Confronting the Threat of Nuclear War

Threats by Donald Trump and by North Korea have stoked worries about nuclear war. In this lesson, students learn about the work of International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and about past social movement campaigns that have worked to avert war and promote nuclear disarmament.  

To the Teacher

Ever since the creation of the atomic bomb during the Second World War, people have needed to contend with the fact that humanity is now able to destroy itself and virtually all life on the planet. Recently, the government of North Korea demonstrated that it now possesses viable nuclear weapons. In response, President Donald Trump has stated that he is willing to "totally destroy North Korea." He also tweeted, "Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely." This evolving situation has made the question of how to respond to the threat of nuclear war ever more relevant for the current generation.

Those looking for way to respond constructively to the nuclear threat have several models they can look to. On October 6, 2017, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Founded in 2007, ICAN is a coalition of non–governmental organizations in 100 countries seeking to eliminate all nuclear weapons. Beyond this organization, there is a long history of social movement campaigns against the proliferation of nuclear arms, with the Nuclear Freeze movement of the 1980s serving as a prominent example.

This lesson is divided into two readings. The first reading explores the work of ICAN and the importance of its recent Nobel Peace Prize. The second reading gives a history of some other social movement campaigns that have worked to avert war and promote nuclear disarmament, particularly the Nuclear Freeze movement. Questions for discussion follow each reading.


Reading One:
Anti–Nuclear Advocates Win the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize


At a time when President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jung Un are trading taunts over the possibility of nuclear war, an international organization that is fighting to eliminate nuclear weapons altogether has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a coalition of organizations in 100 countries that seek to abolish nuclear weapons, received the prize on October 6, 2017, after scoring significant victories at the United Nations. 

In an October 6, 2017, article for the New Yorker, contributing editor Robin Wright placed ICAN’s Nobel Prize in a wider political context. She wrote:

In the middle of two brewing crises over nuclear weapons, the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded on Friday to a global coalition of young activists who defied the United States and the eight other nuclear powers this summer to win support at the United Nations for the first treaty to ban the world’s deadliest weapon.

With dogged determination, ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons), which was formed just a decade ago, generated support from more than a hundred and twenty countries for the landmark accord. Fifty–three nations have signed it since the formal process began, on September 20th...

The Nobel committee cited ICAN, which is based in Geneva, for "its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its groundbreaking efforts to achieve a treaty–based prohibition of such weapons."

Arms–control advocates were jubilant on Friday. "A stunning achievement with profound impact on global efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons," Joseph Cirincione, the president of the Ploughshares Fund, told me. "No one but the members of ICAN thought they could succeed. They are dreamers in the best sense, people with a big vision and a big plan to match. Think John Lennon." The Nobel committee’s message is clear, he said. "All nine nuclear–armed states are building more and newer nuclear weapons. The risk of nuclear war is at its highest level since the early nineteen–eighties, with impulsive, unstable leaders elevating the role of nuclear weapons in their strategies and playing nuclear chicken in Northeast Asia. The committee hopes that if the great nations won’t eliminate the one weapon that can destroy humanity, then the people themselves must force them to do so."

ICAN itself responded to the announcement that it had been awarded the prize with a statement released on Facebook on October 6, 2017. ICAN stated:

It is a great honor to have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2017 in recognition of our role in achieving the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. This historic agreement, adopted on 7 July with the backing of 122 nations, offers a powerful, much–needed alternative to a world in which threats of mass destruction are allowed to prevail and, indeed, are escalating.

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) is a coalition of non–governmental organizations in one hundred countries. By harnessing the power of the people, we have worked to bring an end to the most destructive weapon ever created – the only weapon that poses an existential threat to all humanity.

This prize is a tribute to the tireless efforts of many millions of campaigners and concerned citizens worldwide who, ever since the dawn of the atomic age, have loudly protested nuclear weapons, insisting that they can serve no legitimate purpose and must be forever banished from the face of our earth.

It is a tribute also to the survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – the hibakusha – and victims of nuclear test explosions around the world, whose searing testimonies and unstinting advocacy were instrumental in securing this landmark agreement.

Central to ICAN’s work has been passing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which was adopted by the United Nations in July 2017. This agreement is the first legally binding international treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons.

Given that the world’s nuclear powers have not signed the treaty and that nuclear weapons are still spreading—with countries such as North Korea actively acquiring nuclear weapons—the treaty is obviously not having an immediate effect in stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, this is the first time a majority of countries have come together to agree on a nuclear weapons policy.

Anti–nuclear advocates argue that the treaty will "stigmatize" stockpiling nuclear weapons, serving as a catalyst in moving the world towards nuclear weapons elimination. ICAN explained in its statement after winning the Nobel Prize:

The treaty categorically outlaws the worst weapons of mass destruction and establishes a clear pathway to their total elimination. It is a response to the ever–deepening concern of the international community that any use of nuclear weapons would inflict catastrophic, widespread and long–lasting harm on people and our living planet.

We are proud to have played a major role its creation, including through advocacy and participation in diplomatic conferences, and we will work assiduously in coming years to ensure its full implementation. Any nation that seeks a more peaceful world, free from the nuclear menace, will sign and ratify this crucial accord without delay.

The belief of some governments that nuclear weapons are a legitimate and essential source of security is not only misguided, but also dangerous, for it incites proliferation and undermines disarmament. All nations should reject these weapons completely – before they are ever used again.

Advocates for the abolition of nuclear weapons understand that the path to victory may be long. As Beatrice Fihn, ICAN’s executive director, says, the treaty has value for changing the political climate around nuclear weapons. Fihn is quoted in Wright’s New Yorker article: 

Asked if she thought the treaty or the Nobel Prize would change the minds of the world’s nuclear powers, she said, "It doesn’t work like that. The treaty is meant to make it harder to justify nuclear weapons, to make it uncomfortable for states to continue with the status quo, to put more pressure on them. That isn’t going to happen overnight, of course. But it is a huge boost to all the people who worked on this issue for a very long time, the new generations who are mobilizing around this issue, through our campaign and other work. It’s a huge signal that this is worthy to work on and this is needed and appreciated."

The Nobel Peace Prize committee’s award to ICAN can be seen as a celebration of a decade’s efforts to curtail nuclear weapons, even as conflicts with North Korea continue to escalate.



For Discussion

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  2. ICAN secured a historic win when 122 nations in the United Nations signed a treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. Given that major nuclear powers are not signing on to the treaty, what do you think advocates hope to gain with the agreement?
  3. What do you think? Are treaties like the one the United Nations recently passed important, even when their impact is largely symbolic? Why or why not?
  4. In the statement from ICAN, it is clear that the group is seeking to honor those who were affected by nuclear weapons in the past. Had you heard before about the survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or "hibakusha"? Why might this group be important in advocacy efforts around nuclear arms?
  5. Some people have argued that the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to ICAN was simply a political move in response to current events and that other, more significant peacebuilding efforts may have been overlooked in order for the committee to send a message to world leaders. What might be some arguments for and against the recognition of ICAN’s work?



Reading Two:
Concerned Citizens Respond to the Threat of Nuclear War

The government of North Korea has recently demonstrated that it now possesses viable nuclear weapons. In response, U.S. President Donald Trump stated that he is willing to "totally destroy North Korea;" he also tweeted, "Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely." This evolving situation has made the question of how to respond to the threat of nuclear war ever more relevant for the current generation.

How have people have addressed situations such as these in the past? There is a rich history of people forming social movements campaigns to oppose the spread of nuclear weapons.

In a May 26, 2015 article for Waging Nonviolence, Duncan Meisel, a climate activist and writer, described how the anti–nuclear movement experienced a major surge in the United States in the 1980s:

Following Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, the global anti–nuclear movement... stood up to a global existential crisis — one that was... driven by a wealthy power elite, backed by faulty science and a feckless liberal establishment that failed to mobilize against a massive threat. The movement responded with new ideas and unprecedented numbers to help lead the world towards de–escalation and an end to the Cold War.

Under the banner of the Nuclear Freeze, millions of people helped pull the planet from the brink of nuclear war, setting off the most decisive political changes of the past half century...

In 1979, at the third annual meeting of Mobilization for Survival, a scientist and activist named Randall Forsberg introduced an idea that would transform the anti–nuclear weapons movement. She called for a bilateral freeze in new nuclear weapons construction, backed by both the United States and the Soviet Union, as a first step towards complete disarmament.

Shortly afterwards, she drafted a four–page "Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race" and worked with fellow activists to draft a four–year plan of action that would move from broad–based education and organizing into decisive action in Washington, D.C.

The concept of a "Nuclear Freeze" proved popular with grassroots organizations. Working at the city and state levels, local advocates turned a series of ballot initiatives into the largest drive to oppose nuclear weapons that the country had ever seen. As Meisel adds:

The movement also advanced along other roads: In June 1982, they held the largest rally in U.S. history up to that point, with somewhere between 750,000 and 1 million people gathering in New York City’s Central Park, along with countless other endorsements from labor, faith and progressive groups of all stripes. Direct action campaigns against test sites and nuclear labs also brought the message into the heart of the military industrial complex.

The effort continued into electoral and other political waters until around early 1985, pushing peace measures at the ballot box and in the nation’s capital, but never quite returned to the peak of mobilization seen in 1982.

Not only did the Nuclear Freeze movement attract broad popular support, it got the attention of politicians, all the way up to President Ronald Reagan. Reagan had been a champion for a nuclear weapons buildup. When faced with the freeze movement, he and his staff were forced to spend significant time and energy to defend their position. In a December 5, 2010 article for Arms Control Association, professor and author Lawrence S. Wittner wrote:

Superficially, the Reagan administration managed to hold the line against the freeze campaign and other critics of its nuclear policies. Although the administration failed in its diligent efforts to prevent passage of almost all the state and local freeze referenda in the fall of 1982 and to prevent passage of a freeze resolution in the House of Representatives in the spring of 1983, it did manage to defeat a similar resolution in the Senate, where Republicans had a majority. Furthermore, despite adoption of the freeze proposal by the Democrats in 1984, Reagan won re–election that year and then saw to it that a bilateral freeze with the Soviet Union was never negotiated...

Nevertheless, the Nuclear Freeze campaign was considerably more successful than it appeared. Under enormous political pressure, the Reagan administration dramatically reversed its rhetoric. In April 1982, shortly after the freeze resolution was introduced in Congress, Reagan began declaring publicly and repeatedly that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought." He added, on the first occasion that, "[t]o those who protest against nuclear war, I can only say: I’m with you.’" Increasingly rattled, Reagan, who had opposed every nuclear arms control and disarmament agreement negotiated by his Democratic and Republican predecessors, also began reversing his nuclear policies...

Starting in March 1985, he found [a Soviet negotiating partner] in Mikhail Gorbachev... Meeting frequently with leaders of the Western peace and disarmament movement, including leaders of the freeze campaign, Gorbachev followed their advice by agreeing to the removal of medium–range nuclear missiles from Europe, removing short–range nuclear missiles from Eastern Europe, negotiating major reductions in strategic weapons, and unilaterally halting Soviet nuclear testing....

The success of the freeze movement and its anti–nuclear counterparts of the era provides an important lesson for our own time. If substantial popular pressure can be stirred up by advocates of arms control and disarmament, government officials can be convinced to change their nuclear policies.


The question of how to respond to continuing nuclear threats will remain a live one in the coming years. Yet knowing the history of how citizens have mobilized in the past can provide an important guide for future action.



For Discussion

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  2. According to the reading, what was the "Nuclear Freeze" movement? What were its goals, and how did anti–nuclear advocates go about accomplishing those goals?
  3. According to the reading, how did President Reagan position himself on nuclear arms shift?
  4. Are you concerned about the threat of nuclear weapons? Why, or why not?
  5. There are many social movements these days seeking to alter politics in the U.S. and around the world. The Nuclear Freeze movement was able to engage more than a third of the country in ballot initiatives. Are there any tactics or strategies from the Nuclear Freeze movement that you think might be applicable to today’s causes? Which stand out to you?


–– Research assistance provided by Ryan Leitner