Nuclear Disarmament

Soka University of America Students Meet with IPPNW for Nuclear Disarmament Seminar

| Mitch Bogen
Full group at SUA-IPPNW seminar

Among the causes closest to the heart of the late Daisaku Ikeda was that of nuclear weapons abolition. Inspired by a 1957 speech by his mentor Josei Toda in which he vigorously denounced nuclear weapons as “an absolute evil which threaten humanity’s right to live,” Mr. Ikeda pledged to work ceaselessly for nuclear disarmament, a promise he fulfilled right up to the time of his passing last November. As an organization founded by Mr. Ikeda, the Center is committed to advancing learning and dialogue in support of the dream shared by peacebuilders Toda and Ikeda.

On January 22, the Center furthered its commitment by hosting a seminar that brought together students from Soka University of America (SUA) with representatives from Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility (GBPSR) and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), which won the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize for “perform[ing] a considerable service to mankind by spreading authoritative information and by creating an awareness of the catastrophic consequences of atomic warfare.” As an institution also founded by Mr. Ikeda, SUA brings a global citizenship aspect to all of its courses and programs. The 12 students from SUA who were in attendance are all students in a collaborative research seminar on disarmament issues taught by Professor Alexander Harang, who joined the students in journeying to Cambridge from SUA’s home in Southern California. Representing IPPNW were Executive Director Michael Christ and Program Director Molly McGinty. They were joined by Dr. Joe Hodgkin, Co-Chair for Nuclear Disarmament for GBPSR, an affiliate group of IPPNW. Dr. Hodgkin is also a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School.

Introducing the Seminar

After welcoming remarks from Center Program Manager Lillian Koizumi, who also moderated, Center Executive Director Kevin Maher offered reflections on this special event and how it came to be, as well as thoughts on some of Mr. Ikeda’s core convictions in the quest for nuclear disarmament. First he thanked Christ, McGinty, and Hodgkin for their “inspiring and energizing” contributions during the planning process, praising their “commitment and conviction.” And he thanked Professor Harang for envisioning the seminar and working diligently for its realization, noting how “we’ve had many months of meaningful dialogues on the vision and purpose of this gathering and how it connects with the overall mission of our Center.” All in all, the seminar is “a great joy and honor” for the Center, not least because it is the first time hosting SUA students for an official event.

Before turning to a discussion of Ikeda’s thinking, Maher noted a remarkable synergy. As it turns out, the founders of both IPPNW and the Ikeda Center, Dr. Bernard Lown and Daisaku Ikeda, respectively, began a friendship after first meeting in 1987. “They also shared this deep, passionate commitment to the abolition of nuclear weapons,” said Maher, “both having experienced the Second World War and also the Cold War.” And “these experiences,” he added, “solidified in them the need to rid our planet of these weapons, which exist solely as a threat to life on this planet.” Their legacy, he said, is one “for us to carry forward and actualize.”

To set the stage for the discussion, Maher quoted a powerful passage from Mr. Ikeda’s 2009 proposal devoted to nuclear disarmament. In it, he notes that “Einstein’s famous mass energy formula was originally just an equation in the field of physics. However, human beings discovered in it a blueprint for weapons of unprecedented cruelty.” This means that now:

It is time for us to apply Einstein’s same equation to tap the infinite potential that exists in the depths of each person’s heart and unleash the courage and action of ordinary people to create an indomitable force for peace. In the final analysis, this is the only way to put an end to the nuclear nightmares of our age. In this work, no one has a more crucial role to play than young people. Even the most brilliant idea will be no more than a dream if it remains locked up in one’s heart. To bring it into being as a lived reality requires that we confront and triumph over feelings of powerlessness and resignation.

In the passage, Ikeda goes on to say that “what is needed is the courage to initiate action” and that often “it is the passion of youth that spreads the flames of courage throughout society.”

Maher then turned the floor over to Professor Harang, who shared thoughts on the SUA collaborative research seminar and their hopes for the gathering. Since their research seminar is only three and a half weeks long, it is “very intense,” said Harang, but since the students are “highly motivated” their time together is quite productive. The seminar “starts where the diplomats start,” he explained. They identify all the nuclear arsenals in the world and get specific about exactly the types of weapons that are stockpiled. Then they explore questions such as: “How do you articulate [disarmament] doctrines in a manner all governments can agree on?” Then they research matters such as risk reduction, accidental use, escalatory use, and so on. With this as background, the students use Ikeda’s statement on the G-7 Summit held in Hiroshima last May as their primary source for determining disarmament approaches for their seminar research topics. Can these approaches, they ask, “contribute to new dynamics and practical proposals that can actually make a difference?” Speaking to the IPPNW delegation, Harang concluded that “just seeing how you have actually succeeded in doing exactly what we’re trying to do with our research, contributes to progress being made on [our] project.” Put simply: “Just being with you, it’s an empowering experience. So that’s why we’re here.”

Session One: A Multidimensional Endeavor

IPPNW and GBPSR representatives at a nuclear abolition seminar

After these introductions, the students and the IPPNW delegation shared brief introductions. The SUA students hailed from countries such as Japan and South Korea, as well as the United States and even Ukraine. They also represented diverse personal motivations and academic disciplines. For example, the students from South Korea and Ukraine hail from countries bordered by antagonistic nuclear-armed powers, bringing much immediacy to the threat. Many students were motivated by their interest in global citizenship and a concern for all of humanity, wondering how we can “transcend nationalism” and overcome a collective sense of powerlessness to achieve the goal of nuclear disarmament. Michael Christ talked about how he came to nuclear disarmament work through the environmental movement and how transformative it was for him to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Joe Hodgkin shared how he had roots in peace work with one side of the family being Quakers, including his great-grandmother Dorothy Hodgkin, who was a prominent nuclear disarmament activist and recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Molly McGinty said that she got involved with disarmament work through Quaker Voluntary Services and explained how meeting the nuclear bombing survivor Setsuko Thurlow inspires her work with IPPNW.

Michael Christ: Founding Principles

As first presenter, Christ offered some history, explaining how IPPNW has organizations in 56 countries, with members all being “doctors, medical students, and other healthcare professionals.” The US affiliate is GBPSR, which was formed all the way back in 1961 and whose “groundbreaking research on the medical consequences of nuclear war,” published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1962, really created the foundation for all of IPPNW’s work. When IPPNW was formed in 1980, at the height of the Cold War, the reasoning was that the medical profession could serve as “a mechanism to bridge and transcend political and ideological divides.” In other words, “leave aside the politics and come together as doctors with a moral and professional responsibility to protect human life.” And their core message? The conclusion of the doctors involved was that “there could be no effective medical response to nuclear weapons and prevention is the only cure,” an insight that continues to guide the organization. 

Significantly, the co-founders of IPPNW hailed from the US and the Soviet Union. Dr. Bernard Lown was a physician from Harvard Medical School and Eugene Chazov was a Soviet Minister of Health. Thus, when IPPNW was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985, IPPNW was “condemned” by many in the US and national community for collaborating with the Soviets, portraying them as naïve. And the Nobel Committee was also condemned for giving the prize to “these Communist dupes.” Lown and Chazov never backed down, saying, in Christ’s words, “no matter what’s happening, whether it’s an individual patient or the world, we’re coming together to try to save life.” In this, they displayed much wisdom. IPPNW’s work resulted in many advances, especially in the passing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty. Most significantly, when Mikhail Gorbachev rose to power, the research and arguments of IPPNW had a real impact on his decision to reduce arsenals. Most recently, a great milestone was attained with the achievement of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which led to IPPNW sharing the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). To conclude, Christ shared a passage from Ikeda’s message to the G7 Summit:

[Dr. Lown] also called for humankind to work together across national differences to find a path to peace, describing this as “a prescription for hope.” I believe that the qualities described by Dr. Lown and seen in the physicians who played a powerful role in furthering momentum for ending the Cold War are just those that must be deployed in order to achieve a breakthrough in the current crisis.

Joe Hodgkin: The Moral Catastrophe of Nuclear War

Speaking next, Dr. Hodgkin outlined the ethical case they make for abolishment and the strategies they employ to make it happen. In terms of ethics, the first thing they address is the question of “What exactly do these weapons do to human bodies?” Just a short list of the impacts includes many horrific realities. There is the impact of radiation on the human body, which can last for decades. There are the impacts of the extremely high temperatures, which at the epicenter simply vaporize everything. Further out, the temperatures are suffocating. This is accompanied by literally blinding light. Then there is the shockwave of pressure that can puncture lungs and destroy infrastructure, which also kills humans in the process. Other effects include damage to blood cells in the marrow, damage to the central nervous system, and cancers like leukemia and lymphoma. Not least, there are the devastating psychological effects for the survivors. Then, a topic in its own right is the matter of “nuclear winter,” resulting from the blocking and absorption of sunlight. The implications for food systems and production and general survival are profound.

IPPNW, said Hodgkin, employs four strategies to advance the cause of nuclear disarmament. 

  • The first is to employ the Back from the Brink* policy platform, which is: 1) no first use; 2) ending sole presidential authority to launch weapons; 3) end launch on warning, also known as the hair-trigger alert; 4) canceling the 1.7 trillion-dollar plan to replace the entire arsenal; and 5) pursuing a multilateral, verifiable treaty for total elimination of nuclear arsenals.
  • The second plank focuses on education, which, Hodgkin noted, “is what you guys are participating in right now.” Using slides, he showed some of the venues where IPPNW has engaged in awareness-raising. These include consultations with specialists on nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons; a whole range of talks for medical audiences, including at hospitals and medical societies; participating as experts in journalistic stories at outlets like NPR and major newspapers; and articles in medical journals.
  • The third strategy relates to treaties, which Christ had alluded to. Prior to 2017, the main agreement was from 1968. The “trade-off” here, said Hodgkin, was that non-nuclear states would agree to not develop nuclear weapons and the nuclear states would agree to reduce and ultimately eliminate their arsenals under international supervision. As we know, this stalled, which is why efforts toward the 2017 non-proliferation treaty commenced, making nuclear weapons illegal just as chemical and biological weapons, landmines, and cluster bombs are. Though it has entered into force with 70 countries ratifying, the nuclear-armed countries are not among them. So work remains to be done.
  • The fourth method is scientific diplomacy, which Christ outlined in his presentation. For example, “a way to think about this,” he said, “is when there’s not constructive dialogue going on between the governments of the US and Russia, we open up track two, which is between doctors and scientists in the US and Russia forming some kind of a policy consensus, a recommendation, which then they relay to their respective governments, populations, and media.”

To conclude, Dr. Hodgkin shared a quote from a survivor, or hibakusha, of the blasts in Japan. Setsuko Thurlow was an activist for the TPNW, and during her Nobel Prize speech she said that: “We were not content to be victims. We refused to wait for an immediate fiery end or the slow poisoning of our world. We refused to sit idly in terror as the so-called great powers took us past nuclear dust and brought us recklessly close to nuclear midnight. We rose up.”

Molly McGinty: Grassroots and Global Organizing

Molly McGinty from IPPNW

McGinty opened by saying that she comes from a public health background so she is quite happy to be a part of IPPNW, since “it is the only international health organization with a mission to eliminate nuclear weapons.” Crucially, IPPNW serves “a unique and essential role in the disarmament and health world,” she said. Their ability to bring “evidence-based policy” that is fundamentally “nonpartisan and nonpolitical” enables them to “reach [across] boundaries and stay in connection and communication with folks who aren’t necessarily able to talk to Americans” because of conflicts at a larger nation-state level. A significant amount of IPPNW’s networking and outreach happens within the global medical community. For example, they have worked closely with the World Medical Association to strengthen their stance on nuclear disarmament. They do a number of events through the year with them, create joint publications, and co-host webinars. This relationship is vital, because they are able to “reach a whole wide range of health professionals that we cannot reach on our own.” Just a few of their other medical partners include International Federation of Medical Student Associations, the Royal Medical Association, the World Federation of Public Health Associations, and the International Council of Nurses. One thing they have learned from working with nurses is how they, as first-responders, are especially worried about their capacity to meet the challenge of a nuclear blast.

The other main strand of their outreach and advocacy work is to strengthen and advance the TPNW. While the TPNW has been “entered into Force,” the truth is that the major nuclear states have not been cooperative. Nevertheless, more and more countries are coming out in support, including allies to NATO and the US, such as Australia. Among European states, Ireland and Austria are “leaders of the TPNW.” The main objection from nuclear-armed states is based on their belief in the weapons’ deterrence value, said McGinty. In response to this argument, McGinty shared a quote from Dr. Kati Juva observing that “nuclear weapons have permitted the [current] war in Europe, not prevented it or helped maintaining peace, as a deterrence mantra goes.”

Ultimately, much of the outreach work really boils down to “demystifying the issue” for more and more people. In short, this is a multi-layered endeavor, which can include “education, influencing decision makers, connecting beyond borders, reaching the public, and building our base,” said McGinty. One especially productive activity is contacting your “parliamentarian.” In particular, she added, “ICAN also has a parliamentary pledge where any elected representative can sign on and say, I support the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and I hope that my federal or national government will attend the next meeting of the states or sign on to the treaty.” Another program that is relevant to university students is the Youth for TPNW. She wrapped up by describing a fun “bike trip” tradition that young people engage in at the time of IPPNW gatherings or UN meetings. What happens is students “will go from maybe a city center to where we’re having our conference” and over the course of several days “they will bike from place to place, reach local decision makers, reach mayors, reach religious institutions, and talk about the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, [and] about the climate crisis as a threat to public health.” One positive thing about this tradition, McGinty said, is connecting with people in person instead of just online.

Session Two: Stakeholder Mapping Workshop and Concluding Q & A

After a morning session Q & A in which the group discusses such topics as how IPPNW engages with and incorporates climate change issues into their work, the gathering broke for lunch, followed by an afternoon session focusing on strategies for increasing the effectiveness of advocacy work. Specifically, Dr. Hodgkin introduced a process called “stakeholder mapping.” In this activity you engage in a “skill” that enables you to answer the question: “Who are the stakeholders in my community and how do I engage them to accomplish my goal?” In this model, stakeholders are mapped along a y axis representing relative degrees of power, ranging from least powerful on the bottom and most powerful on the top, and an x axis representing relative levels of agreement, ranging from more agreement on the left and less agreement on the right. Thus, when mapping:

  • The upper left area is for people or groups who are in high agreement and have more power
  • The upper right area is for those who are in strong disagreement and have more power
  • The lower left area is for higher agreement and lower power
  • The lower right area is for lower agreement and lower power

To illustrate, Hodgkin offered an example of activists worried about obesity who want to see a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. In this, the upper left, highest in agreement and power, might include public health workers, and the upper right, highest in power and disagreement, would be the beverage industry. How this works, from the perspective of the activist, said Hodgkin, is that: 

in order to achieve our goal, we actually have to be in dialogue with everybody in the community. And not everyone is going to support us. And we’re not going to convince everyone to support us. But what we want to do is we want to take the strong opponents and make them into weaker opponents at least. We want to take the weak opponents and make them weak supporters at least. And we want to take the people who are like, yeah, I agree with you, and get them to say, yes, I will introduce your legislation.

For the activity, participants along with presenters broke into three groups with each mapping stakeholders and constituencies for nuclear disarmament legislation to be introduced in the California House of Representatives.

Photo of stakeholder mapping exercise

During share back, group one explained that that they took a particular interest in the military sector and what it would take to move support forward there. One idea would be to have soldiers who had been exposed to nuclear testing share their perspectives. If support could be grown at any level within the military, it could help to change policy. Michael Christ agreed that this could be a fruitful avenue, saying that they should definitely get in touch with the well-established group Veterans for Peace. He added that the perspectives of the “nuclear guinea pigs” had been neglected, but that “over the years has gotten stronger and more recognition.” A UK group called LABRATS is one group working on this.

Group two worked on public sector constituencies. In their view, the lowest agreement but highest power group might be university nuclear labs. Whereas the highest power and agreement could be local government. In between would be groups such as military industrial organizations and the media. The highest agreement but lowest power could be the hibakusha. Explaining their thinking about the importance of the local government, they posited that a mayor or other local officials are stakeholders that could be very open to student presentations based on research. Christ added that these officials could be open to “a conversation about how much money is spent on nuclear weapons and militarism, and how resources are being diverted away from city needs and real people’s needs.” As an example of the importance of labs, they cited the case of Joseph Rotblat,*** who worked as a scientist developing the first atomic bomb  as part of the Manhattan Project. But soon after, he become an anti-nuclear weapons activist. He revealed how all people have the capacity to change, they said. And this could be quite powerful.

The final group looked at economic constituencies. In their view, nuclear energy companies would be the most powerful opponents, while groups in the two middle positions might include banks who might have mild opposition and constituencies such as the fishing industry who might have mild support, as their livings are on the line. In the high support and high-power group you might have the Catholic Church as well as the biggest environmental groups. For examples of strategies, they thought banks might be persuaded through actions such as divestment campaigns and that church groups and various denominations and faiths might be able to unite over “sanctity of life” framings. Hodgkin thought this sounded good, and said that helping communities disentangle themselves from the nuclear weapons industry is an important challenge.

The topics for the Q & A came from the students’ research topics. The first topic pertained to helping to move states out of the deterrence mindset in which nuclear weapons are seen as vital for their protection. McGinty said that that cause isn’t helped when, for example the United States opposes Iran having capacity but then turns around and just “hands that technology over to Australia,” since, in the view of the US, “they are a sound and reasonable ally of ours.” Hodgkin added that a core problem is that “everyone’s got their own narrative about, well that person broke their treaty, or they’re increasing their stockpiles, they’re modernizing, so we have to do this.” Christ added that in this “security paradigm,” our “state don’t feel safe unless we’re a little ahead militarily than the other, which makes the other one feel less safe. So they need to catch up and be militarily superior. So there’s this competition that never ends.” So we should keep a focus on challenging this paradigm, he said. 

Another topic was the possibility of the Middle East becoming a WMD-free zone. McGinty said that IPPNW works closely with the Middle East Treaty Organization, and attended the recent Middle East WMD Free Zone Conference. The trouble is that the US, the UK, and Israel boycott it, making it difficult to move forward. Christ added that pre-Gaza there had been some halting progress — which McGinty described as  “real, true dialogue” taking place, the quality of which you rarely see in international relations. Now, with the Gaza war, said Hodgkin, which has been so “devastating” that it’s “really, really hard to know how to appropriately respond as a peace organization.” Nevertheless, said Christ, we have seen “that there are some places in the world that in the 20th century were unspeakably violent that are now really peaceful and prosperous.” The collapse of the Berlin Wall is one such example.

Over the course of a closing discussion on the efficacy of the “no first use” doctrine and the policy of “negative security assurance,” in which nuclear-armed states pledge to not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states, the IPPNW delegation offered some closing reflections. If the current nuclear powers seem recalcitrant, said McGinty, “never underestimate the power of nonnuclear-weapon states in influencing the norms about the possession and ethics of these weapons. It was they, after all, who made the TPPNW a reality. Christ stated that “the world wants to disarm.” Almost half the nations of the world have “signed or ratified” the TPPNW and even within other states there is strong support among citizens for disarmament, he said. 

Michael Christ from IPPNW

Addressing the students from SUA, Christ said, “Thank you all very much for being a part of this [and] allowing us to be part of your conversation,” adding, and “thank you for the work that you’re doing and for your commitment” to solving these issues. Hodgkin added that as you “go through struggles and go through successes and accumulate power, I hope that you maintain [both] what you’ve learned here and your idealism.” McGinty concluded with her own encouragement, noting that she has found that all her “power and impetus” comes from the people she encounters doing the hard work of nuclear disarmament. With that, With that, Christ passed around the actual Nobel Peace Prize that Bernard Lown and IPPNW received in 1985 for students to view. Consider it a “tribute to what is possible,” he said.


* Back From the Brink describes itself as “a US-based grassroots coalition of individuals, organizations and elected officials working together toward a world free of nuclear weapons and advocating for common sense nuclear weapons policies to secure a safer, more just future.”

** According to the Nuclear Threat Institute: “Upon Ukraine’s 1991 independence, over 1,700 Soviet nuclear weapons were left on its territory. Ukraine never possessed operational control of the weapons, and all were removed to Russia under a 1994 agreement in exchange for security assurances.”

*** Joseph Rotblat worked on the Manhattan Project developing the atomic bomb for the US, but resigned in 1944 after Germany halted development of its bomb. In 1955, Professor Rotblat was one of the eleven signatories of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, which invited scientists from around the world to ward off the danger of nuclear weapons being used again. To advance this cause, he founded the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs in 1957 and was secretary-general and later as its president for forty years. In 1995, Dr. Rotblat and Pugwash received the Nobel Prize for Peace.