By Peter Bergel
This week we again observe the anniversaries of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during WW II – the only time nuclear weapons were used against human targets. It is worth remembering that the unimaginable devastation and death caused by those two bombs is dwarfed by the power and ubiquity of today’s weapons.
As they become ever more destructive and more impossible to guard against, and as political tensions rise, the threat facing everyone becomes more deadly. Any of our cities could be incinerated without warning at virtually any moment, either accidentally or purposely. Yet this monstrous possibility has fallen off the radar of most citizens and politicians.
Although polling shows that we would prefer nuclear weapons to be abolished, that goal has dropped to low priority for most of us and our decision makers. Considering the magnitude and urgency of the threat, why is that?
Here are a few reasons:
- There are so many other frightening threats facing us today that our “bandwidth for dread” has been exceeded. These threats include climate change, ocean acidification, other forms of pollution, loss of our democracy, racism, irresponsible gun ownership, and more. Most of us cannot face yet another crisis, so we ignore it.
- The nuclear weapons threat, once widely understood by Americans, is – since the collapse of the Soviet Union – now not so well known. When our chief adversary disappeared, our attention shifted to concern about terrorism (in which the nuclear threat was somehow not included and against which nukes are useless).
- The news media do not remind us about nuclear weapons and neither does our government, which is influenced by the power of the contractors who produce these weapons.
- Most of us do not believe we have the ability to affect this crisis.
The main reason, however – related to #4 above – is that we are not organizing and demanding that our government deal with this issue.
We see that when the public became aroused and began to organize around the climate change threat, action by our government – slow and insufficient as it so far is – began to happen, despite the enormous power of the fossil fuel industry. In the 1950s an aroused public, aghast at the discovery of radioactive fallout in breast milk, forced the end of above-ground nuclear testing. A similar movement in the 1980s, motivated by Ronald Reagan’s cavalier attitude toward nuclear war, forced an end to explosive underground nuclear testing as well.
President Franklin Roosevelt was once lobbied for an idea he liked. He told his visitor, “Great idea. Now go out and make me do it.”
That story suggests our marching orders. If we want an end to the threat of annihilation by nuclear exchange, we must build a movement even more powerful than those of the 1950s and 1980s.
Appealing to our political “leaders” to act in the absence of such a movement is an exercise in futility. Elected office holders will not – with a few notable exceptions – take such action unless we make them do it.
Their title is not “leader.” They are “representatives.” That means we task them with representing the will of their constituents. Of course, we all know that Big Money has perverted that ideal system, but even so, if we look closely, we can see examples all around us of changes in government’s performance wrought when the public became both aroused and organized.
Our task then, as U.S. citizens, is to build a powerful nuclear abolition movement. Here is how:
- Educate our fellow citizens to the threat posed by nuclear weapons.
- Offer them movement-building tasks. Lobbying Congress and the President are fine, but we must go far beyond that for the reasons noted above. Likewise, street demonstrations are fine, but they must be guided by this wisdom: if your next demonstration is not larger than your last demonstration, do not do it because you will be demonstrating weakness, not strength.
- Music, drama, art, and humor are wonderful tools for building movements. Indeed, the successful movements of the past have employed them extensively.
- Recruit numbers of people into the movement, but also draw in experts, celebrities, political figures, faith leaders, political figures, and other opinion leaders.
- Organize around nuclear abolition resolutions at the local and state level.
If we do not care enough to act, we cannot expect our representatives to do it for us.