Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement

By Summy, Ralph | Social Alternatives, Third Quarter 2009 | Go to article overview

Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement


Summy, Ralph, Social Alternatives


Wittner, Lawrence S. 2009, Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009 (xiv + 254) pb. US$21.95. ISBN 978-0-8047-5632-7.

In the decade 1993-2003 Wittner published a trilogy of scholarly volumes on the history of the international anti-nuclear weapons movement, which arguably grew into the largest grassroots movement of all time. The three tomes, which collectively covered almost 1800 pages and thousands of footnotes, began with the prophetic warning in H.G. Wells' novel The World Set Free, published in 1914, about a fictitious war fought with 'atomic bombs.' The outcome of this war was devastating, but Wells' book had an upbeat ending. To avert an even greater catastrophe the survivors rallied to create a world government and save humanity.

The modern story that Wittner chronicles over 90 years does not quite emulate the novel. Humans still have a long way to go before establishing a world government, but some progress is being made. Despite calamitous outbursts of religious, ethnic and power motivated killings, a process of globalisation is gradually moving homo sapiens in the direction of a world community. Moreover, as in the Wells plot, after witnessing the disasters of two relatively localised atomic attacks, humans have managed thus far to escape the horrors of a nuclear holocaust. How the 'great escape' eventuated is the story that unfolds in the scholarly trilogy, and is now encapsulated in a slimmer and single work aimed not only at academia but also concerned members of the general public.

In the condensed version under review, Wittner sets out at the very beginning the major question that his well researched and highly readable narrative addresses. Since nations are inclined to use the weapons that they develop, how is it that nuclear war has been avoided since 1945? Moreover, only nine nations possess nuclear arsenals, while 186 for diverse reasons possess none. Those that have acquired 'the bomb' have entered into some restraining measures that indicate they are very much aware of the special dangers attached to nuclear weapons: for instance, the Partial Test Ban Treaty; Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties (SALT); Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START); Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT); and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

The prevailing rationale attributes the nuclear restraint to the deterrence power of nuclear weapons. But if that is the case, why the motivation to enter into arms control and disarmament agreements? Why have the nuclear powers refrained from waging nuclear war against the unarmed nuclear nations, sometimes at the cost of losing a war? Wittner's book uncovers an answer that is not part of the conventional wisdom, even in some sections of the peace movement. He concludes 'that the missing ingrethent is a massive nuclear disarmament movement- hone that has mobilised millions of people in nations around the globe, and, thereby, saved the world from nuclear war' (xii). Admittedly that mobilisation has been uneven globally and has waxed and waned over the decades, but in terms of the nuclear threat levels the movement has responded by mobilising gigantic numbers of ordinary people as well as the key institutions of civil society.

The evidence that Wittner presents in support of this assertion is overwhelming. He has extensively inspected the files of disarmament organisations, and has had access to formerly secret government records. He has interviewed countless anti-nuclear activists and government officials, and he has perused numerous memoirs, periodicals and other published materials. The details of this extensive research are laid out in the trilogy (each book of which had previously been reviewed in Social Alternatives). In Confronting the Bomb the reader receives mainly the argument and narrative. Nevertheless, he does spell out a most critical point: namely, that most government off icials were not favorably disposed to nuclear arms control and disarmament measures. …

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