Like millions of others this summer, Beatrice Fihn went to the cinema to see Oppenheimer. As an anti-nuclear campaigner and, until last year, the executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (Ican), Fihn had high expectations. Even before Christopher Nolan’s three-hour biopic of the father of the nuclear bomb had been widely released, it had drawn criticism for what it omitted: the horrific realities that the Japanese in Hiroshima and Nagasaki experienced; the suffering of “the downwinders”, the Americans who were afflicted by radiation exposure following the Trinity test in 1945.
Fihn, however, loved the film. “I thought it was a fantastic art piece,” she told me from her home in Geneva when we spoke recently over Zoom. Fihn, who is 40 and Swedish, has a laid-back charm. She was blasé about critiques of the film. “I feel like, as activists, we sometimes look at art and we want it to be like a campaign film,” she said. “Trying to make art that checks all the [right campaign] boxes is not very exciting art.”
Yet she remains the consummate ambassador for her cause. “I think it’s been a great opportunity to open up conversation,” she said. The more people debating the realities of nuclear bombs, the better. After all, when it comes to weapons of mass destruction, there’s one thing she’s certain of: “One day someone will use them.”
It was in these pages in November 1957 that the writer JB Priestley laid out his galvanising argument against the UK’s own nuclear weapons. In an essay entitled “Britain and the Nuclear Bombs”, Priestley argued for unilateral disarmament, laying out the unrealistic beliefs underpinning the country’s nuclear programme: “[A]s one ultimate weapon after another is added to the pile, the mental climate deteriorates, the atmosphere thickens, and the tension is such that soon something may snap.” He did not equate disarmament with pacifism; he did not suggest that giving up nukes could be done without trade-offs. But he appealed to the public’s moral character. “Our bargaining power is slight; the force of our example might be great,” he argued.
A surge of supportive letters to the New Statesman’s office on Great Turnstile Street in London followed, and after a meeting with the then editor Kingsley Martin and others, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was soon born. Yet after the Cuban Missile Crisis, fear of nuclear war among the public had waned; a May 1963 Gallup poll found that just 31 per cent of the British public were “a little” concerned about nuclear weapons. Though the CND received a boost in support at the height of the Cold War in the 1980s, disarmament eventually faded into a fringe cause in most of the UK (though the SNP backs it). Even Labour’s 2017 manifesto under Jeremy Corbyn, who is a vice-president of CND, reaffirmed the party’s commitment to renewing the Trident nuclear deterrent.
Elsewhere, however, momentum was building behind disarmament. Fihn was named the executive director of Ican in 2014, aged 31; the organisation had fewer than five employees at the time. By 2017 she was accepting the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of Ican, for its work rallying people to the cause and establishing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), an international, legally binding agreement that bans the development, testing, production and threat of use of nuclear weapons. The treaty became effective in January 2021 and 69 states have now ratified it.
[See also: The end of the pariah state]
Yet in the UK – as well as in the other nuclear states, none of which have signed the treaty – the cause for disarmament is widely viewed with scepticism. Following Ican’s Nobel win, the Economist responded with a headline calling nuclear disarmament a “nice but pointless idea”.
It can be difficult, after more than 18 months of war in Ukraine, to recall those alarming early days of the conflict. When Putin issued his not-so-veiled threats of using nuclear weapons, people began openly discussing bomb shelters. Sales of iodine tablets surged across Europe. The war, Fihn told me, “really, really exposed how vulnerable we are to this”.
The war in Ukraine has also coincided with an alarming expansion of nuclear weapons programmes. In 2018, when Donald Trump occupied the White House, Congress passed a law requiring the Los Alamos (where the first atomic bomb was created) to dramatically ramp up production of “pits”, the plutonium core of nuclear weapons. According to Time, Los Alamos had produced only one pit in the previous decade; by 2026, it is expected to produce 30 a year. Meanwhile, the UK government announced in 2021 that it would be increasing the limits on its nuclear arsenal from 180 warheads to 260.
“I think it’s so stupid from a military strategy perspective,” said Fihn. Nukes, she argued, are an anachronism and antithetical to the way conflicts are now waged. “These weapons are extremely useless; they wipe out civilian populations, they are not precision guided. They’re not the high-tech kind of weapons or automated weapons that’s [necessary in] the new frontier of warfare. They can’t narrow down to a military target. These weapons are meant to cause maximum harm to civilians.”
Speaking to Fihn, you get the sense that she relishes these debates. She rolled her eyes when I asked her about the Economist calling disarmament “pointless”. “It’s extremely bizarre to me how we often get accused of being naive,” she said. “Why isn’t the Economist arguing that Iran should have nuclear weapons [if they’re necessary]? You can’t have it both ways, right? Like, either they’re dangerous and countries shouldn’t have them, or they work and then everyone should have them.”
What of the argument that democratic nations can’t give up their nuclear weapons first because it will unfairly tip the balance of power against us? Fihn is sceptical of the notion of deterrence by threat of retaliation: “There’s absolutely no evidence that nuclear weapons prevent war.” But she is especially firm on this point: so long as nuclear weapons exist, we’re all vulnerable. “Even if another country uses weapons against you, rationally it doesn’t make sense to use them back,” she said. It would lead to universal annihilation.
The fundamental problem, she said, is that nuclear deterrence relies on rationality. “We have created a security system that fully relies on [Putin] acting the way we think he will act.” And it’s not just the so-called Bad Guys who pose a threat. Fihn recounted an anecdote shared by the Democrat Nancy Pelosi: following the 6 January riots, the US politician called the Pentagon’s top general for assurances that there were safeguards to stop Trump should he authorise the use of nuclear weapons. “She kind of indicated that they assured her that they wouldn’t [allow nuclear weapons to be used],” said Fihn. On the one hand, Fihn is relieved that Trump wouldn’t have been able to launch a nuclear attack; on the other, “that’s a military coup. If the generals refuse an order from the democratically elected president, that’s not the kind of safety system that we [want to] have in the world. That’s pretty dangerous.”
At the end of last year Beatrice Fihn announced she was stepping down from her position at Ican. She remains on the board of the organisation, but she told me she wanted to step back from day-to-day operations and think more strategically about where the campaign needs to go. “People are so depressed and negative and cynical about our abilities to do things,” she said. But she remains undeterred. “This issue will keep hanging over us and it will come back to bite us if we don’t fix it.” In this she all but echoes one of the most poignant lines from JB Priesley’s seminal essay from 1957: “Getting out of the water may be difficult but it’s better than drowning.”
[See also: What Putin learned from Hitler]