Highlights from a Disarmament Conference
Highlights from a Disarmament Conference
Poster for the "Steps to a Nuclear Weapons-Free World" at New Jersey Institute of Technology in April 2019: an artist's rendering of silver light glinting off planet earth, with a nighttime Australia in the foreground

On April 14, 2019 the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, NJ hosted a conference on Steps To A Nuclear Weapons-Free World. According to the NJIT coordinator, Jay Kappraff, the purpose of the conference was to focus on the watershed moment we are facing: “Nuclear forces are being modernized at great cost to make them more usable. The U.S. and North Korea are now facing each other with nuclear challenges. And the weapons are still on hair trigger alert, able to be launched by the president—with no checks and balances—within 15 minutes.” And countries like Japan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Korea aspire to join the nuclear club.

Our world is fragile: We were reminded by the opening viewing of the You Tube video “Pale Blue Dot.”

Here are some highlights from the conference speakers' important messages:

Zia Mean, co director of Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs

Zia Mean, Co-Director of Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, opened the speakers’ portion of the program by identifying that only nine of the 193 nations of the world have nuclear weapons, which means the goal of changing decision-making in only these countries could happen. What keeps these nine embracing their nuclear weapons? Domination, fear, status, control, secrecy, profit, power—it’s not just one thing. So what do we do? He offered three principles:

  1. Start at home: Work at gaining power to intervene to change, raise consciousness, tell the truth on the need to disarm.
  2. Stop things getting worse: Become informed for that’s happening now; take action, supporting those who do.
  3. Congress needs to act: Be in touch with your legislators and urge them to act.
Dr. Bruce Blair, co-founder of the Global Zero movement for the elimination of nuclear weapons

Dr. Bruce Blair, co-founder of the Global Zero movement for the elimination of nuclear weapons, recognized that the “trust between Russia and the U.S. has hit rock bottom” when it comes to any new dialogue about an arms treaty. (See the recent Reuters article about risks to Russia’s nuclear arms control system.) He called for the need to resume talks to extend the START Treaty and recommit entry into a new round of negotiations, bringing other nuclear countries into the process.

According to Dr. Blair, leaders of the nine nuclear states all have unchecked power to push buttons. When it comes to Russia and the U.S., they both still have about 7,000 nuclear weapons on high alert status, allowing both countries to launch missiles as soon as five minutes in response to a warning of an incoming nuclear attack, before the attacking missiles even hit their targets. Should the warning be a false alarm, that mistake could spark an unintended nuclear exchange. “The U.S. is capable of firing 50 missiles from naval, army, and air force facilities in less than two minutes. Russia can respond in 20 seconds. Within an hour 1,000 U.S. nuclear weapons could be discharged over the planet with millions of [instant] deaths.” He called upon Congress to resume its constitutional authority as the only branch able to declare war, to enforce a no-first-use stance, to take nuclear weapons off immediate response by increasing the warning and decision time to authorize their firing. “A launch on false warning is a crisis waiting to happen.”

Jeff Carter, Executive Director of the Physicians for Social Responsibility

Jeff Carter, Executive Director of Physicians for Social Responsibility, reminded us that “All nuclear weapons are created equal” when thinking of the no-first-use declaration. And the recent upgrading of nuclear weapon systems among all nuclear nations has pushed countries like India and Pakistan—which possess weapons that have not been on readiness, i.e. not assembled, during peace time and that have a poorly developed command control—to reconsider their status and the concept of deterrence. It only takes one country to deploy a nuclear missile for retaliation from the opponent to begin.

Whatever case for deterrence, it doesn’t justify the amount of weaponry we have. Overviews of the no-first-use policies were given under prior U.S. administrations: President Carter called for no first use against non-nuclear states unless in response to an attack on an allied nuclear state (NATO); in 2001 info was leaked that President Bush considered it okay to use nuclear weapons against Russia or China or in response to a chemical attack by Iran, Iraq, Syria, or Libya; in 2010 President Obama’ policy was for no use against non-nuclear states, in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, except if biochemical weapons were used. During an interview with Piers Morgan on ITV’s Good Morning Britain program on June 5, President Trump announced his willingness to use nuclear weapons: that if and when the time comes, he is “prepared” for the “tremendous responsibility” of pressing the nuclear button. (See the transcript of the interview.) He’s expanded in other interviews that he would use nuclear weapons only in extreme circumstances: not just biological or cyber weapon use but an attack on infrastructure as well, but a first use would be considered against Russia, China, or North Korea.

Legislation has been introduced in Congress in 2019 to (a) outlaw a first use policy (Sen. Elizabeth Warren & Rep. Adam Smith HR 921 & Senate Bill S.272) and in 2017 to (b) restrict any deployment of nuclear weapons without Congressional approval  (Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Ted Lieu HR 669 & Senate Bill S.200).

Daniel Ellsberg—author of Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (2002) and The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner (2017), former employee of the Rand Corporation, Pentagon, and State Department, anti-war activist

Daniel Ellsberg—author of Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (2002) and The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner (2017), former employee of the Rand Corporation, Pentagon, and State Department, anti-war activist, and lecturer—was one of the keynote speakers. His message of the importance of truth telling, especially in light of Presidential lies and abominable actions by our government, was effective and important. His release of the Pentagon Papers, revealing the truth of Vietnam War policies and the lies told to cover atrocities committed, led to his being charged with 2,212 felony counts posing a possible sentence of 115 years. This case was dismissed in 1973 on grounds of governmental misconduct against him. His remarks at the conference included items from The Doomsday Machine that can be found in a prior blog post in Disarming Our Planet: A New Year's Resolution Proposal: Put Disarmament on the Agenda for Immediate Attention.

Laura Grego of the Union of Concerned Scientists

Laura Grego of the Union of Concerned Scientists cited that the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty limited defensive weapons but stressed that this treaty needs to limit offensive weapons as well. She is an expert on outer space security and noted that space missile defenses are enormously expensive, currently requiring 600 satellites costing $300 billion. U.S. efforts in research and production of ground-, sea-, or space-based interceptors are driving developments in other countries. There is increasing military use of satellites by all nine nuclear countries plus more than 70 others.

Kelsey Davenport, the Director of Non-Proliferation of the Arms Control Association

Kelsey Davenport, the Director of Non-Proliferation of the Arms Control Association, has worked on projects assessing the effectiveness of multilateral voluntary initiatives (such as nuclear free zones) that contribute to nonproliferation efforts. She spoke of the increasing interest in developing nuclear weapons yet little action by Congress to encourage more voluntary nonproliferation policies. Some legislators support re-entering the Iran agreement, continued diplomacy with North Korea, and no support to Israel or the Saudis for nuclear weapons—all in opposition to current administrative steps. More positive efforts toward disarmament are sorely needed.

Robert Jay Lifton, Lecturer in Psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Psychology at City University of New York

Robert Jay Lifton, the second keynote speaker, Lecturer in Psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Psychology at City University of New York, spoke about nuclear weapons and their impact on death symbolism. He explained that after Hiroshima no one had studied radiation’s effects on humans. “The greater a human problem, the less likely we study it.” For those who survived, the explosion led to a life-long encounter with death: radiation, leukemia, lesions, creating an imagery of extinction. Lifton coined the term nuclearism as the spiritual perversion of our time and compared the threats posed by nuclear weapons and climate change. Nuclear winter has a climatic effect. “If we don’t stop it, we’re destroying our planet!”

Elaine Scarry, Harvard University’s Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value, lecturer and recipient of multiple awards for her work on disarmament for the last 30 years

Elaine Scarry, Harvard University’s Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value, lecturer, and recipient of multiple awards for her work on disarmament for the last 30 years, spoke of the mutual exclusivity of nuclear weapons and governance (particularly democratic governance). “We have ready at hand the constitutional tools available for dismantling the country’s nuclear architecture and have an urgent obligation to carry out this work. What’s keeping the nuclear weapons system in place?” Her response was: (1) lack of information; (2) false justification of deterrence; (3) the popular belief that once a nuclear weapon is made, it can’t be unmade, whereas on the contrary it’s quite easy to dismantle; (4) only a few nuclear weapon-free zones persist, mostly in the southern hemisphere; and (5) in order to exist, nuclear systems have had to eliminate the constitutionally-required Congressional oversight of entry into war and citizen ratification of any declaration of war. There is work to do to change all this.

Vincent Intondi, Professor of History and Director of the Institute for Race, Justice, and Civic Engagement at Montgomery College in Takoma Park, Maryland

Vincent Intondi, Professor of History and Director of the Institute for Race, Justice, and Civic Engagement at Montgomery College in Takoma Park, Maryland, outlined resistance to nuclear weapons in the African American community by leaders such as Malcolm X, Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, Rosa Parks, Emmett Till, Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King Jr., the Black Panther Party, and Ron Dellums. Intondi reminded us: “Remembrance without resolve means nothing; remembrance without action means nothing.”

Ray Acheson, Director of Reaching Critical Will, the disarmament program of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom

Ray Acheson, Director of Reaching Critical Will, the disarmament program of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, has contributed to this blog in articles about ICAN (International Coalition Against Nuclear Weapons, the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize winner), the convention to ban the bomb, as well as the activities in the First Committee at the United Nations General Assembly. She added to previous blogs by identifying that ICAN is a young campaign led by 20-year-olds from Latin America, Africa, Canada, and Australia. It is led by women, indigenous peoples from Australia, Kazakhstan, and U.S. members of the LGBTQ community—a whole new generation of young activists, an initiative of the Global South. As to the Convention to Ban Nuclear Weapons, 70 countries have taken the first step and signed on to it; 23 countries ratified it, step two. 50 ratifications are needed for it to enter into force. ICAN is pushing to have 122 countries ratify it, i.e. all the countries who voted to adopt this Convention in 2017. While President Obama instructed the U.S.’s allies to boycott this whole effort, Australia has a different government with opposition leaders signed on to the pledge.


This conference experience highlighted the efforts by this set of dedicated souls, whose wisdom was only briefly recounted in this blog. Let us hope their work gets more exposure and that disarming our planet becomes a reality.

About the Author

  • Joanne Dufour is a Volunteer for the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office completing a circle of connection with the office since 1968. She was introduced to it in her second year of teaching back then, maintained connections over the course of her career in education,...

For more information contact international@uua.org.

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