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Patricia Bass: Talking nukes with George H.W. Bush

  • Vice President George Bush addresses a news conference at the American Embassy in London on Feb. 10, 1983, on the final day of his seven-nation tour of European capitals. He said that the "Zero Option" for eliminating U.S. and Soviet mid-range missiles in Europe remained an objective of NATO. AP



For the Monitor
Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Such a coincidence! Today, Dec. 5, the day declared to honor George H.W. Bush, is also my 88th birthday. It jogs my memory back to two encounters I had with Bush back in the 1980s when I was a much younger activist in the peace movement and he was campaigning on Main Street here in Concord, first for vice president with Ronald Reagan and later for his own presidency.

I was just going into my N.H. Peace Action office on Main Street when I spied him coming down the sidewalk on my side of the street, glad-handing anyone who would stop to talk to him. In those days candidates for high office were so much more accessible. I waited till he came by me and stuck out my hand. He shook it warmly.

“Mr. Bush,” I said (he was not vice president yet). “I’m really worried about so many nuclear weapons. Don’t you think we have enough already?”

Bush, still holding my hand, thought for a long moment. Then, releasing me, he pointed a long, well-manicured first finger at my face and said, “I am briefed on these matters every day by the CIA” and rattled off a list of agencies and Cabinet members that I can’t recall now. “Little lady, I think you’ll just have to trust me on this one.”

A few years later, he was again campaigning on Main Street when our paths crossed a second time. Again, he took my hand warmly and held it all the while. I said, “Mr. Vice President, I’m really worried about so many nuclear weapons. Don’t you think we have enough already?”

Again he thought a long moment, then pointed his finger at me and said, “As vice president I am briefed every day about nuclear weapons and all those matters. Little lady, I think you’ll just have to trust me on this one.”

Ah, but I was a slow bloomer back then in my middle 50s. The finger and the “little lady” bothered me only a little. It was the same “trust me” answer twice that outraged me into action. And then, in 1991, President George H.W. Bush negotiated the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the Russians.

I like to think that Bush heard my voice way back then, and millions of others like mine, and that he came to understand that the world required more than a pledge of “trust me.” Sometimes it feels like we were safer then from nuclear war than we are now.

It takes a long time for an idea to rise up to broad public acceptance. We have to keep working on this; have to keep cherishing our institutions for peace; have to keep raising our voices for the idea of a world free of the potential for nuclear war.

(Patricia Bass lives in Concord.)