Blogs > HNN > Scott H. Bennett. Review of Lawrence S. Wittner's Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Stanford University Press, 2009)

Jul 27, 2009 2:13 pm

Scott H. Bennett. Review of Lawrence S. Wittner's Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Stanford University Press, 2009)

Scott H. Bennett is the author of Radical Pacifism: The War Resisters League and Gandhian Pacifism in America, 1915-1963 (2003) and editor of Army GI, Pacifist CO: The World War II Letters of Frank and Albert Dietrich (2005). He is associate professor of history at Georgian Court University and past president of the Peace History Society.

In Confronting the Bomb, historian Lawrence S. Wittner provides an abridgement of his massive, award-winning Struggle against the Bomb: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement trilogy (1993-2003). An encyclopedic project on a vast transnational scale, Struggle entailed seventeen years of research and writing and made landmark contributions to peace history, international history, diplomatic history, and the history of social reform movements. Reviewers hailed it as a model of international and transnational history, with exhaustive research in archives on five continents. Based on the records of disarmament organizations, previously secret government documents, interviews with antinuclear activists and government officials, peace movement periodicals, and memoirs, Struggle examines both top down government policies and bottom up citizen activism. It chronicles scores of antinuclear organizations and individuals over six decades of global antinuclear activism.

At 225 pages, Confronting the Bomb offers a cogent summary of the trilogy’s powerful arguments and supporting evidence, without its extensive detail, notes, and bibliography. (By my count, the trilogy totals nearly 1,800 pages, including 1,300 pages of text, 280 pages of reference matter containing nearly 3,500 notes, and nearly 100 pages of bibliography.) This well-written, persuasively-argued book is a pleasure to read. By making his research and arguments assessable in a short, single volume, Wittner has performed a valuable service—one that promotes HNN’s mission of encouraging professional historians to write for a popular, though serious, audience. This book will appeal to general readers and experts alike—and will work well in courses on peace studies, diplomatic history, international relations, and social movements, as well as courses on modern history and politics.

Wittner opens with a central question: “How should we account for the fact that, since 1945, the world had avoided nuclear war?” Furthermore, why have nuclear nations adopted nuclear arms control and disarmament measures? He rejects the conventional interpretation that holds that nuclear weapons have “deterred” nations from waging war. Instead, he argues that a mass nuclear disarmament movement has mobilized millions of people worldwide and has pressured governments to adopt nuclear disarmament agreements. In short, Wittner contends that the antinuclear movement—not “peace through strength”—has saved the world from nuclear Armageddon.

In addition, Wittner challenges U.S. Cold War “triumphalism”—the notion that
American political will and military might, in particular Reagan’s enormous arms buildup and military spending, precipitated the Soviet collapse and enabled the United States to win the Cold War. Rejecting this view, Wittner credits Gorbachev, along with the antinuclear movement that influenced him, for taking the steps that ended the Cold War. Moreover, he contends that Reagan’s military buildup actually encouraged—not discouraged—Soviet militarism.

Wittner argues that the nuclear disarmament movement—“the largest grassroots struggle in the modern world”—was divided into competing non-aligned and communist-led wings. Aligned with Soviet foreign policy, the communist-led wing, organized around the World Peace Council, had little credibility outside the communist bloc. Conversely, the nonaligned wing, which included pacifists, atomic scientists, world federalists, ordinary citizens, and local, national, and transnational organizations, had a greater impact.

According to Wittner, the movement followed recurring cycles of activism and retreat. When the nuclear menace has been most dangerous, the movement has grown into a more powerful force, curbing the nuclear arms race and deterring nuclear war. When the nuclear threat has subsided, the movement has declined and national security officials have renewed their nuclear plans. Most government officials, he contends, adopted nuclear arms control and disarmament reluctantly—and only in response to popular pressure and resistance. Thus, in Wittner’s account, the global antinuclear movement has been the primary agent in nuclear disarmament.

What triggered these cycles of activism and retreat? The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki sparked the rise of the antinuclear movement (1945-53). However, the escalating Cold War undermined the movement, which retreated in the early 1950s.

The hydrogen bomb and atmospheric nuclear tests kindled a “second wave” of antinuclear activism (1954-58). Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, Linus Pauling, and Albert Schweitzer issued antinuclear statements. The first Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs was held. Numerous organizations were formed, including SANE in the United States, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in Britain, and Hibakusha associations in Japan. In response to this “movement renaissance,” the Soviet Union and United States announced testing moratoriums in 1958.

After a lull, the movement revived—in response to the ill-fated 1960 Paris summit between John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, stalled arms control negotiations in Geneva, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the unraveling of the 1958 testing moratoriums. Responding to movement pressure, the United States and Soviet Union signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty (1963), the world’s first nuclear arms treaty. Exhilarated by the treaty and preoccupied with the Vietnam War, the movement faded.

Then, in the latter 1970s, the end of the Vietnam War, the debate over nuclear power, the UN Special Session on Disarmament, and a nuclear buildup led to a “third wave” of antinuclear activism (1971-80). The Soviets targeted Europe with SS-20 intermediate-range nuclear missiles (INF), NATO prepared to install its own INF cruise and Pershing II in Western Europe, and the United States moved forward with the neutron bomb and MX missile. The antinuclear movement mobilized. The Dutch Interchurch Peace Council and British CND were revitalized, European activists demanded the “zero option” (the removal of all U.S. and Soviet missiles from Europe—a position later adopted by the Reagan administration), and the American activists launched the nuclear Freeze campaign. Making concessions to movement pressure, Carter canceled the B-1 bomber and canceled the neutron bomb. In 1979, the SALT II treaty was signed and NATO adopted its “two-track” policy: installing cruise and Pershing II missiles in Europe (track one), while negotiating with the Soviets to reduce or eliminate all nuclear missiles in Europe (tract two). Because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. Senate never ratified SALT II.

About the same time, conservative governments were elected in Britain (Margaret Thatcher) and the United States (Ronald Reagan). In response to their hawkish nuclear policies, the movement mobilized, peaked, and triumphed (1985-92). In several cities, antinuclear rallies and marches were the largest political protest in that nation’s history. Thousands of British women set up a women’s peace camp at Greenham Common airbase. New Zealand’s Labour government banned nuclear weapons from its territory and refused entry to a U.S. nuclear-capable warship.

In response to this antinuclear pressure, NATO nations refused to accept cruise and Pershing II missiles. Likewise, they refused to accept the Reagan-resurrected neutron bomb—and production was halted. As an alternative to both a nuclear buildup and Freeze, Reagan championed the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI); although “star wars” was considered a hawkish measure, Reagan claimed SDI would make nuclear weapons obsolete and used it to counter Freeze in the battle for public opinion.

Wittner also examines the antinuclear movement's impact on Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. He emphasizes the importance of Gorbachev and his “new thinking,” which held that, in the nuclear age, European security could not be ensured by military means. Gorbachev reduced SS-20 missiles, passed on a Soviet SDI program, and proclaimed a moratorium on Soviet nuclear testing. Acknowledging that both Reagan and Gorbachev contributed to the 1987 INF Treaty banning intermediate-range nuclear weapons, Wittner gives most credit to the Soviet leader, who engineered a breakthrough by agreeing to separate INF from SDI. (SDI had proved a key obstacle to an agreement.) In making this decision and others, Gorbachev was influenced by the antinuclear movement—particularly Western scientists—who argued that an arms deal might keep SDI from being built. With nuclear disarmament treaties signed and the Cold War over, the movement relaxed.

By the mid-1990s, the “waning movement” (1993-present) confronted new challenges. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (1996) would be the movement’s last major victory. George W. Bush abandoned nuclear restraints, Britain and France considered new nuclear weapons, India and Pakistan became nuclear powers, Iran and pre-2003 Iraq sought to develop nuclear weapons, and North Korea tested long-range ballistic missiles.

In a thoughtful conclusion, Wittner turns to the political implications of his scholarly work. Like many of the antinuclear activists that he has studied, he advocates nuclear abolition and the transformation of the international system. He attributes the continued existence of nuclear weapons to “the pathology of the nation-state system” that relies on the “national security” paradigm and seeks peace through military strength. This traditional approach, Wittner warns, will eventually lead to nuclear war and human destruction. To avoid nuclear Armageddon, Wittner calls for short term and long term goals. In the short term, we must pursue nuclear arms control and disarmament—and the abolition of nuclear weapons. In the long term, we must transform both the nation-state system and international security system by transferring some power from the national to the international level. These goals could be achieved, he asserts, through citizens’ movements on the grassroots level and a strengthened United Nations on the global level.

Despite the book’s optimistic tone, Wittner closes on an unsettling note. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has reset its doomsday clock at 5 minutes to midnight—2 minutes closer to humanity’s catastrophic destruction than at the clock’s inception in 1947. This ticking clock imbues Wittner’s proscriptions with added urgency, instills the world nuclear disarmament movement with continued relevance, and makes this book essential reading.

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vaughn davis bornet - 10/5/2009

I enjoyed the review essay and know that if, as, and when I get to reading the basic book of summarization I will profit from reading it. I recognize that I should have read the trilogy long since.

It is evident to me that the Profession has largely boycotted such reading. In 1960 when at RAND I worked six months on Herman Kahn's On Thermonuclear War (Princeton, 1960). Although it had a very good sale and many reviews in the media and general circulation magazines, there were few to talk with about its message of nuclear threat and how to avoid it.

Later, I became familiar with the career of Fred Ikle` but again few others seemed interested.

The field, it seems to me, has gone to the pacifists, disarmament buffs, and those who chronicle the varying progress of all those organizations that propagandize in so many ways in favor of "peace."

It does seem to me that the literature minimizes far too much the role of the American military (Dew Line, SAC, missiles on alert, research on all kinds of things and development of many).

In this well written summary of a summary, it is no surprise to find little or no mention of those who with Force or Threat of Force were (in my view) so largely responsible for keeping the peace after 1945.

The hours spent, the meetings, the planning, the deployment of men and machines, the careful release of Information to the enemy (and its timing), strategic reactions to what They did, some bluffing but much real Weaponry--all this seems to mean very little when weighed against the arms abandonment crowd's never-ending talk and activity.

Some liberals, desperate to keep conservatism's father Reagan's role in history to a minimum, seem to be saying that what policies he pursued really didn't make any difference at all!

When all this is said, I am overwhelmed by the dedication of those who propagandized for Arms Control for half a century in and out of organizations while so many others chose to be either indifferent or ignorant. Better to have been in the Peace Movement than out of it. Textbooks surely must forever chronicle what is in this essay and the four books extolled here, whatever the case for strength through deterrent armaments.