by Nick Mele
Pax Christi USA Working Group on Nuclear Disarmament
Ed. Note: On January 22, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will enter into force. This is the second in a series exploring different aspects of the issue in relation to the treaty taking effect. Read the first article here.
In April 1967, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., drew a bold line to connect militarism with racism in a speech he made at Riverside Church in New York City. King was attacked for his opposition to the Vietnam war, but the United States has chosen war over racial and economic justice throughout its history. Our nuclear weapons program, like all US weapons programs, distributes tax money from ordinary people and transfers those funds to corporations and stockholders who profit from designing, producing and maintaining weapons of mass destruction. The economic harms done to people of color by the defense industry extend well beyond diverting funds to address basic human needs.
The textbook narrative of the Manhattan Project focuses on the work of scientists and engineers at a few places: Los Alamos, New Mexico, above all. The scientists and engineers are often depicted as exclusively white males although that was not the case. That narrative also neglects to mention the relocation of communities in New Mexico, Tennessee and Washington state, among other places. Indigenous people and Latinx people (along with poor whites) were forced off their land in the U.S. and Canada. Many African-Americans rushed to find work at sites like Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Hanford, Washington. They found themselves living in segregated communities and later suffered from radiation sickness, cancers and other conditions due to exposure to radioactive materials. Still other indigenous people mined uranium ore and suffered the consequences in the Southwest and near Spokane, Washington.
After World War II when nuclear bomb tests began in the South Pacific, Marshall Islanders lost their homes and suffered from radiation-related conditions. Congress promised and passed access to health care to address their conditions, but then withdrew access in the 1990s; it has never been restored. During Covid-19, the lack of health care for communities of color affected by the nuclear weapons industry contributed to the higher rates of infection, death and serious after-effects of the virus among these populations.
Given this history, it is no surprise that the U.S. government continues work to undermine the Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons. Just weeks ago, the Trump Administration lobbied states that have already ratified the Treaty urging them to withdraw from it. Most of the ratifying nations are, of course, located in Africa, South and Central America, Asia and Oceania. The incoming Biden Administration is committed to reducing the U.S. nuclear arsenal, so now is the time for reducing our nuclear arsenal and moving toward ratification of the Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons which enters into force in less than one month.