Shealah Craighead



Newly-Elected Women Should Challenge U.S. Nuclear Posture

On Tuesday night, women made history. For the first time the United States elected more than 100 women to serve in the United States House of Representatives. These women are diverse in so many ways – the first Native women, the first Muslim women, the youngest woman. They bring incredibly different backgrounds – from military veterans to teachers.

As these newly-elected women converge on Capitol Hill and are sworn in January, they have the opportunity to challenge the nuclear status quo and usher in a new era of nuclear nonproliferation. Many of our nuclear policies have been the same since the invention of the atomic bomb. The president’s nuclear posture review touts “escalate to de-escalate” and relies on the Cold War tactic of mutually assured destruction. The president maintains the sole authority to launch a nuclear weapon and can do so at any time without further authorization. Right now, the United States is risking a return to the Cold War by trashing international agreements regarding nuclear weapons (INF, JCPOA) and building “more usable” nuclear weapons.

Women have played a crucial role in ending dangerous nuclear policies in the past. They led the way in demanding that the United States government put an end to atmospheric nuclear testing after their organizing efforts revealed radioactive isotopes in baby teeth. They led the nuclear freeze movement of the 1980’s. Today, Beatrice Fihn is leading the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize winner, in their work to advance the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons which has now has 69 signatories.

While men have been caught up in the need to build bigger, better weapons regardless of the monetary, health, or environmental costs, women have understood the existential threat these weapons pose. Women have and continue to push back on the assumption that we cannot survive without our nuclear arsenal.

Right now, there’s a small but growing women’s movement against nuclear weapons taking place across the United States. Women in state legislatures from Georgia to California have introduced resolutions in nine states calling on Congress to end the president’s sole authority to launch a nuclear weapon. The president has the power to unilaterally decide to launch a nuclear first strike against another country, and no one can stop the president once that order has been issued.

The United States has 1,444 nuclear weapons deployed and ready for use. Hundreds of those weapons are on hair-trigger alert, ready to launch in as few as ten minutes. The United States had largely stopped paying attention to our nuclear arsenal over the last two decades as the Cold War began feeling more like history. But after the last two years of fire and fury tweets aimed at North Korea and tweets warning of Iran of “dire consequences,” it has become clear that our nuclear arsenal, and the ease with which our president can use it, is not just a problem of the past.

There’s a clear solution to the risks posed by sole authority: enacting a policy of no first use. Representative Adam Smith, who will assume the gavel and become the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee in the 116th Congress, introduced legislation that would make no first use the official policy of the United States. It is time for the United States to question our nuclear assumptions. For decades we have been guided by the theories of deterrence – the idea that we must not only have nuclear weapons, but have enough to cause so much destruction that no one would ever dare use such a weapon against us, while also maintaining a credible threat that we could and would use them at any time.

Maintaining the right to strike first does not make us safer. In reality, this policy endangers the United States and our allies as it encourages other nations to build and stockpile nuclear weapons in order to deter the United States. It is time that we abandon these worn-out Cold War policies.

Every woman who is being sworn into the 116th Congress should build on their newly-minted legacy of changing history by championing the policy of no first use of nuclear weapons.

History was made on Tuesday, but it was only a first step. The incredible women who have been newly elected to serve in the 116th Congress now have the opportunity to champion policies that have been ignored by those in power for too long. Women have played an important role in reforming reckless nuclear policies in the past, and it is time for them to do it again.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article named Adam Schiff the incoming Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. It is, in fact, Rep. Adam Smith.