Nuclear Freeze Movement

Nuclear Freeze Movement
Nuclear Freeze Movement

After Watergate, Vietnam, and the economic/cultural malaise of the 1970s, the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency appeared to offer a new beginning for the United States. Reagan promised to unleash U.S. business by reducing taxation and government regulation, while simultaneously calling for major increases in defense spending so that the United States could assume its role as the “arsenal of democracy” against the forces of aggression in the Soviet Union.

Pointing to perceived Soviet expansionism in Afghanistan, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and Central America, Reagan reinvigorated the cold war. However, the rhetoric and policies of the Reagan administration also reenergized the U.S. peace movement with the call for a freeze on nuclear weapons by both the Soviet Union and the United States.

Many conservative supporters of the Reagan administration reacted to the nuclear freeze proposal by labeling the peace movement as a conspiracy supported and financed by the Soviet Union. In a new guise, McCarthyism had reentered U.S. politics.

The peace movement of the 1980s had its origins in the protest politics of the 1960s and 1970s, which had opposed deployment of the Anti-Ballistic Missile system and urged ratification of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

This coalition of peace groups included the American Friends Services Committee (AFSC), Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), Federation of American Scientists (FAS), Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (CSNP), Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), Mobilization for Survival (MfS), and Clergy and Laity Concerned (CALC).

In 1979, Randall Forsberg of the MfS published Halt the Arms Race, calling for a broad coalition to support a “bilateral freeze on the production, testing, and deployment of nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles”.

Forsberg’s appeal proved promising to many in the peace movement, for it was intelligible to the general public, as well as to arms control experts, and it provided a rallying point for a mass protest movement.

However, tension was manifest in the nuclear freeze movement between those who perceived the issue as part of a larger social movement and those who pursued a more pragmatic political strategy. In November 1980 the freeze campaign was given impetus when three Massachusetts Senate districts endorsed a nonbonding freeze resolution.

This successful campaign was followed by international protest against the deployment of cruise missiles by the Reagan administration in Western Europe, as well as the introduction, by Democratic Representative Jonathan Bingham of New York and Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, of the nuclear freeze resolution into Congress.

The apparent momentum of the freeze forces led opponents of the movement to question the motives of the peace alliance. For example, the State Department in 1981 charged that the World Peace Council was a Soviet-front organization that funneled money to the European peace movement, seeking to neutralize the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

In March 1982, Secretary of State Alexander Haig called a news conference to denounce the congressional resolution for a freeze, asserting that the concept was bad defense, security, and arms control policy. Conservative groups and publications rallied behind the State Department and Haig.

Writing in Commentary, Vladimir Bukovsky, a Soviet dissident who had been imprisoned for his political activities, asserted that the Soviets were behind the freeze movement, and he was shocked to observe “the ease with which presumably mature and intelligent people had by the thousands fallen into the Soviet booby-trap”. Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority organization issued fund-raising letters insisting that “freeze-niks” were undermining U.S. security.

In a piece for the Reader’s Digest, Frank Chapple wrote, “Those nuclear disarmers who cry ‘Better Red than Dead’ should examine the record: since 1917, some 25 million people have died under Soviet repression inside Russia and its satellites ...”.

Not to be left out of the debate, President Reagan stated during an October 1982 press conference that nuclear freeze supporters were being manipulated and used by forces “who want the weakening of America”.

Proponents of the nuclear freeze invested valuable time and resources defending the movement from the accusations of a Soviet conspiracy. Popular opinion against the Soviet Union was further galvanized by the Soviet downing of Korean Air Lines flight 007 in the fall of 1983.

Meanwhile, the nuclear freeze movement moved increasingly from protest into electoral politics, only to be disappointed by the landslide reelection of President Reagan in 1984. Nuclear freeze proponents found it difficult to recapture momentum after the election and became increasingly marginalized, splintering into more narrow special-interest groups.

Nevertheless, the nuclear freeze movement may be credited with placing the debate on nuclear weapons firmly within the political mainstream, and establishing the framework for the arms reduction talks of Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s.