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What Activists Can Learn from the Nuclear Freeze Movement

Editor's Note: The following article is based on fresh research explored in the newest volume of Mr. Wittner's trilogy, The Struggle Against the Bomb, published by Stanford University Press. His new book is called, Toward Nuclear Abolition (2003).

At the moment, the Bush administration's militaristic approach to world affairs seems triumphant. From preemptive wars against "evil" nations, to scrapping arms control treaties, to developing new nuclear weapons, the would-be warriors are having things pretty much their way.

But, as indicated by events of the recent past, this situation can be reversed.

Two decades ago, Ronald Reagan had been elected President, and the hawks were riding high. Committed to a vast military buildup, they championed an array of new weapons programs, spurned nuclear arms control and disarmament treaties, and talked glibly of fighting and winning nuclear wars. The new President had opposed every nuclear arms control measure negotiated by his Democratic and Republican predecessors. The Senate was in the clutches of bellicose Republicans, while most of the public -- whipped into a nationalist froth by the Iranian hostage crisis -- heartily approved of military priorities.

Yet the hawkish consensus quickly unraveled. In the United States, the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, and Physicians for Social Responsibility mushroomed into mass movements. In June 1982, nearly a million Americans turned out for a rally in New York City against the nuclear arms race, the largest political demonstration up to that point in U.S. history. The Nuclear Freeze campaign drew the backing of major religious bodies, professional organizations, and labor unions. Supported by 70 percent or more of the population, the Freeze was endorsed by 275 city governments, 12 state legislatures, and the voters of nine out of ten states where it was placed on the ballot in the fall of 1982.

This antinuclear uprising had a substantial impact upon mainstream politics, especially the Democratic Party. After the movement's successes in 1982, the leading candidates for the Democratic Presidential nomination met with peace movement leaders, pledging their support for a Nuclear Freeze and other nuclear arms control measures. The Democrats pushed a Freeze resolution through the House of Representatives in the spring of 1983, and made the Freeze a part of the party's campaign platform in 1984.

Meanwhile, comparable movements, backed by public opinion and mainstream political parties, emerged around the world.

In response, U.S. public policy began to shift in a more pacific direction. Although anxious to place cruise and Pershing II missiles in Western Europe, the administration announced the "zero option" -- a plan to forgo deployment if the Russians removed their SS-20 missiles from Eastern Europe. This idea, taken directly from the banners of the European peace movement, seemed like a safe bet at the time, for it appeared unlikely that the Russians would accept it. But what if they did? Furthermore, thanks to popular pressure, the administration largely lost the battle to develop its favorite nuclear weapon, the MX missile, securing funding for only 50 of the 200 originally proposed. It also opened negotiations on eliminating strategic nuclear weapons, abandoned plans to deploy the neutron bomb in Western Europe, and tamely accepted the limits of the unratified SALT II treaty (though previously the Reaganites had lambasted it as a betrayal of U.S. national security). Moreover, the President began to proclaim that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought."

By October 1983, with antinuclear protests convulsing Western Europe, Reagan was ready to sound a full-scale retreat. "If things get hotter and hotter and arms control remains an issue," the president privately told his startled secretary of state, "maybe I should go see [Yuri] Andropov and propose eliminating all nuclear weapons." In January 1984, he followed through and, in a major policy address, proposed an end to the Soviet-American military confrontation and his readiness for nuclear abolition.

All this occurred during Reagan's first term in office -- during the years of Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko. At this time, the resistance to a disarmament agreement came primarily from the Russians, terrified of the early bellicosity of Reagan and his circle.

In March 1985, however, Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet party secretary, thereby transforming Soviet policy. Deeply influenced by the peace and disarmament movement, Gorbachev met frequently with its leaders and seized upon their ideas. In response to their advice, he unilaterally halted Soviet nuclear testing, freed Andrei Sakharov from house arrest, and cut the link between eliminating intermediate range nuclear weapons and the scrapping of Star Wars. This last move opened the way for the INF treaty, which removed all cruise, Pershing II, and SS-20 nuclear missiles from Europe.

Dizzy with the progress of the détente and nuclear arms control he had once denounced, Reagan ended up strolling happily around Red Square with Gorbachev, declaring that his earlier hawkish pronouncements belonged to "another time, another era."

If this dramatic reversal in U.S. public policy could be produced when the Reaganites controlled Washington politics, then a similar turnabout can be fostered today.

Certainly, the three key ingredients of success -- a mass movement, the backing of public opinion, and Democratic Party support -- seem to be emerging. Ever since the fall of 2002, all of these factors have been on the upswing. Admittedly, when the Iraq war began, a blast of flag-waving jingoism by the mass media and a sense of defeatism by activists led to a brief period of decline. Most Democratic politicians scurried for cover. But the failure to discover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the disastrous results of the U.S. occupation regime in that country, and the growing public recognition that the Bush administration lied the nation into war have restored the anti-military momentum. Bolstered by these factors, activists are once again on the move, public opinion is shifting substantially toward a peace perspective, and the Democratic Party leaders are criticizing Bush on foreign and military policy issues.

Of course, these trends may be reversed. And there may even be short-term defeats. In 1984, despite the cresting of the antinuclear movement, Reagan easily won re-election over Walter Mondale. But, although Reagan remained in power, he did so at the price of changing U.S. foreign and military policy. If the movement plays its cards right, it might do as well -- or better -- today.

This article first appeared on ZNET and is reprinted with permission.