Contribution to GTI Roundtable How to Ban the Bomb

Lawrence Wittner

We owe a debt of gratitude to David Krieger for his excellent essay, as well as to the commentators on it, for what they have done in the past and are now doing to confront the enormous challenge nuclear weapons pose to the continued existence of life on earth.

Permit me to elaborate on a few points.

Widespread public resistance to nuclear weapons and nuclear war will certainly be a key element in any campaign to end the nuclear menace. In fact, this kind of resistance has already played a central role in reducing nuclear dangers. Starting in 1945, hundreds of lively nuclear disarmament organizations emerged around the world and managed to spark massive uprisings against the nuclear policies of the world’s governments. Convincing most people in most nations that they would be safer in a non-nuclear world, this mass movement succeeded in blocking the proliferation of nuclear weapons, reducing the size of nuclear arsenals, and chilling the willingness of government officials to wage nuclear war. Although the nuclear disarmament movement did not secure its long-range goal―a nuclear weapons-free world―it did manage to curb the nuclear arms race and prevent further nuclear attacks after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

The causal connection between widespread public resistance to nuclear weapons and the more cautious policies toward nuclear weapons adopted by governments since 1945 can be found in the once top-secret files of these governments, as well as in the statements and published memoirs of public officials. Much of the evidence for this connection is laid out in my three-volume history of the world nuclear disarmament movement, The Struggle Against the Bomb (Stanford University Press).

Unfortunately, the nuclear disarmament movement has dwindled considerably since its last mass uprising of the 1980s. Although many leading organizations—such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in Britain, Peace Action (the successor to the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy and the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign) in the United States, and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War around the world―continue their anti-nuclear efforts today, their memberships have declined substantially. Moreover, although opinion polls continue to show that most people favor a nuclear-free world, support for it does not seem to be salient.

So what can be done to revive the popular movement? David Krieger suggests building an alliance with other worldwide movements—specifically the peace movement, the environmental movement, and the economic justice movement―seeking global systemic change. If that alliance can be developed, it would certainly be a powerful one. It is probably closest to being realized in connection with the peace movement, for numerous peace groups already have nuclear disarmament on their agenda. Even so, some peace organizations with a hard Left perspective appear considerably more interested in denouncing US imperialism than in highlighting ongoing nuclear dangers. Also environmental and economic justice groups have often been reluctant to take on peace and disarmament issues, probably because they consider them more “controversial” or abstract than popular bread-and-butter issues like raising the minimum wage. Even so, to the degree that such an alliance can be developed and, later, strengthened through the platforms of progressive political parties, it should be.

Moreover, although widespread public resistance to nuclear weapons is necessary for building a nuclear-free world, it might not be sufficient. The reason is that nuclear weapons, like other weapons, are a vital part of international conflict and war. Competing territories and, later, nation-states have been engaged in war for most of human history, and a central impulse in the hoary tradition of settling disputes through violence is to reach for the most powerful weapons available. Thus, national security officials are not at all eager to get rid of nuclear weapons―or at least their nuclear weapons―and this is a key reason why the ultimate goal of the nuclear disarmament movement has remained elusive.

Consequently, to convince government officials (and a portion of the public that shares their views) to move toward a nuclear-free world, it will be necessary to provide them with an alternative framework for national security. And that probably means an international security system, based on governance by either a strengthened United Nations or a world federation. The bad news is that this international security system is going to be difficult to attain. The good news is that, if we can attain it, we will not only have the ability to create a nuclear-free world, but a peaceful one, as well.

Building a widespread mass movement for nuclear abolition and a more effective structure for global governance is a tall order. But, after all, that’s what a great transition means.

Lawrence Wittner
Lawrence Wittner is Emeritus Professor of History at the State University of New York at Albany and author of the trilogy The Struggle against the Bomb.

Cite as Lawrence Wittner, contribution to GTI Roundtable "How to Ban the Bomb,"Great Transition Initiative (August 2018),

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