“Today there are nine nuclear-armed nations, with over 23,000 nuclear weapons in their arsenals. Thousands of these weapons are on hair-trigger alert,” writes Lawrence Wittner in a scholarly essay on the ongoing danger of nuclear war.
He is professor of history emeritus at the State University of New York at Albany, the author of nine books, including “Confronting the Bomb,” and an internationally recognized expert on the global nuclear disarmament movement.
Wittner is a frequent speaker at public forums and his lectures are seen as addressing vital contemporary issues, “that all of us should think about.”
When asked what is the subject of his talk at many of those forums, Wittner said, he makes the case that the worldwide nuclear disarmament movement played a key role in curbing the nuclear arms race and preventing nuclear war. Such a movement could play also a major role in curbing nuclear proliferation.
“Although the danger of a nuclear confrontation between the United States and Russia has receded, nuclear proliferation has emerged as a major threat,” he said.
“Nuclear proliferation will be halted only by a global agreement and action to create a nuclear weapons-free world,” he said. “This necessitates nuclear disarmament by the nuclear nations and worldwide inspection and verification to ensure that they do not reconstitute their nuclear arsenals and to ensure that non-nuclear nations do not develop nuclear weapons.”
Could the lessons learned from the successes and failures of the nuclear disarmament movement be utilized in the effort to curb nuclear proliferation?
“The nuclear disarmament movement has had three major successes,” Wittner said. “The first is to convince most of the public that nuclear war would be a disaster and, therefore that it is not acceptable as public policy. The second is to succeed in pressuring government leaders to reduce or eliminate nuclear arsenals through arms control and disarmament… As a result, the number of nuclear weapons in the world declined from some 70,000 to just over 23,000. The third success is in making nuclear war politically unacceptable.”
He pointed out, that despite the traditional policy of national leaders to resort to the deadliest weapons in their arsenals during wars, since 1945 no nation has employed nuclear weapons to attack another. He considers this remarkable development not the result of nuclear deterrence, but the result of the global movement’s success in stigmatizing nuclear war.
“Nuclear powers like the United States and the Soviet Union chose to lose wars against non-nuclear nations,” he said. “The United States against North Vietnam, and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. They did so rather than “win” them with nuclear weapons. Yet, the movement failed to ban the Bomb, at least so far.”
This certainly wasn’t due to the lack of effort by activist like Wittner. He recalled that while in Britain, doing research on the nuclear disarmament movement, he was examining the newly-opened prime minister’s records and was startled to uncover a folder of documents showing that, in the late 1950s, cabinet–level government officials had launched a conspiracy to undermine Britain’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Among those who were targeted was Bernard Russell, the most prominent leader of the campaign.
Those folders, in contrast to the government standard 30-year declassification practice, were marked ‘Closed for the next 100 years.’
“Although the research room was cold, sweat began pouring down my face,” Wittner recalled. “Should I bring those documents to the front desk, to be photocopied? I had better not, or they may be locked away that no outsider would see them for another century.”
Instead, Witner spent the rest of the day copying them by hand, then spiriting away the copies. “I hoped that my discovery of the government conspiracy might spark a public uproar. Unfortunately, by that time mainstream British publications were accustomed to government attacks on peace activist. The article I wrote on this issue went no further that publication in Britain’s small-scale Catholic press.”
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.