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A Giant Passes: Senator Edward M. Kennedy – 1932-2009

August 26, 2009

As the eulogies for United States Senator Ted Kennedy start to pour in following his death last night, we will be reminded what a tireless and effective champion he was for people’s health, for education, for the rights of working people, for immigrants’ rights, and for peace and social justice across the board, not only in the US but around the world.

He was all those things and more. In particular, he was an ardent and unwavering supporter of nuclear disarmament. In 1982, when the fear of a nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union was the world’s nightmare, Kennedy and Senator Mark Hatfield sponsored the Nuclear Freeze amendment. The goal of the Freeze was to get the two nuclear superpowers to stop the relentless, massive buildup of their arsenals and to start disarmament negotiations. The legislation itself did not make it through the Senate (the US House passed its own version of the Freeze that year), but the Freeze concept galvanized a public movement to renounce nuclear weapons that claimed Ted Kennedy as a political leader.

Although he devoted himself primarily to other vital issues later in his Senate career, Kennedy’s voice and his vote on nuclear disarmament were always there when it counted. He led the fight for ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1998, and when the Senate rejected the CTBT he worked just as hard to support a moratorium on nuclear testing not only in the US but also worldwide. In 2002, he rejected the Bush administration’s false claims that Saddam Hussein was building nuclear weapons and stockpiling other weapons of mass destruction, and was one of 23 Senators who had the courage to vote against the Senate resolution authorizing the war against Iraq.

When the Bush/Cheney administration pulled out all the stops to get Congressional funding for low-yield nuclear weapons, Kennedy didn’t mince any words. Here’s what he said in May 2003, at a decisive moment in the debate about so-called mini-nukes:

This issue is as clear as any issue ever gets. You’re either for nuclear war, or you’re not. Either you want to make it easier to start using nuclear weapons, or you don’t.

“Our conventional weapons already have vast power and accuracy, and we can make them even more powerful. No one at the Pentagon and no one in the Administration has given us any example — none at all — of a case where a smaller nuclear weapon is needed to do what a conventional weapon can’t do.

“For half a century, our policy has been to do everything we possibly can to prevent nuclear war. And so far, we’ve succeeded.

“The hard-liners say things are different today. A nuclear war won’t be so bad if we just make the nukes a little smaller. We’ll call them mini-nukes. They’re not real nukes. A little nuclear war’s O.K.

“That’s nonsense. Nuclear war is nuclear war is nuclear war. We don’t want it anywhere, anytime, anyplace.

“Make no mistake. A mini-nuke is still a nuke.

“Is half a Hiroshima O.K.? Is a quarter of a Hiroshima O.K.? It’s a little mushroom cloud O.K.? That’s absurd.

“This issue is too important. If we build it, we’ll use it. No Congress should be the Congress that says, ‘Let’s start down this street,’ when it’s a one-way street that can lead only to nuclear war.”

Kennedy was on the winning side of that vote, and the world is better for it.

The best way to honor the memory of a person who brought this much passion and commitment to improving the quality of our lives – in the case of nuclear disarmament, to ensuring our very survival – is to complete the task he stayed with for some 30 years. If we could not abolish nuclear weapons in Ted Kennedy’s lifetime, let’s make sure we do it before another generation passes.

One Comment
  1. tomdegan permalink
    August 26, 2009 2:00 pm

    In a life that is littered with ironies, here’s the biggest one of all: His three older brothers – Joe, Jack and Bobby – are eternally frozen in our imagination as the personifications of youth and vigor (or “vigah”). How poignant that our final image of the baby of that family will be as an old man, frail and mortally ill.

    His was the most impressive evolution in American political history. Let’s be honest; in 1962 the guy was a lightweight. He ran for the Democratic nomination against another young man, Edward McCormick, whose uncle was the speaker of the House of Representatives. During a debate McCormick told him that were it not for his name, his candidacy would be viewed as a joke. It was a point well made. It is obvious when looking at film of that campaign that our boy Ted is in way over his head.

    Who would have dared dream all those years ago that this punk kid would one day evolve into the greatest senator ever to walk those halls?

    An incredible realization just came to me: Teddy represented the state of Massachusetts for forty-six years, eight months and nineteen days. That is nearly three months longer than all the years his older brother Jack lived on earth. Forgive the cliche that is so overused it has become trite through repetition, but this really is the end of an era.

    Tom Degan
    Goshen, NY

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