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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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It is apparent that the outcry represented by the freeze campaign and its public-interest allies emboldened the Hill's liberal wing to look more skeptically at the "winnable nuclear war" ideas and technologies being promoted by the Reagan Administration. As Brookings Institution scholar Barry Blechman puts it, the antinuclear movement "radically altered the political calculus of arms control. Politicians who preferred to forget in 1980 that they ever said a positive word about arms control could not work hard enough two years later to make clear their commitment and support." The Congress "did not originate the freeze movement--far from it," Blechman continues. "It served instead as a conduit, responding to popular concerns about nuclear weapons." The freeze and the professional organizations helped establish a permanent capacity for arms-control initiatives in Congress that lasted well beyond the apogee of activism in the early to mid-eighties.

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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 House and Senate particularly responded to the technical expertise of scientists on issues of nuclear doctrine, SDI, antisatellite weapons and related matters, a persuasive power that reshaped political culture far beyond Capitol Hill. It has been suggested that SDI itself was a response to the freeze, a peculiar reflection of Reagan's own doubts about the morality of mutually assured destruction. Whatever SDI's origin, the scientists' disapproval--especially the technical critiques that revealed it to be an extremely improbable prospect--was one of the decade's most decisive episodes. First came the broad critique by the Union of Concerned Scientists, whose team included Nobel laureates and weapons scientists like Hans Bethe, Richard Garwin and Henry Kendall, then similar appraisals from several other institutes. The news media were receptive to the scientists' broadsides, and as a result, the public never wholly bought in to Reagan's dream. Large numbers (e.g., 48 percent in October 1984) believed it would escalate the arms race, and occasionally, even large majorities deemed it too expensive to deploy--ideas that came directly from the professional opposition.

By early 1985, when Gorbachev rose in the Kremlin, several panels of leading American scientists had stoutly declaimed Star Wars as an unworkable--and dangerous--addition to the nuclear rivalry, one that the Soviets could easily counter but would nonetheless view (rightly) as mounting a potential first-strike threat against them. At that pivotal moment, virtually no one in policy-responsible circles believed that SDI as articulated by Reagan was a plausible concept.

By the time Gorbachev and Reagan started their slow dance in the summit meetings, the contours of American attitudes were rather firmly set. The public, at first alarmed by the possibility of nuclear war, then upset by the "externalities" of the cold war--the costs, the hazards of the weapons complex, the moral corruption of the Central America imbroglio--sustained their distaste well beyond the salad days of the freeze campaign. The public and elites of all kinds wanted better relations with the Soviets and were pressing to cut nuclear weapons, SDI and conventional forces in Europe. This was manifestly a different agenda from what Reagan had set out to achieve. It was vastly more wide-ranging than what the Democratic leadership had articulated in 1980-81. It was, indeed, more assertive and visionary than what the arms-control establishment (as opposed to disarmament groups) proposed through most of the eighties. As my colleague Matt Fellowes notes in a study of public opinion: "In 1986, 80 percent were in favor of an underground nuclear test ban, 82 percent were against weapons in space, and 84 percent were in favor of reducing Soviet and US warheads by 50 percent." Despite Reagan's popularity, "the public remained highly supportive of arms-control negotiations, and became increasingly opposed to further defense spending increases. This point became more clear by the mid-'80s, when the public clearly had begun to withdraw support for further nuclear development and militarization, while maintaining high levels of support for continued arms-control negotiations. This trend developed despite increasingly confrontational rhetoric from the White House and near-record lows in American feelings about the Soviets."

A highly symbolic reckoning in the decade came at the Reykjavik summit in late 1986. This is where Reagan and Gorbachev nearly agreed to total nuclear disarmament, causing consternation among the foreign policy elite and the conservative parties running much of Western Europe, which had spent so much political capital (and actual pounds, marks and francs) on the alleged need for nuclear deterrence. The American President and the Soviet Communist boss nearly did what only the most brazen peaceniks had been proposing--get rid of the nukes. The fact that these two implacable foes could come within a hairbreadth of eliminating their nuclear arsenals was a testament to their own sense of responsibility for the survival of civilization, forged in the specter of nuclear winter, the horrifying consequences of the Chernobyl accident and the escalating, worldwide demand for action to reduce the nuclear danger.

Reykjavik also led to the next moment emblematic of the demise of the cold war--the signing of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987. Reagan had been crippled by the Iran/contra scandal, which threatened for a time to bring down his presidency. He responded by moving closer to Gorbachev. The INF agreement was the first major consequence of Reagan's transformation, signed just a year after the Iran/contra scandal became public. The "zero option," cursed by conservatives and many arms controllers alike because it supposedly "decoupled" US and European nuclear security, became the first arms-reduction treaty of the eighties. It was opposed by Senate majority leader Robert Byrd and Representative Les Aspin, both key Democrats, and numerous others in Washington's higher circles, including Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon and Brent Scowcroft. But the overwhelming public approval of the treaty--more than 80 percent--collapsed the opposition. The INF agreement, ratified by the Senate in 1988, was the first payoff for the sustained and clamorous public demand for an end to nuclear madness. Later that year, the odd couple of Gorbachev and Reagan sketched what would eventually become the two Strategic Arms Reduction treaties, which dramatically cut into strategic nuclear arsenals, again earning the enthusiastic approval of the American public.

How the movement to prevent intervention in Central America affected the end of the cold war is harder to gauge. What the long struggle over US policy did do was to depreciate the hyperbolic claims of the Reaganites about Communism. Most Americans never believed the notion that the Sandinistas represented a national security threat to the United States. Coupled with obvious, false piety toward the contras and the junta in El Salvador, including tolerance of their outrageous human rights conduct, the policy significantly devalued the moral validity of anticommunism. The Reagan assault in Central America, often illegal and almost always immoral, hollowed out the residual American distrust of all things Communist and made it easier for peace activists to argue successfully for a deep and abiding détente.

The peace movement in the West had succeeded brilliantly at "changing the conversation" about the morality of nuclear weapons, the nature of East-West relations and the ill effects of the cold war. As described by a leading scholar of social movements, Thomas Rochon, "the peace movement was the agent behind the transformation of the INF issue from being a policy decided primarily on military grounds by a few political leaders and technical experts to being a massively debated issue invested with political meaning." That transformation describes the American disarmament crusade as well, one that captured and held hostage the discourse on nuclear weapons for nearly a decade.

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