Peace Magazine: Join the Campaign for a Nuclear-Free Future

Peace Magazine

Join the Campaign for a Nuclear-Free Future

By Ellen Thomas • published Jul 01, 2022 • last edit Jul 21, 2022

Perhaps the only good thing to come out of the Russia/ NATO/ Ukraine debacle is the fact that people are once again thinking and talking about nuclear weapons. Maybe this time it will lead to the only logical result: a world finally wise enough to recognize that we must eliminate ALL nuclear weapons to survive.

I’ve been actively working to abolish nuclear weapons since 1984. In 1989 we were excited when there was talk of a Peace Dividend. However, in 1990 George H.W. Bush prepared for war with Iraq. In 2021 we were once again excited when the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons entered into force. In 2022 all anybody wants to talk about is war with Russia in Ukraine. When will people get behind global nuclear abolition and conversion of the war economy to a carbon-free, nuclear-free, environmentally friendly economy, where everyone wins, and climate disasters subside?! When will people catch on to Proposition One?

Some Background

I’ve been dreading nuclear war since kindergarten in California, where we were taught to crawl under our desks and put our hands over the back of our necks. I asked my teacher why, and she said so we wouldn’t be cut by broken glass if we were bombed. I had seen images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in a Life Magazine at home, and this didn’t make any sense. I suspect it didn’t make sense to her, either.

Fast forward 30 years. I was in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1982, driving to work one day, when I saw a banner hanging over the freeway calling for a nuclear freeze. I learned that a million people flooded New York City to call for a freeze. I remember thinking a freeze on the production and testing of nuclear weapons didn’t go nearly far enough.

I found a flyer produced by Women Against Military Madness, a Minnessota offshoot of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom US, advertising an anti-nuclear rally in the local stadium, with Senator Durenberger to be a keynote speaker. At last here were people who thought like I did! I went to the rally, where only about 100 people were clustered in a place that could accommodate multiple thousands.

It occurred to me that what I wanted most to do with my life was help rid the world of nuclear weapons, and Minnesota was probably not the most logical place to achieve that goal. Washington DC, I thought, was.

So off I went in 1983, and found a job working for the National Wildlife Federation as assistant to the CEO. At the annual shareholders’ meeting in March,1984, a resolution was passed which read:

“Biological Consequences of Nuclear Conflict: Recent research has revealed that a full scale nuclear weapons exchange (5,000-10,000 megatons) would trigger not only devastating explosions, fires and radiation but equally or more damaging atmospheric and biological effects. The dust and soot injected into the atmosphere would plunge the northern hemisphere, and much of the southern, into darkness and extreme cold for several months to a few years…. The Federation urges the President of the United States to join with other world leaders to bring about verifiable treaties to totally eliminate nuclear weapons by the end of this decade.”

Now that made sense!

That same week, I walked down 16th Street NW to meet a friend at a restaurant near the White House, and noticed some very large signs on the south sidewalk of Lafayette Park. The largest was an 8’ x 12’ painting of a nuclear bomb explosion with the words superimposed, “REVELATION: THIS NEED NOT BE OUR END. IT’S UP TO YOU.” Within three weeks I had quit my job, given everything I owned that I couldn’t fit into a backpack to my 18 year old daughter, and joined the round-the-clock vigil for a world without nuclear weapons, “on strike till bombs are stopped.” And three weeks after that I married William Thomas, who had founded the vigil on June 3, 1981. I helped him maintain his vigil in every imaginable way for a quarter century before he died in January 2009. I personally was in front of the White House with a progression of anti-nuclear and pro-peace signs most days and/or nights from April 13, 1984 to December 8, 2002.

It was quite a challenge, as you can imagine. The police arrested me twice in June 1984 (and a few more times over the years). Thomas was arrested dozens of times. We were ridiculed by the Washington Times, physically attacked by the Young Americans for Freedom, and regulated by the Department of Interior, which reduced the size and number of signs we could have and required that we remain within three feet of our displays or lose them. We spent three months in federal prison in 1988, convicted of “camping.”

But we also had successes. We attracted idealistic young people, who fed the homeless, wrote and sang songs, built their own colorful peace signs, and charmed the public. Tour guides brought their groups by to see the First Amendment in action.

In 1986 we were joined by Dr. Charles Hyder, an astro-geophysicist from New Mexico who had proved that burying nuclear waste in salt mines was dangerous because the heat would melt the radioactive salt, which would rise to the surface. Dr. Hyder, who weighed 310 pounds when he began his vigil in September, fasted for months, losing 170 pounds by the time he ate again in May 1987. His fast became quite famous; he was visited by influential scientists and legislators, and received a letter from Mikhail Gorbachev encouraging him to eat. The Russians named a pass in the Ural Mountains after him. When he ended his fast, Dr. Hyder returned to New Mexico. We continued.

Proposition One: Let’s Vote!

During the fast we developed a petition to the US and then-USSR asking that they amend their constitutions to abolish nuclear weapons and transform the economy from weapons to human needs. We called the idea “Proposition One.”

We collected thousands of signatures from people all over the world. Each year we wrote a letter to the US Senators and Representatives, individually asking them to introduce Proposition One into Congress, hand-delivering the letters to every Congressional office. We never received a reply.

In 1989 we were joined by Joe Vigorito, who had been part of the successful Impeach Arizona Governor Mecham voter initiative campaign, launched because he refused to acknowledge the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

Joe told us we’d never get anywhere unless the petition became official. We thought, why not, it’s worth a try, since Washington DC has voter initiatives! So in 1990 we brought our idea to the DC Board of Elections, and after some tweaking, our idea was approved.

However, on January 17, 1991, George H.W. Bush launched the first Gulf War, and we were immediately involved, day and night, in a drumming campaign to stop the war. (See “The Ground War At Home,” a video about the 40 days and nights that people drummed, were arrested, and drummed some more until the war ended.)
So we told the Board of Elections that we would try again when the war was over.

In 1992, we again received approval from the Board of Elections, this time for the DC Initiative 37 campaign. And in September, 1993, 56% of DC’s voters approved the following language: INITIATIVE MEASURE NO. 37 “The Nuclear Disarmament and Economic Conversion Constitutional Amendment Proposal Act of 1992”

SUMMARY STATEMENT

This Initiative requires the Mayor to notify the District’s Congressional Delegate, in writing, that a majority of District voters request that the Delegate propose a Constitutional amendment directing the U.S. government to:

Abolish all nuclear warheads by the year 2000;

Pursue a good faith effort to eliminate war, armed conflict, and military operations;

Actively promote international peace and nuclear disarmament;

Convert weapons industries into constructive, ecologically beneficial peacetime industries; redirect those resources to meet human needs, including housing, healthcare, agriculture, education, and environment.

This amendment will become effective upon ratification of a comparable provision by the Commonwealth of Independent States” (which replaced the USSR).

There was almost no warning to the public that this initiative was on the ballot, other than some blue-and-white “Vote Yes on 37!” posters we put up all over town shortly before a special election in September 1992. One or two negative editorials appeared in the Washington Post and Washington Times. A very positive editorial in the Afro-American newspaper appeared a few days before the election. A popular radio talk show hostess invited DC’s Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton onto her program just before voting day.

Ms. Norton said she wouldn’t introduce a constitutional amendment if it passed. But voters exiting polling stations were heard to comment, “How could you vote against it?” And after it passed, she agreed to meet with us, and explained that she would be a laughingstock to her colleagues if she were to introduce a constitutional amendment. So we suggested that she introduce a bill instead. And she did, in 1994, and every two-year session since.

Over the years the language has evolved, first to add carbon-free, nuclear-free energy to the list of conversion options, and in 2017 to include the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The current bill is HR-2850, which expires at the end of 2022:

“In general —The United States Government shall—

(1) provide leadership by signing and ratifying the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons or any other international agreement that provides for—
(A) the dismantlement and elimination of all nuclear weapons in every country; and
(B) strict and effective international control of such dismantlement and elimination;
(2) redirect resources that are being used for nuclear weapons programs to use—
(A) in converting all nuclear weapons industry processes, plants, and programs, and in retraining employees, to shift to a constructive, ecologically beneficial peace economy, which includes strict control of all fissile material and radioactive waste; and
(B) in addressing human and infrastructure needs, including development and deployment of sustainable carbon-free and nuclear-free energy sources, health care, housing, education, agriculture, and environmental restoration, including long-term radioactive waste monitoring; and
(3) actively promote policies to induce all other countries to join in the commitments described in this subsection to create a more peaceful and secure world.”

HR-2850 has eleven co-sponsors so far this session. Each session the bill has been assigned to the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees, but never, in the past 28 years, has it been sent to the floor for debate and vote. This needs to change!

Readers, wherever you live, please consider using voter initiatives to help convince your politicians to do what they should to support the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and to create carbon-free, nuclear-free, weapons-free economies!

Please, act NOW … for the children! (I can be reached by email at et@prop1.org if you have any questions. See http://prop1.org for details.)

Published in Peace Magazine Vol.38, No.3: Jul-Sep 2022
Archival link: http://www.peacemagazine.org/archive/v38n3p32.htm
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