In the early morning hours of February 25, I joined in the protest of the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from Vandenberg Air Force Base, 70 miles north of Santa Barbara. Along with 14 other citizens, including my wife Carolee and my friend Daniel Ellsberg, I left the designated protest area and walked down the road toward the kiosk where cars entering the base are checked. Twenty-five or so young Air Force security personnel, wearing camouflage outfits and armed with pistols, formed a line in front of us. They stopped us from moving forward, asked us to turn around and then handcuffed each of us behind our backs, searched us and put us in vans.
I’ve worked for the abolition of nuclear weapons for more than 30 years. I was a founder of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and have served as its president since its founding in 1982. I’ve given hundreds of lectures and written hundreds of articles calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Until that night, I had never been arrested.
Why did I join in courting arrest at Vandenberg? The simple answer is that I believe business as usual is no longer acceptable. It certainly is not sufficient. Nuclear weapons do not protect us. They give us only a false sense of security. Nuclear deterrence is only a theory of human behavior and communications. It has not been proven and it cannot be proven. It is subject to failure, and its failure would be catastrophic.
Nuclear weapons are immoral and illegal, and yet we treat them as though they are an acceptable part of the background of our lives. The truth is that nuclear weapons are evil. They are weapons of indiscriminate mass destruction. They enable our capacity to destroy everything. They are suicidal, genocidal and ultimately omnicidal for the human species.
To rely upon such weapons for security is both unworthy of humanity and foolish. Unworthy, because these weapons place the human future at risk by basing the perceived security of some nations on their willingness to annihilate their opponents. Foolish, because humans are fallible, and we cannot assure that nuclear war will not be initiated by accident, miscalculation or design. Evidence of human fallibility is abundant, but the most powerful recent example is the 2011 nuclear power plant accident at Fukushima Daiichi.
I crossed the line because complacency in the face of evil is never acceptable. It was a small act of civil resistance, but in taking the steps across that line, I wished to say to my fellow citizens: Enough is enough. We must no longer put the future at risk. We must abolish nuclear weapons before they abolish us. We must urge our country, the most powerful country in the world, to lead the way to global zero.
Fifteen people crossed the line that night. We put ourselves at risk in a small way because nuclear weapons put humanity at risk in a large way.
The night we crossed the line, we were protesting an ICBM launch. ICBMs are designed to carry nuclear warheads. The United States has 450 ICBMs in silos in Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota. In their fixed silos, they become attractive targets for attack in a time of tension. There is pressure to use them or lose them to an enemy attack. They tempt fate.
There is no reason to maintain an ICBM force on high alert. In times of crisis, a US president would have only a few minutes, 12 at the most, to decide whether to launch our ICBM force in response to what could be a false alarm. For the Russian president, it would be the same. ICBMs on high alert are a tripwire for nuclear war.
The direct effects of nuclear weapons are blast, fire and radiation. These effects killed 145,000 people at Hiroshima and 75,000 people at Nagasaki within a few months of the bombings. The weapons that destroyed these cities were relatively small by today’s standards. We now know, however, that in a war between India and Pakistan, in which each side used 50 Hiroshima-size nuclear weapons on the other side’s cities, the indirect effects would be even more catastrophic than the direct effects.
Atmospheric scientists have modeled such a war and have found that it would put enough soot from burning cities into the stratosphere to reduce warming sunlight, lower temperatures around the world to the lowest levels in 1,000 years, shorten growing seasons, cause crop failures, and lead to global famine in which people across the planet, numbering from the hundreds of millions to 1 billion, would die from starvation. This could happen with less than one-half of 1 percent of the explosive power of the deployed nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia.
I crossed the line to be on the right side of the struggle for a human future. I crossed the line in camaraderie with my wife and the other protesters. I crossed the line for my children and grandchildren. I crossed the line in the hope of stirring a response from my fellow citizens to the evil of nuclear weapons.