How Reagan Brought the World to the Brink of Nuclear Destruction
As Ronald Reagan is lionized this month to commemorate the centennial of his birth, it ought to be recalled that Reagan’s presidency brought America and the world to the brink of infinite peril. President Reagan’s nuclear buildup and nuclear saber-rattling so increased the temperatures inside the pressure cooker of the Cold War that it seemed likely to blow its lid at any moment – splattering everyone standing in the kitchen of Planet Earth. In retrospect, what might have done more than anything else to prevent such an atomic eruption was much the same thing we are seeing in Tahrir Square in Egypt at this very hour. A million outraged citizens, gathering together in one of the most important public spaces in the land, and saying, simply, "no more."
Ronald Reagan was perhaps the fiercest military and nuclear hawk ever to occupy the Oval Office. He may well have believed, as some of my nuclear abolitionist colleagues are pointing out this month, that the elimination of all nuclear weapons was a desirable and achievable goal. Yes, he did say, more than once, "our dream is to see the day when nuclear weapons will be banished from the face of the Earth."
But his nuclear policy rhetoric and actions, both prior to and during his first term in office, might well have banished all life from earth instead.
Before he assumed the presidency, Ronald Reagan said "the day of Armageddon isn't far off. ... Ezekiel says that fire and brimstone will be rained down upon the enemies of God's people. That must mean that they'll be destroyed by nuclear weapons." He told voters that American national interests would best be served if the United States proceeded to build and deploy several new kinds of nuclear weapons and delivery systems -- the B-1 bomber, the neutron bomb, the Trident nuclear submarine, and the MX nuclear missile. He denounced Soviet leaders as "monsters" and "godless communists." He attacked the SALT II treaty signed by President Jimmy Carter and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev as "an act of appeasement." Indeed, prior to assuming the presidency, Ronald Reagan had opposed every single nuclear arms control agreement negotiated since the dawn of the nuclear age.
Then, soon after his inauguration on January 20, 1981, President Reagan dramatically increased the American military budget (an effort, it was said, to "bankrupt the Soviet Union"). He sought to add each of those new nuclear weapons and delivery systems to the American arsenal, deployed new medium-range nuclear missiles in Western Europe, and began to contemplate a missile defense system that, from the Soviet perspective, could provide America with the ability to launch a nuclear first strike and defend itself against the remnant Soviet nuclear response. When his Arms Control and Disarmamant Agency director, Eugene Rostow, was asked whether the US and USSR could survive a full-scale nuclear exchange, he replied breezily: "The human race is very resilient." And his vice-president, George H.W. Bush, as well as his top nuclear policy officials, spoke not about avoiding nuclear conflagration, but instead about "waging and winning" something they called a "protracted nuclear war," in which, they insisted, our side could "prevail ... on terms favorable to the United States." (The thesis was explicitly laid out in a landmark article in Foreign Policy magazine by Keith Payne and Colin Gray, called "Victory is Possible.")
By the beginning of the 1980s there were more than 50,000 nuclear weapons deployed on the planet. Yet it would take just a single one to level an entire city and obliterate all its inhabitants -- in the blink an eye, the snap of a finger, the single beat of a human heart. The perpetual nuclear arms race had a Strangelovian madness that was apparent to even the most casual observer.
And so many such casual observers, frightened right out of their homes and onto their streets, began to mobilize a vast new civil society antinuclear movement, which soon became known as the campaign for a "Nuclear Freeze." The initiative did not propose some elaborate, complex nuclear disarmament plan, or pretend they had a comprehensive solution to the problem of the Cold War. They just said simply, in response to both the terrifying rhetoric and the ever-increasing quantities of these terrifying weapons, "Stop! Now! No More! Just stop!"
After the campaign grew exponentially throughout 1981 and 1982, a wide coalition of peace, environmental, and religious organizations began planning a gathering of unprecedented magnitude. The specific agenda was the Call to Halt the Arms Race, authored by Randall Caroline Forsberg, which proposed a "freeze" on the production, testing, and deployment of all nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles. Forsberg had initially begun floating the proposal in 1979, but Reagan’s election in November 1980 gave her efforts enormous impetus.
The tidal wave reached its zenith on June 12, 1982, when perhaps as many as one million people gathered in New York City’s Central Park, demanding that the incessant spiral of nuclear arms competition be brought immediately to a halt. Companion rallies were held at both the Rose Bowl in Pasadena (90,000 in attendance), and in San Francisco (50,000). The freeze organizers in New York held in their hands a petition, which they presented to the American and Soviet missions at the UN, containing (in the days before the Internet) no less than 2.3 million signatures. And polls showed that between 70% and 85% of the American public supported the freeze idea.
Forsberg, who received a MacArthur Fellowship "genius award" for her efforts, died too young in October 2007 -- with exquisite irony, just a couple of weeks before the death of Colonel Paul Tibbets, commander of the U.S.A.A.F. B-29 Enola Gay that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. In her obituary, the New York Times called the June 12 rally the largest political demonstration in American history.
An argument can be made, of course, that it was not the Reagan Administration alone that was responsible for either the confrontational Soviet-American relations of the time or the acceleration of the nuclear arms race. The two adversaries had been locked eyeball-to-eyeball since the waning days of the Second World War in 1945. The USSR had spent much of the 1970s stirring up trouble and expanding its influence throughout the "Third World." They had deployed troops to Afghanistan to save their tottering client government in Kabul on Christmas Day 1979. They had pursued several rounds of nuclear buildups of their own (and in fact had deployed medium-range ballistic missiles in Europe first). Soviet leaders, of course, always claimed that their international behavior was defensive in nature -- undertaken because we were out to get them. And we always claimed that our international behavior was defensive in nature -- undertaken because they were out to get us.
However, the freeze movement recognized this mutually-reinforcing cycle of hostility and fear. None of the leaders of the campaign claimed that Moscow was entirely benevolent, or that Washington was entirely at fault. But the people on the streets knew that the two great antagonists were stuck, like two scorpions trapped in a bottle, perpetually poised for attack, and that somehow, someone needed to guide them out.
At first, President Reagan disparaged and dismissed the nuclear freeze movement. He called it "a very dangerous fraud," claimed that some of its organizers were not only communist sympathizers but "foreign agents," and asserted that the movement’s leaders were those "who want the weakening of America." And yet, by the time of Reagan’s second term, the nuclear weapons policies of his administration actually went far beyond what the organizers of the freeze campaign had advocated. The Reagan Administration did not just halt the nuclear arms race, it actually began to reverse it.
(The elaborate efforts undertaken by the freeze movement, and their direct impact on policy outcomes, are masterfully illuminated by the historian Lawrence Wittner in his 2009 book CONFRONTING THE BOMB: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement.)
The START agreements (which commenced negotiations under Reagan but were signed by the first President Bush) contained provisions not just for freezing, but actually reducing the size of each side’s respective arsenals. This was conveyed by the START name itself. Soviet-American arms control treaties during earlier eras had been called SALT – Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties. But the new generation was called START -- Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties. They required just that -- actual cuts in the numbers of nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles. The latest round of START, of course, was just ratified by the U.S. Senate this past December, and came into force one day before Reagan's 100th birthday.
In addition, during the second Reagan Administration Moscow and Washington negotiated and signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. This agreement, for the first time, actually banned and eliminated an entire category of nuclear weaponry from the arsenals of both East and West – those medium-range nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, ready to be launched in an instant from Western Europe onto Soviet territory, or vice versa.
Moreover, Administration policy aides were instructed to cease all talk about "winning" a nuclear war. Instead, President Reagan himself, in 1985, traveled to Geneva for his first meeting with the new Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, and the two of them together issued an official joint statement, proclaiming, "A nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought." And then, a year later, at Reykjavik, Iceland, the president and the general secretary came achingly close to striking a deal for abolition, and committing to go all the way. To zero.
"First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you," said Gandhi, famously. "Then you win." The nuclear freeze movement did indeed win, substantial victories, playing an enormous role in both reversing the nuclear arms race and ending the nuclear brinksmanship so evident in the first half of the 1980s. It is inconceivable that either the change in nuclear rhetoric or the reductions in nuclear weaponry during Reagan’s second term would have come about without the insistent, powerful, and impassioned nuclear freeze movement that blossomed during Reagan’s first term.
Indeed, Administration figures themselves admitted as much. The president’s wife Nancy, according to close Reagan confidant Michael Deaver, "felt strongly that (the disarmament initiatives of the second term were) not only in the interest of world peace, but the correct move politically." National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane said, "you had to have appropriations, and to get them you needed political support, and that meant you had to have an arms control policy worthy of the name." Secretary of State George Shultz said: "Given the political climate in the U.S., we could not keep pace in modernization, production, and deployment of these deadly weapons." And President Reagan himself said that one of his main motivations for the shift in both words and deeds was that "from a propaganda point of view, we were on the defensive."
Just like in Egypt at this very moment, a million people, marching in the street, can actually change the course of history.
The Cold War, of course, soon came to an end, just a couple of years after President Reagan left office. But the vast nuclear arsenals remain. The six nuclear-armed nations of Reagan’s time have expanded into nine nuclear-armed nations today. A whole host of new nuclear perils -- nuclear terror by Mohammed Atta's cousin, accidental nuclear launches by any one of the nine, some international political beef spinning out of control, the nuclear weapons employment doctrines of each one of the nine -- now threaten the future of the human race. The urgent need for a revived nuclear disarmament movement -- this time not for a nuclear freeze but for dismantling every last nuclear weapon on earth and banning them from ever being constructed again -- could not be more apparent.
(My own 2010 book, APOCALYPSE NEVER: Forging the Path to a Nuclear Weapon-Free World, speculates about how such a new nuclear disarmament movement might be conceptualized, and constituted, and reborn.)
At the opening of 2011, after all, we commemorate not just the 100th birthday of President Ronald Reagan on February 6, 1911, but also the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy on January 20, 1961. His words on the subject? "Now man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. … Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness … The weapons of war must be abolished, before they abolish us."