Nuclear Protest Movements

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Nuclear Protest Movements. Protest against nuclear weapons began even before they were built. In 1913, the British writer H. G. Wells wrote a startling novel, The World Set Free, which depicted a war fought with “atomic bombs”—a conflict so devastating that humanity established a world government and abolished war. Leo Szilard, a Hungarian physicist deeply impressed by Wells's novel, conceived the idea of a chain reaction in 1933, but sought to keep the process secret, thus ensuring that it did not fall into the hands of Germany's Nazi government. Nevertheless, in 1939, when scientists in Germany seemed close to a breakthrough, Szilard—by then a refugee in America—mobilized his mentor, Albert Einstein, to warn President Franklin D. Roosevelt of this ominous development.

Although the Szilard‐Einstein initiative helped launch the Manhattan Project, the Anglo‐American program to build the atomic bomb, many atomic scientists viewed their development of the weapon as a deterrent to its use, presumably by Germany. Therefore, when Szilard and other scientists, principally at the project's Chicago Metallurgical Lab, recognized that it would be employed against a virtually defeated Japan, they urged higher authorities to forgo its use. In the Franck Report of June 1945 (named after the chemist James Franck and written largely by Eugene Rabinowitch), they argued that employment of the weapon would shock world opinion, begin an atomic armaments race, and undermine the possibility of securing an international agreement for nuclear arms control and disarmament.

When the U.S. government went ahead with the atomic bombing of Japan, it created an enormous furor around the world, and especially in the United States. Whether or not they supported the U.S. government action, most Manhattan Project scientists recognized that the world now faced the prospect of total annihilation. In the fall of 1945, they established the Federation of Atomic Scientists—quickly changed to the Federation of American Scientists—a group that at its height had some 3,000 members. Two other new entities, the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists (a small group of prominent scientists headed by Einstein) and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (edited by Rabinowitch), became close allies. Pacifist groups like the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the War Resisters League, and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom also worked to publicize nuclear dangers, as did the burgeoning world federalist movement. Arguing that people faced the prospect of “one world or none,” they worked together to champion nuclear disarmament, usually through limitations upon national sovereignty that ranged from international control of nuclear weapons to world government.

Similar movements, often modeled on the American, emerged elsewhere—particularly in Western Europe, Canada, Australasia, and Japan. In addition, a Communist‐led movement developed; unlike the other, nonaligned movement, it assailed Western (but not Eastern) nuclear policy. Its best known project was the Stockholm peace petition campaign, a massive antinuclear venture that purportedly drew 2.5 million signatures in the United States.

As the Cold War advanced in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the nuclear protest movement lost much of the support it had enjoyed. Public opinion grew more hawkish and increasingly amenable to meeting Communist challenges with military might. Administration officials turned from fostering plans for disarmament to winning the Korean War and developing the most destructive weapon yet: the hydrogen bomb. Buffeted by the Cold War and often confused with their Communist‐led rivals, nonaligned nuclear disarmament groups declined precipitously in influence and membership. Even so, by publicizing the nightmarish quality of nuclear war, they did help to stigmatize the atomic bomb, thereby making it more difficult for governments to use it again in war. They also slowed the development of nuclear weapons programs in some nations and made them unthinkable in others.

A second wave of public protest against nuclear weapons began to emerge in 1954, in the United States and around the world. That year, when a U.S. H‐bomb test at Bikini atoll sent vast clouds of nuclear fallout surging across the Pacific and irradiated the crew members of a Japanese fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon, it highlighted the dangers of nuclear testing. The power of the weapon also illustrated the vast destructiveness of nuclear war. In 1955, Einstein joined the British philosopher Bertrand Russell in issuing a widely publicized appeal to the leaders of the great powers to halt the nuclear arms race. As pacifists and other antinuclear activists stepped up their protests against nuclear testing, in 1957 concerned scientists launched a series of Pugwash conferences (named for the original meeting site in Pugwash, Nova Scotia), bringing together scientists from both Cold War camps to discuss arms control and disarmament measures. That same year, Norman Cousins and other leading critics of nuclear testing formed the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), whose startling antinuclear ads helped catalyze an organization of some 25,000 members, with chapters around the country. Meanwhile, in 1958, the chemist Linus Pauling released a petition, signed by 11,000 scientists from 49 nations (including 2,875 from the United States), urging the signing of a nuclear test ban treaty.

In contrast to the first wave of public protest against nuclear weapons, students' and women's groups played a very prominent role in this one. Organized in 1959, the Student Peace Union established chapters on dozens of college campuses, and in early 1962, staged the largest disarmament vigil yet seen at the White House. In 1961, women's peace activists launched Women Strike for Peace, which, like SANE, organized picketing, petitions, lobbying, and rallies to secure a test ban treaty and other multilateral measures toward nuclear disarmament.

Despite its remarkable efflorescence, the nuclear protest campaign began to fade after 1963. To a large extent, this reflected its success: the Limited Test Ban Treaty had been signed (1963), the Soviet Union and the United States seemed on the road to detente, and many activists felt they could return to their private concerns. This mood of relaxation was reinforced by the signing of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1968. Furthermore, nuclear disarmament activists were almost invariably peace activists, and with the Johnson administration's escalation of the Vietnam War in early 1965, many shifted their focus to a vigorous campaign against American participation in that conflict. By this time, however, the nuclear protest movement had made important headway in altering government policy. Thanks to the widespread public clamor in the United States and around the world, it had contributed substantially to a Soviet‐British‐American moratorium on nuclear testing in 1958, to the decision of numerous nations to not develop or use nuclear weapons, and to the signing of the first nuclear arms control treaties.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the nuclear protest movement flared up once again. The collapse of Soviet‐American detente, the Soviet Union's deployment of SS‐20 missiles in Eastern Europe, the NATO decision to deploy cruise and Pershing missiles in Western Europe, and especially the advent of the hawkish Reagan administration, with its glib talk of nuclear war, convinced millions of Americans that their lives were once more in peril. New groups like Mobilization for Survival and Physicians for Social Responsibility grew rapidly, as did older ones, like SANE, that had fallen into decay. In June 1982, nearly a million Americans flocked to a New York City rally against nuclear weapons—the largest demonstration in U.S. history. Meanwhile, there emerged a broadly gauged Nuclear Freeze Campaign. Designed to halt the nuclear arms race through bilateral action, it drew the backing of major churches, unions, and the Democratic Party. Despite the best efforts of the Reagan administration to discredit the Freeze movement, polls found that it garnered the support of 70 percent or more of the American public. In the fall of 1982, a majority of voters backed the Freeze in nine out of ten states where it appeared on the ballot. Although rejected by the U.S. Senate, a Freeze resolution passed the House by a comfortable margin and became a key part of the Democratic presidential campaign of 1984.

Although the nuclear protest movement ebbed substantially in the late 1980s, it could once again point to some important successes. To be sure, the Freeze proposal never became official U.S. policy and President Ronald Reagan easily won a second term in the White House. Nevertheless, public policy began to shift noticeably. The administration, which had disdained to enter arms control and disarmament discussions with the Soviet government, suddenly started to pursue active negotiations. And when Reagan, to steal the thunder of antinuclear forces in Western Europe and the United States, made arms control and disarmament proposals, the Soviet government startled U.S. officials by accepting them. Part of this sudden accord reflected the shift in Soviet policy under the reform leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev. But Gorbachev too was influenced by Western disarmament groups, and even initiated a nuclear testing moratorium at their suggestion. The result was a burst of diplomatic activity that produced the INF Treaty (removing U.S. and Soviet intermediate‐range nuclear weapons from central Europe) and a number of other nuclear disarmament measures. As the editors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists pushed the hands of their famous “doomsday clock” further back from midnight, the nuclear protest campaign deserved some of the credit.
[See also Helsinki Watch; Nuclear Weapons and War, Popular Images of; Peace and Antiwar Movements; SALT Treaties; Strategic Defense Initiative; Vietnam Antiwar Movement.]


Alice Kimball Smith , A Peril and a Hope: The Scientists' Movement in America, 1945–47, 1965.
Joseph Rotblat , Scientists in the Quest for Peace for Peace: A History of the Pugwash Conferences, 1972.
Milton S. Katz , Ban the Bomb: A History of SANE, the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, 1957–1985, 1986.
David S. Meyer , A Winter of Discontent: The Nuclear Freeze and American Politics, 1990.
Amy Swerdlow , Women Strike for Peace, 1993.
Allan M. Winkler , Life Under a Cloud: American Anxiety About the Atom, 1993.
David Cortright , Peace Works: The Citizen's Role in Ending the Cold War, 1993.
Lawrence S. Wittner , One World or None: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement Through 1953, 1993.
Lawrence S. Wittner , Resisting the Bomb: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1954–1970, 1997.

Lawrence S. Wittner

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Nuclear Protest Movements

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