Nuclear Disarmament as a Social Justice Issue
by John Whitehead
Activists seeking to end or radically reduce nuclear weapons’ threat may find it difficult to get public attention. Despite the high stakes involved—the lives of millions and even humanity’s survival—the nuclear threat frequently seems distant and abstract. The danger is future and hypothetical, in contrast to current, actual situations of people dying or suffering from other injustices.
Anti-nuclear peace activists should recall how the struggle against nuclear weapons has been connected to other struggles: for gender and racial equality, against poverty, and for the protection of preborn humans. These connections between the nuclear disarmament cause and other causes have a long history.
“No Nukes” and Feminism
Women’s rights and peace have long between intertwined, a connection embodied in contemporary history by organizations such as the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and Women’s Strike for Peace (WSP) (see the recent Consistent Life blog post on WILPF member and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams). Both these groups participated in struggles against nuclear weapons. In the early 1960s, proclaiming “End the Arms Race—Not the Human Race,” WSP organized demonstrations involving thousands to protest nuclear weapons.
One of WSP’s most famous members, Coretta Scott King (also involved in WILPF), traveled to Geneva in 1962 to attend, on behalf of WSP, a 17-nation conference on disarmament. These and other efforts by peace activists contributed to a significant victory in 1963 with the international treaty limiting testing of nuclear weapons.
Another significant trip was taken by Erna Harris, a WILPF member and one of the first black women to get a degree in journalism. Harris participated in the 1964 Soviet-American Women’s Conference of 12 Soviet women and 12 American women in Moscow. Upon returning to the United States, Harris traveled around the nation speaking out on behalf of nuclear disarmament.
One aspect of feminist opposition to nuclear weapons is radiation’s disproportionate negative effects on women. Evidence from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, nuclear weapons tests, and nuclear accidents suggest women are more likely than men to develop cancer from radiation exposure. A 2006 National Academy of Sciences report found the cancer incidence and deaths were 40-50% higher among women than among men exposed to comparable doses of radiation. For pregnant women, exposure to radiation risks harming or killing their children in the womb—a danger that should especially concern pro-lifers
Another aspect of feminist critiques of nuclear weapons is how stereotypical notions of masculinity—aggression or “toughness”—can influence policy makers. Concern over nuclear weapons’ devastating human costs or hopes for a more peaceful world without these weapons, are dismissed as weak, naïve, or “soft,” similar to how women’s perspectives are dismissed.
Ray Acheson, an activist with WILPF and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)—who spoke at the Consistent Life-cosponsored “Two Minutes to Midnight” conference—has written on both these aspects of nuclear disarmament as a feminist issue. Commenting on reactions to the recent United Nations Treaty banning nuclear weapons, Acheson wrote “Those who want to elevate the voices and perspectives of those affected, are dismissed as ‘emotional.’”
Acheson cites a story of a nuclear strategist who expressed horror at the millions of deaths nuclear weapons would cause, only to then feel ashamed and “like a woman.” She comments,
The association of caring about the murder of thirty million people with “being a woman” is all about seeing that position – and that sex – as being weak, caring about wrong things, letting your “emotions” get the better of you, and focusing on human beings when you should be focused on “strategy.” Caring about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons is feminine, weak, and not relevant to the job that “real men” have to do to “protect” their countries. It not only suggests that caring about the use of nuclear weapons is spineless and silly, but also makes the pursuit of disarmament seem unrealistic and irrational.
A humanitarian and gender-sensitive analysis of nuclear weapons offers an alternative to this kind of thinking.
“No Nukes” and Racial Justice
Black Americans and other people of color have connected the struggle for racial justice with peace, including nuclear disarmament. Historian Vincent Intondi, who also spoke at the “Two Minutes to Midnight” conference, chronicled this activism in African Americans against the Bomb. Crucial connections between racism and nuclear weapons include how nuclear weapons could serve as tools of colonialism and how spending on weapons took resources away from the poor, especially people of color.
Racial justice and peace were linked in a dramatic demonstration against both colonialism and nuclear weapons in the winter of 1959-1960. Following the French government’s decision to test nuclear weapons in the Sahara, a group of peace activists, including American civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, resolved to travel to the nuclear test site in a nonviolent attempt to stop the test. The activists received support from Ghana, which had recently hosted a conference of African states which resolved that “nuclear testing should be suspended and means taken to reduce the arms race.”
The peace activists traveled overland from Ghana to French-controlled Africa. French authorities stopped them and, despite repeated attempts, the peace activists never reached the site of the early 1960 tests. Nevertheless, the nonviolent witness attracted international media attention, in African nations and the United States, and led to protests outside French embassies. One African who observed the activists’ journey connected the issues concisely: “If [the bomb tests are so] harmless, why not hold it in the country outside Paris, so all the French people can see the wonder?”
U.S. Civil rights activists protested nuclear weapons over the following decades. Martin Luther King repeatedly denounced these weapons throughout his public career. In 1964, a group of Japanese atomic bomb survivors (hibakusha) visited Harlem and met with Malcolm X. During their meeting, he observed “You have been scarred by the atom bomb.” Then, referring to the poor living conditions the hibakusha had seen in Harlem, he added “You just saw that we have also been scarred. The bomb that hit us was racism.”
Combining the struggles against racism and nuclear weapons continued during the intensified arms race of the 1980s. Librarian Greg Johnson and his wife formed Blacks Against Nukes (BAN) to raise black Americans’ awareness of nuclear weapons’ dangers. For years, they gave talks at schools, colleges, and churches. Johnson recalled how he aimed to bring different issues together: “Black and poor people in this country are suffering in the name of national security, which has to do with people who are educated, fed, and clothed, not with how many weapons you have in your arsenal…We saw a pattern of colonialism to subjugate nonwhites. And the bomb was part of it. It was all connected.”
“No Nukes” and Pro-Lifers
Some activists have defended human life from both nuclear weapons and abortion. Activist and comedian Dick Gregory participated not only in the civil rights struggle but was a frequent presence in anti-nuclear activities and denounced abortion as a tool of racist population control.
Playwright Lorraine Hansberry is best remembered for her critique of racism, but her work also included pro-life and pro-peace themes. Bernadette Waterman Ward, in an essay reprinted in ProLife Feminism: Yesterday & Today, observed how a crucial dramatic moment in Hansberry’s play Raisin in the Sun is Mama’s outrage over her daughter-in-law seeking an abortion and her son’s failure to stop this: “Your wife say she going to destroy your child. And I’m waiting to hear you talk like [your father] and say we a people who give children life, not who destroy them,” she says. Hansberry was also a long-time opponent of the nuclear bombing of Japan and of nuclear weapons in general. One of her final plays was What Use Are Flowers?, about survivors of a nuclear war and their struggle to build a new world.
An activist who explicitly connected both these causes was Julianne Wiley. An anti-nuclear activist who highlighted nuclear radiation’s negative effect on preborn children, Wiley recounts in Consistently Opposing Killing how she was moved to reconsider her attitudes toward abortion when another woman pointed out how abortion also killed children in the womb. Her activism then expanded to include combined opposition to nuclear weapons and abortion and led to the foundation of Pro-Lifers for Survival—the predecessor organization to the Consistent Life Network. Almost 40 years later, the danger nuclear radiation poses to the preborn remains an important connection between the pro-peace and pro-life causes.
Opposition to nuclear weapons has drawn a wide variety of activists and been combined with an array of other causes. The common thread is that while nuclear weapons, in one sense, kill “indiscriminately,” in another sense they’re quite discriminating by inflicting greater harm on vulnerable groups and reinforcing social injustice. Highlighting nuclear disarmament’s importance for social justice clarifies the peace cause’s full significance and may attract more people to the peace movement.
For more of our posts on nuclear weapons, see:
Nukes and the Pro-Life Christian: A Conservative Takes a Second Look at the Morality of Nuclear Weapons