Lawrence Wittner touched on something of great significance in his latest posting when he wrote, “A major problem faced by the anti-nuclear campaign in the United States and abroad is that peace groups are preoccupied with the ongoing Iraq War and the broader Mideast crisis.”
Let me talk about my experience with this in Britain: There’s no doubt that strong opposition to the Iraq War has been a great challenge–both for traditional peace movements and for anti-nuclear movements, as passions and energies have become very focused on anti-war campaigning.
But it also serves as an extraordinary opening, as large numbers of people have become mobilized and begun asking questions about what’s going on in the world. Because of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s (CND) participation in the anti-war movement, many people have been exposed to our anti-nuclear arguments. I find that people are beginning to understand nuclear weapons aren’t some abstract or technical thing, but extremely dangerous weapons of mass destruction that may be used in war.
This openness to new thinking about nuclear weapons is symptomatic of an even greater change in public attitudes, the cause of which I don’t fully understand yet. But I believe it to be of great significance. Before the great demonstrations in London against the Iraq War, the biggest demonstrations in Britain during the post-World War II period had been the CND demonstrations of the early 1980s. In autumn 1981, 300,000 people came to Hyde Park to try to prevent the proposed siting of U.S. nuclear cruise missiles in Britain. Similar protests took place elsewhere in Europe. This was a matter of life and death for Europeans, as the United States planned to place these missiles across Western Europe so it could fight a “limited” nuclear war against the Soviet Union in Europe instead of the United States. Under President Ronald Reagan, there was a high likelihood that nuclear war could actually take place; therefore, it was hardly surprising that mass movements against the new missiles developed in Europe.
Questions of war and peace do have immense power to mobilize. But what’s been so extraordinary about the Iraq War demonstrations is that more people have protested against a war in a country they will never see and a people they will never know than ever turned out to protect their own country and their own families against the very real danger of nuclear annihilation in the 1980s. Why is this? I can only describe it as a demonstration of the profound humanity of ordinary people and a mass articulation of the overwhelming desire for a new morality in public life.
It’s up to us to build on that change, to make the links, to embrace the challenges as opportunities. Working against war and working against nuclear weapons are both part of the same process toward global peace. Minds are now open; it’s up to us to speak with them.