Everyone in Boston knows that when a house catches ablaze, lives are saved by pulling the fire alarm. Sirens wail, trucks race down the street, and a fire crew comes to the rescue. But what if the fires haven’t started, yet are close to being ignited, on a scale that would dwarf – by more than a thousand-fold – the 1942 Cocoanut Grove fire that killed 492 Bostonians?
Today and every day, those fires could be only minutes away, ignited by the detonation of even a single nuclear warhead in Boston, perhaps as a result of a Russian computer malfunction, perhaps from a ship in which a single terrorist warhead lies smuggled in a disguised shipping container. But what can Bostonians do?
Bostonians have repeatedly played crucial roles in helping the world step away from the nuclear brink. In 1961, cardiologist Dr. Bernard Lown and other Boston-area doctors founded Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), detailing in the New England Journal of Medicine the medical consequences of a thermonuclear attack on Boston (over 2,250,000 immediate deaths from blast, fire, and radiation effects), and the impossibility of any effective medical response. PSR’s work dramatically heightened public awareness and concern, and in 1963, Boston’s John F. Kennedy signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, banning atmospheric nuclear tests.
Tragically, that just drove the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms race literally underground, and by 1980, both U.S. and Soviet leaders were again preparing for possible nuclear war. Dr. Lown and other Boston doctors joined with Soviet colleagues to form International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), which grew rapidly and was honored with the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize. Ronald Reagan became a confirmed nuclear abolitionist, publicly proclaiming that “A nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.”
In the past several years, the dangers of nuclear holocaust have increased dramatically. Even before President Trump threatened North Korea with “fire and fury the likes of which this world has never seen before” and reportedly called for a “tenfold” increase in the already massively-redundant U.S. nuclear arsenal, the U.S. government has been undertaking a $1 trillion “modernizing” of our nuclear arsenal.
In today’s renewed antinuclear activism, once again, Bostonians are helping lead the way. In 2007, Boston-based IPPNW launched the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a rapidly-growing coalition of nearly 500 NGO’s in over 100 countries, recently honored with the 2017 Nobel Prize for Peace. An ICAN-supported U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was overwhelmingly approved in July by the U.N. General Assembly and has already been signed by at least 50 nations. (The nuclear weapons states and most of their allies have so far completely boycotted the entire treaty process).
Meanwhile, here in Boston, newspapers and conversations about the future have been dominated by dreams of what attracting Amazon to Boston might mean. But there is no point in anyone thinking about Amazon or any other long-term plans for Boston – even just their own children and grandchildren – unless Boston itself survives the upcoming years.
On November 4th, Bostonians were again at the forefront, with a major conference at Harvard titled “Presidential First Use of Nuclear Weapons: Is it Legal? Is it Constitutional? Is it Just?”. The conference brought together leading constitutional lawyers, nuclear weapons experts, and politicians including Senator Ed Markey to discuss one possible tiny initial step – requiring that the President of the United States, given the Constitution’s stipulation that only Congress has the authority to declare war, obtain prior Congressional authorization before initiating a nuclear war.
What is at stake extends far beyond nuclear weapons themselves. On October 19th, the local launching event for a 2017 Poor People’s Campaign was held at Boston’s Trinity Church, its call for a “moral revival” echoing the 1967 campaign led by Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The 2017 Poor People’s Campaign goals could be achieved through a fraction of the $40 billion of taxpayer money currently being spent each year on the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal. A tiny fraction of that money, kept here in Boston rather than sent to the Pentagon, could help fix Boston’s struggling schools and broken social safety net.
On September 12, 1962, in his famous “moonshot” speech, President Kennedy expressed his faith in the capacity of Americans to do the seemingly-impossible: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”
Ensuring that the people and the city of Boston survive the nuclear weapons era will involve enormous challenges. But Boston is the city where the world comes to think and to solve big problems. It’s time for all of us to unite, with partners in every other city in the world, in ending, once and for all, the dangers of the nuclear weapons era.