Protest Against the Reliable Replacement Warhead

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Although Congress has been dealing with the Bush administration’s proposal to develop the reliable replacement warhead (RRW) for much of 2007, it’s remarkable that the new weapon, a hydrogen bomb, has attracted little public protest or even public attention.

After all, for years opinion polls have reported that an overwhelming majority of Americans favor nuclear disarmament. A July 2007 poll by the Simons Foundation of Canada found that 82.3 percent of Americans backed either the total elimination or a reduction of nuclear weapons in the world. Only 3 percent favored developing new nuclear weapons.

And yet, RRW is a new nuclear warhead, the first in two decades, and — if the Bush administration is successful in obtaining the necessary authorization from Congress — it will be used widely to upgrade the current U.S. nuclear arsenal. In this fashion, RRW won’t only contradict the U.S. government’s pledge under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to move toward nuclear disarmament, it will actually encourage other nations to jump right back into the nuclear arms race.

Of course, peace and disarmament groups — including Peace Action, the Council for a Livable World, and Physicians for Social Responsibility — have sharply criticized RRW in mailings to their supporters and on their websites. Public protests have taken place, including hunger strikes and other demonstrations at the University of California in May 2007 and a demonstration at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in August 2007.

But these protests have been small. And the general public hasn’t noticed RRW. Why?

A key reason is that peace groups and the public are preoccupied by the Iraq War and by the looming war with Iran. The actual use of weapons is always more riveting (and certainly more destructive) than their potential use. And weapons are being employed every day in Iraq, while nuclear weapons represent merely a potential danger — albeit a far deadlier one. Thus, in certain ways, the nuclear disarmament campaign faces a situation much like that during the Vietnam War, when the vast carnage in that conflict distracted activists and the public from the ongoing nuclear menace.

Another reason is that it’s hard to involve the public in a one-weapon campaign. To rouse people from their lethargy, they need to sense a crucial turning point. When atmospheric nuclear testing and the development of the hydrogen bomb riveted public attention on the danger of wholesale nuclear annihilation in the late 1950s, or when the Reagan administration escalated the nuclear arms race and threatened nuclear war in the early 1980s, people felt they had come to a crossroads. By contrast, RRW appears rather arcane and perhaps best left to the policy wonks.

Finally, the mass communications media have done a good deal to distort and/or bury nuclear issues since the end of the Cold War. Yes, at the behest of the Bush administration they trumpeted the supreme dangers of Iraqi nuclear weapons, even when those weapons didn’t exist. But they did a terrible job of educating the U.S. public about nuclear realities. A 1999 Gallup poll taken a week after the U.S. Senate rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty found that, although most Americans favored the treaty, only 26 percent were aware that it had been defeated! Similarly, a 2004 poll by the Program on International Policy Attitudes found that the average American thought that the U.S. nuclear stockpile, which then numbered more than 10,000 weapons, consisted of only 200. Given the very limited knowledge that Americans have of the elementary facts about nuclear issues, it’s hardly surprising that relatively few are busy protesting against the development of RRW.

Lawrence S. Wittner [send him mail] is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany and co-editor of the new book, Peace Action: Past, Present, and Future.

This article originally appeared in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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