A discussion of nuclear disarmament necessarily begins in the context of the nuclear explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These unilateral, wartime acts of the United States resulted in a movement against atomic weapons that took shape in dozens of countries around the world and involved hundreds of thousands of people. The movement resulted in a resurgence of War Resisters' International, Fellowship of Reconciliation and Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and the influence of these organizations was substantial. Formal organizations were just one aspect of the reaction against nuclear weapons. (To learn more, read Lawrence Wittner's Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement). The rise of popular advocacy against nuclear weapons served to check the ambitions of the United States and Russia, as well as other members of the early nuclear club (Great Britain, France and China).
As living memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki faded, so did the international movement against nuclear weapons. During the Vietnam War, it became clear to many that the United States would not use nuclear weapons in that conflict because the consequences of world opinion would be too negative. If nations would not use nuclear weapons in Vietnam to advance a military agenda, then would they ever use them, given the existence of advocacy groups ready to engage a grassroots effort against them and precipitate the negative feedback a nuclear detonation would arouse in the world.
If nuclear disarmament advocacy went into remission in the late 1960s, there was a resurgence with the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980. During the Reagan administration, nuclear weapons were modernized and nuclear hawks proliferated a whole class of nuclear weapons. Towards the end of his administration, Reagan changed his position on nuclear weapons, but his proliferation sparked the nuclear freeze movement in the United States and around the world. By the end of Reagan's term, nuclear disarmament advocates again experienced some success in checking the ambitions of nuclear states even if India, Pakistan and Israel had joined the club by then.
As Josef Joffe and James W. Davis point out in their article "Less Than Zero: Bursting the New Disarmament Bubble," in Volume 90, No.1 of Foreign Affairs, "Once again a global movement is afoot to free the world of nuclear weapons. Unlike the Easter marches of the 1950s and 1960s or the nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s, however, this time around, the policy elites themselves are leading the charge."
The recent campaigns by Global Zero, the Nuclear Threat Initiative and other non-governmental organizations reflect a shift in the nuclear disarmament movement from "grassroots" advocacy to the newer "grasstops" advocacy where people of standing in the community spoke for ratification of the New START Treaty and nuclear disarmament generally.
This type of advocacy is unsustainable. As living memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki leaves society, without a popular movement, and absent a precipitating event, popular interest in nuclear disarmament will continue to wane. Grassroots advocacy was the only thing that has kept nuclear proliferation by nation states in check during the 65 years since the nuclear weapons genie escaped from the bottle. It is the only thing that will prevent the nuclear club from growing.