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Crossing Arms
By Tom Nattell

Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1971 to the Present
By Lawrence S. Wittner
Stanford University Press, 657 pages, $32.95

Now known for providing dramatic backdrop for the filming of Lord of the Rings, New Zealand once posed a major security threat to the United States. “A piss-ant little country south of nowheresville” is how one Reagan administration official back in the 1980s described New Zealand after the country refused to allow U.S. warships with nuclear weapons into its harbors. In retaliation, then-Rep. Dick Cheney introduced a bill to bar imports from New Zealand, and Reagan threatened to wield White House authority to squash the “piss-ant.” Ironically, these U.S. threats actually fueled a trade boom for the island nation as disarmament groups worldwide helped along a dramatic spike in New Zealand’s international commerce. This is only one of many fascinating stories contained in Lawrence Wittner’s latest addition to his multivolume history of the nuclear-disarmament movement, Toward Nuclear Abolition.

Ever since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, groups have actively sought to ban nuclear weapons. This disarmament movement has waxed and waned over the years in response to technological innovations in weaponry, political decisions regarding that technology’s costs, deployment and control, and the level of concern expressed by the public.

In his three-volume history, The Struggle Against the Bomb, University at Albany professor and peace scholar Lawrence Wittner has provided a well-documented and researched account of the events, organizations, politics and people that affected the movement’s ebbs and swells. In his first two volumes in this series, One World or None (1993) and Resisting the Bomb (1997), Wittner recounted the history of the nuclear movement up through 1970. In Toward Nuclear Abolition, Wittner describes this movement and its political terrain from 1971 through 2002.

In this latest offering, Wittner makes ample use of newly available archives from the former Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies, as well as archives of U.S. government officials and disarmament organizations. He also conducted direct interviews with pivotal former officials and key disarmament activists to further flesh out historic details. The heavily footnoted book includes more than 100 pages of notes. There is also an impressive compilation of the archives consulted, an extensive bibliography and a list of more than 100 interviews included in the author’s research.

Through Wittner’s diligent research and documentation, Toward Nuclear Abolition delivers an important international perspective, recounting the disarmament activities and events in a diverse array of countries around the world. Wittner uses this perspective to delineate an international chronology of political and social history that often resulted in an awkward dance between popular movements for nuclear disarmament and the actions of their respective governments.

The book also shows that disarmament groups have had a lot more influence on nuclear policies and programs than they generally get credit for. Wittner also looks directly into the evidence extant regarding a number of popular interpretations of history espoused by recent American administrations.

One such interpretation by the Reagan and the first Bush administrations was that the worldwide antinuclear “movement” was under the direction and control of the Communist Party (remember the Cold War?). According to their argument, the World Peace Council was often cited as the communist front organization most likely responsible for this civic havoc. Wittner’s investigation found plentiful evidence that the WPC would have loved that these U.S. government fantasies be true. But that was not the case.

The truth was that the disarmament movement during those times had grown into an international mobilization of protest. It was garnering popular support and wielding policy power far beyond the control and direction of any representatives of either Reagan or the alleged Evil Empire. Wittner chronicles with documents and interviews how the nuclear abolitionists were as much of a threat to the Communists as they were to the Reagan Administration. As Wittner notes from his review of national disarmament movements behind the Iron Curtain, these movements were often strongly linked to indigenous human rights movements, posing a double threat to their national powers that be.

Another popular interpretation of history is that the “peace through strength” policies of the 1980s won the Cold War, led to arms-control agreements, and dissolved the Soviet Union. Wittner’s work argues that these events took place despite the nuclear buildup this country pursued at the cost of amassing record levels of national debt.

According to Wittner, the world’s largest popular movement and its disarmament demands had a far greater effect on things than an expanded threat of nuclear annihilation that had surpassed the point of overkill years earlier. Wittner also presents the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, and the Soviet leader’s willingness to actively consider the disarmament movement’s demands, as critical to the nuclear-arms reductions that followed.

Toward Nuclear Abolition provides a well-documented view of the disarmament movement over the last three decades of the 20th century. This view makes clear the potent power of popular movements in changing national policy and the dynamics of international relations. It certainly has lessons for those currently engaged in disarmament issues, which have stalled and moved backward under the reign of George W. While it is awash in details regarding national nuclear- policy decisions, the book does not describe the significant corporate intersts that lobbied for the arms race and profited from the manufacture of these weapons of mass destruction.

Wittner’s total three-volume tome is of a size and cost that might better lend itself to the budget of your local library than your personal book-buying budget. If your local library hasn’t ordered a copy, the full series would be a great recommendation for enriching their shelves with a significant work of peace scholarship for the coming new year.


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