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How anti-nuclear movements can really make a difference

With Donald Trump’s presidency still in its cradle, civil disobedience is in vogue again. The Women’s Marches and “airport protests” have galvanised those worried by the administration’s agenda into a nascent opposition already being badged as “The Resistance”.

Trump faces an uprising on another front besides – thanks to his overt advocacy for the spread of nuclear weapons, nuclear disarmament activists are reviving their movement to oppose him.

They have a long history to draw on. The campaign to eradicate nuclear weapons began almost immediately after the first atomic bomb was dropped. However, military strategists’ faith in a strong nuclear deterrent thwarted demands for disarmament. Stockpiles of weapons increased exponentially during the Cold War.

In response, protesters focused on smaller, more urgent but achievable goals in the hopes that disarmament would eventually follow. The movement has experienced lulls, notably between 1963-1980, but has maintained an interrupted presence since 1945.

The fact that disarmament has not yet been achieved may suggest that anti-nuclear activists have not been effective. Securing definitive legislative victories has certainly proved challenging, but even arms control agreements are both celebrated and derided. While some recognise the importance of “first steps” towards complete disarmament, others remain frustrated at the sluggish pace of such negotiations.

Some agreements are deemed to have simply validated the continuing existence and development of nuclear weapons. The Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963, for example, stymied the urgent hazard of radioactive fallout but did not outlaw nuclear weapons tests entirely. Nor did it hinder the build-up of nuclear arms, which continued unabated. Many saw the treaty as something of a half-measure, but it’s important to value what we have. A Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, though agreed, still awaits ratification.

However, as the social movement scholar William A. Gamson argued, just because a movement fails to achieve an ultimate goal doesn’t mean it has no impact. Smaller gains deserve recognition. The ability to change the way debates around nuclear weapons are “framed” is an equally important indicator of impact.

The anti-nuclear movement has accordingly succeeded most when it has reached out to the general public. The success of the US’s Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign of the 1980s lay in its ability to attract massive nationwide support: in June 1982, a million protesters from all walks of life descended on New York to rally against nuclear arms. The movement’s popularity and influence quite probably influenced Ronald Reagan’s approach to nuclear issues, which became less hawkish and more conciliatory as his presidency wore on.

Educational outreach also proved fruitful during the 1980s, to the extent that aversion to nuclear weapons became the “commonsense” position. In 1998, lifelong anti-nuclear activist Ethel Taylor lamented that she had not been able to reduce weapons stockpiles, but emphatically declared that she and her fellow activists had “made a difference” with their work to alter attitudes and raise awareness.

Just like old times

Today’s movement faces challenges it has not experienced since the 1980s. President Trump has been a vocal proponent of nuclear proliferation, a policy that would undo more than 70 years of nuclear strategy. His public calls to renew the nuclear arms race and criticism of the Iran nuclear deal puts him at odds with much of the international community, but has considerable support among his Republican colleagues. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists responded to such developments by moving its famed “Doomsday Clock” closer to midnight than at any time since 1953.

Additionally, there is no guarantee that anti-nuclear sentiments are currently shared by the general public. Opinion on nuclear matters is notably erratic. A 2016 Gallup poll found that 57% of Americans disapproved of the Iran nuclear deal, but further polling the following year found nearly two-thirds opposed withdrawing from it. The plurality of opinion over the UK’s Trident nuclear program reflects this complexity. Even if the anti-nuclear movement could assert its influence on the general public, it remains to be seen whether the president would respond to such opposition.

Making some noise at Scotland’s Faslane Naval Base. EPA/Geoff Caddick

There is nonetheless cause for optimism. Disarmament initiatives are in rude health and numerous organisations are still working diligently: Global Zero, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and the Arms Control Association are to this day assertive, robust campaigners. Recent protests at Faslane Naval Base on the Clyde, where the UK’s submarine deterrent is based and where CND has maintained a presence since 1982, prove that activists are determined to combat further arms build-ups.

Meanwhile, legislative efforts persist to secure the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which would in turn provide significant momentum for further arms control agreements.

The anti-nuclear movement’s strength has always been its ability to react quickly and capitalise on external events that spark public interest. In these unstable times, it will need to increase its visibility and be ready to rally widespread public support when future crises occur. This is certainly a difficult challenge – but the movement has met it before.

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