Updated: Apr 8, 2022
Nobody wins a nuclear war.
That’s why the moment we find ourselves in now with Russia's invasion of Ukraine serves as a stark reminder about why we need a resurgent anti-nuclear weapons movement.
“If we had a nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia … it could conceivably end human life on this Earth due to what’s called nuclear winter,” said Bryn Mawr Hospital’s Dr. Daniel Wolk, who serves on the advisory board of Physicians for Social Responsibility Pennsylvania.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, the United States is projected to spend $634 billion on its nuclear arsenal between 2021-2030. Both Russia and the United States possess 90% of the world’s roughly 13,000 nuclear weapons. Russian President Vladmir Putin’s current nuclear saber rattling, and the fact that the United States is the only country in the world to actually deploy nuclear weapons — on Hiroshima and Nagasaki which immediately killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese and left a “post-apocalyptic wasteland” in its wake — should horrify people.
“They don’t see it as a real danger until moments like this war in Ukraine where people are starting to talk about World War 3 if we provoke Putin the wrong way,” said Wolk.
It has been out of sight, out of mind.
According to The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock, founded in 1945 by Albert Einstein to measure the nuclear threat to the world, the Clock is set “the closest it has ever been to civilization-ending apocalypse,” 100 seconds to midnight with midnight signaling the end.
PSR’ PAs Wolk got involved in the anti-nuclear movement back in 1982. That same year the U.S. anti-nuclear weapons movement peaked with 1 million Americans protesting in New York City’s Central Park demanding an end to nuclear weapons.
Bucks County also had a robust anti-nuclear movement at the time led by local progressive peace activists. Upper Makefield Township’s Paul Zimmerman, a screenwriter who passed away too young at 54 in 1993, helped start the Bucks Alliance for Nuclear Disarmament, or BAND. He wrote the 1982 film "The King of Comedy," directed by Martin Scorsese, which starred Robert DeNiro and Jerry Lewis. Zimmerman actually organized a sold-out premier of the movie at Newtown Theatre, adorned with klieg lights and a red carpet, and used the proceeds as seed money to start BAND and open a Peace Center locally. What started with about 40 people blossomed into a group of hundreds of members and 20 church and secular organizations advocating for a nuclear freeze.
In September 1982 he was a guest on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross and talked about his activism.
“I think the biggest enemy of the well-being of this country is indifference,” he told Gross.
He credited his wife Barbara with helping him see how “absolutely insane and dangerous” the country’s nuclear policy was. Given that it’s Women’s History Month, it’s fitting to highlight how this Bucks County woman helped make history locally.
Barbara was actually spurred to action by listening to another woman, Helen Caldicott, on Fresh Air. She joined the local chapter of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom shortly after. BAND even got Caldicott to speak at Neshaminy High School on Sept. 30, 1982, an event which really helped the group take off.
“I don’t think the country has ever been in this moment, ever,” she told me.
The Cuban Missile Crisis would probably be the only other time the world has been pushed to such a precipice.
BAND engaged in all types of activism, from weekly vigils, to peace concerts, to speaking events, to targeting local weapons manufacturers’ board meetings. But since the end of the Cold War the movement has waned.
I can’t think of a better moment for the movement’s revival. But don’t let cynicism deter your potential activism.
Even former President Ronald Reagan alienated the more hawkish Cold Warriors in his Republican Party and embraced nuclear arms control with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. As Physicians for Social Responsibility’s Wolk reminded me, “Somehow we were able to eliminate 36,000 nuclear weapons … and do it in a verifiable way.”
Now imagine a nuclear weapons-free world where instead of spending $634 billion on weapons of mass destruction over the next decade, we spent that on education, health care, renewable energy, and infrastructure.
“You just have to keep building bridges and shine a light on the problems,” said Zimmerman.
It’s 100 seconds to midnight: What are you waiting for?