The Silos of the Nuclear Disarmament Movement

The abolition of nuclear weapons might be the most elusive goal in the world, but it is the one which most easily gains approval across ideological and national divides. It is such laudable goal to support that it attracts those who seek refuge from the more divisive and dirty struggles of the world that are the root causes of the problem. People might disagree about the means to achieve nuclear disarmament, but everyone applauds everyone for saying nuclear arms should be eliminated. Even Henry Kissinger signed on to the Global Zero project. It’s the easiest way in the world to polish one’s humanitarian credentials.

This aspect of nuclear disarmament can be seen in the story told by the songwriter Pete Townshend about how he and his bandmates in The Who were at a loss for things to write about for their final album, It’s Hard (1982). He had always tried to write socially relevant music, but he carried no labels, no banner for hippies or progressives. The Who were wealthy rock musicians, and they didn’t seem to feel any need to apologize for being rich. Famous for smashing his guitar on stage, the apparent revolutionary Pete Townshend was also famous for writing rock’s greatest anti-revolution song, We Won’t Get Fooled Again (meet the new boss, same as the old boss). In 1981, after surviving the 1960s and 70s, and after coming out of a deep personal crisis and a near break-up of the band, Townshend asked them:

What do you want to sing about? Tell me, and I'll write the songs. Do you want to sing about race riots? Do you want to sing about the nuclear bomb? Do you want to sing about soya bean diets? Tell me!' And everyone kind of went, 'Uhhh.' So I said, 'Shall I tell you what I think we should be singing about?' So I told them. And it actually turned into a debate...what was it that each one of us shared, our common ground? Well, after establishing quite quickly that there was very little common ground, we did find that we all cared very deeply about the planet, the people on it, about the threat to our children from nuclear war, of the increasing instability of our own country's politics. [1]

This anecdote exemplifies how nuclear disarmament is the last refuge (of scoundrels such as Henry Kissinger sometimes, now a signatory of Global Zero), the issue everyone turns to when there is nothing else they can agree on, nothing else they can stomach fighting for. And this is exactly why the abolition movement constantly fails to achieve anything. Barbie said it about math, and The Who said it in their last album: It’s hard. The road to nuclear disarmament goes through all those sticky, intractable social and political problems that anti-nuclear activists thought they could put aside while they devoted themselves to the highest goal of all.

This fact was more obvious at the dawn of the nuclear age when WWII was recent enough to help everyone maintain the proper perspective. Another world war fought only with conventional weapons could also be enough to finish off civilization. Nuclear weapons were only a by-product of the underlying problem. In 1955, Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell released their famous 1955 statement calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons, but it actually placed more emphasis on the abolition of war. They stated, "Although an agreement to renounce nuclear weapons as part of a general reduction of armaments would not afford an ultimate solution, it would serve certain important purposes." Later, in a footnote, they called for a "concomitant balanced reduction of all armaments." [2]

It seems that even the leadership in disarmament organizations have, ironically, now constructed silos for themselves within which they study disarmament in isolation from the underlying problems of inequality, ecological degradation, the abuse of the United Nations and international law and, especially, the deployment of conventional military power. This at least seems to be the case in what is written in English by some disarmament groups and think tanks in the US and the UK, by writers who are deeply influenced by life inside the bubble of Western groupthink on international relations.

This bias was on full display this week in an article by Rachel Bronson, executive director and publisher of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in which she condemned Russia for having boycotted the recent Nuclear Security Summit:

Deteriorated relations between the United States and Russia make for a terribly risky world security situation. As badly as the Russians are behaving in Ukraine and Syria, Washington simply must continue to reach out. “We have an existential stake in each other’s competency,” stated Nunn, and he’s right. The two countries with the most nuclear weapons under their control need to engage—for their sake, and for the world's. Examined in this light, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to boycott the Nuclear Security Summit is more than inconvenient; it was a diplomatic travesty and an abdication of responsibility to his own people. [3]

One might have thought that people who work on nuclear disarmament are experts in peace studies and conflict resolution, always going the extra mile to understand the context, psychology and feelings of everyone involved in the problem, but in this quotation we see a stunning display of willful ignorance of the Russian point of view. There is also the moral judgment that the Russians have behaved badly in Ukraine and Syria, implying, laughably, that America and its accomplices have behaved well in those places. No effort is made to find out why the Russians boycotted the summit, even though the Russian frustration with the West has been fully explained by various Russian government representatives, Russian media, and even, most thoroughly, by American historian Stephen F. Cohen [4]. In this American perspective in The Bulletin, there is no self-criticism, and no awareness that the Russians might feel they have justified reasons for not attending. In this view, they are behaving badly, but we are inherently good, so we must take the high road and bear with those who sin against us, “we must continue to reach out,” but it is an eternal mystery to us that they fail to see our beneficence.

By this point it has been well-established that the 2014 coup in Ukraine was instigated by the US State department and that the results have been a disaster. It was a continuation of the broken American promise made to Gorbachev to not expand NATO eastward, a desperate attempt to open up a market for Western goods and weaponry in a nation that is historically, culturally, linguistically and geographically connected to Russia. It was a bridge too far for the expansion of Western power, as Russia pushed back and the coup failed to deliver on its promises. Now Ukraine has a load of IMF debt and an austerity package that forces the selloff of national assets. Meanwhile, the natural trade ties with Russia have been severed. Lawrence Wilkerson (national security adviser to the Reagan administration, chief of staff to Colin Powell during the Bush administration), said of the debacle,

…about a third, 20% I’ll say, to 30 percent of Russia’s heavy armaments industry is in Ukraine. What do they do for tanks? What do they do for their heavy armaments in their military if Ukraine goes? The idea that we could do something in Ukraine, covert or otherwise, and have Putin not respond is just laughable. [5]

Americans can debate whether Russia acted outside of international law to provide assistance to ethnic Russians in Eastern Ukraine, thereby averting a prolonged, bloody civil war, or again when they conducted a referendum in Crimea, averting a civil war there as well, but the world doesn’t have much patience left to be lectured in international law by the United States. America declared itself above international law at the start of the Cold War, and has abused it numerous times since then. The suggestion that it was the Russians who “behaved badly” in Syria is just laughable at this point, as America’s record of disastrous and illegal regime change operations in the Middle East is so well documented by this time. [6]

The main impediment to nuclear arms reduction has nothing to do with nuclear arms. Former president of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, spoke of how Russia and all other nations see the problem when he asked plainly,

Can we really imagine a world without nuclear weapons if a single country amasses so many conventional weapons that its military budget nearly tops that of all other countries combined? Demilitarization should be put back on the agenda of international politics. This includes a reduction of military budgets, a moratorium on the development of new types of weapons and a prohibition on militarizing space. Many are already talking about a new cold war. Talks between both powers over important global problems have practically been put on ice. That includes the question of nuclear disarmament. Trust, the very capital we worked so hard to build, has been destroyed. [7]

Gorbachev mentioned here precisely three items that Americans did not want on the agenda of the Nuclear Security Summit: the reduction of military budgets, a moratorium on the development of new types of weapons, and a prohibition on militarizing space. Instead, the summit was mostly concerned with the sham of “securing” (always a relative term) nuclear materials and decreasing the chances of a terrorist attack on nuclear facilities. So if the Americans don’t want to talk about these things, why should the Russians, or anyone else, show up to lend legitimacy to process which consciously avoids these critical issues? Russia has been trying to get the Americans to stop militarizing space since the Reagan years, but still America persists. So Russia did the right thing by sitting this one out because doing so creates an opportunity for other nations to question the status quo and create a new one for a future security summit, hopefully one at which the agenda will not be set by the self-proclaimed “indispensable” nation in the whole process.

The really interesting question, however, is to ask why all this needs to be explained to the executive director and publisher of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. I’m not suggesting that America is entirely responsible for the lack of progress in nuclear disarmament, but it is disheartening to see that an institution as well respected as The Bulletin has become so blind to critical views of the exercise of American power, and such a dupe for the anti-Russia propaganda that has circulated in the Western media for the last ten years. When nuclear disarmament groups become concealed platforms for nationalist agendas, they are part of the problem, not the solution.


[1] The Hypertext Who: It's Hard. See the appendix below for a discussion of song on the album about the nuclear arms race.

[2] "The Russell Einstein Manifesto," Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, July 9, 1955,.

[3] Rachel Bronson, "'Command and Control,' terrifying soon at a theater near you,” The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, April 3, 2016

[4] Patrick L. Smith, "Stephen F. Cohen on the U.S./Russia/Ukraine history the media won’t tell you," Salon.com, April 17, 2015.

[5] ‘This Ship is Sinking’ Says Former Bush Official, Media Roots, December 16, 2015.

[6] Unraveling the Syria War Chessboard with Vijay Prashad, Media Roots, February 2, 2016. This interview provides an expert’s analysis of the Syrian conflict.

Appendix: When The Who sang about the clock of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

Pete Townshend: "I don't know how it is over in the States, but over here if you try to get in a conversation about arms buildup or nuclear weapons, people turn away and order another pint of Guinness, and they want to talk about bloody Arsenal! [the football club] They're going to be dead tomorrow if they don't start thinking about it... but they're embarrassed; 'It's annoying...oh, don't talk about that! We're impotent, we're neutered.' Now that is what's happened to rock 'n' roll."

The line "Four minutes to midnight on a sunny day" refers to the Clock on the front cover of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Much publicized in the early 1980's, this clock represented by minutes to midnight how close the scientists felt the world was to nuclear war. In January 1981 the worsening political situation led them to move the hands to four minutes to midnight. The Clash made a similar reference to the Clock on their song The Call Up from Sandinista! ("It's 55 minutes past 11"). Pete on the line "It never rains under my umbrella": "we've just sat back under the nuclear umbrella and lived our lives, taken our drugs, listened to our blues. I don't want to sound like fucking Pravda or anything, but we have been a pretty impotent, unthinking [generation]."

Six months after the release of It's Hard, President Reagan would announce the SDI initiative, popularly known as "star wars"; an attempt to build a nuclear missile defense system Reagan characterized as an "umbrella" against nuclear attack.

by The Who (album: It’s Hard, 1982)

The streets of the future littered with remains
Of both the fools and all the so-called brains
The whole prediction is enough to kill
But only God knows if it won't or it will
Nobody knows why we fell so flat
Some silly creature said we'd never crack
Most would just survive and then bounce back
But the rest are crying "Why'd I fall for that crap?"
Why did I fall for that?
So many rash promises sincerely made
By people who believed that we were being saved
They made us all believe that we were acting white
But the truth is we've forgotten how we used to fight
Nobody knows why we fell so flat
We're impotent and neutered like whining cats
We've found the piper but we've lost the rats
But the kids are crying "Why'd I fall for that, dad?"
Why did you fall?
It never rains under my umbrella
Four minutes to midnight on a sunny day
Maybe if we smile the clock'll fade away
Maybe we can force the hands to just reverse
Maybe is a word, maybe maybe is a curse
Nobody knows why we fell so flat
We've never been taught to fight or to face up to facts
We simply believe that we'd remain intact
But history is asking why did you fall for that?
Why did you fall?
Why did I fall for that?
Why did I fall for that?
Why did I fall for that?

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