The Beginning of the End


“This is the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons.” – Setsuko Thurlow, Hiroshima survivor

We live in extraordinary times, so apocalyptic it becomes easier with each day to understand the obsession of the Religious Right with the End Times prophesied in the Bible: “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.” (Matt 24:6)

“Sure looks like they’re going to blow up the world,” said a man weighing his groceries at the self-serve station next to mine, quite out of the blue. But then he decided it wasn’t imminent. “I won’t be here for it.” I didn’t have a chance to ask him why not.

Isn’t everyone thinking of North Korea, which launched its first ballistic missile on July 4th, probably an ICBM capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, shooting it off in the direction of Japan?

Trump’s responses have been threatening. “I don’t like to talk about what I have planned but I’ve some pretty severe things that we’re thinking about,” he said July 6 in Hamburg, Germany, where members of the G-20 were gathering for their meeting the next day. On Pacifica’s evening news, Trump was quoted saying that “this guy” is behaving very badly and something will have to be done about it. But little has been said about North Korea’s experience since the Korean War, or the military exercises that take place in South Korea every year—the biggest in the world.

“Tens of thousands of U.S. troops and hundreds of thousands of their Korean counterparts participate. The exercises are gargantuan, costly, and they temporarily escalate tensions on an already volatile peninsula,” reports Damen Cook  in The Diplomat. In response to Pyongyang’s missile, the two countries held special exercises again this week. Writing in Common Dreams, Jake Johnson calls Trump’s response to North Korea “Scary as Hell.”

Progressive journalists are sounding the alarm. “Isn’t this a dangerous moment?” asks Robert Scheer. “We are facing the greatest nuclear catastrophe since the first Cold War,” said Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of Nation magazine, in an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now. And Norman Solomon has denounced the Democrats for their “Russia-gate Obsession” and the denizens of the nuclear industry who “aren’t much interested in any course toward Russia other than antagonism if not belligerence” as well as “ultra-hawks like Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain are … doing all they can to prevent genuine diplomacy.” The mushroom cloud looms over all their heads.

BUT, in the midst of this doomsday chorus, here comes the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons! The first true disarmament agreement in the 73 years since the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was approved by 122 states at the United Nations in New York on July 7. It seems nothing short of a miracle that those states followed through on their commitment to complete a final draft of the document; but they did, and all praise!

But what does it mean? The nine nuclear nations did not participate, much less approve the Treaty. Reuters reported the immediate response of U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley, British Ambassador Matthew Rycroft, and French Ambassador Francois Delattre who said in a joint statement that their countries do “not intend to sign, ratify or ever become party” to the treaty. “Therefore, there will be no change in the legal obligations on our countries with respect to nuclear weapons,” they said.

“A purported ban on nuclear weapons that does not address the security concerns that continue to make nuclear deterrence necessary cannot result in the elimination of a single nuclear weapon and will not enhance any country’s security, nor international peace and security,” they said, citing North Korea.

But the Treaty is so thorough in its prohibitions that, should it be signed into law this fall, it seems certain to block some of the procedures nuclear nations have employed. Not only mining uranium, producing plutonium, and actually making weapons will be prohibited, but even transporting nuclear weapons will be outlawed.

And it will be unlawful to host another country’s stockpile. Five NATO nations currently store 150 American nukes. Writes William Arkin in an interesting piece in Vice: “The nuclear weapons are the ultimate American guarantee to Europe, and they’re also a kind of US-European bargain: Only the US president can approve their use, but the host nations have to approve the bombs leaving the country. Thus the weapons can serve as a deterrent while also being virtually unusable.” Ha! Happily, they are many fewer than there used to be: 7300 in 1971.

The US makes much of its commitment to support its European allies in this way, and the Treaty rule against “hosting” weapons as proposed was significant enough to warrant a “United States Non-Paper” addressed to NATO’s Committee on Proliferation, “encouraging” our “Dear Allies” to “to vote ‘no’ on any vote at the UN First Committee on starting negotiations for a nuclear ban treaty.”

Banning, hosting, and transport of nuclear weapons seems to matter a lot, after all.

Ray Acheson, director of Reaching Critical Will, who wrote a daily newsletter report on the proceedings of the meetings, explains the many ways the treaty could make the activities of the nuclear nations more difficult. On the subject of transit, for example, she writes in the June 23 issue: “. . . establishing that states parties must not permit the transit of nuclear weapons through their territorial waters, land territories, and airspace…could have a significant impact on operational policies that are part of the practice of ‘extended nuclear deterrence’ and nuclear brinkmanship.”

[The Treaty] is an instrument that achieves what we set out to do: create international law without the nuclear-armed or nuclear-supportive states that will fundamentally challenge their ability and interest in maintaining these weapons of mass destruction…it will mount an effective legal, political, economic and social challenge to the concept, policies, and practices of nuclear ‘deterrence’ and to the existence of nuclear weapons themselves,” wrote Acheson on July 4.

The development, testing, production, manufacture, acquisition, possession, stockpiling, use, and threat of use of nuclear weapons have been declared illegal under this treaty. It’s a remarkable accomplishment, several years in the making, and its completion at this agonizing moment seems freighted with significance. Could the light dawn on this crazy human adventure glorified as “civilization?”

For years, nuclear war had been a spook seldom mentioned, not in the press and certainly not at the dinner table, where polite people avoid topics disturbing to the digestion; and people had begun to assume that the nuclear threat was over. But alas, 19,000 warheads around the planet, many of them on hair-trigger alert, told a different story.

In fact it was Trump who reminded the world of the nuclear danger—quixotic, irascible Trump, who seemed so temperamentally ill-suited to having the proverbial finger on the nuclear button, said things like, “Since we have nuclear weapons, why don’t we use them?” It’s Trump who has reignited our repressed radioactive fears.

But movements are born of a powerful nexus of forces intersecting inexplicably at a seemingly designated moment in time; and the movement that led to this Treaty began years before Trump appeared on the political scene. Surprisingly, it was a group of European millennials who realized, as my generation once did, that their future was in jeopardy. Their efforts were spurred by the work of a senor scientist named Steven Starr of Physicians for Social Responsibility who assembled new evidence in support of Carl Sagan’s theory of the “nuclear winter” that might befall the planet after a nuclear war: even a relatively small regional war between Pakistan and India, while a “war fought with the deployed U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals would leave the world virtually uninhabitable,” he wrote.

Suddenly it became possible to see the effects of a nuclear conflagration afresh, with the kind of intensity that befits such a holocaust, and zero in on the “humanitarian impact” of an actual explosion instead of being assuaged by abstract discussions of the necessity of “the deterrent.” People reawakened to the very real suffering that was bound to result from the use of a single nuclear weapon, to say nothing of the horrors produced by a nuclear exchange of bombs 8 to 15 times more powerful than the “Little Boy” that decimated Hiroshima.

A coalition of non-governmental organizations came together as The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) in Melbourne, Australia in 2007, advocating for a strong and effective nuclear weapon ban treaty inspired by the success of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines a decade earlier.

These young people were highly effective, “engaging a diverse range of groups and working alongside the Red Cross and like-minded governments.” They participated in the review of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2010 where all nations expressed their deep concern about the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences” of any use of nuclear weapons—a statement that led to the convening of three major conferences in 2013 and 2014 focusing on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear detonations. ICAN served as the civil society coordinator for these events. In this re-framing of what nuclear war would really be about, the International Committee of the Red Cross  was instrumental, issuing in 2011 a strong resolution boldly titled, “Working towards the elimination of nuclear weapons,” in which it emphasized “the incalculable human suffering that can be expected to result from any use of nuclear weapons, the lack of any adequate humanitarian response capacity and the absolute imperative to prevent such use laid out the painful reality of what a nuclear exchange could do and how little the Red Cross or any other agency would be able to do in response.”

In other words, it would be pure misery unalleviated by medical treatments—another, larger Hiroshima.

Thus a movement to actually ban nuclear weapons gained force as one by one Switzerland, Norway, and Mexico lent their support, followed by Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, Nigeria, and South Africa who brought the resolution to the UN with a total of 57 nations in support.

The Women’s March to Ban the Bomb in New York City
New Mexico’s Kathy Sanchez was at the march

ICAN now represents 440 nongovernmental organizations in 100 countries, but one has taken a prominent role: the Women’s International Organization for Peace and Freedom, the oldest women’s activist organization, which has sponsored since 1999 a disarmament project called Reaching Critical Will. RCW brought a feminist lens to the nuclear entrapment as a product of patriarchy particularly damaging to women and children, who are more susceptible to the effects of radiation than men, as Mary Olson of the Nuclear Information and Resource Center has shown.

On July 7, 2017 in New York the work yielded its fruit, a strong, ten-page Resolution Banning Nuclear Weapons from the earth. Press coverage generally expressed dismay at the uselessness of an effort that did not include the nine nuclear countries but Ray Acheson disagrees. In her final issue of the Nuclear Ban Daily she concludes:

This treaty was conceived of as a tool that could help change the politics and economics of nuclear weapons as a means of facilitating disarmament…[It] is an amazing feat of collective action by people who came together to do something that had not been tried before. Like anything created by people, it has its imperfections. But it’s a good start on the road to abolition, and it gives a glimpse of what is possible in this world. That, all on its own, has meaning.

And we say, Hear, hear.


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