By Ira Helfand
The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the flood of nuclear threats that have accompanied that invasion have made it clear that the danger of nuclear war did not end with the Cold War but remains a real and imminent threat to human survival.
We cannot know how the Ukraine war will play out, and there seems little that we can do to affect the immediate situation: events are moving too quickly and there is not a sufficient political movement in any of the countries involved. Whether we survive this crisis will depend in large measure, as our survival has on so many occasions during the nuclear weapons era, on how lucky we are. If we are lucky enough to survive, then we can, and we must, make sure that we are never in this situation again.
For the last three decades, humanity has been in a state of collective denial about the need to eliminate nuclear weapons. We survived the Cold War. We dodged the nuclear bullet. We had lots of other problems to worry about and we simply didn’t want to think about nuclear war anymore.
We can no longer afford to deny the enormity and imminence of the danger nuclear weapons pose. We must accept the reality that the only way to free ourselves from this danger is to eliminate these weapons once and for all. We need to use the current moment of extreme danger and heightened awareness of that danger to build a movement that brings about fundamental change in nuclear policy.
In the aftermath of both the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and the Euro Missile Crisis of 1983, the leaders on both sides of the Cold War divide were sobered by the disaster they had nearly caused, and they were open to new ways of thinking about nuclear weapons. Within months of the Cuban crisis, Kennedy and Khrushchev negotiated the Partial Test Ban Treaty and established the hotline. Within two years of crisis in 1983, Gorbachev and Reagan stated jointly that nuclear war could never be won and must never be fought.
We do not know if today’s leaders are capable of a similar reckoning; we have to act on the assumption that they may be.
In 2017, shortly after the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), activists in Western Massachusetts launched the Back from the Brink (BftB) campaign to support the goals of the Treaty. We modeled the campaign on the enormously successful Freeze movement of the 1980s, creating a prescription for what US nuclear policy ought to be and seeking to gain support for that new policy from civil society and local and state governments, creating a national consensus around the idea that nuclear weapons do not make us safe but instead threats to our security and must be eliminated.
The central demand of this campaign recognizes that none of the nuclear armed states will disarm unilaterally. It calls for the US to enter now into negotiations with the other nuclear armed states for a verifiable, enforceable, timebound plan to eliminate nuclear arsenals so they would all come into compliance with the TPNW.
The campaign also asks the US to take several unilateral steps, not as ends in themselves, but specifically to reduce tension as the negotiations proceed and to add momentum to the negotiations. It demands that the US adopt a No First Use policy, end the sole authority of the President to launch nuclear war, take American nuclear forces off hair trigger alert, and abandon plans to spend $1.7 trillion modernizing every aspect of the nuclear arsenal.
The campaign has resonated with communities across the country. So far, 67 municipalities (20 here in Massachusetts) have endorsed it, including many of the largest cities in the country—Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington DC, Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Des Moines, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Salt Lake, Tucson, Portland and Honolulu. It has also been endorsed by the state legislatures in California and Oregon and by the Maine and Rhode Island Senates and the New Jersey Assembly.
More than 400 NGOs have also joined the campaign, including many national faith communities like the Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregational and Unitarian churches, Pax Christi, the Islamic Society of North America, Soka Gakkai, and the Reconstructionist Jewish Movement. Environmental, peace, and social justice organizations have joined as well, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Peace Action, MAPA, the Sierra Club, the NRDC, the Hip Hop Caucus, the Federation of American Scientists, Indivisible and Veterans for Peace.
Most recently, Congressman Jim McGovern has introduced a resolution in the US House, H. Res. 77, which is co-sponsored by 25 members of the House, including, from Massachusetts, Rep. Richie Neal and Rep Ayanna Pressley.\
Support for the campaign reflects an understanding that it provides a definitive solution to the problem—a path to the elimination of nuclear weapons, and a vehicle for mobilizing people and building the kind of broad movement needed to change US nuclear policy. It speaks to the growing understanding that the incremental step by step approach advocated by some over the last decade has not worked. That approach has not been able to generate sufficient support because people realize that the interim measures that have been proposed are an insufficient response to the threat of nuclear war. And it has not worked because it did not build a broader constituency for the abolition of nuclear weapons. As long as the claim that nuclear weapons are essential to our security is accepted, pro-nuclear forces will be able to block measures that “weaken deterrence”.
So, at heart, Back from the Brink is an educational campaign. It is an effort to force a national debate about the role of nuclear weapons in US security policy and to build a movement of people who see through the fantasy that nuclear weapons possess some magical power that guarantees they will never be used, people who understand that nuclear war will destroy human civilization and render moot all of the other work we do to make the world a better place, people who demand that the US work to eliminate these weapons. It has demonstrated a broad national appeal unlike any effort since the 1980s and we need to build quickly on its success to date.
MAPA is a partner organization of Back from the Brink and is actively working to secure passage of S 1487 the BftB resolution in the state legislature, and to gain additional co-sponsors for H.Res. 77 in Congress. In addition, BftB has Hubs in Western Mass and Greater Boston for people who want to be more involved.