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How We Ended the Cold War | The Nation

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How We Ended the Cold War

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The Peace Movement's Role

About the Author

John Tirman
John Tirman is executive director of the MIT Center for International Studies. His latest book, The Deaths of Others:...

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The case for the peace movement's crucial role in ending the cold war rests on two phenomena. The first is the way peace activism created a public demand for an end to the nuclear madness. The second was how a parallel expectation was devised within the new Soviet elite surrounding Gorbachev.

The public demand came in several parts, not so much as a conscious strategy but as an improvisation that sometimes led and as often responded to events. It began with a calculated effort to stigmatize nuclear weapons, to clarify and amplify the vaguely held notion that these were fundamentally unusable weapons. This was quickly achieved by Physicians for Social Responsibility in particular, whose Paul Revere-like flurry altered the national discourse about nuclear deterrence between 1980 and 1982. Within those two years, the conventional thinking about nukes went from a shadowy concern about the Russians being "ahead" to abhorrence at the thought of the weapons ever being used. Even Reagan, in this most hyperbolic phase of his belligerency, was forced to state that the weapons could not be used and that--his Administration's doctrine notwithstanding--no winners were possible in a nuclear war. The physicians and scientists did the technical work and raised the alarm, and the growing antinuclear movement (especially in Europe, which saw itself as the helpless victim of both superpowers) provided the mass angst that made the warnings politically potent.

The rise of the nuclear freeze campaign in the early eighties was both an outcome of this growing stigma and a spur that galvanized further public outrage. Thousands of freeze chapters sprang up overnight all over the country; the movement's scale was apparent in the June 12, 1982, demonstration in Central Park, the largest ever, when 750,000 people gathered to protest the arms race. News media coverage of the movement and its proposals was almost a daily occurrence. It was a citizens' crusade that in part questioned the very legitimacy of elite decision-making, and this constituted a threatening political movement. It also stimulated a clamor about the moral validity of deterrence, something the centrist arms-control community was never prepared to do; it drew the voluble support of many clerics, including the Conference of Catholic Bishops, and innumerable Sunday sermons from Protestant pulpits. This was quite a serious challenge and one that resonated with the American people. Thirty-six nuclear freeze referendums were passed in November 1982. A large demonstration in Central Park on a sunny summer day and articles in policy journals were one thing, and possibly negligible; thirty-six victories in thirty-nine referendums--including eight of nine states--was something Washington took to heart.

That this public reproach was transformative can be clearly seen in opinion surveys. In 1981, as Reagan entered office, only about a third of Americans favored the worldwide elimination of nuclear weapons. But by 1983 the number had leaped to four out of every five. Even the deployment of the Euromissiles was viewed suspiciously, with nearly two-thirds favoring a delay to negotiate with the USSR. Support for a nuclear-weapons freeze was steady and high, reaching a peak of 86 percent. This sentiment was verified by the low support for a "get tough" attitude toward Moscow, which dropped from 77 percent in 1980 to just 44 percent in May 1982.

At first, the White House mobilized every means possible to defeat the freeze referendums, but it gradually abandoned its bellicose rhetoric and moved steadily toward serious negotiations with the Soviet Union. "Ronald Reagan came into office on a Republican platform explicitly pledging the new government to achieve 'technological and military superiority' over the Soviet Union," explains David Cortright, a leader of SANE and SANE-Freeze in the eighties. "Popular culture became increasingly antinuclear as the freeze movement swept the country. Faced with this unreceptive political climate, the Reagan Administration largely abandoned its harsh rhetoric and quietly dropped the concept of superiority." Cortright provides one of the few meticulously documented histories of how the Reagan Administration responded to the freeze and its allies in his 1993 book, Peace Works, and it is apparent from his interviews with top Reagan aides that such bold measures as the START proposals and the "zero option" for eliminating nuclear missiles from Europe were stirred significantly by the growing antinuclear activism in the United States and Europe.

Even at the time, it was apparent that Reagan's peace offensive was aimed as much at freeze inventor Randy Forsberg as at Leonid Brezhnev. "Our main concern," a top Administration official told the New York Times on May 2, 1982, "is to go on the record quickly with a simple and comprehensible plan to show the Reagan team is for peace, thus taking some of the steam out of the nuclear freeze movements in Europe and the United States." Mary Kaldor, a leading historian and activist in England, noted wryly that the "zero option" idea itself was stolen by Reagan aides from the protesters they routinely decried as dupes of Moscow. "I remember having a drink with a senior Reagan Administration official the night the zero option was announced," she recalled. "'We got the idea from your banners,' he said, chuckling." Michael Deaver, Reagan's image maestro, also said the zero option "was our response to the antinuke people."

The Reagan White House rarely responded directly to the peace movement; more often, it dealt with a Congress that was increasingly aroused by the peace movement. By the autumn of 1981, the number of initiatives flowing from Congress on nuclear policy mounted quickly to include, over the next few years, unilateral restraint on antisatellite weapons and SDI testing, curbs on nuclear-weapons tests, reductions in Pentagon spending, complex formulas for stabilizing the nuclear deterrent and negotiating cuts with the Soviet Union, and resolutions on the freeze idea itself. It was an astonishingly bold assortment of legislation. While little of it was actually enacted (the Senate was Republican until 1987), and the Democratic leadership was wary, the amount and variety of arms-control bills were unprecedented. Congress was not only acting to restrain the President, as it did in the seventies, but actually initiated arms-control policies with far-reaching consequences--as with the space-weapons bans.

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