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Andrew Lichterman

On August 9, 61 years after the United States dropped the second of the two atomic bombs used in war on Nagasaki, Japan, groups around the country gathered to protest continued U.S. commitment to war as a means of achieving political and economic ends, with a focus on the global corporations that profit from war and preparation for war. The focus was Bechtel Corporation, a company with a history intertwined with U.S. ascendance as the world’s dominant military and economic power and with its nuclear power and weapons industries. With billions in Iraq reconstruction contracts and billions more in U.S. military contracts, Bechtel continues to profit from U.S. war making.

In San Francisco, about 200 people gathered at Bechtel’s global headquarters for a program of speakers and music. Keiji Tsuchiya, a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, spoke of his experience, and there were speakers addressing various aspects of of Bechtel’s global impact. A number of people blocked the entrances to the building complex housing Bechtel, resulting in a small number of arrests by the San Francisco police. A few people chanted “this is what a police state looks like” as one protester was carried off, but to those who experienced San Francisco street demonstrations in decades past (for example, in the 80’s under Mayor Dianne Feinstein), the police presence was pretty low key– no truncheons, no beatings, no one run over by motorcycles or stepped on by horses.

I had three or four minutes on the program for some remarks on Bechtel’s nuclear weapons role and its connection to their other activities; several people asked for a text. For those interested, it can be found after the “more” jump below.

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You have heard how Bechtel is making money from the war in Iraq. The Iraq war is what was called a “small war” in the time that it was more respectable to talk of empire. Such wars enforced the rule of the colonial powers, assuring their privileged access to resources and new frontiers for investment and trade. The rhetoric may have changed,but the goals remain the same.

But Bechtel also is profiting from preparation for wars to come– the kind that are fought between major powers, armed with the most fearsome weapons of the day. The United States is leading the world into a new arms race in the 21st century, planning new nuclear warheads andnew missiles and long-range bombers to carry them . Bechtel will be in the middle of it all, from the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico where nuclear weapons are designed to the Kwajalein Test Site in the Pacific, where U.S. strategic missile tests splash down.

Bechtel is part of the new partnership managing Los Alamos. Both weapons lab and weapons factory, Los Alamos is designing new nuclear warheads, and also will be manufacturing them for the foreseeable future.

Bechtel also is a partner in the management of the Reagan Test Site, at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. This is where missile tests launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base on the central California coast land. Equipped with a wide array of tracking and launch facilities, Kwajalein likely will play a central role in the development of the next generation of U.S. long-range missiles and other nuclear delivery systems. Kwajalein also is used for testing a variety of missile defense technologies. Bechtel is involved in other aspects of missile defense as well, with contracts for portions of the work installing ballistic missile interceptors at Vandenberg and at Fort Greeley, Alaska.

Contrary to our hopes after the Cold War, we are drifting towards a new arms race where a number of nations have hugely destructive nuclear arsenals. Added to this we will have the complexities of missile defenses, more types of weapons that can strike halfway across the planet in hours or minutes, more dependence on electronic systems that operate at speeds beyond human comprehension and that themselves will be the targets of new forms of deception and attack, more useable nuclear weapons, and more nations building armaments rather than the infrastructure and institutions necessary for true human security.

Bechtel’s civilian business also helps to sustain a world in which the risk of conflict and war is likely to grow. It is a central player in a global circuit of investment and profit that emphasizes production and trade in goods that only a fraction of the world’s population can afford to buy. Big development projects of the kind Bechtel specializes in– such as oil, mining and metal facilities, airports, and power plants– are largely geared to supporting global production chains for this same international trade in goods consumed by a privileged portion of the world’s population. Like many other global corporations, Bechtel has grown rich building a global economy that has left much of humanity on the outside looking in.

This global economy, even here in one of the wealthiest countries, is creating a global society characterized by islands of wealth in a sea of poverty. With an environment strained to its limits and growing competition for oil and other key resources, this way of life systematically generates desperation in hundreds of millions of human beings, and hence conflict and war. But as we have seen, from Los Alamos to Kwajalein to Iraq, war and preparing for war is just another profit center for the Bechtels of the world.

A half century ago, in the wake of the U.S. atomic bombing of Japan, the philosopher Albert Camus called for the people of the world to demand that their governments seek a different path. He said, “Faced with the terrifying perspectives which are opening up to humanity, we can perceive even better that peace is the only battle worth waging. It is no longer a prayer, but an order which must rise up from people to their governments– the order to choose finally between hell and reason.” Albert Camus, “Between Hell and Reason,” Combat, August 6, 1945, in Kai Bird and Lawrence Lifschultz, eds., Hiroshima’s Shadow: Writings on the Denial of History and the Smithsonian Controversy, (Stony Creek, Connecticut: 1998), 261.

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The Bechtel contracts referred to above are only examples; Bechtel has contracts and sub-contracts at a number of other military nuclear facilities as well. For a more comprehensive look at Bechtel’s contracts and those of other major U.S. nuclear weapons contractors, see the Los Alamos Study Group’s analysis, “Competition – or Collusion? Privatization and Crony Capitalism in the Nuclear Weapons Complex: Some Questions from New Mexico,” May 2006.