In Berlin, in June 1960, Raul Manglapus and I had lunch with Robert Oppenheimer, one of the scientists who created the atomic bomb. He was soft-spoken, tall, with sandy hair. We talked about the possibilities of a world powered by cheap nuclear energy. Indeed, further research in nuclear physics had led to so many refinements in the electronics industry and in nuclear medicine. Then, somehow, Oppenheimer reminisced about how the atom bomb came to be. He paused and cried silently. I told him I could not share his grief over Hiroshima and Nagasaki; we had been brutalized for three years by the Japanese.
If anything, that encounter with Oppenheimer impressed me, convinced me of how neutral science is and how it can easily be evil if those who develop and use it are not moored to ethics. All these came to mind as I perused the major events last week -- the failure of the Trump-Kim summit meeting in Hanoi and the visit of U.S. State Department Secretary Michael R. Pompeo, who assured us that the United States will defend us from any attack by China in the South China Sea. China responded that it will not attack us, while at the same time occupying Scarborough Shoal, Philippine sovereign territory just off the coast of Zambales.
IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN OBVIOUS to the Americans that North Korea will not give up its major achievement, a delivery system for its atomic weapons. This small, insignificant country has achieved parity with the United States. A unified Korean peninsula is probably North Korea's eventual goal -- but on its own terms. And North Korea can always argue the atomic bomb had long ceased to be an American monopoly. Russia, China, Britain, France, India, and Pakistan have it. Israel is rumored to have it, too, and soon Iran. Pandora's box has been opened, and cannot be closed.
The Philippines is a mere bit player on the global stage. The world problems that the major powers exacerbate -- their trade wars, climate change -- these eventually impact us but we can do little about them. For us then, a world view is not only a luxury, it can also be a distraction. But not a regional view for we need regional security, and active and profitable interaction with our neighbors. And the domestic view, if anything, this should be our sharpest focus -- our dismal poverty, our dysfunctional political system, our civic decay.
It is in this insecure world wherein we are situated that we must think for ourselves -- what we need to survive and, hopefully, to thrive, unable as we are to participate in developing nuclear power or preventing a nuclear holocaust, and to counter the other threats not just to our country but to humanity as well. We are at the edge of a scientific renaissance that could portend disaster, too. As the scientist, Stephen Hawking, warned, the development of artificial intelligence may usher the end of civilization.
On the very specific threat from a recalcitrant neighbor, it is so easy and simple for the United States to give us more military assistance, yet it has not done so. We can no longer depend on the American pledge of assistance. In the first place, all through history, pledges have always been broken once they are no longer useful. Each country and people must decide on how they should resolve the challenges they face, and their response eventually defines them and their future.
NATIONALISM SPELLS SURVIVAL In my lectures before committees of the American Council of Foreign Relations in the United States in the 1970s, I told the Americans who were embroiled in Vietnam that if they remembered the Philippine-American War in 1898, they wouldn’t have gone to Vietnam. Asian nationalism was their enemy, not communism.
The Vietnamese decided to fight the Americans and they succeeded. Vietnam is now united and doing very well. And the Vietnamese have not sought war reparations from the United States. From this, we may draw insight on the hardiness of the Vietnamese character.
It was the other way around in Thailand. The Thais opened their doors to the Japanese in 1942. I do not think such willful collaboration with the Japanese dented Thai nationalism. Thailand today is doing much better than us.
On those few occasions that I have spoken before the National Defense College, I tried to connect culture and the arts to the development of our national security. I told military officers and government executives that we are a very divided people, riven by geography, language, religion, ethnicity. In our effort to unite the nation, we need to recognize and use the elements that can weld us together -- the water, our history, our culture.
AND SO WE COME TO THE ARTS, to literature. They reveal so much of ourselves, our character, our identity. Our arts give us a profound knowledge of ourselves and eventually and hopefully, develop in us a sense of nation and, most of all, a profound commitment to our Motherland. As a people so committed and dedicated, we are the formidable bastion against any enemy, not the quantifiable weapons that a nation can muster.
I bring to mind the Roman siege of Masada in the first century A.D. This ultimate sacrifice, to my mind, is epitomized by the Jewish rebels who defended the plateau fortress, now part of Israel. When the imperial Roman legions finally captured it, they were greeted by eerie silence. To a man, the 700 defenders had committed suicide.
I always remind the young people of our history that we have a revolutionary tradition and that we are a heroic people. We don’t deserve this poverty, this corrupt government, these incompetent leaders. Our first duty then is to banish all these so we can build a secure future for ourselves.
First published in The Philippine Star, March 9, 2019