Our Chance to Change the World

By Naila Bolus

It was just before midnight on election night, November 4, and millions of dewy eyes trained on Barack Obama. Here was our new leader, a former community organizer, embodiment of hope, proof that nothing is impossible. True to form, he took the microphone and challenged us. “This victory alone is not the change we seek,” he said. “It is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen … without you.”

The chance is now for us to make that change. For more than twenty years I have worked to end the nuclear threat, and with the election of President Obama I now believe it’s possible. But not just because we have a new president. A confluence of historical currents is creating powerful momentum for change – a new generation of global leaders less wedded to policies of the past and more open to new strategies; a recognition of the failure of past administrations’ nuclear policies; and, perhaps most important, a growing movement of civil society that is providing leadership for a bold new vision of a world without nuclear weapons.

Surprising to some, even in this arcane field of nuclear doctrine and weaponry, the citizen activists and non-governmental organizations that constitute civil society have consistently played a highly influential and catalytic role in nuclear arms reduction. In the 1950s and early ’60s, women mobilized against nuclear testing by the United States and Soviet Union, decrying the strontium-90 that was contaminating breast milk and babies’ teeth because of fallout from atmospheric testing. Their protests were central to bringing about the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty.

Indeed, the history of the nuclear age is accented with the heroic efforts of ordinary people doing small things with great impact. People like Sally Lilienthal, my friend, mentor, inspiration, and founder of thePloughshares Fund. At age 62, when most people were preparing to enjoy retirement and looking back on their accomplishments, Sally decided to tackle the biggest issue of the modern era – the threat of nuclear annihilation. She founded Ploughshares Fund in 1981 with next to nothing, but she put all her energy into it and with the guts that she brought to everything she did, she set about building an institution that would make its mark on the world.

Many years later, in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Sally was asked what made her do it, given her background as a sculptor and human rights activist. She replied, “The possibility of a nuclear war was the very worst problem in the world, I thought, and I just felt I had to do something about it. It was really as simple as that. But what could I do? I certainly knew nothing about nuclear science – I still don’t – and I knew nothing about physics and very little about weapons. But I thought that if a lot of people felt the same way I did but didn’t know what to do about it, we might get together and search for new ways to get rid of the nuclear weapons that we knew were threatening us all.”1

Sally helped build Ploughshares Fund into one of the largest foundations making grants in the peace-and-security field, helping bring about monumental achievements like the first international treaty to ban an entire class of weapons of mass destruction; the establishment of the first Russian non-governmental organizations with influence over the public, media, and policymakers; and the lock-down of nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union. She incarnated the belief that an individual with vision and commitment can mobilize support for a cause that will make a better world.

So did Randy Forsberg. An arms control expert with the rare ability to articulate a simple idea and a compelling moral vision, her four-page article “Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race” was the spark that ignited the Nuclear Weapon Freeze Campaign. She argued for a “mutual, verifiable halt to the testing, production, and deployment” of all U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons and their delivery systems as a key step toward eventual nuclear disarmament.

By 1982, the Freeze campaign was a phenomenon. Some 370 city councils and 23 state legislatures had endorsed it, 2.3 million people had signed a Freeze petition, and, most significantly, it passed as a ballot initiative in eight out of nine states and in dozens of cities and counties. That constituted the largest single referendum in U.S. history.2 Author John Tirman described the impact: “A large demonstration in Central Park on a sunny summer day and articles in policy journals were one thing, and possibly negligible; thirty-six victories in thirty-nine referendums – including eight of nine states – was something Washington took to heart.”3

Oblivious, Almost

The year 1982 was pivotal for the movement to stop the nuclear arms race, and I was almost oblivious. Almost. Except for a remarkable Australian pediatrician who warned that unless we – I – shook off our indifference, change our life priorities, and work to prevent nuclear war, our chances of survival were slim.

Each of us can do small things with great impact. We embody the “new spirit of patriotism” that President Obama defined in his acceptance speech.

I was a high school junior, and that year’s award-winning documentary, “If You Love This Planet,” was in many ways the precursor to “An Inconvenient Truth.” Labeled “foreign political propaganda” by the Justice Department, it featured a lecture given by pediatrician Helen Caldicott to students at SUNY Plattsburgh and went on to win the Academy Award for Best Short Subject Documentary in 1982. It changed me and thousands of others, the same way that Al Gore’s PowerPoint would later move throngs of young people to action. From there it was a short path for me after college to the doorstep of Women’s Action for Nuclear Disarmament (WAND), based just outside of Boston, Mass., the organization that Helen Caldicott founded in 1981.

By then, Gorbachev was in power in the Kremlin, and there was a chilling number of nuclear weapons across the globe – more than 70,000. But there was also an astonishing number of non-govern- mental initiatives pressing to reduce those weapons – doctors who joined en masse Physicians for Social Responsibility (another organization heavily influenced by Helen Caldicott) and educated others in the medical establishment about the horrors of nuclear war; professionals who spent countless hours volunteering at rallies, educational forums, and meetings with their congressional representatives; women, students, and people of faith.

Organizations like the American Friends Service Committee, Clergy and Laity Concerned, and the Fellowship of Reconciliation introduced a new dimension to the debate – the questionable ethical implications of nuclear deterrence. And in 1983 the National Conference of Bishops published a pastoral letter that dramatically shifted the way Catholics and other faith communities thought, discussed, and acted in response to the nuclear build-up.

Civil Society Surge

At the same time Nobel laureates and weapons scientists were having extraordinary impact in making technical arguments to U.S. policymakers against new and lethally destabilizing weapons systems and leading the way in forming collaborations with their counterparts in Moscow. A story that has become legendary at Ploughshares Fund involves physicist Tom Cochran of the Natural Resources Defense Council and Soviet Academy physicist Yevgeny Velikov. In May 1986, amid impasses in U.S.-Soviet arms reduction talks, Cochran negotiated a simple two-page agreement with the Soviet Academy of Sciences to install seismic monitoring equipment near the nuclear test sites in both countries. All they needed was money to transport their equipment to the Soviet test site at Semipalatinsk. Within a day of their request, Ploughshares Fund gave its largest emergency grant ever to Cochran, and one month later monitoring began.

The exercise proved that verification was not an obstacle to a nuclear test moratorium or test ban treaty. This was a monumental technical breakthrough that “not only bolstered the public relations value of the test ban, but actually influenced Gorbachev’s thinking about issues of nuclear stockpile maintenance, verification, and the like.”4

For me, it proved that civil society actors can influence global security in ways that governments cannot – small things with big impact.

By the time I became executive director of Ploughshares Fund in 1997 there were many more stories like this – the people living in the shadows of U.S. nuclear weapons plants who challenged the production and testing of nuclear weapons on the basis of the environmental devastation they cause and helped shutter the offending facilities; the experts who sounded the alarm about possible “brain drain” (former Soviet weapons scientists trading their knowledge to would-be nuclear states) and “loose nukes” in the post-Cold War period; the activist citizens around the globe who pushed their governments to extend indefinitely the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty and to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. All this contributed to a dramatic decline in the number of nuclear weapons, from about 60,000 in 1990 to some 34,000 at the end of the decade.

Peril and Possibility

Today there remain more than 20,000 nuclear weapons globally, 96 percent of them in U.S. and Russian hands. Problem solved? Not really. Though we no longer fear nuclear annihilation, “The world is now on the precipice of a new and dangerous nuclear era.”5 So say four men who should know – George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, and Sam Nunn. In their now-famous Wall Street Journal op- eds, the so-called “four horsemen” warned, “Unless urgent new actions are taken, the U.S. soon will be compelled to enter a new nuclear era that will be more precarious, psychologically disorienting, and economically even more costly than was Cold War deterrence.”6

What should those urgent new actions be? Their conclusion surprised many in the nuclear establishment: “We endorse setting the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons and working energetically on the actions required to meet that goal.”7

These words galvanized civil society and sent ripples through official capitals from Washington to Beijing. Certainly there have been movements for disarmament or “abolition” before, but this time is different. Proliferation expert Michael Krepon examines the four historic “waves of abolition” since the end of World War II in a recent essay, “Ban the Bomb. Really.” He concludes that because of the leadership of Shultz, et al., this “fourth wave has more potential than its predecessors.”8 Like previous civil society initiatives, he writes, this wave is values-based. “Many serious thinkers, religious leaders, and former practitioners of the art of the possible have reached a similar conclusion.”9

A new effort, Global Zero, has taken hold with an impressive launch last December in Paris. More than 100 military officials, high-level policymakers, and celebrity civic leaders – representing all political persuasions – from across the world have signed a declaration that calls for eliminating all nuclear weapons globally. They are joined by other efforts such as Faithful Security, a multi-faith community that engages in study and action to eliminate nuclear dangers. Underlying Faithful Security’s work is an unapologetic insistence on keeping the moral imperative at the heart of work for total nuclear disarmament, while working toward the practical, verifiable steps that will bring this vision into being.10

We have an unprecedented opportunity, as civil society, to support and facilitate this agenda, leading the way with innovative ideas, pivotal analyses, and key political support. Each of us can do small things with great impact. We embody the “new spirit of patriotism” that President Obama defined in his acceptance speech that night in Chicago’s Grant Park, that spirit of “service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder” to create a better world. This is our chance.

Naila Bolus is Executive Director of Ploughshares Fund, a San Francisco-based foundation investing in innovative peace and security initiatives worldwide. This year the fund will award close to $6 million in grants aimed at building a safer world.


1 David Perlman, “Sally Lilienthal: Banning the Bomb,” San Francisco Chronicle, Sept. 29, 1996.

2 Randy Kehler, “A New Vision of Security: Remembering Randall Forsberg,” Peacework Magazine, Issue 381, December 2007-January 2008.

3 John Tirman, “How We Ended the Cold War,” The Nation, November 1, 1999.

4 Ibid.
5 George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A.

Kissinger, and Sam Nunn, “A World Free of Nuclear

Weapons,” The Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2007. 6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.
8 Michael Krepon, “Ban the Bomb. Really.”, The

American Interest, (January/February) 2008, 88. 9 Ibid., 92.

10 See http://www.faithfulsecurity.org/html/issues.html