“Nuclear war must be the most carefully avoided topic of general significance in the contemporary world. . . . almost everyone seems to feel adequately informed by reading one book about nuclear war.” — Paul Brians, chronicler of nuclear culture
At one time we ducked the topic out of stark, raving fear. Whether Russia or the US started it, we were all going to be blown up. But today we tune out because we believe that the Cold War is over and that civilization is safe from total annihilation.
What’s more, we’d like to keep it that way. Which may explain why, according to a recent Zogby poll, more than half of us support a strike against Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons.
But it will take more than that to keep us safe. In truth, the United States and Russia still keep one-third of their strategic arsenals on launch-ready alert. Also, the US plans to franchise Star Wars (the Strategic Defense Initiative) to Poland and the Czech Republic as if it were just another latte hut.
In retaliation, Russia is considering scrapping the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and upgrading its nuclear missile arsenal. Just like a Broadway revival of an old warhorse of a show, the Cold War is back.
What made us think it ended in the first place was the Reykjavik Summit of 1986. When Soviet President Gorbachev boldly suggested abolishing all nuclear weapons and found that Ronald Reagan was sympathetic, nuclear weapons had a near-death experience. But, clinging to his beloved Star Wars, Reagan backed off.
While the summit adjourned without a treaty, it set the scene for ratification of the INF in 1987. By the treaty’s deadline in 1991, the Soviet Union and the US had destroyed over 2,500 missiles between them.
Deterrence in the form of Mutual Assured Destruction had been the foundation of national security to political realists. What punctured realpolitik and let a little imagination in?
Gorbachev, as he demonstrated with perestroika, was accustomed to thinking big. Since Russia couldn’t afford to keep up with the US in the arms race, it was to the benefit of both his country’s security and its economy to end the nuclear program. But what made noted hawk Reagan go all sentimental on us?
The 1983 TV movie “The Day After,” which he watched along with 100 million Americans, was said to have upset him. But the movie was arguably a manifestation of the national mood, which, to some extent, had been shaped by the Nuclear Freeze. This movement, barely three years old, was supported by 75% of the public at the time the movie aired.
You might have noticed the freeze mentioned in the news lately because its founder, Randall Forsberg, died on October 19. Then again, you might not — coverage of her passing was threadbare, not only in the mainstream, but the alternative press.
The most moving eulogy in the media was delivered by John Tirman of the MIT Center for International Studies. In turn, it inspired a commenter who goes by the user name Waxwings. Professing to have worked with Ms. Forsberg, she called her not only “among the most elegant ladies we ever met,” but “a champion of reason and sanity in a world gone crazy with militarism.”
As a young woman Forsberg followed her husband to Sweden, where she found work as a secretary at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. She lost a husband (to divorce) but gained a cause. Later, she became an editor at the institute before returning to the US to study disarmament at MIT.
In April 1980, now a full-fledged disarmament wonk, Forsberg presented her “Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race” in pamphlet form. It proposed a “mutual freeze on the testing, production, and deployment of nuclear weapons and of missiles and new aircraft designed primarily to deliver nuclear weapons.”
She proceeded to promote it to policy makers, national security analysts, and reporters in Europe and the Soviet Union, as well as the US, where she also prevailed upon town and cities to include the freeze in ballot initiatives. The hundreds of meetings at which she spoke culminated in the legendary 1982 Central Park rally. With 700,000 in attendance, it was the largest political demonstration in American history.
Forsberg also founded the Institute for Defence and Disarmament Studies, dedicated to reducing not only the likelihood of war, but military spending. Its efforts included maintaining a database that kept track of the ownership, production and trade of world arms.
When Reagan was elected in 1984, the freeze movement had its legs cut out from under it. In his book, A Winter of Discontent: The Nuclear Freeze and American Politics, David S. Meyer quotes Forsberg: “The grassroots people who poured in thousands of hours over the last four years through their work on the freeze are tremendously disappointed and frustrated. . . . the shock of what happened in the 1984 elections left us reeling.”
Yet, since the freeze was absorbed by arms control groups, educational institutions, and even politicians, its after-effects lingered.
Did you ever hear anti-nuclear activist Dr. Helen Caldicott tell how Patti Reagan arranged for her to meet her father? The president was cordial, but when she invoked the specter of the nuclear freeze, he pulled some handwritten notes out of his pocket. Those promoting the freeze, he read, were either Soviet agents or dupes of the K.G.B.
“I said, that’s from last month’s Reader’s Digest,” Dr. Caldicott told Amy Goodman at Democracy Now. He replied that they were from his “intelligence files. Patty reassured me later that that was virtually one and the same thing.”
Nevertheless, the Reagan administration announced its intention to resume arms control negotiation with the Soviets. Hence Reykjavik.
“For Forsberg, the nuclear freeze was always a first step,” freeze chronicler Meyer writes. Were it implemented, the movement “would push the superpowers to agree to end intervention in the Third World and then cut standing nuclear and conventional forces by half. . . . Eventually all nuclear weapons and then all national military forces could be abolished.”
While that obviously never came to pass — dys-, not utopia, was soon to become the rage — at least Forsberg became recognized in official channels. Before the first President Bush met with Gorbachev, she briefed him and his people on arms control. Then President Clinton appointed her as an advisor to the directors of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.
Despite our reluctance to face nuclear issues, the freeze seems to have permeated our national subconscious. The University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies and its Program on International Policy Attitudes recently released a poll of American and Russian attitudes toward nuclear weapons.
It discovered that large majorities in both countries support a wide range of disarmament measures. These include: taking nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert; cutting nuclear arsenals; ratifying, once and for all, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (presumably after it was explained to those polled); and controlling nuclear weapons materials and nuclear fuel.
Finally, both publics favor eventual total nuclear disarmament, if accompanied by full verification.
It’s unfortunate that Ms. Forsberg couldn’t have seen the results of that poll before her passing. For she died during a time fraught with renewed nuclear peril at every turn — from the Bush administration’s nuclear “posture” advocating first use, to possession of nuclear weapons by volatile states like Pakistan, to nuclear aspiration by the likes of India and Iran, to nuclear terrorism.
But Randall Forsberg has passed us the torch. As John Tirman wrote, “Above all, her exemplary life is a tribute to the power of an individual’s capacity to change history.”