A NEW ERA BEGAN ON AUGUST 1, 1988, the day when nuclear weapons systems were first destroyed under a treaty to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons
As a trade unionist, I view the Intermediate Nuclear Weapons Agreement (INF) as the equivalent of a first collective agreement in union bargaining. It doesn't solve all the problems of the parties who sign it but it provides a path. Like such a contract, if the treaty is honored it will lead to further agreement with mutually beneficial conflict management between the parties.
It was my privilege to witness first-hand the historic destruction of the first four SS-12 missiles. The Soviet Peace Committee had asked the Soviet government to invite peace activists from around the world. David Kraft of the Canadian Peace Alliance and I, representing the Canadian Peace Congress, were the delegates from Canada, along with representatives of 18 other nations, mostly from Western Europe and North America. We were flown from Montréal to Moscow to Alma Ata, the capital of the Kazakhstan Soviet Republic, then to Taldy Kurgan,the closest airport to Saryozek. At the city hall, the international delegation was greeted by about 2000 local citizens of Taldy Kurgan, filling the courtyard. As our convoy of buses drove to the base, farmers stopped work and came to the roadside to wave at us.
Kazakhstan is the site of the Soviet nuclear weapons testing facility. These tests worry many local citizens. The long term health risks are, at best, uncertain, and there is a great desire to see all weapons testing ended.
Concern was also expressed about the destruction of the missiles themselves -- that harmful chemicals might be released by burning the rocket motors. I think this is why the Soviet chose to blow the missiles up with conventional explosives; it is less harmful to the environment.
When we reached the destruction base we were allowed to climb all over the missiles to photograph them and to ask questions of the base commander, Colonel Petrenko, who had served 35 years in the Soviet military -- twenty of them in the missile forces. Now he was the first base commander of a facility dedicated to destroying missiles. Saryozek was originally a missile base for weapons targeted on China and general crew training. Now it will be the site of destruction of all the INF missiles. Colonel Petrenko hopes for further treaties that will keep him and his men busy destroying weapons. The military is hustling to find a role in the peace process. The colonel told an audience that he wished that this agreement had been reached twenty years ago and that the sacrifice and labor of perfecting the weapons had gone into projects that could endure.
The Kazakhstan Peace Committee had established a peace camp next to the compound of pink quonset huts that housed the cool, professional observers from the United States government. I asked several of them their opinion of Soviet compliance and whether they were satisfied with their reception by the Soviets. They all replied that the Soviets were complying with both the letter and the spirit of the INF treaty.
BETWEEN OUR briefings and the time of the destruction, we visited yurts, the traditional tents of the Kayak people, where we sampled Kayak delicacies, including an amazing marinated cherry pie. Entertainers treated us to songs and dances. My sense of the surreal was struck by a Mongolian tenor in full evening dress singing Verdi on the steppes of Asia.
Climbing a hill, we looked across a valley at the control bunker where the Soviets and Americans were readying themselves. A helicopter patrolled the area two kilometres away, where each missile lay on top of 250 kilograms of explosives. Countdown. A glowing blossom of orange and black grew into a mushroom cloud and then the pressure wave and then, boom. With that the first four missiles were reduced to shreds. There were 1,264 more to go -- on this treaty. A slogan went out from the World Peace Council after the announcement of the INF: Don't Stop Now!
Peace activists must redouble their activities and governments must expand on this breakthrough, with more and wider agreements. The politics of peace, like the politics of labor, are not spectator sports. We must act to keep our goals on the agendas of these governments.A nuclear weapons free world by the year 2000 is achievable if we don't stop now. .
Bill Thompson is with the Canadian Labour Congress.