Global Civil Society Versus Planetary Annihilation: The Chronicle of Challenge

September 1, 2009

ReviewsBy Tom H. Hastings

Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, by Lawrence S. Wittner, Stanford University Press, 2009, 254 pages, paper

Lawrence S. Wittner embodies two roles to me. First, he is a first-rate academic historian, a scholar whose work defies what academicians call validity threats. That is a good thing, because he needs that in order to continue surviving in his second role that I find especially exemplary; he is a public scholar whose work challenges those who are in power and empowers”and challenges” those who work from the grassroots.

In his latest book, Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, Wittner gives us something no one has ever shown us. He chronicles how global civil society grew its own capacity to stop the rulers “in democracies and dictatorships alike” from firing the omnicidal weaponry the rulers developed.

If you’ve ever signed a petition, voted against nukes in a referendum, been to an anti-nuclear demonstration, written a letter opposing any piece of the nuclear arsenal, gone to visit a politician to lobby against any atomic bomb component, or been arrested for your nonviolent refusal to let them do this bad business in your name, this book is for you. As someone who has done all of the above, I was on the verge of tears to realize that we were able to do so much to hold back the power mongers for so long — and also that we stopped short so many times of the final push necessary to rid our world of these devices before they rid the world of us.

In 2001, Steve Breyman put forward a cogent thesis in his book Why Movements Matter about how a particular campaign in West Germany helped to force the historic signing of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty in December 1987 and how that, in turn, affected the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War — finally documenting and crediting the role of the civil society in bringing about the conclusion of the long and dangerous superpower stand-off. It was a real back-straightener for those of us who had been hyperactivists in the 1980s.

Now, in 2009, Wittner extends and expands that model to the secret struggle of scientists before the public knew about the Bomb — indeed, before it existed in anything but theory — through the long global civil society struggle to keep the rulers from actually using these tools of annihilation again. Yes, Wittner had produced most of this research, and more, but it was exhaustively scholarly and far less accessible to the average activist or student. This masterful work does in 223 pages what I have wanted done for decades — he shows conclusively that our letter-writing parties, our countless hours standing outside the supermarket with a clipboard of petitions, our quixotic willingness to spend nights in jail for offering up our soft little bodies in nonviolent resistance to the Ultimate Destroyer — those sacrifices, those offerings we made on the altar of peace did in fact alter events.

Extreme ideologues will be disappointed in Wittner’s failure to toe any party line. He roots out specious government-backed programs that demand disarmament from one superpower rather than both and shows us how to avoid making false arguments that are dismissible as propaganda. For example, the famous Stockholm Petition that was supposedly signed by hundreds of millions of people was a Soviet initiative that claimed signatures of entire populations of entire countries — a bogus bit of ideological claptrap that would make us look less than informed if we were to use it (as I ignorantly did years ago) as evidence that the world is against nuclear weapons.

Similarly, he exegetes U.S. proposals for disarmament that were cynically self-serving of the ruling elites and that would have both frozen asymmetric power structures while denying nuclear weapons to others.

In the end, he gives us our hearts back if we worked on some aspect of this world issue in the 1950s when we stayed the atomic hand of the US in Korea, and when merely speaking out was enough to earn opprobrium as a “Red,” or in the 60s when we didn’t realize we stopped atomic warfare over Cuba and Vietnam, in the 70s when we began to regroup after the exhaustion of fighting against the war in Vietnam, in the 80s when we laid our bodies on the line in record numbers and wondered if we did much good, in the 90s when those of us who stayed active didn’t know if anyone cared, and up to the present, where we find ourselves in a world that has survived due to our efforts and will only live on if we insist that it be able to.

We have been the largest mass movement in history, however much disjointed, waxing and waning, and only really active in times of crisis. We are global. We have utilized our intelligentsia (such as Wittner) and we have educated ourselves and each other with their help. We have enabled those rulers who were inclined toward our peaceful wishes — e.g. Nehru, Palme, Kennedy, Gorbachev and others —and we have forced those rulers who were against us — Reagan, Nixon, Brezhnev, Thatcher and more — to hold back from waging war with weapons that we have made unthinkable.

Wittner concludes on a note of cautious optimism. Will we do what needs to be done to prevent the ultimate use of nukes — that is, essentially strip nation-states of some of their sovereignty in order to prevent this apparently inevitable eventuality? He is sure we can, and hopes we will.Φ

Tom Hastings is a peace educator and former Associate Editor of The PeaceWorker.

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