Their movement was little more than a slogan six months ago, but advocates of a freeze on nuclear weapons production are already drawing analogies with the taxpayers' revolt of the late '70s.
A petition drive to put the question on California's November ballot has gathered a half-million signatures. Nationwide, the growing movement got its greatest boost Tuesday when 155 of 185 town meetings in Vermont approved resolutions calling for a bilateral U.S.-Soviet freeze on nuclear arms production.
Sponsors expect the Vermont results to create political momentum that will sweep upcoming town meetings in Massachusetts and New Hampshire and lead to a landslide vote this fall in California, the nation's most populous state.
"Once we make it happen here, we will be lighting a political match that ignites a response throughout the nation, just as the taxpayers' revolt did," said Harold Willens, the Los Angeles businessman who has organized the California drive.
He cited Proposition 13, the 1978 California tax-cutting initiative that sparked similar tax-cutting movements throughout the country.
The California campaign may cost as much as $1.5 million, said Willens, who campaigned for years for candidates who supported an end to the arms race. When one of his favorites, President Carter, didn't show up at a United Nations disarmament conference in 1978, Willens decided to change tactics.
"I believe it's more important to try to change the political climate on this issue than it is to change candidates," he said.
Supporters of the movement, who now claim more than 17,000 volunteers working in most of the 50 states, hope that large popular votes will at least encourage U.S. officials to devote more effort to negotiating arms controls.
The Reagan administration has suspended long-range strategic arms talks with the Soviets, although it is proceeding with discussions on mid-range nuclear missiles in Europe.
A Reagan administration official yesterday called the freeze idea ill-timed. "To impose a freeze at this time," said Joseph D. Lehman, spokesman for the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, "would be to reward the Soviets for a massive buildup, and penalize the United States, which has been relatively restrained."
Lehman said, however, that he did not think the pro-freeze movement would weaken the U.S. bargaining position in any upcoming arms talks or encourage the Soviets to delay making concessions.
"We welcome a public debate on this issue," Lehman said.
So far, the movement has encountered no organized opposition, in part because it calls for a bilateral freeze by both the United States and the Soviet Union and for safeguards against cheating.
Supporters say the Soviets should be just as interested as Americans in suspending the arms race, contending it has helped cripple the Soviet economy and added to arsenals already large enough to destroy both countries.
Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev, replying last month to an appeal from an Australian disarmament group, said his country "is ready to reach agreement not only on the complete termination of all nuclear weapons tests but also on ending their further production and on the reduction and subsequent elimination of their stockpiles."
The movement has attracted endorsements from three U.S. senators--Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) and Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (R-Conn.)--and 39 House members, and it is understood that Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.) will submit a bipartisan resolution next week calling for a weapons freeze. Resolutions also are expected soon in the House, said Barbara Roche, co-director of the Nuclear Weapons Freeze campaign's national clearinghouse in St. Louis.
A freeze resolution has been introduced in Maryland's legislature, where it is expected to pass, and others are expected soon in Ohio, Minnesota, Vermont, Kansas, Washington and Maine. One or both houses of the legislatures in Massachusetts, Oregon, Connecticut, New York and Wisconsin have already passed resolutions.
Meanwhile, Boulder, Colo., where voters endorsed the freeze last year, this week joined a small but increasing number of localities that have rejected a federal request to develop a nuclear evacuation plan.