What will alarm Americans about nuclear weapons?

U.S. citizens may need a jolt of fear, and the threat of terrorism has galvanized some former U.S. leaders. But worldwide, some peace groups see hope in more positive visions of nuclear abolition, and they want President Obama to do more than talk.

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A statue near Seattle's University Bridge honors the memory of Sadako Sasaki, a Hiroshima girl who died of leukemia after the U.S. nuclear bombing of Hiroshima.

U.S. citizens may need a jolt of fear, and the threat of terrorism has galvanized some former U.S. leaders. But worldwide, some peace groups see hope in more positive visions of nuclear abolition, and they want President Obama to do more than talk.

The people of Hiroshima live with the devastating legacy of nuclear war, juxtaposed with the city’s dedication to working for world peace. A mindful American visitor to Hiroshima can’t avoid asking: Are people in the United States too comfortable with the existence of nuclear weapons? How do you motivate the public to care about the nuclear threat and instill the hope to work toward change?

At times it seems that a good jolt of fear might be the answer. Maybe then we would finally wake from denial and do something about the dangers of nuclear arms: the risk that one of the nuclear powers may choose to use the ultimate weapon of mass destruction, the bomb’s distortion of power relationships among nations, the potential for accident or terror to unleash some catastrophe.

The difficulty of imparting a vision that enables change is brought home by "Countdown to Zero," a 2010 film on the dangers of nuclear arms. "Countdown" goes down a dramatic Hollywood path, using fear as a catalyst for action. The film’s publicity line, “More than a movie. It’s a movement,” promised it would focus public concern on nuclear arms in the way "An Inconvenient Truth," by the same filmmakers, did for climate change. "Countdown" failed to revitalize popular support for nuclear disarmament, but it did provide an insight into the pitfalls of crafting an urgent warning about pervasive danger.

By the end of "Countdown," wrote Jeannette Catsoulis of The New York Times, “all most of us will want to do is duck and cover” — exactly the concern of some of the country’s eminent experts and campaigners for nuclear abolition.

“I think that fear shuts people down,” says Jacqueline Cabasso, executive director of Western States Legal Foundation, which monitors U.S. nuclear weapons programs.

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Watch a trailer of "Countdown to Zero"

There are other difficulties of balance when it comes to presenting the complexities of contemporary nuclear armaments and policy. "Countdown" dwells on the terrifying chaos of our post-Cold-War world — weapons-grade uranium casually smuggled from the insufficiently regulated Russian nuclear industry and the ease with which terrorists could obtain material to assemble a crude but devastating “dirty bomb.”

The film does show one unexpected “benefit” of the threat of terror: getting some traditional supporters of nuclear policy to acknowledge that the United States can no longer hope to maintain a nuclear weapons stockpile while asking others to give up the bomb. As former Republican Secretary of State George Shultz said in an interview with YES! magazine in 2008, “You’re going to be more secure if there are no nuclear weapons in the world, because if you achieve this goal, you won’t be risking having nuclear weapons blow up in one of our cities.”

But for a film linked to the “Global Zero” movement, ending with the repeated message that the only safe number of nuclear arms is zero, "Countdown" leaves the viewer with little information about how this is to be achieved. It’s particularly striking how vague "Countdown" is about the responsibility of the United States and the other Western nuclear powers for the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the world; there are about 23,000, according to the film.

Nuclear weapons have long held a strong place in U.S. strategic doctrine, not just as a deterrent, and the United States is the only nation ever to have dropped an atomic bomb. The new nuclear states — Pakistan, for example — are portrayed in the film as dangerous, if not unbalanced. But if Western democracies continue nuclear policies that underpin global instability, what hope is there of reining in nuclear escalation elsewhere?

Dramatic Activism

Telling a true story that instills hope is the greatest opportunity missed in "Countdown": that of six decades of grassroots activism around the world — activism that is dramatic, impressive, and, to a degree that’s easy to forget, sustained.

Many movements have arisen locally to work globally against nuclear weapons since the dawn of the atomic era and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan’s modern peace movement began after a shocking 1954 U.S. atomic test in the Pacific exposed Marshall Islanders and the crew of a Japanese fishing boat to serious levels of radioactive fallout. The event shook Japan out of denial about the health effects on survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and brought the idea of nuclear fallout to world attention.

The “Ban the Bomb” movement in Great Britain attracted tens of thousands to peace marches, and the concern about fallout spurred peace movements in the United States and the rest of the world. In the decades since, much of the South Pacific has declared itself a nuclear-free zone. There have been periods of higher and lower citizen engagement, but activists have stuck with the issue.

Consider the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, formed in 1981 to protest the placement of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles on a British base. The missiles were removed pursuant to the 1987 U.S.-Soviet arms control treaty signed by Gorbachev and Reagan, but the camp stayed in place until 2000, when plans for a historical commemorative site were agreed upon. Nowhere, however, have people campaigned longer for nuclear ­abolition than in Hiroshima and ­Nagasaki. The cities lead an international, ­grassroots Mayors for Peace campaign that has grown rapidly in recent years.

Mayors for Peace

Hiroshima longtime mayor Tadatoshi Akiba (who left office in April after deciding to not seek re-election)  led the growth of Mayors for Peace, which had 4,467 members (in 150 countries and regions) as of January 1. Akiba returned to his native Japan after working as a math professor at Tufts University and becoming well-known for educating U.S. journalists about nuclear issues. I remember once asking him about the relevance of mayors’ work for nuclear abolition, when such big issues are traditionally seen as the work of world leaders. He replied that mayors are closer to the people, making them a perfect group to advance the cause.

Of course, it does take world leaders to disarm. President Obama took a decisive step with a speech in Prague in 2009, in which he declared a goal of abolishing all nuclear weapons. The Nobel Committee cited the special importance of his “vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons” when it awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009.

The Prague speech sparked considerable hope in Hiroshima that Obama will become the first U.S. president to visit the city while in office. High-school students have mobilized to support efforts by Akiba and prominent survivors to secure an invitation. A presidential visit would provide momentum for nuclear abolition, but more than anything, there is a simple, human desire to convey Hiroshima’s message — no more war, particularly the nuclear kind.

Jacqueline Cabasso (who also serves as North American coordinator for Mayors for Peace) sees one promising route to nuclear abolition — making the link to other issues, like social justice and the diversion of nuclear-weapons funding to meet basic human needs. That framing was certainly been a factor in Akiba’s ability to draw strong support from The U.S. Conference of Mayors, which has worked closely with Mayors for Peace, passing progressive resolutions to advance both nuclear disarmament and government that prioritizes improved quality of life over nuclear stockpiles. Akiba's successor in Hiroshima, Kazumi Mitsui, has taken over as president of the Mayors for Peace.

Nuclear Abolition

Like many in the peace movement, Cabasso was appalled by the huge investment in nuclear-weapons-related plants that Obama promised in order to win Senate support of the recent Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia.

But activists see encouraging signs. Alice Slater, of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, suggests that a push for nuclear abolition could come from Asia, where the largest nuclear power, China, has shown surprisingly strong interest in eliminating rather than simply reducing nuclear weapons stockpiles. The real need is to move beyond the current nonproliferation regime, in which nuclear powers say they will eventually abandon their weapons, and toward a true nuclear abolition treaty.

Slater compares stagnation on the issue to the situation a few years ago, where Canada jump-started the process on an international landmine-ban treaty that had been stalled by the largest powers. The United States, among a number of other countries, hasn’t signed the landmine treaty, but the moral effect of the international consensus has proven powerful in preventing new deployments of mines.

Something similar has already happened with nuclear weapons, in part because the hibakusha — survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — have been so insistent about reminding the world of the fearful realities of nuclear war. Instead of remaining victims, they are inspiring advocates for saving humanity.

In the face of the difficulties and uncertainties of mobilizing people internationally, the determined ­hibakusha look ahead toward success. Maybe nothing symbolizes that better than the drive to bring the Summer Olympics to Hiroshima in 2020, the year Mayors for Peace has targeted for achieving nuclear abolition. The thinking is that, if the goal is achieved, there ought to be a huge celebration. If there is still work to do, the Olympics will be an occasion to celebrate progress and spur final steps toward a safer future. For everyone thinking, studying, or working on nuclear abolition, there is something to learn from that optimistic effort.

This article originally appeared in YES! Magazine's Spring 2011 issue, Can Animals Save Us?, and is republished with permission. It has been updated to reflect the election of a new mayor in Hiroshima. The writer conducted research used in this article in 2009 during a Fulbright fellowship at Hiroshima City University's Hiroshima Peace Institute.


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