July 16 marked the 66th anniversary of the first nuclear weapons test explosion. The United States’ test, code-named “Trinity,” was exploded in the desert of New Mexico and ignited the nuclear age. The bombing of Hiroshima on Aug. 6 and Nagasaki on Aug. 9 were followed by some 2,050 nuclear tests worldwide, with over half (1,030) conducted by the United States. Nuclear testing has fueled the arms race, enabling varied and ever more deadly nuclear arsenals to grow. Along the way, nuclear testing has harmed the environment and human health worldwide.
It has now been almost 20 years since the United States last conducted a nuclear weapons test. For most Americans, nuclear weapon testing is not on their radar of concern. In fact, dangers of nuclear weapons are mostly easy to ignore nowadays. When I tell people about work on policies to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, they’re only vaguely interested. When I try, “I’m working toward the ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT),” I get complete incomprehension — eyes glaze over.
For me, this is not just another wonky issue. Nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament — specifically the CTBT — have been compelling work for me since the late 1980s. Then, as an intern, I attended a press conference about efforts to achieve a permanent ban on nuclear testing and there heard about Women Strike for Peace. Theirs is a story that began in 1961 when it wasn’t possible to ignore dangers of nuclear weapons.
The Berlin crisis and threat of nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union frightened everyone. “Duck and cover” became a routine school drill. In 1961, nuclear tests were being conducted in the atmosphere, spewing radioactive poison worldwide. Parents were sending their children’s baby teeth to be checked for Strontium-90 contamination. It was enough to drive women to take to the streets for a one-day strike to“End the Arms Race — not the Human Race” and for “Pure Milk, Not Poison.”
These women kept going after the one-day strike, organizing actions and lobbying campaigns. In 1963, when the Limited Test Ban Treaty was ratified, the Kennedy administration credited Women Strike for Peace with helping move the president to push the treaty. Although it was an enormous stride forward in protecting health and the environment, banning tests in the atmosphere did not slow the arms race. Instead, testing underground accelerated and nuclear stockpiles grew.
A quarter of a century after I heard this story, Women Strike for Peace was joining with others to call for a CTBT to permanently end nuclear testing. Women who had participated in the initial 1961 strike called the CTBT “our unfinished business.”
Yes, another 25 years have gone by, and this treaty remains unfinished business.
The United States stopped testing in 1992 and maintains the most sophisticated, sizeable and capable nuclear arsenal in the world. There is no military or scientific justification for testing, and there is certainly no political push for U.S. test explosions. But now, without U.S. Senate ratification of the CTBT, America is unable to realize the benefits of this tool to constrain other countries’ nuclear weapons programs. That makes no security sense.
Fifteen years ago, the United States was the first country to sign the CTBT. U.S. leadership had galvanized multilateral negotiations that resulted in the verifiable treaty to detect, deter and confront countries that would test nuclear weapons. Victory had seemed so close, but then the Senate got tangled up in a rushed partisan political debate, failing to ratify the treaty. Now, the world awaits the United States to put its weight behind a push for a treaty we led the way in establishing. It’s past time to reassert leadership for America’s security. And it’s past time to complete unfinished business. The Senate should consider the new evidence for this essential treaty and ratify the CTBT.
As for myself, I will continue pressing for the CTBT and then the next steps to end “the arms race not the human race.” I draw on the courage and tenacious spirit of those women who sent baby teeth to check for contamination and then took to the streets to make the world safer and healthier, I certainly owe my own daughter the same commitment.
Kathy Crandall Robinson is the public policy director for Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND), a national activist organization working to redirect excessive military spending to unmet human and environmental needs.