Now showing: Countdown to Zero

By Hugh Gusterson | August 3, 2010

Great historical changes begin as the quixotic obsessions of a vanguard of idealists who are seen as dangerous radicals or ideological deviants by many of their contemporaries. Think of the first advocates of the abolition of slavery, the first suffragettes, and the first gay rights activists.

Indeed the reason that people like Henry Kissinger and Graham Allison have switched sides in the debate on nuclear abolition is that they fear a world where nuclear deterrence stops working because the people thinking of attacking American cities have no territory against which retaliation might be threatened.

For a cause to prevail–for slavery to be abolished, women to get the vote, and gays to live with open acceptance–the cause must move from the fringe to the mainstream. As a cause is mainstreamed, the power to tell its story passes to very different people–not outsiders who thunder about right and wrong, but those closer to power who think in terms of the horizon of the practical. In other words, those who once dismissed an idea must become its advocates, as those who pioneered the idea lose ownership of it.

It is unclear whether nuclear weapons will be abolished, but it is clear that the nuclear abolitionist movement is now being mainstreamed. Exhibit A in this process is the new general release film, Countdown to Zero, made by the same team that brought us An Inconvenient Truth. The movie’s slogan: “More than a movie. It’s a movement.”

In some ways Countdown to Zero reprises the 1982 documentary If You Love this Planet, a film that was built around a lecture by the anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott and helped start the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign of the early 1980s. Like If You Love This Planet, Countdown to Zero seeks to break through public ignorance and denial about nuclear weapons by asking viewers to imagine a nuclear explosion in the city where they live and by detailing all the unpleasant ways large numbers of people would die. Unlike If You Love This Planet, Countdown to Zero has music by Pearl Jam and Radiohead, great sound bites, rich visuals, and the kind of fast-paced visual entertainment that today’s college students demand. If You Love This Planet looks like an amateur home movie by comparison.

The impetus for If You Love This Planet was the fear that the superpower rivalry of the 1980s would, by inadvertence or crazy deliberateness, lead to nuclear war. In the same vein, Countdown to Zero makes much of a 1995 incident when the Russian military mistook the launch of a weather rocket from Norway for a U.S. nuclear attack; President Boris Yeltsin found himself staring at the nuclear “briefcase” as his military commanders warned that he only had a few minutes to decide whether to launch a nuclear strike against the U.S. The film also recounts the little known but deeply worrying trail of incidents when U.S. nuclear weapons were lost in plane crashes, or when computer malfunctions, misplaced training tapes, or even the rising of the moon triggered false alarms of Russian nuclear attack.

Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, the reality of 9/11–rather than the Russians–is what is fresh in American minds. So it is unsurprising that the film mainly focuses on the threat of Islamic terrorists deliberately attacking an American city. Cutting between sound bites from numerous experts, the film tells us that Al Qaeda is known to have been seeking a nuclear weapon, that a good graduate student can now design a nuclear weapon, that “potatoes were guarded better” than nuclear material in some parts of the former Soviet Union, and that highly enriched uranium–easily shielded from radiation detectors–would be simple to smuggle into the U.S. in one of the 100,000 shipping containers a day arriving here. The only way to forestall the loss of an American city to a terrorist nuclear weapon, the film suggests, is to abolish nuclear weapons and eliminate the material from which they are made. Fuzzy on the precise details of how this would be accomplished, the film instead climaxes with a feel-good montage of politicians, defense intellectuals, and ordinary people saying we need a world without nuclear weapons. “The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us,” President John F. Kennedy tells us from the grave, just before the film ends.

If someone had made a documentary a decade ago about the nuclear-abolition movement, the film would surely have included Jonathan Schell, author of the visionary 1984 book, The Abolition; Helen Caldicott; and grassroots activists from such anti-nuclear groups as the Western States Legal Foundation, and the Los Alamos Study Group. None of these people appear in Countdown to Zero, which was made after former Secretary of State George Schultz, former Defense Secretary William Perry, former Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sam Nunn, and former National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger transformed the debate on nuclear weapons policy by endorsing nuclear abolition on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal (and who also have their own nuclear-zero film). Instead, the case for nuclear abolition in Countdown to Zero is made largely by people who would not have touched the cause with a 10-foot pole in the 1990s: Valerie Plame, the celebrity ex-CIA agent; Bruce Blair, a former missilier who now runs the Global Zero campaign; Graham Allison, the Harvard professor who co-authored a book expressing skepticism about the anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s; Ambassador Richard Burt, who negotiated the START I Treaty for the George H. W. Bush administration, which resisted the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty the Russians wanted; James Baker, George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of State; and Jimmy Carter, who ended his term in office with a nuclear build-up. (One notable exception in the film is Mikhail Gorbachev, who was trying to abolish nuclear weapons at Reykjavik in 1987.)

Since Countdown to Zero was released, it has received good reviews, but it has also come under political attack. Characterized as “one of the most dangerous propaganda films produced in decades,” one commentator added that the film’s “screenings are being organized by activists whose intentions are unimpeachable, if naive.” If you thought this attack came from the right, you would be wrong. In fact, the right has so far largely ignored the film, focusing its energy instead on attacking the innocuous New START treaty that is up for Senate ratification.

Rather, the denunciation comes in an article by the anti-nuclear activist Darwin BondGraham. His argument has been winning plaudits in the anti-nuclear abolitionist blogosphere. The article, and the approbation it has received, is quite mystifying.

Let’s leave aside the fact that BondGraham’s critique largely works through the disreputable technique of guilt by association, making much of the involvement in the film of Ploughshares president Joe Cirincione who, we are told, is associated with people who are associated with the nuclear weapons complex. BondGraham’s core argument is that “Countdown is actually an alarmist portrayal of dark-skinned men, Muslims, ‘terrorists,’ and other racial or ethnic bogeymen who we are told, over the span of 90 minutes, are seeking nuclear weapons to use against the American people.” This is a strange comment. After all, the film features three Pakistani talking heads, clearly states that the U.S. and Russia own 95 percent of the 23,000 nuclear weapons in the world, and dwells on the possibility of an accidental nuclear war between the superpowers or the explosion of a nuclear weapon in a handling accident. Moreover, the film’s editing makes a suggestive juxtaposition of a Russian, now in jail for trying to supply nuclear material to Islamic terrorists, who explains on camera his indifference to large numbers of American deaths, and J. Robert Oppenheimer, who created the bombs that killed 200,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The parallel is left implicit, but the directors’ point seemed clear enough to me. (Space does not allow elaboration, but there is a hidden film within the film in terms of Countdown’s use and editing of visual imagery.)

But, if the film does play up the danger of a terrorist attack on an American city, is that so unreasonable in a situation where Al Qaeda is known to be seeking a nuclear weapon and where Islamic terrorists have, in recent years, set out to kill as many civilians as possible in major attacks in London, Madrid, Mumbai, and, of course, New York? Indeed the reason that people like Henry Kissinger and Graham Allison have switched sides in the debate on nuclear abolition is that they fear a world where nuclear deterrence stops working because the people thinking of attacking American cities have no territory against which retaliation might be threatened. Surely the film is naming an all-too-plausible danger of our age that we need to confront.

BondGraham says that “Countdown is joining a suite of political campaigns and other propagandistic efforts, the point of which is to build support for increased U.S. spending on nuclear weapons, as well as a more belligerent foreign policy, based around Islamophobic depictions of ‘terrorists’ and ‘rogue states.'” You would think from such comments that the film featured Richard Perle and John Bolton calling for a military strike on Iran rather than Mikhail Gorbachev and others pleading for the abolition of nuclear weapons. And in fact Valerie Plame, who has a leading role in the film, said in an interview that coincided with the film’s release exactly what the original abolitionists said for years when people in power were ignoring them: “You cannot sit across the table from an Iranian–and I’ve done it–and talk about, well, why should all the Western, Judeo-Christian countries have nuclear weapons and other countries cannot?” She says, “That is why the film builds toward this notion that the only safe option is zero.”

BondGraham has a point in saying that, in the current political climate, to talk about the danger of a terrorist nuclear attack runs the risk of building further support for Homeland Security initiatives rather than for nuclear disarmament. But accusing it of building support for nuclearism is like accusing the civil rights movement, which provoked the likes of Police Commissioner Bull Connor, of building up police repression in the South. It is unfair to blame a film–one that simply advocates nuclear disarmament–for a wider political context beyond its control.

Americans have largely forgotten about nuclear weapons. As I can attest from teaching undergraduates, and as Countdown to Zero shows with random street interviews, most Americans have no idea how many nuclear weapons there are and which countries they belong to. If you believe that nuclear abolition is desirable, and if you think this cannot be accomplished in the absence of a mass political movement, you should welcome Countdown to Zero.

In the movie Annie Hall, Woody Allen famously remarked that he did not want to be part of any club that would admit him. The original nuclear abolitionists should rejoice that they have converted some of their old adversaries, not go all Woody Allen on us just when they are making significant progress.

Together, we make the world safer.

The Bulletin elevates expert voices above the noise. But as an independent nonprofit organization, our operations depend on the support of readers like you. Help us continue to deliver quality journalism that holds leaders accountable. Your support of our work at any level is important. In return, we promise our coverage will be understandable, influential, vigilant, solution-oriented, and fair-minded. Together we can make a difference.

Get alerts about this thread
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments


Receive Email