Every minute since July 1945, when the United States tested its first nuclear weapon in New Mexico, we have been living under the threat of massive nuclear violence. Nuclear weapons are designed to incinerate cities, to burn and irradiate human bodies, to destroy everything we have built and that we love. They are perhaps the ultimate symbol of the extreme edge of human power and hubris—the ability to devastate the entire planet.
In his latest book, The Doomsday Machine, Daniel Ellsberg uses classified materials and personal notes to describe the seven decades of US policies and practices related to nuclear weapons as “immoral,” “insane,” and “a chronicle of human madness.”
Today we have to look no further than Twitter. 2018 more or less began with the president of the United States using social media to taunt another nuclear-armed country’s president about the size of his… arsenal. A few weeks later, the wrong push of a button led to Hawaiians’ being terrified by a notification that there was an incoming ballistic missile.
While there may be no real nuclear button for anyone to actually push, the use of nuclear weapons is not that far away. It never really has been. “Fire and fury” have put the threat of nuclear war back in the headlines, but it was never off the table. And, where there was once only one, there are now nine countries that can unleash this fire and fury, with North Korea the latest to join the group.
There is one difference, however, between now and decades past. In 2017, activism and advocacy against the bomb, combined with diplomatic action on the international stage, achieved a legal ban on nuclear weapons. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), comprised of 468 nongovernmental organizations in 101 countries, helped to outlaw nuclear weapons—for which it was then awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.
This treaty is a feat of collective action by people who came together to do something that had not been tried before. Like anything created by people, it has its imperfections. But it gives a glimpse of what is possible in this world—including that it is possible to do something that all of the “great powers” in the world collectively forbid. Resistance may take time to have an effect, but it can make a difference.