Reviving the Nuclear Disarmament Movement: A Practical Proposal

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…

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