Michael KreponThe Fourth Wave

Lyric of the week:

Standing in the middle of nowhere
Wondering how to begin
Lost between tomorrow and yesterday
Between now and then

And now we’re back where we started
Here we go round again
Day after day I get up and I say
I better do it again”

— The Kinks, “Do It Again”

We are now being carried forward and lending propulsion to a fourth wave of popular and expert opposition to rising nuclear dangers. This wave has gained strength from the Trump administration’s announcement of its intent to withdraw from a treaty banning intermediate-range missiles. Donald Trump and John Bolton may well seek to withdraw from controls over longer-range missiles, as well. In this event restraints on missiles and the warheads they could carry would either be tacit and informal or nonexistent. Domestic political and economic factors could well be restraining factors in the absence of treaties. The Kremlin doesn’t need to concern itself so much with the former; the latter will weigh more heavily on Moscow than on Washington.

Every action governing nuclear weapons generates a counter-reaction. Conditions are building to push back against those who prize freedom of action over nuclear treaty constraints and who seek to jettison onsite inspections and other cooperative monitoring techniques that have proven their worth over the past three decades. The more Trump, Bolton and treaty trashers on Capitol Hill succeed, the more alternative ways and means to reduce nuclear dangers and weapons become necessary.

There’s a history of popular activism against nuclear dangers and it’s repeating itself. The stakes are high as the nuclear safety net is being shredded. This safety net was woven by previous generations and waves of public activity.

The previous three waves accomplished much, thanks to the efforts of scientists, political leaders, academics, physicians, activists and concerned citizens. Newly created nongovernmental organizations helped build momentum to stop dangerous military practices and to support steps to reduce nuclear dangers. The fourth wave shares traits from earlier ones, but has some distinct features. Previously, opportunities were present alongside dangers. This time around, dangers are very evident while opportunities seem distant. New streams of talent are being energized and new means of public engagement are in play.

The first wave of talent and energy to tackle the dangers posed by nuclear weapons appeared alongside the Bomb’s unveiling. This wave was led by some of the atomic scientists who took part in the Manhattan Project who gained great reknown from their efforts. They were, after all, brainiacs who knew deep, dark secrets. The public trusted their expertise and yet feared what they accomplished.

Some of these scientists served as privileged government advisers who helped craft ambitious plans for the international control of atomic energy. A new nongovernmental organization, the Federation of (Atomic, then renamed) American Scientists, was formed. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists broadcast expert concerns. Some aimed even higher. A World Federalist Movement gained many adherents. This wave crested quickly. High hopes were extinguished when an iron curtain descended upon Europe. Neutral and nonaligned states watched helplessly as power centers divided into two armed camps and nuclear stockpiles were presumed to grow exponentially. As chronicled by Lawrence S. Wittner’s books —  condensed in his Confronting the Bomb (2009) — the World Federalist Movement in the United States lost half of its membership in 1951.

The second wave was the longest in duration and accomplished a great deal. It gained propulsion from the top down and from the bottom up. This wave began in the late 1950s in opposition to atmospheric nuclear tests. A new NGO, the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy was created in 1957 to channel and amplify public revulsion against testing. The American Friends Service Committee lent its support and moral authority. Renowned scientists were once again crucial in wave building by highlighting the public health hazards of atmospheric tests. This wave helped establish conditions for a moratorium on nuclear testing in 1958, and gained more strength after the harrowing nuclear crisis over Cuba, after which a treaty banning atmospheric testing was signed by the United States, the USSR, and Great Britain.

Even before the Cuban missile crisis, high-powered strategic analysts, academics and scientists gathered to conceptualize how to control the superpower nuclear arms competition. Some joined the Kennedy administration to practice what they preached. One key condition for success, they argued, was that controls required the mutual acceptance of national vulnerability — a concept that was initially beyond the pale in the Kremlin, and that seemed unwise to many in the United States on moral and strategic grounds.

In the early 1960s the Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Women Strike for Peace and the Council for a Livable World were established to help mobilize support for the task of controlling nuclear arms. An extraordinary national debate played out over proposals for a dozen missile defense deployment sites proposed by President Nixon (down from seventeen proposed by President Johnson), as well as on the wisdom of placing multiple warheads atop ballistic missiles, a technology that was maturing around the same time. The Arms Control Association opened for business in 1971 to generate public support for treaty making. Its magazine, Arms Control Today, has been an invaluable resource ever since.

Former government officials, prominent academics and scientists played key roles in these debates, as did public opposition around some of the proposed missile defense sites. Members of Congress participated actively in lengthy, in-depth hearings over missile defenses and MIRVs. Presidential aspirants felt obliged to be conversant and vocal on these issues. The outcome of the first Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, for better and for worse, reflected the state of play on Capitol Hill and inside the Pentagon: strict limits on national missile defenses while MIRVs ran free. The SALT I agreements were approved overwhelmingly by the Congress, after which the second wave subsided.

The third wave was of short duration but extremely powerful. It coincided with the election of Ronald Reagan, whose administration was stocked with vocal opponents of arms control as well as with seasoned practitioners in the arts of bureaucratic infighting and nuclear negotiations. The outlook for treaty making appeared dim. President Carter’s ambitious arms control agenda lay in tatters. Nearly everyone expected that Reagan, who predicted before an audience of evangelicals that the Soviet Union would wind up on the ash heap of history, would be an ardent advocate of nuclear weapons to go along with his virulent anti-communism. His Secretary of Defense clarified that the unvarnished goal of a nuclear war would be victory. In this context, Reagan’s embrace of the Strategic Defense Initiative, quickly dubbed “Star Wars” by foes, seemed ominously purposeful — perfectly suited for blocking deals. While space-based intercepts would be extremely expensive and technologically challenging, this concept scared the living bejeesus out of the Kremlin.

In response, the Physicians for Social Responsibility and SANE revived and expanded their memberships. A Nuclear Freeze Movement gained great traction. Ground Zero, a public education movement, grew quickly. WAND — Women’s Action for New Directions — was established in 1982. Religious leaders led by the Catholic Bishops weighed in.

The prospect of “Star Wars” provided dealmakers in the Reagan administration significant leverage over the Kremlin if they could swing the President over to their side. Eminent persons from past administrations worked in concert with new and battle tested NGOs, mobilizing Washington-based and grassroots campaigns. This wave crested when President Reagan revealed himself to be an ardent abolitionist and when Mikhail Gorbachev proved to be the Soviet leader to end all Soviet leaders. Dealmakers triumphed, a treaty eliminating intermediate- and lesser range missiles was finalized and “Star Wars” was grounded.

The end of the Cold War proved to be a fertile time for new NGO startups, including the Stimson Center (1989), the Nuclear Threat Initiative (2001) and Global Zero (2008). Wave building didn’t happen during the Clinton and Obama administrations because decision-making seemed to be in reasonably good hands and “classical” nuclear nightmares appeared remote. And besides, there was little to be up in arms against. The need of the hour was to secure nuclear weapons and fissile material in the former Soviet Union.

There were, however, battles to be waged during the Clinton administration when Stimson used its convening powers to help NGOs secure the indefinite extension of the Nonproliferation Treaty, the Senate’s consent to ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention and the negotiation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. During the Obama administration, the Arms Control Association helped lead the charge to mobilize NGOs and eminent persons in support of the Iran nuclear deal and New START’s modest but useful reductions. At least to me, these felt like individual battles rather than a wave because key conditions for wave building were absent: there was no sense of impending doom or deep concern over presidential instincts and the President’s choice of advisers.

Then conditions changed dramatically with Donald Trump’s surprise election. Trump personified the dangers of having just one individual’s finger on the nuclear “button” without constitutional or procedural checks and balances. The fourth wave built when Trump walked away from the Iran nuclear deal, then gained more momentum when Trump, finding John Bolton’s arguments persuasive, announced his intent to withdraw from the INF Treaty.

In this high stakes situation, as before, new talent and energy is gravitating to efforts to reduce nuclear dangers in meaningful ways. “No First Use” has become more of a rallying cry. New grass roots organizations employing social media to powerful effect like MoveOn and Indivisible  are joining the barricades. ReThink Media is becoming a force for messaging. Outfits such as Beyond the Bomb, Win Without War and Peace Action are responding to the challenge. Ploughshares has geared up. This wave draws more propulsion from women than in previous campaigns.

The Fourth Wave is different in other important respects. Eminent persons from the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter and George H.W. Bush administrations who were instrumental in validating previous waves are now mostly gone now. The shoes of outsized figures on Capitol Hill that helped greatly to realize previous achievements will be hard to fill, but incoming House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith and others will do their level best. And as mentioned earlier, this wave unlike previous ones, is focused on opposition without the likelihood of meaningful gains. There is, as yet, no central organizing principle to measure achievement, nor are objectives within reach comparable to the end of atmospheric testing or the ABM Treaty.

No matter: It’s time to man and woman up. Even small victories can still be important if they prolong existing constraints and cooperative verification measures while a new strategy and better outcomes can be achieved. Two big questions remain unanswered: What are we for? And what do we call it? The strength of the fourth wave depends, in part, on finding persuasive answers to these questions.


  1. eciwons (History)

    The report on the parliamentary inquiry about Sweden joining the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has been presented, and it comes with a 20 pages long executive summary in English about why its probably best to be outside even while disarmament is an explicit goal.