Global Activists Gather in New York to Revive Nuclear Disarmament Call

by Sarah Ferguson

Sometimes peace needs a good enemy.

It was President Reagan who really jump-started the nuclear freeze movement in the early 1980s with his roughhouse talk about actually using nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union. “We start bombing in five minutes,” was the Gipper’s famous quip.

Now with the Bush administration threatening Iran and North Korea as it schemes about funding a whole new generation of smaller, “more usable” nukes, activists say the movement for a global moratorium on nuclear weapons is ripe for a revival.

The May 1 march in New York City from the United Nations to Central Park was a start. The protest was called by the anti-war group United for Peace and Justice and the international anti-nuke coalition Abolition Now! to highlight the Bush administration’s hypocrisy on the eve of a month-long conference at the UN to review the imperiled Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which began on May 2.

“One of the lies the Bush administration used to go to war was that Iraq was seeking nuclear weapons,” says UFPJ national coordinator Leslie Cagan. “Now they’re using the same rationale to go after Iran and North Korea, so as a movement, we really need to take up this cause.”

“We’re saying that no nations should have nuclear weapons, including the US, which continues to violate this treaty by pouring billions of dollars into the arms race, at the same time that they threaten other nations for not meeting their obligations.”

First introduced in 1970, the NPT calls for the five major nuclear powers–the US, Russia, China, France and Britain–to work toward eliminating their nuclear weapons and other countries to pledge not to obtain them. But since 9-11, the Bush administration has been openly disdainful of the treaty, arguing that it is antiquated to deal with the modern threat of terrorism, and that Iran and North Korea are exploiting loopholes to obtain nuclear weapons anyway.

As if to underscore that point, on May 1 North Korea lobbed a short-range missile into the Sea of Japan, and Pentagon officials now say satellite images appear to show North Korea on the verge of conducting its first nuclear weapons test. Meanwhile, Iran has openly threatened to end a moratorium on the production of enriched uranium fuel (ostensibly for power generation).

Yet as former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, noted backstage during the rally, Bush’s “preemptive strike doctrine” and his insistence on building tactical battlefield nukes are actually pushing countries like Iran and North Korea to get nukes of their own as a deterrent to US aggression.

“Bush’s policies are certain to increase nuclear proliferation,” says Ellsberg. “We’re promoting it. The idea that somebody like Iran doesn’t have a need for nuclear weapons at this point is ridiculous.”

The president claims the US is reducing America’s arsenal of more than 10,000 warheads. But at the same time, Ellsberg notes, the Pentagon is actively seeking to build new ones and “modernize” the ones it’s keeping. Just last month, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld pressed Congress to fund research into earth-penetrating “bunker busters.” According to Physicians for Social Responsibility, these “busters” would be 80 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

“That’s why we need a global moratorium on all these weapons,” says Ellsberg. “Not just Iran and North Korea, but the US and Israel and everyone else, too.”

Admittedly, calling for global disarmament these days sounds like pie-in-the-sky idealism. But activists say their stance is actually quite mainstream. A recent ABC news poll showed two thirds of Americans believe no nations should have nukes, including the US, while 52 percent believe that a nuclear attack by one country against another is likely by 2010. In Europe and Asia, public support for disarmament is even greater.

Still, a movement has to be more than just a mechanism for marching. With the Bush administration playing the terrorism and “Axis of Evil” cards to justify its abuses of the NPT, activists will have to find new ways to unravel the spiraling militarism that keeps generating more nukes as world leaders give lip service to renouncing them.

For decades, anti-nukes has been a feel-good cause. But can activists find a way to put some teeth in it?

Chris Connor of Abolition Now! concedes public apathy is a problem. “Sometimes I think the only thing that will spark a renewed movement is if some loose nuke goes off somewhere and makes people feel really threatened by nuclear proliferation.”

Indeed, as UFPJ was marching uptown in New York City on May 1, the more hard-left Troops Out Now! coalition was rallying in Union Square to demand more jobs and to bring the troops home from Iraq. Working-class soldiers dying abroad for lack of opportunities at home, they argued, was a more appropriate May Day cause than the stereotypically lily-white anti-nuke movement. Some of the left argue it’s hypocritical for American peaceniks to call on countries like North Korea to disarm when the Bush administration has such overwhelming power to invade them.

“Personally I think to talk about global disarmament misses the point of who has weapons and who they are being used against,” says Dustin Langley, a spokesperson for Troops Out Now! and member of the International Action Center, the anti-imperialist group founded by Ramsey Clark. (IAC helped spawn the anti-war ANSWER coalition, from which they recently splintered, and has long been sympathetic to North Korea’s Kim Jong Il regime.) “We say Iran and North Korea have a right to get any kind of weapon they need to defend themselves against the largest military machine on the planet. Considering that Bush has listed them as two potential targets, they have as much right to nuclear weapons as any other country,” Langley maintains.

Though the ongoing splits in the anti-war movement may have lessened the turnout, the disarmament march was larger than many expected, especially considering that it was not all that actively promoted in NYC (perhaps, ironically, because this time the Parks Department did not contest the permit for the rally site at Central Park’s Heckscher Ballfields, which are “under renovation” and hence less precious than the Great Lawn’s grass). Organizers claimed 40,000 people turned out, noting at one point the march spanned 15 blocks. Unofficial police estimates put the crowd at 8,000 to 10,000.

Still, it was probably the largest anti-nuke demo in the U.S. since the massive march to Central Park in 1982, which drew more than 1 million. (Hundreds of thousands more marched in cities across Japan on May Day to call for a nuclear moratorium and oppose revisions in the Japanese constitution that would loosen the ban on the use of military force.)

What struck out most was how international the New York demonstration was. In addition to more than 1,000 demonstrators from Japan, there was a delegation of mayors from 35 countries and large contingents from France, Germany and New Zealand. There were also Korean drummers clanging gongs, Vietnam Vets sounding off anti-war calls, Portuguese and Finnish peaceniks, and members of the International Peace Walk, led by Japanese monks, who trekked all the way from Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Oak Ridge is home to the Y-12 National Security Complex, which built some of the components of the Hiroshima bomb and is now hard at work refurbishing existing nukes to extend their shelf life.

“One of the reasons I’m marching is my father was an occupying soldier in Nagasaki with the Australian forces there,” said Bilbo Taylor, 36, of Melbourne, who made the pilgrimage from Tennessee. “When he came back from war, he got iller and iller and died when I was 15 years old. I spent the first 12 years of my life in and out of hospitals dealing with that, and now there are thousands of soldiers from this war in Iraq who will suffer for a long time because of depleted uranium.”

Photo exhibits set up in the rear of the rally showed gruesome pictures of Iraqi women and children suffering from leukemia, believed to have been caused by depleted uranium shells exploded during the 1991 Gulf War.

Others sought to bring the threat even closer to home. Longtime nuclear opponent Dr. Helen Caldicott painted a vivid picture of what would happen if one of the 40 nuclear bombs Russia still has trained on New York City were to hit town. She described an 800-foot deep crater in the center of Central Park and nuclear winds extending 20 miles out.

Luis Acosta, founder of El Puente community center in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, urged the crowd to ban “New York’s secret dirty bomb”–the Radiac Research Corporation, which stores radioactive and hazardous waste in that residential neighborhood, and which they fear is a sitting duck target for a terrorist attack. “All it could take is one small spill and one spark,” for a nuclear disaster in Williamsburg, he said.

But the most chilling testimony of the day came from survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts, who came to offer a living record or the horrors of nuclear war.

Keiko Inagaki was 14 years old when the US atomic bomb struck her hometown of Nagasaki in 1945. “It was a hot wind, and a rainbow of different colors flashed in the sky. I got blown away,” said the 74-year-old, dressed in an elegant flowered kimono and holding up one-end of a 20-foot anti-nuke banner. When the bomb hit, she and her fellow classmates were working in a munitions factory, having been requisitioned for Japan’s war effort. “All the windows blew out, and I was burned on my face, chest and arms,” she recalled, speaking through a translator. Still, Inagaki counts herself as lucky. “There were two people outside the factory, and their whole skin just immediately rotted off in seconds.”

For many years, Inagaki hid the fact that she was a survivor–or “hibakusha,” as they are called in Japan–fearing that concerns about radiation poisoning would hinder her chances of marrying or getting a job. But 9-11, the US invasion of Iraq, and the growing threat of terrorism worldwide convinced her to come forward to tell her harrowing story.

“I don’t know when I’m going to die. It’s time to speak out in order to save the younger generation.” she said.


Abolition Now!

United for Peace & Justice

Troops Out Now!

Federation of American Scientists page on the NPT


“Two Years Later: NYC Anti-War Protests Smaller–and Tilting to the Hard Left,” by Sarah Ferguson, April 2005

“Nuclear Agenda 2005,” by Chesley Hicks, March 2005


Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, May 10, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution