Concerned that a needed international perspective is missing from the debate over US foreign policy, The Nation asked a number of distinguished foreign writers and thinkers to share their reflections. This is the third in that series.
The entire edition of The Nation of January 24, 1981, consisted of “A Letter to America” written by the historian and peace activist E.P. Thompson. “I first crossed the Atlantic from England when I was a child of 5, in 1929,” wrote Thompson. “What bothers me now, as a frequent visitor to the States, is that the Atlantic seems to be growing wider, even though it now takes only some six hours to cross…. There are times when Europe and America appear to have drifted beyond range of communication.”
Thompson thought this drift was immensely dangerous; he feared a nuclear war. He described the manichean worldview of the American establishment and drew a comparison with the Lord of the Rings, where “confused liberal hobbits” are rescued from evil by Gandalf-like figures such as Henry Kissinger or Zbigniew Brzezinski. He described the way three decades of deterrence, of mutual fear, mystery and state-endorsed stagnant hostility, have backed up into our culture and ideology, numbing language and values. He talked about the strength of military-industrial interests, the use of euphemisms to mask the reality of nuclear war and the way in which defense intellectuals purveyed crazy theories like “pre-emptive deterrence.”
In that “Letter to America,” Thompson was making the case for a new peace movement that would unite East and West. He was one of the few people at that time to foresee what might happen as a result of the pressures for democratization within Eastern Europe. He argued that the Soviet Union was a threat to its own people, not to the West, and that the system of deterrence helped to sustain and legitimize military-industrial rule in the East. He insisted that the campaign for nuclear disarmament was also a struggle for democracy.
In rereading that special issue of The Nation two decades later, the parallels between then and now are striking. Europe and America are drifting apart. The current conjuncture is extremely dangerous. We face the risks of escalating violence in the Middle East and in Central and South Asia; millions of people are likely to suffer even without the use of nuclear weapons, which is a real possibility. The Bush Administration tries to impose a good-versus-evil view of the world in which America is surrounded by enemies. The defense intellectuals develop theories about pre-emptive aggression and counterproliferation that justify the reliance on technology and military force. Even some of the people are the same–Richard Perle and Donald Rumsfeld, to name but two.
So it is a good moment to reflect on the movement (in which I was active) that was inspired by Thompson’s ideas as expressed in that “Letter to America.” What did we achieve on both sides of the Atlantic and where did we fail?
The biggest achievement of the 1980s peace movement was its contribution to the collapse of Communism. In the early 1980s the mass movement shook the status quo in Europe. In the late 1980s European peace activists were engaged in an intensive dialogue with the Eastern European opposition and were providing support in all kinds of ways to an emerging independent peace and democracy movement, which was to play a critical role in the revolutions of 1989. Moreover, the Gorbachev regime took on board the arguments of the peace movement about the irrationality of each side matching the other missile for missile or warhead for warhead, and this made possible a series of new arms-control measures and a new détente process that provided political space for the 1989 revolutionaries.