Could Trump launch a nuke in the last week of his term? Following the right-wing conspiracy theorist insurrection that was instigated by President Trump at the Capitol last week, many have been wondering this question. Some might find the question irrelevant and silly -- what do nuclear weapons have to do with a domestic political conflict? -- and sweep questions of strategy, morality, power, and accountability under the rug. Others, however, have realized that the question is the logical end of US Presidential overreach, and one that should raise more questions as well. Why is the US nuclear arsenal under the command of one person, the President? What are they there for? And considering the history of deranged leaders of wealthy countries with powerful militaries, are these weapons safe to keep around at all? What can we do to keep ourselves and each other safe from nuclear weapons?
Activists have been asking these kinds of questions for over 70 years. Indeed, there has always been a pacifist faction of the left arguing for unilateral disarmament, even preceding the invention of nuclear arms. But everything changed after the United States dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the years immediately following, the former labor organizer A.J. Muste tried to reach his fellow Christians with the message of disarmament, especially in the face of this new super weapon -- but found that the vast majority of liberal Protestants had come to adopt a “realism” that, in the words of Muste biographer Leilah Danielson, “devolved into a kind of American moral complacency and self-satisfaction that exempted the United States from any responsibility in the rising tensions of the Cold War” (Danielson 247). He also sought to convince the country’s nuclear physicists and engineers that building these weapons at all was inconceivably dangerous, but was met with a different kind of obstinance: the scientists believed that peace could only come from supranational, one world organization and governance -- a long-shot, most of them would admit, given the tense relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union at the time.
Failing with the majority of liberal Protestants and the scientific community, in 1947, Muste brought together pacifists from across the United States to discuss strategy in the new atomic era and the emerging Cold War. By then, Muste had become a prominent public critic of nuclear weapons. Disagreements with the more liberal pacifists, who still believed in working within the system, led Muste and others to hold a second conference in 1948. From this second conference would eventually develop a whole new anti-nuclear pacifist movement. In the 1950s, more groups began to emerge or shift their missions to include opposition to nuclear weapons: the Committee for Nonviolent Action (predecessor to the Voluntown Peace Trust), the War Resisters League, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), the Catholic Worker Movement, and more. Muste himself held a leading position in those first three groups listed, and was a close friend of Dorothy Day, a prominent leader of the Catholic Workers.
All of these groups came to the same conclusion: nuclear arms production is a primary obstacle to world peace, and unilateral disarmament is the only solution to the existential threat of the Cold War. The United States had both the practical and ethical responsibility to be the first superpower to reject the nuclear arms system that it had started, since the United States alone was the only one to ever use such weapons in war. In the absence of a moral government, these groups argued, the ethical individual should refuse to participate in the unjust society. Stop following the script. Don’t play along. Surely we can find better uses for these physicists and engineers. Surely our spiritual lives would be richer if the world was consistent with our values.
Resistance to nuclear arms in the United States have waxed and waned over the decades. In the early 1960s, small groups protested at nuclear and weapons production sites, including at General Dynamics Electric Boat in the New London-Groton area. Daring young activists in small sailboats like The Golden Rule chased nuclear-armed submarines, trying to board them -- some even succeeded. Women Strike for Peace organized the largest national women’s peace protest of the 20th century: 50 thousand women in 60 cities specifically calling for nuclear disarmament. Long-term peace walks, some lasting several months and covering thousands of miles, started to expand across the country and the world. Perhaps the most famous anti-nuclear protest occurred in 1977, when 1414 protesters of the Clamshell Alliance and other allied groups were arrested at Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant and held in National Guard armories for 12 days. But five years later, in 1982, one million people in NYC’s Central Park protested against nuclear arms and the arms race -- the largest political demonstration in American history.
Since the 1980s, the Cold War has ended and the arms race dissolved, but the issue of nuclear weapons has not closed. In some ways, without the principle of “mutually assured destruction” that supposedly kept the Cold War from “heating up,” the use of nuclear weapons in war is more likely now than it was forty years ago. But on January 22, 2021, people around the world will celebrate the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) entering into force. This is perhaps the first major step for global nuclear disarmament, what the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICANW) describes as “the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons.” On that afternoon from 2:45-4pm, volunteers will gather in New London to express thanks to each of the 51 nations that have ratified the Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons. Participants will stand along the route driven by General Dynamics Electric Boat employees. The goal is to honor the hard work of the treaty ratifiers, to call on the United States to begin the process of disarmament, and to make EB engineers consider the danger they are actively designing into the world. (To participate or learn more, please visit the RSVP form for this event here: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSdF0x6tdnyisX9ACu2seMJoX21liUVGZOXls84O4-ggynnQZQ/viewform)
Two days after the insurrection, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi called General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to subtly ask him to prevent President Trump from commanding the nuclear arsenal. Milley argued that that was not his role, pointing to the legal process and norms in place. Checks and balances are great when they work, but under such an obviously unstable person as Donald Trump, it’s hard not to wonder at which point one would have to stop going along with it all.
Danielson, Leilah. American Gandhi: A.J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.
Sanger, E. David and Eric Schmitt. “Pelosi Pressed Pentagon on Safeguards to Prevent Trump From Ordering Military Action.” The New York Times, 8 January 2021 (updated 13 January 2021).
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