Some cities and states are taking their own initiative to protect the world from a U.S. trigger finger. And they’re mostly led by women.
Dropping an atomic bomb doesn’t happen as fast as it does in the movies. There’s no room with a red, shiny “nuclear button” primed for the pressing. But in the U.S., launching a nuclear weapon does depend on just one trigger finger: The President’s.
Peace builders, activists, and congressional leaders have tried unsuccessfully to take away this unilateral ability since the Cold War, when nuclear war with Russia felt imminent daily. Now, the threat looms again, as tensions between North Korea and the U.S. simmer—and a new group of local legislators are taking the lead.
A broad coalition of representatives, delegates, and state senators from eight states (California, Georgia, Vermont, Maryland, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Iowa) have begun pushing resolutions that put additional pressure on Congress to stop the president’s first-strike powers. And cities such as Northampton, Massachusetts; San Francisco, California; Santa Fe, New Mexico; and counties across Washington State have drafted local resolutions of their own.
As it turns out, almost all of them are sponsored by women. This is no coincidence. In fact, women have been leading nuclear deterrence efforts since the height of the Cold War.
In the late 1970s, defense researcher Randall Forsberg launched the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, a nonintervention and de-escalation movement that laid the groundwork for thousands of nationwide protests, marches, and speeches. Her proposal, “Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race,” was endorsed by peace activists in 1979; and her so-called “Freeze” resolution was endorsed by more than 370 city councils and one or both houses of 23 state legislatures by 1983. While Forsberg’s vision was never fully realized (Reagan’s reelection killed much of its momentum), the coalition of women peace activists she built laid the groundwork for the legislation emerging today.
Out of the sprawling body of 20th century peace activists like Randall emerged Women's Action for Nuclear Disarmament, which eventually became Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND). Founded by physician Helen Caldicott in 1982, during the height of the Cold War, the group’s purpose was to bring women into the discussion about nuclear weapons. As it grew, WAND formed a political arm, to support—and lobby for—women in politics. And now, Caldicott says, their mission is more urgent than ever.
The U.S. government uses explicit checks and balances to control almost every other presidential move. But taking “first nuclear action”—that is, launching an offensive missile, not a defensive one—is purposely designed to be less sticky. There are human checkpoints in place—a short Pentagon meeting is called and a “challenge code” must be read by a senior military official—but the possibility of mutiny is unlikely.
In the end, Congress alone has the power to actually decentralize the president’s nuclear authority. Last January, California Congressman Ted Lieu and Massachusetts Senator Edward J. Markey introduced H.R. 669 and S. 200, the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017. If passed in the House and Senate, they would prevent any sitting president “from launching a nuclear first strike without a declaration of war by Congress.” But more than a year since, no real congressional action has been taken.
Local leaders have no direct jurisdiction surrounding nuclear chains of command. But putting forth resolutions like these at the community level is applying the strongest upward pressure city and state officials have.
“Change has to happen at the federal level, but states can look at where testing is being held, where weapons are being stored...and making sure people are aware of what to do [if anything happens],” said Pam Queen, a Maryland Delegate sponsoring a resolution that supports Lieu and Markey’s bill. “Unless you grew up in the 60s and you went through drills in school, this has not been in your thought process. That’s a new awareness that we’re seeing at state and local levels.”
After college, Queen worked in a lab with the Johns Hopkins scientists who developed the Poseidon and Trident missiles. "I know first hand what our nuclear weapons can do," she said. That’s why now, she is working to keep missiles on the ground: Queen is one of more than 100 legislators and activists who attended WAND’s biennial three-day conference, which invites female lawmakers and activists to discuss a variety of topics, ranging from Pentagon spending, to nuclear disarmament, to how to use effective communication to push for policy change. After the October 2017 conference, many legislators were inspired to draft parallel resolutions: All eight of the state resolutions were sponsored and introduced between January and March 2018.
Mayors and councilors do not typically attend WAND’s conference, and these local leaders have not banded together to pass resolutions in quite the same way that state legislators have. But tension is starting to build in cities, too.
In Northampton and San Francisco, the inspiration for similar resolutions came not from WAND, but from local constituents. Last year, Northampton city council member Alisa Klein was approached by city resident Ira Helfand, one of the founders of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), who asked her and co-sponsor Bill Dwight to draft a city resolution advocating for the abolishment of nuclear arsenals.
What he didn’t know was that Klein, too, had a background in peace-building, and a deep knowledge of nuclear weaponry. After growing up in Israel, Klein served in the Israeli army and was stationed in the city of Dimona, home to the Negev Nuclear Research Center and Israel’s “quasi-secret nuclear arsenal,” she says. “It really seeped into my consciousness at that point.” She went on to graduate school at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, where she focused on the Middle East and weapons of mass destruction. Helfand’s proposal excited her, and she introduced it to her council in November 2017.
Northampton, a tiny town in Massachusetts, doesn’t fit the expected profile of a locus for nuclear resistance. “We have had some tension over the years on the Northampton city council when we pass resolutions that have a national focus or an international focus,” said Klein. “Some of the councilors raised their eyebrows like, ‘This is above my pay grade, this isn’t relevant, we need to make sure we draft the budget and fill the potholes.’” This time, though, the resolution passed unanimously.
“The nuclear arms race scares all of us enough on the city council that we wanted to pass it,” she said. “We had a lot of public comment from people all over Northampton … really encouraging us to pass this, and I think that influenced the vote of some of us who aren’t usually inclined.” While the Massachusetts statehouse is considering its own resolution, sponsored by State Senator Barbara L’Italien, Klein says they weren’t in communication with her, instead sending the resolution straight to the White House.
In San Francisco, Supervisor Katy Tang was also encouraged by one of her constituents, who is involved with Beyond the Bomb—a grassroots nuclear disarmament organization—to address the president’s sole nuclear authority. “I appreciate our residents caring about this issue, which is why we sponsored the resolution,” Tang said. Her resolution passed unanimously last week.
It can be easy to detach from nuclear war in the abstract, because the damage it would cause is almost inconceivable. But in rallying support locally, these legislators warn their constituents of what such destruction would actually look like: Maryland’s resolution says that nuclear retaliation could cause 67,320 fatalities and 102,080 injuries in the Baltimore area; Massachusetts’ stipulates that in Boston, there would be 11,310 deaths and 22,590 injuries; and Georgia’s says that Atlanta would suffer 11,310 deaths and 22,590 injuries. Numbers like these can help the urgency of the matter come to life.
“We feel like the city level—the local level—is where it all starts,” said Klein. “It’s where we can amplify the voices of everyday citizens to our state legislatures and to the federal legislature.” Many mayors agree. In June, the U.S. Council of Mayors unanimously adopted a “Mayors for Peace” resolution, urging Trump to lower nuclear tensions.
Besides, the nuclear Freeze movement was always strongest at the grassroots, says Linda Kimball, an activist who organized Freeze campaigns in 1980s Ohio. After a long resume of humanitarian and defense work, she now calls herself a “professional peace-builder.” But she remembers those early years as dangerous, hopeful, and “highly spirited.”
Though Markey, Lieu, and all the female legislators championing first-strike bans are members of the Democratic Party, advocates say the fight for nuclear deterrence crosses party lines. Red states, like Georgia, have passed resolutions as readily as blue California.
But with someone like Trump in the White House—threatening fire and fury on Twitter—legislators say these resolutions have taken on a heightened urgency. “[Why isn’t] Congress saying, ‘We’re not going to let any individual single-handedly move the United States into nuclear conflict’?” said Illinois Representative Carol Ammons, whose resolution is still in its drafting stages. “I’m looking for that statement.” Their statement has yet to come. In the meantime, research says that women such as the legislators rallying for change are the right people for the job.
Advocates acknowledge that stopping nuclear war concerns all people, regardless of gender or sex. “This is not a man’s issue, it’s a human issue,” said Nancy Parrish, the executive director of WAND. “But we have research and studies that prove that we are much more likely to achieve peace, and a sustainable peace, when women are in the discussions and in the negotiations.” According to data reported by UN Women, when women are included in peace processes, there is a 20 percent bump in the chance an agreement will last two years, and a 35 percent increase in the chance that it will last at least 15 years.
“It was very much a deliberate approach to have women lead these endeavors,” said Queen. “We can be strong without having to use brute force.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that the Massachusetts statehouse passed a nuclear deterrence resolution. That resolution is still in committee.