Whatever Happened to the Peace Movement?

It's as if critical mass was achieved that afternoon 15 years ago in New York's Central Park -- a mass that ignited an anti-nuclear explosion.For months, the anti-nuclear movement built toward this climactic moment. In Britain and Europe, crowds thronged the streets of London and Bonn and Amsterdam to protest the deployment of still another generation of U.S. nuclear missiles. In living rooms and meeting halls across the United States, people worried about President Ronald Reagan's casual threats of nuclear war.In Central Park, a huge wave of humanity from throughout the nation gathered to demonstrate the strength of this great and growing force for peace. Amid the songs and speeches came the electrifying announcement that the goal had been achieved: The crowd count had surpassed one million.The assembly of one million demonstrators in Central Park on June 12, 1982, served not only as a dramatic high- water mark but also as the kick-off for a movement which for a time posed a serious challenge to U.S. national security policy.Citizens in states throughout the nation approved nuclear-freeze referendums, barring further nuclear deployment by the United States and the Soviet Union. Dozens of schools, homes, churches, towns and cities across the United States declared themselves "nuclear-free zones."Nukewatch, a Madison-based public interest group I headed at that time, capitalized on the national anti- nuclear fervor. We launched campaigns to track unmarked nuclear weapons convoys from California to the Carolinas and mapped the unmarked underground launch pads of hundreds of ballistic missiles in seven Midwestern and Great Plains states.The volunteers who went door-to-door and highway-to- highway and missile-to-missile for peace in our area were just a fragment of a vast and vigorous national effort to stop the nuclear arms race before, in the idiom of that day, "it stopped the human race."It was a national movement that is now all but dead.Today, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the melting of the Cold War, the downsizing of nuclear arsenals and the apparent subsidence of the threat of nuclear Armageddon have transformed the political landscape in the United States and elsewhere. The world has tuned out to talk of nuclear doomsday.The once-formidable Nuclear Weapons Freeze campaign is just a memory, although a few scattered remnants cling to related environmental and social causes. With the Air Force emptying its nuclear missile silos in state after state, Nukewatch now concentrates on a different target -- the nuclear Navy's?? Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) radio signal transmitter in northern Wisconsin, which may soon be closed by Congress as an unneeded Cold War relic.Friends of mine who once shared marches, rallies, teach-ins, sit-ins, police vans, court benches and even prison cells in the cause of nuclear resistance here at home are now scattered on what seem like distant causes in places like Sarajevo, Hebron and Baghdad.As someone who spends most of his time these days in support of an imprisoned anti-nuclear whistle blower in far- off Israel, I too have felt this post-Cold War centrifugal force carrying us far afield, geographically as well as substantively, from the nuclear battlegrounds closer to home.It is true that the Soviet Union is gone, that the Cold War is over, that the nuclear weapons arsenals that once bristled so menacingly are shrinking, and that the nuclear arms race as we once knew it is finished. But does this mean that planet Earth no longer faces the threat of nuclear oblivion? The answer is a categorical no.NO ENEMY, NO PROBLEM The world's flirtation with nuclear disaster is as real today as it was a half-century ago, when scientists and soldiers developed and then used a weapon of unprecedented and unimaginable destructive power. The threat remains and continues to gather force because we failed to grasp the opportunity that beckoned 15 years ago. A deadly nuclear con game has been perpetrated by our own government, and many of us are unwitting participants in the deception.The nuclear arms race has not ended; it has simply downsized and gone underground. The changes in geopolitics did not bring relief because the arms race was never, as commonly believed, between the United States and the Soviet Union; it was a contest between two branches of the U.S. armed services and their corporate backers for shares of the ever-growing military budget, with the Soviets playing a futile game of catch-up.Take, for example, the competition for a better intercontinental ballistic missile. From the 1960s through the 1980s, the real race was between the Air Force, backed by the Boeing Co., and the Navy, backed by the Lockheed Corp.While the giant corporations and their legions of subcontractors grew fatter, and the Soviets struggled to keep pace, each new multibillion-dollar generation of Air Force ICBMs (Atlas, Titan, Minuteman) was answered by a new and equally expensive generation of Navy submarine-launched missiles (Polaris, Poseidon, Trident).The disappearance of a credible foreign enemy in the 1990s has not diminished the internal competition for money and power that continues to propel militarism and its nuclear component. With the once-soaring Pentagon budget now holding steady at about $275 billion a year, Boeing and Lockheed have gobbled up much of the competition to become the dominant corporate forces not only in missile-delivery systems but the entire military-industrial complex.While maintaining its Trident submarine fleet at Cold War heights, the Navy and Lockheed, with vast constituencies in Congress, are redefining their submarine-launched missile capability to answer new "threats" from Third World nations. The Air Force and Boeing, not to be outdone, are touting a new generation of nuclear-armed medium-range missiles, useful against "terrorists" and "rogue regimes."Similarly, the Department of Energy and its nuclear weapons laboratories are shifting gears to maintain their roles as designers and developers of nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War era. The once-sprawling nuclear weapons production complex -- much of it now outmoded, contaminated with radiation, or shut down because of neighborhood environmental and public safety concerns -- is being slimmed down and retooled for new production goals based on quality rather than quantity."Stockpile stewardship" is the new watchword. But its goal is the same as before: Maintaining a nuclear weapons stockpile that is second-to-none.Shrugging off suggestions that they be closed or converted to nonmilitary purposes (alternative energy, mass transportation, nuclear clean-up), the three nuclear weapons laboratories at Livermore, Calif., and Los Alamos and Albuquerque, N.M., are developing ever more sophisticated high-tech programs that will continue to attract top-flight scientists.One such project is the National Ignition Facility (NIF), a billion-dollar plant now under construction at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Its purpose is to keep scientists interested in nuclear weapons research and to bring weapons testing into the laboratory, where it can be conducted without roiling the political waters.For decades, efforts to curtail the nuclear arms race have focused on banning the testing of nuclear weapons, thereby deterring design improvements. Worldwide concern over radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons testing brought the 1963 treaty banning tests in the ocean and atmosphere. But that merely drove the nuclear blasts underground, and testing continued more vigorously than before, with less public clamor.The same mistake occurred in the mid-1990s, when the U.S. nuclear weapons labs and the Clinton administration acceded to global pressure for a comprehensive test ban treaty (CTBT) covering underground field tests but not simulated laboratory tests using highly sophisticated and expensive means recently developed by the United States.The peace movement cheered, believing it had at last achieved the long-sought cap on nuclear weapons design and development. The weapons makers cheered too, knowing that they had once again escaped the noose and found a way for the United States to maintain its long lead in this field.FALSE START In other arenas, too, the weapons community, sometimes with unwitting help from its adversaries, has beaten back efforts to curb its power. In 1995, many peace activists cheered the extension of the 1970 international Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT), believing it would prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to new nations. But the treaty was also good news for weapons makers in the United States and other major nuclear powers (Britain, France, Russia, China, and Israel) because it locked in their strategic advantage in a world of nuclear haves and have-nots.The U.S. double standard on nuclear weapons proliferation is exemplified by the well-publicized work of Gary Milhollin, director of the Washington-based Wisconsin Project. Milhollin has built a national reputation ferreting out details of the pint-sized nuclear weapons aspirations of developing countries while all but ignoring the large-scale clandestine program of Israel, America's principal Middle Eastern ally.But it is in the area of strategic arms reduction -- the START treaties negotiated in the 1990s by the United States and its erstwhile foe -- that the nuclear weapons makers and their unwitting collaborators in the arms-control community have perpetrated the most egregious fraud.A quarter of a century ago, with the U.S. nuclear weapons inventory approaching the astronomical level of 30,000 warheads, many of which could destroy a large city, the Pentagon and Department of Energy without fanfare began reducing the number to a more manageable size. New multipurpose warheads with variable yields made it possible for the United States to cut the size of its arsenal without losing effective megatonnage.Thus, numbers were already on the way down when the first of the strategic arms limitation and reduction agreements began to kick in during the 1980s. The world breathed a huge collective sigh in 1989 when President Bush and Soviet Chairman Gorbachev took missiles and bombers off alert, announced the first of a series of substantial cuts, and went on to make further reductions on their own. What wasn't well known is that the Pentagon had already concluded it was still overburdened with nuclear overkill.American bunkers in Europe, South Korea and other hot spots bulged with nuclear hardware including land mines and artillery shells that could never have been used without decimating the landscape of friendly allies. Shipboard tactical nukes on surface vessels presented as much potential danger to our own fleet as to any enemy. The aging missiles in the silos of Missouri and South Dakota were so decrepit as to make them as likely to hit New York as Moscow.START-1 cut strategic warhead deployment to 8,500, and the still unratified START-2 would slash it to 3,500 by the year 2003. But these new levels, almost universally cheered as presaging the end of the arms race, were well above the Pentagon's projections for a leaner, meaner 21st-century nuclear strike force. Besides, the agreements cover only the deployment of long-range nuclear weapons. They place no limits on the number of warheads held in reserve or the disposition of nuclear weapons of lesser range.Under the various START agreements currently ratified or proposed, it is estimated that the United States will retain about 10,500 nuclear bombs and warheads of various kinds, more than enough to decimate the planet.THE LESSON Here and there, seeds of hope are sprouting in the wasteland of the peace movement, small in numbers but intent on preserving the spirit of resistance that flowered 15 years ago.Abolition 2000, a consortium of 700 peace and justice groups around the world, seeks nuclear disarmament by the turn of the century, not on some distant day. "Plowshares" activists risk prison by hammering on nuclear weapons, taking disarmament into their own hands in pursuance of the biblical mandate to beat swords into plowshares.In resurrecting the urgency that swept Central Park in 1982, such groups offer an alternative to the fatal compromises of START and similar arms-control treaties. But will the public be aroused in time for sanity to prevail?The nuclear-arms-control establishment has let the nuclear arms makers off the hook. What purports to be the path to sanity is in fact a perpetuation of the status quo.With the end of the Cold War and the stand-down of opposing nuclear armadas, humanity has bought some time. But until we learn the lesson of the nuclear age, it will be time purchased at the expense of our posterity. The lesson is that even one atomic bomb is one too many because it inevitably breeds more. Let us hope it's a lesson we learn in time; our luck will not last forever.Sam Day, formerly editor of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and managing editor of The Progressive, is a Madison-based freelance writer and political activist.

Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.