Monica McAghon – Published on MCALL – January 24, 2022
A week ago Martin Luther King Jr. Day was celebrated with speeches, TV programs and thousands of gatherings across the nation. Often overlooked in those celebrations of King’s profound moral courage and humanitarian justice was his opposition to war and nuclear weapons.
In 1957, in Ebony Magazine, King said: “I definitely feel that the development and use of nuclear weapons of war should be banned. It cannot be disputed that a full scale nuclear war would be utterly catastrophic.
“Hundreds and millions of people would be killed outright by the blast and heat, and by the ionizing radiation produced at the instant of the explosion.”
The first resolution of the United Nations General Assembly in 1945 proposed the elimination of nuclear weapons. The U.S. claimed that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki won the war.
The U.S. kept much of the effects of bombings secret, especially the widespread radiation sickness.
Sensing the worldwide condemnation of the atomic bombings, the U.S. under President Eisenhower pivoted to a policy of Atoms for Peace, a euphemism for developing nuclear power energy, yet continued to develop, manufacture and stockpile nuclear weapons.
In 1958, Dr. King was contacted by SANE, the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy. Dr. King signed the organization’s petition to halt nuclear bomb tests.
In 1959, Dr. King spoke of the dangers of nuclear weapons at the War Resisters League’s 36th annual dinner. “Not only in the South, but throughout the nation and the world, we live in an age of conflicts, an age of biological weapons, chemical warfare, atomic fallout and nuclear bombs … Every man, woman, and child lives, not knowing if they shall see tomorrow’s sunrise.”
In 1963, the U.S. and Russia agreed to a Limited Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Meanwhile, Dr. King, who had became one of the most well known leaders for the civil rights struggle, continued to speak of a broader view of social justice and world peace.
“These two issues,” King said in 1968, “are tied together in many, many ways. It is a wonderful thing to work to integrate lunch counters, public accommodations, and schools. But it would be rather absurd to work to get schools and lunch counters integrated and not be concerned with the survival of a world in which to integrate.
“And I am convinced that these two issues are tied inextricably together and I feel that people who are working for civil rights are working for peace; I feel that the people working for peace are working for civil rights and justice.”
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the UN Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, the only binding agreement among five nations with nuclear weapons: China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and United States. Other states that developed nuclear weapons — India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea, have not signed the treaty.
The UN scheduled hearings on the 10th review of the treaty but postponed them due to COVID. Now is the time to raise public awareness about the humanitarian and environmental dangers of nuclear weapons, before the UN review of the treaty, tentatively set for August.
The U.S. will spend $634 billion over the next decade to modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Why?
Having more nuclear bombs and missiles does not deter or make us safer. We must pivot to protect the rights of people and the planet, because nuclear war combined with climate change will deliver disasters of epic proportions.
In his speech at New York City’s Riverside Church in 1967, King said, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
The non-nuclear nations at the UN organized and in January 2021, ratified the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, declaring all nuclear weapons illegal. The U.S. and other nuclear states did not sign.
Why? The US claimed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons was enough and now the two treaties must be aligned.
Dr. King’s values still apply to civil rights, and we must apply them to abolish nuclear weapons.
Monica McAghon, an Easton resident, is a member of LEPOCO Peace Center.