Connections between nuclear weapons and New York City go back to the earliest days of the Manhattan Project during World War 2. (Image courtesy of NYCAN; modified by Thomas Gaulkin)

Nuclear-free NYC: How New Yorkers are disarming the legacies of the Manhattan Project

By Kathleen Sullivan, Matthew Breay Bolton, January 15, 2024

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Connections between nuclear weapons and New York City go back to the earliest days of the Manhattan Project during World War 2. (Image courtesy of NYCAN; modified by Thomas Gaulkin)

After the Saint Pat’s For All Parade in Sunnyside, Queens in 2018, revelers at the local pub found more on tap in a back room when local members of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) found themselves in a spontaneous strategy session with a City Council member by the name of Daniel Dromm. A long-time advocate for peace, LGBTQ+ and human rights, Dromm also happened to be the chair of New York City’s powerful Finance Committee—which is why local activists wanted to bend his ear about whether New York could divest from nuclear weapon producers.

That impromptu meeting sparked five years of advocacy by activists—later calling themselves  the New York Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (NYCAN)—culminating in 2021 when New York City Council passed the most progressive recent nuclear disarmament legislation of any major city in the United States.

Of course, there was more to it than that. And these latest efforts to abolish nuclear weapons were only one small part of a long history of nuclear activism in New York City. Below, we share some details of this success with local government as an example of what others can do to bring nuclear abolitionist activism home. These details also give a sense of New York’s long history as a nuclear city—and as a hotbed of anti-nuclear activism.

nuclear powered sub visits NYC in 1950s
The USS Nautilus, the world’s first operational nuclear-powered submarine, off of Manhattan in 1958. Image courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command.

A nuclear city

New York’s nuclear connections are often overlooked.

The Manhattan Project—which developed the atomic bombs that killed 200,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945—got its start on 270 Broadway in Manhattan, in an office building opposite City Hall.[1] The US Army weaponized a nuclear research program at Columbia University toward the other end of the island, employing about 700 people—and even pressed the university’s football team into service to move tons of uranium.

Radioactive materials were handled at 16 sites around the city’s five boroughs, including university labs, contractor warehouses, transit points, and others. Six of these sites have subsequently required environmental remediation, including the Baker and Williams Warehouses near the High Line in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, where some 150 tons of uranium materials were housed. Remediation is still ongoing at two sites, including a machining facility in Ridgewood, Queens, and another in a warehouse on Staten Island, which once held 1,200 tons of uranium—two-thirds of the Manhattan Project’s supply.

In the early years of the Cold War, New York City went all in for a kind of “nuclear urbanism” school of city planning, hoping to reduce casualties if the Soviets unleashed a nuclear attack. Such directives included mandatory civil defense drills for the entire city population, fallout shelter signs on buildings, expressways to aid evacuation, and suburbanization to “deconcentrate” the city.

The US military built a ring of Nike missile bases, housing about 200 nuclear warheads, around the city, including at Hart Island in the Bronx and Fort Tilden in Rockaway, Queens. One veteran of the Nike program, Jerry Boisseau of the 51stAir Defense Artillery, told the National Park Service of a harrowing close call where a passenger plane flying over the City “was not identifying itself, either its electronics were not working or whatever.” He said: “I was sitting in Fire Control Station, and I had my thumb on the switch, and we were on the 10 second countdown. And thank God, at somewhere in that last 10 seconds they were able to identify the aircraft and determine that it was commercial, and we breathed some very heavy sighs of relief.”[2]

As an act of remembrance, NYCAN members have traced the history of New York City’s nuclear geography, which few New Yorkers know about. They have compiled this information in a “Nuclear NYC Map,” which highlights sites in all five boroughs that have been significant in the development of nuclear weapons, as well as points of interest in the activist movement for nuclear abolition. Illustrated in the style of a mid-20th-century sightseeing map, one side of the large, printed document shows a detailed city map with important sites noted, illustrated, and briefly described.

Cover of New York Nuclear Map, designed by Noah Diamond. Used with permission

New Yorkers’ resistance

New York City was essential to building the Bomb, but it also generated the first protests in the United States against nuclear weapons. Within a few days of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the great poet Langston Hughes wrote a searing critique of the US government’s decision, calling it racist.

The brilliant political strategist and civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin, who moved to New York City in the 1930s, was also an early advocate for nuclear abolition. (Rustin’s work for peace and civil rights compelled him to travel the world. He was mentored on non-violence in India by students of Mahatma Gandhi. Employing the civil resistance tactics that he learned in India, Rustin teamed up with Martin Luther King, Jr. and local activists to help organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott.)[3]

On June 15, 1955, Bayard Rustin joined activists at City Hall Park to protest the US government’s obligatory civil defense drills. On that summer morning, municipal Civil Defense authorities were asked to coordinate a mock air raid drill, a practice run, and a duck-and-cover operation for so-called “preparedness” in the event of a nuclear attack.

New York City’s major pacifist organizations refused to accept the premise that nuclear war was survivable and instead held a full day’s program of activities where 28 protesters defied the order to shelter in city subway stations, holding their demonstration above ground.

Among the demonstrators at City Hall Park in 1955 was Dorothy Day, journalist, anarchist,  humanitarian, and co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, engaging in “works of mercy to serve the needs of New York City’s poor.” For Day, the Catholic Worker movement was not only a witness to compassion, but a movement to profoundly challenge the very institutions and systems that cause hunger, poverty and war.

Upon hearing of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Day wrote in The Catholic Worker newspaper: “[T]hey are vaporized, our Japanese brothers—scattered, men, women and babies, to the four winds, over the seven seas. Perhaps we will breathe their dust into our nostrils, feel them in the fog of New York on our faces… President Truman was jubilant… We have created destruction.”

New Yorkers’ resistance continued down through the decades. In 1961, Women Strike for Peace—co-founded by the Upper West Side’s Bella Abzug—organized demonstrations of 50,000 women across the country against atmospheric nuclear testing. Women Strike for Peace was pivotal in building support for the Partial Test Ban Treaty, and Abzug was elected to Congress from 1971 to 1977.

As the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union reached absurd levels, more than a million people marched for nuclear disarmament on June 12, 1982, one of the largest demonstrations in US history. The following year, the New York City Council passed a resolution declaring the city a Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone. All nuclear weapons bases within New York’s territory have since been decommissioned, and the US Navy reportedly avoids bringing nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered ships into New York Harbor.

Investing in abolition

This legacy of taking local action to affect change on a national and international level continues to this day with NYCAN, whose provenance can be traced back to that pub that day in Queens.

One month later, in May 2018, retired high school teacher Robert Croonquist chartered a Hudson River schooner and invited on board 60 artists, activists, and educators for a teach-in to revive local action for nuclear disarmament in a city that held so many connections to developing the world’s first nuclear weapons.

Interior page of the New York Nuclear Map, designed by Noah Diamond. Used with permission.

New progress on nuclear disarmament at the global level provided local advocates with fresh wind in their sails. On July 7, 2017, 122 states adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) at the UN’s headquarters in Manhattan. Later that year, ICAN was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for mobilizing a network of activists, scholars, Indigenous Peoples, and other members of communities to advocate for the Treaty.[4]

The activists who became NYCAN recognized that the US government was unlikely in the short term to ratify the Treaty. But they took inspiration from a history of progressive campaigns in New York, which encouraged local authorities to use the city’s economic clout to take bolder positions than the federal government—for example on apartheid.

As the chair of the Finance Committee, council member Daniel Dromm was consequently a key ally for NYCAN. Dromm drafted a “Dear Colleague” letter to then-Comptroller Scott Stringer seeking divestment of New York City’s pensions and finances from nuclear weapon producers, in order to “align our city’s financial power with our progressive values.” (New York City’s comptroller serves as the City’s chief financial officer and acts as an adviser to, and custodian of, the City’s five public pension funds.) NYCAN successfully persuaded a majority of City Council members, representing all five boroughs and including the council speaker, to sign Dromm’s letter.

As NYCAN followed up on Dromm’s letter, they learned that in order to overcome skepticism in the Comptroller’s Office they could not rely only on ethical or even political arguments; NYCAN needed to make an economic and financial case against nuclear weapons. The activists pored over the City’s pension holdings, identifying investments in nuclear weapons producers and working with experts to compare their performance with the market more broadly.

The resulting report, “Nuclear Weapons are a Risky Business,” argued that New York City’s pension funds—the fourth-largest public pension system in the country—had very limited exposure to nuclear weapons producers, which were underperforming the market. “Disinvestment is not simply a moral stand,” they argued, “Nuclear weapons investments strongly conflict with fiduciary responsibility given their increasing regulatory, reputational and environmental legacy risks.”[5]

In a final push to pass nuclear disarmament legislation introduced by New York City council member Daniel Dromm, members of Rise and Resist and NYCAN gathered in front of New York’s City Hall on November 23, 2021. (Photo: Erik McGregor / Sipa USA / Alamy Live News)

Through discussions with Dromm and his staff, NYCAN also began to think more broadly. In July 2019, with co-sponsors Ben Kallos and Helen Rosenthal, Dromm introduced a package of legislation advancing New York City’s commitment to nuclear disarmament.

A resolution was drafted, built on the earlier letter, calling on the comptroller to divest the city’s pension funds from nuclear weapons. It also reaffirmed New York City as a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone, joined ICAN’s Cities Appeal and called on the United States to accede to the TPNW. (The Cities Appeal builds local level support for the nuclear ban treaty by gaining the support of the metropolitan areas in the major nuclear-armed and -allied states, which are often most likely targets of nuclear weapons. Other supporters include Washington, DC; Paris; Berlin; Sydney; Oslo; and Geneva.)

NYCAN activists called, e-mailed, and button-holed Council Members, soon persuading a super-majority to co-sponsor Dromm’s bills. At a January 2020 joint hearing on the legislation, 137 members of the public testified in person and submitted more than 400 pages of written testimony, reaffirming deep support for nuclear disarmament and highlighting the voices of New York City pension holders, Indigenous Peoples, religious leaders, artists, and hibakusha (survivors of the atomic bombings in Japan).

The activists were buoyed by the success of the day-long hearing, but like the rest of the world, encountered delays due to the Covid-19 pandemic that devastated New York. During this world-wide epochal pause, nuclear-armed countries continued to modernize their arsenals.

Dromm’s legislation languished in committee throughout 2020 and 2021. But NYCAN continued to advocate, collaborating with ICAN partner organizations and others, including the local direct action group “Rise and Resist.” These activists gathered together outside and online, creating community to support each other during times of isolation, fear, and loneliness.

Throughout the COVID lockdown, organizers continued to lobby the City Council, in person at the gates of City Hall, through letters and phone calls, and anywhere in the streets that their message could be heard. Many NYCAN members are part of the LGBTQ+ community, so annual Pride Parades became a focal point, organizing alongside IQAN, International Queers Against Nukes, and distributing postcards to engage New Yorkers in local politics for nuclear disarmament.

Not far from where Nike Ajax missiles were based at Fort Tilden in the 1950s, organizers took their campaign to Rockaway Beach on the day of the annual Polar Plunge on January 1, 2021, to urge City Council to bring Dromm’s disarmament legislation to the floor for a vote. Photos from this joyful call for a “Nuke Free NY Sea” generated sympathetic press in outlets like Gay City News.

Three weeks later, on January 22, 2021, the TPNW entered into force, precisely 82 years to the day that Fermi and Szilard conducted the first of their fission experiments at Columbia University to use graphite to isolate the neutrons emitted—paving the way, three years later, for the world’s first self-sustaining, controlled nuclear chain reaction at the University of Chicago. To mark the moment, NYCAN member Seth Shelden arranged for several of the city’s skyscrapers to be lit in UN Blue. The message “Nuclear Weapons Always Immoral, Now Illegal” was projected in all official UN languages on the UN Secretariat Building on East 42nd Street.

With only weeks remaining in the legislative session, in November 2021, Council Speaker Johnson agreed to join NYCAN at a small reception to honor Irish diplomat Helena Nolan for her new appointment as Irish consul general in New York City. Before taking up her post, Nolan served on Ireland’s delegation to the TPNW negotiations. Deeply moved by presentations made by NYCAN that evening—including from Mitchie Takeuchi, whose grandfather was the director of the Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital in 1945—the council speaker stated that he would help ensure that the legislation would be adopted.

On December 9, 2021, Johnson made good on his promise and NYCAN members, across the road at Pace University, celebrated as they watched the live feed of Dromm’s legislation pass with an overwhelming majority. New York was now the most populous city in the world to adopt the ICAN Cities Appeal.[6]

Making good on the promises

NYCAN now faces new challenges. The current New York City Comptroller, Brad Lander, had pledged to work for divestment of the City’s pension funds from nuclear weapons.

Two years later, though, the comptroller has not yet publicly indicated how he is working toward following through on these promises. The organization is now working on new research to update its earlier “Risky Business” report, calculating the city’s ongoing investments in radioactive weapons of mass destruction.

Similarly, NYCAN activists felt frustrated by delays from the mayor and the council speaker in making appointments to the New York City Nuclear Disarmament and Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Advisory Committee, established by what is now known as Local Law 7-2022. NYCAN felt further discouraged when the city released a bizarre Public Service Announcement suggesting New Yorkers might survive a nuclear attack on their city.[7]

To encourage movement from their elected officials, NYCAN decided to draw on the creativity of its members to share a message of inspiration through art and storytelling. New York City-based artist Tony Sahara created a series of illustrations celebrating New Yorkers—Bayard Rustin, Dorothy Day, and others—who made nuclear disarmament part of their life work.

They displayed these illustrations in street actions, and distributed them as postcards addressed to city government—with a space for individuals to write personally why they oppose nuclear weapons. Several hundred postcards honoring Rustin’s 2022 birthday were sent to Mayor Eric Adams, urging him to do the right thing and implement Local Law 7-2022.

By November 2023, the NYC Nuclear Disarmament and Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Advisory Committee had been fully appointed and was meeting to discuss its mandate.

Beyond Nuclear Ban Week New York

In the last week of November 2023, hundreds of disarmament campaigners gathered at the United Nations Building in New York, joining diplomats from the states parties and signatories to the TPNW for the Treaty’s Second Meeting of States Parties. NYCAN was able to share the story of nuclear resistance—and the nuclear history of their city—with this global audience in a “Concert for Nuclear Abolition” at the Japan Society, titled “The New Manhattan Project.”

It was a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the long journey from Sunnyside, Queens to City Hall—and the even longer path from the Manhattan Project to a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone.

Still, all New Yorkers live in a city threatened by thousands of nuclear warheads, many on high alert, that continue to be deployed around the world. In the words of what is now Resolution 976-2021, New York City has “a special responsibility, as a site of Manhattan Project activities and a nexus for financing of nuclear weapons, to express solidarity with all victims and communities harmed by nuclear weapons” and to demand a world free of these instruments of omnicide.

 

Endnotes

[1]  For more on the early days of the Manhattan Project, see “’He did not speak the ordinary language’: Memories of Oppie, from a Manhattan Project physicist” in the July 2023 issue of the magazine of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, at https://thebulletin.org/premium/2023-07/he-did-not-speak-the-ordinary-language-memories-of-oppie-from-a-manhattan-project-physicist/

[2]  More on this incident can be found at the National Park Service’s “Oral History Interview with Jerry Boisseau of the 51st Air Defense Artillery, 1963-67” conducted by Melissa Kozlowski of Monmouth University on April 25, 2003. Available at https://www.nps.gov/gate/learn/historyculture/upload/Boisseau%20Jerry%20interview-2.pdf

[3] Rustin would later become the principal organizer for The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. As an out gay, Black man, he fought for civil and human rights. As a peace activist he joined the movement for nuclear disarmament. For Rustin, nuclear abolition was undeniably linked to the struggle against colonialism and for civil and human rights. He traveled the world calling for the total elimination of nuclear weapons, including an arduous attempt to disrupt French nuclear testing in Algeria in 1959. Rustin was part of the Sahara Protest Team, supported by Ghana’s government and tens of thousands of Ghanaians, who saw connections between nuclear abolition and the struggle for African liberation.

[4] See “He helped found two groups that won the Nobel Peace Prize: Ira Helfand of PSR,” published on the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists website, November 27, 2017, at https://thebulletin.org/2017/11/he-helped-found-two-groups-that-won-the-nobel-peace-prize-ira-helfand-of-psr/#post-heading

[5] To download a PDF of the full report, see Nuclear Weapons are a Risky Business: Divestment as Financial Prudence for New York City’s Retirement Systems, available at https://cpb-us-w2.wpmucdn.com/blogs.pace.edu/dist/0/195/files/2020/01/Nuclear-Weapons-are-a-Risky-Business-011620.pdf

[6] More on ICAN’s Cities Appeal can be found at https://cities.icanw.org/

[7] See “This is an official New York City video about how to survive a nuclear attack. Please do not freak out,” published on the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists website, July 13, 2022, at https://thebulletin.org/2022/07/this-is-an-official-new-york-city-video-about-how-to-survive-a-nuclear-attack-please-do-not-freak-out/

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William Lenczuk
William Lenczuk
1 month ago

Uranium Warehoused in SI began prior to the Manhattan Project. The Uranium ore was used by laboratories for separating Radium for Luminescent dials (watch dial workers in Queens and Orange NJ) from what was known as the Belgian Congo. The same Uranium ore was also procured for the Manhattan Project, which was about 2/3 of what was needed to supply Oak Ridge and Hanford.
BTW, I think the US Radium company in Queens should be added to the MAP.

Jimmy
Jimmy
1 month ago

And I am here now, because Truman chose to end the war quickly rather than sacrifice possibly 1 million American lives invading Japan. My father was stationed on Okinawa as part of the advance force preparing to invade Japan. He would probably have been killed, and I would not be here, so I am all for what Truman did. He was truly a great American president.

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