By Joe Berksen, WPSR Member, Nuclear Weapons Task Force
This piece was written for Joe’s 50th College Graduation Anniversary, thoughtfully crafted to engage his former peers and colleagues about the urgency to act to prevent nuclear war.
Our generation started with “duck and cover,” nuclear attack drills in elementary school. A few years later in the Kennedy administration, we lived through the Cuban missile crisis which had all America on edge for days. Nuclear war seemed a real and present danger. I was scared!
Later when attending Oberlin, we were fighting against the Vietnam war and threats of nuclear war. I studied nuclear weapons on my own, verification of nuclear tests and started advocating for the nuclear test ban treaty.
With Soviet detente in the early 1980s, there was progress on reducing nuclear weapons arsenals. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, most of the movement relaxed, thinking the risk was less. But now the dangers of nuclear war or nuclear accidents are higher, and I’m scared again.
After medical school, I moved to Washington state and joined the Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility(WPSR). We sought to leverage public respect for physicians, to teach that nuclear war was a public health threat. Consequences of nuclear explosions could not be effectively treated medically and we campaigned to prevent any use.
Many groups in Washington State care deeply about eliminating nuclear weapons, but none of these groups were working together. Knowing we would be much stronger together than alone, three years ago WPSR created a statewide, antinuclear coalition, Washington Against Nuclear Weapons.
Through the coalition, which now includes over 40 organizations from across the state, we are building a public anti-nuclear weapons movement. We are still growing, with diverse groups including peace, faith, healthcare, labor, education, and social justice organizations.
Our coalition work is supported by a strong group of WPSR members (over 1000 in our state), I volunteer on our WPSR nuclear weapons abolition “task force,” which has a full-time staff organizer. We developed a strategic plan collaboratively with the coalition, with a goal to impact policy makers to change U.S. nuclear policies.
Washington Against Nuclear Weapons is one of the few, and definitely the largest, anti-
nuclear coalitions in the country. We want to increase public visibility of nuclear weapons issues through media and community organizing. Building solidarity with social justice movements, we partner with local grassroots organizations engaging local activists, educating the public by daylighting the military industrial complex and nuclear weapon manufacturers in Washington State.
We are exerting constituent pressure on members of Congress by meeting with all congressional delegates at least yearly. We feel our efforts show progress. For several years WPSR worked with a Washington State Congressman, Adam Smith, to educate him on nuclear weapon issues, meeting with him several times per year for the past decade, since he was open to the issues and was getting more progressive with time.
Adam Smith is now Chair of the Armed Services committee in the house and held the first hearing on nuclear weapons policy in house committee in the past 30 years. He declared that he supports no-first-strike legislation and will work to stop increased spending on low-yield nuclear weapons, and is against “upgrading” our ground based ICBMs. He believes they can be eliminated from the arsenal.
We need a safer world and there is hope.