Arnie Alpert is a retired activist, organizer, and community educator long involved in movements for social and economic justice. Arnie writes an occasional column Active with the Activists for InDepthNH.org.
Arnie Alpert, Active with the Activists
PORTSMOUTH – When Jake Roche asked then-candidate Joe Biden about Senator Elizabeth Warren’s bill to prohibit first use of nuclear weapons, the former vice president laughed. “I supported it twenty years before she introduced it,” he said.
Calling nuclear weapons an existential threat, Biden told the Berlin, New Hampshire audience that he considered nuclear weapons “an existential threat.”
Re-stating his support for a “no first use” policy, Biden went on to say, “My effort will continue to be, as president of the United States, to continue to reduce the total number of weapons that exist in the world that are nuclear in nature.”
That was two long years ago. A year into Biden’s presidency, groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists and NH Peace Action think he needs a reminder.
That’s why they gathered at Market Square in Portsmouth on a blustery Saturday afternoon.
“The United States is now upgrading and rebuilding its entire nuclear arsenal at tremendous cost,” Judy Elliott told a group of about 20 people huddled in the cold in front of North Church. “President Biden’s first budget failed to slow that dangerous juggernaut or even to cut the new weapons added by the Trump administration,” the Canterbury activist said.
There were two reasons why they chose Portsmouth. First, the Port City is one of nine New Hampshire cities and towns which have adopted resolutions calling not only for a “no first use” policy but for steps leading to the worldwide elimination of nuclear weapons. Dover’s City Council, Durham’s Town Council, and Town Meetings in New London, Exeter, Barrington, Warner, Alstead, Peterborough, and Lee have adopted similar resolutions.
According to Sandra Yarne, a Durham peace activist who emceed the rally, over 300 local and state officials from 41 states have written to Biden asking for him to adopt a No First Use pledge and a number of other policies aimed at taking the world “back from the brink” of nuclear holocaust.
“Local leaders around the country understand that nuclear weapons are the greatest threat to public health that we face,” said Dr. Ira Helfand, past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility and a leading advocate of the Back from the Brink agenda. “We have to understand that these weapons do not make us safe; they are the greatest threat to our security, and we need a fundamental change in U.S. nuclear policy based on that reality.”
There’s another reason for the location – and timing – of the Portsmouth event. The Biden administration is in the process of drafting its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which the Union of Concerned Scientists says, “provides top-level guidance for all decisions made about nuclear weapons while it remains in place, so it informs the choices of those throughout the military and civilian nuclear weapons establishment as they prepare budgets and pursue programs that can reach decades into the future.” It’s a document that every president since Bill Clinton has revised and approved.
By gathering in Portsmouth, the hosting groups hoped to get the attention of local resident Jake Sullivan, the president’s National Security Advisor. Although responsibility for drafting the new NPR rests primarily with officials at the Defense Department, Sullivan has the president’s ear. And it’s the president who would ultimately sign off on any revision to the nuclear doctrine.
The 2018 version, approved by President Donald Trump, expanded the circumstances under which the United States would consider using nuclear weapons, including against non-nuclear adversaries. In other words, the United States was now openly declaring that it would consider starting a nuclear war. Moreover, the sole authority to launch nuclear weapons rested with a single individual, a president known for erratic and impulsive behavior.
In addition, the Trump NPR advocated development of a new “low-yield” warhead to be deployed on submarine-launched missiles. Former Defense Secretary William Perry, former Secretary of State George Shultz, and two dozen other former high officials called the new warhead “dangerous, unjustified, and redundant.” Despite such formidable opposition, it went into production and was deployed early in 2020.
Follow the Money
Based on campaign rhetoric, we might have expected the Biden administration to change course. Even the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, published in March, 2021, stated, “We will take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.” But in Washington, proof of the pudding is in the budget, and the Biden administration’s first defense budget includes funds for continued production of a new generation of missiles, planes, and submarines designed to launch nuclear weapons.
“For the United States to spend $62,000 per minute on these weapons and now considering spending up to two trillion dollars to upgrade them is a huge waste of money and continues to escalate such spending by our adversaries, making the world less safe,” said Rep. Peter Somssich (D-Portsmouth), who spoke at the rally.
“Isn’t it insulting that spending two trillion dollars for infrastructure, such as childcare, community college, climate change issues, are controversial for some senators in Washington but huge Pentagon spending on nuclear weapons is not,” he added.
Speakers at the rally called attention to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, a global accord which went into force last January without the support of the United States or other nuclear powers. “Development, testing, production, acquisition, possession, and threat of use are violations of international law,” observed Dr. Jehann El-Bisi, who also noted how nuclear testing and uranium mining have ravaged indigenous communities.
“Thou shalt not kill. That commandment alone is a basis for upholding the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” she insisted. “With the Nuclear Posture Review now underway, we send a clear message to the Biden Administration: Honor the treaties, honor the international laws: it’s time for no nukes! It’s time for a nuclear free future!”
The Nuclear Posture Review should not be centered on great power competition but on an understanding of the consequences of nuclear war, emphasized Dr. Helfand, who drove to Portsmouth for the rally from his home in Northampton, Massachusetts. “This is not about who comes out on top ten or fifteen years from now. This is about whether we survive.”
“We need to get rid of nuclear weapons because the great powers need to stop competing with each other,” he added. “They need to start cooperating to deal with the other great crises facing us, like the climate crisis, like the danger of new epidemic diseases.”
“Our security demands that they be eliminated,” he said.
Rally participants left with hope that Jake Sullivan had heard them.