Hiroshima and the World: Citizen Action, the Foundation for Nuclear Weapons Abolition

by Joseph Gerson

Joseph Gerson
Dr. Joseph Gerson has worked with the American Friends Service Committee, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, since 1976. He is AFSC’s National Disarmament Coordinator and its Director of Programs in New England. He serves as the Co-Convener of the 2010 NPT Review Conference International Planning Committee, which is organizing a major international peace and justice conference on the eve of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference at the United Nations. A leading public intellectual, his work focuses on U.S. foreign and military policies, particularly the prevention of nuclear war and achieving nuclear weapons abolition. His publications include four books, including Empire and the Bomb: How the U.S. Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World. Dr. Gerson received his Ph.D. in Politics and International Security Studies from the Union Institute and College in 1996. He was born in the U.S. state of New Jersey in October 1946.

Citizen Action, the Foundation for Nuclear Weapons Abolition

Two years ago, peace activists in New Hampshire gathered at a conference designed to impact the coming presidential campaign debate. They came to learn about the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, about nuclear dangers and abolition, and about economic issues. They also came to learn how to seek out the candidates and to ask them questions that simultaneously informed the candidates, the press, and audiences and which prevented the candidates from falling back on tired rhetoric.

The workshop I led was designed as the first step in a campaign with seemingly utopian goals: to win candidates' commitments to oppose funding for development of nuclear weapons and to win their pledges to work for nuclear weapons abolition.

I taught the reasons Hiroshima and Nagasaki were decimated with A-bombs and attempted to describe their indescribable carnage. I reviewed the 40 wars and crises when U.S. presidents prepared and threatened to initiate nuclear wars. I described the importance of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), including the Article VI obligation to negotiate the elimination of the world's nuclear arsenals. And I explained how the Bush Administration subverted the 2005 NPT Review Conference, placing its future in doubt.

That campaign was successful. As the candidates endured the seemingly endless circuit of fund raisers; speeches in labor, church and meeting halls; and street corner rallies and encounters, they were surprised by abolitionists' insistent questions and by young people who showed up at events dressed as nuclear mutants, winning the attention of the candidates, the audiences and the press.

To distinguish themselves in voters' hearts and minds, three Democrats did what no other presidential candidates had ever done. First, rather than answer a question about gun control, John Edwards launched into a soliloquy about the importance of nuclear weapons abolition. Soon he was joined in calling for an end to nuclear weapons by Barack Obama and Bill Richardson. Months later, when the Democratic Party's platform was unveiled, it too called for "a world without nuclear weapons." And, on April 5, 2009 President Obama publicly acknowledged the United States' "moral responsibility" to work for a nuclear-weapons-free world.

Would that words were enough!

Ten months later New York Times columnist Bob Herbert warned that President Obama is developing a "credibility gap." Herbert's focus was the economy and Obama's wars, but the credibility gap also applies to U.S. nuclear weapons and war policies. With the President's budget, the advance advertising for his Nuclear Posture Review and the campaign for START 1 Follow On Treaty ratification, many have been left to wonder if there was more truth in the President's "perhaps not in our lifetime" caveat in Prague than in his ostensible commitment to a nuclear-free future.

Whether this is a consequence of President Obama being a less than courageous centrist politician, or if he has been stymied by the power of the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex, we are seeing more continuity with decades of U.S. nuclear policies than promised change.

Money reflects commitments and priorities, and President Obama's budget calls for more money for nuclear weapons: a 10% increase to ensure the "reliability" of the genocidal nuclear weapons stockpile, a $2 billion dollar increase to modernize and expand the country's nuclear weapons infrastructure; funding to study development of the new nuclear warhead the President and Democratic Party platform supposedly opposed, and $800 million to develop a new nuclear-capable cruise missile.

Then there was the Vice-President's widely publicized speech at the National Defense University. He reiterated Washington's continued reliance on nuclear "deterrence," the policy which for 60 years has provided political cover for its first-strike capabilities and threats.

The START 1 Follow On Treaty is more about symbolism than meaningful reductions. In eight years, it will reduce U.S. and Russian deployed nuclear weapons by 25%, leaving them with more than 90% of the world's nuclear weapons. Yet, even these negotiations stalled because Obama is deploying so-called "missile defenses" in the Czech Republic, Poland, Rumania and at sea, leading Russia to fear it is being surrounded with shields to reinforce U.S. first-strike nuclear swords.

Officials have been dropping hints about the content of the Nuclear Posture Review, informing us that it will reiterate the first-strike policy, albeit in coded language. This will lead other nations to maintain or develop deterrent nuclear arsenals to prevent possible U.S. attacks. Regardless of what the Posture Review says about first-strike as declared policy, the capability--and thus the option--of first-strike nuclear war-fighting will remain. This will not be offset by the Review's reported commitments to reduce the size of the nuclear stockpile or a commitment not to build the new nuclear weapons that President Obama's budget seeks to study!

Finally, the President's Nuclear Security Conference in April will focus on non-proliferation, not abolition. As Washington insiders have reported, the President's disarmament agenda has more to do with regaining diplomatic leverage to promote non-proliferation, which was lost by President Bush's outrages, than with achieving a nuclear-weapons-free world.

The insistence that the U.S. and other nuclear powers can possess, develop and threaten use of nuclear weapons while others must kowtow to their demands will not win the hearts and minds of aspiring nuclear powers, the Non Aligned Movement, or even many U.S. allies. So, this May's Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, an occasion when the world's non-nuclear nations can press the nuclear powers to fulfill their Article VI commitments, will be interesting to say the least.

The old slogan has it right: "When the people lead, the leaders will follow." Just as New Hampshire citizens impacted the nuclear landscape, gatherings of peace movement leaders last year might do the same as we approach May’s Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference.

Meeting in stuffy UN basement rooms and other locales on the margins of last year's NPT Preparatory Committee, dozens of leading abolitionists from around the world met to plan ways to impact this May's NPT Review Conference. We agreed on four initiatives that now comprise the broadest popular mobilization for nuclear weapons abolition in more than a decade, with 250 organizations around the world uniting with our "Disarm Now!" call. They demand that the world's nuclear powers begin their negotiations to finally eliminate their nuclear arsenals.

To demonstrate people's hopes for nuclear weapons abolition, millions of signatures – the greatest number gathered in Japan - have been gathered calling for the NPT Review Conference to mandate the commencement of negotiations for a nuclear weapons abolition treaty. These will be presented to the Review Conference to stiffen diplomatic wills.

On April 30 and May 1, 1,000 of the world's leading peace and justice activists will gather at the historic Riverside Church in Manhattan for an international conference. With plenary speakers from Russia, Japan, Brazil, the United States, and Pakistan and more than 20 workshops, the conference will provide a forum to share analyses, coordinate activities, and build abolition and peace campaigns for the future.

Sunday, May 2 will be the International Day of Action for a Nuclear Free World. Thousands will rally near Times Square, where they will hear speeches by the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by Afghan and Iraqi war opponents, by A-bomb survivors, Native Americans resisting uranium mining and others. Then we'll march across Manhattan to the U.N.

And, throughout the first weeks of the Review Conference, along with their older allies, younger activists will demonstrate and lobby delegates, as the rising generation of abolitionists creatively insist "Hell No! We Won't Glow!"

Will this be enough to reverse the nuclear danger? Not likely. But with the help of one of the largest delegations of A-bomb survivors ever to travel to the United States, we will teach diplomats, the Powers That Be, and the world that sweet words are not enough. Human survival depends on winning nuclear weapons abolition. We are building the movements that can achieve that real security.

(Originally published on March 29, 2010)

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