In the run up to the 1976 presidential election, Ronald Reagan was struggling. He lost the first six primaries to Gerald Ford. Then he discovered that stoking people’s fears about the Soviet Union could win voters. He began making demonstrably false claims that America was falling behind in the nuclear arms race and that the Panama Canal Treaty then being negotiated would let communist forces encircle America. He soon started winning—in North Carolina, Texas, Indiana, Georgia—with the promise that he would save the country from its supposed downward spiral. Although he ultimately lost the nomination to Ford, who in turn lost the general election to Jimmy Carter, Reagan’s discovery set the course for his successful 1980 campaign. As William F. Buckley, Jr., observed, Reagan’s rhetoric and defense policy proposals hit on the fact that Americans were “tired of being pushed around.”
Once in office, his administration’s pronouncements about nuclear war flew fast and thick. Secretary of State Alexander Haig said that America had plans, if necessary, to fire a “nuclear warning shot” in Europe. National Security Council member Richard Pipes claimed that there was a 40 percent chance of nuclear war. FEMA director Louis Giuffrida declared in an interview on ABC that while “nuke war” would be “a terrible mess,” it “wouldn’t be unmanageable.” In an October 1981 press conference, Reagan opined that it would be possible to use tactical nuclear weapons on specific battlefields without leading to an all-out nuclear war between the superpowers.
A big-tent coalition can change policy and win congressional elections, if not national ones.
It was significant, then, when two years later his language of war had evolved dramatically. On October 10, 1983, Reagan watched an advance copy of the ABC made-for-TV movie The Day After, which depicts a global nuclear war as seen by a family living in Lawrence, Kansas. The film was “very effective and left me greatly depressed,” Reagan wrote in his diary. “We have to do all we can to have a deterrent and see there is never a nuclear war.” By 1984 Reagan’s policy focus had shifted from preparing to win a nuclear war to trying to deter one. In his State of the Union address that year, he declared that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” His moderation on nuclear weapons and support for arms control in his second term arguably helped end the Cold War.
What happened? Voters wanted a president with a muscular foreign policy, but they did not want nuclear war. That shared desire allowed the Nuclear Freeze Movement, a grassroots protest against Reagan’s defense policies, to organize a broad, nonpartisan coalition around a single cause and bend Reagan toward arms control. Although the movement had mixed results in terms of direct legislative victories, its success at mobilizing the electorate to sway the course of a populist administration is a cause for optimism in the Trump era. The movement showed that a big-tent coalition, mobilized around highly visible and aggressive executive decisions, can change policy and win congressional elections, if not necessarily national ones.
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In truth Reagan’s nuclear policy differed little from his predecessor’s, but his nuclear rhetoric broke sharply with U.S. precedents. Jimmy Carter had signed the 1980 Presidential Directive 59, which reaffirmed the longstanding doctrine that tactical nuclear weapons might be deployed on the battlefield in a so-called “limited” nuclear war. Carter also pushed forward the development of MX multiple-warhead ballistic missiles and increased defense spending by 5 percent above inflation. Reagan’s plans were essentially the same. The left-leaning magazine The Nation, in an editorial four days after Reagan’s inauguration evocatively titled “Protest and Survive,” opined that “on the war–peace issue” there “was little to choose from” between Reagan and Carter. But The Nation also declared that Reagan’s “record, his pronouncements, his program, his advisers and his instincts” made nuclear war more likely. Reagan’s advisers included members of the radically hawkish Team B, who had helped spread false claims of Soviet military superiority in the late 1970s, including the fantasy that the Soviets were close to deploying laser weapons.
Reagan also followed through on his campaign promise to massively boost defense spending. He had guaranteed a 7 percent increase his first year in office, and he continued to expand defense funding by similar amounts in subsequent years. In 1985 the defense budget was twice the level it had been when Carter left office. The added spending (by a supposed fiscal conservative) nearly quadrupled the federal budget deficit.
Reagan's militarism inadvertently created breathing room for his political opponents.
Reagan’s enormous defense spending during the 1982 recession, combined with his frank and frequent talk of nuclear war, sparked a backlash; his militarism appealed to some voters but inadvertently created breathing room for his political opponents. Protests against Reagan’s foreign policy and defense budget soon coalesced in the Nuclear Freeze Movement, launched by the arms control researcher Randall Forsberg, which demanded a halt to nuclear proliferation.
This movement, of course, did not coalesce from thin air. Much of the initial energy of the Nuclear Freeze Movement was drawn from the longstanding antinuclear movement in America. Antinuclear advocacy had begun shortly after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when Albert Einstein started agitating against the weapons he had helped develop, and it continued in the work of such prominent figures as W. E. B. Du Bois, Linus Pauling, Ava Helen Pauling, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the leaders of the 1960s student movement. Those prominent voices were matched by action in the street (and the sea), from marches of Women Strike for Peace to swimmers trying to block Polaris missile-equipped submarines. After the Vietnam War, though, the peace and antinuclear movements largely dissipated. They had no spectacular cause around which to rally public support. Reagan’s nuclear provocations provided one.
Forsberg proposed the nuclear freeze in December 1979 at a meeting of Mobilization for Survival, an antinuclear group backed by peace organizations, including the American Friends Service Committee, Clergy and Laity Concerned, and the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Forsberg’s plan was enthusiastically received. In 1980 she published a manifesto, “Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race,” and began building support from other peace and antinuclear groups. Support also came from Europe, where, in 1980, widespread protests erupted in London, Paris, Rome, and Amsterdam against the deployment of American missiles. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published a special issue about the European protests in 1980 to try to inspire a similar American disarmament movement, and The Nation’s 1981 “Protest and Survive” issue reprinted essays from British historian E. P. Thompson’s 1980 collection of the same name.
To coordinate the various organizations involved in the freeze, movement leaders founded an umbrella group called the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign. Randy Kehler, a draft and war-tax resister who helped inspire Daniel Ellsberg to release the Pentagon Papers that revealed the lies behind Vietnam, was chosen to lead the coordinating group. Though Kehler was a veteran of the activist left, the organization he was in charge of was deliberately located in St. Louis to give the movement a Middle America feel. The freeze movement emerged from the left, but it sought to use a simple message—a bilateral freeze on nuclear proliferation—to appeal across the political spectrum. After building its coalition of leftist domestic and international organizations, the movement aimed to broaden its support across partisan divides and to educate mainstream Americans about the nuclear threat with the goal of impacting the midterm congressional elections in 1982 and the presidential election in 1984.
In 1982 activists across the country, coordinated by Kehler and the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, started gathering signatures in support of a freeze on nuclear weapons testing, production, and deployment. They got nuclear freeze referenda placed on ballots in hundreds of towns and cities. Eight state legislatures, from Maine to Iowa to Oregon, passed freeze resolutions, and freeze referenda were passed by popular vote in nine states. Senators Edward Kennedy and Mark Hatfield proposed a federal freeze resolution. And polls showed widespread public support: in 1982, 38 percent of Americans did not trust Reagan to make the right decisions on nuclear policy, while 71–83 percent favored the nuclear freeze. A remarkable 45 percent said they supported even a unilateral freeze.
Reagan’s militaristic temperament swept liberals, centrists, and even some conservatives into the Nuclear Freeze Movement. It brought together mainstream Democrats and Republicans with radical pacifists, retired admirals, generals, and CIA directors, veteran 1960s antiwar and antinuclear activists, atomic scientists, socialists, Hollywood celebrities, labor unions, big-business Democrats, feminist organizations, Christian groups (especially Catholics), balanced-budget hawks, and big-government progressives who wanted to redirect defense funding toward the welfare programs Reagan had slashed. Reagan denounced the movement as a Soviet plot, and a number of state and municipal bureaus of investigation infiltrated antinuclear groups to keep tabs on their politics. But while the Soviets did try to infiltrate freeze groups, the CIA and FBI found that they had failed to influence the freeze. As the Washington Post reported, “Although testimony showed the Soviets spent vast amounts of time and money on forged documents, planted agents and other active measures to try to influence events, . . . the FBI had testified that the efforts ‘have had, at best, minimal impact on U.S. decision makers.’” In other words, the overwhelming majority of protesters were ordinary Americans who simply hated the prospect of nuclear war.
The movement’s biggest display of strength was a march in New York City on June 12, 1982, that drew a million protesters; it was one of the largest public demonstrations in American history. Freeze organizations also built political action committees and lobbying apparatuses, which donated increasingly large sums to congressional campaigns across the 1980s. Public pressure toward arms control and against increased defense spending, crystalized by the freeze movement, helped Democrats add twenty-six seats to their House majority in the 1982 midterm elections. A freeze resolution was then passed in the House in 1983. Reagan, of course, won reelection in a landslide in 1984, and freeze activists saw his victory as a rebuke of their movement. Forsberg wrote that the election “left us reeling.” The movement never fully recovered. But the millions of dollars donated by freeze-based groups moved the House toward arms control and helped Democrats regain the Senate in 1986, the first time they had held the chamber since 1980.
If Reagan had previously shown a cavalier willingness to launch a nuclear war, he now spoke of avoiding war and emphasized peace.
Despite these victories, the movement’s outcome was ambiguous. Democratic and Republican politicians quickly coopted the language of freeze, turning grassroots protests in the street into backroom dealing in the Capitol. Unlike the protesters, the politicians were much more likely to compromise on the specifics of a freeze. The House resolution, for instance, contained numerous amendments meant to weaken the freeze, including a deadline for arms control negotiation with the Soviet Union after which, if negotiations had not been successful, the freeze would expire. Similarly freeze supporters in the House were still willing to back missile programs such as the MX (though they traded that support for Reagan’s agreement with arms control). And the freeze coalition itself soon splintered as pacifists, socialists, mainstream liberals, and conservative defense hawks all demanded different degrees of arms control, disarmament, and defense budget reductions.
Reagan himself managed to coopt the freeze movement’s rhetoric and thereby defused public protests. At the height of the freeze movement in 1982 and 1983, Reagan and his allies had cast it as a danger to national security and even as Soviet-inspired sedition—the same charge that had been leveled at antinuclear activists since Du Bois faced McCarthy-style blacklisting in 1951. But Reagan soon recognized the public energy behind arms control and shifted his rhetoric and principal policy aims toward deterrence—though he still deployed MX missiles while negotiating the START II treaty that eventually banned such multiple-warhead weapons.
The centerpiece of Reagan’s shift toward deterrence was his infamous Strategic Defense Initiative—also known as Star Wars—which was announced in March 1983. Leftist activists were appalled by the Star Wars proposal. (And the computer-generated graphics Reagan used to illustrate it do look absurd today. How did we believe we were going to use lasers to shoot down nuclear missiles when even our CGI capability was so limited?) But in some ways Star Wars marked an important drawdown in Cold War tensions, a change in posture from offense to defense.
It was also a victory for the Nuclear Freeze Movement. If Reagan had previously shown a cavalier willingness to launch a nuclear war, he now spoke of avoiding war and emphasized peace. Where before his administration had said that nuclear war was “manageable,” in his 1984 State of the Union address, Reagan reached out to the “people of the Soviet Union” to say: “Americans are people of peace. If your government wants peace, there will be peace. We can come together in faith and friendship to build a safer and far better world for our children.” Even if he did not act like it (see: Iran–Contra), he sounded like those left-wing peaceniks. Protesters had tempered Reagan’s militarism, and the defense budget would shrink every year after 1985.
Moreover the pressure toward arms control in the Democratic House and Senate, combined with Reagan’s new rhetoric, created space for détente with Mikhail Gorbachev, who became general secretary of the USSR’s communist party in 1985. As Gorbachev and Reagan worked together on arms control, it gave Gorbachev room to maneuver domestically in Russia as well, since American missiles were less of a looming threat than they had been when Alexander Haig was talking about nuclear warning shots. With reduced foreign policy pressures, Gorbachev propelled political reform in the Soviet Union and across the Eastern Bloc. Those reforms eventually broke up the USSR and began what now looks like an interwar period in the 1990s.
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Much as Reagan’s militarism became a rallying point for the opposition in the 1980s, Trump’s belligerent foreign policy and his hyperbolic threats to use military force, both domestically and abroad, may be one of the most efficacious targets for resisting his agenda. Like Reagan, Trump campaigned on fear tactics, calling Democrats soft on terrorism and stoking anxieties about what he pointedly labelled “radical Islamic terrorism.” His executive order blocking immigration from seven (now six) Muslim-majority nations in the Middle East represents a shift in the ongoing War on Terror toward a war against Islam itself. The backlash against Trump’s ban has already shown the power of what citizen protest can do.
The protesters who swarmed to airports across the country to decry the ban were, implicitly and explicitly, rejecting Trump’s expanded war footing. The protesters not only asserted an alternative vision of American identity that is fundamentally open to immigration, they also asserted a vision of American foreign policy in which Islam does not represent a monolithic enemy in a grand clash of civilizations. The airport protests were a kind of foreign policy debate carried out in the streets.
When it came to Trump’s ban, grassroots protest politics drove formal political decision making in Washington.
This groundswell of protest directly changed the behavior of elected officials, from Democratic senators who reevaluated their legislative strategy to Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain, who released a statement blasting Trump’s executive order—even to Trump himself, who at least partially reorganized White House decision making to avoid similar fiascos in the future. When it came to Trump’s ban, much as in the case of the nuclear freeze, grassroots protest politics drove formal political decision making in Washington.
One lesson of the Nuclear Freeze Movement is that when a right-wing populist wins the presidency by promising a tough attitude, the easiest way to fight back is not by picking away at the details of all his policies, but by clearly articulating a few basic ways in which his policies threaten people’s well-being. The airport protests did just that. The idea of immigrants, including elderly grandparents, being forcibly detained on U.S. soil spectacularly made visible the militarism, authoritarianism, and white nationalism of Trump’s worldview. That spectacle generated an effective protest movement in response. The political opposition to Trump would do well to continue using such symbols that easily sum up the many issues on which he sits far outside the public consensus.
For example, Trump wants to massively boost defense spending while slashing healthcare, a pairing that makes visible his lack of actual concern for the working class. Similarly, Trump’s immigration ban, his calls for nuclear proliferation, and his desire to renew torture capture his casual relationship with violence and the ways in which his policies will destabilize international relations, making Americans complicit in forms of brutality that they do not on the whole support. By pointing to these real human costs of Trump’s tough talk, progressives can bring into focus the wider dangers of Trump’s worldview and articulate their own alternative vision of a government that aids the forgotten and oppressed. The Nuclear Freeze Movement, Randall Forsberg reflected in the Boston Review years later, succeeded in the 1980s because there was a clear and present danger of mass violence. Public support for arms control waned in the 1990s because the collapse of the Soviet Union removed that danger. Trump’s America First foreign policy once again offers a clear threat of massive state violence across a range of interlinked issues that can and should generate a strong opposition coalition.
Coalitional politics can be tricky. The Nuclear Freeze Movement had limited legislative success partly because it attempted to be thoroughly bipartisan—Senator Hatfield, for instance, who co-sponsored the freeze resolution, was a Republican. This meant that freeze groups did not coalesce behind a Democratic bloc that would vote broadly against Reagan’s agenda. On the other hand, Walter Mondale, who ran against Reagan in 1984, supported the freeze but differed only somewhat from Reagan’s overall defense policies, as Carter had in 1980. For leaders of the nuclear freeze, Mondale was their fourth choice among candidates in the Democratic primary. Today, though, the extreme partisan polarization in America means that the anti-Trump opposition can both build bipartisan support against the violence and the global chaos of his America First foreign policy and still present a strong progressive alternative to Trumpism in the 2018 midterms and the 2020 presidential contest.
A debate over America’s identity and direction is taking place right now through participatory democracy in the streets. If the progressive opposition to Trump can maintain its grassroots energy, hold its leaders in Congress accountable to their base, and build bipartisan support on key foreign policy issues such as the immigration ban, torture, and nuclear nonproliferation, this citizen movement can shape policy and win elections. Reflecting on her decades of antinuclear activism, Forsberg wrote in 2002 that getting citizens involved in national security decisions is “an incredibly difficult undertaking.” “Yet,” she concluded, “democratic control in this area is essential to the full development and flowering of democratic institutions, and equally essential to the safety and well-being of ordinary citizens here and throughout the world.” The widespread rejection of Trumpism by citizens across the country, who are demanding accountability and change, is an important step in reenergizing and expanding American democracy. The fight, as Forsberg put it, will be long and incredibly difficult. But if the past is any guide, these everyday activists from all walks of life can win.