It has not produced mass demonstrations here as it has in Europe; it lacks that kind of voltage. But after a decade of dormancy, nuclear arms control is rousing fitfully to life as a grass-roots political issue in this country.
With doctors and scientists leading the way, with the nuclear arms buildup of the Reagan administration supplying the fuel and with 1960s-style teach-ins and petition drives as the vehicle, a movement has begun to take shape.
Last weekend in Los Angeles, an audience of 2,700 turned out for a graphic slide show depicting the medical horrors of a nuclear war. "We could have sold twice the tickets if we had the space," said Helen Caldicott of the Boston-based Physicians for Social Responsibility, which has been taking the show around the country for the past year.
Next week, on Veterans Day, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and numerous co-sponsoring groups will hold teach-ins on more than 130 campuses to alert students to the nature of nuclear war.
Next April, Ground Zero, a new group founded by a former National Security Council staff member, Roger Molander, will sponsor a series of community-based activities styled after Earth Day. If all goes as planned, the nuclear education programs will reach into as many Rotary Clubs as Women Strike for Peace chapters.
Resolutions calling for a halt in nuclear arms production have been put before state legislatures and town councils across the country; scores of new arms control groups, made up of lawyers, nurses, technicians and others, have sprung up in the last year; and several existing organizations, notably the UCS, have shifted their focus from commercial nuclear power to nuclear arms.
Activists say there hasn't been so much action on so many fronts since the ABM battle of the late 1960s. But even with the step-up, they agree that the movement here is still but a faint echo of a much louder anti-nuclear campaign now sweeping through Europe. And some leaders here doubt whether Americans will ever become as exercised as Europeans over arms control.
"This country is still in a state of what I call manic denial about nuclear weapons," said Caldicott, who recently spoke at anti-nuclear mass rallies in London and Bonn. "People here just don't feel any specific danger to themselves and their children. In Europe, they do."
The issue has quickened in Europe, observers agree, because both the United States and the Soviet Union are in the process of basing a new generation of medium-range nuclear weapons there, fanning Europe's fears that the superpowers could fight a nuclear war on European soil.
In this country, nuclear weapons have upon occasion become a matter of acute local concern, as when the citizens of Nevada and Utah made it clear they did not want the MX system based in their states. But for the most part, the "bombs in the back yard" psychology has not taken hold here, and arms control is a movement searching for a focus.
"We're dealing with one of those large, overarching subjects that people have trouble getting a grip on," said Dr. Henry Kendall, UCS chairman. Molander, who set up Ground Zero last year after working at the Pentagon and the NSC, noted a recent Gallup poll that showed "47 percent of the people say they're worried about nuclear war but don't like to think about it. We've got to create an environment where they're willing to think about it."
As part of that effort, the arms control activists are taking great care not to come across in the same way as the anti-military, anti-government, overgrown flower children of the 1960s. They recognize that one of Reagan's political mandates from 1980 was to preside over a buildup in arms, and they do not want to undermine their effectiveness by cutting too deeply against that grain.
"We're not anti-military, nor are we in any way advocating unilateral disarmament," said Kendall.
"We're trying to separate the nuclear force issue from the conventional force issue," said Mark Niedergang, editor of the Freeze Newsletter, which reports on the campaign of more than 200 local groups around the country seeking passage in state legislatures of resolutions calling for a freeze in nuclear weapons production.
"This is a much more moderate movement than what people are accustomed to," he added. "We've all made a conscious decision not to heap a whole lot of the liberal/left agenda onto the movement."
For some, that has presented no problem; this is one movement in which conservative, white-collar groups are in the vanguard. But for others, like Niedergang, it has not been an easy philosophical decision.
A frustrated former social worker, Niedergang, 27, said he became interested in arms control because he wanted to find a way to stop the flow of dollars away from human programs and into the military. He finds that argument a powerful one, but bowing to the national mood of the day, he is refraining from articulating it in public.
Leaders of the movement have decided to use grass-roots organizing techniques, rather than a direct frontal assault on the federal government, because they believe the soil for arms control is more fertile in the hinterlands. "The idea is to build in the grass roots over a period of years until we have a powerful enough force to make our case in Washington," said Niedergang.
But that tactic presents another problem: how can you capture the attention of the masses when it is not exactly clear what they are supposed to do about the problem?
"A lot of groups haven't focused on that yet," said Jeremy Stone of the Federation of American Scientists. For its part, the federation has been circulating a petition that reads: "Our nation ought not to base its policies or its weapons programs on the belief that it can limit, survive or win a nuclear war."
Not exactly a rousing call to action, to be sure. But as Molander says, speaking for the nascent arms control movement, "There are three stages in the analytical process: problem identification, problem understanding, and solution.
"We're still at stage two."