Portents of an Anti-Nuclear Upsurge

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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 Legislation, Peace Action, and Physicians for Social Responsibility; 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 call 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 Treaty.

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 place.

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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