Peace of History
On August 17, 1993, using a giant 13,000-pound guillotine, the US Air Force began dismantling the first of 365 B-52 strategic bombers in compliance with the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I). These massive planes, each capable of carrying a payload of over 62,000 pounds, had been the backbone of the US nuclear arsenal for decades. While the treaty was largely flawed and incomplete, requiring more treaties like START II and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty later to address gaps in the first treaty, START I was the first official agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union to voluntarily reduce the number of nuclear weapons and weapons delivery systems in their respective arsenals. Despite President Reagan’s aggressive rhetoric early on, the drafting and negotiations for the treaty began in the 1980s and was signed by President George H.W. Bush in 1991 -- months after the treaty was signed, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev would announce the end to the Cold War. While much has already been said about Reagan, Gorbachev, and how the relationship between the two men eased global tensions significantly, less attention has been given to the people on the ground who tirelessly worked for decades to move public opinion enough to make disarmament a reality.
At first glance, the 1970s, could rightly claim the title the “Disarmament Decade” given to it by the United Nations: after the signing of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968, there was the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) in 1972 and several other negotiations promoting “detente” between the US and USSR. In actuality, nuclear weapons development actually increased in the decade, with several countries including France, China, Israel, India, and South Africa refusing to sign various test and proliferation controls. Ten nations became closer to claiming nuclear power status. In addition, the United States built 4500 new strategic nuclear warheads and bombs, more than doubling its nuclear arsenal, while the Soviet Union added over 1000 additional nuclear arms to its arsenal, bringing the total to 3650. But the 1970s was also when the connection between nuclear weapons spending, the evils of racism and colonialism, and lack of funding for the poor started to become clearer.
In 1976, the War Resisters League (WRL) organized a massive Continental Walk for Disarmament and Social Justice. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) organized the southern segment of the Walk: through Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi -- bringing the issues of war and injustice together. SCLC leaders drafted a “Bill of Particulars” regarding unemployment, revenue sharing, food stamp inequity, and capital punishment -- and put them up against nuclear spending as more worthwhile endeavors. When President Carter announced in 1977 the development of a new type of nuclear weapon, the neutron bomb, many Black citizens quickly realized that the vast funding for such a weapon could be better spent on the poor and social programs: “Instead of creating some bomb that will only wipe out people, the government should create jobs for people who want to work and provide us with an opportunity to do so. I believe that the neutron bomb is a waste of taxpayers’ money and not the best way to help the people.” These connections brought more Black people into the peace movement for the next several years. President Carter ultimately relented, ending the project the next year due to the galvanized movement against nuclear weapons, pressure from European leaders, and the objections of the US’ own ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young. The ambassador was particularly concerned with the unthinkable: nuclear weapons being used not by one of the world superpowers, but by a viciously racist state like apartheid South Africa against people unable to respond in kind -- thus making the deterrence principle of “mutually assured destruction” moot and opening the door to nuclear mass slaughter.
While some remained concerned with nuclear arms proliferating to other countries, with the inauguration of President Reagan, more citizens became concerned with the connection between nuclear military spending and other issues within the United States. Within the first year of his presidency, Reagan had cut several government programs that most benefited the poor, including the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, food stamps, child nutrition programs, maternal and child health programs, and family planning -- diverting much of the money to kickstart another nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. At the same time, newer groups like Blacks Against Nukes (BAN) were linking up with older groups, forming an enormous coalition around a new campaign: “Nuclear Freeze.” The proposal was to put a halt to all new research and production of nuclear weapons -- a simple, uncomplicated demand. On June 12, 1982, one million people demonstrated for nuclear disarmament in New York City -- the largest political demonstration in American history. The demonstration coincided with the UN’s Second Special Session on Disarmament. Despite internal issues of prejudice within some groups in the peace movement, half of the leadership at the rally was Black, and many called upon the connection between the racist defunding of social programs and the increased spending on weapons of mass murder. Two days later, WRL organized the action “Blockade the Bombmakers,” a nonviolent sit-in at the US, USSR, British, French, and Chinese missions to the UN (the five permanent member states of the UN Security Council) -- resulting in the arrest of 1665 people.
One year later, 250 thousand people gathered for the Twentieth Anniversary March marking Dr. King’s 1963 March on Washington explicitly in order to “stem the tide of rising unemployment, nuclear annihilation, and racial violence.” Speakers called for disarmament to “become public policy, not just an elusive goal” and to “radically reduce and ultimately eliminate their nuclear arsenals as well as conventional weapons; to jointly act to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to other nations; and to reduce the record levels of military expenditures.” If the issues of racism, nuclear war, and poverty seemed disparate to most people years before when Dr. King warned of the “triple evils,” by 1983, those theoretical connections were proven by Reagan’s disastrous policies. But likewise, if the peace movement had begun to wane before Carter’s neutron bomb development and Reagan’s arms-race, its return to face these new government policies was stronger than ever.
By Reagan’s second term, the world situation looked quite different from just a few years prior. The South African apartheid government collapsed, and the nuclear program with it. Reagan had formed a strong relationship with the Premier Gorbachev, who was himself committed to disarmament and liberal reforms in the USSR. Nancy Reagan, who was increasingly managing her husband’s affairs due to his declining mental ability, came to feel strongly that disarmament was “not only in the interest of world peace, but the correct move politically.” Secretary of State George Shultz agreed: “Given the political climate in the U.S., we could not keep pace in modernization, production, and deployment of these deadly weapons.” Reagan himself admitted that “from a propaganda point of view, we were on the defensive.” In 1985, Reagan and Gorbachev together announced that “Nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought” -- a complete turnaround from Reagan’s rhetoric just a few years prior. In 1988, Reagan and Gorbachev ratified the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which banned all land-based ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges reaching 3420 miles (this is the nuclear treaty from which President Trump withdrew in February 2019).
The final treaty before the end of the Cold War went even further -- a general reduction of the total number of nuclear arms, as well as a reduction of long-range delivery methods for those weapons. START I effectively reduced the nuclear arsenals of both the US and USSR by a quarter. Despite decades of the two world superpowers seemingly racing toward an inexorable and apocalyptic collision with each other -- incredibly, antinuclear activists succeeded in helping to shift the winds of public opinion and reverse course. Twenty-seven years and three days ago, using a giant 13,000-pound guillotine, the US Air Force began dismantling the first of 365 B-52 strategic bombers.
Why stop there?
Boyer, Paul S. Promises to Keep: The United States Since World War II. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005.
Intondi, Vincent J. African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement. Stanford University Press, 2015
Rotstein, Arthur H. “U.S. Air Force Turns B-52 Bombers Into Scrap Metal : Arizona: To carry out an international arms treaty, America is dismantling the planes that were once the backbone of its nuclear arsenal.” Los Angeles Times: September 11, 1994. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1994-09-11-me-37109-story.html
Schell, Jonathan. “Twenty-five years after the largest antinuclear demonstration ever, the movement has dwindled. But the threat of mass destruction grows greater.” The Nation: June 14, 2007. https://web.archive.org/web/20190512085225if_/https://www.thenation.com/article/spirit-june-12/
“TREATY BETWEEN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA AND THE UNION OF SOVIET SOCIALIST REPUBLICS ON STRATEGIC OFFENSIVE REDUCTIONS (START I)” https://www.nti.org/learn/treaties-and-regimes/treaties-between-united-states-america-and-union-soviet-socialist-republics-strategic-offensive-reductions-start-i-start-ii/
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