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Octogenarian Coined ‘Omnicide’ During Lifelong Push for Peace

Times Staff Writer

In the context of nuclear weapons, war is a misnomer--an impossibility.

With two superpowers having the capability of destroying every human on the face of the earth a dozen times over, the word “war,” said philosopher John Somerville, is an inappropriate--even violent--use of language.

“The word war is inaccurate and misleading,” he said, “for the simple reason that what we’ve always called war is survivable by most of the human race.”

Since the beginning of time, war has been based on the notion that one side would win, he said.

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“But no matter how destructive the war was, you could always count on the fact that most of the human race would still be alive. The planet would still be livable.”

War can even be “just,” he said, as in the case of armies resisting Hitler and Nazism. But how can any war that destroys all humankind be just ?

A few years ago, Somerville started thinking of a word that transcended suicide, genocide, infanticide--the killing of all humans--and ended up with omnicide . Now 81 and spending his days in a quaint house overlooking the El Cajon Valley, Somerville is given credit for inventing the word, which he says is the only true description of the end result of nuclear holocaust.

Omnicide, not war.

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The killing of all life, destruction of all things.

It isn’t winnable. It isn’t limited. It is final and absolute.

For his linguistic talent and a lifelong commitment to the peace movement, Somerville was recently designated the winner of the Ghandi Peace Award, an annual honor bestowed by a Connecticut group, Promoting Enduring Peace. The award will be given at a conference in New Haven in April. Past recipients include Eleanor Roosevelt, former U.N. Secretary General U Thant, anti-nuclear activist Dr. Helen Caldicott, Linus Pauling, Dr. Benjamin Spock and theologian William Sloane Coffin.

Coffin once made the statement, “If you don’t stand for something, you’re apt to fall for anything.” Somerville’s colleagues and friends say he’s the type who always takes a stand, who never settles for a fall.

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Paul Allen III is professor of philosophy at East Stroudsburg University in East Stroudsburg, Pa., and has known Somerville for years. Long before they met, however, he was using a Somerville play--"The Crisis: The True Story About How the World Almost Ended"--as a text in classes. It’s a “docudrama” about the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and how President Kennedy “took us over the brink,” Allen said, in tempting nuclear conflict with the Soviets.

Allen said his first impression of Somerville was one that lasted.

“He’s an extremely sensitive and kind fellow,” Allen said by telephone from his home in Pennsylvania. “He’s very human, very dear and has a wonderful sense of humor. He loves to joke. He doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder. He’s very alive. Jolly all the time, full of love and good cheer. He is what he believes. More than anyone I know, he is a man of peace.”

Somerville is the author of 10 books and two plays, one being “The Crisis.” All probe the all-too-grisly perils of omnicide. In the introduction to Somerville’s book, “The Philosophy of Peace,” a friend named Albert Einstein wrote:

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“It is not only a careful analysis of the relevant moral and historical records, but a sign of remarkable independence and courage. If your work should find the attention in this country it merits, it would counteract effectively the present state of hysterical fear and would lead to a more sane and constructive political attitude.”

Somerville’s other credentials include being American president of the Union of American and Japanese Professionals Against Nuclear Omnicide; chairman of the National Campaign for No-First-Use of Nuclear Weapons, and founding president of International Philosophers for Prevention of Nuclear Omnicide.

He is a small, almost bald man with a wry sense of humor that pops up at unexpected times, in unexpected ways. Saving the world is serious business--Somerville approaches it that way. But he never seems dogmatic or inflexible or burdened with the weight of a wickedly weighty task.

“His greatest concern has been--and I mean this sincerely--saving the world,” said Howard Frazier, executive director of Promoting Enduring Peace, which is giving Somerville the award. “He has worked harder than anyone I know to save the world from nuclear disaster. I’ve got to take my hat off to a person who works like the devil--with no pay--to save the earth. Literally.”

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Somerville’s earth-saving venture began in New York City. He grew up in Manhattan and received all his degrees, including his doctorate, from Columbia University. His teaching career began at Hunter College of the City University of New York in 1929, but he left in 1948 to carry out a lifelong dream--to teach at Stanford University, but more precisely to move to California.

Unfortunately for him, his visiting professorship expired a year later.

“It took 15 long years to get back here from New York,” he said with mock disgust. “New York is not one of my favorite places. For years I tried in vain to escape. It’s nothing but a jungle back there.”

In 1967, at age 62, he took a position with California Western University, now known as United States International University. His wife took a job at San Diego State University. Now both are retired--she from sociology, he from social and political philosophy.

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With Somerville, the word retirement is another crude misnomer. He is constantly on the go, traveling to St. Louis or Moscow or even Manhattan for conferences on omnicide. And always the message is the same: Stop the nuclear-arms buildup; work toward destroying all weapons; abandon terminology that obfuscates and lies.

“A winnable nuclear war?” Somerville asked rhetorically, using a phrase from Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. “How can you win it and have anything left? A limited nuclear war? How can you limit it? You don’t have the cooperation of the other side. The Soviets have said that outright. They laugh in our face. They say, ‘Would you limit it if we began it? Would we limit it if you began it?’ Of course not.”

Somerville acknowledges that President Reagan “seems to have changed his mind on a limited nuclear war,” since recently he was quoted as saying, “Nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

“But does he really believe it?” Somerville said.

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He thinks not. Calling Reagan’s “bluff,” he led a petition drive in the spring of 1984. The goal: for the President to agree to no-first-use of nuclear weapons. Eighteen members of Congress signed the pact, along with legions of concerned scientists, many of whom Somerville lined up.

Reagan said no.

“He said,” noted Somerville, quoting the reply, “ ‘We cannot give up the option of first use of nuclear weapons.’ In a poll not long afterward, 81% said they believed his policy was one of no-first-use. He created that impression by saying a nuclear war couldn’t be won and should never be fought. But, I’m sad to say, the impression he conveyed is not what he truly believes.”

Somerville believes real change on the nuclear issue must come from society itself. As a culture, we must learn to resist nuclear weapons, he said--to brand them intolerable.

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“Above all, politicians want to stay in power,” he said. “So they must be convinced that to stay in power they have to be unilaterally opposed to all nuclear weapons. That’s the thrust we’ve got to generate. If we don’t, we’re not going to survive.”

Somerville says candidly that he trusts no government, including his own. Government is predictable, he said, in serving only its own interests. Therefore, Reagan should trust Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev when the latter says he hopes to eliminate all nuclear weapons within a decade.

“Of course, we should have taken him at his word,” Somerville said. “He’s just doing what’s in his own self-interest. Why can’t we believe that? Isn’t it in the Russians’ interest not to be annihilated, as it should be in ours?”

Somerville tells a story about a conference several years ago involving the Soviets and then-U.S. Ambassador Averell Harriman. In a quiet moment, a Soviet delegate said to Harriman: “We can wipe you out, and you can wipe us out. The only sane thing is for neither one of us to start.”

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Somerville believes most of the world’s people are afraid to confront the awful realities of nuclear conflict, simply because they are so awful. Mere talk of omnicide carries a numbing effect, he said, one requiring the stiffest kind of intellectual and emotional discipline to resist.

He is so convinced about the awfulness of nuclear potential that he believes the United States should rid itself of all its weapons, even if the Soviets say no to disarmament. If either side ever uses one, he said, it wipes out the world anyway or changes it so irreparably it would never be the same. The part of the world that didn’t die fast would die slowly, inexorably. And if the United States strikes first against the Soviets, he said, the carry-over of fire and radiation would all but eliminate “friends” in Europe and Great Britain.

“I know of a Latin word meaning the study of the end of all things,” he said. “The word is eschatology . Our philosophy of peace today is a kind of preventive eschatology. We must eliminate these weapons to even hope for a chance of survival.”

He believes fear of omnicide is echoing in children and adults alike. He sees it feeding an apathy and a distance that permeates all levels of society in every country in the world. The feeling, he said, is one of hopelessness, paranoia and contempt for the failings of leaders.

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“A year or so after Hiroshima, I got the findings of what really happened,” he said. “In Hiroshima, 125,000 were killed outright, 60,000 to 80,000 more in Nagasaki three days later. And that was just the first Tin Lizzy model of atomic weaponry. It didn’t take much to realize that they could be ‘perfected,’ that we could have a weapon 100 million times more destructive.

“Now we have 50,000 large nuclear weapons between the two of us, the two superpowers. The first atomic weapons were measured in kilotons--now we measure them in megatons. That’s a million tons of TNT in just one. So if there are four to five billion people on earth, we have the power to kill every man, woman and child a dozen times over.

“Who are we to say we could survive that? And my God, who would want to?”


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