By Alastair Boone & Sarah Holder, Citylab, 26 March 2018
Some cities and states are taking their own initiative to protect the world from a U.S. trigger finger. And they’re mostly led by women.
Dropping an atomic bomb doesn’t happen as fast as it does in the movies. There’s no room with a red, shiny “nuclear button” primed for the pressing. But in the U.S., launching a nuclear weapon does depend on just one trigger finger: The President’s.
Peace builders, activists, and congressional leaders have tried unsuccessfully to take away this unilateral ability since the Cold War, when nuclear war with Russia felt imminent daily. Now, the threat looms again, as tensions between North Korea and the U.S. simmer—and a new group of local legislators are taking the lead.
A broad coalition of representatives, delegates, and state senators from eight states (California, Georgia, Vermont, Maryland, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Iowa) have begun pushing resolutionsthat put additional pressure on Congress to stop the president’s first-strike powers. And cities such as Northampton, Massachusetts; San Francisco, California; Santa Fe, New Mexico; and counties across Washington State have drafted local resolutions of their own.
Out of the sprawling body of 20th century peace activists like Randall emerged Women’s Action for Nuclear Disarmament, which eventually became Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND). Founded by physician Helen Caldicott in 1982, during the height of the Cold War, the group’s purpose was to bring women into the discussion about nuclear weapons. As it grew, WAND formed a political arm, to support—and lobby for—women in politics. And now, Caldicott says, their mission is more urgent than ever.
The U.S. government uses explicit checks and balances to control almost every other presidential move. But taking “first nuclear action”—that is, launching an offensive missile, not a defensive one—is purposely designed to be less sticky. There are human checkpoints in place—a short Pentagon meeting is called and a “challenge code” must be read by a senior military official—but the possibility of mutiny is unlikely.
“Change has to happen at the federal level, but states can look at where testing is being held, where weapons are being stored…and making sure people are aware of what to do [if anything happens],” said Pam Queen, a Maryland Delegate sponsoring a resolution that supports Lieu and Markey’s bill. “Unless you grew up in the 60s and you went through drills in school, this has not been in your thought process. That’s a new awareness that we’re seeing at state and local levels.”
After college, Queen worked in a lab with the Johns Hopkins scientists who developed the Poseidon and Trident missiles. “I know first hand what our nuclear weapons can do,” she said. That’s why now, she is working to keep missiles on the ground: Queen is one of more than 100 legislators and activists who attended WAND’s biennial three-day conference, which invites female lawmakers and activists to discuss a variety of topics, ranging from Pentagon spending, to nuclear disarmament, to how to use effective communication to push for policy change. After the October 2017 conference, many legislators were inspired to draft parallel resolutions: All eight of the state resolutions were sponsored and introduced between January and March 2018.
What he didn’t know was that Klein, too, had a background in peace-building, and a deep knowledge of nuclear weaponry. After growing up in Israel, Klein served in the Israeli army and was stationed in the city of Dimona, home to the Negev Nuclear Research Center and Israel’s “quasi-secret nuclear arsenal,” she says. “It really seeped into my consciousness at that point.” She went on to graduate school at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, where she focused on the Middle East and weapons of mass destruction. Helfand’s proposal excited her, and she introduced it to her council in November 2017.
Northampton, a tiny town in Massachusetts, doesn’t fit the expected profile of a locus for nuclear resistance. “We have had some tension over the years on the Northampton city council when we pass resolutions that have a national focus or an international focus,” said Klein. “Some of the councilors raised their eyebrows like, ‘This is above my pay grade, this isn’t relevant, we need to make sure we draft the budget and fill the potholes.’” This time, though, the resolution passed unanimously.
But with someone like Trump in the White House—threatening fire and fury on Twitter—legislators say these resolutions have taken on a heightened urgency. “[Why isn’t] Congress saying, ‘We’re not going to let any individual single-handedly move the United States into nuclear conflict’?” said Illinois Representative Carol Ammons, whose resolution is still in its drafting stages. “I’m looking for that statement.” Their statement has yet to come. In the meantime, research says that women such as the legislators rallying for change are the right people for the job.
Advocates acknowledge that stopping nuclear war concerns all people, regardless of gender or sex. “This is not a man’s issue, it’s a human issue,” said Nancy Parrish, the executive director of WAND. “But we have research and studies that prove that we are much more likely to achieve peace, and a sustainable peace, when women are in the discussions and in the negotiations.” According to data reported by UN Women, when women are included in peace processes, there is a 20 percent bump in the chance an agreement will last two years, and a 35 percent increase in the chance that it will last at least 15 years.
“It was very much a deliberate approach to have women lead these endeavors,” said Queen. “We can be strong without having to use brute force.”
Originally published: https://www.citylab.com/equity/2018/03/nuclear-disarmament-women/555854/