In late November 2018, Noam Chomsky, the world-renowned public intellectual, remarked that “humanity faces two imminent existential threats: environmental catastrophe and nuclear war.”
Curiously, although a widespread environmental movement has developed to save the planet from accelerating climate change, no counterpart has emerged to take on the rising danger of nuclear disaster. Indeed, this danger – exemplified by the collapse of arms control and disarmament agreements, vast nuclear “modernization” programs by the United States and other nuclear powers, and reckless threats of nuclear war – has stirred remarkably little public protest and even less public debate during the recent U.S. midterm elections.
Of course, there are peace and disarmament organizations that challenge the nuclear menace. But they are fairly small and pursue their own, separate antinuclear campaigns. Such campaigns – ranging from cutting funding for a new nuclear weapon, to opposing the Trump administration’s destruction of yet another disarmament treaty, to condemning its threats of nuclear war – are certainly praiseworthy. But they have not galvanized a massive public uprising against the overarching danger of nuclear annihilation.
In these circumstances, what is missing is a strategy that peace organizations and activists can rally around to rouse the public from its torpor and shift the agenda of the nuclear powers from nuclear confrontation to a nuclear weapons-free world.
The Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, launched decades ago in another time of nuclear crisis, suggests one possible strategy. Developed at the end of the 1970s by defense analyst Randy Forsberg, the Freeze (as it became known) focused on a rather simple, straightforward goal: a Soviet-American agreement to stop the testing, production, and deployment of nuclear weapons.
As Forsberg predicted, this proposal to halt the nuclear arms race had great popular appeal (with polls showing US public support at 72 percent) and sparked an enormous grassroots campaign. The Reagan administration, horrified by this resistance to its plans for a nuclear buildup and victory in a nuclear war, fought ferociously against it. But to no avail. The Freeze triumphed in virtually every state and local referendum on the ballot, captured the official support of the Democratic Party, and sailed through the House of Representatives by an overwhelming majority.
Although the Reaganites managed to derail it in the Senate, the administration was on the defensive and, soon, on the run. Joined by massive antinuclear campaigns in Europe, Asia, and other parts of the world, the Freeze campaign forced a reversal of administration priorities and policies, leading to previously unthinkable Soviet-American nuclear disarmament treaties and an end to the Cold War.
How might a comparable strategy be implemented today?
The campaign goal might be a halt to the nuclear arms race, exemplified by an agreement among the nuclear powers to scrap their ambitious nuclear “modernization” plans. Although the Trump administration would undoubtedly rail against this policy, the vast majority of Americans would find it thoroughly acceptable.
An alternative, more ambitious goal – one that would probably also elicit widespread public approval – would be the ratification by the nuclear powers of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. This UN-brokered treaty, signed in July 2017 by the vast majority of the world’s nations and scorned by the governments of the United States and other nuclear-armed countries, prohibits nations from developing, testing, producing, acquiring, possessing, stockpiling, using, or threatening to use nuclear weapons.
The second stage of a current campaign strategy, as it was in the strategy of the Freeze, is to get as many peace groups as possible to endorse the campaign and put their human and financial resources behind it.
Despite some possible qualms among their modern counterparts about losing their unique identity and independence, working together in a joint effort seems feasible today. Some of the largest of the current organizations – such as the American Friends Service Committee, Peace Action, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and Veterans for Peace – are thoroughly committed to building a nuclear weapons-free world and, therefore, might well be willing to embark on this kind of coalition venture.
The third stage of an effective strategy is winning the battle for public opinion. In the case of the Freeze, this entailed not only holding lots of gatherings in people’s living rooms, but introducing Freeze resolutions at conventions of religious denominations, unions, professional associations, and the vast panoply of voluntary organizations, where they almost invariably passed.
Having a concrete, commonsense proposal to support – one coming up at a church conclave, in a town meeting, at a union assembly, or on the ballot – activists engaged in a widespread conversation on a key political issue with friends, neighbors, and members of mainstream organizations. It’s the kind of grassroots educational opportunity that peace and disarmament advocates should welcome today.
A final stage involves turning the objective into government policy. The Freeze campaign found that many politicians were delighted to adopt its program – in some cases even a bit too eager, bringing it to Congress before full public mobilization. Similarly, at present, some key Democrats – including the chair of the incoming House Armed Services Committee and likely Democratic presidential candidates – are already gearing up an attack upon the Trump administration’s nuclear “modernization” program, its withdrawal from disarmament treaties, and its eagerness to launch a nuclear war. Consequently, if a major public campaign gets rolling, substantial changes in public policy are within reach.
To be fully effective, such a campaign requires international solidarity – not only to bring domestic pressure to bear on diverse nations, but overseas pressure as well. The Freeze movement worked closely with nuclear disarmament movements around the world, and this international coalition produced striking results. The power of the antinuclear movement within nations allied with the US government led to their governments constantly pressing the Reagan administration to temper its bellicose ambitions and accept nuclear disarmament.
Similarly, Eastern Bloc officials found themselves forced to scramble for the support of other governments and, even worse, forced to deal with protest campaigns erupting within their own countries. These kinds of international pressures, enhanced by the current strong dissatisfaction of non-nuclear nations with the escalation of the nuclear arms race and the related dangers of nuclear war, could play an important role today.
Of course, this proposal suggests only one of numerous possible ways to develop a broad antinuclear campaign. Even so, there should be little doubt about the necessity for organizing that campaign. The alternative is allowing the world to continue its slide toward nuclear catastrophe.
Lawrence S. Wittner (lawrenceswittner.com) is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press). Reprinted with permission from Foreign Policy In Focus.