Teaching resources on peace and disarmament: Lessons from the classroom

Ploughshares Defence & Human Security, Nuclear Weapons

Anna Jaikaran

Anna Jaikaran belongs to no2nuclearweapons, a small Toronto group working toward nuclear disarmament through public education. The group has been giving presentations in high schools since 2010. Anna is also a member of Science for Peace and the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace, and is a Campaigner for the 2020 Vision Campaign of Mayors for Peace.

Ploughshares Monitor Volume 34 Issue 3 Autumn 2013


What are we doing wrong? Why can’t we convince these people that nuclear weapons should be abolished?

These were the questions we were asking ourselves after we began giving presentations about nuclear weapons in high school classes.

When we started, we had vaguely imagined that most students were in favour of nuclear disarmament. Now we realize that most students never think about nuclear weapons; if they do, they see them as only one of a number of looming threats. As a friend in her twenties told me, “People have been telling me the world was going to end my whole life.” In the absence of public discussion, it is difficult to walk into a classroom and convince students that nuclear weapons are a problem worthy of their attention.

We are not experts. We’re activists. Martha Goodings and I had worked together in a couple of peace groups, but by 2008 we wanted a fresh start. Nuclear weapons were and continue to be an extremely serious threat, but have faded from the public’s consciousness. With the end of George W. Bush’s presidency in sight, we chose this issue and made a goal of reaching new people with our message of nuclear disarmament.


Teenagers meet nuclear weapons

We started speaking to students almost by accident. We were organizing a contest for videos about nuclear weapons and wanted to publicize it in high schools. There are a lot of hoops to jump through before the Toronto District School Board will let a person speak to students. By the time we were approved as external presenters we had developed a talk about the history of nuclear weapons with a handful of PowerPoint slides.

We have been giving presentations about nuclear weapons in high schools for four years now and have spoken to over 2,000 students. After almost every talk we ask the students to fill out a feedback sheet to give us an idea of what they picked up and what they thought about it. So we talk and test, talk and test. We are grateful to have this opportunity, which is teaching us how to bring the issue of nuclear weapons to our audience.

We begin every presentation by telling the students what a nuclear weapon is. We show a diagram of the structure of an atom and explain that the energy for a nuclear explosion comes from disrupting the nucleus. We do this not because it is important that they know how a nuclear weapon works, but because it is crucial that they understand that nuclear weapons are distinct from conventional weapons. Discussion becomes very muddled if they are thinking about bombs in general when we are talking specifically about nuclear weapons. 

Of course, nuclear weapons are the most powerful weapons, but we also emphasize some of the other consequences: radioactive fallout and nuclear winter. We sum up the section on basic facts by quoting the International Court of Justice on the unique characteristics of these weapons: only nuclear weapons “have the potential to destroy all civilization and the entire ecosystem of the planet” (ILPI 2013). This statement was made by a panel of 14 judges from different countries, elected by the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council, after listening to months of expert testimony. If one stops to fully consider it, we believe the inevitable conclusion is that nuclear weapons must be abolished. 

We have not, however, found the statement to be particularly powerful in the classroom. 

We have tried to increase the emotional impact of our message. We explain that radioactive fallout causes cancer and birth defects. We show a photograph of a woman from the Marshall Islands, which were contaminated by fallout from nearby U.S. nuclear testing, and read her description of the most common birth defect in her country, jellyfish babies (Ware 2007). Then we show a photo of a Marshallese child—not a jellyfish baby, but a deformed infant who will die before she is six months old (Nuclear Age Peace Foundation 2013). We explain that her condition is the result of nuclear bombs detonated before she or even her parents were born, that the effects of fallout continue for generations. The image makes an impression and students often mention it on their feedback sheets. But it doesn’t seem to be enough to interest them in nuclear weapons.

I should say, before going any further, that the school board did not give us free rein to convert their students into anti-nuclear-weapons activists. In fact, the board has guidelines for dealing with controversial and sensitive issues, which state that “controversial material must be treated in a fair manner that is thorough, balanced, and free of unfair biases.” Obviously, we are biased—our group is called no-2-nuclear-weapons—and we tell the students so when we introduce ourselves. Nevertheless, we are conscious of the obligation to be balanced.

Deterrence vs. disarmament

The effects of using a nuclear weapon are not disputed; the disagreement lies in the best way to prevent the weapons from being used—deterrence or disarmament. We often discuss the pros and cons of both approaches and are frequently dismayed when deterrence gets a substantially better reception. Then we review the presentation to see where we have fallen short with disarmament.

We thought that maybe students just could not imagine nuclear weapons would ever be used. We used the example that convinced former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to work for nuclear abolition: the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 (Morris 2003). We talked about how President Kennedy took his nuclear forces to defense readiness condition two, ready to deploy and engage in less than six hours—the only occurrence in U.S. history (FAS 1998). We described how Kennedy and Soviet Premier Khrushchev were drawn closer and closer to a military confrontation neither of them wanted (Kennedy 1969). We told the story of the Soviet submarine, with no communication with Moscow, armed with nuclear-tipped torpedoes while the crew believed that the war had started (Lloyd 2002; PBS 2012). Two of the three officers authorized to fire the weapons wanted to do it. If they had launched their torpedoes, it is almost certain that the situation would have escalated to nuclear war. Still the students were not impressed.

We thought that the problem might be our lack of presentation skills. We tightened up our talk, added more video clips, abandoned PowerPoint in favour of the more dynamic presentation software Prezi. It was not enough.

We usually have to squeeze our message about nuclear disarmament in around the edges of curriculum material in history, civics, or occasionally science, which makes up the bulk of our talk. We were given an unprecedented opportunity to speak to a Grade 10 class for four periods over a month. We showed them the entire documentary Countdown to Zero (Walker 2010), which focuses on the current threat from nuclear weapons, using all the resources of the producers of An Inconvenient Truth . And then we discussed it.

However convincing we thought the case for disarmament, the students remained skeptical. They wanted to know how the weapons could be eliminated physically. They wanted to know what could be done if countries agreed to get rid of their nuclear arsenals and then cheated. They wanted to know how countries could ever be persuaded to give up the strongest weapon. We could answer their questions, but we could not make disarmament a perfect solution.

We wrung our hands and then we took a closer look at the feedback sheets. We had included a new question:

“Do you think nuclear disarmament is realistic?” They did not.

It made sense that people would not get behind nuclear disarmament if they did not think it was possible.

A realistic solution

We now talk about the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the commitment made by the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China to eliminate their nuclear weapons, albeit at an unspecified time in the future (check the Project Ploughshares website for more information about the NPT). We describe the extensive monitoring system already in place for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty: 321 monitoring stations and 16 laboratories around the world to detect nuclear testing anywhere, including underground (CTBTO Preparatory Commission 2013). We show a map that highlights the six land-based nuclear-weapons-free zones, in which all countries have voluntarily pledged not to possess, develop, or use nuclear weapons (OPANAL n.d.). We point out that the number of nuclear weapons has decreased from a high of almost 70,000 in 1986 (Norris & Kristensen 2010) to 17,300 today (FAS 2013) and that South Africa, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan have all given up their nuclear arsenals (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament 2013).

Students are much more receptive to the idea of nuclear disarmament when they know about the progress that’s been made so far. And each example of a successful arms control agreement—be it against chemical weapons, biological weapons, or landmines—strengthens the narrative. We invent certain classes of weapons, realize they are too dangerous to use, and negotiate treaties to ban them.

It turns out that we don’t just have to sell the problem of nuclear weapons; we have to sell the solution as well.

There is probably no one right way to talk to people about nuclear weapons. Every new classroom is still a challenge, but, as long as the weapons exist, the effort to hone the message of disarmament will be worthwhile.


Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. 2013. Nuclear weapons: who’s got them? www.cnduk.org/campaigns/global-abolition/nuclear-armed-countries.

Federation of American Scientists. 2013. Status of world nuclear forces. www.fas.org/programs/ssp/nukes/nuclearweapons/nukestatus.html. 

­­­­_____, 1998. DEFCON DEFense CONdition. www.fas.org/nuke/guide/usa/c3i/defcon.htm. 

International Law and Policy Institute. 2013. The ICJ advisory opinion. http://nwp.ilpi.org/?p=1218.

Kennedy, Robert. 1969. Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: Norton.

Lloyd, Marion. 2002. Soviets close to using A-bomb in 1962 crisis, forum is told. The Boston Globe, October 13. www.latinamericanstudies.org/cold-war/sovietsbomb.htm.

Morris, Errol. 2003. The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. Documentary film.

Norris, Robert & Hans Kristensen. 2010. Global nuclear weapons inventories, 1945-2010. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July. http://thebulletin.org/2010/julyaugust/global-nuclear-weapons-inventories-1945%E2%80%932010.

Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. 2013. Marshall Islanders affected by US nuclear weapons testing. NuclearFiles.org. www.nuclearfiles.org/menu/library/media-gallery/image/testing/marshall-islands.htm.

OPANAL. n.d. Nuclear-weapon-free zones around the world. www.opanal.org/NWFZ/nwfz.htm.

PBS. 2012. The man who saved the world. Secrets of the Dead.

Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization. 2013. Verification regime. www.ctbto.org/verification-regime.

Walker, Lucy. 2010. Countdown to Zero. Documentary film DVD.

Ware, Alyn. 2007. The human factor—revising Einstein. SGI Quarterly, July. www.sgiquarterly.org/feature2007Jly-7.html.

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