A Flash of Light to Blurred Vision: Theorizing Generating Principles for Nuclear Policy from The Day After Trinity to the Year 2021

Cody Hunter, University of Nevada, Reno


This essay examines contemporary arguments for nuclear weapons rearmament and disarmament by theorizing generating and generative principles in terms of principles of use and principles of existence through Kenneth Burke’s temporizing of essence. The essay concludes with an audio/visual experiment that invites audiences to reconsider the generating principles implicit in their nuclear terms.

I worry about our corrupt newspapers, about nucleonics (for where there is power there is intrigue, so this new fantastic power may be expected to call forth intrigue equally fantastic).—Kenneth Burke in a letter to William Carlos Williams, Oct. 12, 1945, Pennsylvania State University Special Collections

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists made history in 2020 by announcing that the Doomsday Clock had been set to 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it’s been since its inception. The Bulletin was organized by several Manhattan Project scientists in response to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Doomsday Clock was added to the cover in 1947 (Lerner) as “a design that warns the public about how close we are to destroying our world with dangerous technologies of our own making” (“Doomsday Clock”). At the time of writing this, in the year 2021, the Doomsday Clock remains at 100 seconds to midnight in no small part due to the continued threat of nuclear annihilation that inspired its creation in the first place (ibid).

To better understand the present threat of nuclear catastrophe, this essay tracks several lines of argument both for and against nuclear disarmament to theorize the implicit generating principles that are terminologically foundational for each position. Drawing primarily from Kenneth Burke’s articulations of generative and generating principles, I outline two principles that generate terms for this debate: The principle of use and the principle of existence. These two principles are not mutually exclusive, though the principle of use offers a reductive vocabulary that, at best, can maintain a public attitude of ambivalence toward nuclear weapons that simultaneously discourages their use and disarmament. The principle of use is a derivative of the principle of existence which offers a more generative vocabulary for discussing nuclear weapons and invites both public participation and credible arguments for global nuclear disarmament. The problem emerges when the principle of use is treated in isolation, as a universally valid principle, at the expense of insights generated in terms of the principle of existence.

These days, the principle of use in the nuclear weapons debate can no longer prevent a nuclear catastrophe because it has already begun, and this catastrophic reality is accounted for in terms of the principle of existence. Facing the exigencies of the present moment (e.g., the proposed U.S. nuclear weapons “modernization” project, the ratification of and broad support for the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), the impact of the radical unpredictability of climate change on nuclear sites, and increasing attention to how BIPOC communities are currently devastated by the environmental and health consequences of the development of nuclear weapons) demands attention to and terms drawn from the principle of existence. The use of nuclear weapons in war, while unquestionably an existential threat, can no longer be considered the only threat that nuclear weapons pose. The sheer existence of nuclear weapons poses an unmitigable threat to human survival. In “Perfection and the Bomb,” Barry Brummett argues that “[n]o subject is as critical politically as the rhetoric of nuclear war,” and that “the involved critic can further both scholarship and social responsibility, can speak politically yet not polemically by . . . grounding insights in theory shared by a community of scholars rather than only in an individual’s partisan views” (85). While I personally hope to see the day that our terms lead us to global nuclear disarmament, the goal of this essay is to demonstrate a process for theorizing generating principles and how this work may help us to better understand where our terms are leading and can lead us in debates about nuclear weapons.

Drawing from public arguments by government officials, journalists, and activists and the documentary The Day After Trinity, this essay unfolds in three sections and an audio/visual experiment. I have selected public arguments that explicitly address nuclear weapons from as close to the year 2021 as possible from a variety of media, including televised speeches and discussions, publications, webpages, and public meetings posted on YouTube. My goal for analyzing this variety of sources is not a comprehensive rendering of nuclear policy discourse in the U.S., but instead to provide examples of how terminologies derived from the principle of use and the principle of existence manifest in contemporary arguments about nuclear weapons. I have incorporated The Day After Trinity because the film includes interviews with Manhattan Project scientists and, while the interviews were conducted years after the Project was completed, the accounts and archival footage offer a historical resource for exploring the relationships between narratives, temporality, and generative principles that I discuss in the following section.

The final two sections of this essay and the audio/visual experiment focus on public arguments derived from the principle of use and the principle of existence. The second section analyzes arguments derived from the principle of use, starting with the current proposal to “modernize” the US nuclear arsenal and focusing specifically on the rhetorical bureaucratization of the intercontinental ballistic missile project. While rhetorical bureaucratization deters public engagement in debates on specific nuclear policies, the proposed modernization project requires maintaining an ambivalent public attitude toward nuclear weapons which I analyze in terms of a xenophobic-economic dialectic in the context of the US foreign policy shift from the Global War on Terror to the Great Power Competition for the 21st C. In the third section, I examine two lines of argument that derive their terms from the principle of existence. The first raises the issue of increasingly unpredictable climate events which increases the likelihood of nuclear accidents at weapons manufacturing and storage sites, and the second directs attention to the environmental devastation currently caused by nuclear weapons, predominately in black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities. By leveraging the salience of Not in My Backyard (NIMBY), arguments derived from the principle of existence highlight the current catastrophic impact of nuclear weapons and offer more opportunities for public engagement with nuclear policy than arguments derived from the principle of use.

The concluding audio/visual experiment emphasizes the reality of where terms derived exclusively from the principle of use are likely to lead if the principle is considered as universally valid in the debate on nuclear weapons. Responding to this potential and attempting to balance terms in the nuclear weapons debate (Brummett 93), this experiment also centers terms from the principle of existence. Finally, by using a variety of voice actors to simulate public debate, this experiment invites rhetoric scholars to practice theorizing generating principles as the din and sense of urgency make the terms difficult to discern.

Generative and Generating Principles: Temporizing the Essence of Nuclear Weapons

Kenneth Burke uses the concept “generative” or “generating principle” frequently throughout A Grammar of Motives, occasionally in A Rhetoric of Motives, and sporadically in other texts. However, my initial interest in the concept arose, not from Burke, but from David Blakesley’s description of rhetorical theory’s role in civic engagement:

[W]e . . . have the responsibility to understand how we got here, what we should have seen coming but didn’t. Rhetorical theory, which theorizes generative principles and elaborates ambiguity, can help us unravel these mysteries and perhaps help us guard against our tendencies to be mistaken or led astray by our terms or by those who would use them against us, or be caught up in the moment and lose perspective on where we’ve been, where we’re going. (Mountford et al. 58; emphasis added)

Knee-deep in research on contemporary nuclear weapons rhetoric and concerned about the announced foreign policy shift to “Great Power Competition” in the same breath as the declaration of the end of the “Global War on Terror,” Blakesley’s words struck me as a call to action. Unsure of what he meant by “generative principles,” I read further into the chapter and saw the concept repeated with similar urgency and more contextual clues: “We must work backward through our terms, tracing them to their sources, discovering them in the process of being and becoming, hoping that these revelations can teach us how we got here and prophesy where we’ll end up if we’re not careful” (Mountford et al. 60). What followed was a reference to Burke’s use of “generating principle” in Grammar, so that’s where I turned next.

Without an explicit definition of generative or generating principles from my search across Burke’s texts, I chose to develop a working definition by tracking conceptual articulations. Tracking conceptual articulations “involves identifying the commonalities and differences that exist between divergent applications of a common concept,” and accounting for the perspectival specificities that lead to these commonalities and differences (Jensen 2). Taking this approach to appearances of “generative principles” across texts reveals catalogues of concepts defined as generative principles (see Blakesley, The Elements of Dramatism), including common rhetorical heuristics for invention, “which reveal or create knowledge about the world that has already been there even if inaccessible or unnoticed” (Blakesley, “Composing the Un/Real Future” 10). In this sense, principles are “permanent” (Mountford et al. 61) terminological origins (Burke, A Grammar of Motives 52) that generate and can be discerned from terminologies, like the five key terms of the pentad qua principles through which a “work could be considered as theoretically ‘derived’ (‘generated’) from the formal principles . . . the text could be said to have been ‘prophesied after the event’” (Burke, “Questions and Answers about the Pentad” 332). The characteristic of permanence is significant as it appears to mark a delineation between generating and generative principles.

Burke’s articulations draw an ambiguous distinction between generating and generative principles that elaborates the treatments of principles in permanent and universal terms. Burke’s descriptions of the pentad in Grammar and his 1978 article, “Questions and Answers about the Pentad,” in College Composition and Communication mark a moment of ambiguity in his use of generative and generating principles. In Grammar, Burke compares the “use of the pentad as a generating principle” to Kantian transcendentalism through a mutual concern with essential forms of human experience (402; emphasis added), whereas he explicitly classifies the pentad as a “generative principle” in the 1978 article in contrast to William F. Irmscher’s uses of the key terms “as suggestions for generating a topic” (“Questions and Answers about the Pentad” 332; emphasis added). The “context-specific histories” (Jensen 2) of these conceptual articulations elaborate Burke’s work to identify the pentad with established principles in Grammar, as he is developing dramatism, and his division from Irmscher’s interpretation from the perspective of 1978. In other words, tracking the commonalities and differences between these two conceptual articulations enables working definitions of generative principles as permanent or accepted as universally applicable for generating insights in general, and generating principles as principles in the process of becoming or “key terms or propositions” that may be universally applied “in principle.”

The inherent ambiguity of the term “principle” leads to its exploitation and invites rhetorical theorists to elaborate the ambiguity of generating principles in their process of becoming accepted as “universally valid.” Burke describes rhetorical exploitations of principle in terms of substance, or a term that can “express a state of considerable vagueness in the imposing accents of a juridic solidity” (A Grammar of Motives 52). By claiming that a proposition is true “in principle,” one “can characterize as ‘universally valid’ a proposition that may in fact be denied by whole classes of people” (ibid). Rhetorical theorizing can elaborate the ambiguity of principles (for an example in terms of generating principles, see Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives 5), and intervene in the process of generating principles becoming accepted as “universally valid” at the expense of more generative and applicable principles. However, in the absence of “telltale expressions . . . such as ‘substantially,’ ‘essentially,’ ‘in principle,’ or ‘in the long run’” (A Grammar of Motives 52–53), tracking terminologies to their generating principles becomes more challenging.

To better understand how implicit uses of “in principle” manifest in explicit claims, I focus on two concepts that appear in close proximity to Burke’s discussion of “in principle”: Essence, where “in principle” and “essentially” offer a similar ambiguity of substance; and temporality, as the term principle “is literally a ‘first,’ as we realize when we recall its etymological descent from a word meaning: beginning, commencement, origin” (ibid 52). These two concepts also appear in proximity to an articulation of generating principle in Grammar: “[W]hen you consider a thing just as it is, with the being of one part involved in the being of its other parts, and with all the parts derived from the being of the whole considered as a generating principle there is nothing but a ‘present tense’ involved here, or better a ‘tenselessness,’ even though the thing thus dealt with arises in time and passes with time” (ibid 466). In this example, “the eternity of art” (ibid 465) is the generating principle, or a key term or proposition (ibid 403), that is essentially manifest in a temporally and physically-specific “thing” that is described as art, in principle.

Attention to rhetorical exploitations of essence and temporality provide opportunities to discount terminologies “in a social historical texture” (Burke, Attitudes Toward History 245) and “work backward” to their generating principles. To be clear, this is not the only, or likely even the best, approach for tracking implicit generating principles and my goal with this conceptual articulation is “not [to] insist that one perspective reign over another” (Jensen 2). Instead this is an effort to “multiply scholarly perspectives” (ibid) on the concepts of generative and generating principles and elaborate the ambiguity of the debate on nuclear weapons. Tracking down generating principles in the nuclear weapons debate by attending to exploitations of essence and temporality invites attention to origins and endings narratives and the concept of “temporizing of essence.”

Generating principles in the nuclear weapons debate can be discerned in terms of attributions of essential motives in the origins and endings narratives for nuclear policy. Burke outlines these essentializing/narrativizing processes as ones that abstract a temporal narrative of origin or ending as the philosophical “essence of a thing” (A Rhetoric of Motives 13). These philosophical terms become “fixities . . . if they are stated abstractly enough” and can then be reversed into a temporal narrative to characterize a present moment (ibid 14) through a strategy Burke defines as the “temporizing of essence” (ibid 13). In other words, the origin and/or ending narrative of nuclear policy is abstracted as the essence of nuclear policy, or nuclear policy in principle, and this principle generates the temporized terms in contemporary debates on nuclear weapons.

The detonation of the first atomic weapons, either during the Trinity Test in Alamogordo, NM or the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, can be narrativized as both the origin and the ending (or culmination) of nuclear policy, whereby the use of these weapons in war becomes the essence of nuclear policy. In this case, the generating principle is the principle of use, which is treated as the essential and logical priority of nuclear policy and generates the temporal terms for nuclear policy’s past, present, and future. As International Relations scholar, Laura Considine, argues in her analysis of nuclear origin narratives, “the relationship between logical and temporal priority exist simultaneously, and . . . past, present, and future all imply each other” (5) and, while Considine’s argument is grounded in Burke’s uses of entelechy, the terms generated from this logical-temporal relationship can be interpreted as derivations from a generating principle, in this case, the principle of use. Further, as generating principles can easily be characterized as universally valid: “Changing nuclear politics,” to borrow another useful insight from Considine, “cannot mean starting from the same point and contesting nuclear meaning from within the logic established by the story of nuclear creation . . . Attempts at change that accept the nuclear beginning and its attendant nuclear meaning are circumscribed by its implications so that . . . the space for policy—and I would add activism—shrinks” (15). Because the principle of existence broadens perspectives on nuclear policy’s origins, ends, and essence, arguments in terms generated from this principle have the potential to shift the logical priority of nuclear policy.

The principle of existence articulates the essence of nuclear policy in terms of the development and existence of nuclear weapons, thereby decentralizing the origin and ending narratives circumscribed by, and which conversely reinscribe, the terms of the principle of use. Narrating the origin of nuclear policy as the development of the first nuclear weapon during the Manhattan Project, which is temporally and logically prior to detonation, elaborates a “time-essence ambiguity” (Burke, A Grammar of Motives 439 in the origins and endings narratives and the philosophical essence of nuclear policy. There is evidence to support an origin narrative in terms of the principle of existence, as Manhattan Project physicist Frank Oppenheimer recalls in the documentary The Day After Trinity: While the Project was initially motivated by “anti-fascist fervor against Germany,” after the announcement of German surrender on VE Day, “nobody slowed up one little bit . . . we all kept working and it wasn’t because we understood the significance against Japan, it was because the machinery had caught us in a trap and we were anxious to get this thing to go” (Else). This marks a crucial moment in nuclear policy during which the motivation of using the weapon in war was thoroughly displaced by the motivation to continue development for the sake of the weapon’s existence.

If the development and existence of nuclear weapons are abstracted and essentialized, to the point that the existence (or inexistence) of nuclear weapons becomes the philosophical essence of nuclear policy, then the terms from this generating principle also elaborate ambiguity in the ending narrative of nuclear policy in a manner that is unavailable through the terms of the principle of use. In other words, as ending narratives are driven by the entelechial principle toward perfection, perfection of the terms derived from the principle of use is through use whereby the threat to human survival would be negated through global nuclear annihilation (see Brummett). On the other hand, perfecting the terms derived from the principle of existence offers the potential for negation as well, though this time through the negation of nuclear weapons through global nuclear disarmament which also eliminates the threat that these weapons pose to human survival (though without necessarily negating human survival). Thus, the principle of existence decenters use in war as the origin, ending, and essence of nuclear policy and increases the available terms for debates on nuclear weapons.

Elaborating the ambiguity of essential claims in debates on nuclear weapons can broaden perspectives on the origin and ending narratives of nuclear policy. Tracking down these essential claims offers an avenue for theorizing generating principles, which is a valuable approach for better understanding “how we got here,” and “prophesy[ing] where we’ll end up if we’re not careful” (Mountford et al. 60). The following sections focus on specific arguments in the nuclear weapons debate and demonstrate how the principle of use and the principle of existence are implicitly manifest in their terms.

“Modernization” for “Great Power Competition” through a Xenophobic-Economic Dialectic

The US is poised to complete a Nuclear Posture Review by the end of 2021. These “legislatively-mandated” reviews occur every five to ten years and establish US “nuclear policy, strategy, capabilities and force posture” (“Nuclear Posture Review”). One of the anticipated outcomes of the review is approval of the US nuclear weapons “modernization” project (Lopez), which includes the Department of Energy’s (DOE) plan to “life extend and produce warheads and bombs” (Nuclear Triad). The term modernization sanitizes the proposed project, by acting as a terministic screen that deflects terms like nuclear rearmament and weapons development while emphasizing ideas aligned with renovation, which is a strategy of rhetorical bureaucratization. According to Edward Schiappa, rhetorical bureaucratization works “either to sanitize the [nuclear policy] concept so that it appears neutral and inoffensive, or to technologize the concept by applying technical terms or acronyms that only insiders or ‘experts’ can ‘really’ understand” (256–57), while granting “the nuclear policy making bureaucracy . . . a privileged status because the lower ‘class’ (i.e., the general public) is disenfranchised from the decision-making language” (257). While these rhetorical strategies deter public engagement, nuclear policy is not impervious to public pressure and proponents of the “modernization” project must draw on additional rhetorical resources to maintain public ambivalence.

This section outlines the shift from technologizing to sanitizing terminology using the proposed “modernization” of the intercontinental ballistic missile stockpile as an example and situates this terminological shift and the concurrent uses of terms drawn from a xenophobic-economic dialectic as derivations from the principle of use with the effect of distancing the public from nuclear policy decision making and maintaining an ambivalent public attitude toward nuclear weapons.

A key element of the proposed “modernization” is to replace the current intercontinental ballistic missiles, trading out the LGM-30G Minuteman III for the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent. The LGM-30G clearly technologizes the specific characteristics of these weapons through “insider” coding (see “LGM-30G Minuteman III”), though the term “minuteman” maintains the association of this nuclear weapon with use in a military conflict (i.e., ready to strike at any minute). By contrast, the transition to the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent thoroughly sanitizes this association by making these weapons appear literally “inoffensive.” Senator John Cornyn makes this clear while advocating for the “modernization” project in a conversation with the Hudson Institute’s Tim Morrison: “Deterrence is our key reason for our nuclear stockpile . . . It is to keep the peace, it is not to make war” (“Senator John Cornyn”). In other words, the proposed nuclear rearmament, when framed through “modernization” as deterrence, is neither defensive nor aggressive. It is simply the “neutral” and routine business of nuclear policymakers under the banner of public safety. And while all the terms in this proposal derive from the principle of use, this shift allays public fears of the immediacy of a nuclear weapons strike while rendering these nuclear weapons as benign but essential for maintaining global “peace,” thereby simultaneously garnering public support and minimizing public input on nuclear policy.

Bureaucratizing the terms in the proposed nuclear rearmament project (i.e., “modernization,” “LGM-30G Minuteman III,” and “Ground Based Strategic Deterrent”) serves a dual public function in terms of the principle of use. “Deterrence” polls high among members of the public, with a 2019 University of Maryland study finding “[e]ight in ten or more” bipartisan respondents supporting “the US having a retaliatory nuclear capability” to deter a nuclear attack (Kull et al. 3), and a 2021 report by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies finding 91% support among voters for nuclear deterrence (Mitchell Institute Staff). By contrast, questions framed in terms of intercontinental ballistic missiles, even in terms of “modernization,” are far less popular, as a 2020 Federation of American Scientists’ survey found that the majority of Americans favor eliminating the intercontinental ballistic missile stockpile (Korda and White 6). In turn, using “deterrence” to thoroughly sanitize the terminological associations of nuclear conflict works to “mystify—to render [this] nuclear policy irrelevant or inaccessible to public investigation and deliberation” (Schiappa 257), as the new Ground Based Strategic Deterrent can be seen as the unambiguous key to preventing nuclear war in a “neutral” and “inoffensive” way. The work of rhetorical bureaucratization highlights the significance of public pressure on nuclear policymakers through its work of deflection. While (dis-)use in war is the generating principle, or essential motive, from which these bureaucratizing terms are generated, this deflection work is contingent on a nuclear threat to deter lest public suspicions of the ambiguity of this essential motive gain traction.

In a public address after troops were pulled from Afghanistan at the end of August 2021, President Biden outlines the U.S. foreign policy shift from the Global War on Terror to Great Power Competition. In the final ten minutes of the speech, Biden declares: “Here’s a critical thing to understand. The world is changing. We’re engaged in a serious competition with China, we’re dealing with challenges on multiple fronts with Russia. We’re confronted with cyberattacks and nuclear proliferation. We have to ensure America is competitive to meet these new challenges in the competition for the 21st century” (CPR News Staff and The Associated Press). The proposed nuclear rearmament (i.e., modernization) is one part of the plan to stay “competitive” with China and Russia; however, mounting concerns over an expensive nuclear arms race (for examples, see Grego; Kluth; Borger; Roblin; W. Hartung; “Delegates Voice Concern”) requires a strategic balancing of terms generated from the principle of use to foster general public support for the proposed project while dampening public pressure for either nuclear conflict or disarmament. The resulting terms lead to a xenophobic-economic dialectic.

The shift toward Great Power Competition is currently inseparable from a resurgence of xenophobic rhetorics of division. In a speech at the Royal Army Mildenhall in England, prior to the 2021 G7 and NATO summits, Biden reaffirmed clear divisions between Western democracies and Eastern autocracies and dictatorships: “We have to discredit those who believe that the age of democracy is over as some of our fellow nations believe. We have to expose as false, the narrative that decrees of dictators can match the speed and scale of the 21st [century] challenges” (CNBC Television). The proclaimed threat to Western civilization (i.e., democracies) recalls the principle of use’s origin narrative for nuclear policy: “[A]nti-fascist fervor against Germany,” and the threat that Hitler posed to “Western civilization” (Else), while temporizing its essence in the contemporary context of Great Power Competition. As House Armed Services Committee Chair, Adam Smith, explains: “The American people are painfully easy to scare . . . And one thing they’re scared of is Russia and China, you know, outdoing us in nuclear weapons . . . and obliterating us” (Armed Services Committee). And while fears of Russian threats to US democracy are fresh in the public imagination, the nuclear history and treaties between the two nations have shifted attention toward aggressively stoking xenophobic divisions with China, which may lead to deadly consequences for Chinese and Asian Americans.

Public support for “modernization” requires a credible threat to deter and, currently, that threat is located in China. In spite of the fact that reports of the Chinese government’s plan “[to] double the number of nuclear warheads it possesses” (“Senator John Cornyn”), leaves them with over a thousand fewer nuclear weapons than either the US or Russia (“Status of World Nuclear Forces”), journalists and policymakers are heightening this threat through xenophobic rhetorics of division in terms of literacy and communication. As Washington Post foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius writes in an opinion piece, “[d]uring the Cold War, the United States and Russia developed a language for thinking about nuclear weapons and deterrence. Leaders of both countries understood the horrors of nuclear war and sought predictability and stability in nuclear policy. China lacks such a vocabulary for thinking about the unthinkable.” Along similar lines, US national security advisor Jake Sullivan highlights “the formal strategic stability dialogue” with Russia, “[t]hat is far more mature, has a deeper history to it. There’s less maturity to that in the U.S.-China relationship” (Brunnstrom et al.). These xenophobic divisions in terms of communication, whether in terms of nuclear illiteracy or a lack of mature dialogue, ring a bit oddly in terms of nuclear “stability,” particularly in the context of the Chinese government’s 1964 declaration of an “unconditional no-first use policy” (Pan) and the U.S. strategy of calculated ambiguity through which the U.S. “has pledged to refrain from using nuclear weapons against most non-nuclear weapon states, but has neither ruled out their first use in all cases nor specified the circumstances under which it would use them” (Woolf). Spreading fears of a nuclear threat posed by China through xenophobic divisions, if unabated, has the potential to further escalate the already rising occurrences of violence against Chinese and Asian Americans (“Hate Crime 2020”) and to generate public pressure for a preemptive nuclear strike against China. To counter this rise of xenophobic rhetoric, Smith proposes a shift toward economic arguments which have the potential to, to borrow Burke’s language, if not “avoid the holocaust” at least forestall it through nuclear policymakers “getting sufficiently in one another’s road, so that there’s not enough ‘symmetrical perfection’ among the contestants to set up the ‘right’ alignment and touch it off” (Language as Symbolic Action 20).

Smith’s economic argument is simple: Money spent on nuclear weapons is money that can’t be spent on something else. Smith identifies this as the common ground that unites all nuclear policymakers: “[P]eople don’t want to spend more money than we have to” (Armed Services Committee). And while he makes it clear that the proposed nuclear rearmament is a result of bipartisan consensus, he sees promise in assuaging fears of an expensive nuclear arms race (spurred by xenophobic divisions) by making “the case that we can meet our needs in nuclear weapons in an affordable way that frees up more money for other things” (ibid). The Nobel Prize winning organization, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), takes up this line of argument in a 2021 report: “During the worst pandemic in a century, nine countries chose to increase their spending on nuclear weapons by about $1,400,000,000. During a year when health care workers got applause instead of raises. A year in which it was essential to have minimum wage workers risk their lives to keep economies afloat, but not essential to pay them a living wage” (International Campaign). And while ICAN and other nuclear disarmament groups and activists have taken this a step further, driving attention to the cycle of money and influence between nuclear policy think tanks, lobbyists, weapons manufacturers, and nuclear policymakers (International Campaign; Winograd and Benjamin; Hartung), these arguments are not likely to persuade nuclear policymakers to support nuclear disarmament as Smith makes clear: “Obviously, if there was no such thing as nuclear weapons, that would be great, they’d be gone from the world, and we wouldn’t have to worry about it. But you can’t un-ring the bell” (Armed Services Committee). It is because of the pervasiveness of the principle of use as the terminological foundation for the essence of nuclear policymaking in the past, present, and future that nuclear policymakers can casually dismiss arguments for nuclear disarmament in these terms.

The principle of use provides terms for the current xenophobic-economic dialectic in the public-facing arguments on the proposed nuclear weapons rearmament (“modernization”). Arguments drawn from these terms can, at best, prevent global nuclear annihilation through “bits of political patchwork here and there, with alliances falling sufficiently on the bias across one another” (Burke, Language as Symbolic Action 20), while potentially making the U.S. nuclear stockpile more affordable to “modernize” and maintain. However, promising arguments for nuclear disarmament are currently emerging through terms drawn from the principle of existence. Rather than the detonation of the first nuclear weapons in war, either during the Trinity Test or the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, these arguments take the development of nuclear weapons as the origin narrative of nuclear policy and thereby situate these weapons’ existence as its essence. In turn, like the arguments in the contemporary xenophobic-economic dialectic, the success of arguments from the principle of existence is contingent on temporizing this essence through persuasive characterizations of present (and future) conditions, for which nuclear disarmament activists are turning to the environment.

Nuclear Accidents and “Nuclear Frontline Communities”: Temporizing Arguments for Nuclear Disarmament

Nuclear disarmament activists are temporizing their arguments in terms of the principle of use through attention to the unpredictability of climate change in the 21st C and to the communities most impacted by nuclear weapons development. While discussions of the connections between nuclear weapons and climate change have a long history (Batten; Lewis; U.S. Arms Control), popularized through phrases like “nuclear winter” (Turco et al.), these are predominately focused on the climate impact of the use of nuclear weapons in war and/or the increasing likelihood of nuclear war as a result of climate change (Korda; Sanders-Zakre; Liska et al.). By contrast, nuclear disarmament arguments in terms of the principle of existence destabilize the notion that the only threats posed by these weapons is their use in war and are the focus of this section. I argue that by highlighting the increasing unpredictability of climate change, activists may gain traction with arguments on the increasing likelihood of devastating nuclear accidents. Further, by situating the origin of nuclear policy in weapons development, activists can centralize impacted communities in the debate; however, borrowing terms from the principle of use may hamper these efforts. Through these approaches, nuclear disarmament activists can temporize the essence of nuclear policy in terms of the existence of nuclear weapons while leveraging the salience of NIM(Global)BY, which invites more public participation than arguments derived from the principle of use and multiplies the possibilities for ending narratives for nuclear policy.

The potential for unpredictable environmental events resulting in nuclear accidents can be traced to an origin narrative prior to any nuclear detonation. “The prediction was that there’d be 60-mile visibility and a certain wind pattern,” explains Manhattan Project physicist I. I. Rabi, describing the lead-up to the Trinity Test: “Well, at midnight, it was raining cats and dogs, and lightning and thunder, really scared about [sic] this object there in the tower might be set off accidentally” (Else). And while the instability of the atomic bomb at the Trinity Test site is an exceptional case and nuclear facilities have been designed to protect the weapons, raw materials, and waste from weather events, “[a]ll of these [nuclear] structures were built on the presumption of a stable planet” (Hill qtd. in D’Agostino). Susan D’Agostino, editor at the Bulletin, highlights the contemporary climate instability with the example of the rapid succession of “once-in-2,000-year” floods, occurring in 2010 and 2017, that “inundated a plutonium storage area at the Pantex Plant” in Amarillo, TX, “where US nuclear weapons are assembled and taken apart.” If the floods “corrode” the plutonium canisters, this could result in a nuclear accident. This parallels an argument made in a 2016 report by the World Future Council (WFC): “[E]xtreme weather events, environmental degradation and major seismic events can directly impact the safety and security of nuclear installations” (“Examining the Interplay”). Whether categorically for or against nuclear disarmament, this line of argument operates from the principle of existence and is temporized to account for current conditions. In Burkeian terms, temporizing arguments enables activists to “recruit on a day-to-day basis allies who would be against him if he upheld his position in the absolute . . . by translating his categorical beliefs into the terms of ever-changing conditions” (A Grammar of Motives 440). The “ever-changing conditions” presented by climate change provide fertile ground for nuclear disarmament activists to temporize their arguments and recruit functional allies by shifting focus from the dangers of using nuclear weapons in war to the dangers that their existence present in the current context of radical climate change. And while climate change is becoming difficult to contest in the wake increasingly devastating weather events, another environmental argument for nuclear disarmament is emerging that does not depend on categorical support for climate change-based arguments.

Arguments from the principle of existence through attention to the environmental impacts of nuclear weapons on predominately BIPOC communities invites shifting perspectives on the origin narrative and essence of nuclear policy. Discussing the “myth of the Trinity Test” as the nascent event of nuclear policy, Considine argues that “[t]his focus leads to a reduction of the multiple meanings of nuclear programmes into the fetishized outcome of the weapon and the test” (16), and that, by contrast, “[t]his history could be told as beginning in multiple places and times: in the story of the colonization of the (now) Democratic Republic of the Congo, where uranium for the first bombs would be mined by forced workers for example, or in the displacement of Pueblo Indians from the land of Los Alamos” (ibid). Matt Korda, research associate for the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, echoes this line of argument in explicitly environmental terms: “[E]ven during peacetime, decades of uranium mining, nuclear testing, and nuclear waste dumping have contaminated some of our planet’s ecosystems beyond repair, displacing entire communities—often communities of color—in the process.” Rooting the origin and essence of nuclear policymaking in the development and existence of nuclear weapons centralizes impacted communities in the debate and provides an avenue for ally recruitment through successful temporizing. However, borrowing terms from the principle of use for these specific arguments may be counterproductive.

Many contemporary arguments on the environmental and resulting health impacts of nuclear weapons development terminologically straddle the two generating principles discussed in this essay while explicitly demonstrating attempts to shift toward the principle of existence. Communities impacted by nuclear weapons development, including raw material and waste storage, transportation, etc., are referred to by many activist organizations as “nuclear frontline communities” (Wolfe; “Support Justice”; Adams; Montgomery; “RTT”; “Nuclear Voices”). The political action and community outreach organization, Nuclear Voices, defines nuclear frontline communities as, “[t]hose who are most directly impacted and harmed by nuclear weapons, especially through weapons production, testing, and waste clean-up/storage. They generally have faced, and often continue to face, the highest levels of exposure to radiation and other toxins, and will suffer disproportionate health, environmental, and cultural harms” (“Nuclear Voices”). A potential issue with the use of the term “frontline” is its adherence to the terms of the principle of use.

While these arguments clearly derive their terms from the principle of existence, maintaining militaristic terms generated from the principle of use risks rendering the impacted and predominately BIPOC communities as necessary sacrifices for national security. Yasmeen Silva, activist with the grassroots organization Beyond the Bomb, temporizes this line of argument in the context of the proposed “modernization,” explaining that the nuclear waste that will be produced will likely be stored in BIPOC communities that are already facing the devastating impacts of previous nuclear development projects. Silva refers to these communities as both “nuclear frontline” and “impacted” (CODEPINK). While the term “frontline” is evocative, it offers a convenient terminological bridge to terms generated from the principle of use and may hinder efforts to shift the essence and origin and ending narratives of nuclear policy toward the more expansive terms offered by the principle of existence. The term “impacted,” by contrast, presents less of a risk of rhetorically drafting members of these communities to the cause of nuclear deterrence and, in turn, provides a stronger foundation for public participation and NIM(Global)BY arguments in the nuclear weapons debate.

Environmental arguments from the principle of existence, in terms accidents caused by the unpredictability of climate change and the devastating environmental and health consequences of nuclear weapons development, have the potential to radically impact nuclear policy debates and public opinion on the proposed nuclear “modernization” project. From the flooding of the Pantex site to the escalating wildfires in the Western US, which have spread radioactive materials from the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (Kaltofen et al.) and the Los Alamos National Laboratory (D’Agostino; Wyland), it is clear that the current climate is inhospitable to the existence of nuclear weapons. Further, the impacts of nuclear weapons development at its various stages (Janavayev et al.; Kyne and Bolin; Maurer and Hogue; Peyton) highlight the immediate threat posed by projects like the proposed “modernization” that are required to maintain their existence. As William D. Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy, puts it: “[Nuclear weapons are] killing people without even being used” (CODEPINK). Further, when these two arguments are taken together, they have the potential to impact public opinion by leveraging the salience of NIMBY.

Climate caused nuclear accidents expand the perimeters of impacted communities. For example, radioactive particles have been detected in California wines following the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant accident (Pravikoff and Hubert), and the increasing severity and consistency of major climate events increases the likelihood of major nuclear accidents impacting larger populations. Highlighting the unpredictability of these events and the consequences that impacted communities already face has the potential to drive public pressure through the salience of NIM(Global)BY and thereby provide nuclear disarmament activists with a point of entry into the proposed (and bureaucratized) “modernization” debate.

However, while the terms generated from the principle of use are derivatives of the principle of existence, borrowing use-based terms for arguments that seek to broaden perspectives on the dangers of nuclear weapons risk subsumption. Thus, careful attention must be paid to essentializing claims in the nuclear weapons debate, and these implicit or explicit claims offer cues for rhetoricians to theorize the generating principles in their process of becoming accepted as universally valid.


If the principle of use is accepted as a universally valid principle in the debate on nuclear weapons in 2021, the proposed nuclear weapons “modernization” project and continued U.S. rejection of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) are likely inevitable. However, if arguments from the principle of existence can gain traction in debates on nuclear rearmament and the TPNW, there is potential for a future without nuclear weapons. While the principle of use is currently being temporized through a xenophobic-economic dialectic, establishing a threat to deter while attempting to lower the price tag and defer an expensive (and unpopular) nuclear arms race, contemporary environmental arguments from the principle of existence center the previously unfathomable risked of nuclear accidents posed by climate change and the deadly consequences of nuclear development in predominately BIPOC communities. Shifting away from ending narratives in terms of the principle of use, or global nuclear annihilation, requires expanding the available terms through which members of the public and nuclear policymakers imagine and talk about the threat of nuclear weapons. As Brummett argues, “what people are motivated to do with nuclear weapons is directly related to what they say about them, and that is the perfect entrée for the communication scholar to serve as social critic. For people may be taught to speak differently” (93). The principle of existence offers an example of a generating principle that facilitates this broadening of terms and perspectives.

A role that rhetoric scholars can play in this debate, as participants in civic life, is working to theorize the generating principles from which the terms of nuclear arguments are derived. This essay has focused on two potential cues for tracking these principles from their terms: Rhetorical exploitations of essence and temporality. Tracking implicit and explicit claims of essence through observing patterns in contemporary arguments can reveal how these essential claims are temporized to characterize the past, present, and future of nuclear policy simultaneously, and thereby provide insights into the generating principles. By engaging at the level of generating principles, it becomes easier to unpack the implicit assumptions in specific arguments, to test the validity of these assumptions, and to shift the terms in the debate on nuclear weapons to account for the variety of conflicting perspectives.

What follows is an audio/visual experiment that accounts for terms generated by both the principle of use and the principle of existence while highlighting the very real horrors that have been experienced and that lie ahead if the ending of nuclear policy is narrated exclusively in terms of the principle of use. This experiment is motivated by Brummett’s call for balancing nuclear vocabularies as an act of “professional responsibility to use knowledge in public service” (93) and by Burke’s meditation on the capacity for human mistakes, through the “creativity of our [technological] contrivances,” to end life on this planet: “As regards at least the obligations of rhetorical creativity, it is not enough that comments on a deplorable situation be relevant. Troubles need but go on being what they are; yet talk about them must continually be born anew, lest the sheer mention of the problem but reinforce our boredom with its persistence” (On Human Nature: A Gathering While Everything Flows, 1967–1984 42).

Description: An audio/visual experiment that blends documentary footage from The Day After Trinity with a comfortable, underlying rhythm and discordant sounds and voices to enmesh the audience in terms generated by both the principle of use and the principle of existence. Visuals juxtapose bureaucratic images of nuclear weapons against the consequences of their use to highlight the very real horrors that have already been experienced and that lie ahead if the ending of nuclear policy is narrated exclusively in terms of the principle of use.

Credits/Permission: The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and The Atomic Bomb. DVD, Pyramid Films, 1981.  Permission for use granted by Jon Else (director).

Special Thanks: I owe a debt of gratitude to Jon Else for his permission to use these audio/visual clips for this project, sincerely, thank you.  Additionally, a very special thank you to Shauna Chung for graciously composing the violin track and lending her voice to the cacophony.  To the rest of the cacophony choir (Diane Quaglia-Beltran, Eric Hamilton, Jack [Syrup-in-a-Can] Griggs, Amanda Musick, Brooke Day, Jack Hunter, Lana Woodruff, Deb Geller, Bob Hunter, and Matthew Downing), thank you for responding to my odd request and making this project possible.

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