May, the United Nations will be holding a review conference on the
Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a key nuclear arms control
and disarmament agreement to which 188 countries are now parties.
proposed by the U.S. and Soviet governments, the NPT was signed
at the United Nations in 1968 and went into force in 1970. Under
its provisions, non-nuclear nations agreed to renounce the development
of nuclear weapons and nuclear-armed nations agreed to divest themselves
of their nuclear weapons through good faith negotiations for nuclear
disarmament. In this fashion, nations on both sides of the Cold
War divide signaled their intention to halt the nuclear arms race
and move toward a nuclear-free world.
decades, there was substantial progress along these lines. Non-nuclear
nations refrained from building nuclear weapons. And the nuclear
powers signed a series of important nuclear arms control and disarmament
treaties: the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty; two Strategic
Arms Limitation Treaties; the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty;
two Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties; and the Comprehensive Test
Ban Treaty. At times, they even reduced their nuclear forces unilaterally.
As a result, by the late 1990s, no additional nations belonged to
the nuclear club, while the number of nuclear weapons deployed by
the nuclear nations or in their stockpiles declined dramatically.
in 1998, however, the nuclear arms race began to revive. Determined
to place their nations within the ranks of the nuclear powers, the
governments of India and Pakistan exploded their first nuclear weapons
that year. Since then, they have engaged in dangerous and mutually
threatening nuclear buildups. Other non-nuclear nations, including
North Korea, took the first steps toward going nuclear, though the
extent of their progress along these lines remains uncertain.
nuclear powers also began to abandon their NPT commitments. In 1999,
the U.S. Senate stunned much of the world, including U.S. allies,
by rejecting ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
Taking office in 2001, the administration of George W. Bush withdrew
the United States from the ABM Treaty, opposed ratification of the
Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, began deployment of a missile defense
system, pressed for the development of new U.S. nuclear weapons,
and abandoned negotiations for nuclear disarmament. Responding sharply
to U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty and U.S. plans for missile
defense, the Russian government announced its intention to deploy
a new generation of nuclear missiles. And China might not be far
has there been a reversal of earlier progress toward a nuclear-free
key factor behind the turnabout is the decline of popular pressure
for nuclear disarmament.
nations–and before their existence, rival territories–have
always gravitated toward military buildups. This is based on the
assumption–what might be called the "old thinking"–that
national security is best achieved through military strength. Not
surprisingly, then, in a world of competing and sometimes hostile
nations, governments are tempted to develop nuclear weapons to secure
what they consider their "national interests." Thus, beginning
during World War II and continuing during the Cold War, a growing
number of rival governments commenced developing powerful nuclear
however, the nuclear arms race of the Cold War era inspired widespread
public resistance–resistance that took the form of mass movements
for nuclear disarmament, feisty antinuclear marches and rallies,
and public critiques of nuclear weapons by religious bodies, scientists,
and cultural leaders. Polls found public opinion strongly opposed
to nuclear buildups and nuclear wars. As a result, governments were
pushed, often reluctantly, into agreements for nuclear arms control
since the end of the Cold War, the mass nuclear disarmament movements
of the past have declined dramatically and public concern about
nuclear weapons has dwindled. Furthermore, much of the lingering
public concern has been manipulated by cynical government officials
to bolster their own policies—as when the Bush administration
exaggerated the Iraqi government’s readiness to wage nuclear war
in order to justify its invasion of Iraq. Thus, freed of the constraint
of popular pressure for international nuclear disarmament, governments
gradually jettisoned their NPT commitments.
situation, however, may be changing once more. Just as the nuclear
arms race of the Cold War era inspired massive popular protest,
the reviving nuclear arms race of recent years is beginning to generate
substantial public opposition.
of this public opposition is crystallizing around the May 2005 NPT
review conference at the United Nations, where nuclear and non-nuclear
nations almost certainly will condemn one another for reneging on
their treaty commitments. United for Peace and Justice (the major
peace coalition in the United States), along with Abolition 2000
(a group focused on the nuclear issue), is laying plans for a nuclear
abolition march and rally in New York City on May 1, the day before
the review conference convenes. Noting that the NPT is "in
serious disarray," the organizers of these events have called
for "a massive demonstration" to "demand global nuclear
disarmament and an end to nuclear excuses for war." Large antinuclear
meetings and other related events are taking shape in numerous American
cities, with prominent speakers drawn from political, academic,
and cultural life.
organizations are also focusing their efforts on the NPT review
conference. Stressing the importance of the gathering, the Nobel
Peace Prize-winning International Physicians for the Prevention
of Nuclear War is mobilizing for it as part
of a Campaign for a Nuclear-Weapons-Free 21st Century. Mayors for
Peace, an organization of top municipal officials from more than
600 cities around the world, has become particularly active in pressing
the case for nuclear abolition. Headed by Hiroshima’s mayor,
Tadatoshi Akiba, Mayors for Peace will be sending a substantial
delegation to the NPT review conference for this purpose.
Thus, at this time of widespread uncertainty about the future of
the NPT–and, more broadly, about the future of nuclear arms
control and disarmament–there are signs that popular pressure
is developing to put the world back on track toward nuclear disarmament.
Whether this pressure will prove powerful enough to save the NPT
remains to be seen. But there is certainly movement on this front.
Fortunately, in the most dangerous of circumstances, people have
a tendency to rise to the occasion.
S. Wittner [send him mail]
is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany.
His latest book is Toward
Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement,
1971 to the Present (Stanford University Press). This article
originally appeared on the History News
Network. Reprinted with permission of the author.