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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Our enduring call to action, 75 years later

Once again — this, for the 75th time — we remember the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and re-dedicate ourselves to ending the threat of a nuclear holocaust. But why again? Why do we have to gather once more on the lawn at the entrance to Lithia Park at 8 a.m. on Aug. 6 and say what we have said year after year, “Never again”?

One might respond, “Well, it never has happened again, so we must have done something right.” Who is “we”? The nine nuclear-armed nations, all of which have refused to get rid of them? Our nation especially, which has talked about banning nuclear weapons almost from the moment our use of them against Japan announced to the world that we had them, yet we never do? The citizens of those nine nations, who allow immense sums of our money to be spent on weapons that can never be used and yet might be launched at any moment by miscalculation, accident or a damn fool like Donald Trump?

At least that damn fool didn’t make a speech in Prague calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons, collect a Nobel Peace Prize for his high-minded rhetoric, then refuse to allow the U.S. to participate in the creation and passage of the United Nations-sponsored Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The two presidents who did most to end the nuclear arms race were Republicans — Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. After them, if Bill Clinton had possessed any moral purpose whatsoever, he could have put quits once and for all to the threat of nuclear annihilation, which was from the start and still overwhelmingly is posed by the U.S. and the USSR/Russia.

Why Reagan did an about-face on the nuclear arms race is not a settled historical question. What we know for sure is that he came into office in 1981 talking about fighting and winning a nuclear war. Taking Reagan at his word, a grassroots nuclear disarmament movement that had been smoldering in the U.S. and Europe burst into flames.

The speed of its expansion was extraordinary. In 1978, I attended a rally in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza during the first U.N. Special Session on Disarmament. About 20,000 of us were there. Four years later, during the second U.N. Special Session on Disarmament, there were a million people in Central Park.

It’s more than likely that Reagan was persuaded to open negotiations with Gorbachev in 1986 by that huge and sustained outpouring of concern. Alternatively, it may have been Nancy Reagan’s astrologer, Joan Quigley.

Grassroots movements have trajectories — not always the same ones. The movement against the Vietnam War seemed to attain no victory, although in retrospect Johnson’s refusal to commit more troops after the Tet offensive in January/February 1968 was the end of our quest for victory, but our acceptance of defeat took six more years. In contrast, the Civil Rights Movement achieved decisive victories, but the struggle against racism still has to be waged and seems to require highly visible traumas to generate outpourings of concern.

In its trajectory, the movement to abolish nuclear weapons strikes me as similar to the Civil Rights Movement. In the 1980s we saved humankind from death, but we didn’t kill the cancer. It’s threatening our health again, even as a huge majority of us — even in this country — recognize it as a disease and nothing but a disease. We must summon the energy to bear public witness once again.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Ashland Tidings every Saturday.