The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A new arms race beckons. History shows what could freeze it.

Dedicated activism can make governments rethink bellicose approaches to the arms race

The first atomic explosion at Trinity test site on July 16, 1945, near Alamogordo, N.M. (AP)

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that 700 Nobel laureates had urged President Biden to take steps to reduce the risk of a potential nuclear conflict. In reality, 700 scientists and engineers made this call, including 21 Nobel laureates.

In recent weeks, the United States, Russia and the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council reaffirmed that a nuclear war “cannot be won and must never be fought.” It was welcome news. But we should also take a closer, skeptical look at this statement.

After all, the same nations pronouncing such benevolent goals continue to fund and build a new generation of destabilizing weapons not currently covered under arms control treaties, while simultaneously boycotting at the United Nations the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The United States, for example, plans to spend $400 billion over the next decade and $1.2 trillion over the next 30 years to modernize its nuclear arsenal. Though important transnational organizations such as the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) have succeeded in making nuclear weapons illegal, no nation in possession of these weapons has supported disarmament. There are no mass rallies demanding arsenal reductions, let alone abolition.

As tensions with Russia rise, strategically obsolete intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) remain on hair-trigger alert, creating the potential for accidental nuclear war. With the unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019, a new arms race beckons.

The present moment may feel defeatist for dedicated activists and arms controllers alike. But the history of anti-nuclear activism during the Cold War illuminates how grass-roots organizations such as SANE (the Committee for a SANE Nuclear World) and the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign previously pushed reluctant governments to act.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, as the United States and Soviet Union tested nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, SANE organized rallies to raise awareness of the dangers of nuclear fallout. After the world came within a breath of nuclear war in 1962, SANE Chairman Norman Cousins engaged both President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, paving the way for the Limited Test Ban Treaty. Later in the decade, opposition to anti-ballistic missiles (ABMs) merged with opposition to the Vietnam War. To quell this, President Richard M. Nixon embraced detente (the lessening of tensions), leading to both the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) and the ABM Treaty. Yet loopholes in these treaties allowed the arms race not just to continue, but to flourish, while surrounding arms control in a haze of acronyms and technical jargon.

With the Soviets on the march in Afghanistan, President Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 seeking massive increases to the defense budget and an array of potential first-strike weapons. His hostile public rhetoric toward the Soviet Union undercut administration efforts to privately improve relations. At his first news conference, for instance, Reagan suggested the Soviets “reserved unto themselves the right to lie, to cheat,” and later he famously referred to them as the “evil empire.” His frequent questionable statements placed the public and European allies on edge, whether it was implying in 1981 that a nuclear war in Europe could be limited or “joking” over a hot microphone in 1984 that the United States would “begin bombing [the Soviets] in five minutes.”

Perhaps even more alarming was the casual talk of survivable nuclear war seeping out of the administration. Most infamously, the administration’s undersecretary of defense for European nuclear theater forces, T.K. Jones, casually explained that surviving nuclear war would be as simple as digging fallout shelters and shoveling a layer of dirt on top: “It’s the dirt that does it,” Jones cheerfully proclaimed.

The worsening Cold War, however, also reinvigorated the peace movement. While peace activists in Europe rallied against basing intermediate-range nuclear weapons on the continent, in the United States, activists rallied around a strikingly innovative idea: a bilateral halt (or “freeze”) to the arms race. The idea was the brain child of Randall Forsberg, a self-identified “different kind of arms control advocate.” Forsberg’s freeze was simple to understand: Both the United States and the Soviet Union would halt (or freeze) the testing, building and deployment of nuclear weapons. Forsberg’s proposal, “A Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race,” became the founding document of the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign.

The campaign sparked a political wildfire with bipartisan support. Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) introduced a nuclear freeze bill in the U.S. Senate, while Rep. Silvio Conte (R-Mass.) introduced an identical bill in the House with 122 co-sponsors.

In June 1982, over 1 million people took to the streets of New York City to rally against the arms race — one of the largest political demonstrations in the nation’s history. By the fall of 1983, in the midst of the highest tensions of the late Cold War, 200 million viewers tuned in to watch ABC’s Sunday Night Movie “The Day After.” Depicting the aftermath of a nuclear war on Lawrence, Kan., the film brought home the dangers of the continued arms race to even apolitical viewers.

The administration initially attempted to redbait the Freeze by linking it to the Soviet Union. The movement, however, resisted such easy labeling. When the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops began debating a pastoral letter critical of Reagan and the arms race, Reagan treated the bishops with “kids’ gloves,” as one National Security Council staffer later acknowledged. The administration could not risk alienating the Catholic bishops and, by extension, Catholic voters — a key, traditionally Democratic constituency that swung for Reagan in the 1980 election. The administration thus repeatedly emphasized there was “no real disagreement” with the bishops, but only a simple misunderstanding. Soon, even Reagan was praising Freeze activists as “sincere and well intentioned” and “saying the same thing I’m saying.”

The Freeze put the White House on the defensive. National security adviser William Clark privately suggested that the debate was potentially “the most important national security opportunity and challenge” the administration faced and further advised to keep it “secret” that the “activists have our attention.” Campaign advisers understood that the issue that could sink Reagan’s reelection chances — and with it the entire Reagan Revolution — was not the economy, but the continued threat of nuclear war. Reagan’s speeches soon changed tone, and publicly he went from the hawk who dismissed arms control and detente as a “one way street,” to the dove who proclaimed “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

Reagan won reelection handily in 1984, and with the emergence of new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, the Cold War soon began to thaw. Gorbachev stepped into the space the Freeze was vacating, implementing the movement’s ideas such as a moratorium on the testing of nuclear weapons. The Freeze merged with SANE in 1987, becoming “SANE-Freeze” before changing to its current name, Peace Action. Though Reagan never acquiesced to the movement’s demand for a nuclear freeze, it still changed the dialogue surrounding nuclear weapons: No sitting president since has publicly advocated limited or survivable nuclear war.

In subsequent years, the U.S. and Soviet/Russian nuclear arsenals saw drastic reductions thanks to successive arms control treaties. Current U.S.-Russian relations, however, may well return to the myopic levels of the early 1980s, bringing with them an ever-increasing chance of catastrophic nuclear war. As President Biden concludes the Nuclear Posture Review, 700 scientists and engineers, including 21 Nobel laureates, have called for him to take steps to reduce that risk. In Congress, Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.) have introduced the Hastening Arms Limitation Talks (HALT) Act, with the goal of a freeze on the further global deployment of nuclear weapons.

But there’s a key difference between the contemporary call for a 21st-century nuclear freeze and its 1980s counterpart: The latter was at the center of a vast social movement with grass-roots support across the nation. For the HALT Act to succeed, it will need the support of a grass-roots peace movement that can flex its membership muscle much as the Freeze did. Indeed, as the history of the grass-roots anti-nuclear activism shows, even when Armageddon appears at the doorstep, it is still possible to pressure even the most hard-line governments to turn back the Doomsday Clock.