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 follow.
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.
Lawrence Wittner is professor of history at the State University of New York/Albany and a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus. His latest book is Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Stanford University Press).