For more than 40 years, millions of Americans have participated in public campaigns to end nuclear testing. Opinion polls consistently have shown 80 percent or more of the public in favor of a test ban. Every U.S. president since Eisenhower has expressed support for the treaty, and legions of officials and military experts, including the current joint chiefs, have urged its ratification.
Yet this level of support was not sufficient to secure passage of the treaty. When even so modest a measure as the test ban cannot muster political support in Washington, the hopes for ending the nuclear menace seem bleak indeed. What can those of us who have worked for disarmament over the years do now in response to this debacle?
The first requirement is understanding why the treaty was defeated. Senate rejection of the treaty had little or nothing to do with the merits of the test ban. The Republican claim that the treaty cannot be verified is false. Existing seismic capabilities are able to detect all but the tiniest, militarily insignificant explosions. Anyone genuinely interested in verification would vote for the treaty, since it establishes a new International Monitoring System that significantly enhances verification capabilities.
The rejection of the test ban was politically driven. Senate leaders did not want to give President Clinton (and Vice President Gore) the political advantage that would result from passage of this important and politically popular treaty. Scoring points against the Clinton administration was more important than preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.
The White House was not without fault in this tragedy. The Clinton administration has lost political influence, especially in the area of national security where its credibility was already low. The administration has attempted to compensate for this weakness by embracing the Republican military agenda. The White House has boosted arms spending despite the absence of a credible threat, poured vast sums into an unworkable missile defense program, and alienated Russia by pushing an unnecessary expansion of NATO. For most of its nearly seven years in office, the White House has shown little interest in disarmament. It has squandered the opportunity for further nuclear reductions with Russia, done little to build public support for denuclearization, and made scant effort to mobilize political support for the test ban treatys ratification.
BUT WE CANNOT ABSOLVE ourselves of responsibility for this defeat. The Republicans would not have been able to abuse the test ban treaty as they did if there were a strong, politically active constituency for nuclear disarmament in this country. Unfortunately, no such constituency exists. Peace and disarmament movements have declined significantly since the halcyon days of the nuclear freeze campaign. Many state and local peace groups have closed their doors.
Perhaps the defeat of the test ban will serve as a wake up call. Already it has focused public attention on the nuclear issue. We now realize that the process of arms limitation is in peril, and that powerful voices in Washington are determined to block arms reduction. Rejection of the test ban coincided with a military coup in nuclear-armed Pakistan. These developments further diminished the prospects that India will sign the test ban treaty or curb its nuclear weapons program. In combination, these events represent a major setback to the cause of denuclearization.
We must renew our commitment to action toward a future free from the threat of nuclear weapons. The beginnings of such a campaign are already in place through Project Abolition, a cooperative effort of national disarmament groups seeking to build mainstream support for nuclear abolition. Project Abolition is implementing a national disarmament strategy developed by a group headed by former Senator Alan Cranston. The plan calls for extensive outreach and education within the faith-based community. Many religious institutions have spoken in favor of reducing and eliminating nuclear weapons over the years, but few have committed time and resources to the issue.
As people of faith we are called to action not only for justice but for peace. In the struggle against the threat of nuclear war, we have no choice but to act. The very fate of the Earth is at stake. If each of us were to commit a portion of our time and energy to the crusade for nuclear sanity, we could make a difference. Through our commitment to action, we could display the kind of faith that can change the evidence before us, and build a world free from the threat of nuclear war.
DAVID CORTRIGHT is president of the Fourth Freedom Forum in Indiana and a regular contributor to Sojourners. For more information on Project Abolition contact 803 N. Main St., Goshen, IN 46526; 1-800-233-6786; www.disarm.org