Portents of an anti-nuclear upsurge

By Lawrence S. Wittner, December 7, 2007

Superficially, it seems remote that a new wave of mass activism against nuclear weapons
comparable to the vast outpouring of popular protest during the early 1980s will develop anytime
soon. Despite the existence of vast nuclear arsenals and the ongoing danger of nuclear war, major
civil society groups that played key roles in calling for a nuclear-weapon-free world in the
past–including religious, labor, environmental, and women’s organizations–seem relatively
quiescent on the subject today. Furthermore, the mass media are providing the public with little
useful information on nuclear arms control and disarmament issues.

Below the surface, however, a substantial ferment exists, as well as the potential for another
round of public protest.

Major peace organizations, although temporarily preoccupied with Iraq, Iran, and the broader
Middle East, have all placed nuclear disarmament high on their agenda. In the United States, these
groups include the
American Friends Service Committee,
Faithful Security, the
Friends Committee on National
Peace Action, and
Physicians for Social
; in Britain, the
Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).
Moreover, Peace Action and CND, the two largest peace organizations in these countries, are growing
substantially again after years of post-Cold War decline.

In addition, many other active peace organizations around the world champion nuclear
disarmament. The largest network of peace organizations is the
International Peace Bureau (IPB), which won the
Nobel Peace Prize in 1910. Consisting of 282 member organizations in 70 countries, the IPB promotes
a program of Sustainable Disarmament for Sustainable Development and plays an important role in the
U.N.’s Special NGO Committee for Disarmament.

Thanks, in part, to this organizational framework, a significant revival of anti-nuclear protest
has occurred in recent years. Determined to spur U.N. action for nuclear disarmament, thousands of
people turned out for a May 2005 demonstration in New York City, making it the largest anti-nuclear
rally in the United States in decades. This year, spirited protests have taken place at U.S.
nuclear weapons development sites and the University of California, where students staged hunger
strikes to protest that institution’s complicity in the ongoing U.S. nuclear program. Even members
of the traditional U.S. policy-making elite have issued a
for a nuclear-weapon-free world.

In Britain, the situation has been particularly tumultuous, with a fierce uprising erupting over
the government’s proposal to replace London’s aging Trident nuclear weapons system with a newer
model. Indeed, Britain was convulsed by the controversy, which generated numerous anti-nuclear
demonstrations–the largest with 100,000 participants–and, according to polls, opposition from 59
percent of the public.

Nor is the sentiment in Britain contrary to that of other nuclear nations. According to a
September 2007 survey conducted by the University of Maryland’s Center for International and
Security Studies, 63 percent of Russians favor eliminating all nuclear weapons, 59 percent support
removing all nuclear weapons from high alert, and 53 percent support cutting the Russian and U.S.
nuclear arsenals to 400 nuclear weapons each. In the United States, 73 percent of the public favors
eliminating all nuclear weapons, 64 percent support removing all nuclear weapons from high alert,
and 59 percent support reducing Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals to 400 weapons each. Eighty
percent of Russians and Americans want their countries to participate in the Comprehensive Test Ban

Given the unpopularity of nuclear weapons, U.S. politicians have been wary of supporting new
nuclear programs. Republican-dominated congresses have defeated the Bush administration’s plan to
build so-called “bunker-busters” and “mini-nukes.” The administration’s proposal to build the
“reliable replacement warhead” also seems to be in serious trouble. In fact, there’s substantial
congressional support for a thorough re-examination of the U.S. nuclear program and for legislation
to establish a Department of Peace, which would include an office of arms control and disarmament.
On the presidential campaign trail, the candidates don’t say a word about building new nuclear
weapons, and, among the Democrats, there’s talk of a nuclear-weapon-free world.

Finally, the breakdown of the arms control and disarmament regime and a slide toward nuclear war
would certainly contribute to an upsurge in activism. Both remain quite possible in a world of
rival, war-making nations.

So although mass anti-nuclear activism is far less prominent today than a generation ago, it
stands on the verge of a comeback. At the least, many of the preconditions for its return are in


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