Nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the major combatants were at the center of the Cold War and are moving to the center of the new world political/military dynamic. These weapons are uniquely evil because their enormous indiscriminate destructive force, and long-lived environmental and human damage, obliterates the distinction between soldier and civilian, innocent bystander and active fighter. They are the essence of terror, as intended since their first (and so far only) use at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The terror aspects of nuclear weapons were multiplied exponentially by the development of thermonuclear explosives following the end of World War II. Soviet Russia raced to build its own bombs (atomic and hydrogen) to avoid nuclear coercion and thus created a “balance of terror” through a structure of “mutual assured destruction.” Britain and France developed their own nuclear forces in the 1950’s; China joined the nuclear weapons club in the 1960’s. By the late 1970’s the major nuclear powers possessed over 50,000 nuclear explosives, enough to destroy the world many times over.
In the 1980’s, at the height of the Cold War, millions of Americans and millions of people around the world organized to put an end to the balance of terror. Organized around the concept of a Nuclear Freeze in the US the movement focused on grass-roots organizing promoting the demand to freeze the arms race. The grass roots measures included resolutions by organizations (churches, labor organizations and professional organizations and societies especially in the medical field), city councils, and state legislatures; referenda on state and local ballots; demonstrations and mass meetings; and teach-ins about the dangers of nuclear weapons and nuclear war.
The Reagan administration and its allies mobilized to stop the Freeze, defeating a resolution supporting a bi-lateral freeze with the USSR in the US Senate in 1984, after it had passed the House. Reagan was re-elected in 1984. However, despite his skepticism, Reagan was convinced by the widespread grass-roots actions to hold nuclear disarmament meetings with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. In 1985 Reagan and Gorbachev met in Reykjavik Iceland. In the account of Richard Rhodes the two leaders agreed in principle to eliminate all nuclear explosives within ten years, before foundering on Reagan’s demand for Star Wars which Gorbachev perceived as a subterfuge to achieve nuclear superiority in space-based weapons. Nevertheless, their exchanges resulted in significant arms reductions advances over the next few years and at the end of the Cold War.
Fast forward to today.
In the US the Trump administration, carrying forward and expanding an Obama administration policy, has recently announced a policy of modernizing the US nuclear capability and integrating it into military planning, at an enormous cost (at least $50 billion annually for the foreseeable future according to the Congressional Budget Office). At the same time his administration undermines the web of international treaties designed to maintain parity of nuclear forces between traditional adversaries and reduce production and growth of nuclear war-fighting capabilities. This is a dangerous development, because – among other things – it seeks to normalize the use and threatened use of nuclear weapons in conventional conflicts. It contradicts Ronald Reagan’s mantra from the 1980’s that “NUCLEAR WAR CAN NEVER BE WON AND MUST NEVER BE FOUGHT.”
On this site we will explore the experience and lessons of the 1980’s in order to revive the sense of activism and passion that prevailed then. The world is moving forward to challenge the nuclear expansion trends:
- the United Nations has adopted a treaty to abolish the possession of nuclear weapons, signed by 70 nations and ratified by 23 as of May 1, 2019 (it goes into force when 50 nations ratify);
- growing numbers of US Senators and Representatives are calling for an end to the US doctrine reserving the right to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict;
- in California the state legislature has adopted resolutions calling on Congress to end first use and to embrace the principles of the UN Treaty (AJR 30 (Aguiar-Curry) and AJR 33 (Limon).