Can ordinary citizens really bring change to international politics? We may think this question applies only to current times when we talk of Gov 2.0 and governments outsourcing ideas from citizens on Twitter. As the nuclear disarmament campaign shows, grassroots movements have had an impact in previous decades as well.
Larry Wittner, author of Confronting the Bomb, A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, provides a brief look at the history of the anti-nuclear movement and how it affected world leaders. In an interview with Marshall Poe of New Books in History, Wittner draws on his book to explain how nuclear disarmament has developed and how it has been affected by public movements.
Wittner's book includes many interesting quotations from world leaders that evidence just how excited international leaders initially were about the advent of the Bomb. Winston Churchill loved the bomb and saw it as a way to win wars and maintain international influence. Eisenhower viewed the bomb as a positive addition to the U.S. arsenal, saying "My administration looks on nuclear weapons as no different than a bullet." The general consensus among leaders was that bigger and better weapons lead to better defense and therefore a safer environment.
As Wittner goes on to explain, the public saw nuclear weapons in a different light. From the early 1970's to its height in the early 1980s, an anti-nuclear movement had people all over the world protesting the Bomb. As Marshall Poe himself reminisces, he never thought that his small protests really had a big impact. However, Wittner explains that the growing anti-nuclear campaign had a huge influence on world leaders' decisions, from small protests to gatherings of almost 1 million people. At the beginning of Ronald Reagan's term as president, he made clear that nuclear weapons were a positive addition to U.S. defense. But as time went on and as the disarmament campaign grew, the nation watched Reagan make a complete turn around. He began to consider the call for disarmament. Even leaders of other countries began to change the way they viewed nuclear weapons. After 1985, Nikolai Gorbachev said "new thinking" was needed. Gorbachev and Reagan met many times and were able to come to agreements for lessening the nuclear arsenals in their countries.
As leaders began to heed the requests of the public, people of the anti-nuclear movement became comfortable and complacent. The movement has since died down. Toward the late 1990's, the anti-nuclear movement became less prolific. As a result, nuclear weapons began to increase again. In 1996, a Republican Senate rejected a nuclear test ban treaty, and later, during George W. Bush administration, the President began to pursue the creation of new nuclear weapons. Free from the pressure of the nuclear disarmament campaign, the government is at liberty to pursue nuclear weapons -- but, as Wittner explains, the movement is reviving.
Wittner's book goes into a brief history of the advent of bomb and a more detailed history of the movement against it. Though the movement has had its ups and downs, Wittner is confident that it is resurging and as history shows, ordinary people can make a big difference.