Maj Britt Theorin

This Teaching Tolerance article profiles the life of Maj Britt Theorin, a champion of global peace, women’s rights and nuclear disarmament.
Learning for Justice Staff
Grade Level

Born in 1932 into a working class family, Maj Britt grew up during the years of World War II. Sweden, neutral during the war, served as a safe haven for refugees from German oppression. As a child, Maj Britt knew a courageous woman (still an activist today at the age of 90) who brought Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria and cared for them in Sweden. Maj Britt came to know some of the girls personally, including one who became Maj Britt’s best friend. This girl had been through so much starvation during the war that she always wanted more food; Maj Britt would often keep her company as the hungry girl cooked extra fried potatoes for herself. Maj Britt recalls that through her friend’s “awful experience of the bombings and her fear for her parents and sisters and brothers still in Germany, I got the war ‘under my skin.’”
The result was that Maj Britt devoted her life to solving some of the most critical and intractable problems in the world today: peace, women’s rights and especially, nuclear disarmament. To do this, she has held many positions, both in government and in nongovernmental organizations.
When Maj Britt was 11, her father died; it was a deep personal loss for her. The family also had a difficult time financially, so Maj Britt was unable to go to college. “As we were very poor and the educational system in those days was not open to everyone, I had no possibility to study at the university. ‘My life became my university,’ as Maxim Gorky says.”
Maj Britt worked as a secretary, gradually becoming involved in local politics in Stockholm. In 1971, deciding to run for office, she was elected a member of the Swedish Parliament. She held this position until 1995, when she became a member of the European Parliament. In the Swedish Parliament, she was involved in a wide range of issues, including children’s films, energy, environment, foreign policy and women’s rights.
In 1982, Maj Britt became more involved in disarmament, taking on two positions which had previously been held by Alva Myrdal. Appointed chairperson of the Swedish Disarmament Commission, Maj Britt was in charge of Sweden’s disarmament policy in the U.N. and Geneva for nine years. She also became vice president of the International Peace Bureau (IPB) in Geneva.
Maj Britt became the first woman president of the IPB in 1992. This organization is over 100 years old; 13 of its officers have won the Nobel Peace Prize, and the bureau itself received the Nobel Prize in 1910. This umbrella organization for peace organizations joins together the work of peace and disarmament groups from 50 to 60 countries.
Maj Britt also served as member of the Swedish delegation to the U.N. General Assembly from 1976 to 1994.
Through these positions Maj Britt expanded her political sphere to the international. Her many positions have worked together, allowing her to gain more attention and influence for her recommendations. For example, as a member of the Swedish Parliament and European Parliament, she has been able to introduce proposals against nuclear testing and on disarmament. As delegate to the United Nations for almost 20 years, she had an even greater chance to introduce her resolutions as chair of three major U.N. studies: on nuclear weapons, on the military and the environment, and on gender and the agenda for peace.
One of her most important positions was as the only woman member of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. Bringing together a wide range of approaches to nuclear disarmament, other commission members included Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau of France, marine biologist and environmentalist; Robert McNamara, former secretary of defense of the U.S.; General Lee Butler, former head of the Strategic Air Command in the U.S.; Michel Rocard, former prime minister of France; and Professor Joseph Rotblat, 1995 Nobel Peace Prize winner, who in his early life worked on nuclear weapons in the Manhattan project.
The commission was called together by the Australian government, which felt that this time in history is critical because, while the Cold War has ended, we may be on the brink of a new age of nuclear expansion.
In the issue of nuclear disarmament, there are two major problems. Vertical proliferation is the arms race between superpowers, or between relatively equal powers. Horizontal proliferation, on the other hand, refers to the spread of nuclear weapons to countries that have not had them before.
Vertical proliferation was brought partly under control in 1972 through the S.A.L.T. II agreement and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. However, the states that already had nuclear weapons—at that time the United States, the USSR, Britain, France and China—retained the weapons they already had. Later, with the fall of the Soviet Union, the “arms race” seemed to be over. “Nuclear weapons are weapons of the Cold War,” says Maj Britt. “The Cold War is over, but nuclear weapons and the strategy to use them remain. Why?”
Horizontal proliferation was addressed through the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968, which was signed by many nations. They agreed not to develop nuclear weapons and to verify this through international inspection of their nuclear facilities. In return, there were to be serious nuclear disarmament negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects. This part of the treaty has not been fulfilled by the nuclear weapon states. The treaty was expanded in 1995.
The Canberra Commission says that vertical and horizontal proliferation are linked. As long as some states have nuclear weapons, nations who do not have them may feel that acquiring nuclear weapons will enhance their prestige as well as security in the world. The idea that nuclear arms enhanced political status and security would be a source of “fatal attraction.”
In fact, in 1998 Pakistan and India began testing nuclear weapons. Since neither nation signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, they have broken no international commitments in this pursuit. However, their actions could lead to a new “arms race” between them and to a new age of global nuclear expansion.
The Canberra Commission, which presented its report in 1996, stated that stopping proliferation was “inextricably linked to the continued possession of nuclear weapons by a handful of states.” The commission therefore calls for all nuclear nations to disarm. After long discussion, the members agreed that there was no other way: The goal should be zero nuclear weapons in the world. As long as even one state has even one nuclear weapon, other nations, or even non-states, will want to develop them.
Included in the report is a realistic plan with practical steps on how to gradually get rid of all nuclear weapons and end nuclear testing. Nations should also agree to stop manufacturing the raw materials used to make nuclear weapons and selling them to countries or terrorist groups.
Maj Britt feels that the most important issue now is to get the Canberra Commission proposals accepted at the highest levels of governments. While the report gained substantial support in many nations from retired politicians and military men, Maj Britt feels that the most critical step is to convince the president of the U.S., who holds the key to nuclear disarmament. And the president has support for this action from his citizens. In polls held both in the U.S. and in Great Britain, 87 percent of the people wanted their governments to get rid of their nuclear arsenals.
Maj Britt believes in personal responsibility and that everyone can play a role in helping to promote peace. She refers to the ordinary women in Sweden who, through their personal involvement, stopped Sweden from developing nuclear weapons in the 1950s and 1960s. “I think that my driving force is the following: Everyone has to take responsibility and do whatever you can to avoid a nuclear war.” Then, expressing her belief that the position of the United States is critical she adds, “There is no reason to abstain from contacting the U.S. president.”
Text Dependent Questions
  1. Question
    Reread the first paragraph. What does it mean that the war “got under” Maj Britt’s skin?
    It became a part of her. It affected her greatly.
  2. Question
    “Intractable” means difficult to control or deal with. Using evidence from the text, explain why Maj Britt devoted her life to trying to solve intractable problems.
    Responses will vary, but may include these: World War II had gotten under her skin, making it something she couldn’t let go of. She believes all people have a responsibility to do what they can to bring about change, even in difficult arenas.
  3. Question
    The text says that the two major problems to nuclear disarmament are vertical proliferation and horizontal proliferation. Using support from the text, what does it mean when something proliferates? What makes these two forms of proliferation so deadly?
    When something proliferates, it grows in numbers. If the number of countries with nuclear weapons is growing, and the number of nuclear weapons is increasing within countries that have already possessed them, it becomes increasingly difficult to track the number of nuclear-capable countries, as well as the strength of each. It also increases the number of countries you need to agree to cease nuclear development and get rid of nuclear arsenals.
Reveal Answers
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