[Note: This is the text of a talk delivered by Dr. Wittner in May 2013 to the Canadian Network to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, Ottawa.]
What accounts for the fact that, since 1945, the world has avoided nuclear war? After all, a nation that has developed weapons generally uses them in its wars. For example, immediately after the US government succeeded in building nuclear weapons, it used them to destroy Japanese cities. Furthermore, a nation that has devoted vast resources to developing weapons does not usually get rid of them—at least until it develops more powerful weapons.
But, since August 1945, no nation has used nuclear weapons to attack another, and only a relatively small number of nations have chosen to build them. Also, those nations that have developed nuclear weapons have gravitated toward nuclear arms control and disarmament measures: a Partial Test Ban Treaty; Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties; Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties; and a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Why have they adopted these policies of nuclear restraint?
The conventional explanation is that the danger posed by nuclear weapons has “deterred” nations from waging nuclear war and, overall, has created a situation of nuclear safety. There has been “peace through strength.” But this explanation fails to account for some important developments. Since 1945, nuclear powers have not waged nuclear war against non-nuclear powers. Sometimes, in their confrontation with non-nuclear powers, they have suffered military defeat rather than resort to nuclear war. Why? Moreover, if nuclear deterrence works, why bother with nuclear arms control and disarmament treaties? Why bother with missile defense systems? Why worry about nuclear proliferation? Why not simply build, test, and deploy nuclear weapons, free of international constraints?
These unanswered questions suggest that something is missing from the conventional explanation.
I suggest to you that the missing ingredient is a massive grassroots movement: one that has mobilized millions of people in nations around the globe: the world nuclear disarmament movement.
To better understand this, let us take a brief look at citizen activism for nuclear disarmament and, then, at its impact.
Nuclear disarmament has been a continuous public concern since 1945, and it remains a concern for millions of people and for numerous peace and disarmament organizations. But, during the past 68 years, there have also been three great upsurges of public protest against the arms race, each larger than its predecessor, and it is to these that we should pay particular attention.
The First Surge
The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki sent a wave of public concern across the globe in the mid- to late-1940s. Some persons, particularly those with strong moral convictions, were deeply troubled by this mass murder of civilians. Their critique of the atomic bombing was voiced by small pacifist organizations and by some major religious bodies.
Many more people, however, feared that the development of nuclear weapons would lead to the destruction of the planet. Warning that the choice was “One World or None,” scientists’ groups and world government organizations sprang up around the world. In Japan, the survivors of the atomic bombing began to hold anti-nuclear gatherings, including Hiroshima Day commemoration ceremonies.
For the most part, the pacifists, the atomic scientists, the world government advocates, and the Japanese survivors worked together in an attempt to stimulate popular revulsion to nuclear war and public demands for nuclear arms controls.
The Second Surge
Although this first surge of citizen activism faded with the heightening of the Cold War, the escalation of the nuclear arms race—and particularly H-bomb tests—triggered an even more vigorous upsurge of protest in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In a widely-publicized appeal, Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein warned of the prospect of nuclear annihilation. Other prominent intellectuals, such as Albert Schweitzer and Linus Pauling, soon followed their example. Through the Pugwash movement, developed by Russell and Joseph Rotblat, scientists on both sides of the “iron curtain” began a series of conferences on the nuclear danger.
“Ban-the-Bomb” movements sprang up in numerous nations: the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand; the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) and Women Strike for Peace in the United States; Gensuikyo and Gensuikin in Japan; the Struggle Against Atomic Death in West Germany; the Movement Against Atomic Armaments in France; and comparable movements in many Western and nonaligned countries. They distributed vast quantities of anti-nuclear literature, published chilling advertisements, and staged massive, simultaneous protest marches under the nuclear disarmament symbol in dozens of nations. British CND’s Aldermaston marches, at their height, drew as many as 150,000 people. With or without permission, these anti-nuclear agitators even held demonstrations in Communist nations. Here, courageous individuals, such as Andrei Sakharov, also challenged official nuclear policy. Meanwhile, opinion polls revealed overwhelming popular distaste for nuclear war and support for abolishing nuclear weapons.
Starting in the mid-1960s and continuing into the mid-1970s, resistance to nuclear weapons declined dramatically. Exhausted by a decade of anti-nuclear struggle, some activists retreated into private life. Furthermore, like the general public, many were convinced by the partial test ban treaty of 1963 and by growing Soviet-American dètente that the era of nuclear crisis had come to an end. Finally, activists were drawn into the movement against the Vietnam War and other avant garde causes. As a result, nuclear disarmament organizations dwindled in size and changed their focus, while nuclear issues ceased to receive much attention from the public.
Even so, the anti-nuclear struggle resumed in the late 1970s, when radioactive contamination from nuclear power plants renewed nuclear fears, the end of the Vietnam War freed peace groups to focus on the nuclear issue, and the Cold War reemerged.
The Third Surge
In this context, older anti-nuclear groups started to revive and newer ones to appear. By 1980, US peace groups were beginning to line up behind a “Nuclear Freeze,” an idea proposed by defense analyst Randy Forsberg. Meanwhile, West European groups—pulled together by an Appeal for European Nuclear Disarmament (END), issued by E.P. Thompson and other European activists—were gearing up to oppose the deployment of a new generation of devastating Euromissiles: cruise and Pershing IIs from NATO and SS-20s from the Soviet Union.
This revival skyrocketed into mass protest after 1980, largely thanks to the advent of the hawkish Reagan administration, with its loose talk of nuclear war. END was soon coordinating a huge anti-nuclear campaign in Europe. Groups like CND (in Britain), the Interchurch Peace Council (in the Netherlands), church organizations and the new Green Party (in West Germany), and No to Nuclear Weapons (in Norway and Denmark) mushroomed into mass movements that held vast demonstrations. Anti-nuclear movements staged the largest protest rallies in the history of Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, while other Pacific Island nations drew together into a Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific Movement. In the fall of 1983, an estimated five million people took part in anti-nuclear demonstrations.
In most of these countries, the movement could mobilize strong support from religious bodies, professional groups, unions, and social democratic parties.
Even in the Communist nations of East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, China, and the Soviet Union, independent nuclear disarmament groups emerged and publicly challenged official policy, despite the harassment and imprisonment of activists.
In the United States, older organizations like SANE—as well as newer ones like Physicians for Social Responsibility—grew rapidly. In June 1982, nearly a million Americans turned out for a New York City rally against the nuclear arms race, the largest demonstration up to that point in American history. Meanwhile, the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, designed to stop the nuclear arms race through a Soviet-American agreement to halt the testing, development, and deployment of nuclear weapons, drew the backing of most peace groups, major unions, and mainstream religious bodies. Despite efforts by the Reagan administration to discredit the Freeze movement, polls found that it drew the support of 70 to 80 percent of the public. In the fall of 1982, a majority of voters backed the Freeze in nine of the ten states where it appeared on the ballot. In 1984, it was made part of the Democratic Party’s presidential campaign platform.
Rise of the International NGOs
International organizations also played a very important role in the anti-nuclear campaign—for example, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Organized by a prominent US cardiologist, Dr. Bernard Lown, and his Soviet counterpart, Dr. Evgeni Chazov, IPPNW held its first convention in March 1981, in Washington, DC, drawing doctors from twelve countries. By the time of its fifth international congress, in Budapest, IPPNW had affiliates in 41 nations, representing 135,000 physicians. Through most of its activities, it worked to discredit the very idea of nuclear war. But it also campaigned to halt the nuclear arms race, circulating a petition along these lines that netted more than a million signers—about 25 percent of the world’s physicians. In October 1985, as a reflection of group’s profound impact upon world affairs, it was announced that IPPNW had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Although public protest against the Bomb waned somewhat in the latter part of the 1980s, the movement retained substantial strength. Only in the 1990s, with the end of the Cold War, did it sharply decline.
Now, is there evidence of a connection between these upsurges of mass protest and policies of nuclear restraint? There is, and it is available in abundance. It reveals that top government officials closely watched the nuclear disarmament movement, ordered numerous surveys of attitudes toward nuclear weapons, and were deeply shaken by what they found. Although the leaders of the nuclear powers fought back with vast public relations campaigns, designed to spark popular support for nuclear weapons (or at least their nuclear weapons) and undermine their critics, such efforts came to naught. Ultimately, officials found it necessary to compromise with an anti-nuclear public.
States Start to Shift
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, numerous governments—interested in building nuclear weapons but battered by waves of anti-nuclear protests—decided, reluctantly, not to develop the Bomb. They included the governments of West Germany, Sweden, and Switzerland. The Japanese government, perhaps the most shell-shocked by the popular protests, issued a proclamation of three non-nuclear principles: a refusal to manufacture, possess, or introduce nuclear weapons into Japan. Soon after this, the Canadian government moved to phase nuclear weapons out of its national defense program.
In response to anti-nuclear agitation in later years, there were also important shifts in other lands. New Zealand banned visits of nuclear warships. Australia refused to test MX missiles. India halted work on nuclear weapons, and its new prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, called for a nuclear-free world. The Philippines adopted a nuclear-free constitution and, soon, shut down US military bases housing nuclear weapons. South Africa decided to scrap its nuclear weapons program.
But you might be thinking to yourselves: nothing stopped the US government from proceeding with the nuclear arms race. Or did it? Let us examine the record carefully.
The Truman administration began with a very positive view of nuclear weapons and with no plans for nuclear arms controls. Truman regarded the Bomb as “the greatest thing in history.” And yet, within a short time, under intense public pressure, the President came around to authorizing the development of the Baruch Plan—the world’s first serious nuclear disarmament proposal.
Similarly, when the Eisenhower administration came to office in 1953, it had no interest whatsoever in nuclear arms controls or disarmament. Instead, it was committed to responding to any form of Communist aggression by launching a full-scale nuclear war (what it called “massive retaliation”), as well as to integrating nuclear weapons into conventional war. Nuclear weapons, the President declared publicly, should “be used just exactly as you would use a bullet or anything else.”
‘Crucified on a Cross of Atoms’
But H-bomb tests unleashed such a torrent of protest that US officials were forced to consider nuclear arms controls, including a nuclear test ban. As Secretary of State John Foster Dulles conceded, there had developed “a popular and diplomatic pressure for limitation of armament that cannot be resisted by the United States without our forfeiting the good will of our allies and the support of a large part of our own people.”
By the late 1950s, US action had become a political necessity. In 1957, after government weapons scientists made a sales pitch for continued nuclear testing, the President retorted that “we are … up against an extremely difficult world opinion situation,” and the US government could not “permit itself to be ‘crucified on a cross of atoms.’” When, in March 1958, the Soviet government began a unilateral halt to nuclear testing, the US government was on the spot. Nuclear testing was “not evil,” the President complained, but “people have been brought to believe that it is.” Dulles agreed. “The opinion of peoples throughout the world is sharply opposed to the continuance of nuclear testing,” and, accordingly, the United States would have to announce its readiness to stop it. The result was a voluntary moratorium on nuclear testing by the US, British, and Soviet governments, beginning that year.
Despite a deadlock on negotiations for a test ban treaty, none of these governments dared to resume nuclear testing for the next three years. Even when the Russians started up atmospheric tests again in the fall of 1961, the US government remained hesitant. President Kennedy agreed with his secretary of state, Dean Rusk, who warned that there would be a “serious political reaction … were we to resume testing.” Consequently, the administration refrained from atmospheric tests for nearly eight months.
Although, in April 1962, the Kennedy administration finally did resume atmospheric tests, it now went to unprecedented lengths to secure a test ban treaty. That November, Kennedy met with Norman Cousins, the co-chair of SANE, and urged him to convince Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev of his sincerity in seeking such a measure. Cousins began shuttling between the two world leaders and, in the spring of 1963, convinced Kennedy to deliver a speech that would signal a break with past hostility toward the Soviet Union. Delivered that June, this American University address—partially written by Cousins—emphasized the administration’s desire to ban nuclear testing and announced new test ban negotiations. US, British, and Soviet officials signed an atmospheric test ban treaty that summer.
Some policymakers have conceded that this first nuclear arms control treaty was a direct response to popular protest. According to Glenn Seaborg, the chair of the US Atomic Energy Commission during the 1960s, the atmospheric test ban treaty resulted from “persistent pressure … on the nuclear powers by influential leaders and movements throughout the world.” McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy’s National Security Advisor, wrote that he agreed with Seaborg that the test ban “was achieved primarily by world opinion.” Some officials were even more specific. Jerome Wiesner, Kennedy’s White House science advisor, gave the major credit for pushing the president toward the treaty to SANE, Women Strike for Peace, and Linus Pauling.
The movement’s effectiveness is underscored by its impact upon the Reagan administration. Ronald Reagan had opposed every nuclear arms control measure negotiated by Democratic and Republican Presidents, and his top national security officials were drawn from the ultra-hawkish Committee on the Present Danger. Nuclear arms controls, they believed, were extremely dangerous. The policy of these Reaganites was to sponsor a vast US nuclear buildup. Not surprisingly, they panicked at the rise of the Nuclear Freeze campaign, launching a major public relations effort to counter it.
Reagan and the Zero Option
The Reagan administration’s damage control efforts were paralleled by important shifts in US policy. Under pressure from beleaguered West European government leaders, it announced the most radical disarmament proposal yet—the “zero option,” forgoing any installation of US intermediate range nuclear missiles in Europe, if the Russians would remove all of theirs. This offer was designed to dampen anti-nuclear protest. Key US and other NATO officials—such as Margaret Thatcher—went along with it in the expectation that the Russians would reject it, for it traded a US deployment plan for Soviet SS-20 missiles already in place. But it did commit the US government to a sweeping program of nuclear disarmament—if a Soviet government was willing to take the plunge.
Over the ensuing months, when the Russians displayed a lack of interest in the Reagan Euromissile proposals, the Reagan administration continued to back away from its hard line. First, it toyed with the “walk in the woods” formula for the missiles proposed by US arms control negotiator Paul Nitze. Then, in the face of fierce West European resistance, it also scrapped its plans to deploy the neutron bomb.
Anti-nuclear efforts also affected US strategic arms policy. By building the MX missile, the administration planned a dramatic expansion and modernization of the land-based US intercontinental ballistic missile system. But Congress—and particularly Congressional Democrats (who had begun to court disarmament groups)—refused to support the Reaganites’ plan. Ultimately, after years of exhausting effort, the administration managed to secure funding for only 50 of the 200 MX missiles originally proposed. Recalling the administration’s frustration at its failure to substantially upgrade its ICBM force, Secretary of State George Shultz lamented: “Given the political climate in the United States, we could not keep pace in modernization, production, and deployment of these deadly weapons.” This, in turn, meant that reducing Soviet ICBMs through a disarmament agreement became ever more important to US officials. Furthermore, the administration found that the price of Senate support for funding even token numbers of MX missiles was the display of a strong commitment to nuclear disarmament. As Reagan’s National Security Advisor, Robert MacFarlane, told me: “You had to have appropriations, and to get themyou needed political support, and that meant that you had to have an arms control policy worthy of the name.”
Moreover, despite the fact that the Reaganites had publicly denounced the SALT II treaty, negotiated by President Carter, for supposedly opening the way to Soviet military conquest, they now clung to it to appease their anti-nuclear critics. Thus, year after year, they accepted the limits of this unratified treaty—one that they believed the Soviet Union violated!
To be sure, with the Russians quite unyielding as to an intermediate nuclear forces (INF) treaty, the administration did begin deploying the cruise and Pershing II missiles in Western Europe in late 1983. But, in the context of the massive public protests, Reagan grew seriously rattled.
In October, he told his startled Secretary of State: “If things get hotter and hotter and arms control remains an issue, maybe I should go see [Soviet Premier Yuri] Andropov and propose eliminating all nuclear weapons.” Secretary of State Shultz was horrified by this idea! But Shultz agreed that “we were feeling political pressure against our continuing INF deployment. …We could not leave matters as they stood.” Reagan recalled: “We were on the defensive.”
And Then Came Gorbachev
As a result, on January 16, 1984, Reagan delivered a remarkable public address calling for peace with the Soviet Union and for a nuclear-free world. His advisors agree that this speech was designed to signal to the Russians his willingness to end the Cold War and reduce nuclear arsenals. And it appears to have been sincere. Thereafter, he pressed very hard for the resumption of nuclear disarmament negotiations with the Russians, which they resisted.
All this happened during Reagan’s first term in office, during the reign of Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko in the Soviet Union—before the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev!
Once Gorbachev came to power, in March 1985, the way was open for significant arms control and disarmament agreements. Gorbachev was not only a true believer in nuclear disarmament, but a movement convert. The Soviet leader’s “New Thinking”—by which he meant the necessity for peace and disarmament in the nuclear age—came from a well-known anti-nuclear statement by Einstein in 1946, reiterated in the Russell-Einstein Appeal of 1955. Gorbachev’s advisors have frequently pointed to the powerful influence upon Gorbachev of the Western nuclear disarmament movement. Gorbachev himself declared: “The new thinking took into account and absorbed the conclusions and demands … of the movements of physicians, scientists, and … of various antiwar organizations.”
Gorbachev met frequently with leaders of the nuclear disarmament movement, and often took their advice. For example:
- He initiated and later continued a unilateral Soviet nuclear testing moratorium on the advice of Dr. Bernard Lown (the founder and co-chair of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War).
- He decided against the building a Star Wars antimissile system on the advice of key anti-nuclear scientists.
- He split the Star Wars issue from the INF issue, thus taking the crucial step toward the INF treaty. This, too, was based in large part on the arguments made to him by US and Soviet anti-nuclear scientists. Gorbachev’s decision also reflected public sentiment. At the key meeting of the Politburo in February 1987, he secretly told Soviet party leaders that delinking Star Wars from INF would “be our response to the state of public opinion in the world.”
Gorbachev calls the U.S. Bluff
When Gorbachev suddenly called the US bluff by agreeing to remove all the Euromissiles from Europe (the “zero option”), it horrified NATO’s hawks. But, as Shultz recalled, “if the United States reversed its stand now . . . such a reversal would be political dynamite!” Or, as Kenneth Adelman, Reagan’s hawkish director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, put it: “We had to take yes for an answer.” Thus, in late 1987, Reagan and Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty, which removed all intermediate range nuclear missiles from Europe.
Although the movement began to decline thereafter, it retained some influence upon public officials. President George H.W. Bush and his Secretary of State, James Baker, felt that Reagan had moved too fast and too far toward nuclear disarmament, and abruptly halted disarmament negotiations. In fact, the US and British governments wanted to significantly upgrade and expand short-range nuclear forces in Western Europe. But a number of West European governments (frightened at the prospect of a revival of public protest) resisted this move. When Gorbachev heightened popular demands for nuclear disarmament by removing short-range missiles from Eastern Europe, Baker was horrified. The Secretary of State wrote in his memoirs: “We were losing the battle for public opinion. We had to do something … NATO could not afford another crisis over deploying nuclear weapons.” Thus, the Bush administration retreated, and agreed to negotiate missile reductions. Eventually, in a sharp departure from past practice, it withdrew most US short-range missiles from Western Europe unilaterally!
The impact of the anti-nuclear movement upon nuclear testing was even more direct. Since the mid-1980s, disarmament groups around the world had been working to end underground nuclear weapons explosions. Large demonstrations were organized at the US nuclear test site in Nevada. Inspired by these actions, a massive Nevada-Semipalatinsk nuclear disarmament movement emerged in the Soviet Union, where it eventually forced the closure of the Soviet nuclear testing sites.
Toward a Test Ban
Meanwhile, sympathetic members of the US Congress introduced a variety of bills to halt US nuclear testing. In 1991, a freshman member of the House of Representatives—who was indebted to peace groups for their political support and who had participated in the Nevada demonstrations—agreed to sponsor a new Congressional attempt to terminate funding for US nuclear tests. The final legislation, passed in the summer of 1992, halted underground nuclear testing for nine months, placed strict conditions on further US testing, and required test ban negotiations and an end to US testing by late 1996.
Having halted US and Soviet nuclear testing, the movement pushed on in the following years to secure a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). During Bill Clinton’s first year as President, he began to renege on his earlier commitment to support such a treaty. Consequently, disarmament groups and members of Congress conducted a test ban campaign which, later that year, led the administration to extend the US nuclear testing moratorium, press other nuclear powers to join it, and begin efforts to secure a CTBT. Finally, in September 1996, representatives of countries from around the world celebrated the signing of the CTBT. Speaking at the U.N. ceremonies, US Ambassador Madeleine Albright declared: “This was a treaty sought by ordinary people everywhere, and today the power of that universal wish could not be denied.”
Of course, government leaders also felt constrained by popular pressure from using the Bomb. In 1956, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., US ambassador to the United Nations, secretly complained that the atomic bomb had acquired “‘a bad name,’ and to such an extent that it seriously inhibits us from using it.” Indeed, later that year, when the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other administration officials called for greater flexibility in the employment of nuclear weapons, Eisenhower responded: “The use of nuclear weapons would raise serious political problems in view of the current state of world opinion.” In mid-1957, countering ambitious proposals for nuclear war-fighting, Dulles told a National Security Council meeting that “world opinion was not yet ready to accept the general use of nuclear weapons.” Brushing off pleas from the secretary of defense to use them, Dulles remained adamant that the United States must not “get out of step with world opinion.”
Similarly, when it came to the Vietnam conflict, the Kennedy administration found nuclear war politically impossible. Indeed, recalled Dean Rusk, the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations deliberately “lost the war rather than ‘win’ it with nuclear weapons.” Although Nixon entered the White House as a nuclear enthusiast, he recognized the limits set by popular loathing of the Bomb. Had he used nuclear weapons in the war, Nixon recalled bitterly, “the resulting domestic and international uproar would have damaged our foreign policy on all fronts.” Bundy, who served as the National Security Advisor to two of these presidents, maintained that the US government’s decision not to use nuclear weapons in the Vietnam War did not result from fear of nuclear retaliation by the Russians and Chinese, but from the terrible public reaction that a US nuclear attack would provoke in other nations. Even more significant, Bundy maintained, was the prospect of public upheaval in the United States, for “no president could hope for understanding and support from his own countrymen if he used the bomb.”
This nuclear taboo seemed to dissipate with the advent of the Reagan administration, whose top national security officials—from the President on down—entered office talking of fighting and winning a nuclear war. But this position quickly changed, as the administration came to recognize that its glib talk of nuclear war was a political disaster that played into the hands of its critics.
Starting in April 1982, Reagan began declaring publicly that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” He added: “To those who protest against nuclear war, I can only say: ‘I’m with you!’”
Of course, it is possible to dismiss this shift in rhetoric as no more than a public relations gesture. Even so, such rhetoric creates a public commitment, one making it considerably more difficult to reverse direction and to start waging nuclear war. Nor is there any evidence that the Reagan administration gave nuclear war serious consideration.
Good News, Bad News
And so I bring you some good news: Popular protest has blunted the nuclear ambitions of hawkish government officials and prevented the waging of nuclear war.
But there is also some bad news. Government accommodation to public pressure has gone only so far. Despite important policy changes that have reduced nuclear arsenals and prevented nuclear war, over 17,000 nuclear weapons still remain in existence. Furthermore, given the sharp decline of the nuclear disarmament movement since the late 1980s, government officials have felt freer to spurn nuclear arms control measures and to sponsor nuclear buildups. The Republican-dominated US Senate rejected the CTBT; India, Pakistan, and North Korea joined the nuclear club; and US President George W. Bush—strengthened by the American public’s sense of insecurity after the events of 9/11—totally abandoned the US government’s commitment to nuclear arms control and disarmament. The Bush administration pulled the United States out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, opposed any effort to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and pressed Congress for funds to develop new, more “usable” nuclear weapons.
Nevertheless, there are recent signs that the world is getting back on the disarmament track. Peace and disarmament organizations have undergone a substantial revival. Congress rejected the Bush administration proposals for new nuclear weapons. Former top national security officials in the United States and abroad have spoken out in favor of nuclear abolition. And President Obama has not only brought the New START Treaty into existence, but has championed the building of a nuclear-free world.
These are popular positions. Poll after poll shows overwhelming anti-nuclear sentiment among the general public. In December 2008, an opinion poll conducted in 21 nations found that, in 20 of them, large majorities—ranging from 62 to 93 percent—favored an international agreement for the elimination of all nuclear weapons. Even in the one holdout nation (Pakistan), a plurality (46 percent) supported building a nuclear weapons-free world. This support for nuclear abolition included 77 percent of people polled in the United States.
Obama and “Modernization”
Admittedly, the Obama administration seems to have dropped its nuclear-free rhetoric and, in an apparent attempt to secure Senate Republican support for the New START Treaty, promised $185 billion over the next decade in support for US nuclear weapons “modernization.”
Yes, it seems likely that there will be another treaty—or perhaps agreement—between Russia and the United States to reduce their large nuclear arsenals. But this also seems likely to be very much along the lines of the incremental arms control and disarmament accords of the past. There are no signs that these nations—or the other nuclear powers—are eager to begin negotiations for a nuclear weapons abolition treaty.
Even so, the record of citizen activism for nuclear disarmament is an encouraging one. Governments can be convinced to adopt policies of nuclear restraint—if there is sufficient public pressure.
When that pressure has been mobilized by disarmament activists, governments have responded—curbing the nuclear arms race and rejecting nuclear war. If the full strength of public sentiment can be brought to bear on government officials, humanity might just manage to take one very important step further: the step that will establish a nuclear-free world and end the threat of nuclear annihilation forever.Φ
Lawrence S. Wittner is Emeritus Professor of History, State University of New York, Albany, NY.