At Ploughshares Fund, we support emergent expert voices as a way of injecting fresh ideas into nuclear arms control and educating the public about nuclear weapons. As part of that commitment, we have created an interview series in which up-and-coming researchers, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, discuss their work and its relevance for nuclear security.
Our second interview is with Dr. Vincent Intondi, a historian based at Montgomery College in the Washington, DC area. His book African Americans Against the Bomb was published by Stanford University Press in 2015.
I want to thank you, Vin, for joining us today. We’ll dive right in with questions in a minute, but first I wanted to give you a chance to introduce yourself and your research. What sort of topics do you study and how did you get interested in them?
Well, my name is Vincent Intondi and right now I wear a lot of hats. I’m associate professor of history at Montgomery College in Takoma Park, MD, where I teach mostly African American history and US foreign policy. I’m also the director of our new Institute for Race, Justice, and Community Engagement. I’m the director of research for American University’s Nuclear Studies Institute, and just recently I started working with the Union of Concerned Scientists on programs to get more diverse voices, specifically African American voices, in the disarmament movement. I’m also now on the board of New York State Peace Action Fund.
My research primarily deals with the intersection of race and nuclear weapons. For most of my career as an academic and as an activist, my interests revolved around civil rights and the black freedom movement, and I was really convinced that would probably be the track I would pursue with my career. In many ways I have, but in 2005 I made my first trip as a graduate student to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to meet with atomic bomb survivors. I went as part of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University where I got my PhD. And I was so filled with guilt and rage and anger and concern about what my country had done that when I came back I told my advisor I had to find a way to combine these two passions of mine: eliminating racism and eliminating nuclear weapons. And he said, “Answer me one question: what did African Americans think of dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?” That started me on this path that I’ve stayed on ever since.
Your book makes it very clear that nuclear disarmament has always been closely related to the black freedom struggle in the US. And yet, I think it’s fair to say that history remains little known, even among opponents of nuclear weapons. What would you say are the main lessons the book offers for contemporary disarmament activists and those in the wider arms control community?
When I started the project, many colleagues said you’re not going to find much of a reaction. The thinking was that African Americans were too busy trying to gain their own equality, understandably so, and didn’t really care about nuclear weapons. And when I talked to those that had been in the disarmament movement, they were saying the same thing. There was this general idea that nuclear disarmament was a white, middle class, pacifist issue, and African Americans just weren’t present. And lucky for me, that just wasn’t the case. Now nothing of course is monolithic—not everybody in the black community thought the same way, and African Americans were not always at the center or forefront of the movement, but clearly this issue was in the black community from the very get-go – from 1945 on. And what hit me about this research was that African Americans, many again, not all, were looking at this issue through a different lens than most whites. They were looking at it through the lens of colonialism. They were looking at it through the lens of race. They were seeing things differently, and I saw that difference throughout the 40s, the 50s, the 60s, and so on – even into the 80s.
So one of the lessons is that black activists were consistently arguing that their struggle for freedom was inextricably linked to liberation movements around the world and to issues of peace and nuclear disarmament. That’s a key insight that I think should be learned today.
A lot of those in the black community were saying we wanted to be involved but the white groups simply wouldn’t come into our community. They didn’t want to combine the issue with race, they didn’t want to talk about economic conversion. So I think today when we hear this buzzword of intersectionality thrown around in terms of how coalitions need to be built, that’s a real lesson we could learn. I think now, with Trump and Putin, or with environmental racism, it’s so clear how race is part of this entire issue of nuclear disarmament and arms control.
Absolutely. I want to return to something you just referenced. One theme that comes across repeatedly in the book is the fact that for many African American activists, opposition to nuclear weapons was part of a broader struggle against colonialism. Could you explain that linkage a bit? I think many in the United States are unaware of the internationalism of the black freedom movement – the focus tends to be on the domestic sphere.
There has always been in the black community here a connection with Pan-Africanism or anticolonialism, so when the bomb is dropped you see immediately people like Paul Robeson going after the colonialism issue. So he was asking the question, where are we getting the uranium to build nuclear weapons? And of course it was the Belgian controlled Congo. He was saying that what happens in Africa, what happens in the non-white world, is directly connected to us.
In 1955 we have this pivotal year where Emmett Till is heinously murdered in the summer and in December Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat on the bus. But that same year we also have the Bandung Conference in Indonesia, the first all African-Asian conference, in which these nations call for an end to white supremacy, an end to colonialism, an end to nuclear weapons – and again, that resonates in the black community. You have liberation movements or independence movements happening—Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, Algeria—and at the same time the French want to become a nuclear power. And where are they going to test their first nuclear weapon? In the Sahara.
It’s Bayard Rustin from the Civil Rights Movement who says, “Do you not see how these things are connected? We must do something.” So this issue of colonialism, whether in terms of Native Americans, who would call it radioactive colonialism, or nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, French Polynesia, or among the Australian aborigines, there is this pattern here of how nuclear weapons affect the larger non-white world. And many in the black community, the Black Panther Party and others, were looking at the issue through that lens.
Part of the reason I wanted to bring it up is the UN is currently debating a nuclear weapons ban treaty and it’s been talked about in similar terms – as a sort of revolt against the dominance of the nuclear-armed states, some of which are ex-colonial powers. Obviously we’re in a very different historical moment than the period of decolonization, but do you see a connection there? Are there parallels we can draw?
I think it’s strikingly clear. Now we also have to deal with countries like India, Pakistan, and China – obviously there are non-white nations with nuclear weapons. But when you see over 120 nations, many of them non-white majority nations, all fighting at the UN to get rid of nuclear weapons, when you look at treaties that have been passed in Latin America – and you juxtapose that with a Trump and a Putin, who many would argue are authoritarians with a white nationalist worldview, 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons, and threatening to use them, I think it can’t really be clearer. If you want to add in not just the materials of nuclear weapons and who possesses them, but also the economics piece, where money is being spent or could be better spent – that adds another layer to it as well.
Could you give us a quick preview of your current research?
Originally the plan was to start a large project—I was thinking 7 to 10 years—on how nuclear weapons impact the larger non-white world, looking at all these different areas - African uranium mining, nuclear testing, etc. People have written books or pieces and kind of danced around it but I want to look again in a larger, global sense. That will happen – but I paused that project because throughout my talks and appearances, the June 12th, 1982 march consistently keeps coming up. I think part of that is because there are negotiations in June at the UN, and so many people I run across, whether it’s people who were on the famous end of the disarmament world, or even just rank and file regular people, tell me they either got their start at the June 12th march, the June 12th march was their motivation, or they ask - why can’t we replicate that? How did they get a million people together?
I realized now is the time to write that book. So I’m writing a book specifically about the June 12th march and how they were able to pull it off. What did they do right or wrong? Could it ever be duplicated? Because we haven’t had this sort of attention to nuclear weapons since the 1980s - so what was it then? Already just in interviewing people like Helen Caldicott and David Cortright, it’s been amazing to hear what they went through, what they thought about it. I’m interested in where they got their funding, how they worked with different groups, the race issue, all of these things.
That seems very timely. I think there are new people coming to the nuclear weapons issue today—maybe not as many as in the 1980s—but people are genuinely disturbed by the idea of an erratic president with his finger on the button. So I wanted to wrap up by giving you a chance to offer us some final thoughts on the situation today. What’s your analysis of the present moment and where do we need to go from here?
It is frightening - especially when you have Trump, who I don’t think if you sat him down and asked what the triad is he would even know. I’ve always said that regardless of party, the most important question you need to ask yourself when you go into the voting booth is - if we are faced with another Cuban Missile Crisis, who do you want sitting in Kennedy’s chair? That should, no pun intended, trump everything.
As for what’s going to happen, I am hopeful that we can start a movement up. The thing with the nuclear ban treaty—why I’m so in favor of it—is at the end of the day what we need is something simplistic that people can rally around, like Keystone was for the environmental movement. Keystone wasn’t the be-all, end-all, but it was tangible, it was symbolic, it was something you could get people into. And look what it did for the environmental movement and climate change. I think the ban treaty is the same kind of thing. It’s very simple: banning nuclear weapons at the UN through a legal framework. I think that really is something you can recruit people around.
Climate change ten years ago was in some ways in disarray. There were a lot of groups not talking to one another or talking at each other. They had to figure it out and finally they did. I think the disarmament movement is in some ways like that right now. You have NGOs and policy folks. You have arms control folks and disarmament folks. You have questions about whether nuclear disarmament should be a single issue or combined with militarism. All of these things need to have a coming together moment. We need to figure out how we are going to build this movement again – because it was successful in the 80s. This nostalgia for Reagan, this revisionist history that he was the disarmer in chief, is just not true – he was pushed to do that. Maybe we can’t push Trump to disarm but we hopefully can freeze him.
Well thank you so much for joining us, Vin, and I’m sure we’ll speak again soon.