Events

Book Launch--Toward Nuclear Abolition. A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1971 to Present

January 09, 2004 // 2:30pm4:00pm

Organized by the Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center, the event featured Lawrence Wittner, professor of history at State University of New York, Albany, renowned peace historian, and author of The Struggle against the Bomb trilogy. Throughout the ages, Wittner begun, nations attempted to develop more and more powerful weapons in a constant search for security through strength. This age-old security dilemma meant the search for constantly improving weapons. The culmination of the search was reached with the advent of ever more powerful thermonuclear weapons in the later part of the 20th centrury

The third volume of The Struggle Against the Bomb trilogy analyzes, based on a variety of US, West European, and former Communist world documents, the increasingly powerful influence grass-roots movements played on policy makers concerning the uses and deployment of nuclear weapons. US administrations from Carter to Reagan continuously monitored the sentiment and size of the peace and anti-nuclear movement and were surprised by what they found, Wittner argued. The movement's influence thus forced the governments to compromise on issues of development and deployment.

Even if Ronald Reagan has long been considered as one of the most anti-nuclear presidents, Wittner suggested that his stand was due, in great part, by the administration's understanding that the anti-nuclear movement had grown into a political force to be reconed with. It was under pressure from anti-nuclear activists, Wittner argued, that Reagan proposed and pushed for the Zero Option package. The MX missile development and deployment was also a "casualty" of mass demonstrations. Of the over 200 planned missiles, only 50 were build due to grass roots opposition.

The rise of Mikhail Gorbachev to power forced the administration's hand, according to Wittner. Gorbachev's unilateral removal of the SS-20 missiles from Europe forced the US Administration to take "yes" for an answer in terms of disarmament. As the George H. Bush administration came into office in 1989, the president felt that Reagan had gone too far in terms of disarmament. Yet pressure from demonstrators and from Gorbachev pushed the White House further towards disarmament.

The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, meant that the public concern with nuclear weapons dwindled. By the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, public concern with nuclear armament had reached all time lows. Lack of public pressure meant that security concerns soon reemerged as the primary influence on policy. The ultimate consequence of such dwindling interest from the public was the George W. Bush administration's policy of withdrawing the US from the ABM treaty and the US Senate's decision to ignore and ultimately reject the CBTB treaty.

Governments are responsive to public pressure, Wittner concluded, even in such highly sensitive areas as nuclear armament and deployment. Grass roots activism can influence governments to show restraint. When grass roots activism joins with individuals in power amiable to the ideas put forth by the public—such as the Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev—the success of anti-nuclear activists was unexpected. However, when the pressure lapsed, governments once again fell victim to the security dilemma of peace through strength.

Darryl Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control Association, praised Wittner for his breath of research. The book, Kimball suggested, challenges the orthodox view that the anti-nuclear movement was ineffectual. Leaders and government, he argues were forced to take note of the movement and could not act in a vacuum. The degree of its success depended on the individuals leading the organizations as well as on the political backing the movement received from political heavy-weights. The movement was most effective when it received such backing, Kimball concluded. The book also raises some important questions about the nature of the anti-nuclear movement outside of the US and Western Europe. Future research would have to explore how the anti-nuclear movement has influenced activists in countries that only now are gaining nuclear capabilities such as India and Pakistan, where they face much different conditions concerning freedom of expression and assembly than the movement in Western Europe and the US faced.

Ambassador James Goodby agreed that pressure from the public had an impact on foreign policy. The 1980s especially proved very interesting in term of public influence on White House policy. Nevertheless, Amb. Goodby argued, while the book was thoroughly researched, some of the conclusions remain controversial. Civil servants and career diplomats were neglected in the book, Goodby contended, and Wittner suggested too often that presidents come to office without a personal set of opinions on the issues that that they can be easily influenced by the public. Reagan, he contented, was the most widely anti-nuclear president since the atomic bomb first appeared on the military landscape, and his opposition to the disarmament agreements he inherited from Nixon, Ford and Carter had its roots in his belief that they did not go far enough rather than his desire for more weapons.

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Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Laura Deal // Catalog Specialist
  • Pieter Biersteker // Editorial Assistant
  • Charles Kraus // Program Assistant
  • Evan Pikulski // Program Assistant
  • Roy O. Kim // Program Assistant
  • James Person // Deputy Director, History and Public Policy Program; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project