Another Way People Power Can Prevent Nuclear War

a review of Open Borders: A Personal Story of Love, Loss and Anti-War Activism. Betsy Bell (Kenmore, WA: 2018) by John Repp

The Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union heated up after Ronald Reagan came into office in January 1981. He greatly increased the size of the military budget and pursued a more aggressive foreign policy. This helped set off international opposition to the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms race. At the same time, the Navy was building up a base at Bangor, Washington for the new Trident submarines so they could patrol the Pacific. Each boat is almost the length of two football fields and would be able to launch many intercontinental missiles, each with many nuclear warheads. Seattle is also the base for Boeing, one of the largest companies supplying planes and missiles to the military. This made Seattle one of the main targets in a nuclear war.

This was the historical context in which the organization called Target Seattle began organizing, culminating in a week of teach-ins, followed by a mass meeting in the Kingdom with 14, 000 people attending. Aldon (Don) Bell, a dean at the University of Washington, was the leader of Target Seattle. Bell, the author of Open Borders, was Don’s wife and partner in this work. The book is Bell’s memoir of those times.

The strategy of the group was to get Americans to sign a peace letter to be personally delivered to citizens of the Soviet Union by members of Target Seattle. A description of the visit to the Soviet Union including Moscow, Tashkent and Samarkand in March 1983 by 33 Seattleites to deliver the letters is one of the highlights of the memoir. The group deftly used Seattle’s established Sister-City connection with Tashkent as their vehicle for the visit.

One sentence in the peace letter reads: “We must work together to create peaceful means of resolving conflicts and take steps to reduce the danger of nuclear war.” (p. 7) Over 42,000 Americans had signed. In one of the four essays written by other participants of the movement included in Open Borders, it’s written that a month after the visit, 120,000 Tashkenters signed a letter of peace to the people of Seattle. (p.81)

Woven through this memoir is Bell’s efforts to become a more independent person. She had to overcome the role assigned to women growing up in the 1950’s to be just a wife, mother and helpmate. It was in her passion to put together a multimedia slide show of the trip and get it shown over the U.S. that helped Bell come into her own.

There is tragedy in this story. Don got fired from his job as Dean at the University of Washington with no explanation. Fortunately, he was retained as a professor in the history department. The young photographer who took the pictures on the visit that were used in the slide show died young. And Don at age 62 died less than a decade after the 1983 visit.

No one knows what effect these citizen diplomacy efforts had. We can surmise that if they had been larger, had more large cities done the same thing, the existential threat of a nuclear war could be a thing of the past. Bell writes in the Introduction to Open Borders that she is “more frightened by the possibility on nuclear war” now in 2018 than she was in 1982. (p.viii) Maybe the strategy used by Target Seattle should be used again.

M. Hancock:

…I was able to relate to the personal narrative about the struggle between being a supportive spouse and mother…. The balance between spouse/motherhood/career was certainly something I could relate to… I remember the part in your book where Don was looking at running for political office and you told him you didn’t think your marriage would survive.  It sounded by the way you wrote the narrative his decision not to run was based on his peers telling him it wasn’t his time not because you had concerns.  Now I could relate to that!


David C Hall MD, Past president, PSR and WPSR

Author of America’s Exceptional Violence: Nuclear weapons and the US claim fo the right to use them, February 2018, PDF download

Open Borders tells a story both personal and world-changing. I committed to abolition of nuclear weapons in 1979 when I saw film of Hiroshima after the US atomic bomb. I lived in Seattle, and I knew Betsy Bell as my neighbor, but I never knew until now the extent of citizen activism that brought Seattle to the USSR. Betsy writes beautifully as she narrates her own passion for citizen diplomacy between the world’s two nuclear super powers at a time the Soviets seemed determined to bury us. Her husband Aldon Bell co-led thirty Seattle citizens to shake hands with citizens of Tashkent, Uzbekistan, USSR, in the first US-USSR sister city relationship. Was I a fool to think I could accomplish anything? she asks. Draw your own conclusions. She shares the passion, fears, and frustrations that nearly cost her her marriage, then shares the reconciliation that came with Aldon’s early death. An inspiring memoir with follow on essays by and about extra-ordinary citizens who brought heart to the Cold War. Betsy Bell offers us a deepened and expanded awareness of how citizen diplomacy changes our world.

Susi Snyder, Nobel Peace Prize recipient, project lead for the PAX No Nukes project, coordinator of the Don’t Bank on the Bomb research and campaign.

“With global tensions rising and the threat of nuclear weapons again coming into public consciousness, this is a timely reminder of the power of peoples movements to make the world safer for everyone.”


“As tensions and fear grow in the world again, Betsy Bell gives us a compassionate tale of friendship, humanity and peacebuilding.”


“This hopeful tale is a powerful reminder us that stretching a hand in peace is more likely to result in an heartfelt embrace than a door slammed in the face.”


“No one will ever know what was the action that finally tipped the balance away from the horrors of war. This powerful story reminds us that every individual, no matter how great or small, can build towards a safer, saner world.”

Lucy Dugall, author Peace Petition to the citizens of Tashkent

Hi Betsy,

I read Open Borders all the way through and enjoyed it immensely.  I think it extremely well written, amazingly detailed and filled me in on the tireless and extensive job you did in promoting it.  I had no idea of many of the details and I like very much how you wove in your personal story plus vivid descriptions of places and the homage you pay to Marlow.  That trip inspired me to start writing a “Citizen Exchange Handbook” in which I put lots of practical  information including lists of organizations, people, resources etc.

Under new leadership the World Without War Council changed its focus and name to Center for Civil Society International (CCSI).  It published The Post-Soviet Handbook (393 pp.) and also limited a handbook called Channels (in the box I gave you).  Then Glasnost and Perestroika evolved under Gorbachev, followed by the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

I’m so impressed with your integrity, energy, commitment and the creation of your own independence.  I especially admire your chutzpah as in just marching right in to the UN!

Barbara Sardarov, West Seattle Neighbors of Peace

I felt like I made 33 new friends who understood the importance of following a passionate and radical idea that we can effect change in the chaos of the world.  While only 35 years ago, it seems like it stretches back longer in time.  But I felt transported back not only to memories of my hometown Seattle, but to a time when more women of all classes/races were becoming more visible in the outer changes of society.  The hard work of completing college and actually creating a profession for oneself was beyond pipe dream status but still bucking up against old belief systems.  This book is such a warm story of 2 individuals — Betsy and her husband, Aldon, supporting each other and yet challenging the impact of making major changes in roles of their marriage. Yet the bravery in challenging each other makes both of them create a legacy for all of us in the facing the horror of nuclear war. And so these brave people — the Russians , the Uzbekistans, the Americans, the educators, the artists, the organizers, the media, the officials, the people of many faiths, the young people  — show us what we need to continue.   Here’s to the kindness, sensitivity and fierceness of their efforts.

Dan Peterson, former Chair of Seattle/Tashkent Sister City Organization

Wow…I totally enjoyed reading it and learning so much about your life, Target Seattle, Don, and the stories of the other authors.

You have done a great job!  First, capturing all this history is significant, and hopefully, it will encourage ongoing advocacy and diplomacy.  Second, your writing style is very easy to read and engaging.  Third, you are such an open, honest person….it is refreshing to read your personal history.  Your love and life with Don and your family is amazing.  I feel so sad about Don’s last few years, and I totally am surprised about the cocktail he drank, long before this was approved.   This  aspect of his life helped me gain even more respect for him and all of you.

Reviewed by Daniel Fievez

            I am privileged to know and to have become good friends with Betsy Bell for several years. She has shared with me the adventure of writing this book. Now it is so wonderful to read it. The book begins with her experience of going to Tashkent and is very exciting to read. Many of us remember the Target Seattle adventure in the 80s. Betsy describes it in personal detail. The adventure of course started at Kay Bullitt’s living room. Kay also went on this journey. The book describes not only this journey in emotional detail, but all of the events that happened afterwards including her journey to Congress and the United Nations. It also expresses her personal emotions, and the tragic

event of the death of her husband Don. I encourage each of you to pick up the book at Elliott Bay book Company, or ask me and I will get one for you.

Betsy is still very involved in political issues. She is the personification of a political Activist.

The trip had a major positive effect in Seattle. Bob Walsh joined Target Seattle in 1985 and put together the Goodwill games  in 1990 representing Ted Turner. The significance of the trip to Tashkent in the Goodwill games cannot be underestimated. The people in Seattle created a significant atmosphere to stop the hostility between United States and the Soviet Union. As we might remember, in addition to the Goodwill games the opera, ballet, and repertory theater all put on Russian  performances. Bob died last year of the flu in Istanbul after being airlifted from Georgia Russia.

My only personal disappointment is that I was not on that trip.