07/27/2009 - 14:06

Disarmament movement lessons from yesteryear

Lawrence S. Wittner

Lawrence S. Wittner

Wittner is a history professor at the State University of Albany. His expertise is in peace movements, arms control and...

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Public campaigns against nuclear weapons have been surprisingly effective over the years. Although public concern about nuclear weapons has existed ever since the Hiroshima bombing, it has been particularly salient thanks to three waves of anti-nuclear protest.

In the first wave, during the late 1940s, atomic scientists, world government advocates, pacifists, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors, shocked by the destructiveness of atomic weapons, helped spark widespread public dismay about what they portended for the future. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and Federation of American Scientists (FAS) played important roles in this effort. It motivated government officials to take a newfound interest in nuclear arms control and disarmament--at least until the growing Cold War led them to believe that nuclear restraint was impractical.

A second wave of protest began in the late 1950s and crested in the early 1960s, as multiple U.S. and Soviet hydrogen bomb tests focused attention on the dangers of radioactive fallout and the vast devastation they produced. Prominent individuals such as Albert Schweitzer, Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, and Linus Pauling assailed the nuclear arms race, ban-the-bomb organizations such as the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) and Women Strike for Peace sprang up, and public sentiment turned sharply against nuclear testing and nuclear war. Thanks in large part to this uprising, the U.S., British, and Soviet governments agreed to a nuclear testing moratorium and the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty. U.S.-Soviet détente followed, often taking the form of nuclear arms control agreements, including the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and SALT treaties.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the revival of the nuclear arms race, accompanied by glib talk of nuclear war, triggered yet another wave of protest. Older organizations such as the FAS and SANE revived, while newer organizations appeared, including the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign and Physicians for Social Responsibility. Despite government efforts to discredit the Freeze movement, polls found that it drew the support of up to 80 percent of the public. In the fall of 1982, a majority of voters backed the Freeze in nine out of ten states where it appeared on the ballot. As a result, the spines of Congressional Democrats stiffened and the Reagan administration, which entered office roaring like a lion, left office bleating like a lamb. Ronald Reagan, who had opposed every nuclear arms control and disarmament treaty negotiated by his Democratic and Republic predecessors, embraced the "zero option," SALT II, and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Also, he began negotiations for START I and became a champion of nuclear abolition. The change was at least as dramatic in the Soviet Union.

Along the way, nuclear war--praised in 1945 by President Harry S. Truman as "the greatest thing in history"--became politically unacceptable. In 1956, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, complained to U.S. officials that the atomic bomb had acquired "'a bad name,' and to such an extent that it seriously inhibits us from using it." McGeorge Bundy, who served as National Security Advisor to presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, recalled that the U.S. government's decision not to use nuclear weapons in the Vietnam War resulted from the terrible public reaction that a U.S. nuclear attack would provoke, especially at home, for "no president could hope for understanding and support from his own countrymen if he used the bomb."

Of course, today there remain more than 23,000 nuclear weapons in existence, as well as numerous possibilities for nuclear war. Therefore, the question arises: What should the nuclear disarmament movement do--especially now that the U.S. government and others appear ready to slash nuclear arsenals--to increase the momentum toward a nuclear-weapon-free world?

One course of action would be to develop a common goal. The movement had such a goal in the late 1950s and early 1960s (a halt to nuclear testing) and in the early 1980s (a weapons freeze), enabling the numerous disarmament organizations to pool their strength and focus public attention on an easily identifiable objective. Today, such a goal might be a nuclear abolition treaty, to be introduced at the upcoming NPT Review Conference. Some peace and disarmament organizations, including Peace Action (heir to SANE and the Freeze) and the Women's International League for Peace & Freedom, already are working along these lines.

Intermediate demands also would help. Although movements need inspiring long-range goals (such as a nuclear-weapon-free world), they also need achievable first steps. In the current context, these might include ratification of treaties reducing U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals and ending nuclear testing.

In addition, the movement might champion the development of an international security system. Nuclear weapons were developed and have persisted in the context of international tensions and wars, for nations gravitate toward them to safeguard their "national security." Therefore, providing an effective guarantor of national security--e.g., a strengthened United Nations--would certainly help smooth the path toward a nuclear-weapon-free world.

There also is something that concerned citizens can do for the movement: join and support it. Disarmament organizations desperately need membership and resources. It’s a scandal that a group such as the National Rifle Association has nearly 4 million members, while the largest disarmament organization (Peace Action) has only 100,000. People who want to overcome the nuclear menace should give their personal and financial backing to the nuclear disarmament movement. It has been--and remains--an excellent investment in the world's future.