Sitting before a studio microphone at WRNI’s Focus: Rhode Island radio program, Karina Wood, a Providence-based peace activist, presented an open challenge in May to her US senator, Jack Reed. “As I speak,” she began, “Senator Reed is busy drafting a bill that could launch a new nuclear age in which nuclear weapons function not as a deterrent to nuclear war but as usable weapons on the conventional battlefield.”
The proposed law, the 2003 Defense Authorization bill, determines the coming year’s spending on national security. Reed, as chairman of a subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee, could shape language in the Senate version of the bill involving a Bush Administration request to fund a $15.5 million study of a new atomic weapon known as the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator. “Simply put,” continued Wood, the state coordinator for Peace Action, “Rhode Island’s Democratic senator holds the key to a new Pandora’s box of nuclear nightmares.” Then she paused and added: “Senator Reed: Just say no.”
Throughout the country, more and more activists are looking at the Bush Administration’s new nuclear weapons policy and are calling out: Just say no. The numbers are still quite small–1,000 people are expected to attend a June 12 event in New York City commemorating the twentieth anniversary of a demonstration that drew a million people to Central Park to call for a freeze in the nuclear arms race. But while this year’s turnout may pale beside the one in 1982, the organizers are hoping to spark the beginnings of a much larger movement.
For many leaders of the disarmament community, that need has never been so urgent. Nuclear dangers are on the rise, as demonstrated by the escalating tension between India and Pakistan, the heightened threat of nuclear terrorism and Russia’s decaying atomic weapons arsenal. The desire to act has also been fueled by the Bush Administration’s aggressive nuclear strategy, recently outlined in a leaked top-secret document known as the Nuclear Posture Review. That document recommends that atomic weapons be more tightly integrated with conventional military forces; that a weapon such as the Penetrator be designed for battlefield situations against bunkerlike targets; and that the door on using atomic weaponry against nonnuclear states be opened. Disarmament supporters see the treaty that President Bush signed with Russian President Vladimir Putin on May 24, which calls for reducing the Russian and US active strategic nuclear arsenals by roughly two-thirds, as hardly a big step in arms reductions since it requires that the deactivated warheads be stored rather than destroyed. These policies, combined with the Administration’s uncompromising pursuit of a national missile defense plan eerily reminiscent of President Reagan’s blueprint for the “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative, have become a cause for outrage among a number of disarmament advocates. Representative Edward Markey–whose fight on the House floor against the Penetrator study brought an unexpected (though insufficient) 172 votes of support–put it this way: “The Bush Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review is beginning to arouse a sleeping giant.”
Even before the Nuclear Posture Review, opposition to Bush’s military policy was beginning to stir. Last June, roughly 700 demonstrators gathered in Washington, DC, to protest the Administration’s pursuit of missile defense. That same month, nearly 100 mayors from around the country and overseas called on the President to declare his “firm commitment to the task of eliminating nuclear weapons from the face of the earth.” More recently, a number of legislators are starting to break from Congress’s post-September 11 lockstep march behind the President and are raising serious questions about the country’s new nuclear weapons policy. Representative Ellen Tauscher, a Democrat from California and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, not only has vocally opposed the resumption of nuclear testing–as some people working in nuclear-weapons laboratories suggest should happen–but also offered a number of adjustments to the Defense Authorization bill that would have curbed aspects of the Nuclear Posture Review.