Courage in Vienna

By Ward Wilson.

Ward Wilson

What do a retired American air force general, an elderly woman from Japan, the granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi, an author of an international bestseller, and 600 hundred people who traveled to Vienna from around the world have in common? They all gathered this weekend in Vienna at a conference organized in part by the Austrian affiliate of ICAN (the international campaign to abolish nuclear weapons) to discuss their concern about nuclear weapons. Some people seem to feel that since the Cold War is over, nuclear weapons no longer matter (some even believe they no longer exist). But the more than 600 members of civil society that gathered this weekend concluded that the risks are far greater than the complacent believe, and that the time for a ban on these dangerous weapons is now.

Eröffnung Fischer

Setsuko Thurlow, a survivor of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, spoke movingly about what it was like see the destruction, to survive, and to witness her sisters and family dying from mysterious radiation poisoning in the following weeks. The foreign minister of the Marshall Islands talked simply and honestly about the incredible costs that the people who live on those islands have paid for the years of nuclear testing that were done there. Even today babies are born with birth defects. The poison that nuclear weapons tests left behind tore the fabric of their society in a way that they will never forget. Their lawsuit in the International Court of Justice is less a legal matter, than an attempt to register their sense that a terrible injustice has been done.

But the conference was not only about emotion. It was also, tellingly, a conference that was filled with facts. Eric Schlosser, author of the international best-seller, Command and Control, a book about the many near misses and accidents that the world has had with nuclear weapons, closed the first evening with a dramatic, hair-raising narrative of the various times when the world came within inches of further nuclear destruction. The nuclear enterprise is too complicated and the costs of failure too catastrophic, he said, for us to continue this way forever. He closed his talk with a call for a robust, international, inclusive movement to ban nuclear weapons.

It was a theme echoed by Lee Butler, an American four-star Air Force general and the first commander of STRATCOM, the combined command of all U.S. nuclear forces, who gave a speech by video. It is an impressive and thought-provoking experience to have the former commander of all U.S. nuclear forces talk, in a sober and factual way, about the necessity of doing away with nuclear weapons. Standing in his library, Butler talked about the fact that many people who believe in nuclear weapons are sincere and well-meaning. It will be important to include those with doubts, he said. An anti-nuclear movement must include the most liberal peace advocates on the one hand with those in the military establishment who believe in defending their nation but have serious doubts about nuclear weapons on the other.

This civil society meeting was in preparation for the two-day meeting of government representatives that is still going on in the Hofburg Palace today. Nearly 160 governments have sent representatives to that meeting, including the United States and the United Kingdom. The attendees of ICAN hope to convince the governments that have sent delegates to the official conference that nuclear weapons are real problem, a pressing problem, one that must be dealt with now.

The theme of the ICAN conference was courage. Again and again the participants talked about the difference in the sense about nuclear weapons. Once we all thought they were the most powerful weapons on earth, able to do almost anything. Today—it was emphasized at the ICAN conference— nuclear weapons are clearly a hollow man: dangerous and powerful but not able to deliver meaningful security. There is a moment with international movements when the desire for something changes into the belief that it actually can happen. Participants at the conference talked about their feeling that this most difficult problem, this dilemma that has seemed to be insoluble for so long, actually can be solved, that the goal actually is within reach. For many years it has been the assumption that progress on this issue could only come from Washignton or Moscow or, perhaps, Beijing. But the ICAN conference attendees felt that it is time for all states to assume responsibility for this issue. If states want to ban the weapons, they can. It is not necessary to wait for some future time or for some other group of states to participate.

Belief in nuclear weapons, and in nuclear deterrence, is based in fear. Belief in the possibility of banning nuclear weapons is based in courage. What was striking about the ICAN conference was that the feeling of hope and determination that was present at the beginning had grown exponentially by the end. Courage, particularly a broad and inclusive courage, can change the world.