As the threat of nuclear war triggers anxiety not seen since the Cold War, peace groups and those committed to the elimination of nuclear weapons are entering the public debate with renewed calls for dialogue and a reduction in nuclear arsenals in both North Korea and the US. Meanwhile, anti-nuclear civil disobedience is ramping up.
On September 6, six nuclear resisters were found guilty of trespass after crossing the marked property of Naval Base Kitsap earlier this year. Charley Smith — a resident of Eugene, Oregon, and a member of the Catholic Worker movement — carried a copy of the Nuremberg Principles when he crossed the line, as did the others. Many of those active in the Catholic Worker movement, which was founded in 1933 during the Great Depression, have been jailed for acts of protest against war, social injustice, racism and unfair labor practices. Asked to explain the Nuremberg Principles by the judge, Smith replied, “Very simply, if we remain silent or do not challenge the evils of society, we are complicit in those evils just as much as those giving the orders to commit crimes against peace, war crimes or crimes against humanity.” Alexandria Addesso, the youngest of the defendants, said nuclear disarmament was a “right to life issue” for her and her generation. She noted there were many threats to her generation — from climate change to economic inequity — adding, “I might not have 10, 20 or 30 years of life ahead of me, and I want to work with my peers to end the threat of nuclear annihilation.”
Meanwhile, other activists have taken a different approach.
Showing the Public the Reality of the Threat of Nuclear Weapons
In Washington State, where Naval Base Kitsap is home port for the largest concentration of deployed nuclear weapons in the US, peace groups and those calling for nuclear disarmament are running ads to remind the public of the humanitarian catastrophe that would ensue should the Trump administration retaliate against North Korea. One ad pleads for Trump “to extend the hand of reason and dialogue to the leadership in North Korea and other nuclear nations,” while the other asks, “What will happen to our children?”
Martin Fleck, security program director for Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), says public concern over a nuclear war has spiked. The only path to safety, he says, is the total elimination of nuclear weapons. PSR calls for the United States and North Korea to step back from the brink, “cease the incendiary rhetoric, and begin direct negotiations with no preconditions.”
An ad paid for by the Washington chapter of PSR running in the state’s largest newspaper, the Seattle Times, states, “If this current dilemma has taught us anything, it is that the world’s residents will only be free from the horrors posed by nuclear weapons when their total elimination has been achieved. We express our outrage that the threat to unleash nuclear weapons is being brandished as if these were simply an extension of more conventional weapons.” The ad continues, “An attack using nuclear weapons against North Korea would produce an unprecedented and unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe. These warheads produce temperatures greater than the surface of the sun, blast forces that level all structures for miles and release levels of radiation that kill both quickly and slowly. We have all seen the wrenching images from Hiroshima and Nagasaki — incinerated bodies, flesh torn loose, pathetic survivors grappling at life’s edge.”
Long before the North Korean crisis raised the nuclear stakes, the Obama administration set in motion plans for the US to “rebuild and recapitalize almost its entire nuclear arsenal,” says Kingston Reif with the Arms Control Association. The upgrade includes the Navy’s Ohio-class submarine replacement program, a replacement for the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and a new fleet of nuclear-capable, air-launched cruise missiles. Trump inherited the program, and his first budget request “proposes to move full steam ahead with the Obama approach,” says Reif. The cost? A trillion dollars over the next 30 years with a total cost that could reach $1.5 trillion if left unchecked.
On September 8 the House and Senate passed a short-term spending bill to keep the federal government fully funded through December 8. But House and Senate leaders have yet to agree on the full fiscal 2018 spending bill, including the proposal to rebuild the country’s nuclear arsenal. Nuclear brinkmanship over North Korea, coupled with strained relations between the US and its Asian allies and with Russia, is causing groups who’ve worked for decades to eliminate the threats posed by the world’s most dangerous weapons to double their efforts. “The US and Russia together possess over 90 percent of the roughly 15,000 nuclear warheads on the planet,” says Reif. Both sides are engaged in full-blown modernization efforts to upgrade their nuclear arsenals and sustain those arsenals for decades to come, he adds.
The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) requires that the United States and Russia each reduce their deployed strategic nuclear forces to no more than 1,550 warheads and 700 delivery systems by 2018. The agreement, which is slated to expire in 2021, can be extended by up to five years if both Moscow and Washington agree. So far, both sides are implementing the agreement and there are no indications that they don’t plan to continue to do so. Russia has indicated it’s interested in beginning talks with the United States on extending the treaty, but the Trump administration has yet to respond to these overtures.
Post Cold-War Nuclear Realities
After the Cold War, most of the US public thought the country was disarming. In fact, the Pentagon was silently working to advance nuclear weapons — many of them at Naval Base Kitsap, located on the eastern shore of Hood Canal, 20 miles west of Seattle. The base is homeport for eight of the US Navy’s 14 Trident ballistic missile submarines, as well as an underground nuclear weapons storage complex. Together, they’re believed to store more than 1,300 nuclear warheads, according to Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.
A small nonprofit, Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action, which shares a land border with the naval base, has engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience over the dangers of nuclear weapons since the 1970s. When warheads began to arrive at the base on rail cars from a Pantex assembly plant in Texas — trains known as the “white trains of death” — momentum in the anti-nuclear movement began to build. Several thousand protesters would gather on shore, along with a flotilla of boats to meet the trains. Many were arrested and some spent months in federal prison when they entered the base where nuclear warheads were stored in bunkers guarded by Marines with shoot-to-kill orders. But by the 1990s, large-scale public outcry had subsided. The Department of Energy, which supervises the nation’s nuclear weapons, stopped shipping warheads by train and began moving them via unmarked trucks and trailers. An age of secrecy had begun.
Fast forward to the 21st century when nuclear modernization efforts under Obama and Trump intensified, and Ground Zero decided it needed to up its game to enlist more public resistance. This summer, the group began running ads on Metro King County/Seattle buses to alert the public to the administration’s $1 trillion plan to modernize the nuclear arsenal. “Congress wants $1 trillion for nukes. What will be left for our children? Take action here. www.gzcenter.org” reads the ad. Behind the text are the eyes of a child, who takes up most of the frame, and a Trident submarine.
Rodney Brunelle has worked with Ground Zero for a dozen years and helped conceive of the ad. He says that after watching US nuclear buildup go unquestioned by the public, he realized that to be effective, activists “need to take our message to where the people are.” He added: “Whenever I tell people about the base and what’s actually there, almost without exception their reaction is an incredulous, ‘Are you serious?’ ‘I didn’t know that’ or ‘God, that’s awful! Why?'”
The ad agency that produced the ad estimates it will have 9.1 million “gross impressions” — meaning it will be seen, often more than once, by the county’s 2.1 million residents over a 12-week run. In 2016, Ground Zero ran its first bus ad with words that pierce the consciousness: “20 miles west of Seattle is the largest concentration of deployed nuclear weapons in the US.” Behind the text was a map depicting the proximity of Seattle to Naval Base Kitsap, located on Hood Canal — one of four main basins in Washington State’s Puget Sound. Long-time Ground Zero activist Glen Milner says the ad had an important impact. It caused local media to start using the terms “largest concentration of deployed nuclear weapons in the US.”
“It sort of crept into the vocabulary,” he says. “It was recognized and became an accepted fact.”
Breaking Through “the Noise and Confusion”
“We have to break through the noise and confusion,” says Milner, “and there is more now than in the 1990s.” Part of that includes debunking the notion of strategic nuclear deterrence, adds colleague Leonard Eiger, Ground Zero’s communications director. Deterrence gained prominence as a military strategy during the Cold War. It relies on creating doubt among enemy nations regarding nuclear capacity and is intended to dissuade an adversary from taking an action not yet started. But “it’s nothing more than a theory,” says Eiger, “and it has created a false sense of security that has motivated countries to develop nuclear weapons.”
David Krieger, president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, puts it like this: “To the extent that the theory of nuclear deterrence is accepted as valid and its flaws overlooked or ignored, it will make nuclear weapons seem to be valuable instruments for the protection of a country.” Uncritical acceptance “provides an incentive for nuclear proliferation,” he says. “If it’s believed that nuclear weapons can keep a country safe, there will be commensurate pressure to develop such weapons.
At the same time, North Korea is an example of the temporary success of deterrence, counters Judith Lipton, a psychologist who writes about peace and war. “Kim Jong-un has deterred the US from invading him or trying to force regime change. But it’s a deterrence run amok, because the more rhetoric and weapons, the greater the chance of a (nuclear) encounter.”
Adds Ground Zero’s Eiger, “It’s not like we’re in a situation with two essentially stable leaders saying, ‘Ok, I have the weapons, you have the weapons, nobody is going to launch because it would be the end of us all.'” Instead, we have two “unstable ones,” he says referring to Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, “standing on the opposite sides of a swimming pool filled with gasoline each holding a lighted match.”
This summer, the first UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was signed by 122 nations — all of which are non-nuclear nations. Proponents applauded it as the first time such a treaty had been negotiated in the seven-decade effort to avert a nuclear war. But not one of the world’s nine nuclear-armed nations or those under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s umbrella voted for it. “The potential for accidental nuclear war probably hasn’t been this high since the Cuban Missile Crisis,” concludes Eiger.
Congress introduced a bill earlier this year to prevent the president from launching a nuclear first strike without a congressional declaration of war, the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017. The policy has long been debated but was never seriously pursued during the Obama administration. It’s “now become anything other than abstract under Donald Trump,” writes Emily Tamkin in Foreign Policy. The legislation, introduced by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-California) passed both houses of Congress and is meant to pry the “nuclear football” out of the president’s hands. The bill is backed by global disarmament groups and some former US officials like William Perry, former secretary of defense, but has languished in the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, chaired by Rep. Ed Royce (R-California).
For their part, Republicans in Congress are advancing legislation that would escalate a dispute with Russia over alleged violations of the only treaty to successfully eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons. The legislation encourages the United States to develop a cruise missile, which is prohibited by the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
Back in Seattle, meanwhile, a metro bus winds through traffic. On its flank is the ad paid for by Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action: “Congress Wants $1 trillion for nukes. What will be left for our children? Take action here.” Brunelle shakes his head, saying, “It goes without saying that it’s hard to build a resistance movement against something few people are even aware of. This is a way to raise public consciousness.”
The question of what will be left for our children after nuclear war is an existential one, adds Eiger, but one so horrific and catastrophic, that no nation should risk finding out the answer.