In the early 1980s, a number of educators and organizations sought to bring a highly controversial issue back into American classrooms: nuclear weapons. Unlike their parents’ generation, students would not be learning how to “duck and cover” in the event of a nuclear attack but would discuss the choices involved in averting nuclear warfare. The idea of a nuclear curriculum for high schools and elementary schools sparked a national debate. Opponents of the initiative feared that young children would be exposed to leftist indoctrination and political fear-mongering. Speaking to the American Federation of Teachers in July 1983, President Ronald Reagan said the initiative seemed “to be more aimed at frightening and brainwashing American schoolchildren than at fostering learning and stimulating balanced, intelligent debate.” Proponents, on the other hand, emphasized the need to teach children about how international conflict could be avoided and argued that the new curriculum would address rather than reinforce fears that already existed.
The global discussion surrounding nuclear weapons has changed profoundly since the end of the Cold War. Youth attitudes towards nuclear issues are no longer a matter of public concern. Instead, anxieties in the ‘West’ are focused on ‘horizontal’ proliferation: How can we prevent ‘rogue’ states such as Iran from developing the capabilities to build nuclear weapons? How dangerous is a nuclear-armed North Korea? How can we prevent terrorist organizations from buying, building or stealing a nuclear bomb? As a result, various opinion polls can tell us what Americans and Europeans think about a nuclear-armed Iran (unsurprisingly, they are not very fond of the idea). But much less information is available about what the public – and especially young people – think and know about other issues related to nuclear weapons, and the reasons behind the lack of attention paid to disarmament and preventing nuclear war.
Despite significant reductions in global nuclear forces since the end of the Cold War, today's nuclear weapons states still possess approximately 16,300 nuclear weapons. The five recognized nuclear weapons states under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) - China, France, Russia, the UK and the USA - maintain 98 percent of the world’s nuclear warheads, and all are either deploying new delivery systems or have announced plans to do so in the future. These trajectories are by-and-large seen as inevitable facts of international life.
A handful of polls in recent years have sought to find out what people actually know about nuclear weapons, their effects, their deployment, and current efforts to curb their proliferation. They imply, for example: that Americans are fairly ignorant about the size of the US nuclear arsenal and know little about the NPT; that a solid majority of people in Belgium, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands seem to be blissfully unaware of the fact that their countries still host US nuclear weapons; and that awareness of the existence and work of the IAEA is extremely low in North America and Europe. Even less information is available on young people’s awareness of issues related to nuclear weapons.
In a 2013 survey of young people in nine countries*, conducted by the Soka Gakkai International (SGI) group, 91 % of the respondents felt that nuclear weapons were “inhumane” and 80% supported a comprehensive treaty banning these weapons. At the same time, only 72% of respondents were able to identify the United States as a nuclear weapons state, while 55% named Russia and 42% North Korea and China, but no more than 20% listed the UK, France, India, Pakistan or Israel. Even among British survey participants only 65% were aware that their country had nuclear weapons. Likewise, in a more recent study among young people in the UK, almost a third of the respondents said they “didn’t know” about the current situation regarding nuclear weapons in their country.
The results of these surveys do not imply that young people are indifferent towards the challenges posed by nuclear weapons. In fact, today’s youth might be more inclined than their parents’ generation in viewing nuclear arms as a liability rather than an asset. The results of these surveys do however, clearly show that today’s generation feel less familiar with, less affected by, and – consequently – more disconnected from the debate surrounding nuclear weapons.
In the 1980s, nuclear weapons were not only a very political but also a very personal topic. The real possibility of nuclear war was presented in films, books, newspapers, in school, at the dinner table. Thankfully, the post-Cold War generation is not growing up feeling on the brink of annihilation. But that means that the urgency to do something about thousands of nuclear weapons that remain in the world is missing; the links between security, disarmament and non-proliferation are under-explored, and at the same time, today’s nuclear weapons debate has become less accessible for young people. The technical language and jargon surrounding it makes it abstract and distant. Awareness of and access to the debate are important because the threats arising from nuclear weapon deployments remain highly significant; these weapons continue to pose major life-threatening challenges to current and future generations, whether in existing hands or if they spread to new ones.
Finding out more about what young people know and how they learn about nuclear weapons is the first step to making the issue more accessible. The current lack of debate is not simply a sign of declining interest. Yes, young people are less interested in discussing nuclear weapons because they appear to be less relevant to their own lives. But interest is a function of knowledge and accessibility. Surveying public knowledge can produce insight into how and by whom debates are framed and controlled. Indeed, attitudes towards nuclear weapons are deeply intertwined with national identities and national security narratives; this is why public and political debates about nuclear weapons differ from country to country. These narratives tend to be reflected in young people’s views on the topic, but there are still unanswered vital questions about how, when, and what young people are learning about nuclear weapons. We need to do more to educate the next generation because they will be the ones inheriting the remaining 16,300 nuclear warheads.
* Japan, U.S., U.K., Italy, Australia, South Korea, Brazil, Malaysia and Mexico
These are the views of the author.
Image: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2130620