Twenty-five years ago, on June 12, 1982, approximately a million people demonstrated in New York City’s Central Park against nuclear arms and for an end to the arms race of the cold war. Nothing like it had ever happened before. It was not only the largest antinuclear demonstration but the largest political demonstration of any description in American history. Nothing like it has happened again, either. The tide of protest was at its high-water mark, and thereafter receded steadily.
June 12 was the culmination of a movement that had begun in the 1970s with resistance to nuclear power and then proceeded to nuclear arms. Its immediate objective, launched in early 1980 in a “Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race,” written by antinuclear activist Randall Forsberg, was a bilateral Soviet-American “freeze on testing, production, and further deployment of nuclear weapons.” In 1982 freeze resolutions were introduced in nine states and passed in eight; later, freeze resolutions, though in watered-down form, passed the House and the Senate.
Although the nationwide strength of the movement is rightly associated with anxiety produced by the nuclear buildup launched by Ronald Reagan, it is telling to recollect that the freeze was in fact born in President Jimmy Carter’s final year in office. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Carter responded by announcing what became known as the Carter Doctrine, threatening the use of nuclear arms if the Soviet Union should attempt to move beyond Afghanistan to dominate the Persian Gulf and its oil reserves. At the time, the United States had no large conventional forces available in the Middle East to deter Russia, leaving nuclear weapons as the only military means available. None other than Paul Wolfowitz, who was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Regional Programs, wrote in a “Limited Contingency Study” in 1977, “We…have a vital and growing stake in the Persian Gulf region because of our need for Persian Gulf oil and because events in the Persian Gulf affect the Arab-Israeli conflict.” Thus, the Carter Doctrine initiated the long shift from cold war concerns to the preoccupation with the Persian Gulf that later would result in the two Iraq wars and now threatens a third war, against Iran. The recent refusal of not only George W. Bush but GOP presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani to rule out the use of nuclear weapons in a possible war with Iran seems to bring this long development full circle.
The reasons for the decline of the antinuclear movement are full of paradox and, in the last analysis, possibly unknowable. In part, it became a victim of its own success. Few riddles are harder to untangle than the relationship of the success of the freeze movement and the simultaneous success of its antagonist, President Reagan. It is a matter of record that the movement powerfully undercut public support for Reagan’s nuclear buildup. According to a CBS/New York Times poll, between 1981 and 1985 support for increases in military spending dropped from 61 percent to 16 percent. It is a matter of record, too, that in response Reagan returned to nuclear arms negotiations with the Soviet Union.
But even more important, in March 1983, in part for the same reason, he startled observers, including most of the top officials of his own Administration, by proposing his Strategic Defense Initiative, known as Star Wars, to defend the United States from nuclear attack. When that was accomplished, he added in a second bombshell, the two superpowers, finding their nuclear weapons now “impotent and obsolete,” could do away with them. The motivation for co-opting the freeze is well documented, yet so is the sincerity of Reagan’s fervent desire not just to freeze but actually to abolish nuclear weapons. That sincerity was put on spectacular display at the summit meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, in October 1986, between Reagan and Soviet Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, also a nuclear abolitionist. As memorandums of the summit show, the two leaders came within a hair’s breadth of agreeing to eliminate their nuclear arsenals. Thus, in a sense the spirit of June 12 reached a high point and expired at Reykjavik.
The aftermath has been dispiriting. Arms control resumed and had some successes, but no fresh or bold initiative to deal with the nuclear danger has been launched. No heir to either the freeze movement or Reagan has arisen. The end of the cold war, seemingly the greatest opportunity to lift nuclear danger since 1946, was wasted. Instead, the whole issue fell into a shocking state of neglect, as if people believed that a mortal illness could be dealt with by forgetting about it.
In the years of silence, the unattended predicament quietly went haywire, assuming a malevolent post-cold war shape. Observing that the cold war powers, whatever they might say or not say, were determined to hold on to their nuclear arsenals, other nations—India, Pakistan, North Korea, perhaps Iran—determined to join the undissolved nuclear club. Whereupon the nuclear powers suddenly awoke to the danger and declared that these nuclear arsenals were intolerable. Having, in the early post-cold war years, mutely forgone the idea of negotiated nuclear disarmament for all, the United States soon turned to war as the ultimate solution to proliferation, and the Bush Doctrine of preventive war was born. There followed the Iraq War and, now, the threat of war with Iran, including the multiplying threats to use nuclear weapons. The wellsprings of change in public opinion are as hard to predict as ever. No one can say whether a June 12, or some twenty-first-century equivalent, is in the offing. That one is needed is beyond argument.