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.

The initiatives were eventually struck down, as were others offered by Representatives John Spratt and Tom Allen (in some instances in conjunction with Tauscher) that would have blocked efforts to add nuclear-tipped missiles to the proposed missile defense system; barred nuclear testing without giving Congress twelve months’ notification; worked toward the development of conventional rather than nuclear bunker-busters like the Penetrator; and encouraged the President to cut the US strategic nuclear arsenal below 1,700 weapons. But as Joseph Cirincione, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, points out: “They’re not meaningless. If nothing else, they pave the way for the coming years. When you have senior members of the committee like John Spratt and Ellen Tauscher, that tells you something about where the mood is of the Congress. These aren’t amendments coming from first- and second-term members looking for a press release. They are serious legislative efforts. These members are helping to shape the agenda and the platform for the Democratic Party, and for the moderates in Congress.”

Similar efforts in the Senate, with its slight Democratic majority, have been somewhat more successful. For instance, the Armed Services Committee, under the leadership of Carl Levin, cut the Administration’s request for missile defense from $7.6 billion to $6.8 billion in its version of the 2003 Defense Authorization bill. Rhode Island’s Senator Reed, after pressure from activists like Karina Wood, ultimately did say no to funding the new nuclear-weapon study. (Both decisions could still change, because the Senate version of the bill has yet to be brought into agreement with the House version, which is much more favorable to those projects.) In mid-May, Senator Joseph Biden held hearings on whether the Nuclear Posture Review’s policies actually increase the threat of a nuclear conflagration. Biden has expressed serious reservations about developing a missile like the Penetrator, and he plans to hold further hearings examining the recent Bush-Putin disarmament agreement. “The treaty does not require the actual destruction of a single missile or warhead,” Biden wrote in the Washington Post on May 28, adding that “security shortcomings in Russia mean that warheads in storage are more likely to fall into the hands of rogue states or terrorists than if they remained attached to missiles.”

While Biden and many other lawmakers maintain that the United States must still be prepared to fight a nuclear war, some on the Hill have begun to call for a more extreme shift in policy. Congressman James McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts and a member of the Progressive Caucus, argues: “We should be talking about ways to not only limit, but eliminate nuclear weapons–that is where the arms-control debate should be.” In that spirit, on June 5 Representative Dennis Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat, hosted a public forum to consider how to build a national movement around the Urgent Call [see page 12]. “We’re at the point where half-measures are no longer sufficient when we are talking about nuclear weapons,” says Kucinich. “Congress has been dealing with the conflict that came as a result of September 11, but there hasn’t been adequate attention to the new nuclear policy…. We’re going to change that.” Also on June 5, Kucinich offered a motion challenging the legality of the US withdrawal from the ABM treaty.

To produce such a change, legislators will need grassroots support, which is growing. “Whereas people were perhaps worried about Washington’s plan for nuclear weapons before the Bush Administration entered the White House, I think they are getting scared at this point,” says Scott Lynch, communication director of Peace Action (formerly SANE/Freeze), the largest US grassroots peace-advocacy organization. He adds that his group is seeing inquiries from states like Arkansas and Idaho, where it’s never had an active base. “Similarly, a lot of people who dropped out of the movement are expressing interest again,” Lynch says. “One woman recently called me from the Long Island Expressway; she had been listening to the news and in a moment of frustration wanted to know: ‘What the hell is going on here; how can I become active again?'” The Washington, DC-based Physicians for Social Responsibility, an affiliate of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning network International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, has more than doubled its nationwide list of antinuclear activists, to 1,000, since Bush entered the White House. Susan Shaer, executive director of WAND, a national umbrella of women’s advocacy groups working on security and social-justice issues, says, “We have over 600 partner organizations that represent over 100,000 people. Before Bush, [the number of our partner groups] was only in the low double digits.”

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.