December 11 is the anniversary of the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty coming into force in 1986 — one of eight international treaties which have banned the development, manufacture, control, possession, testing, stationing or transporting of nuclear weapons across large swaths of the planet. In fact, today, almost all of the sovereign governments in the southern hemisphere have forged regional nuclear-weapon-free zones, with some of these zones reaching up past the equator: all of South America, Central America, and the Caribbean (1968), the Pacific states (1986), and southeast Asia (1997). Central Asia (2009) is well into the northern hemisphere. And all of Africa, the second largest continent on Earth, is a nuclear-weapon-free zone (2009). In addition, Antarctica (1961), outer space (1967), and the seabed (1972) are internationally recognized nuclear-weapon-free zones. These treaties are recognized not just by the party nations, but also by the United Nations as well as the world’s officially acknowledged nuclear weapons states. Most of these treaties are decades old.
Sometimes, in the United States, it feels like real change will never come. Opposition to war and promotion of voluntary national disarmament have been some of the most difficult issues for American activists. These demands may seem unrealistic to some, even to other activists. But if we look elsewhere in the world, we find large coalitions of national governments that have done exactly that — some long ago and others quite recently — and spurred on by popular movements of their own citizens. In the words of Nelson Mandela: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
Below, we share an excerpt from an article on the topic by Lawrence Wittner, history professor at SUNY Albany. In the excerpt, Wittner provides an excellent overview of how determined local activists were able to grow their movements with domestic and international support, and how these movements successfully defied the nuclear weapons states (especially the United States) and convinced their own governments to reject nuclear weapons forever. The link to the full article can be found at the end of this post.
Although the worldwide campaign against nuclear weapons was in the doldrums during the early 1970s, the antinuclear movement maintained a lively presence in the Pacific, largely in response to nuclear testing in that region. Spurning the Partial Test Ban Treaty, the French government continued atmospheric nuclear testing on Moruroa in the South Pacific, sending deadly radioactive clouds drifting across Pacific island nations. In response, New Zealand activists began defying the French government during 1972 by sailing small vessels into the test zone. Joining the fray, the New Zealand Federation of Labour pledged a strict ban on French goods and the Labour Party took a principled stand against continued nuclear testing, leading to its election victory that November. In Australia, thousands joined protest marches in Adelaide, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Sydney; scientists issued statements demanding an end to the tests; unions refused to load French ships, service French planes, or carry French mail; and consumers boycotted French products. In Fiji, activists formed an Against Testing on Moruroa organization, which, in 1974, began planning a regional antinuclear conference.
Nuclear testing in the Pacific also triggered the establishment of Greenpeace. In 1971, Jim Bohlen and Irving Stowe, two antiwar Americans who had relocated to Vancouver, Canada during the Vietnam War, decided to sail a ship north to Amchitka Island, off Alaska to protest U.S. government plans to explode nuclear weapons there. En route, the crew read of a Cree grandmother's 200-year-old prophecy that there would come a time when all the races of the world would unite as Rainbow Warriors, going forth to end the destruction of the earth. Deeply moved, the crew enlisted in that cause. Although U.S. authorities arrested the crew members as they approached the nuclear test site, thousands of cheering supporters lined the docks in Vancouver upon their return. Bohlen and Stowe embarked on another voyage to Amchitka and, although they failed to reach it before the U.S. government exploded its nuclear bomb, a new movement had been born. In New Zealand, a former Canadian, David McTaggart, convinced Canada's Greenpeace group that he should sail his yacht into France's nuclear testing zone around Moruroa. When he arrived with a crew in June 1972, a French minesweeper, at the order of the French government, rammed and crippled the ship. But McTaggart returned with a new ship and crew the following year.[...]
During the early 1980s, as hawkish governments in the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, and elsewhere renewed the Cold War and threatened nuclear annihilation, the movement reached high tide.[...]
Australia, like its counterparts elsewhere, experienced a phenomenal growth of nuclear disarmament activism. Antinuclear professional organizations sprang up, and hundreds of small, local antinuclear organizations appeared. Religious groups backed the campaign, as did women's groups, which established peace camps outside U.S. military bases and, in one case, staged a nonviolent invasion of a U.S. base and tore down its gates. Although the newly formed People for Nuclear Disarmament sought to coordinate activities at the state level and the Australian Coalition for Disarmament and Peace at the national one, the movement usually lacked central direction. Even so, the few united events illustrated its unprecedented popularity. On Palm Sunday 1982, an estimated 100,000 Australians took to the streets for antinuclear rallies in the nation's biggest cities. Growing year by year, the rallies drew 350,000 participants in 1985. For the most part, the movement focused on abolishing nuclear weapons, halting Australia's uranium mining and exports, removing foreign military bases from Australia's soil, and creating a nuclear-free Pacific. Surveys found that about half of Australians opposed uranium mining and exporting, as well as the visits of U.S. nuclear warships, that 72 percent thought the use of nuclear weapons could never be justified, and that 80 percent favored building a nuclear-free world.
In neighboring New Zealand, the movement attained even greater popularity. Older organizations like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament were reinvigorated, while hundreds of newer ones were formed, including a crop of professional groups. Union, church, and Maori organizations joined the antinuclear campaign. In May 1983, 25,000 women participated in an antinuclear rally in Auckland—the largest public gathering of women in New Zealand's history. Continuing their program of resistance, Peace Squadrons sought to prevent visiting U.S. nuclear warships from entering their nation's harbors. In June 1982, when a U.S. cruiser tried to enter Wellington, maritime workers and seamen closed the port for three days through work stoppages, and 15,000 other workers halted labor for two hours to hold protest meetings. In August 1983, 50,000 people turned out for an anti-warship protest in Auckland. Meanwhile, a Nuclear Free Zone Committee pressed to have local governments proclaim their jurisdictions nuclear free. As a result, by 1984, 65 percent of New Zealanders lived in nuclear-free zones.
The New Zealand struggle reached a critical point during 1984-85. With the governing National Party (the conservatives) barely able to sustain an effective parliamentary majority against antinuclear resolutions, the prime minister scheduled an election for July 1984. Assuming that a warships ban (and the necessary revision of the Australia-New Zealand-United States alliance) would be unpopular, the Nationalists made the Labour party's antinuclear policy the centerpiece of their campaign. In turn, Labour and two minor parties spoke out vigorously for a nuclear-free New Zealand. On election day, 63 percent of the voters cast their ballots for the three antinuclear parties, catapulting Labour into power. Taking office as prime minister, David Lange announced a four-part program. It included barring nuclear weapons from New Zealand, halting French nuclear testing in the Pacific, blocking nuclear waste dumping in that ocean, and establishing the South Pacific as a nuclear-free zone. When the U.S. government requested entry for a nuclear-capable destroyer, Lange announced in January 1985 that the warship was banned from his country. Although U.S. officials and the opposition Nationalists bitterly condemned this action, it proved enormously popular. Between 1978 and early 1984, polls found that opposition to allowing nuclear armed ships into New Zealand's ports rose from 32 to 57 percent. And once Lange defied the United States, opposition soared to 76 percent. New Zealand had become a nuclear-free nation—and was proud of it.
Protest was rising elsewhere in Asia, as well. In the Philippines, the building of a giant nuclear power plant inspired growing opposition, as did U.S. military bases at Subic Bay and Clark Field, which housed nuclear-armed planes and warships. With the government's nominal lifting of martial law in 1981, representatives of church, labor, women's, student, and other groups organized the Nuclear Free Philippines Coalition, dedicated to halting construction of the power plant and closing down U.S. military bases. By early 1983, it claimed the support of 82 organizations. In South Korea, the presence of large numbers of U.S. nuclear weapons and the frightening promises of U.S. officials to employ them in a future war led to a growing public fear of nuclear disaster and protests by church groups. Furthermore, in India, a newly-formed Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy issued numerous public statements by prominent citizens warning against the activities of their nation's "nuclear bomb lobby" and pressed the government to reject nuclear weapons.
The antinuclear struggle reached a crescendo in the scattered island nations of the Pacific. Decades of western use of the region for thermonuclear explosions, nuclear missile tests, and nuclear warship ports, topped off by the latest great power nuclear confrontation, led to a surge of resistance among native peoples. In Fiji, church, union, and student organizations established the Fiji Anti-Nuclear Group to work for the creation of a nuclear-free Pacific. In Tahiti, thousands of people marched through the streets protesting French nuclear tests and demanding independence from France. On Kwajalein atoll, some 1,000 Marshall Islanders—reacting to a U.S. government plan to extend its military rights by fifty years—escaped their crowded squalor on Ebeye Island by staging "Operation Homecoming," an illegal occupation of eleven islands they had left years before to accommodate U.S. nuclear missile tests. In Palau, the U.S. government, stymied by that nation's antinuclear constitution, sponsored new referenda to overturn its antinuclear provision. When the third and fourth referenda proved unsuccessful, U.S. officials waged a $500,000 campaign to sway the nation's 7,000 voters in a fifth referendum. But the people of Palau stubbornly voted yet again to keep their islands nuclear free. Deeply resenting their mistreatment by the nuclear powers, delegates to the 1983 Nuclear Free Pacific conference renamed their organization the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific movement. By 1985, it had 185 constituent organizations.
In response to this tidal wave of protest, public policy changed dramatically in the Pacific. In New Zealand, the new Labour government of Prime Minister Lange not only defied Washington by barring nuclear-armed warships, but became a leading proponent of a comprehensive test ban treaty and of a South Pacific nuclear weapons-free zone. In Australia, after the victory of the Labor Party in the 1983 elections, the new prime minister, Bob Hawke, appointed Australia's first minister for disarmament, instructed Australia's representative at the United Nations to support a Nuclear Freeze resolution, withdrew his earlier offer to have Australia test the MX missile, and made his country into a key force in world efforts to secure a comprehensive test ban treaty. Moreover, New Zealand and Australia joined the other eleven nations of the South Pacific in negotiating the Treaty of Rarotonga, designed to prohibit the testing, production, acquisition, or stationing of nuclear weapons in the region. Although nations lacking antinuclear movements, such as China and Pakistan, made progress on their nuclear weapons programs during these years, the Japanese government—beset by waves of protest—proved more cautious, and Japan's "three non-nuclear principles" remained officially enshrined.[...]
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Lawrence S. Wittner, “Nuclear Disarmament Activism in Asia and the Pacific, 1971-1996” The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 25-5-09, June 22, 2009. https://apjjf.org/-Lawrence-S.-Wittner/3179/article.html
Maharaj, Grace. “The Pacific nuclear legacy belongs to climate change activism” Griffith University: Asian Insights, 13 August 2020. https://blogs.griffith.edu.au/asiainsights/the-pacific-nuclear-legacy-belongs-to-climate-change-activism/
“Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones” United Nations: Office of Disarmament Affairs, accessed 7 December 2022. https://www.un.org/disarmament/wmd/nuclear/nwfz/
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