"There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest." — Elie Wiesel

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Confronting the Bomb - A Message of Hope


The more I immerse myself in the movement to abolish nuclear weapons, the more I am humbled by the dedication of so many others engaged in the movement now, and since even just before the dawn of the nuclear age.

These are the people who make up what H.G. Wells called an "open conspiracy" of people who have come to their right minds, and who are deeply engaged in the struggle to move humanity beyond the state-of-war to build a world community based on genuine justice and peace.

Historian, Lawrence Wittner, begins his book "Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Disarmament Movement" with a prophecy that relates to this "open conspiracy":
This notion of a society of the righteous, committed to saving the world from its own folly, had deep roots in world history. It can be traced back at least to the fourth century, to the Babylonian Talmudic teacher Abbayah. According to this Jewish savant, in each generation there existed at least thirty-six righteous people (lamed-vav-tzaddikim, in Hebrew) upon whom the survival of the world depended. Jewish fiction and folklore took up the idea of these hidden saints, who played a prominent role in kabbalistic folk legend of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and in Hassidic lore after the eighteenth century.
This paragraph (and prophecy) sets the stage for Wittner's well-documented and dramatic history of the movement to abolish nuclear weapons and for the central premise of his book - that it is not the conventional explanation of "deterrence" that has saved the world from nuclear annihilation over the past 65 years, but a "massive nuclear disarmament movement."  This is the true story of how real, grassroots citizen activism brought very real pressure to bear, not only only on the U.S. government, but many other governments as well, to control the arms race and prevent nuclear war.

Wittner peels away layers to describe the early critics of "The Bomb" even when it was only a concept in the minds of physicists.  We get a sense of the tension that existed between the scientists of the Manhattan Project and government officials.  A number of those scientists attempted to warn President Roosevelt of the dangers of the use of atomic weapons, not the least of which was that it would "precipitate a race in the production of these devices between the United States and Russia..."

Alas, the bombs were dropped, and Wittner takes us chapter by chapter, through the entire history of nuclear weapons and the tension between governments and abolitionists. We see the ups and downs of the movement, along with governments' (sometimes drastic) responses.  We see that presidents, politicians and diplomats really were influenced by the pressure brought to bear by what was at times a huge movement to ban the bomb.

Toward the end of the book Wittner shows us how and why the nuclear disarmament movement faded after the end of the Cold War.  However, he also describes positive steps that occurred during this time, such as the variety of treaties created, signed and ratified that effectively banned "nuclear weapons from most of the southern hemisphere."

Lawrence Wittner  (Photo by L. Eiger)
As Wittner reflects on the past and ponders the future he states that "most government officials - particularly those of the major powers - had no intention of adopting nuclear arms control and disarmament policies."  His conclusion is that it was the "vast wave of popular resistance" that forced them to compromise and exercise restraint.

Wittner's book is a tribute to what he refers to as possibly "the highest form of democracy" - "citizen activism."  For all the "pathology of the nation state" Wittner has hope, but he is also clear that "if nations continue to follow the traditional 'national security' paradigm, then - sooner of later - their leaders will resort to nuclear war..."  So he asks us if we are up to the task of meeting this challenge, of changing the status quo.

He ends on a note of hope.
But an examination of the history of the nuclear disarmament movement inspires a greater respect for human potential.  Indeed, defying the national barriers and the murderous traditions of the past, millions of people have joined hands to build a safer, saner world.  Perhaps, after all, they will reach it.  
Wittner, with his academic discipline coupled with an engaging style, has given the nuclear abolition movement a great gift - a book that provides us with not just a linear history of the movement, but a holistic understanding of how the movement has succeeded and how we can (and must) re-vitalize the movement to continue the struggle for a nuclear weapons-free world.



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