Public Mobilization for a Nuclear-Free World

One of the ironies of the current international situation is that,
although some government leaders now talk of building a nuclear
weapons-free world, there has been limited public mobilization around
that goal -- at least compared to the action-packed 1980s.

However, global public opinion is strikingly antinuclear.

One of the ironies of the current international situation is that,
although some government leaders now talk of building a nuclear
weapons-free world, there has been limited public mobilization around
that goal -- at least compared to the action-packed 1980s.

However, global public opinion is strikingly antinuclear. In December 2008, an opinion poll
conducted of more than 19,000 respondents in 21 nations found that, in
20 countries, large majorities -- ranging from 62 to 93 percent -- favored
an international agreement for the elimination of all nuclear weapons.
Even in Pakistan, the one holdout nation, 46 percent (a plurality) would
support such an agreement. Among respondents in the nuclear powers,
there was strong support for nuclear abolition. This included 62 percent
of the respondents in India, 67 percent in Israel, 69 percent in
Russia, 77 percent in the United States, 81 percent in Britain, 83
percent in China and 87 percent in France.

But public resistance to the bomb is not as strong as these poll figures seem to suggest.

Supporting the Bomb

For starters, a portion of society agrees with their governments that
they're safer when they are militarily powerful. Some people, of
course, are simply militarists, who look approvingly upon weapons and
war. Others genuinely believe in "peace through strength," an idea
championed by government officials, who play upon this theme.

Furthermore, popular resistance to nuclear weapons tends to wane when
progress toward addressing nuclear dangers occurs. For example, the
Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 not only halted most contamination of
the Earth's atmosphere by nuclear tests, but also convinced many people
that the great powers were on the road to halting their nuclear arms
race. As a result, the nuclear disarmament movement declined. A similar
phenomenon occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the United
States and the Soviet Union signed the INF Treaty. U.S.-Soviet nuclear
confrontation eased and the Cold War came to an end. Although public
protest against nuclear weapons didn't disappear, it certainly dwindled.

Indeed, today, the public in many nations seems complacent about the
menace of nuclear weapons. While opposition to nuclear weapons is
widespread, it does not run deep. For example, those people
who said in late 2008 that they "strongly" favored a treaty to abolish
nuclear weapons constituted only 20 percent of respondents in Pakistan,
31 percent in India, 38 percent in Russia, 39 percent in the United
States, and 42 percent in Israel -- although, admittedly, majorities
(ranging from 55 to 60 percent) took this position in Britain, France,
and China. Another sign support for a nuclear-free world is weaker than
implied by its favorability ratings is that an April 2010 poll
among Americans found that, although a large majority said they favored
nuclear abolition, 87 percent considered this goal unrealistic.

Yet another sign of the shallowness of popular support is that,
despite widespread peace and disarmament movement efforts to mobilize
supporters of nuclear abolition around the U.N.'s nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference this past May, the level of
public protest fell far short of the antinuclear outpourings of the
1980s. Indeed, even with the encouragement of U.N. Secretary-General Ban
Ki-moon and the organizing efforts of numerous peace groups, the best
turnout the worldwide nuclear abolition movement could manage was some 15,000 antinuclear demonstrators on May 2.

That the nuclear disarmament issue does not have the same salience
today as in earlier periods can be attributed, in part, to people
feeling less directly threatened by nuclear weapons preparations and
nuclear war. After all, the present U.S.-Russian nuclear confrontation
seems far less dangerous than the U.S.-Soviet nuclear confrontation of
the past. Today, nuclear war seems more likely to erupt in South Asia,
between India and Pakistan. People living far from these nations find it
easy to ignore this dangerous scenario.

Lack of Information

The public is also very poorly informed about what is happening with
respect to nuclear weapons. Although the mass media devoted enormous air
time and column space to Iraq's alleged nuclear weapons capability,
they have devoted scant resources to educate the public on the nuclear
weapons that do exist and on the dangers they pose to human survival. A
2010 survey
of people from their teens through thirties in eight countries found
that large majorities didn't know that Russia, China, Britain, France
and other nations possessed nuclear weapons. In fact, only 59 percent of
American respondents knew that their own country possessed nuclear
weapons. Among British respondents, just 43 percent knew that Britain
maintained a nuclear arsenal.

Public ignorance of nuclear issues occurs largely thanks to the
commercial mass media's focus on trivia and sensationalism. This
emphasis on lightweight entertainment often reflects the interests of
the media's corporate owners and sponsors, who do their best to avoid
fanning the flames of public discontent -- or at least discontent with
corporate and military elites. But the public is complicit with the
blackout on nuclear matters, for many people prefer to avoid thinking
about nuclear weapons and nuclear war.

Thus, although there is widespread opposition to nuclear weapons, it
lacks intensity and the global publics are ill-informed about nuclear
dangers and nuclear disarmament.

Lessons for Peace and Disarmament Groups

The first is that nuclear disarmament and nuclear abolition have
majority public support. Second, this support must be strengthened if
progress is to be made toward a nuclear-free world.

To strengthen public support, these organizations could emphasize the following themes:

Nuclear weapons are suicidal. Numerous analysts have
observed there will be no winners in a nuclear war. A nuclear exchange
between nations will kill many millions of people on both sides of the
conflict and leave the survivors living in a nuclear wasteland, in which
-- as Soviet party secretary Nikita Khrushchev once suggested -- the
living might well envy the dead. Even longtime nuclear enthusiast Ronald
Reagan eventually concluded, "A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought."

There are no safe havens from a nuclear war. Even in
the event of a small-scale nuclear war -- a regional conflict with
relatively few nuclear weapons -- the results would be catastrophic. A study published in the January 2010 issue of the Scientific American
concluded that, should such a war occur between India and Pakistan, the
consequences would not be confined to that region. The firestorms
generated by the conflict would put massive amounts of smoke into the
upper atmosphere and create a nuclear winter around the globe. With the
sun blocked, the Earth's surface would become cold, dark, and dry.
Agriculture around the world would collapse, and mass starvation would

Nuclear weapons possession does not guarantee security.
This contention defies the conventional wisdom of national security
elites and a portion of the public. 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. In response, the Soviet government built
atomic bombs. Then the two nations competed in building hydrogen bombs,
guided missiles, and missiles with multiple warheads. Meanwhile, seven
other nations built nuclear weapons. Each year, all these nations felt
less and less secure. And they were less secure, because the more they
increased their capacity to threaten others, the more they were
threatened in return.

Concurrently, these nations also found themselves entangled in bloody
conventional wars. Their adversaries -- the Chinese, the Koreans, the
Algerians, the Vietnamese, the Afghans, the Iraqis, and other peoples --
were not deterred by the nuclear weapons of their opponents. "Throughout
the wide range of our foreign policies," recalled Dean Rusk, the former
U.S. Secretary of State, "I was struck by the irrelevance of nuclear
weapons to decision making."

Nor do nuclear arsenals protect a country from external terrorist
assault. On September 11, 2001, nineteen men staged the largest
terrorist attack on the United States in its history. Given that
terrorists are not state actors, it is difficult to imagine how nuclear
weapons could be used strategically in the "war on terror" as either a
deterrent or in military conflict.

There is a significant possibility of accidental nuclear war.
During the Cold War and subsequent decades, there have been numerous
false alarms about an enemy attack. Many of these came close to
triggering a nuclear response, which would have had devastating
consequences. In addition, emerging nuclear states may not have the same
safeguards in place that were developed during the U.S.-Soviet nuclear
arms race, widening the possibilities of an inadvertent nuclear
response. Furthermore, nuclear weapons can be exploded accidentally
during their maintenance or transportation.

As long as nuclear weapons exist, there will be a temptation to use them.
Warfare has been an ingrained habit for thousands of years, and it's
unlikely this practice will soon be ended. As long as wars exist,
governments will be tempted to draw upon nuclear weapons to win them.

Nuclear weapons emerged in the context of World War II. Not
surprisingly, the first country to develop such weapons, the United
States, used them to destroy Japanese cities. 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 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."

Of course, nuclear-armed nations have not used nuclear weapons in war since 1945. But this reflects the effectiveness of popular pressure
against nuclear war, rather than the effectiveness of nuclear
deterrence. Indeed, if nuclear deterrence worked, governments would not
be desperately trying to stop nuclear proliferation and deploy missile
defense systems. Thus, we cannot assume that, in the context of bitter
wars and threats to national survival, nuclear restraint will continue
forever. Indeed, we can conclude, the longer nuclear weapons exist, the
greater the possibility they will be used in war.

As long as nuclear weapons exist, terrorists can acquire them.
Terrorists cannot build nuclear weapons by themselves. The creation of
such weapons requires vast resources, substantial territory and a good
deal of scientific knowledge. The only way terrorists will attain a
nuclear capability is by obtaining the weapons from the arsenals of the
nuclear powers -- either by donation, by purchase or by theft. Therefore,
a nuclear-free world would end the threat of nuclear terrorism.

Expanding educational outreach to the public along these lines will
not be easy, given corporate control of the mass communications media.
Nevertheless, the internet provides new possibilities for grassroots
communication. Even within the corporate press, more could be done to
encourage letters to the editor and the placement of op-ed pieces. In
addition, nuclear disarmament groups could reach broad audiences by
working through the very substantial networks of sympathetic
organizations, such as religious bodies, unions, environmental groups,
and professional associations.

Intensifying the level of popular mobilization can in turn push
reluctant governments further down the road toward a nuclear
weapons-free world. Indeed, it's the only thing that can do so.

© 2023 Foreign Policy In Focus