“We’re all Part of the Big Picture”: A Conversation with Kitty Boniske

by Allison Hargus, creator/writer

Through my internship with the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, I am going to have the opportunity to meet and talk with outstanding people in our community. When I originally planned on taking on an internship, I expected to be given many tasks to accomplish and maybe the stereotypical grunt work. But what I have discovered thus far through this experience is pure freedom with helpful nudges in the right direction.

So when Mary Olson, Southern Director at NIRS and my internship supervisor, suggested I sit down with people who have contributed to this field of work, I eagerly accepted. Mary facilitated the first dialogue with a local legend in the nuclear awareness and non-proliferation game: Kitty Boniske- also known as Kate Coburn Boniske.

Kitty Boniske made a name for herself in activism throughout her life with many organizations, but she found her niche as the Program Chair for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. The WILPF dedicates its time and energy to many issues such as ensuring compliance at the federal, state and local levels with international human rights treaties signed and ratified by the US government. As part of this mission, Kitty participated in a letter addressed to both President Bill Clinton and President Vladmir Putin addressing concerns over the fissile materials that would be left over after both countries declared a surplus of plutonium in their possession. (This letter can be found here: Letter to U.S. President Bill Clinton and Russian President Vladmir Putin).

In addition to incredible contributions on the international stage, Kitty Boniske, has also lodged a piece of herself into the heart of the Western North Carolina Mountains. She bought and renovated a house in the historic Montford area of Asheville, N.C., for use as the Center for New Priorities. This center hosted a number of organizations dedicated to peace and education in the surrounding areas.

So when I rang her doorbell on Thursday afternoon, my brain began to go into overdrive to articulate thoughtful questions to ask the woman who had seen everything. But as she opened the door, an air of warmth surrounded her smile and welcoming gestures. I began to relax as Mary began easy chatter with her old-time friend and mentor.

After introductions and formalities, we began to talk about the injustices she witnessed in her life. Kitty shared many experiences and I found it very easy to listen.

The first issue weighing on her mind were the social cruelties she had witnessed African American citizens shoulder in the 1940s. At the time, Kitty attended Chapel Hill, and rode on the public transit system. She witnessed the classic tales of the black population being forced to sit on the back of the bus without room for complaint.

One story of a black soldier being taken away by the police after refusing to move shook me to the core. Kitty stood up to the brutality she had witnessed and was cast outside the “white” social circle by other bystanders. But why did she have a different view on civil rights than other privileged white people of the day? Her family had always shown compassion through understanding that “we’re all part of the big picture.” This had been a valued ideal for generations, dating back to the Civil War.

But these stories were just the beginning.

To bring the conversation back to the context of non-proliferation, I asked her about her views on what happened when the U.S. was developing the first nuclear weapons and when they had decided to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She thought for a moment and said, “We believed that the boys were not coming home soon without the dropping of the bomb…” She continued to explain that the media covered these stories to appeal to the families anxiously awaiting the return of their sons, husbands, brothers.

While she continues to believe that the bombs were a tremendous crime against humanity, she maintained the same train of thought as many others that if the U.S. did not develop these technologies first, the Germans would beat us to it. But, at the time, the population was not educated on the effects these weapons could have- even the creators were not sure of the consequences. “We, flat out, did not know enough,” Kitty aptly stated.

As she spoke, the question came to mind: What do you think the consequences would have been if we had not dropped those first bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? I decided to ask this question aloud.

After she gave this some thought she urged me to think about the atrocities happening during the Holocaust. Kitty admitted that if any war was justified, that one was. We are not able to know the alternate outcome of that situation. She then added, “That kind of cruelty is inherent in us.”

What a privilege this was! For nearly two hours, I was able to pick the mind of a woman who had seen it all and who had made a noticeable difference in this field. I regret that I cannot relay every single contribution she has made, but I will say that I am humbled to have experienced this dialogue with such an impeccable human.

Her final words of hope before we parted ways reverberate in my mind: “We are living on the cusp of the greatest change we’ve ever seen.”

Visit the website for the WILPF:

Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom