On November 20 1983, along with millions of other North Americans, I watched The Day After, a horrifying television film about a nuclear war between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. The CBC carried it in Canada. After it finished, CBC broadcast a live discussion which included Jim Stark of Operation Dismantle, a group dedicated to nuclear disarmament, as well as Barbara Amiel and Patrick Watson. When I found out that Operation Dismantle had an office in Ottawa, I went and volunteered.
I remember Jim Stark as a very impressive individual, full of energy and good humour. He believed in his cause, and worked relentlessly to instill that belief in us volunteers. He would say “we’re going to do this, we’re going to make this happen.” We needed the pep talks: this was during the Age of Reagan, when the U.S. had matched its tough anti-Soviet rhetoric with an increase in arms spending and was leaning on Canada to allow cruise missile testing in this country. Everybody was afraid The Day After would come true.
Canada acquiesced to the missile tests, of course. Jim Stark told reporters that it was because Ronald Reagan played hardball and had threatened then–Prime Minister Trudeau with tariffs on softwood lumber. Trudeau said no, that wasn’t the reason, and that we had allowed the tests because we’re just being a good NATO ally. But everyone knew that Trudeau, the consummate anti-military elitist, had had to swallow his pride and knuckle under to the holder of the great nuclear umbrella.
It was fun working for Dismantle, and Stark was an inspiring guy, but because of those kinds of political and economic realities the whole cause of nuclear disarmament sometimes looked—and felt—hopeless. And, perhaps more than most Canadians, I understood first hand the implication of an American threat to slap tariffs against Canadian softwood: in the first few years after dropping out of high school, I had worked in the sawmills of British Columbia and knew how important they were and still are to the BC economy. Trudeau really didn’t have a choice.
So in spite of Stark’s optimism, the situation looked dire. Who could have predicted, then, that within a short decade, Stark’s prediction of a wholesale dismantling of nuclear weapons would actually begin to come true. I refer of course to Megatons to Megawatts, the U.S.-Russia agreement of 1993, under which 15,000 Russian warheads have indeed been dismantled and turned into electricity (see article). That is good news for us in North America. Those weapons were pointed at us.
Megatons to Megawatts covered only Russian weapons made from enriched uranium. Soon, American power reactors will be making electricity with plutonium, the other nuclear explosive. The U.S. and Russia have each agreed to destroy 34 metric tons of military plutonium this way. That is enough to make another 8,500 nuclear bombs.
Jim Stark, wherever you are, I hope you feel a bit of vindication. You were right: it was possible.