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Nuclear Weapons

The Nuclear Freeze Movement

by John Carl Baker
February 21, 2018

How a grassroots movement helped stall the arms race and prevent nuclear war.

By the early 1980’s, nuclear war had been a persistent threat humming in the American collective conscience for thirty years. At the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the hum grew to a deafening roar. Nuclear spending was on the rise. Administration officials publicly implied that a nuclear war could be fought—and won. The age-old threat suddenly seemed close at hand.

The lives of regular Americans were at risk, so regular Americans stepped up to the plate.

From typist to activist

Randall Forsberg became interested in nuclear policy while living in Stockholm in her mid-twenties. She had gotten a job as a typist at the Swedish government’s Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, hoping “to learn something about peace and maybe make a little contribution.” But the papers that crossed her desk floored her. She decided to dedicate her life’s work to educating the public about nuclear issues. After returning to the United States, she got her doctorate in political science and defense policy at MIT and began work as an advocate and educator.

Activist Randall Forsberg stands at a podium, speaking at a rally in favor of nuclear disarmament.

Randall Forsberg speaks at a rally in favor of nuclear disarmament.

Lionel Delevingne

Seeding a grassroots movement

Forsberg penned a manifesto on nuclear disarmament that became the rallying point for the Nuclear Freeze Movement. She suggested a freeze policy—a bilateral halt on nuclear weapons production, deployment, and testing—as a way to unite the factions of the peace movement while appealing to moderate, middle-class Americans. The policy was designed to be politically moderate. It rejected unilateral disarmament and called only for a mutual freeze as a first step toward joint reductions in nuclear arsenals.

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Local ballots, national impact

The movement that grew around Forsberg’s policy proposal continued to emphasize moderation and nonpartisanship. It was a locally-organized grassroots movement. Activists all over the country campaigned to get initiatives calling for a bilateral freeze on their local ballots. In 1982, nine states, 275 city governments, and 446 town hall meetings passed pro-freeze resolutions. Of the 18 million Americans who voted on the freeze policy that year, 60% voted in support of it. Congressman Edward Markey said it was “the closest our country has ever come to a national plebiscite on nuclear arms control.” The people made their stance clear.

Demonstrators from Vermont rally to demand disarmament.

Demonstrators from Vermont march in New York to demand disarmament.

Getty Images

The power of the people

On June 12, 1982, roughly a million people gathered in New York’s Central Park. They came to protest the arms race, and to demand a pathway to disarmament. At the time, it was the largest political gathering in American history. Randall Forsberg was one of the keynote speakers. The rally rocketed the freeze policy into public discussion, and then into Congressional debate. Reagan was forced to change his stance and rebrand as an advocate for peace.

Anti-Nuke Rally in NYC, 1982

The pressure applied by millions of average Americans pushed the administration to take real steps toward disarmament. Four years after the rally, President Reagan sat down with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland to begin negotiations on bilateral nuclear arms reductions.

In front of the Capitol Building, a man gives a speech into a podium crowded with microphones. The man is standing next to an American Flag, and in front of a banner that reads, "Citizens lobby for a U.S./Soviet nuclear weapons freeze". A logo on the sign depicts a halting hand help up to four nuclear missiles.

Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts addresses pro-freeze demonstrators on Capitol Hill. Under public pressure, the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved a resolution calling for negotiations with the Soviet Union on a nuclear weapons freeze.

Getty Images

The Nuclear Freeze Movement made a big impact on the course of nuclear politics in the 80’s, but as time went on, public interest in the issue died down. Years later, it’s an inspiring model for future generations of organizers and activists looking to make a difference in today’s political climate.

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