Women Versus the Bomb

In 1729, the Irish satirist Jonathan Swift made “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick.” There was, Swift’s imperialist Protestant persona reasoned, a “fair, cheap and easy method” for profitably disposing of the babies of impoverished Catholics: feed them up, “plump, and fat” for a “good trade” to “persons of Quality,” the rich paying well for “delicious, nourishing, and wholesome Food, whether Stewed, Roasted, Baked, or Boyled” (though one should also consider “a Fricasie, or Ragoust”).

Rebecca Johnson

Rebecca Johnson

In 1981, Harvard Law Professor Roger Fisher proposed an equally immodest means of ‘Preventing Nuclear War’. Writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Fisher envisaged a US President “considering nuclear war as an abstract question. He might conclude: ‘On SIOP Plan One, the decision is affirmative. Communicate the Alpha Line XYZ.’ Such jargon holds what is involved at a distance.” (‘SIOP’ was America’s ‘Single Integrated Operational Plan’ for nuclear war, regularly updated by the United States from 1961 to 2003; it is now known as ‘OPLAN 8010-12.’

“My suggestion,” Fisher deadpanned, is “quite simple”:

Put that needed code number in a little capsule, and then implant that capsule right next to the heart of a volunteer. The volunteer would carry with him a big, heavy butcher knife as he accompanied the president. If ever the president wanted to fire nuclear weapons, the only way he could do so would be for him first, with his own hands, to kill one human being. The president says, ‘George, I’m sorry, but tens of millions must die.’ He has to look at someone and realize what death is – what an innocent death is. Blood on the White House carpet. It’s reality brought home.

“When I suggested this to friends in the Pentagon,” Fisher recalled, “they said, ‘My God, that’s terrible! Having to kill someone would distort the President’s judgement. He might never push the button!’”


The bureaucratic and technical sterilization of the unthinkable – dehumanization in the name of modest ‘objectivity’ – has long been a stock-in-trade of nuclear ‘defense intellectuals,’ a defining characteristic memorably analyzed by Carol Cohn in her June 1987 article, also in the Bulletin, ‘SLICK ’EMS, GLICK ’EMS, Christmas Trees, and Cookie Cutters: Nuclear Language and How We Learned to Pat the Bomb.’ The title alone speaks volumes: Cohn heard submarine-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs) referred to in nuclear academia as ‘SLICK ’EMS’ and ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) as ‘GLICK ’EMS’; to the crew of a nuclear-armed Trident submarine, the part of the vessel where 24 missiles, each armed with multiple thermonuclear warheads, are “lined up in their silos ready for launching” is known as a ‘Christmas Tree farm;’ a “cookie cutter” is a phrase used by strategic planners “to describe a particular model of nuclear attack.”

Clockwise from upper right: Carol Cohn, Felicity Hill, Sara Ruddick

Clockwise from upper left: Carol Cohn, Felicity Hill, Sara Ruddick

Not coincidentally, all those academics, submariners and strategists were men. In 2005, Cohn, together with Felicity Hill and Sara Ruddick, reflected on the “relevance of gender for eliminating weapons of mass destruction,” stressing how pervasively, insidiously, and often subliminally, ideas about “what is masculine or feminine, powerful or impotent” affects efforts aimed at “bringing about effective disarmament.” Appropriately, the article was published in the London-based ‘Acronym Institute’, wittily named by its founder Rebecca Johnson, a leading light in the 1980s of the famous Women’s Peace Camp at Greenham Common, a Royal Air Force Base housing nuclear-armed cruise missiles. (Full disclosure: from 1996 to 2003 I had the privilege of working for Rebecca as editor of the Acronym Institute’s journal, Disarmament Diplomacy.)

The role of women, in both official diplomacy and civil society, in the recent successful bid to negotiate a treaty finally banning nuclear weapons has been chronicled and celebrated in previous articles. Within the text of the treaty itself, emphasis is laid on both the “disproportionate impact on women and girls” of the “catastrophic consequences” of nuclear weapons production, testing and use, “including as a result of ionizing radiation,” and the importance of recognizing “the equal, full, and effective participation of both women and men” as an “essential factor for the promotion and attainment of sustainable peace and security.”


And in Oslo on December 10, powerfully embodying this major sea change in the style and substance of disarmament diplomacy, two women accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN): the Campaign’s Executive Director, 35-year-old Beatrice Fihn from Sweden, and 85-year-young Canadian citizen Setsuko Thurlow, a ‘hibakusha’ or survivor of the atomic destruction of Hiroshima. As prominent ICAN activist Ray Acheson, the Canadian woman directing the Reaching Critical Will program of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), stated with justifiable pride in New York on December 7:

Since 1945 and the first nuclear weapon tests in New Mexico, women in particular have mobilized against these weapons, blocking bases and leading campaigns for their elimination. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to ICAN is a testament to the power of the feminist movement and collective action.

Clockwise from upper left: Beatrice Fihn, Ray Acheson, Setsuko Thurlow

Clockwise from upper left: Beatrice Fihn, Ray Acheson, Setsuko Thurlow

As Acheson spoke, over 1,000 ICAN supporters – activists, scholars, retired diplomats, foreign officials, and former and serving politicians – gathered in the capital of her home country to honour Setsuko Thurlow and urge Canada to reconsider its opposition to the new treaty. Nobel Chemistry Laurate John Polanyi, a veteran anti-nuclear campaigner, argued the government was badly “mistaken in greeting the recent nuclear ban dismissively,” a reference in part to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s description of the treaty on June 7 as “sort of useless” –- the day after he declined an invitation to meet with Thurlow at an event on Parliament Hill.

“We should recall,” Polanyi suggested, “that William Wilberforce’s speech in the British House of Commons, which led in his lifetime to the abolition of the slave trade, was  similarly dismissed. Hard-nosed contemporaries warned that ‘human nature does not change,’ forgetting that human behavior can.” And while “in the case of slavery, a historic global change came purely out of moral revulsion,” where “nuclear weapons are concerned,” such “revulsion is joined by the universal desire for survival.”

Presenting the Peace Prize, the 12th since 1959 awarded to individuals and groups championing nuclear disarmament, Chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee Berit Reiss-Andersen noted that ICAN, founded only 10 years ago, “arose as a protest against the established order. Nuclear weapon issues are not solely a question to be addressed by governments, nor a matter for experts or high-level politicians. Nuclear weapons concern everyone, and everyone is entitled to an opinion.”

As she stressed, however, it was not a matter of ‘opinion’ or preference but rather international law, under the terms of the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), that nuclear weapons should be abolished through “good faith” negotiations among the Treaty’s nuclear-armed states (the US, UK, Russia, France and China, aka, the Permanent-Five (P-5) members of the UN Security Council). Forty-seven years later – 17,477 days as of December 10 – no such P-5 talks have taken place. Noted Reiss-Andersen:

If the disarmament process had been carried out as intended, ICAN’s struggle for a treaty-based ban on nuclear weapons would have been unneeded. It is the lack of progress that has made it necessary to supplement the NPT with other international legal initiatives and commitments.


In truth, as both its supporters and detractors acknowledge, the Ban does more than supplement the existing nuclear diplomacy regime: to its foes, it is the most immodest proposal of the atomic age, an exercise in naïve wish-fulfilment posing a clear and present danger to the status quo; to supporters, such as Pope Francis, speaking at a Vatican conference on ‘Prospects for a World Free of Nuclear Weapons and for Integral Disarmament’ on November 10, it is evidence of “healthy realism” on the part of the non-nuclear majority, a decisive rejection of ‘deterrence,’ a “mentality of fear…creating nothing
but a false sense of security.”

And in order to break those mental chains, as Beatrice Fihn acknowledged in her Nobel acceptance speech, it was necessary to bring “democracy to disarmament,” principally by centralizing hitherto marginalized voices, and in the process enlist disarmament in the service of democracy:

These weapons were supposed to keep us safe, but they deny us our freedoms. It’s an affront to democracy to be ruled by these weapons. But they are just weapons. They are just tools. And just as they were created by geopolitical context, they can just as easily be destroyed by placing them in a humanitarian context.

As a civic and civil commitment to humane, peaceful cooperation, democracy simply cannot co-exist, Fihn argued, with a “madman’s gun held permanently to our temple,” a “preparedness to exterminate, in a flash, countless thousands of human lives,” a world where the “fates” of millions are “bound up in a few lines of launch code” and “our mutual destruction is only one impulsive tantrum away.” Of course, in order to defuse, then dismantle, then destroy the Bomb, the support, assistance and activism of women, men, and indeed youth around the world will be necessary, and the Ban treaty, “recognizing” in its Preamble “the importance of peace and disarmament education in…raising awareness of the risks and consequences of nuclear weapons for current and future generations” can hopefully serve as a major new means of focusing public and political attention on a long-languishing issue.

But it is indisputable that women have suffered most from nuclear abuse and violence, that (to quote Fihn again) “man – not woman! – made nuclear weapons to control others,” and that that abuse, violence and control is aided and abetted by the slick, sterile language of male-dominated academies, bureaucracies and militaries. So the last word should go to Setsuko Thurlow, who after “beseeching” every world leader to join the Ban, concluded her acceptance speech by remembering:

When I was a 13-year old girl, trapped in the smouldering rubble, I kept pushing. I kept moving toward the light. And I survived. Our light now is the ban treaty. To all in this hall and all listening around the world, I repeat those words that I heard called to me in the ruins of Hiroshima: ‘Don’t give up! Keep pushing! See the light? Crawl towards it.’



Sean Howard



Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton. He may be reached here.







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