The campaign against nuclear weapons was not simply an ideological
movement; it was a potent political force.
by Lawrence S. Wittner
[Introduction: Six decades into the nuclear age, it is worth
reflecting on the fact that the United States remains the only nation
to have detonated a nuclear weapon in combat, that Japan alone among
nations has experienced nuclear attack, and that for all the terror
unleashed in subsequent wars, no nation has launched nuclear weapons
on an enemy since 1945. What forces have prevented nuclear war, and
what lessons can be drawn from this experience for the future?
Lawrence Wittner finds important answers to these questions in the
world anti- nuclear movement.
Japan has played an important role in this world movement from its
inception. The Japanese antinuclear movement began in response to the
atomic bombing of Japan. In 1946, citizens' groups in Hiroshima,
meeting to commemorate the sufferings of the population, gradually,
turned to agitation against the nuclear arms race. By warning the
world of the horrors of nuclear war, hibakusha and their supporters
believed, the suffering and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of
citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would acquire transcendent
meaning. Although U.S. censorship and other restraints barred
publication detailing the horror inflicted by the atomic bombs, a
campaign against the Bomb gradually gathered strength.
That campaign took off as a mass movement after March 1954, when U.S.
nuclear testing irradiated the crew of a Japanese fishing boat, the
Lucky Dragon and citizens of Bikini. This led to an antinuclear
petition initiated by women and eventually signed by 32 million
people in the largest anti-nuclear protest ever. The movement quickly
became international. In August 1955, tens of thousands of delegates
-- most of them Japanese -- convened in Hiroshima for the First World
Conference Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs. The Japan Council
Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs (Gensuikyo) was organized to
continue the antinuclear crusade in Japan, which continued to rage in
the following years.
However, the Cold War partisanship of the Japan Communist Party (JCP)
within Gensuikyo generated intense friction inside the organization.
Consequently, in 1965 the Japan Socialist Party, Sohyo, and other
organizations calling for a more evenhanded approach critical of the
nuclear stance of all nuclear powers created a rival group, the Japan
Congress Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs (Gensuikin). Attempts in
the late 1970s and early 1980s to foster greater cooperation between
the two organizations resulted in another outpouring of nuclear
disarmament activism in the early 1980s. Hundreds of thousands of
Japanese demonstrated against nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Tokyo.
Once again, tens of millions of people signed antinuclear petitions.
Although this activism fell off in subsequent years, the idea of
nuclear disarmament, a centerpiece of Japanese pacifism, has retained
enormous popular appeal. Polls in 1998 showed that 78 percent of the
Japanese public favored the complete destruction of nuclear weapons.
In a post-9/11 world with a single superpower, what strategies will
anti-nuclear activists devise to prevent nuclear war? With Japan
dispatching troops to Iraq in violation of its own constitution, and
with rising pressures to revise the constitutional ban on war, the
issues are particularly salient for Japan. The answer to that
question may hinge on the ability of anti-war and anti-nuclear
activists to unify their movements. By Japan Focus coordinator]
One of the most striking facts about the modern world is that, for
the past 58 years, we have managed to avoid nuclear war. After all, a
nation that has developed weapons tends to use them. For example,
immediately after the U.S. government built nuclear weapons, it
employed them to destroy Japanese cities. Just as startling, a nation
that has devoted vast resources to developing weapons usually does
not get rid of them -- at least until it develops more powerful weapons.
But since August 1945, no nation has attacked another with nuclear
weapons, and only a relatively small number of nations have chosen to
build them. Also, those nations that have developed nuclear weapons
have for the most part accepted nuclear arms control and disarmament
measures: the Partial Test Ban Treaty; the Strategic Arms Limitation
Treaties (I and II); the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty;
the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (I and II); and the
Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Why have they adopted these policies
of nuclear restraint?
The answer lies in a massive grassroots campaign that has mobilized
millions of people in nations around the globe: the world nuclear
disarmament movement. Indeed, the history of nuclear restraint
without the nuclear disarmament movement is like the history of civil
rights legislation without the civil rights movement.
A message from the masses
Nuclear restraint did not come naturally to government officials, who
initially viewed nuclear weapons as useful additions to their
nations' military might.
This certainly included U.S. officials. Learning of the successful
destruction of Hiroshima, President Truman called the atomic bomb
"the greatest thing in history" and moved forward with the nuclear
annihilation of Nagasaki. He also ordered the creation of a vast
nuclear arsenal for the United States, including hydrogen bombs.
Truman's successor, Dwight Eisenhower, came to office with no
interest whatsoever in nuclear arms controls or disarmament. Instead,
Eisenhower favored what he called "massive retaliation" and the
integration of nuclear weapons into conventional war. Nuclear
weapons, Eisenhower declared, should "be used exactly as you would
use a bullet or anything else." John F. Kennedy campaigned for the
Presidency by pledging a U.S. nuclear buildup to close the supposed
"missile gap" between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Even Jimmy Carter -- as much a man of peace as any who has reached
the White House -- championed the development of the neutron bomb and
the MX missile. Ronald Reagan, of course, entered office as an
opponent of every nuclear arms control treaty signed by his
Democratic and Republican predecessors. Furthermore, he talked glibly
about fighting and winning nuclear wars. His successor, George H. W.
Bush, halted nuclear arms control and disarmament negotiations in one
of his first acts in office.
But they all came around to rejecting nuclear war and championing
nuclear arms control and disarmament measures.
This reversal occurred because of a massive, worldwide campaign of
public protest against the nuclear arms race and nuclear war. Atomic
scientists, pacifists, professional groups, religious bodies, unions,
intellectuals, and just plain folks were horrified at the nuclear
recklessness of government officials -- including their own -- and
demanded nuclear disarmament. Powerful anti-nuclear groups sprang up
around the world. In the United States, they included the Federation
of American Scientists, the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy
(SANE), Women Strike for Peace, Physicians for Social Responsibility,
and the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign. These constituencies
demanded that the nuclear arms race stop, that nuclear disarmament
begin, and that nuclear war be banned. For the most part, the general
public agreed. During the 1980s, polls found that 70 to 80 percent of
Americans supported the Nuclear Freeze proposal for a Soviet-American
treaty to halt the testing, development, and deployment of nuclear
weapons. The waging of nuclear war inspired widespread popular revulsion.
This public resistance to nuclear weapons startled government
officials and gradually pushed them back from implementing their
nuclear ambitions. As U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles put
it, there had developed "a popular and diplomatic pressure for
limitation of armament that cannot be resisted by the United States
without our forfeiting the good will of our allies and the support of
a large part of our own people." When the Soviet Union began a
unilateral halt to nuclear testing in 1958, the U.S. government could
no longer resist. Testing was "not evil," Eisenhower remarked in
exasperation, but "people have been brought to believe that it is!"
And so the U.S. and British governments joined the Russians in
halting nuclear testing. When some Eisenhower administration
officials called for greater flexibility in the use of nuclear
weapons, the President brushed them off. "The use of nuclear
weapons," he said, "would raise serious political problems in view of
the current state of world opinion."
The Kennedy administration also felt besieged by protests against
nuclear weapons. According to the minutes of a November 1961 National
Security Council meeting, "the President voiced doubts that we could
ever test in Nevada again for domestic political reasons," while the
U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, "pointed up
the difficulty of testing at Eniwetok." Ultimately, Kennedy turned to
Norman Cousins, the founder and co-chair of SANE, and urged him to
use his meeting with Nikita Khrushchev to smooth the path toward a
nuclear test ban treaty. That's just what Cousins did, and the result
was the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963. Jerome Wiesner, Kennedy's
White House Science adviser, gave the major credit for the treaty to
SANE and Women Strike for Peace. According to McGeorge Bundy,
Kennedy's national security adviser, the treaty "was achieved
primarily by world opinion."
When it came to the Vietnam War, Bundy recalled, the U.S. government
did not dare to use nuclear weapons. Why? There would have been a
terrible public reaction abroad, Bundy said; even more significant
was the prospect of public upheaval in the United States, for -- as
he recalled -- "no president could hope for understanding and support
from his own countrymen if he used the bomb." Explaining his own
restraint in the war, Richard Nixon recalled bitterly that, had he
used nuclear weapons or bombed North Vietnamese dikes, "The resulting
domestic and international uproar would have damaged our foreign
policy on all fronts."
Taking "yes" for an answer
Even the hawkish Ronald Reagan had the good sense to get out of the
way of the political steamroller. In an effort to dampen popular
protest against his nuclear buildup, he endorsed the "zero option --
a proposal to remove all the intermediate range nuclear missiles from
Europe. Then he dropped plans to deploy the neutron bomb. Then he
agreed to abide by the provisions of SALT II -- though it was never
ratified and, during the 1980 campaign, he had condemned it as an act
of "appeasement." Although Reagan proceeded with the deployment of
U.S. missiles in Western Europe, he was so rattled by the massive
protests against them that, in October 1983, he told his startled
secretary of state: "If things get hotter and hotter and arms control
remains an issue, maybe I should go see [Soviet Premier Yuri]
Andropov and propose eliminating all nuclear weapons." And, despite
protests from his advisers, he did propose that, in a remarkable
speech in January 1984. Moreover, as early as April 1982 he began
declaring publicly that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never
be fought." He added, "To those who protest against nuclear war, I
can only say: 'I'm with you!'"
All this happened during Reagan's first term in office, during the
reigns of Leonid Brezhnev, Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko in the
Soviet Union -- before the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev.
Gorbachev's rise to power in March 1985 removed the Soviet stumbling
block in the path of arms control and disarmament agreements, for the
new Soviet party leader was a movement convert. Gorbachev's "New
Thinking" -- by which he meant the necessity for peace and
disarmament in the nuclear age -- came from a well-known anti-nuclear
statement by Albert Einstein in 1946, reiterated in the famous
Russell-Einstein appeal of 1955. Gorbachev's advisers have frequently
pointed to the powerful influence of the nuclear disarmament campaign
upon the Soviet leader, and Gorbachev himself declared that the new
thinking took into consideration the conclusions and demands of the
antiwar organizations and anti-nuclear activists.
Gorbachev met frequently with leaders of the nuclear disarmament
movement and often followed their suggestions. On the advice of
nuclear disarmament activists, he initiated and later continued a
unilateral Soviet nuclear testing moratorium, decided against
building a Star Wars antimissile system, and split the issue of Star
Wars from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, thus taking the
crucial step toward the 1987 agreement that removed all
intermediate-range nuclear missiles from Europe.
When Gorbachev suddenly called the U.S. bluff by agreeing to remove
all the Euromissiles (the zero option), it horrified NATO's hawks --
including Margaret Thatcher in Britain, the Christian Democrats in
West Germany, and key Republican leaders in the United States, such
as Robert Dole, Jesse Helms, and Henry Kissinger. But, as U.S.
Secretary of State George Shultz recalled: "If the United States
reversed its stand now . . . such a reversal would be political
dynamite!" Or, as Kenneth Adelman, Reagan's hawkish director of the
Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, put it: "We had to take yes for
In response to anti-nuclear agitation during these years, there were
also important shifts in other lands. New Zealand banned nuclear
warships in its ports; Australia refused to test MX missiles. India
halted work on nuclear weapons, and its prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi,
joined with Gorbachev in calling for nuclear abolition. The
Philippines adopted a nuclear-free constitution and shut down U.S.
military bases that housed nuclear weapons. South Africa scrapped its
nuclear weapons program. No new nations joined the nuclear club.
Although the movement began to decline in the late 1980s, it retained
some influence. President George H. W. Bush and his secretary of
state, James Baker, felt that Reagan had moved too fast and too far
toward nuclear disarmament and abruptly halted disarmament
negotiations. But their reluctance soon collapsed.
The U.S. and British governments wanted to significantly upgrade
short-range nuclear forces in Western Europe. However, a number of
West European governments, frightened at the prospect of a revival of
public protest, resisted. When Gorbachev unilaterally removed
short-range missiles from Eastern Europe, thus encouraging popular
protests against the missiles in Western Europe, Baker was horrified.
"We were losing the battle for public opinion. We had to do
something," he wrote in his memoirs. "NATO could not afford another
crisis over deploying nuclear weapons. The alliance . . . would not
be able to survive." Thus, the Bush administration backed off and
agreed to negotiate missile reductions. Eventually, in a sharp
departure from past practice, it unilaterally withdrew its
short-range missiles from Western Europe.
Stopping the tests
The impact of the anti-nuclear movement upon nuclear testing was even
more direct. Since the mid-1980s, disarmament groups around the world
had been working to stop underground nuclear weapons explosions.
Thanks to their pleas, Gorbachev initiated and continued his
unilateral nuclear testing moratorium. But, after eighteen months of
Reagan administration rebuffs to the moratorium and to a test ban
treaty, in February 1987 the Soviets resumed testing. This setback,
however, only heightened anti-nuclear agitation.
Protesters organized large demonstrations at the Nevada Test Site.
Police arrested thousands of Americans each year for nonviolent civil
disobedience. Inspired by these actions, a massive
Nevada-Semipalatinsk nuclear disarmament movement emerged in the
Soviet Union, eventually forcing the closure of the Soviet nuclear test sites.
Meanwhile, sympathetic members of Congress introduced a variety of
bills to halt U.S. nuclear testing. In 1991, pressed hard by
disarmament groups, they pushed for action again. The final
legislation, passed in the summer of 1992, halted underground nuclear
testing for nine months, placed strict conditions on further U.S.
testing, and required test ban negotiations and an end to U.S.
testing by late 1996.
Having halted U.S. and Soviet nuclear testing, the movement pushed on
in the following years to secure the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty
(CTBT). During his presidential campaign, Bill Clinton -- recognizing
the popular appeal of ending nuclear testing -- had pledged to
support the test ban treaty. But after he entered the White House in
January 1993, Clinton began to renege. Disarmament groups and
anti-nuclear members of Congress stirred up a test ban campaign later
that year, and the administration extended the U.S. nuclear testing
moratorium, pressed other nuclear powers to join it, and began
worldwide efforts to secure a treaty. Finally, in September 1996,
representatives of countries around the world celebrated the signing
of the CTBT. Speaking at the U.N. ceremonies, U.S. Amb. Madeleine
Albright declared: "This was a treaty sought by ordinary people
everywhere, and today the power of that universal wish could not be denied."
That is the good news.
What can be done?
The bad news is that since the end of the Cold War popular pressure
against nuclear weapons has waned, and -- as a result -- hawkish
government officials have felt freer to go about their traditional
business of preparing for war, including nuclear war. India and
Pakistan became nuclear weapons powers and threatened one another
with nuclear annihilation. The U.S. Senate rejected ratification of
the CTBT. And the administration of George W. Bush -- playing upon
fears generated by 9/11 -- has withdrawn from the Anti-Ballistic
Missile Treaty, opposed the CTBT, and laid plans for building new
Decades of struggle against the Bomb offer some strategic lessons.
One is that the threat nuclear weapons pose to human survival
provides a very effective basis for sparking mass mobilization
against them. Even so, playing on fear can backfire, for hawkish
forces can use it to make the case for more nuclear weapons.
Consequently, disarmament advocates must not only stress the dangers
of a nuclear buildup, but also provide a practical, positive
alternative. On a short-term basis, this means nuclear arms control
and disarmament under international control; on a long-term basis,
the strengthening of international authority to prevent war and aggression.
Furthermore, because the mass media usually avoid discussing nuclear
weapons issues and because much of the public would prefer not to
think about nuclear annihilation, many people are ignorant about
their governments' nuclear ambitions. Therefore, to stir up mass
mobilization against nuclear weapons, disarmament groups must work
overtime at raising popular consciousness about what governments are
doing to prepare for nuclear war.
Finally, in order to develop that consciousness-raising campaign, as
well as sensible alternatives to preparing for nuclear war,
disarmament groups (and other civil society organizations) need to
adopt a common focus for their efforts. They did this (more or less)
in connection with halting nuclear testing, coordinating the European
Nuclear Disarmament campaign, and organizing the Nuclear Freeze campaign.
There are also more profound lessons. Left to themselves, governments
gravitate toward nuclear weapons and nuclear war as a means of
defending national interests. Nor is this surprising, for the
nation-state system has produced arms races and wars throughout its
history. Fortunately, nations can be compelled to reverse themselves.
When the nuclear disarmament movement has mobilized substantial
popular pressure, it has succeeded in curbing the nuclear arms race
and preventing nuclear war.
What the movement has done before, it can do again.
Lawrence S. Wittner, professor of history at the State University of
New York-Albany, is the author of Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History
of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1971 to the Present
(2003). This article appeared in the July-August 2004 issue of the
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.