Nuclear Disarmament Activism in Asia and the Pacific, 1971-1996


June 15, 2009

Nuclear Disarmament Activism in Asia and the Pacific, 1971-1996
Nuclear Disarmament Activism in Asia and the Pacific, 1971-1996

Volume 7 | Issue 25 | Number 5

Article ID 3179


Nuclear Disarmament Activism in Asia and the Pacific, 1971-1996

Lawrence S. Wittner

Although the worldwide campaign against nuclear weapons was in the doldrums during the early 1970s, the antinuclear movement maintained a lively presence in the Pacific, largely in response to nuclear testing in that region.  Spurning the Partial Test Ban Treaty, the French government continued atmospheric nuclear testing on Moruroa in the South Pacific, sending deadly radioactive clouds drifting across Pacific island nations.  In response, New Zealand activists began defying the French government during 1972 by sailing small vessels into the test zone.  Joining the fray, the New Zealand Federation of Labour pledged a strict ban on French goods and the Labour Party took a principled stand against continued nuclear testing, leading to its election victory that November.  In Australia, thousands joined protest marches in Adelaide, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Sydney; scientists issued statements demanding an end to the tests; unions refused to load French ships, service French planes, or carry French mail; and consumers boycotted French products.  In Fiji, activists formed an Against Testing on Moruroa organization, which, in 1974, began planning a regional antinuclear conference.

French test at Moruroa in French Polynesia

Nuclear testing in the Pacific also triggered the establishment of Greenpeace.  In 1971, Jim Bohlen and Irving Stowe, two antiwar Americans who had relocated to Vancouver, Canada during the Vietnam War, decided to sail a ship north to Amchitka Island, off Alaska to protest U.S. government plans to explode nuclear weapons there.  En route, the crew read of a Cree grandmother’s 200-year-old prophecy that there would come a time when all the races of the world would unite as Rainbow Warriors, going forth to end the destruction of the earth.  Deeply moved, the crew enlisted in that cause.  Although U.S. authorities arrested the crew members as they approached the nuclear test site, thousands of cheering supporters lined the docks in Vancouver upon their return.  Bohlen and Stowe embarked on another voyage to Amchitka and, although they failed to reach it before the U.S. government exploded its nuclear bomb, a new movement had been born.  In New Zealand, a former Canadian, David McTaggart, convinced Canada’s Greenpeace group that he should sail his yacht into France’s nuclear testing zone around Moruroa.  When he arrived with a crew in June 1972, a French minesweeper, at the order of the French government, rammed and crippled the ship.  But McTaggart returned with a new ship and crew the following year.

Government officials from nuclear nations viewed these ventures with alarm.  Thoroughly contemptuous of those he derided as “peaceniks,” U.S. President Richard Nixon stepped up FBI and CIA spying upon peace organizations and the disruption of their activities.  By the early 1970s, the CIA’s Operation Chaos had targeted over a thousand U.S. organizations and 200,000 individuals.  Angered by the opposition of scientists to nuclear tests on Amchitka and to other administration programs, Nixon abolished the President’s Science Advisory Committee.  French officials, too, were quite hostile.  When McTaggart and his crew returned to the international waters that the French government had staked out for its nuclear test zone, French sailors boarded their ship, beat them savagely with truncheons, and threw their cameras and other equipment overboard.

The agitation of the early 1970s did produce some results.  New Zealand’s new Labour government dispatched a stiff letter of protest to the French authorities, condemning their plans for nuclear testing.  Moreover, joined by its Australian counterpart, it went to the International Court of Justice to seek an injunction against the French tests.  When the French refused to accept the court’s jurisdiction, the New Zealand government, following the trail blazed by antinuclear activists, dispatched two protest vessels to the French testing zone, one with a cabinet minister on board.  Although the French government refused to halt its nuclear tests during 1973 and 1974, it grew increasingly rattled.  Near the end of the latter year, it announced that it had finally abandoned atmospheric nuclear testing. 

There were other concessions to activism, as well.  In October, 1975, the governments of New Zealand, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea sponsored a proposal at the United Nations for a South Pacific Nuclear Weapon Free Zone, a plan endorsed by the world body that December.  Countervailing pressure from the U.S. government, however, plus conservative election victories in New Zealand and Australia, undermined this project.  Nevertheless, the tide was beginning to turn.  Even the hostile Nixon administration, acting for what a U.S. government spokesperson called “political and other reasons,” responded to the Greenpeace campaign by canceling the remaining U.S. nuclear tests on Amchitka.  Eventually, it turned the island into a bird sanctuary.

During the latter part of the decade, antinuclear activism accelerated.  In Australia, the disarmament campaign developed obliquely, thanks to the growth of widespread public opposition to uranium mining.  In this uranium-rich country, critics of such mining pointed out that it caused radioactive contamination of the environment, encouraged the growth of dangerous nuclear reactors, and provided the raw material for the building of nuclear weapons.  In 1979, activists formed the Movement Against Uranium Mining (MAUM), which drew the backing of both the Australian Congress of Trade Unions and the Labor Party.  Campaigning against uranium mining, MAUM came around to championing nuclear disarmament, as well.  Indeed, it joined disarmament groups in protesting French nuclear testing, calling for a nuclear-free Pacific, and sponsoring Hiroshima Day activities.  In turn, disarmament groups endorsed MAUM’s anti-uranium campaign.  The two themes for the 1980 Hiroshima Day march and rally in Sydney were:  “Keep uranium in the ground” and “No to nuclear war.”  Later that year, the Sydney city council officially proclaimed Sydney nuclear-free, an action similar to that taken by numerous other municipal councils throughout Australia.

In New Zealand, public protest developed over the visits of U.S. nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered warships.  In late 1975, calling for nonviolent action to make New Zealand “an island of sanity in an ocean of peace,” the Rev. George Armstrong, an Auckland peace activist and theologian, proposed the development of Peace Squadrons to block their entry. 

New Zealand peace squadron

As a result, when a U.S. nuclear warship, the Truxton, arrived at Wellington, it was met by a small Peace Squadron, as well as by a union ban on the waterfront, which prevented it from berthing.  Similarly, in October 1976, when the U.S. nuclear cruiser Long Beach arrived at Auckland, a Peace Squadron of some 150 small yachts, dinghies, canoes, and kayaks obstructed its passage, as did individual surfboarders, flying the nuclear disarmament symbol.  As the confrontations grew more intense, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and other groups joined the Peace Squadrons in seeking a court injunction to block future visits by nuclear warships.  Joining the controversy, the leader of the Labour opposition fervently committed his party to the struggle for a nuclear-free Pacific.  Meanwhile, the confrontations heightened.  In 1979, when the Haddo, a U.S. nuclear submarine, rammed its way into Auckland’s harbor, sinking a number of small protest craft, one activist—to the delight of the demonstrators—managed to board the nuclear behemoth.  According to a news account:  “Like Zorba the Greek he began a dance, half of defiance, half of joy on the very nose of the incoming sub.”  By 1980, nuclear disarmament groups were emerging throughout New Zealand.

In Japan, too, the movement was on the upswing. Sokka Gakkai, a peace-oriented Buddhist group, held antinuclear exhibitions in Japan’s cities and gathered 10 million signatures on petitions calling for nuclear abolition.  The most important factor behind Japan’s antinuclear revival, however, was the shift toward greater unity in the divided nuclear disarmament movement, spurred on by the entreaties of non-political citizens’ groups and by the approach of the 1978 U.N. Special Session on Disarmament.  In May 1977, Gensuikyo and Gensuikin, the two mass anti-nuclear organizations, agreed to hold a united world conference against atomic and hydrogen bombs, and to establish a unified delegation for the U.N. gathering.  Although organizational unity proved elusive, joint world conferences occurred in subsequent years and the joint delegation to the 1978 U.N. conclave brought with it a nuclear abolition petition containing 19 million Japanese signatures.

Elsewhere in the Pacific, a variety of nuclear hazards contributed to the growth of disarmament activism.  In the Philippines, a lively, popular antinuclear campaign was organized in the late 1970s to protest the construction of a giant nuclear power plant on the slope of a live volcano in Morong, Bataan.  Although constrained by martial law imposed by the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, the movement mobilized thousands of local Filipinos against the project and, gradually, began taking on nuclear weapons issues, as well.  Furthermore, in 1979, in the Marshall Islands, some 500 people staged a nonviolent occupation of eight islands from which they had been forcibly evicted years before by the U.S. military to accommodate U.S. nuclear missile tests.  That same year, in Palau—another small island trust territory, located in the Caroline Islands—92 percent of the voters in a U.N. referendum endorsed a constitution, drafted in preparation for independence, that would make the island nuclear-free. As U.S. officials had nuclear plans for the island, they declared the U.N. referendum unofficial, and sponsored a second ballot, this time on a constitution without the nuclear ban.  Despite a massive U.S. public relations campaign, Palau’s voters rejected this U.S.-imposed constitution and, then, proceeded to adopt yet another nuclear-free charter for the island.

These events added momentum to the emerging nuclear-free movement throughout the Pacific.  In April 1975, representatives of dozens of antinuclear organizations, meeting in Suva, Fiji, launched the Nuclear Free Pacific Movement.  Its People’s Charter called for prohibiting:  the tests of nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles; the presence of such weapons, support systems, or bases; nuclear reactors and waste storage; and uranium mining.  Three years later, the Nuclear Free Pacific Movement held a second conference at Ponape, in the Caroline Islands, and in 1980 it convened again, in Honolulu.  Sponsored by over 50 organizations from 20 Pacific and Pacific rim nations, the Honolulu conference voted to enlist the help of doctors to examine the people of the Marshall Islands and French Polynesia for radiation-caused illness, to mobilize international support for Palau, to oppose nuclear exercises and nuclear tests in the Pacific, and to work for a nuclear-free Pacific treaty.  Activists were particularly outraged at the dumping of nuclear waste in the Pacific by the great powers, which they perceived as yet another facet of colonialist exploitation.  A popular Nuclear Free Pacific poster read:  “If it’s so safe, Dump it in Tokyo, Test it in Paris, Store it in Washington.”

During the early 1980s, as hawkish governments in the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, and elsewhere renewed the Cold War and threatened nuclear annihilation, the movement reached high tide. 

In Japan, faced with the approach of the 1982 U.N. Special Session on Disarmament, Gensuikyo and Gensuikin, the major hibakusha organizations, labor federations, women’s and youth associations, religious groups, and eminent individuals established the Japanese National Liaison Committee for Nuclear and General Disarmament.  This set the stage for the greatest burst of antinuclear activism in Japanese history.  Record numbers of people turned out for antinuclear rallies:  200,000 people in Hiroshima in March 1982 and 400,000 in Tokyo that May.  Nuclear disarmament petitions were presented to the United Nations by the Liaison Committee (with 29 million signatures), by religious groups (with 36.7 million), and by political parties (with 16 million).  Although the movement made little headway with the governing Liberal Democratic Party, other parties were far more responsive, and about two hundred local governments proclaimed themselves nuclear free.  Furthermore, 76 percent of the public supported Japan’s “three non-nuclear principles,” (Japan shall neither possess nor manufacture nuclear weapons, nor shall it permit their introduction into Japanese territory) 86 percent wanted their government to promote abolition of nuclear weapons, and 58 percent opposed the use of nuclear weapons under any circumstances.

Australia, like its counterparts elsewhere, experienced a phenomenal growth of nuclear disarmament activism.  Antinuclear professional organizations sprang up, and hundreds of small, local antinuclear organizations appeared.  Religious groups backed the campaign, as did women’s groups, which established peace camps outside U.S. military bases and, in one case, staged a nonviolent invasion of a U.S. base and tore down its gates.  Although the newly formed People for Nuclear Disarmament sought to coordinate activities at the state level and the Australian Coalition for Disarmament and Peace at the national one, the movement usually lacked central direction.  Even so, the few united events illustrated its unprecedented popularity.  On Palm Sunday 1982, an estimated 100,000 Australians took to the streets for antinuclear rallies in the nation’s biggest cities.  Growing year by year, the rallies drew 350,000 participants in 1985.  For the most part, the movement focused on abolishing nuclear weapons, halting Australia’s uranium mining and exports, removing foreign military bases from Australia’s soil, and creating a nuclear-free Pacific.  Surveys found that about half of Australians opposed uranium mining and exporting, as well as the visits of U.S. nuclear warships, that 72 percent thought the use of nuclear weapons could never be justified, and that 80 percent favored building a nuclear-free world.    

In neighboring New Zealand, the movement attained even greater popularity.  Older organizations like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament were reinvigorated, while hundreds of newer ones were formed, including a crop of professional groups.  Union, church, and Maori organizations joined the antinuclear campaign.  In May 1983, 25,000 women participated in an antinuclear rally in Auckland—the largest public gathering of women in New Zealand’s history.  Continuing their program of resistance, Peace Squadrons sought to prevent visiting U.S. nuclear warships from entering their nation’s harbors.  In June 1982, when a U.S. cruiser tried to enter Wellington, maritime workers and seamen closed the port for three days through work stoppages, and 15,000 other workers halted labor for two hours to hold protest meetings.  In August 1983, 50,000 people turned out for an anti-warship protest in Auckland.  Meanwhile, a Nuclear Free Zone Committee pressed to have local governments proclaim their jurisdictions nuclear free.  As a result, by 1984, 65 percent of New Zealanders lived in nuclear-free zones.

The New Zealand struggle reached a critical point during 1984-85.  With the governing National Party (the conservatives) barely able to sustain an effective parliamentary majority against antinuclear resolutions, the prime minister scheduled an election for July 1984.  Assuming that a warships ban (and the necessary revision of the Australia-New Zealand-United States alliance) would be unpopular, the Nationalists made the Labour party’s antinuclear policy the centerpiece of their campaign.  In turn, Labour and two minor parties spoke out vigorously for a nuclear-free New Zealand.  On election day, 63 percent of the voters cast their ballots for the three antinuclear parties, catapulting Labour into power.  Taking office as prime minister, David Lange announced a four-part program.  It included barring nuclear weapons from New Zealand, halting French nuclear testing in the Pacific, blocking nuclear waste dumping in that ocean, and establishing the South Pacific as a nuclear-free zone.  When the U.S. government requested entry for a nuclear-capable destroyer, Lange announced in January 1985 that the warship was banned from his country.  Although U.S. officials and the opposition Nationalists bitterly condemned this action, it proved enormously popular.  Between 1978 and early 1984, polls found that opposition to allowing nuclear armed ships into New Zealand’s ports rose from 32 to 57 percent.  And once Lange defied the United States, opposition soared to 76 percent.  New Zealand had become a nuclear-free nation—and was proud of it.

Protest was rising elsewhere in Asia, as well.  In the Philippines, the building of a giant nuclear power plant inspired growing opposition, as did U.S. military bases at Subic Bay and Clark Field, which housed nuclear-armed planes and warships.  With the government’s nominal lifting of martial law in 1981, representatives of church, labor, women’s, student, and other groups organized the Nuclear Free Philippines Coalition, dedicated to halting construction of the power plant and closing down U.S. military bases.  By early 1983, it claimed the support of 82 organizations.  In South Korea, the presence of large numbers of U.S. nuclear weapons and the frightening promises of U.S. officials to employ them in a future war led to a growing public fear of nuclear disaster and protests by church groups.  Furthermore, in India, a newly-formed Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy issued numerous public statements by prominent citizens warning against the activities of their nation’s “nuclear bomb lobby” and pressed the government to reject nuclear weapons.   

The antinuclear struggle reached a crescendo in the scattered island nations of the Pacific.  Decades of western use of the region for thermonuclear explosions, nuclear missile tests, and nuclear warship ports, topped off by the latest great power nuclear confrontation, led to a surge of resistance among native peoples.  In Fiji, church, union, and student organizations established the Fiji Anti-Nuclear Group to work for the creation of a nuclear-free Pacific.  In Tahiti, thousands of people marched through the streets protesting French nuclear tests and demanding independence from France.  On Kwajalein atoll, some 1,000 Marshall Islanders—reacting to a U.S. government plan to extend its military rights by fifty years—escaped their crowded squalor on Ebeye Island by staging “Operation Homecoming,” an illegal occupation of eleven islands they had left years before to accommodate U.S. nuclear missile tests.  In Palau, the U.S. government, stymied by that nation’s antinuclear constitution, sponsored new referenda to overturn its antinuclear provision.  When the third and fourth referenda proved unsuccessful, U.S. officials waged a $500,000 campaign to sway the nation’s 7,000 voters in a fifth referendum.  But the people of Palau stubbornly voted yet again to keep their islands nuclear free.  Deeply resenting their mistreatment by the nuclear powers, delegates to the 1983 Nuclear Free Pacific conference renamed their organization the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific movement.  By 1985, it had 185 constituent organizations.

In response to this tidal wave of protest, public policy changed dramatically in the Pacific.  In New Zealand, the new Labour government of Prime Minister Lange not only defied Washington by barring nuclear-armed warships, but became a leading proponent of a comprehensive test ban treaty and of a South Pacific nuclear weapons-free zone.  In Australia, after the victory of the Labor Party in the 1983 elections, the new prime minister, Bob Hawke, appointed Australia’s first minister for disarmament, instructed Australia’s representative at the United Nations to support a Nuclear Freeze resolution, withdrew his earlier offer to have Australia test the MX missile, and made his country into a key force in world efforts to secure a comprehensive test ban treaty.  Moreover, New Zealand and Australia joined the other eleven nations of the South Pacific in negotiating the Treaty of Rarotonga, designed to prohibit the testing, production, acquisition, or stationing of nuclear weapons in the region.  Although nations lacking antinuclear movements, such as China and Pakistan, made progress on their nuclear weapons programs during these years, the Japanese government—beset by waves of protest—proved more cautious, and Japan’s “three non-nuclear principles” remained officially enshrined.

Even though nuclear arms control agreements and the waning of the Cold War led to a decline of the antinuclear campaign after 1985, it remained a powerful presence.  In Australia, the 1986 Palm Sunday antinuclear rallies drew 250,000 people.  Two years later, Australian protest flotillas blockaded the arrival of foreign nuclear warships.  In Melbourne, the seamen’s union boycotted the warships and even the prostitutes went on strike, announcing that the nuclear behemoths could “take their money, ships, bombs, and diseases and go home.”  In New Zealand, the renamed national movement, Peace Movement Aotearoa, served as the umbrella organization for about 300 peace groups working on projects that ranged from halting French nuclear testing to getting their town or city councils to declare their jurisdictions nuclear-free.  The hottest issue, however, remained the Labour government’s ban on nuclear warships.  In August 1987, the warship ban provided the central issue in nationwide elections, which Labour won handily—its first re-election victory since 1938.  At the same time, antinuclear protest raged in Palau, Fiji, the Marshall Islands, and India.  Despite a police state atmosphere in South Korea, antinuclear ferment grew among student, women’s, and religious groups.  In 1986, the National Council of Churches called for the removal of all nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula.  Protest even emerged in China.  Enraged by the government’s nuclear weapons tests at Lop Nur, in Xinjiang province, local Uighur people staged antinuclear demonstrations in Beijing and other Chinese cities.  Polls throughout Asia and the Pacific found strong support for nuclear disarmament.

Not all governments were fond of the antinuclear campaign.  Although the new Soviet party secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev, courted nuclear disarmament activists, officials from the other nuclear powers remained venomously hostile.  The administrations of U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were particularly irate at resistance to their nuclear weapons programs, and did their best to discredit and destroy the movement. 

Ronald Reagan, Keep America Strong

To head off anticipated protest activities against French nuclear testing in the Pacific, the French government had its agents blow up the Greenpeace flagship, the Rainbow Warrior, killing a Greenpeace photographer in the process.

The Rainbow Warrior sinks

Nevertheless, the “nuclear allergy” was spreading.  The new Treaty of Rarotonga, adopted in August 1985 by the thirteen members of the South Pacific Forum, established the South Pacific as a nuclear-free zone.  Scuttling arrangements for the testing and development of India’s nuclear weapons, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi offered his nation’s “Action Plan for Ushering in a Nuclear-Weapon-Free and Non-Violent World Order.”  In the Philippines, the government of Corazon Aquino—strongly influenced by growing antinuclear sentiment—adopted a constitution stating that the nation would henceforth be nuclear-free. 

Despite some erosion of its strength, the nuclear disarmament movement remained a significant political factor in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Powerful Filipino nationalist forces—including the press, the lawyers’ group, and the peasant group—citing the nuclear-free provision in their nation’s new constitution, grew increasingly vocal in their demand for the closure of the Subic and Clark Field U.S. military bases.  Although China remained as repressive as ever, the largest Uighur protest yet against Chinese nuclear testing occurred in May 1992, when some 10,000 people reportedly demonstrated at Kashgar.  In Palau, the population—responding once more to pleas by activists—voted down the latest attempt by the U.S. government to override that island nation’s nuclear-free constitution.

The antinuclear ferment throughout the region continued to weigh heavily on U.S. officials, and contributed to new and far-reaching action by the administration of U.S. President George H.W. Bush.  On September 27, 1991, Bush announced that all U.S. ground-based tactical nuclear weapons would be destroyed, all seaborne tactical nuclear weapons would be removed from U.S. warships, all U.S. strategic bombers (and some land-based strategic missiles) would be taken off alert, and plans for mobile ICBMs and short-range attack missiles would be canceled.  Although Bush’s extraordinary measures largely reflected his desire to set an example for the rapidly disintegrating Soviet Union, he was responding to the antinuclear movement, as well.  According to Brent Scowcroft, his National Security Advisor, the weapons withdrawals resulted, in part, from pressures emanating from South Korea to remove U.S. nuclear weapons from its territory and from pressures by Japan and New Zealand to block the admission of nuclear warships to their ports.

These actions did not end the antinuclear turbulence.  In India, the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy joined with other concerned groups to urge the five declared nuclear powers to halt nuclear testing and move toward complete nuclear disarmament.  In the Philippines, the popular clamor over nuclear weapons at U.S. military bases became so great that the Philippine legislature voted to close them down, thus ending nearly a century of U.S. military presence in that nation.  As in previous decades, resistance to nuclear weapons was particularly widespread in Japan.  Antinuclear activists in that nation circulated a new Appeal from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, drawing nearly 50 million signatures by 1995.  Out of 3,300 Japanese municipalities, 1964 proclaimed themselves nuclear-free zones by the end of that year.  Meanwhile, Uighur protests against Chinese nuclear testing continued to erupt.  In March 1993, when Chinese troops opened fire on a crowd of a thousand demonstrators outside the test site at Lop Nor, the enraged protesters stormed the complex—damaging equipment, setting fire to military vehicles and airplanes, and tearing down miles of electronic fencing.

A particularly dramatic wave of protest occurred in the mid-1990s, as the nuclear powers dithered over the movement’s long-sought goal of a comprehensive test ban treaty.  In June 1995, when France’s new president, the conservative Jacques Chirac, announced that France was resuming nuclear testing in the Pacific that September, this proclamation unleashed what The Washington Post called a “Typhoon of Anger.”  Antinuclear rallies and protests sprang up around the world.  Responding to appeals by disarmament groups, consumers boycotted French goods, irate citizens poured French wine into the gutters, and Australian unions refused to handle French cargo or French postal and telecommunication services.  Sales of French wines and champagne plummeted in Australia and New Zealand, and polls in the latter nation found that public opposition to the resumption of French nuclear tests hit an astonishing 98 percent.  In Papeete, the capital of Tahiti, 15,000 people turned out to welcome the arrival of Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior II, then en route to another protest in Moruroa, and to call upon the French not to test.  In France, thousands of Parisians demonstrated against their government’s policy.  In the United States, a coalition of 40 disarmament, religious, and environmental groups sparked a consumer boycott.

Confronted by this surge of antinuclear activism, the nuclear powers retreated.  The French government abruptly cut short its test series and, abandoning its earlier insistence upon exempting low-yield nuclear tests from a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), suddenly announced that the future treaty should provide for “the banning of any nuclear weapon test.”  And this put the U.S. government on the spot.  Impressed by the upsurge of public protest and no longer able to hide its own appetite for low-yield tests behind the stubbornness of the French, the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton announced that, henceforth, it would work to secure a total cutoff of nuclear testing.

Things remained largely on track thereafter.  Making the test ban its top priority in 1996, Greenpeace organized demonstrations, confrontations, and even a protest voyage to China, whose government, bowing to international pressure, announced in July 1996 that it was joining the worldwide testing moratorium.  True to its promises, the Clinton administration did bring the other declared nuclear powers into line behind a CTBT.  When India and Iran refused to cooperate, the Geneva negotiations broke down.  But the Australian government brought the test ban treaty directly to the United Nations for endorsement.  Pro-test ban groups around the world feverishly pressed their governments to back the Australian resolution.  And at a U.N. General Assembly session of September 10, 1996, the representatives approved it by a vote of 158 to 3, opening the way for the CTBT’s signature and ratification.  Addressing the world body shortly after the vote, Madeline Albright, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, declared:  “This was a treaty sought by ordinary people everywhere, and today the power of that universal wish could not be denied.”

Of course, this antinuclear campaign in Asia and the Pacific comprised only one component of a vast, worldwide nuclear disarmament movement during the years from 1971 to 1996.  Nevertheless, it sparked a massive popular mobilization throughout the region—one that had an important impact on public policy.

The signing of the CTBT in 1996 proved to be the worldwide movement’s last major victory.  Thereafter, the antinuclear campaign ebbed, with many disarmament organizations losing momentum or disappearing.  In this more favorable climate for realizing their nuclear ambitions, three new nations—all in Asia—emerged as nuclear powers:  India, Pakistan, and North Korea.  In the United States, the Republican-dominated U.S. Senate rejected ratification of the CTBT, while the new president, George W. Bush, scrapped the ABM treaty, halted nuclear arms control and disarmament negotiations, and championed the development of new U.S. nuclear weapons. 

George W. Bush

Today, some 26,000 nuclear weapons remain in the arsenals of the nine nuclear powers, with thousands on hair-trigger alert.  Although U.S., Russian, and British nuclear arsenals are shrinking in size, those in the four Asian nuclear nations—China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea—are growing, in large part because of tensions among them.  This Asian arms race also has possibilities of bringing Japan into the nuclear club.

And yet, there remain possibilities for reversing this situation and getting nations back on track toward nuclear disarmament.  The rising nuclear danger has led to a modest revival of antinuclear activism, particularly in India and Pakistan.  In the United States, an outcry against the Bush administration’s plans for new nuclear weapons led Congress to reject all of them.  Moreover, a surprising number of former (and some current) members of national security elites in numerous nations have made outspoken calls for serious efforts to create a nuclear-free world.  During Barack Obama’s successful U.S. presidential election campaign, he spoke out repeatedly for nuclear abolition.  Furthermore, after his election, he reiterated this goal in major policy addresses and, also, advocated ratification of the CTBT, a treaty making deep cutbacks in U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, and efforts to negotiate a halt to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.  However, as indicated by the record of the mass nuclear disarmament movement and government response from 1971 to 1996, progress toward a nuclear-free world seems likely to require a very significant renaissance of antinuclear activism by the general public, particularly in Asia and the Pacific.  As Frederick Douglass, a great leader of the U.S. antislavery campaign, once declared:  “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”   


Lawrence S. Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany.  This article is adapted for The Asia-Pacific Journal from his new book, Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Stanford University Press).

Recommended citation: Lawrence S. Wittner, “Nuclear Disarmament Activism in Asia and the Pacific, 1971-1996” The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 25-5-09, June 22, 2009.

Share with a colleague:

Volume 7 | Issue 25 | Number 5

Article ID 3179

About the author:

The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus is a peer-reviewed publication, providing critical analysis of the forces shaping the Asia-Pacific and the world.

    About the author:


    Our monthly newsletter provides readers with an in-depth analysis of forces shaping the Asia-Pacific and the world.

      Since 2002

      Asia Pacific Journal: Japan Focus has produced critical reporting on geopolitics, economics, history, environment, and international relations.