Nuclear Freeze campaign
The Nuclear Freeze campaign was a mass movement in the United States during the 1980s to secure an agreement between the U.S. and Soviet governments to halt the testing, production, and deployment of nuclear weapons. The movement quickly gained enormous public support and, together with antinuclear allies abroad, played a key role in curbing the nuclear arms race and preventing nuclear war.
- 1 Background of the Nuclear Freeze movement
- 2 Nuclear Freeze movement in the United States
- 3 Parallels in global activism
- 4 Criticism
- 5 Impact of the Nuclear Freeze campaign
- 6 See also
- 7 References
Background of the Nuclear Freeze movement
The idea of simply halting key aspects of the nuclear arms race arose in the early stages of the Cold War. Probably the first suggestion of this kind, discussed in letters between U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower and Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin in the mid-1950s, called for a freeze on fissionable material. Concrete policy proposals began in the 1960s, with a formal proposal from the United States to the Soviet Union for a partial freeze on the number of offensive and defensive nuclear vehicles. But that idea was rejected by the Soviet government, thanks to its fears that such a freeze would leave the Soviet Union in a position of strategic inferiority. In 1970, the U.S. Senate passed a non-binding resolution calling for both superpowers to suspend further development of strategic nuclear weapons systems, both offensive and defensive, during negotiations for the SALT I treaty.
Behind a surge of support for the Freeze idea in the 1980s lay growing public concerns about the outbreak of nuclear war. During the late 1970s, Soviet-American détente unraveled and the Cold War began to revive, with new conflicts emerging in Africa, Central America, and Afghanistan. In this context, nuclear arms control agreements between the two superpowers, such as SALT II, were jettisoned and each embarked on dangerous nuclear expansion programs. The Soviet government began to replace its older nuclear weapons with more accurate, intermediate-range SS-20 missiles, directly threatening Western Europe. For its part, the U.S. government announced plans for a NATO nuclear buildup with an enhanced radiation weapon (the neutron bomb) and, after that venture collapsed thanks to public protest, with a new generation of intermediate-range nuclear weapons: cruise and Pershing II missiles.
Along with their escalation of the nuclear arms race, national leaders employed a particularly chilling rhetoric. This rhetoric and its dangerous underlying assumptions were particularly characteristic of the Reagan administration, which took office in January 1981. Ronald Reagan, who had opposed every nuclear arms control agreement negotiated by his Democratic and Republican predecessors, had denounced the SALT II treaty as “an act of appeasement.” Scornful of arms limitations, he championed a massive U.S. nuclear weapons buildup to achieve military superiority over the Soviet Union and to triumph in a nuclear war. Like Reagan, Vice President George H.W. Bush and other members of his new administration spoke glibly about fighting and winning a war fought with nuclear weapons. In other nations, as well, stridently hawkish leaders, such as Britain's Margaret Thatcher, came to the fore. Although the Soviet leadership remained more stable, it, too, relied increasingly on nuclear weapons to implement its vision of Soviet security, while warning that the Soviet Union and the United States stood on the brink of nuclear war.
Against the backdrop of a heightening nuclear crisis, many people in the United States and around the world searched for some way to halt a drift toward nuclear catastrophe.
Nuclear Freeze movement in the United States
Randall Forsberg and "Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race"
The Nuclear Freeze movement was initiated by Randall Forsberg, a young American who worked at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and, then, returned to the United States to become the executive director of the Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies―a think tank she founded with the aim of reducing the risk of war and minimizing the burden of U.S. military spending. In 1979, she suggested to leading U.S. peace organizations that they combine their efforts in support of a U.S.-Soviet agreement to halt the testing, production, and deployment of nuclear weapons. When the peace groups, enthusiastic about her idea, urged her to write up a proposal along these lines, she produced the "Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race” in 1980. This Nuclear Freeze proposal emphasized that the Freeze would retain the existing nuclear parity between the United States and the Soviet Union, thereby opening the way for deep reductions in nuclear weapons or their elimination in the future. In April of that year, having secured the support of the American Friends Service Committee, Clergy and Laity Concerned, and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, her Institute and these groups jointly published the “Call” and invited other peace organizations to endorse it.
The accessible goal set forth in the “Call” quickly became a popular rallying point. Its simplicity and moderation appealed to both peace activists and ordinary people concerned about the threats posed the nuclear arms race and nuclear war. Forsberg framed a Nuclear Freeze as a logical choice, pointing out that the United States and the Soviet Union already possessed more than 50,000 nuclear weapons and had plans to build 20,000 more. The memorandum also argued against the idea of deterrence, contending that adding more nuclear weapons to the world would only increase the chance of nuclear war. Additionally, Forsberg maintained that a nuclear weapons Freeze would result in substantial fiscal savings and detailed the social and economic benefits of various alternative domestic spending options.
After publication of the "Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race," the Nuclear Freeze not only garnered the support of most American peace organizations, but was endorsed by numerous public leaders, intellectuals, and activists. Former public officials, such as George Ball, Clark Clifford, William Colby, Averell Harriman, and George Kennan, spoke out in favor of the idea. Support for the proposal also came from leading scientists, including Linus Pauling, Jerome Wiesner, Bernard Feld, and Carl Sagan. In March 1981, riding a wave of growing public concern about the nuclear arms race, the first national conference of the Freeze movement convened at the Center for Peace Studies at Georgetown University.
From the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, growing public anxieties about nuclear war coincided with a boom in anti-nuclear publications and media. Literature calling attention to nuclear dangers, which had previously commanded a modest market, became abundant as authors worked to galvanize the Nuclear Freeze campaign and were inspired by it in turn. Jonathan Schell, a prominent journalist, wrote a series of powerful antinuclear essays for The New Yorker that, in 1982, were turned into a best-selling book, The Fate of the Earth. Becoming a cornerstone of the Nuclear Freeze campaign, it asserted in plain, direct language that nuclear war was more an extinction event than a proper war. Schell rejected the notion of surviving a nuclear war, providing visceral depictions of its grim aftermath. Ground Zero founder Roger Molander wrote a novel, Nuclear War: What's in it For You? It followed a fictional family after a hypothetical, yet possible, nuclear war and explored the history of contemporary concerns regarding nuclear destruction. Both books were intentionally published at low prices to serve movement purposes. Two of the most prominent legislators backing the Freeze campaign, U.S. Senators Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Mark Hatfield (R-OR), published their own book, Freeze! How You Can Help Prevent Nuclear War, that provided tools for readers to influence public policy and elections.
Despite Reagan administration efforts to subdue the campaign, popular media bolstered the popularity of the movement. Carl Sagan and his scientific colleagues published and promoted work on nuclear winter, a concept utilized by Sagan and Nuclear Freeze activists to dispel the notion of surviving a nuclear war. In 1983, a film, The Day After, deeply moved American audiences. It followed the citizens of a typical Midwestern college city during and after a nuclear attack, portraying the instant death of many of them as well as the survivors’ struggle to cope with radiation poisoning and the ensuing nuclear winter caused by fallout. Even Ronald Reagan, who held a screening of the film, was reportedly affected by it.
Initial efforts to advance the movement focused on alerting and educating the public at the local level. Activists distributed vast quantities of literature about the nuclear arms race and brought Freeze resolutions before a variety of organizations while securing signatures on Freeze petitions and placing Freeze referenda on town, city and state ballots around the country. "Think globally, act locally" served as a motto of the campaign. The movement placed a strong emphasis on grassroots education, thereby expanding the number of people supporting the campaign. On Veterans Day in 1981, the Union of Concerned Scientists held teach-ins in 150 schools, and in April of that year, Ground Zero mobilized a million Americans in high schools and colleges to circulate petitions, listen to debates, or watch films.
Through its efforts at the local level, the Nuclear Freeze movement attained considerable success. A Freeze resolution was first placed on the November 1980 election ballot in the towns of western Massachusetts. Thanks to the leadership of Randy Kehler, Frances Crowe, and other local activists, voters passed the resolution in 59 out of the 62 towns. In general, Freeze activism was stronger in Northern and Western states than in the more conservative South. Nevertheless, by mid-1982 it had taken root in three-quarters of the nation's Congressional districts. In March 1982, 88 percent of the 180 Vermont town meetings voted to support a bilateral nuclear weapons freeze between the United States and the Soviet Union. Furthermore, by November 1983, the Freeze had been endorsed by more than 370 city councils, 71 county councils, and by one or both houses of 23 state legislatures.
The Freeze also had a remarkable national impact. Results from public opinion polls taken in 1982 and 1983 were virtually identical, showing an average of 72 percent support and 20 percent opposition to a Nuclear Freeze. On June 12, 1982, the largest peace rally in U.S. history was held concurrently with the Second United Nations Special Session on Disarmament, with approximately a million participants. Many major U.S. religious bodies, such as the National Council of Churches, the Roman Catholic Church, the United Presbyterian Church, the United Methodist Church, the Episcopalians, the Lutherans, and the Synagogue Council of America, endorsed the campaign. Hundreds of national organizations, many of which had never before taken a stand on national defense issues, came out in favor of the Freeze. They included the American Association of School Administrators, the American Association of University Women, the American Nurses Association, the American Pediatric Society, the American Public Health Association, Friends of the Earth, the National Council of La Raza, the National Education Association, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and the Young Women's Christian Association.
In 1982, when the Freeze campaign delivered its antinuclear petitions to the U.S. and Soviet missions to the United Nations, they contained the signatures of more than 2,300,000 Americans. Moreover, that fall, when Freeze referenda appeared on the ballot in 10 states, the District of Columbia, and 37 cities and counties around the nation, voters produced a victory to the Freeze campaign in nine of the states and in all but three localities. Covering about one-third of the U.S. electorate, this was the largest referendum on a single issue in U.S. history.
Patrick Caddell, one of the nation's leading pollsters, reported in October 1983 that the Freeze campaign was “the most significant citizens’ movement of the last century. . . . In sheer numbers the freeze movement is awesome,” for there existed “no comparable national cause or combination of causes . . . that can match . . . the legions that have been activated.”
As a result, the political situation grew increasingly threatening to the Reagan administration's nuclear priorities and to its political survival. In March 1982, a plan to introduce a Freeze resolution in Congress was announced by Senators Kennedy and Hatfield. The following May, the Democratically-controlled House of Representatives passed a Freeze resolution by a vote of 278 to 149. In 1984, the Freeze was backed by all the major candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination and became part of the Democratic Party's presidential campaign platform.
Parallels in global activism
During these same years, anti-nuclear activism also swept through most other parts of the world. West European groups, pulled together by an Appeal for European Nuclear Disarmament (END), geared up to oppose the deployment of the new generation of devastating Euromissiles: the cruise and Pershing II missiles from NATO and the SS-20s from the Soviet Union. This revival skyrocketed into mass protest after 1980, largely thanks to the advent of the Reagan administration and its hawkish pronouncements. END was soon coordinating a huge antinuclear campaign in Europe. Groups like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (in Britain), the Interchurch Peace Council (in the Netherlands), church organizations and the new Green Party (in West Germany), and No to Nuclear Weapons (in Norway and Denmark) mushroomed into mass movements that held vast demonstrations. Antinuclear movements staged the largest protest rallies in the history of Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, while other Pacific Island nations drew together into a Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific Movement. In the fall of 1983, an estimated five million people took part in antinuclear demonstrations. Even in Communist nations, smaller-scale antinuclear movements and demonstrations began to appear, despite harassment and repression by the authorities.
Although the U.S. and overseas movements usually overlapped in their anxieties, methods, and goals, the American movement, at least on the surface, was more moderate. A Nuclear Freeze, after all, centered on a bilateral agreement that would merely halt the nuclear arms race. By contrast, many of the overseas movements called for unilateral disarmament initiatives by the nuclear powers. Nevertheless, in practice, both focused their efforts on opposing nuclear weapons buildups and shared the goal of a nuclear weapons-free world.
Leaders of these movements recognized that, if their campaigns were to be successful, collaboration among the world's antinuclear organizations was a necessity. When Forsberg officially launched the Nuclear Freeze campaign, an International Task Force was formed to serve as the overseas representative of the American campaign. The International Task Force first focused on lobbying for passage of a Freeze resolution at the United Nations. Two somewhat different Freeze resolutions came before the UN General Assembly―one sponsored by Mexico and Sweden and the other by India. Despite opposition by the U.S. government, the General Assembly passed both resolutions by significant margins. Naturally, the UN votes contributed to the mounting political pressure on the United States and Soviet Union to halt the nuclear arms race.
Resistance on the political right
By contrast to the support the Freeze campaign generated among most Americans, it stirred up furious resistance on the political Right. The neo-conservative Commentary published an article claiming that there was “not the slightest doubt that this motley crowd is manipulated by a handful of scoundrels instructed directly from Moscow.” Human Events, which billed itself as “the national conservative weekly,” published numerous attacks upon antinuclear activists, including: “How Far Left Is Manipulating U.S. Nuclear `Freeze’ Movement.” In May 1982, the Heritage Foundation distributed a “Backgrounder” on “Moscow and the Peace Offensive” that called for a massive campaign to block the growth of the antinuclear movement in the United States and abroad. Meanwhile, the College Republicans distributed posters that, across a picture of Soviet troops in Red Square, plastered a headline proclaiming: “The Soviet Union Needs You! Support a U.S. `Nuclear Freeze.’”
The Christian Right also fiercely opposed the antinuclear campaign. Having long associated nuclear war with the Last Judgment, Biblical prophecy enthusiasts had no intention of interfering with what they considered the divine will. The Rev. Jerry Falwell, the nation’s most popular evangelical preacher and a confidant of President Reagan, confidently described the approaching nuclear holocaust in a 1980 pamphlet, Armageddon and the Coming War with Russia. “Blood shall flow in the streets up to the bridles of the horses,” he assured an interviewer in 1981. Of course, this did not pose a problem for the faithful, for “if you are saved, you will never go through one hour, not one moment of the Tribulation.” As fundamentalism grew more political in the 1980s, its proponents saw in Reagan's nuclear buildup the working out of God's alleged plan. Groups like the Moral Majority began distributing “moral report cards,” rating members of Congress on their support for military measures. James Robison, the pre-millennialist television preacher who delivered an invocation at the 1984 GOP national convention, warned: “Any teaching of peace prior to [Christ’s] return is heresy. . . . It’s against the Word of God; it’s Antichrist.”
Falwell's Moral Majority movement frequently denounced the Freeze movement. In a lengthy fundraising letter of June 17, 1982, Falwell promised “a major campaign’ against “the `freeze-niks.’” They were “hysterically singing Russia’s favorite song,” he maintained, “and the Russians are loving it!” Beginning in the spring of 1983, he placed full-page newspaper ads in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and more than 70 other newspapers, assailing “the `freeze-niks,’ `ultra-libs,’ and `unilateral disarmers’” and exhorting “patriotic, God-fearing Americans to speak up” for military defense. He also aired a one-hour, prime-time TV special attacking the Freeze and used his weekly Sunday morning sermons, broadcast over 400 television stations around the country, to condemn the antinuclear campaign. The Nuclear Freeze, he said, led to “slavery for our children.”
Ronald Reagan and his administration
From the standpoint of officials in the Reagan administration, the rise of the Nuclear Freeze movement represented a disaster. As the White House communications director recalled: “There was a widespread view in the administration that the Freeze was a dagger pointed at the heart of the administration’s defense program.” Robert McFarlane, Reagan's national security adviser, observed that “we took it as a serious movement that could undermine congressional support” for the administration's nuclear weapons buildup and potentially “a serious partisan political threat that could affect the election in `84.”
After Senators Kennedy and Hatfield introduced the Freeze resolution into Congress in March 1982, administration officials met and laid plans for what McFarlane called “a huge effort” to counter the Freeze movement. It soon involved the dispatch of officials from numerous government agencies to wage a public relations campaign against the Freeze propositions on the ballot that fall. Participating in the effort, Reagan appeared that July in his home state of California, where he charged that the Freeze “would make this country desperately vulnerable to nuclear blackmail.”
That fall, with the Freeze increasingly likely to emerge victorious at the polls and in Congress, Reagan grew more strident. Addressing a gathering of veterans groups in October, he insisted that the Freeze was “inspired by not the sincere, honest people who want peace, but by some who want the weakening of America and so are manipulating honest people.” In November, he told a press conference that “foreign agents” had helped “instigate” the Freeze campaign. Challenged to produce evidence for these false contentions, Reagan pointed to two Reader’s Digest articles and a report by the House Intelligence Committee. However, the committee chair declared that, according to FBI and CIA officials, there was “no evidence that the Soviets direct, manage, or manipulate the Nuclear Freeze movement,” a contention confirmed when FBI material was made public in 1983.
Impact of the Nuclear Freeze campaign
Superficially, the Reagan administration managed to stave off the challenge posed by the Freeze campaign and other critics of its nuclear policies. In 1983, the Republicans used their control of the U.S. Senate to block passage of a Freeze resolution in that legislative body and, thus, by Congress. Furthermore, although Walter Mondale, the 1984 Democratic presidential candidate, supported the Freeze, Reagan won re-election that year by a large margin. With the Freeze campaign's momentum blunted by these events, as well as by a rapid falloff in mass media attention after 1983, the movement declined and began to revise its approach and activities. In 1987, the Nuclear Freeze campaign merged with an allied group, the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, to form a new peace and disarmament organization, Peace Action.
Nevertheless, despite these setbacks, the Nuclear Freeze campaign was actually quite successful. Thanks to the enormous pressure generated by the campaign and its overseas counterparts, Reagan and his administration dramatically reversed their hawkish rhetoric. In April 1982, shortly after the Freeze resolution was introduced in Congress, Reagan began declaring publicly and repeatedly that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” On that first occasion, he added: “To those who protest against nuclear war, I can only say: `I’m with you.’”
In addition, Reagan―who had opposed every nuclear arms control and disarmament agreement negotiated by his Democratic and Republican predecessors―began reversing his hard-line nuclear policies. Rattled by the antinuclear protests that swept around the world in the fall of 1983, he told his startled secretary of state, George Shultz: “If things get hotter and hotter and arms control remains an issue, maybe I should go see [Soviet leader Yuri] Andropov and propose eliminating all nuclear weapons.” Although Shultz and other members of the administration were shocked and dismayed by Reagan's turnabout, they had no reasonable option but to adapt to it. Meanwhile, Reagan began to search, initially without success, for a Soviet leader with whom he could negotiate nuclear disarmament agreements.
Enter Mikhail Gorbachev
With the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev to the apex of Soviet leadership in March 1985, Reagan found his negotiating partner. Indeed, Gorbachev was a sincere and committed advocate of nuclear disarmament―a movement convert. His “New Thinking,” as his advisors recalled, was strongly affected by the Western nuclear disarmament campaign. As Gorbachev himself declared: “The new thinking took into account and absorbed the conclusions and demands of . . . the public and the scientific community . . . and of various antiwar organizations.” Meeting frequently with the leaders of the Western peace and disarmament movement, including leaders of the Nuclear Freeze campaign, Gorbachev followed their advice by unilaterally halting Soviet nuclear testing, agreeing to the removal of all medium-range nuclear missiles from Europe, removing short-range missiles from Eastern Europe, and negotiating major reductions in strategic nuclear weapons.
The movement's success
As a result, Reagan and his presidential successor, George H.W. Bush―pressed by movement activism on the one hand and Gorbachev on the other―were drawn into the most substantial burst of nuclear arms control and disarmament ventures in world history. The INF Treaty, the START I and START II Treaties, and important unilateral disarmament actions followed. By the early 1990s, the United States and the Soviet Union had ceased the testing, development and deployment of nuclear weapons. Moreover, they had substantially reduced their nuclear arsenals, ended the Cold War, and dropped their threats of nuclear attack. These dramatic changes, though sometimes attributed to other developments, in fact owed a great deal to the great popular uprising of the early 1980s that was launched by the Nuclear Freeze campaign and its overseas allies.
- Cold War
- Cold War (1979-1985)
- Ronald Reagan
- Randall Forsberg
- Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament
- Peace Action
- Randy Kehler
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