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Responding to Nuclear Militarism:  Lessons from the Past Inspiring the Future


(Address to the Movement for the Abolition of War and the Council on Christian Approaches to Defence and Disarmament, London, July 14, 2008)


Lawrence S. Wittner

Department of History

State University of New York

Albany, NY 12222





Thank you for inviting me to address this gathering today.  When travelling in a foreign land, it's always inspiring to meet a group of people committed to abolishing nuclear weapons and to challenging the institution of war.  It provides a welcome reminder that the struggle for a peaceful world goes on, day and night, all over the globe. 

            I have been asked to speak on the subject:  "Responding to Nuclear Militarism:  Lessons from the Past Inspiring the Future."  And this is a trickier business than you would imagine, for historians don't usually draw "lessons" from the past, but instead try to clarify what has happened over the course of history – or at least that's what they claim to be doing.    

            Even so, I've buckled down to the task, and drawn up eight lessons – or maybe I should say aphorisms – that state what objective observers (including those interested in building a nuclear-free world) should have gathered from the history of nuclear militarism and the response to it.

            The first – and for this gathering probably the least controversial -- lesson is that nuclear weapons are morally abhorrent.  They are weapons of indiscriminate slaughter.  They destroy entire cities and entire regions, massacring civilian and soldier, friend and foe, the innocent and the guilty, including large numbers of children.  The only crime committed by most victims of a nuclear attack is that they lived on the wrong side of a national boundary.  I am not sure that those government officials who first gave the order for the use of nuclear weapons were entirely aware of this indiscriminate character of nuclear war.  But surely we are now aware of it and, therefore, should find the use of such weapons morally repellant.

            The second lesson, as people around the world learned during the Cold War, is that nuclear weapons are suicidal.  A nuclear exchange between nations will kill millions of people on both sides of the conflict and leave the survivors on both sides living in a nuclear wasteland, in which – as Nikita Khrushchev once suggested – the living might well envy the dead.  Furthermore, nuclear fallout will spread around the world, as will a lengthy nuclear winter, which will lower temperatures, destroy agriculture and the food supply, and wreck what little is left of civilization.  As numerous observers have remarked, there will be no winners in a nuclear war.  Even a long-time nuclear enthusiast like Ronald Reagan eventually concluded, as he stated during the 1980s on numerous occasions:  "A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought."  Thus, if moral considerations do not move us to reject nuclear war, the imperatives of survival should. 

            The third lesson is that nuclear weapons do not guarantee security.  This contention, I realize, defies the conventional wisdom – the constantly-repeated claim of "Peace through Strength" -- and certainly the contention that the Bomb is a "deterrent."  And yet, consider the case of the United States.  It was the first nation to develop atomic bombs and, for some time, had a monopoly of them.  But each year it became less secure.  In response to the U.S. nuclear monopoly, the Soviet government built atomic bombs.  And so the U.S. government built hydrogen bombs.  Whereupon the Soviet government built hydrogen bombs.  Then the two nations competed in building guided missiles, and missiles with multiple warheads, and on and on.  Meanwhile, other nations (including Britain) built and deployed their nuclear weapons.  And each year, all these nations felt less and less secure.  And they were less secure, because the more they threatened others, the more they were threatened in return! 

            Not only did the nuclear powers find themselves in a situation of unprecedented danger – that is, threatened with nuclear annihilation -- but they became entangled in bloody conventional wars.  Millions died in China, in Korea, in Algeria, in Vietnam, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and numerous other lands – including large numbers of people from the nuclear nations.  As the leaders of the nuclear powers learned, their vast nuclear arsenals did not help them a bit in these conflicts.  The Chinese, the Koreans, the Algerians, the Vietnamese, the Afghans, the Iraqis, and other peoples were simply not cowed by the nuclear weapons of the great powers.  "Throughout the wide range of our foreign policies in the sixties," recalled Dean Rusk, the former U.S. Secretary of State, "I was struck by the irrelevance of nuclear weapons to decision making. . . .  Countries like Burma, Uruguay, and the Central African Republic aren't influenced by our nuclear bombs."  Henry Kissinger, who began as a keen advocate of integrating nuclear weapons into U.S. foreign policy, found to his regret that – once he began to direct that foreign policy – nuclear weapons simply weren't useful. 

            Nor has the vast nuclear arsenal of the United States protected it from terrorist assault.  On September 11, 2001, nineteen men – armed only with box cutters – staged the largest terrorist raid on the United States in its history, in which some 3,000 people died.  Of what value were nuclear weapons in deterring this attack?  Of what value are they now in what is billed as "the war on terror"?  Given the fact that terrorists do not occupy territory, it is difficult to imagine how nuclear weapons can be used against them, either as a deterrent or in military conflict.

            Moreover, there is the possibility of accidental nuclear war.  Over the course of the Cold War and thereafter, there have been numerous false alarms about an enemy attack that have nearly led to the launching of a nuclear response with devastating potential consequences.  Furthermore, nuclear nations can end up being exploded in one's own nation.  Only six weeks ago, the top officials of the U.S. air force were dismissed from their posts because, thoughtlessly, they had allowed U.S. flights to take place, with live nuclear weapons, over U.S. territory.

            The fourth lesson from the past is that the existence of nuclear weapons makes nuclear arms control and disarmament imperative.  This is one of the most innovative discoveries of the modern world.  After all, for thousands of years it has been assumed that a homeland is better off if it possesses more powerful weapons than other homelands.  Cavemen (and women) had few qualms about upgrading from clubs to spears in defense of their caves – and their sacred "way of life"!  And it was assumed that bows and arrows, and swords, and crossbows, and guns, and cannons, and tanks, and battleships, and fighter planes, and bombers were all useful improvements in the great competition among competing territories and, later, nation-states.

            But as it became clear that nuclear war was morally abhorrent, suicidal, and failed to guarantee national security, the heretical idea developed that building up nuclear arsenals might not be such a good idea after all.  The moderates among these nuclear critics wanted to control nuclear weapons in various ways – for example, to limit nuclear testing, to ban the proliferation of nuclear weapons to additional nations, or to limit the numbers of specific kinds of nuclear weapons maintained by the nuclear powers.  Sharper critics demanded disarmament – that is, getting rid of nuclear weapons – albeit through a step-by-step process.  And the staunchest critics demanded nuclear abolition.  In general, though, there was a loose form of cooperation among these sectors of antinuclear opinion.  After all, a nuclear test ban, although an arms control measure, might be viewed as a first step on the road to nuclear disarmament and, ultimately, nuclear abolition.  As nuclear disarmament movements, such as Britain's Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, got going, they usually didn't make fine distinctions.  Whatever rolled back the nuclear menace, they felt, was a good thing.  As it was!

            The fifth lesson from the past is that the existence of nuclear weapons necessitates an end to war.  This point has been less obvious to observers, perhaps because war has been such an ingrained habit for thousands of years that most people don't really want to consider ending it.  Even so, it is hard to escape the logic of the situation.  Specifically, as long as wars exist, governments will be tempted to develop or draw upon nuclear weapons to win them. 

            Nuclear weapons emerged in the context of World War II and, not surprisingly, the first country to develop such weapons, the United States, used them to destroy Japanese cities.  U.S. President Harry Truman later stated, when discussing his authorization of the atomic bombing:  "When you have a weapon that will win the war, you'd be foolish if you didn't use it."  Recalling his conversation with President Truman about the bomb, at Potsdam, Winston Churchill wrote:  "There was never a moment's discussion as to whether the atomic bomb should be used."  It was "never even an issue."  Joseph Stalin had a brief opportunity to discuss the Bomb with his U.S. ally at Potsdam, when Truman told the Soviet leader about the new weapon.  According to Truman, Stalin replied that "he was glad to hear it and hoped we would make `good use of it against the Japanese.'"  It also seems pretty clear that, if the German government and the Japanese governments had developed the Bomb, they would have used it just as casually upon their wartime foes.

            Of course, nuclear armed nations have not used nuclear weapons for war since 1945.  And, shortly, I will discuss the major reason why, in my opinion, that is the case.  But we cannot assume that, in the context of bitter wars and threats to national survival, nuclear restraint will continue forever.  Indeed, I think we can conclude that, the longer nuclear weapons exist, the greater the possibility that they will be used in a war.  Old ideas of national defense die hard, and it is pollyannaish to assume that, in the midst of international power struggles, callous tyrants, desperate national leaders, or even conventional national rulers will continue to resist employing the deadliest weapon they possess in their national arsenals.

            Thus, the existence of nuclear weapons brings us face to face with an old issue:  the problem of war.  Of course, along the way to building a warless world, we need arms control and disarmament.  But we will never be totally safe from nuclear disaster while nations are free to go about their business of waging war against other nations.  As Albert Einstein put it, back in 1946:  "A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive."  Or, as the atomic scientists' movement warned us, in the nuclear era we face a choice of "One World or None."

            The sixth lesson from the past is that, over time, nuclear disarmament campaigns have emerged that are both massive and successful.  You all know, I am sure, of Britain's own Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament – an organization that, for the past half-century, has spearheaded the drive in Britain for a world without nuclear weapons and has provided the universal symbol for nuclear disarmament and peace.  But there are many, many other organizations that also have taken on the challenge of building a nuclear-free world, including pacifist, scientific, world government, and medical groups, religious bodies, unions, women's organizations, and labor parties.  Antinuclear activists have founded respected journals like the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, developed the Pugwash conferences on Science and World Affairs, and established worldwide environmental organizations like Greenpeace. The movement has drawn on prominent intellectuals like Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Albert Schweitzer, Alva Myrdal, Andrei Sakharov, Helen Caldicott, and E.P. Thompson.  Mass-based Ban-the-Bomb organizations have developed in dozens of countries, including the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific Movement in Pacific island nations, No to Nuclear Weapons in Norway and Denmark, the Congress Against A & H Bombs in Japan, the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament in Europe in France, and the Trust Groups in the Soviet Union.  In my own nation, the United States, the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, which was founded in late 1957, a few months before CND, quickly became the largest peace group in the country.  In 1987, it merged with another mass nuclear disarmament group, the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, to form Peace Action – which is today the largest U.S. peace and disarmament organization, with 100,000 members.

            Working together, these organizations have been – and remain – a formidable force on the world scene.  International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, currently has member groups in sixty countries.  The International Peace Bureau, which brings together many independent peace and disarmament organizations, has 282 member groups in seventy countries.  In the fall of 1983, during a time of mass protest, an estimated five million people participated in demonstrations against the deployment of new intermediate range missiles in Western Europe.  Overall, the nuclear disarmament campaign has constituted the largest social movement of modern times.

            But has it been effective?  My answer is that, although the movement has not banned the Bomb, it has been successful in curbing the nuclear arms race and in preventing nuclear war.  This is a point I developed in detail in my three-volume history of the world nuclear disarmament movement, The Struggle Against the Bomb (Stanford University Press, 1993, 1997, 2003).  And I also made it in a talk the other day for the CND national council.  So I do not want to repeat it at length here.

            But let me very briefly outline the findings, which are based on a careful examination of formerly top secret records of the U.S., British, and Soviet governments, memoirs, and interviews with top former government officials:

1.      Thanks to a burst of nuclear disarmament activism in the late 1940s, the U.S. government turned from its initial plans to maintain a U.S. nuclear monopoly under military control to sponsoring the first measures for worldwide nuclear disarmament.  Furthermore, it moved from enthusiastic use of the Bomb to a far more cautious approach to nuclear war.

2.      In response to growing ban-the-bomb agitation from 1957 through the early 1960s, the U.S., British, and Soviet governments accepted a moratorium on nuclear testing in 1958, opened nuclear test ban negotiations that same year, and finally signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963.  In addition, a number of other nations decided not to build nuclear weapons, and plans for nuclear war were delayed and, then, abandoned.

3.      Responding to growing antinuclear agitation in the late 1970s, NATO dropped plans for the deployment of the neutron bomb and adopted a disarmament track as part of its two-track decision for Euromissile deployment.  When disarmament protest reached unprecedented levels during the early 1980s, U.S. President Ronald Reagan panicked, shifted from sharp hostility to nuclear disarmament measures to support of them, abandoned talk of nuclear war, and accepted Mikhail Gorbachev's overtures for an end to the Cold War.  As Reagan told his Secretary of State, George Shultz, amid the massive fall 1983 demonstrations against the Euromissiles:  "If things get hotter and hotter and arms control remains an issue, maybe I should go see Andropov and propose eliminating all nuclear weapons."  And, despite Shultz's objections, that's just what he did propose!

        Conversely, if nuclear deterrence has been the major force behind the nuclear restraint that has existed since 1945, what has stopped nuclear nations from waging nuclear war against non-nuclear nations?  Why did the United States go down to defeat against non-nuclear Vietnam rather than resort to nuclear war?  Well, perhaps you think that the U.S. officials were restrained by moral qualms.  But what about those ruthless Communist dictatorships?  Why did the Soviet Union fail to resort to nuclear war to stave off defeat at the hands of non-nuclear Afghanistan?  Why did China not use nuclear weapons in its brief war with non-nuclear Vietnam?  Why, for that matter, have countries bothered with nuclear arms control and disarmament measures?  Why have most nations capable of building nuclear weapons chosen not to build them?  In a world where nuclear strength supposedly guarantees peace and national security, this behavior makes no sense, does it?

            Of course, I am resorting here to logic rather than to historical detail.  For the full story, backed by massive evidence, you're going to have to turn to The Struggle Against the Bomb.

            The seventh lesson from the past is that most people have wanted (and still want) to get rid of nuclear weapons.  Although one of the great writers on the nuclear dilemma, the psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton, has contended that there has existed a dangerous level of what he calls "nuclearism" in public attitudes, the polls have consistently shown massive popular distaste for nuclear weapons.

            As early as 1946, when the U.S. government enjoyed a nuclear monopoly, a poll of Americans found that 72 percent of respondents favored giving the United Nations the power to see to it that no country, including the United States, could make atomic bombs.  In the following years, this attitude showed a remarkable persistence.  A Gallup poll in the summer of 1958 found that support for establishing a worldwide organization to ensure that no nation made nuclear weapons or missiles stood at 70 percent in the United States, 72 percent in Britain, 78 percent in India, 85 percent in France, 91 percent in Japan, and 92 percent in West Germany.

            Roughly 50 years later, public attitudes were much the same – indeed, even a trifle more antinuclear.  An opinion survey in the summer of 2007 found that the abolition of all nuclear weapons, through an enforceable agreement, was supported by 74 percent of the public in the United States, 85 percent in Britain, 87 percent in France, 95 percent in Italy, and 95 percent in Germany.  Of course, 100 percent support for nuclear abolition would be even better; but these levels of support for it are pretty striking!

            Opinion polls over the years also show massive popular support for nuclear arms control agreements (such as the INF, SALT, and START treaties), as well as popular opposition to nuclear testing, the building of new nuclear weapons, and the use of nuclear weapons. 

            In some cases, to be sure, governments have taken actions that have challenged the public's antinuclear sentiments.  But we should not forget that these pro-nuclear actions have usually caused crises for these same governments which, as we have seen, have caused them to retreat again and again from realizing the full extent of their nuclear ambitions. 

            In general, then, public opinion has favored – and continues to favor -- nuclear arms control and disarmament, right up through nuclear abolition.

            The eighth – and final – lesson to which I want to call your attention is that nuclear abolition is feasible.  We can get rid of nuclear weapons!

            The reasons lie in most of the factors I have already discussed.  Specifically, nuclear weapons are an immoral, irrational response to international conflict, and the public – for the most part – understands this.  Even some officials of national governments, despite the traditional faith of national security officials in securing the national interest by marshalling superior military force, have understood this.  National government leaders like Mikhail Gorbachev, David Lange, and the late Rajiv Gandhi and Olof Palme are good examples of this development. 

            Of course, the current leaders of the nuclear powers do not seem at all eager to divest themselves of their nuclear arsenals.  But there are signs that, even in the United States, where nuclear arms control and disarmament have been sabotaged by the pro-nuclear Bush administration, nuclear abolition is starting to gain traction.  In the past year-and-a-half, prominent former national security officials like the American Gang of Four – George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, and Sam Nunn – have begun campaigning for a nuclear-free world.  In the presidential elections, the presumptive Democratic candidate, Barack Obama, has voiced his strong support for nuclear abolition and has promised to work for ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty by the U.S. Senate.  Meanwhile, this May, the presumptive Republican candidate, John McCain – who has been a fairly consistent nuclear hawk – announced not only that he would take "another look" at the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and pursue a new nuclear arms control treaty with Russia, but that his "dream" was a world free of nuclear weapons.  In the context of a fierce election campaign, with polls showing widespread support for nuclear arms control and disarmament, one might well doubt the sincerity of McCain's sudden conversion.  Nevertheless, it provides one more sign that the winds are once more blowing in the direction of nuclear disarmament.

            How should we respond to these "lessons from the past" and to these intimations of the future?

            I think we should recognize that the struggle against the Bomb has been neither won nor lost but, rather, has been moving forward.  Thanks to the sharp critique of nuclear weapons by intellectuals and to the widespread popular mobilization against them by activist groups over the decades, we have managed to achieve a welcome level of arms control and disarmament.  The number of nuclear weapons in the world has dropped from 70,000 to 27,000, and most nuclear arsenals seem to be dwindling even further.  Perhaps most important, since 1945 we have managed to avoid nuclear war.

            But we are not out of danger yet.  To bring us to a safer, saner world, we are going to have to mobilize further popular pressure to not only continue the nuclear disarmament process and to ensure that there remains a stigma on the use of nuclear weapons, but to push us along to developing the attitudes and institutions that will lead us to a world without war. 

            Can we manage this task?  Fortunately, we don't have to do it overnight.  But we do have to be resolute and unyielding in the struggle.

            On January 1, 1831, the great American anti-slavery crusader, William Lloyd Garrison, founded an abolitionist newspaper called The Liberator, in Boston.  Shortly before this, he had been imprisoned in the Southern city of Baltimore for publicly criticizing a prominent slave-trader.  Now, having relocated, in desperation, to the North, Garrison was surrounded by widespread popular apathy and lacked significant financial resources.  Thus, he was forced to print The Liberator on borrowed paper with borrowed type.  But, despite these severe difficulties, Garrison pressed forward with this new antislavery newspaper, for he was a determined and courageous person.  On the front page of the first issue, he proclaimed:  "I am in earnest -- I will not equivocate. . . I will not retreat a single inch -- AND I WILL BE HEARD!"  Ultimately, he was heard, and a powerful abolitionist movement triumphed – one of the great victories in the struggle for human rights. 

            The abolition of nuclear weapons is sometimes compared to the abolition of slavery, and for good reason.  The abolition of slavery came only at the end of a long and difficult campaign, challenging a deeply ingrained, immoral, and irrational, institution.  We can say much the same about the struggle against nuclear weapons, which has been long and difficult.  And certainly the weapons themselves, as well as their breeding ground, war, are deeply ingrained in the structure of international relations and are immoral and, ultimately, irrational.

            Finally, despite all the obstacles – most notably the ages-old temptation to resort to military force in pursuit of what is considered the national interest -- I do believe that we can win the struggle for a nuclear-free world.  And we will win it if, like Garrison, we are earnest, do not equivocate, and make ourselves heard.

            Thank you for all your efforts toward a nuclear-free world.  And let us continue that campaign, until it is victorious.




Summary of questions and discussion.



  1. Is there not a deeper reason than Truman being ‘cowed’ by the anti-nuclear movement for his not using nuclear weapons? 

Ans:  After the atomic bombing of Japan, nuclear weapons were stigmatised by peace groups and the public, and this was a key reason that such weapons were not used when the U.S. government had a nuclear monopoly.  Later, Dulles and colleagues had to take account of public hostility to nuclear weapons when considering their use.  (Note: the evidence for this thesis is in Wittner’s three volumes, The Struggle Against the Bomb, Stanford University Press – available from Amazon as needed).


  1. How can nuclear weapons be abolished without destabilising the world even further? 

Ans: The process has to be step by step, through a test ban treaty, enforcement of the non-proliferation treaty, a treaty on fissile materials, disarmament agreements, etc. In any case, conventional weapons will remain.  The Shultz-Kissinger-Perry-Nunn abolitionist ‘gang of four’ believe that the USA and its allies would remain secure.  A nuclear abolition convention has already been lodged with the UN.


  1. Are not decisions for nuclear weapons made irrationally, on ‘gut instinct’? 

Ans: Government officials usually adapt to their offices and, thus, tend to continue the traditional reliance on military force to safeguard national security.  As a result, it has taken external pressure upon them to get them to change course.


  1. Surely the key is a properly representative democratic system to reflect public feelings of hostility to nuclear weapons (i.e. proportional representation)?  Ans: That would certainly help.  If it were in place, it is doubtful that the current Iraq war would have occurred.


  1. What about the legal judgement of the World Court on nuclear weapons?  And does not science itself need to be controlled?  What about not replacing the UK Trident system?   (Some general discussion on these questions followed).


  1. What difference would the election of B. Obama make, e.g. to the CTBT?  And what about states like Iran, with clandestine nuclear programmes despite being members of the NPT? 

Ans:  Obama (unlike Bush) strongly supports U.S. ratification of the CTBT, and would bring the issue again to the U.S. Senate (where it was previously rejected).  Paradoxically, because treaties need to attract two-thirds of the Senate, it could happen that McCain – who has said he would `take another look' at the CTBT -- could get enough Republicans on board to get the CTBT ratified.  With an effective global inspection/monitoring regime, as well as follow-through on disarmament promises by the nuclear powers, problems like the one with Iran could be dealt with.


  1. Why is the present moment especially ripe for nuclear abolition? 

Ans:  There is an important change in administration about to take place in the United States and peace groups and the public favour nuclear abolition.  Although there are no mass protests demanding abolition comparable to those in the 1980s, key former national security officials in both USA (Shultz, Kissinger and co) and in UK (D Hurd and co) are pressing for it.


  1. Surely there will always be the risk of nuclear war, but it is less of a risk than the risk involved in not disarming? 

Ans: Agreed.


  1. Surely the peace movement was only one factor out of many in determining policy? And surely conventional disarmament is just as important?

Ans: Of course nuclear deterrence was always in the background.  But popular pressure was more important.  For example, McGeorge Bundy, the national security advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and a consultant to Nixon, wrote that it was not deterrence that prevented the U.S. government from using nuclear weapons in Vietnam but, rather, the fear of popular revulsion, protest, and revolt.


  1. Opinion polls are surely unreliable – it all depends on the questions asked; so what is needed is to change public perceptions, just as has been done with smoking? 

Ans: Agreed.


  1. Surely what matters is to influence the public in non-Western countries, like Iran or China?  

Ans:  Yes, public opinion in those countries is important, but there are public campaigns against nuclear weapons in numerous non-Western nations, as well as polls indicating substantial opposition to nuclear weapons and nuclear war. 


  1. Surely there are two incompatible public attitudes: nuclear weapons are evil, BUT national security is paramount?   

Ans:  They are compatible with an effective system of international security.  That probably means a stronger more effective United Nations, or even world government.