An Interview with Mathematical Physicist and Theoretical Chemist John Scales Avery
…by Jonas E. Alexis & John Scales Avery
John Scales Avery received a B.Sc. in theoretical physics from MIT and an M.Sc. from the University of Chicago. He later studied theoretical chemistry at the University of London and was awarded a Ph.D. there in 1965. He is now Lektor Emeritus, Associate Professor, at the Department of Chemistry, University of Copenhagen. Since 1990 he has been the Contact Person in Denmark for Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.
In 1995, this group received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. He was a Member of the Danish Peace Commission of 1998. Technical Advisor, World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe (1988- 1997). Chairman of the Danish Peace Academy, April 2004. He has written dozens of technical articles in scientific journals and has published numerous works in mathematics and science, among them Calculus and Differential Equations (Copenhagen: University of Copenhagen Press, 2004).
Alexis: I have enjoyed your writing very much. You argue that “Nations possessing nuclear weapons threaten each other with ‘Mutually Assured Destruction,’ which has the very appropriate acronym MAD. What does this mean? Does it mean that civilians are being protected? Not at all. Instead, they are threatened with complete destruction. Civilians here play the role of hostages in the power games of their leaders.”
You also told me that our leaders “do not have a correct imaginative idea of what a nuclear war would be like. The lack of understanding was similar just prior to World War I. Science and technology had changed the character of war, but leaders had not understood the full extent of the change.” As a noted mathematical physicist and theoretical chemist, describe for us what a nuclear war would be like and what the detrimental consequences are.
Avery: Physicists like myself bear the collective responsibility of having opened Pandora’s box of nuclear fission on a world that is completely unprepared to deal with these new and dangerous powers. Albert Einstein summarized the situation very well when he said: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything except our ways of thinking, and thus we drift towards unparalleled catastrophes.”
Science and technology have completely changed the character of war, and this is especially true of nuclear war, which today has the potential to destroy not only human civilization but also much of the biosphere.
As bad as conventional arms and conventional weapons may be, it is the possibility of a catastrophic nuclear war that poses the greatest threat to humanity. There are today roughly 15,000 nuclear warheads in the world, with an explosive power equal to roughly half a million Hiroshima bombs.
To multiply the tragedy of Hiroshima by a factor of half a million makes an enormous difference, not only quantitatively, but also qualitatively. Experts who have studied the question believe that a nuclear catastrophe today would inflict irreversible damage on our civilization, genetic pool, and environment.
High-yield nuclear weapons exploded near the earth’s surface would put large amounts of dust into the upper atmosphere. Nuclear weapons exploded over cities, forests, oilfields, and refineries would produce firestorms of the type experienced in Dresden and Hamburg after incendiary bombings during the Second World War.
The combination of high-altitude dust and lower altitude soot would prevent sunlight from reaching the earth’s surface, and the degree of obscuration would be extremely high for a wide range of scenarios. Global agriculture would be damaged to such that a famine involving billions of people would result.
One argument that has been used in favor of nuclear weapons is that no sane political leader would employ them. The idea of Mutually Assured Deterrence (MAD) rests on this flimsy assumption. However, the concept of deterrence ignores the possibility of war by accident or miscalculation, a danger that has been increased by nuclear proliferation and by the use of computers with very quick reaction times to control weapons systems.
I believe that the blindness of our leaders today is analogous to the errors of leadership that led to World War I. None of the power-holders who started that catastrophe war had any idea what it would be like. In spite of the massive casualties that had been produced by the use of breach-loading rifles during the American civil war; in spite of the deadly effectiveness of the machine guns used by colonial powers in Africa and elsewhere, Europe’s leaders seemed to be unaware of the extent to which science and technology had changed the character of war.
The start of World War I has another lesson to teach us: What started as a small Austrian operation to punish Serbia, escalated uncontrollably into a global disaster. There is a danger that “limited” NATO provocations of Russia might also escalate into a global catastrophe.
Alexis: You also argue that “when the threat of war is maintained,” some people profit from this. Who are they and what are their motives?
Avery: Because the world spends 1.7 trillion (1.7 thousand billion) dollars each year on armaments, it follows that very many people make their living from war. This is the reason why it is correct to speak of war as a social institution, and also the reason why war persists, although everyone realizes that it is the cause of much of the suffering that inflicts humanity.
We know that war is madness, but it persists. We know that it threatens the future survival of our species, but it persists, entrenched in the attitudes of historians, newspaper editors, and television producers, entrenched in the methods by which politicians finance their campaigns, and entrenched in the financial power of arms manufacturers, entrenched also in the ponderous and costly hardware of war, the fleets of warships, bombers, tanks, nuclear missiles and so on.
It is plain that if the almost unbelievable sums now wasted on armaments were used constructively, most of the pressing problems now facing humanity could be solved, but today the world spends more than 20 times as much per year on weapons as it does on development.
Today’s world is one in which roughly ten million children die each year from diseases related to poverty. Besides this enormous waste of young lives through malnutrition and preventable disease, there is a huge waste of opportunities through inadequate education. The rate of illiteracy in the 25 least developed countries is 80 percent, and the total number of illiterates in the world is estimated to be 800 million.
Meanwhile, every 60 seconds, the world spends roughly 2 million U. S. dollars on armaments. In the United States, giant corporations such as Lockheed and Halburten pocket the Pentagon’s money, but similar arms profiteering occurs throughout the world, even in Sweden. Ironically, the nations most heavily involved in exporting arms to the developing countries are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
Alexis: In your recent article “NATO Threatens Europe With Annihilation,” you say that NATO “is an aggressive tool of the United States. Today NATO is threatening to drive Europe into an all-destroying thermonuclear war with Russia.” Have they started thinking about the cost? What do they have to gain?
Avery: Europeans themselves have nothing at all to gain by provoking Russia, and they have everything to lose. However, we are in the habit of relying on the United States for help. We remember World Wars I and II, in both of which US participation was decisive. However today the situation has changed, and European participation in aggressive wars initiated by the US is turning Europe into a target for retaliation. It is time for Europe to declare its independence.
Alexis: You have cited Former UN Assistant Secretary-General Hans Christof von Sponeck saying that NATO “violates the UN Charter and international law.” Why does NATO still want to impose a draconian principle on Russia? Why can’t they see that Russia is just resisting an irrational principle?
Avery: Former UN Assistant Secretary-General Hans Christof von Sponeck used the following words to express his opinion that NATO now violates the UN Charter and international law: “In the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty, the Charter of the United Nations was declared to be NATO’s legally binding framework. However, the United Nations’ monopoly of the use of force, especially as specified in Article 51 of the Charter, was no longer accepted according to the 1999 NATO doctrine. NATO’s territorial scope, until then limited to the Euro-Atlantic region, was expanded by its members to include the whole world.”
Article 2 of the UN Charter requires that “All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” This requirement is somewhat qualified by Article 51, which says that “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.”
Thus, in general, war is illegal under the UN Charter. Self-defense against an armed attack is permitted, but only for a limited time until the Security Council has had time to act. The United Nations Charter does not permit the threat or use of force in preemptive wars, or to produce regime changes, or for so-called “democratization”, or for the domination of regions that are rich in oil. NATO must not be a party to the threat or use of force for such illegal purposes.
According to Principle VI of the Nuremberg Principles, which were adopted unanimously by the UN General Assembly in 1946: The crimes hereinafter set out are punishable as crimes under international law: a Crimes against peace: (I) Planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances; (ii) Participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the acts mentioned under (I).
Robert H. Jackson, who was the chief United States prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, said that “To initiate a war of aggression is therefore not only an international crime, it is the supreme international crime, differing from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”
Regarding the feeling of Russians about massive NATO military exercises on its border, we can remember how the United States felt during the Cuban Missile Crisis. At that time, the world came extremely close to an all-destroying thermonuclear war. We might not have such good luck today.
Alexis: You conclude your recent article by saying: “Do the people of Europe really want to participate in the madness of aggression against Russia? Of course not! What about European leaders? Why don’t they follow the will of the people and free Europe from bondage to the United States? Have our leaders been bribed? Or have they been blackmailed through personal secrets, discovered by the long arm of NSA spying?”
It has been reported that a large population in Europe and elsewhere are resisting NATO’s aggressive expansion across the world. Why do they always give the impression that they are spreading democracy and freedom when they are actually perpetuating conflicts, chaos, and death?
Avery: In Europe, in the United States, and in other countries where democracy has been replaced by the oligarchy, all citizens without exception have the duty to work with dedication to restoring “government of the people, by the people and for the people”. But no country has the right to initiate aggressive wars under the pretense of bringing democracy to another country. People have the right life under governments of their own choosing.
Alexis: You write, “To save itself from the danger of nuclear annihilation, Europe must declare its independence from America, just as the United States once declared its independence from Britain.” E. Michael Jones, who has been writing on some of these issues for decades, has recently said something similar. “The greatest threat to the social order,” he declared, “is the United States of America.” Why? Is it because Jones simply hates democracy and freedom? Is it because Jones somehow has made some deal with terrorist groups?
The answer is no.
The US is a threat to the social order because US officials have for decades ignored practical reasons and have deliberately adopted an essentially diabolical ideology, which always promises a sort of heaven on earth but always delivers the opposite. The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Ukraine, etc., are classic examples.
Noted scholar Vladimir Goldstein of Brown University, who grew up in the Soviet Union, has written that the United States was basically willing to move heaven and earth in order to manipulate the situation in Ukraine and deceive the American people. The moral order and international law were out of the question. As Gordon Duff would have put it, these people were willing to censor and edit the laws of nature themselves so that they could get their dirty work done.
But trying to suspend the laws of nature is a very small price to pay, compared to what the elite and the oligarchs in the US and Britain have done in the past. The United States and Britain literally overthrew a democratically elected government in Iran (for oil), and it is really shameful that the oligarchs continue to invoke “democracy” to spread their political and moral disease virtually everywhere in the Middle East and much of Europe. What’s you take?
Avery: In the 1980s, Gorbachev’s reforms effectively granted self-government to the various parts of the Soviet Union, and he himself soon resigned from his post as its leader, since the office was no longer meaningful. Most of the newly independent parts of the old USSR began to introduce market economies, and an astonishing world witnessed a series of unexpected and rapid changes: On September 10, 1989, the Hungarian government opened its border for East German refugees; on November 9, 1989, Berlin Wall was reopened; on December 22, 1989 Brandenburg Gate was opened; and on October 3, 1990, Germany was reunited. The Cold War was over!
This was an opportunity for global cooperation, and an opportunity for a peace dividend through which the colossal sums wasted on wars could be used for constructive purposes. However, the end of the Cold War was seen by neoconservatives as an opportunity for the United States to dominate the world by means of military force as “the world’s sole superpower”. The Project for a New American Century was founded, a think-tank that included Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol and Robert Kagan.
Among US powerholders, the mood of triumphalism and exceptionalism has continued ever since. However, today it is clear that in attempting military domination of the entire world, the neoconservatives have bitten off more than they can chew. The lust for world dominance is hubris, a form of collective insanity, and as we know from ancient Greek dramas, hubris is always punished by the gods.
This article was first published on June 16, 2016.
-  For historical studies, see Jörg Friedrich, The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006); Hans Erich Nossack, The End: Hamburg 1943 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004); Thomas Goodrich, Hellstorm: The Death of Nazi Germany, 1944-1947 (Sheridan, CO: Aberdeen Books, 2010).
-  Keep in mind again that the war in Iraq alone will cost at least six trillion dollars. Ernesto Londono, “Study: Iraq, Afghan war costs to top $4 trillion,” Washington Post, March 28, 2013; Bob Dreyfuss, The $6 Trillion Wars,” The Nation, March 29, 2013; “Iraq War Cost U.S. More Than $2 Trillion, Could Grow to $6 Trillion, Says Watson Institute Study,” Huffington Post, May 14, 2013; Mark Thompson, “The $5 Trillion War on Terror,” Time, June 29, 2011; “Iraq war cost: $6 trillion. What else could have been done?,” LA Times, March 18, 2013.
-  Vladimir Golstein, “Western Media Coverage of the Ukraine Crisis Is as Distorted as Soviet Propaganda,” The Nation, May 22, 2014.
-  Ervand Abrahamian, The Coup: 1953, the CIA, and the Roots of Modern U.S.-Iranian Relations (New York: The New Press, 2013); Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2008); Christopher de Bellaigue, Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Tragic Anglo-American Coup (New York: HarperCollins, 2012); Mark Gasiorowski, Mohammad Mosaddeq and the 1953 Coup in Iran (New York: Syracuse University Press, 2004).
-  For related studies, see Murray Friedman, The Neoconservative Revolution: Jewish Intellectuals and the Shaping of Public Policy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke, America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2014); Michael MacDonald, Overreach: Delusions of Regime Change in Iraq (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014); John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2007).
Jonas E. Alexis has degrees in mathematics and philosophy. He studied education at the graduate level. His main interests include U.S. foreign policy, the history of the Israel/Palestine conflict, and the history of ideas. He is the author of the new book, Kevin MacDonald’s Metaphysical Failure: A Philosophical, Historical, and Moral Critique of Evolutionary Psychology, Sociobiology, and Identity Politics. He teaches mathematics in South Korea.