When Barack Obama was elected president, one of his stated hopes was the global elimination of nuclear weapons. Now that he is about to conclude his presidency, his hope (expressed in his visit to Hiroshima) is still that such weapons might be eliminated. But serious steps toward the elimination of nuclear weapons never happen. Almost a decade ago, four of our most powerful retired politicians—Sam Nunn, George Shultz, Henry Kissinger and William Perry—called for an initiative to end nuclear weapons, and nothing happened. Now William Perry, President Clinton’s former Secretary of Defense has written a book in which he argues, “Today, the danger of some sort of a nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War, and most people are blissfully unaware of this danger.” And still, nothing happens.
Recently, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Yukiya Amano said, “Terrorism is spreading and the possibility of using nuclear material cannot be excluded” and argued for strengthened nuclear security against the use of fissile materials by terrorists. Indeed, Belgian police investigating the November 13 Paris terror attacks found ten hours of videotaping of a Belgian nuclear official located in the hands of known terrorists. What the jihadists would have done with the nuclear official or his information, had they gone further or been able to acquire radioactive material, can only be guessed. Today, we have over 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world and tons of fissionable material floating around—enough to destroy virtually all cultures. In addition, we have many scientists with the knowledge to provide nuclear weapons information to rogue regimes as did Pakistan’s Abdul Qadeer Khan, perhaps with the assistance of the Pakistani army.
We believe the targets of this destructive intent have to be brought into the process. For example, the authors of this article live near Washington D.C. and Omaha, Nebraska. As the seat of government for the United States, Washington has always been treated as a ‘ground zero’ target. (In 2011 the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory released a report called the “National Capital Region Key Response Planning Factors for the Aftermath of Nuclear Terrorism” that instructs people what to do when Washington is attacked.)
Eastern Nebraska surprisingly is not very different. Since the 1950s, Offutt Air Force Base outside of Omaha has been the command center for the U.S.’s nuclear arsenal, and the residents of this part of the state have lived under the cloud of nuclear attack for most of our lives.
In 1959, the Rev. Abraham Muste and other members of the peace community marched to Mead, Nebraska, to protest the existence of intercontinental ballistic missiles at the Mead site. In the early ’60s, Alastair Hetherington, editor of the Manchester Guardian, visited Lincoln to ask how it felt to be a primary nuclear target. For more than half a century, Nebraska peace activists have sought to spotlight the doomsday mission of first Strategic Air Command and now U.S. Strategic Command (StratCom). We do not wish to be targets. One of us spoke to a Junior Chamber of Commerce at the Nebraska State Penitentiary about eastern Nebraska’s ground zero status. Afterward a prisoner came up and said, “I am not all right in the head; I can’t read; but I sure understood what your speech meant for me in this prison.” We are all in this prison.
Our efforts to end this stand-off and get out of the crosshairs have not been successful. The reasons for this are not far to seek. For the cities of Omaha and Bellevue, StratCom and its satellite companies constitute employment for about 100,000 people, much of it quite high level employment. Dozens of large and small corporations in Omaha and eastern Nebraska depend on StratCom for their existence. Our congress members are expected to deliver appropriations that feed the nuclear monster and—though some of our representatives have a good sense of how dangerous nuclear proliferation is—they cannot act effectively to limit the central industry of our largest city and retain office. Since the Nuclear Freeze movement in the 1980s, we have had precious little progress on meaningful international negotiations to reduce the nuclear military forces in the world.
Under the radar for most Americans, the Department of Defense is mounting a soup-to-nuts nuclear weapons “modernization” program estimated to cost at least $1 trillion over the next thirty years. New or upgraded weapons laboratories, warheads, missiles, submarines and bombers are all part of this scheme. Predictably, every other nuclear weapons state has followed suit, announcing their own “modernization” plans.
Though the modernization program, which more appropriately ought to be called “The New Arms Race” program, proposes to stay within the boundaries of present treaties, it seems likely this sort of expenditure on nuclear arms will lead to proliferation in other countries (or suspicions of proliferation). It may lead to steps by other countries to acquire more nukes or more destructive ones. The outrageous statements on the use of nuclear weapons by some presidential candidates suggest how dangerous the situation is.
Despite our unsuccessful local efforts, we do not wish be targets any more. We believe the millions of human beings who are tired of dreaming the nuclear nightmare need to be brought into the process. We are not alone in this goal. Mayors of 5300 cities across the world have asked that their cities not be targets any more—targets of national military decisions in which their communities have no voice or role. We are proposing the creation of an international campaign that stands up to say “We refuse to be targets”—to ask governments in the U.S., Russia, Britain, France, China, Pakistan, India, Israel and other countries having, or contemplating having nuclear weapons across the world, to cease and desist.
We need a new Nuclear Freeze and then systematic reductions with a protocol for controlling fissionable materials. Our suggestion would be that the campaign advocate for gradual reductions: first of 25% or more (which has at least been proposed for US/Russian bilateral reductions to follow-up the New START agreement), then of 50%, then of 75%, and finally of 95% both in nuclear warheads and in fissionable materials. This would require the creation of infrastructure for monitoring and verifying compliance with agreed reductions.
We are confident the peoples of the world will ultimately demand the total elimination of nuclear weapons. The situations in Pakistan and India, Russia and Ukraine, Syria and Iraq, and several other countries in the world, however, make near-term reductions a matter of some urgency. As we approach the August 6 and 9 anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, President Obama is reportedly considering executive actions to reduce nuclear dangers. He certainly should announce further reductions, taking U.S. warheads off hair-trigger alert status, and declaring a No First Use policy for our nuclear arsenal.
These steps could help re-invigorate the mostly stalled international nuclear arms reduction process, but civil society must demand more. We believe that although the people of Nebraska and Washington have been relatively impotent by ourselves, we could act in concert with the peace movements across the world to make happen what the politicians and military have not been able to.