Forty years ago, 1 million people gathered in Central Park demanding an end to the nuclear arms race. It was not only the largest antinuclear demonstration, but also the largest political demonstration in American history.
The Nation was there, a small cohort—but with a big banner!
A former intern, Duncan Harp, was part of our group. Two years earlier, he had written a short Nation editorial proposing a bilateral freeze by the United States and the Soviet Union on nuclear weapons production. A similar measure had just passed in three western Massachusetts counties.
Proposition 7 was the work of two local peace groups; Randy Kehler was a leading member of one, the Traprock Center. After the proposition’s passage, Kehler said, “The vote shows the American people are indeed receptive to proposals for stopping the arms race.… The issue of nuclear arms transcends party lines and liberal v conservative divisions.”
Dozens of peace, religious, racial justice, and labor groups soon endorsed the concept of a bilateral nuclear weapons freeze.
Today the risk of nuclear war is at its highest level since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Unless the brutal war in Ukraine is ended soon, with a cease-fire and a political and diplomatic resolution providing for Ukraine’s security and sovereignty, escalation may well lead to nuclear conflict—accidental or not.
Yet we continue to live in denial. The increasing normalization of talk, by Russia and the US, about the use of nuclear weapons is terrifying. At the start of April, Col. Aleksandr Vindman told MSNBC that we shouldn’t fear nuclear escalation because “the nuclear threshold is basically impossibly high…. the Russians won’t wage nuclear war against us because they’ll be destroyed.” This is the logic of insanity.
Yet we hear daily from journalists who speak like combatants, or former military officials with undisclosed investments in weapons-making corporations. In White House press conferences there are often more questions about weapons shipments than about how to deescalate the war.
What must not be forgotten—and these words have been repeated for decades, by both US and Soviet/Russian leaders, most recently by Biden and Putin at the Geneva Summit in 2021—is that “a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.”
Does Colonel Vindman deny that even a small regional nuclear conflict could trigger global catastrophe?
However, in crisis there is often opportunity.
The narrative pushed relentlessly by the corporate media is that “it’s a dangerous world, we must arm ourselves.” Yet recent Associated Press polls show nearly nine in 10 people in the United States are concerned about the use of nuclear weapons. There is powerful counternarrative we too rarely hear from our media and political elite: Nuclear weapons do not make us safer. That understanding should, wisely lead to a rejection of increased spending on nuclear weapons, and a recommitment to disarmament. Instead the infrastructure of nuclear weapons agreements has been shredded.
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Forty years ago Olaf Palme, the Swedish prime minister, convened an international commission whose report played a major role in redefining security and ending the Cold War.
The 2022 Common Security Report issued this spring by the International Trade Union Confederation, the International Peace Bureau, and the Olof Palme International Center offers us a renewed peace playbook. It highlights the urgent need for international collaboration to prevent and end war. It also addresses true security challenges: the climate crisis, deathly pandemics, global hunger, staggering inequality and massive migration. Renewing calls for an urgent resumption of strategic and scientific talks between the US and Russia, the report also provides templates for a new global and regional security architecture, illustrating how to cut obscene military spending in order to create jobs, and invest in health care and education.
Some will say it is naive to talk about peace and disarmament when the world is racked by a new cold war—or, more accurately, a hot war. Yet, now more than ever, we need the clearest case for peace.
And there are movements for peace at home and globally, such as Women Cross DMZ and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which received the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to advance a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). To date, 122 countries have voted in favor of adopting the TPNW—and while no nuclear state has yet expressed support for it, the treaty stands as a moral document, galvanizing peace movements in many countries.
Anti-nuclear activists in the US and globally are also taking a page from the fossil fuel divestment movement. Don’t Bank on the Bomb identifies corporations that produce key parts for nuclear weapons and presses major institutions to divest from them.
The nuclear threat is not siloed—it is threaded through our broken democracy. Abolishing nuclear weapons will demand ending militarism in its many forms. The nuclear world has always been a bastion of secrecy. Consider the soon-to-be-announced Nuclear Posture Review as just the latest testament to the absence of accountability to voters or citizens.
We would also be wise to observe the link between the militarization of our approach to security and the militarization of our cities, our schools, policing, and our approach to women’s bodies.
And we would be wise to ask: How does military might protect us from pandemics, planet-looting corporations, nuclear proliferation, hunger, or poverty? One remarkable leader who is making these connections is the Rev. William Barber, cochair of the Poor People’s Campaign. Barber invokes the moral necessity of resistance to militarism, the war economy, and nuclear and other weapons. Many young people are also at the vanguard of making those connections—between movements fighting gun violence, attacks on women, immigrants, African Americans, indigenous communities, LGBTQI, and the threat of climate change.
In 2002, The Nation and Jonathan Schell—our peace correspondent, and a visionary writer on nuclear issues and abolition—received a Global Green Award for his writing in The Nation. Mikhail Gorbachev, who headed the group, presented the award.
Gorbachev was the most radical and committed arms reductionist ever to lead a nuclear country—a fervent supporter of nuclear abolition. Today, he is 91 years old, and living outside of Moscow. He is horrified by recent events. While too many in our discredited national security establishment still insist that the abolition of nuclear weapons is an unachievable and therefore utopian goal, I stand firmly behind a principle stated many times by President Gorbachev: “If we do not attempt what seems impossible, we will risk facing the unthinkable.”