Saying No to Nuclear Arms
There are numerous reasons why interest in the movement slackened during the 1990s. "After the cold war, people became complacent and thought [nuclear disarmament] wasn't a problem we had to really worry about," says Kevin Martin, executive director of Peace Action. The operating assumption was that the weapons would be dismantled and removed--especially after the Clinton Administration took office. In many cases, the philanthropic foundations that provided support for disarmament work also shifted priorities or shut down entirely. Last September the W. Alton Jones Foundation dissolved, ending its Secure World Program, which gave nearly $13 million annually to disarmament groups--by some estimates a third of all the money that went to organizations working to eliminate nuclear weapons. Last year, the John Merck Fund, which gave roughly $2 million annually, stopped making grants to projects associated with arms-control and national-security policy. The funding drop-off has contributed to a somewhat pessimistic view within the Washington Beltway among some arms-control groups, especially those that don't draw on grassroots support. "Right now, the movement has been virtually abandoned by the major foundations, and is on the verge of being completely destroyed," says Thomas Graham Jr., president of the Lawyers Alliance for World Security.
But some new money has begun flowing into disarmament projects. Last January Ted Turner and former Senator Sam Nunn founded a nonprofit organization called the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which focuses mainly on stemming the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. Turner has pledged $250 million over a five-year period to that end. Similarly, Ben Cohen, one of the founders of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, provides a substantial portion of the $2 million budget of his nonprofit, Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, which has made nuclear weapons a large part of its agenda this year. Still, neither organization funds projects other than its own. Perhaps the only major foundation to consciously try to make up for the shortfall of W. Alton Jones is the Ploughshares Fund, which will have given $4.2 million by the end of this fiscal year (June 30), about a million more than last year, though not nearly enough to sustain the existing community.
Money problems have been further complicated by the change in political climate. And there are a number of competing views within the disarmament community about the degree to which nuclear weaponry should remain an action issue on its own. Carah Ong, research director of a California-based antinuclear weapons association called Abolition 2000, says, "It is truly a globalized world now, and the nuclear-weapons issue, if it is going to get attention, needs to be linked to social and economic issues, not to mention broader issues of peace and security." Others argue for a strategy that takes note of current concerns. "We as arms-control activists have to make sure our arguments are made in the context of the new terrorist danger," says Kevin Knobloch, executive director of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
September 11 brought a glimpse of what the post-cold war nuclear threat might look like. But it has not given the movement a clear-cut chance to step forward. The terrorist attacks helped those fighting for nuclear abolition by reminding the American public that nuclear dangers did not vanish with the Soviet Union. But the suicide hijackings also raised the question of whether, in a world populated by fanatic militants and states said to be bent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction, it is safer to hang on to the remaining nuclear arsenal, just in case.
The counterargument, of course, is that nuclear weapons are too destructive to be of any military utility, and that by holding on to them the United States only encourages others to acquire them. But communicating that message to a broad audience has not been easy. Nor has it been easy to convince the national-security bureaucracy, which remains locked in a 1950s worldview, according to Bruce Blair, president of the Center for Defense Information. "I occasionally poll military and government officials to ask them whether nuclear abolition is or ever has or ever will be a priority of the US government," Blair said. "And I have yet to encounter a person in official circles who believes that the elimination of nuclear weapons is a serious US policy, even though it is legally a commitment of the United States."
Nevertheless, disarmament remains a critical task. "Given the current global situation and all the key treaties, like the ABM Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, that the Administration has abandoned, we need to continue working on nonproliferation more than ever," says Representative Tauscher. One of the problems that advocates of nuclear disarmament face today in Congress, she says, is that their cause has "no core constituency, unlike shipbuilding is for representatives of coastal communities or agricultural interests are for Midwestern legislators." In the coming years, perhaps the most important task for peace activists will be to make a convincing case that all Americans have something at stake in the abolition of nuclear weapons.