A New Generation Seeks a Farewell to Nuclear Arms

Gone in a flash? Christmas comes to St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna.

The rain is falling softly in the evening December chill in Vienna, but that has done little to deter the tourists crowding the city’s Christmas markets. The historic city center is awash on Dec. 6 with Christmas lights and decorations, and young and old are out each evening, making merry and, around the 14th century St. Stephen’s Cathedral, shopping for Christmas creches, ornaments and treats. This year among the city’s Christmas season visitors are folks who perhaps don’t wish to cast a pall over this historic capital’s holiday spirit. They would be pleased, however, to awaken Vienna’s visitors from a complacency about an issue which has more or less slumbered on history’s sidelines since the close of the Cold War—an existential threat that persists to all this history, culture and merriment. In Russia and among the United States and its NATO and other allies, thousands of nuclear weapons of mass destruction remain ready to strike Europe and put an end to all of Vienna’s Christmas loveliness—and, well, everything else.

The non-holiday visitors in Vienna this weekend are attempting to birth a new global, civil society movement with the aim of a complete ban on nuclear weapons—not their first strike use, but their existence. It’s a goal that has been spoken of frequently in the past but one that has come to seem quaint or anachronistic in this era of comparably improved—though clearly still tenuous—relations between the world’s great nuclear weapons powers, the United States and the Russian Federation. But don’t mistake the 600 or so young civil society campaigners in Vienna for the ghosts of nuclear freeze and abolition efforts past, movements that have terminated in exhaustion or frustration.

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These young campaigners are social and mainstream media savvy and are seizing on an opportunity to act now against nuclear weapons by hewing to a bottom-up model of global activism which has already succeeded in abolishing land mines and cluster bombs. They are not content to wait for the political establishments of the world’s nuclear powers to eventually get around to dismantling nuclear forces on their own. The sense here at the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) is if activists can get the public on board, the politicians will follow. Opening the conference, ICAN’s Project Coordinator Beatrice Fihn noted, “It’s been a tough year.”

“There have been deadly epidemics; we’ve seen new wars begin; we’ve seen old wars resume. Working together for a better world can seem like a hopeless task, but we know change is possible.”

Finn noted that each of the world’s 17,000 weapons, “many on high alert,” remain “ready to kill millions of lives within minutes.

“These weapons are unworthy of anyone, of any state” that follows fundamental principles of humanity. “This is chance to leave these weapons behind us; right now the time has come to ban nuclear weapons and we can do so even without the help of the nuclear states” because of “the real superpower in the world,” Fihn said. “I’m talking about you, civil society.”

ICAN is a young effort, and it is, of course, too soon to tell if it will endure the same fate of previous campaigns to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Obstacles are formidable: a primary contemporary problem is public apathy, even antipathy, to the idea of nuclear abolition.

Overcoming an indifference that has been sustained over decades of diminishing anxiety over nuclear weapons begins with re-education to the threat they pose, whether or not they are ever used. Old campaigners for disarmament could be forgiven a sense of deja vu visiting with many of the sessions held this weekend. Many of the young people were being introduced sometimes for the first time to the details of the destructive power of nuclear weapons, but they were also learning the latest science on the ecological collateral damage created by building, maintaining and decommissioning weapons and the potential catastrophic climatological impact of even their limited use.

Perhaps an emotional high point of the conference came in the form testimony of a small group of “Hibakusha,” survivors of the only war-time use of atomic weapons over Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. For many it was a first hearing of these heart-searing, first-hand accounts of the “effectiveness” of nuclear weapons. 

Setsuko Thurlow was a 13-year-old “grade A” schoolgirl working, of all things, as a decoder for the Japanese military (“that’s how desperate they were”) when the “Little Boy” atomic bomb was dropped over her city Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. She was getting a pep talk from her military project manager when she saw a “bluish white flash” outside her office building then found herself floating through the air as the building collapsed around her.

Dug out of the destroyed building, she described the scene out of hell that awaited her. “It was dark as twilight,” the sky filled with soot and smoke. “I couldn’t believe my eyes,” she remembered, watching the silent injured walking through the smoldering city, bleeding, horribly disfigured and burned, flesh hanging from their bodies. “They looked like ghosts,” she said. “Some were carrying their own eyeballs in their hands and as they collapsed on the ground their intestines burst out of their bodies.” And they suffered so in almost total silence, she remembered, that stunned and numbed by the explosion and their injuries. “Practically everyone was whispering, ‘Water, water please.’” She and her surviving school mates were injured and covered in blood themselves, she said, but “we tore off our blouses and soaked them in water and allowed people to suck on the blouses.

“There were no cups or buckets, no doctors or nurses; that was the only thing I could do.” She and the other surviving girls escaped to the hills around the city and sat in stunned silence all night, as “the dear city burned.” Her sister and her four-year-old child had been caught in the firestorm. They had been burned beyond recognition in the blast. “We could only identify them by their voices.

“My sister lived four days and four nights and the child a little longer…”

Thurlow had a long yellow paper inscribed with the names of 160 schoolmates who died in the Hiroshima attack brought out before the audience. “Each one of them had a name,” she said. “Each one of them had a life, and I remember each and every one of them.”

In an about face that surprised many, the United States recently agreed to send a delegation to Vienna to participate in the the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, which begins on Dec. 8, immediately after the conclusion of ICAN’s conference. It had declined to participate in two previous conferences.

A State Department official, announcing the decision to join Vienna on Dec. 4, felt compelled to lower expectations. “Underpinning all of our efforts, stretching back decades, has been our clear understanding and recognition of the humanitarian consequences of the use of these weapons. That is the message the United States will take to the [conference] in Vienna next week,” said Rose Gottemoeller, the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, speaking in Prague, a city where five years earlier President Obama had committed the United States to “a world without nuclear weapons.”

“We are participating, not because our nuclear policy has changed—it has not. We are participating to reinforce the messages I have put forth here—that the practical path we have followed so successfully in the past remains the only realistic route to our shared goal of a nuclear weapons-free world. We cannot and will not support efforts to move to an amorphous nuclear weapons convention or the false hope of fixed timeline for the elimination of all nuclear weapons.”

According to ICAN’s Kihm, many global nuclear superpowers are watching this weekend’s conference in Vienna anxiously. “They will say a ban is impossible,” she said. “They are wrong; don’t let anyone tell you that making nuclear weapons [illegal] is not possible.” In fact, she said, it is the obligation of the members of the world’s civil society organizations to help their governments come to terms with the existential threat of nuclear weapons. “Civil society can be the guiding force,” she said.

“We can’t do anything about the victims of the past or the damage [to the environment] from nuclear testing,” Fihn said. “But we now have a chance to prevent another humanitarian disaster from happening. It is our responsibility to do so no matter what nuclear state might object.”

Kevin Clarke is part of a media delegation to Vienna sponsored by the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

For more:
Listen to an America magazine interview with Command and Control author Eric Schlosser.

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