Unapologetic about Arguing for Peace


Ivana Nikolić Hughes | Nuclear Age Peace Foundation - TRANSCEND Media Service

1 Nov 2022 – The photographs haunted me. It was the early weeks of the Ukraine War and mothers were reading bedtime stories to their children in Kiev subway stations. The images combined some of the most anxious and most delightful moments I had spent raising three children in New York City. Did the subway station have an elevator or would I have to carry the stroller down the stairs? Were the kids too close to the tracks or too far from me in the subway car?

These memories stand in sharp contrast to the ones of snuggling at home to read at bedtime, memories marked by the softness of a child’s skin and the sweetness of their voice, asking for one more book before drifting off to sleep. The blending of subway and bedtime hit me hard. And the chaos portrayed in other photographs from around Ukraine also hit home, reminding me of the years of war, pain, and suffering as my birth country of Yugoslavia fell apart.

How all of this could be happening again, I wondered. I was certain that a peaceful solution could be found and that whatever differences existed between the two nations and governments could be addressed to end the bloodshed and suffering. When Yugoslavia broke up, the existence of three main religions: Catholicism, Islam, and Orthodox Christianity, was blamed on the conflict. But this time, the largest Christian Orthodox nation brutally attacked the second largest. Seemingly, religious differences are used when they support the war narrative and a lack of them is ignored when they don’t.

Throughout the 250 days of war and counting, the more I’ve looked for calls for peace, the more war mongering I’ve found. Although organizations like the Pugwash Conferences presented peace proposals soon after the war started, our government representatives, supported by the mainstream media, have only shown an increased commitment to war with their words and our tax dollars. The early images of peace negotiations didn’t lift my hopes for peace either. Featuring only men on both sides of the table, they made me wonder if the presence of women might have made a difference. Worse yet, as we near nine months of war, there are no images of negotiations at all.

The seeming lack of calls for peace in the mainstream is just the beginning of the problem. As some of our foremost leaders, like Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama, Antonio Guterres, and Noam Chomsky, have called for peace, they’ve been quickly labeled as Putin apologists or worse. The Progressive Caucus in Congress sent a letter to President Biden urging him to pursue a diplomatic solution, only to withdraw it just a day or so later. When did peace become a bad word, a dirty word – to quote Cynthia Lazaroff? JFK was able to negotiate with Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis and Nixon with Mao following decades of isolation of China. I find the comparisons of Putin to Hitler not only unconvincing, but insulting to the tens of millions of people who died during World War II in Europe and elsewhere in battles, bombings, concentration camps, and otherwise. Yugoslavia had the third highest number of World War II casualties per capita, a tragic history that contributed to the conflicts that took place there in the 1990s. I grew up with this history deeply embedded into our lives, including through regular school trips to concentration camp museums. To justify an insistence on war against Putin by equating him to Hitler is to profoundly misunderstand history.

More treacherous even than the pain and suffering of Ukrainian and Russian people and everyone else affected by the food and energy crisis the conflict has caused, the insistence on war has led to a normalization of discourse around nuclear weapons use. This is simply unacceptable. Nuclear weapons must never be used again and we must do everything in our power to not just de-escalate but end this war before it’s too late. We now understand that nuclear weapons would not only kill millions indiscriminately and instantaneously, but their use would be followed by many more slow deaths due to radiation impacts. Worse yet is the fact that even limited regional nuclear war would kill over two billion people due to something scientists called nuclear winter over 40 years ago. Today, our understanding of nuclear winter is quantitative and precise and we have been warned that it would put the very existence of humanity at risk. Even if nuclear weapon use at present ended up being limited to a few warheads, breaking the 77-year old taboo would open the door for a full-blown nuclear war in the near future. As Einstein put it, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

How did we get here? One could attribute the rise of extreme polarization in the US to the divisiveness Trump brought to our national political scene. But this time Biden has pushed for conflict intensification, rather than de-escalation both with Russia and China. Social media, too, has played a profound role in this divergence, according to the work of William Brady from Northwestern. Brady demonstrates that the more emotional the language a Twitter user employs regarding moral judgements, the more engagement they get from followers, and the more emotional their future tweets become. This creates a positive feedback loop of moral outrage and echo chambers that prevent us from engaging in discussions worth having.

As the President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (NAPF), a Santa Barbara organization that has fought for peace in this nuclear age for four decades, I remain steadfast in arguing for peace, however unpopular that opinion may be. In the early months of the war, NAPF wrote and posted a Declaration of Concern, committing to establish a civil tribunal to “pronounce upon the nuclear dimensions of the Ukraine War and global crisis on the basis of law, morality, and spiritual core of human identity.” We are now in the planning phases of setting up such a tribunal. Besides our focus on bringing an end to the Ukraine War, we are also committed to ridding the world of nuclear weapons. Here, there is actually good news: the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) is a UN Treaty that is now fully in force and has been ratified by 68 countries and counting. If there ever was a good time to abolish nuclear weapons – before they abolish us – this is it.

NAPF, under my leadership, will continue to fight for peace, unapologetically. And someday, mothers will read to their children about the time when certain countries had very scary and dangerous weapons, but people of the world came together to get rid of them responsibly. She will read this with them snuggled safely at home. Not in a subway station.


Ivana Nikolić Hughes is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and a senior lecturer in chemistry at Columbia University. Her research on environmental impacts of nuclear weapons testing in the Marshall Islands has been covered widely, including by the LA Times.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 7 Nov 2022.

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