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FAS Public Interest Report
The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists
Winter 2004
Volume 57, Number 1
FAS Home | Download PDF | PIR Archive
Front Page
The Future of Nuclear Power
Better Active Today than Radioactive Tomorrow
A Place to Work Together
Taiwan Pins Hope on Science
Field Workshops on Degraded Lands for Chinese Environmental NGO’s
Cooperative Threat Reduction: The View from Washington
FAS Works towards the Creation of the Digital Opportunity Investment Trust
International Summer Symposium on Science and World Affairs
Preventing Nuclear Proliferation in Latin America: The Treaty of Tlatelolco

Better Active Today than Radioactive Tomorrow:

A Review of Toward nuclear abolition: A history of the world nuclear disarmament movement, 1971 to the present. This volume is the third in Lawrence Wittner’s series The Struggle Against the Bomb, published by Stanford University Press, 2003.

By Frank N. von Hippel

In the preface of this third volume of his monumental history, Wittner notes that:

"Again and again, government officials have told us how fortunate we have been to have benefited from their wise leadership… Paradoxically, they argue, it has been their willingness to develop, deploy, and use nuclear weapons that has limited the nuclear arms race and averted nuclear war."

His book tells another story,

"of how concerned citizens around the world ---through intelligence, courage, and determination—have altered the course of history…"

The story is of a vast movement of hundreds of organizations becoming more -- and then less -- politically active and effective in synchrony around the world 1.

The book opens with the ending of the Vietnam War, which allowed an aroused global peace movement and the new anti-nuclear-power movement to join in opposition to the US-Soviet arms race. Following the election of Jimmy Carter as President in 1976, this movement won two early victories with the US decisions to abandon the neutron bomb and the B-1 bomber. US and Soviet hawks prevailed later in the Carter Administration, however, with US decisions to deploy new nuclear missiles and Moscow’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

Things got worse after Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1980. He brought with him into the Executive Branch a galaxy of nuclear hawks, including some who believed it possible to fight and win a nuclear war. These ideologues sometimes even frightened the President and his wife. They certainly frightened Moscow, which launched its biggest-ever peacetime intelligence operation to detect US preparations for a first strike. Most importantly for this story, they frightened the public.

The result was an enormous growth of the anti-nuclear-weapon movements in the US and Europe, Japan, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. These movements fielded demonstrations so huge and were backed by so much of the public that they could not be ignored. They included a multi-year siege by thousands of British women of the proposed US cruise missile base at Greenham Common and a million-person demonstration in Central Park on June 12, 1982.

In the US, the movement coalesced around a call for a bilateral "freeze" of the nuclear arms race. Despite vicious attacks by the Reagan Administration, which claimed that the Kremlin was behind the movement, this call was endorsed in 1982 in referenda in nine out of ten states and 34 out of 37 cities and counties. In Western Europe, the CIA and the US Information Agency backed similar unsuccessful efforts by NATO governments to portray the European Nuclear Disarmament movement as controlled by Moscow while END was, in fact, supporting dissident human-rights groups in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

Soon, according to Richard Allen, Reagan’s first national-security advisor, "the President was swimming upstream, against the current" of public opinion. Congress began to vote against his weapons programs, including the 10-warhead MX missile that he had dubbed the "Peacekeeper," and NATO allies in Europe began to baulk at hosting new US nuclear-armed ballistic and cruise missiles. To the disgust of some of the hawks in his administration, Reagan responded to this political pressure by making arms control proposals that were more and more negotiable and began reciting the mantra, "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought."

After Mikhail Gorbachev became Secretary General of the Soviet Communist Party in the spring of 1985, his unilateral initiatives, including a nuclear testing moratorium and the withdrawal of 10,000 tanks from Europe, resonated with aroused Western public opinion and persuaded President Reagan to join in ending the Cold War. Gorbachev, for his part, acknowledged that his "new thinking" was heavily influenced by the proposals of the foreign peace movement and especially “the joint efforts of Soviet and American scientists."

The FAS contributed significantly during this period. In 1983, FAS officials and staff began to meet with the new Committee of Soviet Scientists (CSS) led by Evgeny Velikhov. After Gorbachev came to power in the spring of 1985, we learned that we had been brainstorming with one of Gorbachev’s key advisors. Velikhov promoted Gorbachev’s 1985-87 unilateral nuclear test moratorium and obtained permission for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to install seismometers around the Soviet test site – the first time that the previously paranoid Soviet leadership had accepted incountry verification. Starting in 1987, the FAS and the CSS carried out a joint study showing how warhead elimination could be verified without revealing design secrets. This laid the basis for another remarkable cooperative project in the summer of 1989, when Velikhov and the NRDC coorganized a demonstration of the detectability of a nuclear-armed cruise missile on a cruiser in the Black Sea off Yalta.

When George Bush Sr. became president, he tried to put the brakes on what he felt had become an excessively soft Reagan Administration policy toward the Soviet Union. But, before long, he found himself under enormous pressure from the NATO allies and Congress to continue the work of dismantling the nuclear confrontation. He complained to Scowcroft that he was "sick and tired of getting beat up day after day for having no vision and letting Gorbachev run the show." Robert Blackwill, the National Security Council official responsible for Europe and the Soviet Union complained about "the wild beast of public opinion."

In 1991, Bush and Gorbachev signed the START I Treaty. More dramatically, that same year, after US proposals to modernize its short-range nuclear weapons in Europe were rebuffed by its NATO allies and the Soviet Union began to disintegrate, President Bush initiated the reciprocal unilateral denuclearization of the US and Soviet armies and the removal of nuclear weapons from surface ships. Finally, on the eve of the 1992 election, he reluctantly signed a law that ended US nuclear testing -- as long as other countries did as well.2

With the end of Cold War, however, the public assumed that the nuclear danger was over and turned to other concerns. Within a few years, the nuclear bureaucracy felt free to suspend the dismantling of the Cold War Doomsday Machine. Few know that the US still has approximately 2000 nuclear warheads ready to launch at Russia within 15 minutes and that Russia is believed to maintain a similar posture. In 1994, the Department of Defense (DoD) also decided to stop destroying most strategic warheads being removed from deployment so that US-Russian nuclear reductions agreements could be quickly reversed if Russia reverted to hostility or China launched a major nuclear buildup. The Senate’s Republican leadership similarly felt free to resume its anti-arms-control posture and rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1999.

When George Bush Jr. took over the Presidency in 2001, he brought with him a foreign policy team with beliefs very similar to the Reagan team of 20 years earlier. The Congressionally created Rumsfeld Commission had already generated a nuclear-missile threat from the "Axis of Evil" nations to replace the threat from the "Evil Empire." This threat provided the basis for a quick renunciation of the ABM Treaty that had blocked President Reagan’s beloved Strategic Defense Initiative. Even before ground was broken for the first missile interceptor in Alaska, the DoD claimed that Russia’s hair-trigger missile posture no longer represented a threat because US policy now "provides missile defense to protect the United States, its allies, and friends against limited or unauthorized launches." The DoD also began promoting the need for new nuclear weapons -- especially high-yield nuclear explosives in earthpenetrating shells "to deny the enemy sanctuary in hard and deeply buried targets." 3

Nuclear weapons were first used 58 years ago with results so horrific that they have not been used since. Wittner quotes thirty years of polls in many countries showing overwhelming public rejection of nuclear weapons. But it also shows that "responsible" government bureaucracies ignore this deep antinuclear- weapons sentiment when it is not politically mobilized.

This book is a timely reminder as we begin a new election season in the US.

Author’s Note: Frank von Hippel is the former Chairman of FAS and Professor of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University.

  1. FAS members should be aware also of three other books that focus specifically on the history of the scientists’ anti-nuclearweapons movement: A peril and a hope: the scientists’ movement in America, 1945- 47 by Alice Kimball Smith (Chicago University Press, 1967; MIT Press, 1971) which includes an account of the founding of the Federation of American Scientists; American science in an age of anxiety: scientists, anticommunism & the Cold War by Jessica Wang University of North Carolina Press, 1999) which describes how this activism was partially quelled during the McCarthy era; and Unarmed forces: the transnational movement to end the Cold War by Matthew Evangelista (Cornell University Press, 1999) which includes an account of the Pugwash movement and FAS contributions during the Gorbachev era.
  2. The Hatfield-Mitchel-Exon amendment that forced the US test moratorium went into effect at the end of September 1996 but was one of the casualties of the May 1998 Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests.
  3. Quotes from the leaked report of the DoD’s 2001 Nuclear Posture Review,