Conference Exposes the Social and Economic Costs of the Nuclear Weapons Buildup

Peace Advocate January 2023

Archbishop John Wester, Shailly Gupta Barnes, and Rep. Jim McGovern spoke at the conference on Nuclear War danger, January 21, 2023
Archbishop John Wester, Shailly Gupta Barnes, and Rep. Jim McGovern spoke at the conference on Nuclear War danger, January 21, 2023

by Jonathan King

Santa Fe Archbishop John C. Wester’s cathedral sits across from a branch of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, part of a vast operation responsible for the production of nuclear warheads in the United States. The archbishop has been a consistent and leading voice in the faith community calling out the deep immorality of nuclear weapons, which destroy indiscriminately.

Speaking to more than 270 people gathered on-line Jan. 21st for the Annual Conference on Reducing the Threat of Nuclear War, he decried the social and economic costs of the nuclear weapons build-up.

“Los Alamos County has more millionaires per capita than any other county in the U.S.,” he said. “In contrast, New Mexico has the highest percentage of children and seniors living in poverty. Further, the Land of Enchantment was recently ranked as 49th among all states in overall child well-being.” The millionaires are the private contractors employed at Los Alamos, paid by our tax dollars.

The Archbishop lamented plans by the federal government to spend up to $2 trillion over the next 30 years to modernize nuclear weapons and build new missiles, submarines and bombers to deliver them. “This is nuclear weapons forever,” he said. “We are in a new nuclear arms race that is arguably more dangerous than the first.”

Shailly Gupta Barnes, Policy Director of the Poor Peoples Campaign reviewed some of mechanisms by which the exorbitant Pentagon budget drives poverty, by cutting budgets for civilian programs that could raise the standard of living such as public housing, child support, expanded medical and public health programs and veterans’ healthcare.  This coupling, first identified by President Eisenhower, was brought to national attention by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who  described how the bombs dropped on Vietnam also deepened the poverty, ill health and oppression of those at home. A half a century later, these injustices endure.

One of the most acute expressions of poverty is losing your apartment or home through eviction. Mass. State Rep. Mike Connolly, in describing the numerous programs needed to alleviate this ongoing tragedy, made clear the need for the widespread adoption of “Housing as a Human Right / Housing for All” as national policy.

William Hartung, a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, explained how defense contractors guarantee the continued flow of our tax dollars to their coffers by employing hundreds of lobbyists, financing pro-weapons think tanks, and making direct donations to Congressional members of the Armed Services and related committees. Though the fixed-silo-based ICBMS are of dubious value, a potent ICBM caucus of senators from states with ICBMS  presses to keep them active, and to spend hundreds of billions of tax dollars on new ICBMS, just as vulnerable as the existing ones. These monopoly contracts to Boeing, Lockheed, and other contractors generate enormous profits.

Deborah Burger, President of National Nurses United, described the pressing needs of the public health system, and the intense pressures on nurses and their coworkers, even before the coronavirus pandemic. She made clear that “Nurses are committed to a holistic approach to the priorities for state and federal spending, which includes reallocation of money from military budgets and fair taxation. When a people’s budget reflects a true commitment to social and economic justice, we will have finally succeeded.”

I followed up with some details on how defunding biomedical research to

finance the exorbitant Pentagon budget had undermined programs needed for protection from Covid-19.

Rev. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, described the national mobilization of the PPC as an emergent force against poverty and militarism , and for transforming the war economy into a peace economy. “After nearly five years, we have established a vast and growing network of coordinating committees in more than 40 states, 400 partner organizations—including labor unions, religious denominations, national and local organizations and campaigns, and leading research and policy institutes—and a Prophetic Council of thousands of religious and faith leaders,” she said.

The planks of the PPC ‘s Third Reconstruction include calls for deep cuts in the Pentagon budget and instituting a Nuclear No First Use commitment and moving toward nuclear disarmament.

Climate scientist Alan Robock presented the compelling case that even a very limited exchange of nuclear weapons would plunge the earth into a “nuclear winter” resulting in the deaths of hundreds of millions from starvation. A full nuclear war would destroy human civilization.

Marcy  Winograd and Medea Benjamin of CodePink made the case for the current centrality of solving the Ukraine conflict, if we are to move the hands of the Doomsday Clock away from midnight and also stop the war’s disruption of the world economy and  prevent civilian deaths from starvation. They described the formation of the national “Peace In Ukraine” network which is ramping up activity throughout the country. They reminded us of the unexpected strong response to the call for a Christmas truce in Ukraine, singed by more than 1500 faith leaders.

Rep. Jim McGovern brought some positive news, reporting a number of bills that would be filed in the coming Congressional session, that restrict First Use of nuclear weapons; call for support for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear weapons; and support the Back from the Brink campaign.

Cole Harrison, Mass. Peace Action’s executive director, summarized the priority actions coming out of the Conference, including (among others) support for the Congressional bills described by McGovern, expansion of campaigns introducing such legislation – including nuclear weapons divestment – into State Legislatures, and active organizing and support for the Peace in Ukraine initiatives.

Much of the most valuable work of the conference was carried out in the sixteen breakout sessions with distinguished groups of conveners, panelists, reporters and multiple engaged participants. It’s not possible to summarize their work here, but the Breakout Reports are being posted as they are produced at  The breakout sessions are listed here.

—Jonathan King is co-chair of Mass. Peace Action’s Board and served as chair of the Program Committee for the Conference.