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Nuclear Disarmament is People’s Work

Presidential declarations and filmmakers’ scare tactics get the attention—meanwhile, powerful grassroots movements build on 60 years of effort.
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 PEEK INSIDE THE SPRING 2011 ISSUE OF YES! MAGAZINE

The people of Hiroshima live with the devastating legacy of nuclear war, juxtaposed with the city’s dedication to working for world peace. A mindful American visitor to Hiroshima can’t avoid asking: Are people in the United States too comfortable with the existence of nuclear weapons? How do you motivate the public to care about the nuclear threat and instill the hope to work toward change?

At times it seems that a good jolt of fear might be the answer. Maybe then we would finally wake from denial and do something about the dangers of nuclear arms: the risk that one of the nuclear powers may choose to use the ultimate weapon of mass destruction, the bomb’s distortion of power relationships among nations, the potential for accident or terror to unleash some catastrophe.

There is a simple, human desire to convey Hiroshima's message—no more war, particularly the nuclear kind.

The difficulty of imparting a vision that enables change is brought home by Countdown to Zero, a 2010 film on the dangers of nuclear arms. Countdown goes down a dramatic Hollywood path, using fear as a catalyst for action. The film’s publicity line, “More than a movie. It’s a movement,” promised it would focus public concern on nuclear arms in the way An Inconvenient Truth, by the same filmmakers, did for climate change. Countdown failed to revitalize popular support for nuclear disarmament, but it did provide an insight into the pitfalls of crafting an urgent warning about pervasive danger.

By the end of Countdown, wrote Jeannette Catsoulis of The New York Times, “all most of us will want to do is duck and cover”—exactly the concern of some of the country’s eminent experts and campaigners for nuclear abolition.

“I think that fear shuts people down,” says Jacqueline Cabasso, executive director of Western States Legal Foundation, which monitors U.S. nuclear weapons programs.

Countdown to Zero video still
Watch a trailer of Countdown to Zero

There are other difficulties of balance when it comes to presenting the complexities of contemporary nuclear armaments and policy. Countdown dwells on the terrifying chaos of our post-Cold-War world—weapons-grade uranium casually smuggled from the insufficiently regulated Russian nuclear industry and the ease with which terrorists could obtain material to assemble a crude but devastating “dirty bomb.”

The film does show one unexpected “benefit” of the threat of terror—getting some traditional supporters of nuclear policy to acknowledge that the United States can no longer hope to maintain a nuclear weapons stockpile while asking others to give up the bomb. As former Republican Secretary of State George Shultz said in an interview with YES! in 2008, “You’re going to be more secure if there are no nuclear weapons in the world, because if you achieve this goal, you won’t be risking having nuclear weapons blow up in one of our cities.”

But for a film linked to the “Global Zero” movement, ending with the repeated message that the only safe number of nuclear arms is zero, Countdown leaves the viewer with little information about how this is to be achieved. It’s particularly striking how vague Countdown is about the responsibility of the United States and the other Western nuclear powers for the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the world—there are about 23,000, according to the film. Nuclear weapons have long held a strong place in U.S. strategic doctrine, not just as a deterrent, and the United States is the only nation ever to have dropped an atomic bomb. The new nuclear states—Pakistan, for example—are portrayed in the film as dangerous, if not unbalanced. But if Western democracies continue nuclear policies that underpin global instability, what hope is there of reining in nuclear escalation elsewhere?

Dramatic Activism

Telling a true story that instills hope is the greatest opportunity missed in Countdown: that of six decades of grassroots activism around the world—activism that is dramatic, impressive, and, to a degree that’s easy to forget, sustained.

Many movements have arisen locally to work globally against nuclear weapons since the dawn of the atomic era and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan’s modern peace movement began after a shocking 1954 U.S. atomic test in the Pacific exposed Marshall Islanders and the crew of a Japanese fishing boat to serious levels of radioactive fallout. The event shook Japan out of denial about the health effects on survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and brought the idea of nuclear fallout to world attention. The “Ban the Bomb” movement in Great Britain attracted tens of thousands to peace marches, and the concern about fallout spurred peace movements in the United States and the rest of the world. In the decades since, much of the South Pacific has declared itself a nuclear-free zone. There have been periods of higher and lower citizen engagement, but activists have stuck with the issue.

Consider the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, formed in 1981 to protest the placement of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles on a British base. The missiles were removed pursuant to the 1987 U.S.-Soviet arms control treaty signed by Gorbachev and Reagan, but the camp stayed in place until 2000, when plans for a historical commemorative site were agreed upon. Nowhere, however, have people campaigned longer for nuclear ­abolition than in Hiroshima and ­Nagasaki. The cities lead an international, ­grassroots Mayors for Peace campaign that has grown rapidly in recent years.

Nuclear symbols by Ron Sussman

Graphic by Rob Sussman for YES! Magazine.

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