Main arguments of this post:

1- Now is a particularly effective time to work to prevent nuclear war for two reasons. First, the war in Ukraine is bringing us closer to nuclear war than we have been at any moment since the Cuban Missile Crisis. And second, public attention to this issue is at its highest point in the past 40 years.

2- In the face of entrenched special interests that are committed to continuing current nuclear policy, we need a broad movement, similar to that which we built in the 1980’s, to bring about the fundamental change necessary to achieve the security of a world free of nuclear weapons.

3- Back from the Brink, with its extensive grass roots network, is uniquely positioned to promote this movement. 

Background

Although readers of this forum are well aware, it is nevertheless worth stating plainly: we are living through a planetary near-death experience. A handful of people have the power to destroy human civilization, while the rest of us are reduced to pleading with them not to do it. As former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara has observed, we have not survived this existentially dangerous situation because we have wise leaders, or sound military doctrine, or infallible technology.  “We lucked out. It was luck that prevented nuclear war.” The current policy of all 9 nuclear armed states is, at heart, nothing more than a hope for continued good luck.  This is an insane basis for global security policy.  If we don’t eliminate these weapons, sooner or later our luck will run out. And current great power tensions, the possibility of nuclear cyber terrorism, and the increased stress on global security arrangements caused by the climate crisis all suggest that our luck may abandon us much sooner than we had ever imagined.

The Back from the Brink campaign offers a way forward in this dire situation. The campaign began with actions taken by the leaders of one of the most successful organizations in this area – The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. IPPNW played a critical role in building the global anti-nuclear movement in the 1980’s and was instrumental in persuading Gorbachev and Reagan to end the Cold War arms race.  In 1983 the United States deployed Pershing missiles in Europe in order to be able to fight and “win” a nuclear war. IPPNW leaders met separately with the two Presidents and convinced them that none of the issues separating them were worth the devastation that such a war would cause. Less than two years later, they stunned the world with their famous statement that “Nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Tens of thousands of warheads were destroyed in the following years, but, unfortunately, the US and Soviet Union were not able to conclude an agreement to eliminate these weapons completely.

Now, at this moment of dramatically increased dangerBack from the Brink aims to finish the job, helping the US government understand that our security can only be achieved with the total elimination of nuclear weapons. The strategy is to build support among the public and government leaders in the US to initiate negotiations with the other eight nuclear armed states for a verifiable, enforceable, time bound agreement to eliminate their nuclear arsenals. This is not a utopian goal for the indefinite future. It is a practical necessity if we are going to survive.  We cannot know for certain that this effort will be successful, but we do know what will happen if it fails—so we have to try. 

Building enough power to disrupt and undermine the entrenched nuclear status status quo and fundamentally transform US nuclear weapons policy cannot be done in a silo. Accordingly, Back from the Brink will continue to build strong, mutually beneficial strategic relationships and alliances with individuals and organizations with whom we share common cause and concern, particularly groups and individuals working to confront the other existential threat to humanity - climate change.

Back from the Brink is modeled on the successful Nuclear Freeze Campaign of the 1980’s—seeking to win endorsement for its policy prescription from constituencies around the country, effectively creating a new national consensus of what US nuclear policy ought to be. 

A largely volunteer effort to date, the campaign has achieved remarkable success. It has secured resolutions in 60 municipalities including Washington DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Tucson, Salt Lake City, Portland, and Honolulu, and in 7 state legislative bodies—both houses of the California and Oregon legislature, the Maine and Rhode Island Senates and the New Jersey Assembly. It has been endorsed by over 400 civil society organizations including the Sierra Club, the NRDC, the United Church of Christ, Pax Christi, 350, the Hip Hop Caucus, The US Conference of Mayors, the Methodist Church, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Episcopal Church and the Federation of American Scientists. It has also been endorsed by over 300 local elected officials and prominent leaders like former Defense Secretary William Perry, former Secretary of State George Shultz, eminent Princeton physicist Frank von Hippel, Poor Peoples’ Campaign co-chair Rev. Liz Theoharis, Santa Fe Archbishop John Wester, The Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel, and acclaimed climate activist Bill McKibben. 

In June Representatives Jim McGovern and Earl Blumenauer introduced a resolution endorsing Back from the Brink in the US House. We are currently working to secure a companion resolution in the Senate.

The coalition is currently lead by a management team consisting of the former Executive Director of Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Associate Director of the Los Angeles Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, and the former Manager, Strategic Campaigns, Global Security Program, Union of Concerned Scientists. They report to a steering committee representing five of our Coalition Partner organizations. The campaign has created a network of 10 activist hubs in areas around the country that engage in sustained advocacy, media campaigns, and public education activities.

What's next?

In the next 18 months we want to extend the campaign by creating an additional 10 to 15 activist hubs, bringing an additional 200 civil society organizations into the coalition, and securing endorsements from another 20 to 30 municipalities including New York, Providence and Atlanta, six state legislative bodies, and 50 to 100 prominent leaders from academia, and the security, faith, scientific, labor, and business communities.  And we want to secure 100 co-sponsors for the Congressional resolution. We also plan to dialogue with Congressional and Presidential candidates. We believe that this will position us to make the Back from the Brink platform an issue in the 2024 election cycle and create a national conversation about the need to eliminate nuclear weapons that will require and empower leaders to take these urgently needed steps. 

In order to achieve these goals Back from the Brink needs to transition into a professionally staffed campaign.  We have just hired a ¾ time acting Campaign Coordinator and ¼ time development director. We plan to hire a full-time National Organizing & Outreach Director to manage the campaign’s growing network and a half time communications consultant.  To bring on this additional staff will require approximately $340K over the coming twelve months of which we have already raised $120K.

The campaign is designed to scale up quickly as more funds are available. If we raise money beyond the base line $340K we will hire Regional Organizers to work with the Outreach Director providing professional support for local volunteer activists.

Back from the Brink is soliciting funding from several foundations as well as individuals to reach its budget goals for calendar year 2022. 

What can you do?

You can donate here or by contacting us directly. If you are interested in volunteering to help build this campaign, please visit our website, or contact us directly at ihelfand@igc.org.

Nuclear weapons are not a force of nature over which we have no control. They are little machines that we have made with our own hands and we know how to take them apart. We must take advantage of the increased awareness of the nuclear danger to bring about fundamental change in nuclear policy and eliminate these weapons before they eliminate us.

 

Ira Helfand, MD

Member, Steering Committee, Back from the Brink

Member, International Steering Group, ICAN, the recipient of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize

Immediate Past President, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War,

         the recipient of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize

Co-Founder and Past President, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the US affiliate of IPPNW

 

Aaron Stupple, MD

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8 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:38 AM
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The danger of nuclear war is greater than it has ever been.

What is your argument for the risk now being higher than during the Cuban Missile Crisis, or similar incidents during the Cold War, or indeed than earlier this year?

It is the assessment of former Defense Secretary William Perry, and that assessment was also voiced last Tuesday by Richard Moore the head of MI6 the British Intelligence Service in a speech in Washington.  UN Secretary General Guterres offered the same assessment at the NPT Review Conference at the UN today.

In "The chance of accidental nuclear war has been going down" I argue in the section "Are we at the 'highest risk of nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis'?" that it is almost certainly not the case that nuclear risk is higher now than it was before.

That being said, the risk being the highest now is not a necessary belief for deciding to support work on reducing the risk from nukes.

Peter, as noted above, a number of key international experts feel the danger is the greatest it has been.  But your point is well taken:  even if it is not worse than during the Cold War it is unacceptably high and the Russian invasion of Ukraine has certainly increased the risk further.

Worthy goal.

I want there to be a lot more activity and discussion around this topic so I'm going to give some feedback and my guess as to why this post didn't get more interaction:

I don't see your current plans for coalition building resulting in making it a major part of the 2024 election cycle, nor creating  a national conversation,  much less requiring leaders to disarm.
I don't see anything new in your methods or tactics. How do you propose to overcome the benefits countries see in the military advantage? What convincing arguments and diplomacy do you plan to use? Is there some kind of agreement that is about to be drafted/signed?

To be fair this will require political power, cultural power, and diplomacy so the solution is going to look like what you are doing. But I don't understand why you think this will succeed when others have failed. Perhaps your swell of support is greater than it has ever been? I have no context to evaluate the long list of support you gave in your post. Forgive my ignorance, but is this a lot? Do they have a lot of power to control nuclear disarmament?

These are excellent questions.  We clearly have a long way to go to get the change in nuclear policy that we need.  We are facing an entrenched complex of special interests that benefit financially from the nuclear arms race, and an even more significant entrenched world view on the part of many that nuclear weapons somehow make the countries that have them more secure.

I am optimistic that we can bring about change because these are the same forces we confronted in the early 1980's when we called for a Freeze of the Cold War arms race and we were able to overcome them then.  The key to the success of that movement then was its ability to help people, and government leaders in the the US and the Soviet Union, understand what was actually going to happen if nuclear weapons were used, what the medical consequences would be.

Today there is a profound ignorance about nuclear weapons.  Young people have never been taught about them and older people have forgotten.  But that creates the opportunity that we need to seize.  If we can educate people about the medical consequences, that will, I believe, have the same impact today that it had in the 1980's.  Our experience in building international support for the Treaty on the Prohibition bears that out.  There was a profound skepticism at the beginning of that process a decade ago.  When we were able to focus the conversation on what the Red Cross called the "humanitarian impact", the entire conversation changed.

There will definitely be greater resistance among the leaders of the nuclear armed states.  But they too are capable of understanding the unacceptable risk they are running by their current nuclear policies.  Who, in 1983 would have thought that Ronald Reagan, then touting his plans to be able to "fight and win" a nuclear war in Europe, would a few short months later join Mikhail Gorbachev in declaring that "Nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought"

Why do I think we will succeed?  I don't know if we will.  I only know what is going to happen if we fail.  So it is really important that we try...

UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutterez said on August 1, 2022 "humanity is just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation." 

We must act now to do something to prevent this existential threat. 

He joins a growing list of world leaders who "get it" that we are heading, again, towards nuclear war.