Physicians Work to Bring Back the Anti-Nuclear Movement

It is a move that many, including former President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev, believe has ignited a new nuclear arms race. This is because the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, signed by Gorbachev and former US President Ronald Reagan, banned all short and mid-range nuclear and non-nuclear missiles, and helped eliminate thousands of land-based missiles.

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that Trump has already promised to build new nuclear weapons, in addition to having withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal, heightening tensions further after having previously threatened the use of nuclear weapons against North Korea. Trump has also promised to build new nuclear weapons.

While these deeply concerning issues, which are clear existential threats to the entire planet, often fly under the radar, a large and diverse coalition of groups across Washington State has formed with the aim of reviving the anti-nuclear movement.

Kitsap Bangor Naval Base is the single largest collection of nuclear weapons in the US, and each of those warheads is many times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” Estela Ortega, the executive director of El Centro de la Raza, told Truthout. El Centro de la Raza is a Seattle-based civil rights, human services, educational, cultural and economic development organization.

Ortega explained that the mission of her organization is “to struggle for a clean, safe, and nuclear waste-free environment for our people and future generations. To work for a rational use of natural resources in the interests of the preservation of Mother Earth and the peaceful development of humankind.”

She added, “Our commitment to a nuclear free world and preserving Mother Earth has been with us since the beginning of our organization.”

Ortega’s organization is now part of Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility’s (WPSR) effort to revive anti-nuclear awareness across the state by developing what has become a broad, socially diverse coalition of dozens of partners who share the same goal.

WPSR, which is the Washington State chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), reached out to Ortega and her organization after she gave a speech at Hiroshima to Hope’s annual remembrance event.

“Their mission and goals were similar to ours in that nuclear weapons should be eliminated and those dollars then used to end poverty,” she said. “In addition, the dollars should be used to strengthen our nation by funding education, housing, health care, rebuilding our country, creating jobs and now we need funds to combat climate change for clean air, water, a green economy and healthy forests.”

Lilly Adams is the security program organizer for WPSR, as well as the co-chair of the group’s Nuclear Weapons Abolition Task Force. Adams coordinates WPSR’s statewide coalition, Washington Against Nuclear Weapons.

“The primary aim of our work is to reduce our nuclear weapons arsenal and spending on nuclear weapons, and working towards a world without nuclear weapons,” Adams told Truthout. “Every nuclear weapon that is dismantled makes us a little bit safer. These weapons threaten our society simply by existing, because there is always the risk of intentional use, unintentional use or accidents.”

The coalition includes Earthcare Not Warfare, South Seattle Climate Action Network, Spokane Veterans for Peace, Social Equity Educators, the Seattle Education Association, a student group at the University of Washington called Beyond the Bomb, and more.

The aim of WPSR’s statewide coalition is to mobilize leaders and their organization’s members in each congressional district to apply consistent pressure to each member of Congress, with the eventual aim of abolishing nuclear weapons altogether. It is working in tandem with the national PSR organization, which has been advocating for more than half a century to create what its website states is “a healthy, just and peaceful world for both the present and future generations.” PSR is the US affiliate of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.

Adams aims to reverse the trends that have been laid out in the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review.

“This review lays out the administration’s view of the role of nuclear weapons,” she said. “It calls for more usable nuclear weapons, expands the situations in which we might use nuclear weapons, and sidelines disarmament and diplomacy. In the short term, we have to work to oppose these dangerous policies.”

Washington as Ground Zero

Laura Skelton, the executive director of WPSR, told Truthout she knew building a coalition like this would be challenging in Washington. This is because the Boeing company (which builds nuclear missiles), uranium mining, nuclear weapons storage and the Hanford nuclear waste site have all played a significant role in the state’s economy.

Additionally, the US military’s standing presence in the state is highlighted by this statement on Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s website: “The Military and Defense sector is Washington’s second largest direct public employer. This key industry cuts across many sectors in Washington, helps create the backbone for a strong economy through our diverse defense missions and military installations, our pioneering companies, and our military friendly communities.”

Governor Inslee, the so-called greenest governor, also convened the Washington Military Alliance to ensure military spending continues to flow into the state.

“It’s also delicate to bring up Boeing’s role in nuclear weapons systems production,” Skelton said. “I doubt most residents are aware of their role in the military economy, and in the nuclear weapons industry in particular.”

Bangor, Washington, is one of the largest depots of nuclear weapons in the US, and coupled with the other aforementioned nuclear-related presences, Washington State is a sort of “ground zero” for anti-nuclear organizing for the nation.

Bruce Amundson, WPSR’s vice president and co-chair of our Nuclear Weapons Abolition Task Force, is a former family physician, and was the catalyst for WPSR’s anti-nuclear weapons coalition.

“Some of the old-guard anti-nuclear leaders back then [during the 1980s] were early responders to our requests to join a statewide coalition and have been some of the most engaged folks,” Amundson told Truthout. “So, like the Trump phenomenon, our Washington history has been a boon to organizing.”

On the other hand, the massive presence of the military in Washington, coupled with the influence of Boeing and the defense industries, have a grip on the state government that, Amundson said, “is hard to break.”

However, according to Amundson, several members of WPSR’s growing coalition are now linked to members of Congress in each district of the state and are making “aggressive asks.” He said the results have been notable.

Since the campaign began two years ago, WPSR has seen members of Congress who were formerly absent on nuclear issues now speaking out or supporting legislative initiatives for the first time. Additionally, Amundson said two-thirds of Washington’s congressional delegation have “moved” along the spectrum to a better position on the issue.

“Our requests have been supported by strong arguments, by the humanitarian perspective of human carnage and by a clear message that something is happening in Washington around nuclear issues and we are not going away,” Amundson said.

Adams pointed out that although Boeing’s presence makes Washington a challenging place to form an anti-nuclear coalition, many people simply don’t realize Boeing is one of the largest nuclear weapons systems producers in the country. If they did, they might not be so excited about its presence.

“Producers of other weapons of mass destruction, like chemical weapons, are often condemned by the public, but somehow this is still not true for producers of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons systems,” Adams said. “But often people simply don’t know this other side of Boeing. Boeing is a big contributor to the Democratic and Republican parties and individual elected officials in Washington State, and they spend a massive amount of money lobbying Congress.”

According to Adams, all that power and money being invested in the continued production of nuclear weapons by Boeing points to a more general corporate nightmare: Much of the US nuclear weapons production is carried out by private companies. These companies stand to profit from the continued existence and reliance on nuclear weapons, regardless of the negative impacts on communities.

The Kitsap Bangor naval base is home to the largest collection of deployed (or ready-to-use) nuclear weapons in the country, according to Adams.

“This is on Hood Canal, just 20 miles from Seattle,” she said. “In fact, if Washington were its own country, it would be the third-largest nuclear weapons country in the world.”

Therefore, it’s an uphill battle to convince people in her state government to work towards disarmament and to stop investing in nuclear weapons.

“This is especially true in the 6th District, which includes Kitsap Bangor naval base, and where the military is a major employer,” Adams said. “This makes this a challenging topic not just for members of Congress, but also the people living there, who may see this as their livelihood. To be clear, we do not advocate for closing the base itself.”

Nevertheless, Adams thinks the movement is having impact, pointing to how positions of many members of state Congress have shifted regarding nuclear weapons issues.

“We’ve seen some members of Congress become strong and outspoken advocates for safer nuclear weapons policies and reductions in US the arsenal and spending,” Adams said. “Some members of Congress who previously had not engaged on this issue at all have taken significant actions in the last couple of years, like co-sponsoring bills or voting against new warheads, at our urging.”

Public opinion is ripe for change, too. Skelton acknowledges that nuclear weapons policy is far outside most people’s daily concerns, but added, “I imagine that most people would prefer to spend the majority of our nuclear weapons budget on other things that would improve their daily lives.”

Stopping the Nuclear Spending Spree

Under the Obama administration, the US and Russia signed the New START Treaty, which requires both countries to decrease their nuclear arsenals. In order to pass the treaty, the Obama administration made a compromise allowing the remaining nuclear arsenal to be “modernized.”

According to Adams, this kicked off what is now a $1.7 trillion spending spree on nuclear weapons over the next 30 years, which comes out to $4.6 million every single hour.

This includes not only upgrading existing weapons, but actually replacing every part of the nuclear triad (submarines, ground-based missiles, bombers and air-launched missiles) and making new nuclear weapons, like the heavily debated low-yield weapons that came up this year.

Therefore, Adams urges people to engage in a variety of forms of anti-nuclear advocacy, such as writing op-eds, attending public forums and demonstrations, passing resolutions, or undertaking civil disobedience and direct action in order to “favorably impact policy makers and policies.”

Delegations including WPSR members and staff, alongside representatives from the statewide coalition they’ve formed, have been meeting with members of Congress in Washington in most districts.

The meetings involve reinforcing policy steps and pronouncements that the member has already made, coupled with specific policy “asks” and explorations of areas of potential collaboration. The coalition also works to influence Congress members on impending legislation.

“Mobilizing hundreds of individual contacts to a member of Congress within a few days on a specific piece of legislation has been both possible and effective, a strategy for eliciting public pressure and visibility not seen on nuclear issues in Washington for years,” Adams said.

Skelton explained that WPSR took the lead in forming this coalition at this particular time because no one else was doing it.”While we were still raising awareness of nuclear issues and talking with elected representatives about them, we recognized that we would make a much better case in doing so alongside others,” Skelton said. “Whether or not a person chooses to think about it, nuclear weapons (including military spending and the risks posed by nearby weapons) affect us all.”

Skelton believes that by raising a chorus of diverse voices and concerns — and showing policy makers that this is an issue that many people care about — they are once again putting a spotlight on nuclear concerns in Washington State and demanding that their lawmakers support better and safer nuclear policies.

Her hope is that if the majority of members of Congress in Washington State call for nuclear weapons to be taken off high alert and urged on a path toward disarmament, this could inspire similar efforts elsewhere.

“If we had enough people nationally saying these things, my dream would be for the US to ratify the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” she said.

Adams is also concerned about other nuclear issues, such as working to ensure peace and diplomacy with North Korea – and the fact that President Trump has the sole authority to launch nuclear weapons.

Amundson, who has been a member of PSR for more than 35 years, believes one of the best policy outcomes from WPSR’s latest effort would be “to stop most — or all — of the proposed legislation to rebuild the entire nuclear triad.”

Amundson thinks this is a critical time for doing so, given the cost is clearly unsustainable in addition to it eclipsing other public needs. Two-thirds of the rest of the world’s nations have already signed on to abolish nuclear weapons.

“Our position is that if these policies succeed, and the US has a newly built arsenal, the die is cast for the next 30-40 years,” he said. “Once in place, we know the power of the military/corporate/congressional complex.”

Time to Bring Back the Anti-Nuclear Movement

Skelton again acknowledged that nuclear issues aren’t currently one of the top concerns for most progressive groups, but asks why, given the potential (and actual) consequences.

“Why are we not talking about the massive spending earmarked for these weapons, or the unthinkable destruction and destabilization they represent?” she asked. “For me, another desirable outcome of our campaign would be that people are regularly asking these questions, talking with candidates about them and demanding more progress on nuclear policies.”

Although the Cold War has long been officially over, few people are actively calling for changing Cold War-era policies and making serious reductions in US nuclear arsenals.

Amundson believes that, via WPSR’s work across the country with other PSR chapters and affiliated organizations that oppose nuclear weapons, Washington now has the most extensive and professionally organized anti-nuclear movement of any state.

“It’s a sad commentary on the atrophy of anti-nuclear advocacy over the 30 years since the collapse of the USSR, when everyone went to sleep on these threats,” he said.

However, there’s hope: Amundson believes the work they are doing now serves as a model for other organizations across the US. Meanwhile, what keeps Adams’s eyes on the proverbial ball is continuing to work directly with communities across Washington State that have been directly affected by the nuclear weapons industry.

“The entire process of creating nuclear weapons harms those involved and the surrounding environment, and historically, the communities most affected are communities of color, Indigenous people and low-income communities,” she said. “This is clear around the world, but also very clear right here in Washington, where many of our communities have been devastated by the nuclear weapons industry.”

While the potential deaths due to a nuclear catastrophe are what are usually considered when the topic of nuclear weapons arises, people in the communities Adams mentioned are already dying from the effects of nuclear weapons production.

“Their stories are not often told, and in debates about nuclear policy, their voices are not often heard,” Adams said. “As we work towards a world without nuclear weapons and try to change policy, it’s crucial that we build relationships with these communities and, hopefully, make it easier for them to be at the center of these debates and help lead these efforts.”