COLUMBIA — In 1962, Bill Wickersham, then the program director of the Memorial Student Union at MU, attended a meeting that brought him to realize that his country could be preparing to kill millions of people in one strike. It would have been possible with the nuclear arms that the United States had been amassing during the Cold War years, he learned.
Since then, some nuclear arms in the United States, including those in Missouri, have been decommissioned, but those that remain can be redeployed within minutes, Wickersham said.
"As we speak, U.S. Minuteman Missile launch officers in North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana are ready to fire at Russian targets," Wickersham said. "Russians have their missiles aimed at us, too."
For him the nuclear threat is as real as it was during the Cold War years. This led him and a group of MU professors and peace activists to form the Missouri University Nuclear Disarmament and Education Team to inform people and make them aware about the hazards of nuclear arms and strengthen the call for nuclear disarmament in the country.
For Wickersham, a founding member of the team and an adjunct professor of Peace Studies at MU, the group is a continuation of an activism that he began in 1962. After decades as a peace activist, he still often hears the same remark after his presentations: "Good luck with your problem."
"You often cannot discuss nuclear disarmament and get a meaningful, rational response because many people simply deny that the problem exists," Wickersham said. "Some believe that the end of the Cold War removed the threat of instant extinction by Russian nuclear missiles. Nothing can be further from the truth.
"People are concerned about economics and education and other immediate things but often fail to realize that the distinct possibility of nuclear destruction is also a very serious local problem that has to be confronted if our children are to have a livable world," he said.
The disarmament group will work with individuals and nongovernmental organizations as part of a larger effort to convince leaders of the nuclear weapons states to reduce and eventually eliminate their arsenals. The group is sponsored by the Peace Studies program at MU as well as Friends of Peace Studies.
Education is an important part of the group's agenda.
"We call ourselves the MU team; we are representatives of the university," said John Kultgen, professor emeritus of philosophy at MU and a founding member. In keeping with the university's goals of research, instruction and public service, the group will spread awareness about the importance of nuclear disarmament to students, faculty and community.
Wickersham said the group is keen to conduct nuclear disarmament education-research consultation with students and faculty from any academic department and program. It can also provide assistance to academic units to develop curriculum as well as aid educational, civic and faith-based organizations in disarmament programming.
"We are an extension activity of the Peace Studies Program. We are here to lend our expertise on the subject to others and can appear before classes if invited," said Kultgen, author of "In the Valley of Shadow: Reflections on the Morality of Nuclear Deterrence."
The group plans to screen documentaries such as "Nuclear Weapons and the Human Future: How You Can Make a Difference," produced by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. The foundation is a nonprofit organization and has a consultative status to the United Nations Economic and Social Council.
The group members will offer training sessions for new recruits and provide logistics for programs and conferences, organize petitions and publish public releases.
The group is currently seeking signatures for the petition by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation to the next U.S. president to initiate steps towards disarmament. The measures include removing nukes from high-alert status and separate warheads from delivery vehicles, making a legally binding commitment not to be the first to use nuclear weapons, initiating a moratorium on the research and development of new nuclear weapons, banning nuclear testing and control of nuclear material.
The United States and Russia have 95 percent of the world's 26,000 nuclear warheads, according to the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. Missouri is home to B-2 bombers at Whiteman Air Force Base. The bombers have the capability of carrying nuclear weapons, Wickersham said.
Nuclear disarmament is a tall order. Paul Wallace, professor emeritus of political science at MU and a member of the Columbia chapter of Global Action to Prevent War, doubts that grass-roots nuclear disarmament groups can bring change.
"Big businesses, lobbies, and state-to-state relations seem to be dominant, and unfortunately it will take some catastrophe to wake up the world to the crisis," he said. "The problem is real and involves all the countries in the world, since it includes suitcase bombs that are easily transported, short range artillery, as well as longer-range missiles."