I WAS SITTING in the wrong end of a police wagon the first time I questioned nuclear weapons. Technically, it was a school bus, but it served the same purpose: hauling scores of protesters to the county holding center where we would await booking for our trespasses.
We had been protesting abortion. I was thinking about nuclear weapons because a couple of those in the bus were peace activists who had long rap sheets from years of anti-war protests. I, on the other hand, was a Republican-voting, independent Baptist church-attending, conservative-leaning, law-abiding (well, until now) kind of Christian. I was awed—and grateful—that these peaceniks would join the likes of me in common cause against another kind of violence.
My new friends adhered to the “seamless garment” philosophy, also called the consistent life ethic, one committed to the protection of all human life, whether from war, poverty, racism, capital punishment, euthanasia, or abortion. One of them gave me a button that read “Peace begins in the womb,” and I pinned it to the bottom of the black leather motorcycle jacket I used to wear in those days.
A few years and many more abortion protests later, I was starting a local chapter of Feminists for Life, attending an Episcopal church, heading up a small private school in the inner city, teaching at a Jesuit college, and reading the poetry of Father Daniel Berrigan, the famous Vietnam-era anti-war activist who was now being arrested for protesting abortion.
But I wasn’t thinking much more about nuclear bombs.
Setsuko Thurlow was 13 when “progress” came to Hiroshima in a white-hot flash. In the dark silence following the nuclear bomb blast, Thurlow recalls children crying, “Mama, help me. God, help me.”
Her sister lived for four days. Many of her 351 dying schoolmates “looked like skeletons with skin hanging from their bones.”
They perished in agony.
Today, Thurlow and other survivors travel the globe, sharing their stories with a new generation for which nuclear weapons are an afterthought — seemingly a hypothetical and abstract threat.
The end of the Cold War had a mixed effect on the nuclear equation. Through dogged diplomacy and effective institutions, disarmament continues, though at a slower pace in recent years. There are now 10,000 operational nuclear warheads in the world, down from a high of 64,000 in 1986.
But the specter of nuclear terrorism and regional conflicts between nuclear weapons states makes nuclear weapons even more dangerous in our international system. Deterrence theory, which governed strategic thinking during the Cold War, is a much less compelling framework today.
Thankfully, most states have forsworn these armaments. Nuclear weapons are not vital to any state’s legitimate security interest. No state or NGO has the capacity to respond to the unfathomable humanitarian crisis that would follow an accidental or intentional use of a nuclear weapon.
Thus a growing global consensus now acknowledges the extreme risk nuclear weapons pose.
Pope John XXIII stated unequivocally in his 1963 encyclical “Pacem in Terris,” “Nuclear weapons must be banned.”
The forthcoming dedication of the national memorial monument honoring Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., affords an opening for considering the complexity and meaning of his leadership. He was not the tamed and desiccated civil hero as often portrayed in the United States around the time of his birthday, celebrated as a national holiday. He was until the moment of his death raising issues that challenged the conventional wisdom on poverty and racism, but also concerning war and peace.
King was in St. Joseph's Infirmary, Atlanta, for exhaustion and a viral infection when it was reported that he would receive the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. As Gary M. Pomerantz writes in Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn, this was the apparent cost exacted by intelligence surveillance efforts and the pressures of learning that Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy had formally approved wiretaps by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. His evolving strength as a leader is revealed in his remarks in Norway that December, which linked the nonviolent struggle of the U.S. civil rights movement to the entire planet's need for disarmament.