What is the future of public engagement in the quest for peace and a nuclear weapons-free world?
Consider an oft-forgotten artifact of the nuclear age: black-and-white photographs of Central Park, New York City on June 12, 1982. They are pictures of protest. A throng of people mid-step with bright signs hovering over their heads: “No More Bombs,” “Freeze the Arms Race,” “Give Peace a Chance.”
It is easy to let the gaze wash over the homogenous mass of people, totaling about one million strong according to news reports. But if you focus, individual faces will emerge. Men with full-bodied mustaches craning their necks for a better view. Women with fly-away hair, cupping hands over their eyes to block the sunshine. The look of determination in each of their faces punctures through time, compressing the gap between eras. The people powering the 1982 Anti-Nuclear Weapons Rally — the largest nuclear disarmament protest in the history of the United States — look familiar. They look like they could be my friends today.
Thirty-seven years later, the United States has yet to replicate a similar showing of citizen champions for nuclear security and disarmament. The spread of nuclear weapons remains a major international threat for almost seven in ten Americans, but it trails behind terrorism and the spread of infectious disease. People are less likely to engage in discourse, let alone protest it. Civil dissent has coalesced around climate change, racism, police brutality—threats that are most proximate, violent, and palpable today. The pictures taken on that balmy Saturday in 1982 have become a bittersweet reminder of what public interest in nuclear issues looked like at its prime.
I, too, often wonder about the modern citizen ally who would take up the cause today. Not a seasoned policy expert or anti-nuclear activist, but the next-door neighbors who would give their time to fight for a nuclear weapons-free world. Do they exist? Who are they today? Where are they?
Then, I met one of them. His name is Andre.
I was at a conference open to nuclear policy scholars, aspiring anti-nuclear activists, and regular passersby curious about the event. Andre belonged to the third category; he decided to stop by and listen given his interest in progressive causes. Tall and lanky with a light scruff, Andre patiently waited by the wings of the auditorium. He had just heard me speak about nuclear policy and public engagement, and he wanted to talk afterward. Instead of asking about specific policies, he approached me with a simple, but disarming question, "What does peace mean to you?"
Peace and a nuclear weapons-free world are inseparable ideas, down to the very symbol created by activists more than sixty years ago. The peace sign, a circle with lines outstretched like arms inviting an embrace, is derived from a flag semaphore signal for the letters “ND” — shorthand for nuclear disarmament. But the symbol has come to mean more than that over the years. As we talked, Andre and I made our way outside the auditorium. We agreed that while nuclear disarmament is a critical dimension of peace, violence will persist as part of the human experience. Disarmament is, as E.B. White says, a temporary “relaxing of tension” and cannot promise peace alone. So what, exactly, does it mean to reach a peaceful existence? In our shared reflection, I learned that Andre is in his early 30s, a kickboxer turned Buddhist and helps fundraise for doctors in conflict zones. He hasn’t figured out life just yet, only that he wants to follow a moral compass towards peace.
Andre’s question encapsulates what many young people feel about inheriting a complex and chaotic world. While the world’s population skews older, social change is driven by the next generation. Experts call them “Generation Possible,” Millennials and Gen Z willing to put their politics and purchasing power behind their choice causes. With the invention of direct crowdsourcing, millennials reinvigorated donating and volunteering for social responsibility. About 87% of Gen Z think that politics is important, while 85% say they would stop supporting brands with unethical business practices. This values-driven culture gave way to movements and revolutions around the world for racial justice, gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights, environmental stewardship, and democratic ideals. But the multiplicity and intensity of these issues are a heavy cross to carry; the mounting pressure to save the world from everything can turn to generational anxiety, burnout, and disillusionment. Social justice also emboldens different visions for the future as it relates to identity, human rights, and political ideology—a multitude of meanings that can inadvertently present an ambiguous, if not fragmented, approach that frames the work as a competition among all the world’s afflictions.
Amidst our stroll, Andre offered a different take on peace. He compared it to another universal symbol: the hand. Fingers are independent digits tethered together by the palm. In the same way, our dilemmas today may appear separate from one another but they, in reality, have a central anchor not immediately felt or seen. Andre pondered aloud whether peace is that binding agent, a belief that individual actions, no matter how seemingly irrelevant or unsynchronized, converge to create a more harmonious and equitable future. Seen this way, peace is not an end-state, but a behavior. And by extension, it is continuously expressed—always a work in progress—rather than something to be achieved. Peace, then, becomes more than a single act, but about uplifting everyone and everything around it towards that central, greater good.
The chill of evening air moved through us, refreshing like Andre’s insight. It was a much-needed reminder that there are innumerable ways to peace, including the fight against nuclear weapons. Its relevance never diminished, only recast to make space for other problems that plague the modern world. This is where the meaning of “peace” deviates from traditional notions of “security” applied to nuclear weapons thinking: peace does not subscribe to a zero-sum, always-or-never outlook in life. Rather, peace is, as scholar Ximena Davies-Vengochea observes, a dynamic and culturally attentive social choice. This definition has always been available to us, only if we are willing to hear and receive it. During the inauguration ceremony of U.S. President Biden, Poet Amanda Gorman expressed it clearly with searing words: “For there is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
To wish for full public attention on nuclear weapons today is neither fruitful nor fulfilling; the more important task at hand is to articulate how a nuclear weapons-free world is bound with other pursuits of peace. How does it lend itself to anti-racism or environmental preservation? Is there a clear and genuine connection, and if so, what does this look like in practice? Sometimes the most meaningful gesture is the most humble one: sharing the spotlight, even allowing others to lead the way. Doing so may reveal exactly what is needed to actualize the demands on those protest signs that our forebears carried proudly in 1982. When nuclear weapons production, detonation, and the threat of use disproportionately exploit generations of people of color around the world and the lands that they live in, the struggle for racial and environmental justice are undeniably entangled with the call for “no more bombs.”
When Andre and I thanked each other for a heartfelt conversation and parted ways, the cloudless sky had welcomed the bordering darkness of night. Andre is the ideal portrait of the modern citizen ally; I can imagine him in those old photographs, locked in arms with the men and women forming the backbone of that historic rally. But I am grateful that I met him the way I did, on a pensive walk through an unassuming street with normal life happening around us. It is there that I realized that nuclear knowledge is not only shaped by facts, but by engaging with everyday people who are, in their own ways, trying their best to be the light. At that moment, Andre became a formidable peer, his question about peace a tuning fork that helped me re-align my expertise with a greater purpose. Our talk leveled the field between expert and audience.
It comforted me to know that, like so many young people today, he is intent on weaving the threads that bind all social justice issues together. If nuclear experts, scholars, and activists accept this convergence, they may find that the people’s power never left their side.