Cornell University Press

A 21st Century Freeze Movement to Stop the Next Arms Race

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Recently, the United States, Russia, and the other members of the UN Security Council reaffirmed that a nuclear war “cannot be won and must never be fought.”

While we should welcome this news, we should also treat it with skepticism: those same nations continue to fund and pursue destabilizing weapons not currently covered under arms control treaties while boycotting at the UN the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. With the unilateral US withdrawal from the INF Treaty, a new arms race beckons.

Forty years ago, the threat of nuclear Armageddon seemed even more perilous. And yet a simple idea brought millions into the streets across the US and Europe. An examination of the nuclear politics of the late Cold War can demonstrate the important role grassroots activists can have on even the most sensitive national security issues.

With the unilateral US withdrawal from the INF Treaty, a new arms race beckons.

In 1980, the Cold War appeared far from over. The Soviets were on the march in Afghanistan, while President Ronald Reagan entered office determined to increase the defense budget and modernize the nuclear arsenal. His hostile rhetoric undercut efforts to privately improve US-Soviet relations, while his frequency for questionable statements further placed the public and European allies on edge. Perhaps even more alarming was the loose talk of survivable nuclear war seeping out of the administration.

The escalation of the Cold War, however, brought new life to the peace movement that floundered after the Vietnam War. While peace activists in Europe rallied against the basing of nuclear weapons on the continent, in the US, activists rallied around an idea: a bilateral halt (or “freeze”) to the arms race. The idea was the brain child of one Randall Forsberg. In 1979, Forsberg proposed peace activists organize around a simple to understand concept: both the United States and the Soviet Union would halt (or “freeze”) the testing, building, and deployment of nuclear weapons. Forsberg’s “Call to Halt the Arms Race” became the founding document of the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign.  

The White House took the Freeze movement seriously—and so should historians.

The Freeze campaign quickly engulfed the political culture while infusing itself within the popular culture. In the Congress, bipartisan Freeze resolutions were introduced and supported in the House of Representatives and the US Senate. Over 1 million people took to the streets of New York City to rally against the arms race—the largest single political demonstration in the nation’s history. In November 1983, as the Cold War threatened to turn red hot, 200 million viewers tuned-in to watch ABC’s Sunday Night Movie The Day After bringing home the dangers of the continued arms race to even the apolitical. As the US Conference of Catholic Bishops began debating a pastoral letter critical of Reagan and the arms race, the administration backed off from rebaiting the movement for fear of alienating the bishops—and by extension—Catholic voters.

Facing re-election in 1984, Reagan went from hawk to dove. He won re-election handily and subsequently melted the Freeze. But we should not be so quick to dismiss the movement as ineffective. As I demonstrate in FREEZE! The Grassroots Movement to Halt the Arms Race, the Freeze played a significant role in mobilizing society against the arms race and shaped the political battlefield on which arms control diplomacy played out. It created political pressure for the Reagan administration to engage the Soviet Union both in arms control diplomacy and in dialogue to prevent nuclear war. From an examination of the archives of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, it becomes clear: the White House took the Freeze movement seriously—and so should historians. The history of the Freeze demonstrates it is still possible to pressure even the most hardline governments to turn back the Doomsday Clock. If we are to stop the next arms race before it begins, a new 21st century Freeze movement is not just welcomed, but necessary.

*Featured photo: Nuclear freeze movement: ca. 1985 Courtesy of Washington Area Spark

Cover image of Freeze!
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Henry Richard Maar III is Lecturer in History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and California State University, Northridge. Follow him on Twitter @HMaar.

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