Nuclear Disarmament 1979 – 1989
I entered kindergarten in the fall of 1962. Air raid drills were a regular part of my early schooling. Once a month the entire K-6 school would file into the hallway to prostrate on the hard linoleum floor, our heads bowed and covered against the elementary schools block walls. After the all clear was sounded, we would march back into our classrooms. I wouldn’t actually learn about the Cuban Missile Crisis until many years later, but I must have heard adults talk about it back then. At a very early age I already grasped the apocalyptic threat of nuclear war and the futility of our monthly duck and cover drills.
Images of war were frequently present in my early school years. One of the few books in our living room was a two-volume, over-sized, abridged version of Winston Churchill’s History of the Second World War illustrated by Time Life with hundreds of photographs, maps, and images of the soldiers, the machinery, the territory, the politicians, and the carnage of that terrible war. The book ended with images of Nazi death camps and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Images of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Anti-War movement were fed to me in a daily dose of news provided by Walter Cronkite. This half-hour ritual united my family in front of the television with millions of other American families at the same time and the same station.
By the time that I graduated from college in 1979, I knew a lot more about the world and the dangers of nuclear war. I organized a Disarmament Teach-In during my last semester at Middlebury. A research internship followed at the Center for Defense Information in Washington, D.C. and eventually I was hired as the Disarmament Program Coordinator by the Friends Peace Committee in Philadelphia.
Within my first weeks in Philadelphia, Daniel and Phil Berrigan and six others broke into a General Electric nuclear missile facility outside of Philadelphia. I spent much of my first year coordinating daily support work for the Plowshares Eight outside the courthouse. My cohorts were gray-haired Quakers, radical Catholics, veterans of the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements, and engaged scientists and physicians who understood the unique scope of the dangers presented by the arms race.
These were heady times for a peripatetic young man. I created leaflets and newsletters. I spoke at schools and churches. I organized vigils. Participated in street theater and numerous marches.
In 1981, I attended a small meeting in Washington, D.C. at which the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign was founded and went on to serve as the co-director of the Pennsylvania Freeze. I instigated City Council Hearings critical of Philadelphia’s civil defense efforts. I participate in a number of civil disobedience actions including a brief stint as a “War Tax Resister.” I was arrested with three others for interrupting a speech by President Reagan at the Philadelphia World Affairs Council, an action that resulted in my image being broadcasted on ABC, NBC, and CBS along with a dramatic front-page photo in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
In 1982, I organized an Interfaith Witness to Stop the Nuclear Arms Race, which involved all of the Protestant judicatories, the Catholic Archdioceses, and the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia. The event began with a candle-light procession from different houses of worship in Olde City and ended with a rally 20,000 strong at Independence Mall.
In June of 1982 I helped organize public protest in New York City on the occasion of the Second United Nations Special Session on Disarmament. Over one million people, the largest demonstration in the history of the United States, marched from the United Nations to a rally a Central Park. The following Monday I participated along with 2000 others in nonviolent civil disobedience actions at the seven missions of nations holding nuclear weapons.
About the same time, I received an invitation to work with Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienst (Action Reconciliation/Service for Peace) in West Berlin. ASF was founded by the remnants of Dietrich Bönhoffer’s Bekennende Kirche to do reconciliation work in countries that were victimized by the Nazis. ASF played an central role in the European Disarmament movement which was mobilizing against the deployment of new Pershing, Cruise, and SS20 short-ranged nuclear missiles in Europe on hair-trigger alert. I was hired to coordinate the selection, training, and placement of the U.S. volunteers and support the disarmament activities of ASF as possible. This included frequent visits with independent Church activists in East Germany, speaking as a representative of the American peace movement at various events, and support work for the massive October 1983 demonstration in Bonn.
The core ASF work involved helping lead a five-week training for the new volunteers. The focus was on the history of the Second World War and its meaning for the young Germans today. We spent ten-days in Poland as part of this training, including an extended visit at Auschwitz (March & September 1983). The only accommodations in Oświęcim were at the former SS barracks next to Stammlager. In the morning we helped maintain the museum and grounds. In the afternoons, we toured Birkenau and conducted research in the archives, located in the former home of Commandant Rudolp Höss. For me and many others, the specter of nuclear war hung over the palatable horror of the most notorious Nazi death camp.
Nine-months later I was a new father and back in Philadelphia. Having children (Maisy b. 1984 and Gillian b. 1986) in the face of these monstrosities was itself a kind of protest against hopelessness of the world. Having spent so much time in East Germany and Poland, I was convinced of the necessity of citizen diplomacy. I enrolled in Middlebury College’s Russian summer language school. My fellow-students and I referred to the nine-week intensive immersion program as “the Gulag.” I would travel to the Soviet Union with a Quaker group in 1985 and organized a Sister-Cities delegation to Leningrad in 1986. In the fall of 1986 I provided support work for the Great Peace March’s visit to Philadelphia and walked with my young faimly the rest of the way with them to Washington, D.C.
In August and September 1987, I was an official observer at the Olaf Palme March for a Nuclear Weapons Free Corridor in Central Europe, participating in events in Munich, East Berlin, Dresden, and Leipzig. The article I wrote at that time expose much of the ferment that would soon result in the collapse of the Berlin Wall (1989).
At this point, Reagan and Gorbachev were negotiating deep reductions in nuclear weapons (along with modernizations) and I was turning my attention to community organizing in Germantown, Philadelphia.
While the threat of a major nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union is no longer, at some point a major city will likely be blown up in a terrorist attack. An existential threat to Israel, India, or Pakistan could provoke a larger and more destructive exchange of nuclear bombs. We can’t put this genie back in the bottle, so it is vital that leaders and citizens alike understand the unique dangers involved in nuclear competition. We need to strengthen the Nonproliferation Treaty and as the strongest military power in the world, the United States should lead the way by example in reducing its stockpiles.