The atomic bomb that the U.S. dropped 75 years ago was built by a project named after one of the boroughs. Manhattan, however, was also an early site of resistance to nuclear arms. 

Adi Talwar

The statue ‘Good Defeats Evil’ outside the United Nations, created by Zurab Tsereteli, depicts the slaying of a beast composed of the remnants of Soviet and U.S. nuclear weapons.

New York City’s history of “no nukes” sentiment is driving a piece of City Council legislation that eyes ties between the city’s pension funds and the nuclear weapons complex.

The atomic bomb that the United States dropped on Japan 75 years ago Thursday was the product of the Manhattan Project, so named because early work on “the bomb” took place in New York City. Manhattan, however, was also an early site of resistance to nuclear weapons. 

A history of resistance

Concern about the moral and security implications of the atomic age took shape within a matter of months in the city. The New Yorker magazine devoted almost all of its August 31, 1946 edition to documenting the horror of what the device called “Little Boy” did to Hiroshima. It is said that Albert Einstein bought 1,000 copies.

At noon on June 15, 1955, when every able-bodied person in New York not working in essential government services was ordered into fallout shelters for a citywide civil-defense drill, a small group of protesters from the Catholic Worker, the War Resisters League and other groups headed to City Hall Park. There they publicly refused to take part in what they considered a normalization of the atrocity of nuclear warfare, according to John Loughery and Blythe Randolph’s  recent biography of Dorothy Day. They were arrested, briefly jailed, and made national headlines. It was a small preview of the anti-nuclear sentiment that, 27 years later, drew a million people to Central Park for what was at that time the largest demonstration in U.S. history.

Though faded “fallout shelter” signs still adorn the basement entrances of some buildings, there is little discussion of the nuclear threat to New York City today. Material from the city’s Office of Emergency Management about radiological risks focuses on the potential impact of a “dirty bomb” rather than the threat of an enemy warhead. Over the past two decades, the local anti-war movement has had conventional conflicts, like the invasion of Iraq and the use of drones in Afghanistan, to worry about.

Plenty of bombs

But nuclear weapons are still very much a part of the U.S. arsenal, and those of its friends and rivals.

According to the Federation of American Scientists, the United States still has 1,750 nuclear warheads deployed in land-based Minuteman missiles, aboard Trident submarines and in the bombs carried by B-52 long-range bombers. Russia is estimated to have abut 1,600 warheads deployed. Together, the U.S. and Russia have another 8,100 warheads in stockpiles. 

The other members of the nuclear club have far fewer—China about 320, Pakistan 160, North Korea 35 or so—but you don’t need but one to achieve mass destruction, as the residents of Hiroshima learned at 8:15 on a Monday morning. 

Despite the clear numerical advantage enjoyed by the U.S., conservative policy advocates have been calling for years for an expensive effort to revamp the arsenal, and President Trump has asked Congress for steep increases in funding for new and improved nuclear arms.

Council considers new steps

Two pieces of legislation before the City Council, both of them authored by Finance Committee Chair and Queens Democrat Danny Dromm, push in a very different direction. 

Resolution 976 would, among other things, call on the New York City Comptroller to instruct the public employees’ pension funds to “divest from and avoid any financial exposure to companies involved in the production and maintenance of nuclear weapons.” 

Intro 1621 would create “an advisory committee to examine nuclear disarmament and issues related to recognizing and reaffirming New York city as a nuclear weapons-free zone.” 

Both measures have at least 34 co-sponsors in the 51-members, a veto-proof majority. 

The measures could be dismissed as symbolic grandstanding by a legislative body that barely has authority over the city budget, let alone nuclear weapons. But divestment has proven in the past to be a powerful tool for advocates hoping to get the five boroughs on the right side of national issues. The city’s pension funds are exploring how to divest from fossil-fuel reserve owners. All five of the city’s pension funds have gotten out of stocks associated with the private-prison industry, and some of them have divested from gun manufacturers and retailers, as well as from thermal coal companies. The state pension fund froze its holdings of tobacco stocks in 1996 and firearms companies in 2013, has moved away from private-prisons stocks and divested in 2009 from companies doing business in Iran and Sudan. Many of those changes in investment strategy came after sustained public pressure.

Divestment risks and rewards

The challenge for proponents of nuclear-weapons divestment is that the list of companies linked to the production or maintenance of nuclear weapons or delivery systems includes some of the largest corporations in the country. One of those firms, Boeing, is one of the top 40 stocks in the city’s pension portfolio—with $110 million in holdings at last count. And the pension funds’ primary purpose is to make sure the city can pay retirees’ pensions without having to ask taxpayers to help out. 

Divestment proponents insist nuke stocks can be cut out without exposing the pension funds to new risks or lower earnings. At a January hearing on Resolution 976, Michael Lent, the chief investment officer at Veris Wealth Partners LLC, says a lot of his clients have been excluding nuclear weapons stocks for years. “It has made little or no difference to the returns they received versus traditional portfolios that include manufacturers of nuclear weapons,” he said. 

Supporters of the two measures say the risk posed by nuclear weapons is far from passé. Tom Gogan, representing the New York Chapter of U.S. Labor Against the War, noted to the Council in January that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist had recently adjusted its “doomsday clock”–which represents the perceived threat of nuclear conflict—to 100 seconds to midnight, the most dire assessment ever. Nuclear tensions between the U.S. and North Korea or Iran mean that “we are at an incredibly dangerous moment in the history of the human race and our entire planet.” 

The office of Comptroller Scott Stringer indicated to City Limits this week that it remains focused primarily on the fossil-fuel divestment. While the focus of all city government in months ahead will be on navigating the COVID-19 crisis, it will be interesting to see if Speaker Corey Johnson, who like Stringer is seeking the Democratic nomination for mayor, moves Resolution 976 or Intro 1621 to a vote.