Another Way People Power Can Help Prevent Nuclear War (Other Than Pressuring Our Leaders)

Another Way People Power Can Help Prevent Nuclear War (Other Than Pressuring Our Leaders)

a review of Open Borders: A Personal Story of Love, Loss and Anti-War Activism. Betsy Bell (Kenmore, WA: 2018) by John M Repp

Betsy Bell lives in West Seattle and is a neighbor of one of the activists in West Seattle Neighbors for Peace and Justice, which is part of the coalition Washington Against Nuclear Weapons organized by Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility. This is a memoir by Betsy that was just published this year and it tells of citizen diplomacy in the 1980’s.

The Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union heated up after Ronald Reagan came into office in January 1981. He greatly increased the size of the military budget and pursued a more aggressive foreign policy. This helped set off opposition to the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms race. At the same time, the Navy was building up a base at Bangor, Washington for the new Trident submarines so they could patrol the Pacific. Each boat is almost the length of two football fields and would be able to launch many intercontinental missiles, each with many nuclear warheads. Seattle is also the base for Boeing, one of the largest companies supplying planes and missiles to the military. This made Seattle one of the main targets in a nuclear war.

This was the historical context in which the organization called Target Seattle began organizing, culminating in a week of teach-ins, followed by a mass meeting in the Kingdome with 14, 000 people attending. Aldon (Don) Bell, a dean at the University of Washington and Betsy’s husband, was the leader of Target Seattle.

The strategy of the group was to get Americans to sign a peace letter to be personally delivered to citizens of the Soviet Union by members of Target Seattle. A description of the visit to the Soviet Union including Moscow, Tashkent and Samarkand in March 1983 by 33 Seattleites to deliver the letters is one of the highlights of the memoir. The group deftly used Seattle’s established Sister-City connection with Tashkent as their vehicle for the visit.

One sentence in the peace letter reads: “We must work together to create peaceful means of resolving conflicts and take steps to reduce the danger of nuclear war.” (p. 7) Over 42,000 Americans had signed. In one of the four essays written by other participants of the movement included in Open Borders, it’s written that a month after the visit, 120,000 citizens of Tashkent signed a letter of peace to the people of Seattle! (p.81)

Woven through this memoir is Bell’s efforts to become a more independent person. She had to overcome the role assigned to women growing up in the 1950’s to be just a wife, mother and helpmate. It was in her passion to put together a multimedia slide show of the trip and get it shown over the U.S. that helped Bell come into her own.

There is tragedy in this story. Don got fired from his job as Dean at the University of Washington with no explanation. Fortunately, he was retained as a professor in the history department. The young photographer who took the pictures on the visit that were used in the slide show died young. And Don at age 62 died less than a decade after the 1983 visit.

No one knows what effect these citizen diplomacy efforts had. We can surmise that if they had been larger, had more large cities done the same thing, the existential threat of a nuclear war could be a thing of the past. Bell writes in the Introduction to Open Borders that she is “more frightened by the possibility on nuclear war” now in 2018 than she was in 1982. (p.viii) Maybe the strategy used by Target Seattle should be used again.