so easily available?

This should be studied. How often and with what weapons are killing and murder committed, in society and within families, which actually appears to be the commonest scene of violent crime? Where do these arms come from, these Saturday night specials that constitute the instrument of threats in bank robberies, or the hand grenades used by terrorists? How can their sales and their import be permitted?

The very fact that war, despite the ordinances issued by the United Nations, should receive more and more of a kind of “sanction” as a natural exercise of force by various nations, in my opinion plays a more ominous role in maintaining what I have called the weaponry and violence cult of our age.

Militarization proceeds not only through acts of war and the purchase of arms. It is also promoted – primarily, of course, where young men are concerned – by military training, defense manuals etc. Exercises and war games erode the basic ethical values contained in the command “thou shalt not kill”. We tolerate, in fact, more and more the exact opposite of what both religious creeds and the international law on more humane warfare are endeavoring to instil in us.

It is frightening that in recent years such an increase has occurred in acts of terrorism, which have even reached peaceful countries such as ours. And as a “remedy”, more and more security forces are established to protect the lives of individual men and women. The life of a politician is becoming increasingly hazardous. Where is the end of this spiral of force and counter-force?

Many countries persecute their own citizens and intern them in prisons or concentration camps. Oppression is becoming more and more a part of the systems. Lech Walesa’s sufferings may stand as a symbol for the way in which human rights are being trampled down, in one country after another.3

A cultural factor promoting violence which nowadays undoubtedly is highly effective is the mass media. And particularly everything that enters our minds through pictorial media. A wide range of investigations on this subject have been made and published in many countries. Some programs tend to have a more momentary effect, while others confirm more permanent effects of indoctrination.

The violence shown in the mass media also has a differentiated effect, since violence committed by the “good guys” is imprinted more deeply in our apperceptions than violence committed by the “bad guys”.

We also know that children and young people are more liable to accept a brutal pattern of action. This inability to filter or select the impressions that make their mark on us also has consequences in an international context: the morals and customs of the Western world are taught to the Third World through the medium of film and news exports, which are paralleled by the export of arms, and which at any rate hardly work in the opposite direction.

These are signs that there is something very sick in our society.

Finally, I should like briefly to return for a moment to the subject of technology and peace. I do this mainly in order to submit a practical proposal. And in this connection I should like to mention Nobel, a man who may be better than anyone symbolizes the two-edged nature of technology.

Nobel was a genuine friend of peace. He even went so far as to believe that he had invented a tool of destruction, dynamite, which would make war so senseless that it would become impossible. He was wrong.

But, in common with the forces of technology generally, his and other people’s inventions can be used in the service of both good and evil. Nitroglycerine is a good example, which he himself cited. It is capable of soothing the pains of cardiac cramp, as he experienced, in common with myself. It can be used to blow up harbors as well as human beings. Nobel himself built up a great war industry.

In that man’s breast, as is so often the case with human beings, dwelt two souls. Psychology is beginning, however, to draw aside the veil and reveal the labyrinths which are part of our personalities.

I should like to quote a passage from Nobel’s will and testament, which I believe has gone unobserved and which is of direct practical value. Nobel states, inter alia, that the purpose of the fund is to support “the holding and promotion of peace congresses”.

As far as I know, no peace congresses have been held in the nearly 100 years of the will’s existence. I should like to suggest a change of policy for coming years, welcoming organizers of “peace congresses” as Nobel Prize candidates. Such conferences might provide excellent occasions for submitting important questions to a dynamic, intellectually factual analysis and debate. The mighty popular movement against the arms race which is now gaining strength, will facilitate and at the same time require a stimulus of this kind – to serve the building of our future.

  1. This paragraph is taken from Myrdal’s Game of Disarmament, p. 224. General Maxwell Taylor became President John F. Kennedy’s military adviser in 1961 and was appointed chairman of the joint chiefs of staff in 1962. McGeorge Bundy was special assistant for national security affairs to Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Herbert York was director of defense research and engineering in the Department of Defense under President Dwight Eisenhower and Kennedy.

  2. In 1985 the Nobel Peace Prize was granted to the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. See pages 123-154.

  3. Lech Walesa, the Polish leader of Solidarity, was granted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983. See pages 71-95.

From Nobel Lectures, Peace 1981-1990, Editor-in-Charge Tore Frängsmyr, Editor Irwin Abrams, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1997.

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1982

Alva Myrdal – Nobel Lecture. Nobel Media AB 2019. Tue. 10 Dec 2019.