Psychology and Nukes: PsySR Takes a Stand, Again

Guy Larry Osborne, PhD

Psychologists for Social Responsibility (PsySR) was founded in 1982 during the Cold War the same year the American Psychological Association issued its statement calling for a halt to the nuclear arms race. Disarmament was PsySR’s first and primary reason for being. During this era, a number of papers were published in professional journals on the role of psychology in understanding the effects of living with nuclear weapons and the challenges of responding to the aftermath of a nuclear war. However, as explained to me by Yosef Brody, current president of PsySR, priorities of the organization shifted after the fall of the Berlin Wall. PsySR’s focus broadened outward to include other progressive issues and, since 9/11, torture/human rights became a priority for many activist/peace psychologists. Nuclear disarmament remained on the PsySR agenda (see, but was one of many other issues vying for the attention of socially responsible practitioners in the field.

Recently, however, evidence of the continued dangers of nuclear proliferation and the emerging threats of nuclear terrorism has made itself known again. For example, according to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the world as of 2015 is once again at 3 minutes to midnight on its “Doomsday Clock” due to the joint threats of climate change and nuclear terrorism. International tensions in Eastern Europe involving Russia, Ukraine, and NATO are presenting new nuclear risks. Secretary of State George Schultz, among others from the political mainstream, is characterizing our present times as approaching a “nuclear tipping point” as the UN Nonproliferation Treaty fails to adequately reign in the world’s production of nuclear bomb material and secure it from accident, theft, or malevolent use.

Until recently my involvement in disarmament work was limited mostly to the local level as a concerned citizen living near the Y-12 Nuclear Weapons Facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. In mid-2015, I joined the newly formed Militarism Action Group of PsySR facilitated by Serdar M. Degirmencioglu. Over the next weeks, Serdar encouraged me as I prepared a proposal to the PsySR Steering Committee to recommit to nuclear disarmament as a high priority issue for psychologists and join a network of other reputable professional and grassroots organizations such as the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability (ANA). While two excellent resources were already available through the PsySR website (“Preventing Armageddon in the 21st century” by Morton Deutsch, and Using psychology to help abolish nuclear weapons: A handbook by Marc Pilisuk and Jamie Rowen), I felt these were primarily useful for individual efforts rather than any collective position statement on disarmament or any well-thought out program of collective action. We submitted the proposal to the Steering Committee for consideration at their August 2015 meeting. To our delight, they approved it.

Since then, several PsySR colleagues with much experience in peace psychology and peace education have expressed strong support for the proposal to re-prioritize disarmament. Linden Nelson, former president of PsySR, observed that, “Any use of nuclear weapons would be catastrophic, and the risk posed by the existence of nuclear weapons may be the greatest current threat to human well-being and survival. PsySR, and psychologists more generally, should accept responsibility for using psychological knowledge to promote nuclear disarmament.”

According to Martha Davis, retired Visiting Scholar at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, “We see the physical, psychological and political devastation of terrorist strikes, and dare not imagine or even speak about strikes using nuclear weapons. But as psychologists we know that silence and denial are very weak defenses, and inaction is perilous. One worthy project for PsySR would be a collective addressing of the psychology of this paralysis and what interventions are most effective without increasing already high levels of crippling fear.”

The move to re-prioritize disarmament was also lauded by Diane Perlman, Visiting Scholar at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. Dr. Perlman is noted for her consistent involvement in nuclear issues for over 30 years and recently initiated consideration for a Statement of Support for the Iran Nuclear Deal eventually adopted by the PsySR Steering Committee. She told us she “attended the UN Nuclear nonproliferation Treaty Review conference, am on the Global Council of Abolition 2000, and know most of the people working on this around the world,” but found she is “almost always the only psychologist in every event I go to. “

Since the Steering Committee affirmed our proposal, I have been posting monthly on “What Psychologists Can Do for Nuclear Disarmament” on PsySR listservs. In November 2015, I attended the fall ANA board meeting in Kansas City to see if they might be a good match for PsySR. I was favorably impressed and, in my report to PsySR, recommended we should indeed affiliate. I believe we can help ANA through our membership support. They are a unique collaboration of experienced technical nuclear experts, seasoned colleagues from the allied health professions and sciences such as Physicians for Social Responsibility and Union of Concerned Scientists, along with a strong network of citizen activists from grassroots groups addressing problems in their home communities affected by nuclear weapo¬ns production and waste disposal. I also concluded ANA can help us by providing expertise and resources we don’t have to help psychologists revisit questions about the psychological dimensions of the nuclear enterprise.

For their part, representatives from ANA were equally enthusiastic about the prospect of PsySR membership. Ralph Hutchison, a board member who coordinates the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, reflected that, “In the months and years to come, I believe nuclear weapons will once again emerge as part of the national conversation, and it will be crucial for all voices, including those who bring expertise from the field of psychology, to be joined in the chorus that calls for the abolition of these weapons.”

Jay Coghlan, board president of ANA who also serves as Executive Director for Nuclear Watch New Mexico, sent this word: “We welcome the marriage of these two supreme efforts as Psychologists for Social Responsibility joins the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability. It really is crazy that we are going to spend more than a trillion dollars completely rebuilding our nuclear arsenal and keeping it forever. We look forward to PsySR’s insights and work toward a future world free of nuclear weapons.”

On behalf of PsySR, the Militarism Action Group encourages psychologists to allow nuclear realities to inform their work and find appropriate ways to again become actively engaged in nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. We believe this process will be facilitated as PsySR takes a more integral and visible part in the critical work being done. Please join us as we define the path ahead together. If you are interested in connecting with the disarmament work of the Militarism Action Group, write me at