I watched from the front gates of Vandenberg Air Force Base at 11:39 pm PDT on February 8, 2017 as a pencil-thin beam of light shot above the treeline and disappeared into the atmosphere. The United States had conducted the first test launch of a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile under Trump’s administration. Loaded with depleted uranium, in lieu of a real nuclear warhead, it sped at Mach 23 (over 17,000 miles per hour) toward the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Site in the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, a sovereign nation in Micronesia treaty-bound to receive United States nuclear testing. The missile disappeared into space, and the force of its propulsion grew to a roar that my fellow observers and I could feel in our bodies and under our feet. Windows rattled in neighboring towns. As I traveled the twenty miles back home, the missile met its target over 4,000 miles away.
I considered the devastating power of the triadic warheads crowning the Minuteman III, a load total twenty times that of Little Boy which decimated Hiroshima. I considered Rick Perry’s nomination to oversee the nuclear stockpile as Energy Secretary despite his earlier stated desire to dismantle the department. I considered the readily displayed ignorance of our Commander-In-Chief regarding the US nuclear arsenal, his bullying arrogance in international diplomacy, and the xenophobic company he keeps. My head spun.
During the past ten years, I have been on the periphery of the unceasing effort for nuclear disarmament. While helping to organize the archives of the Nuclear Resister, a paper that publishes news of nonviolent resistance to nuclear weapons, I’ve had the unique opportunity to study the anti-nuclear movement’s most vibrant decade, the 1980s, which saw the mass mobilization of thousands; hundreds of creative, direct actions confronting nuclear test sites and power plants, missile silos, military bases and headquarters of weapons manufacturers; and many demonstrators sentenced and jailed for their peaceful protest. Even with increasing awareness of the local and international dangers posed by nuclear technology, the end of the Cold War mollified activists and the frequency of demonstrations plummeted.
Currently, there is a small and dedicated group who maintain a tradition of witness against the threat of nuclear weapons. The majority of today’s anti-nuclear activists in the US are aging, white, and driven by faith. (This is not entirely so among the international effort.) Still, some create waves with back country actions onto nuclear facilities, exposing security risks and reminding the public these weapons indeed exist and must be disarmed. Yet the nuclear issue has little traction with Millennials who are rightfully busy taking action against economic and racial injustice, ecological destruction, and the socio-political aftermath of global capitalism and perpetual wars. The question lingers in the minds of these US anti-nuclear activists: will the work against nuclear weapons be among the lot adopted by our younger generations?
Possibly so, but the movement will not look like it did in the 1980s with crowds gathering specifically in support of nuclear abolition. Just as feminists of the Reagan era and Earth First! activists found their goals intertwined with nuclear disarmament, today’s popular movements and the anti-nuclear cause do intersect and there exists the opportunity for broader education and cooperation among justice groups. Uranium mines are endangering sacred indigenous sites, past nuclear tests poison thousands here and abroad, and the US’s $35 billion annual budget to “maintain, upgrade, and operate its nuclear arsenal” robs the American public of well-funded healthcare, education and infrastructure.
The continued concern of nuclear annihilation is neither outdated nor unfounded. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists announced in January we are closer to doomsday than ever before, basing their assessment on international relations, proliferation of nuclear weapons, and climate change. At this vulnerable time, as money and politics collude in the White House, there is need for continued vigilance for opportunists who would sacrifice the well-being of the American public for elite coffers. Rick Perry is one such opportunist. His relationship with Energy Transfer Partners demonstrates priority of personal investments over secure water sources, indigenous sovereignty, and environmental safety. He has ignored opinions of professionals in the construction and expansion of a Texas radioactive waste site, and there are concerns that his financial ties will be a potential conflict of interest for the Department of Energy nominee.
Sister Jackie Hudson, an anti-nuclear recidivist who died in 2011, would ask that others step out of their comfort zone, to face personal inconvenience for the benefit of justice. There is ample opportunity for us each to orient our values with our actions, and we should. In the end, we do not need to act to save a movement. We need to act to save each other.