COMMENTARY: How a Navy commander became a warrior for peace

Tuesday, August 16, 2011 | 6:00 p.m. CDT

Admiral Noel Gayler, a World War II Navy pilot who served as the sixth director of the National Security Agency and as commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Command in the 1970s, died July 14. He was 96.

Gayler was one of several retired, high-ranking U.S. military officers who have called for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

In December 2000, Gayler published “A Proposal for Achieving Zero Nuclear Weapons.”

He wrote: “The argument for a nuclear component is no longer valid. The time is now for a concrete proposal that meets the problem. Process, as opposed to negotiating numbers, is the basic principle of the proposal that I suggest.

It is nothing less than drastic: the continuing reduction to zero of weapons in the hands of avowed nuclear powers, plus an end to the nuclear ambitions of others.”

In response to Gayler's death, David Krieger, president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation in Santa Barbara, Calif., outlined some common misconceptions about the value of nuclear weapons, points made previously in Gaylor's proposal.

These misconceptions include belief that:

  • Physical defense against nuclear weapons is possible.
  • Nuclear weapons can be used in a sensible manner.
  • Nuclear disarmament imperils our security.
  • Nuclear deterrence is an effective defense.

Additionally, Krieger noted, “Admiral Gayler’s proposal involves the delivery of all nuclear weapons to a central point where they would be irreversibly dismantled.”

Thus, the overarching concept of the admiral’s proposal is that U.S. and world security will be improved by the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.

Gayler concluded by saying: “It becomes evident that nuclear disarmament works to the advantage of every power. Only in this way can the world be made safe from unprecedented murder and destruction. It remains to take the necessary actions. They are feasible and imperative.” 

Krieger said he feels Gayler's death is the appropriate moment to revisit the admiral's vision of a nuclear weapon-free world.

What weight should we give to the words of senior military officers such as Gayler?

Relevant nuclear-weapons experience and what they learned from it are important considerations.

As an aircraft-based fighter pilot in World War II, six days after Hiroshima was destroyed, then-Lt. Cmdr. Gayler flew low over Hiroshima and wrote that he was stunned; he saw nothing moving. His wife later said, “It was imprinted on his mind, and he vowed to work to eliminate nuclear weapons.”

Two years later, he participated in Operation Sandstone, conducted at the Enewetak Atoll in the Pacific, and watched the detonation of three new nuclear weapon designs. Two were more than twice as powerful as those used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

Later, as an admiral, Gayler was deputy director of the joint strategic target planning staff. That organization was responsible for selecting targets around the world that would be destroyed by strategic missile and aircraft delivery systems.

To complete the cycle, he later was the commander of all American military forces in the Pacific. These included a number of military units that would attack the targets he'd selected earlier.

In an op-ed article in The New York Times in 1976, Gayler wrote: “A very few persons go about the grim, necessary business of nuclear planning. Fewer still have seen a bomb tested; the light of a thousands suns, searing heat, immense shock, a wicked flickering afterglow manifesting in intense residual radiation.

"That’s a pity.  We and the Soviet Union have tens of thousands of weapons.  We had better control them.”

The book of life has now closed on this warrior, as it has on most of the survivors who were far enough from ground zero at Hiroshima and Nagasaki to become living witnesses of those events. 

An effort under way to honor these survivors as a group with the Nobel Peace Prize has real potential to start a new commitment to nuclear disarmament and to end 60-plus years of living with the extreme risk of nuclear weapons always at the ready to end civilization.

Bill Wickersham is adjunct professor of peace studies at MU and Scott Jones is president of the Peace & Emergency Action Coalition for Earth (P.E.A.C.E. Inc.).

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