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The Other Eighties: A Secret History of America in the Age of Reagan
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The Other Eighties: A Secret History of America in the Age of Reagan

by Bradford Martin

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In this engaging new book, Bradford Martin illuminates a different 1980s than many remember—one whose history has been buried under the celebratory narrative of conservative ascendancy. Ronald Reagan looms large in most accounts of the period, encouraging Americans to renounce the activist and liberal politics of the 1960s and ‘70s and embrace the


In this engaging new book, Bradford Martin illuminates a different 1980s than many remember—one whose history has been buried under the celebratory narrative of conservative ascendancy. Ronald Reagan looms large in most accounts of the period, encouraging Americans to renounce the activist and liberal politics of the 1960s and ‘70s and embrace the resurgent conservative wave. But a closer look reveals that a sizable swath of Americans strongly disapproved of Reagan’s policies throughout his presidency. With a weakened Democratic Party scurrying for the political center, many expressed their dissatisfaction outside electoral politics.
Unlike the civil rights and Vietnam era protesters, activists of the 1980s often found themselves on the defensive, struggling to preserve the hard-won victories of the previous era. Their successes, then, were not in ushering in a new era of progressive reforms but in effecting change in areas from professional life to popular culture, while beating back an even more forceful political shift to the right. Martin paints an indelible portrait of these and other influential, but often overlooked, movements: from on-the-ground efforts to constrain the administration’s aggressive Latin American policy and stave off a possible Nicaraguan war, to mock shanties constructed on college campuses to shed light on corporate America’s role in supporting the apartheid regime in South Africa. The result is a clearer, richer perspective on a turbulent decade in American life.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Other than Sean Wilentz’s The Age of Reagan, Martin has created the first major historical work on this crucial decade. The Other Eighties is much needed opening salvo in a serious discussion about the role of dissent in this era . . .  A new and exciting interpretation of this decade that successfully challenges what we think we know.” —W. Scott Poole, PopMatters
“In arguing for a 1980s that not only didn’t uniformly embrace the superficial conformity of the Reagan years but actively laid groundwork for today’s progressive movements, Martin does valuable work.” —Kate Tuttle, The Boston Globe
“A readable stroll into the bad old days of Piss Christ and Jesse Helms—and guaranteed to make you dig up your Black Flag and Minor Threat tapes.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Should be required reading for strategists on the left.” —David Mulcahey, Bookforum
“A valuable picture of the complex political cross-currents that swirled in a decade too often seen simplistically as ‘Morning in America.’ ” —Publishers Weekly

“Before history reduces the 1980s to Reagan, Rambo, and MTV, Bradford Martin has provided a bracing and much-needed chronicle of the decade’s oppositional culture. With grace and clarity, The Other Eighties reveals the accomplishments, limitations, and legacy of the era’s often-overlooked political and social activists.” Alan Light, former editor-in-chief, Vibe and Spin magazines
“Bradford Martin’s fascinating and extensively researched book will take you on a revelatory trip to the other side of Reagan’s 1980s.” Judith E. Smith, Professor of American Studies, University of Massachusetts Boston
“Bradford Martin’s pathbreaking history of cultural and political opposition in the 1980s challenges the simplistic narrative of a ‘Reagan Revolution.’ His concise, punchy use of primary sources to document big events like the Freeze, anti-Apartheid, and grunge will be hard to ignore. The Other Eighties shows how the ‘long sixties’ were even longer than many of us realized.” —Van Gosse, author of Rethinking the New Left: An Interpretative History
“The best history is that which looks beneath the surface of an era to discover what was happening on the lower frequencies. Readers seeking a richer, more complete understanding of the Age of Reagan should start here.” Robert Widell, Assistant Professor of History, University of Rhode Island
“In this provocative and persuasive book, Bradford Martin challenges the prevailing portrait of the 1980s as an era of a conservative ascendancy. Focusing on a wide range of social and political actors—AIDS activists, the divestment movement, welfare rights organizers, post-punk performers and their audiences—Martin constructs an alternative portrait of eighties political culture. An original and thoughtful book, The Other Eighties is sure to prompt significant reconsideration of this crucial period in recent United States history.” —Bruce J. Schulman, author of The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics

Kirkus Reviews

The über-avuncular Ronald Reagan seems to be everyone's favorite president these days. For those who were there at the time, this brief history of the '80s serves as a reminder of a different man and mood.

Reagan promised a "nostalgic, flag-wrapped conservatism." What he delivered made the country safe for Dick Cheney's mean-spirited us-against-them view of the world, which had plenty of critics but few on-the-barricades opponents. Martin (History/Bryant Univ.; The Theater Is in the Street: Politics and Public Performance in Sixties America, 2004) reminds us that there was plenty of oppositional politics during Reagan's two terms, not principally on the floor of the Congress but instead courtesy of loosely knit alliances of environmentalists, feminists, liberals, leftists, progressives, civil-rights activists and antinuclear/antiwar types. These alliances, writes the author, largely "made possible the age of Obama." ACT UP, for instance, alienated conservatives but drew needed attention to the AIDS crisis in the days when it was first emerging and was very little understood. Ultimately, its consciousness-raising even forced a formerly dismissive Reagan to acknowledge that the AIDS threat was real, and not just confined to the gay community. The antinuclear/antiwar community, from the women of Greenham Common in Britain to the Ground Zero activists here, brought such pressure to bear on both Reagan and the Soviet Union's Mikhail Gorbachev that arms-reduction talks were all but inevitable. Given that Reagan seems to have been inclined already to ending the spread of nuclear weapons, that assertion is debatable. Less arguable is the role that the widespread anti-apartheid movement in the United States, including corporate- and academic-divestiture campaigns, played in ending whites-only rule in South Africa.

A readable stroll into the bad old days ofPiss Christand Jesse Helms—and guaranteed to make you dig up your Black Flag and Minor Threat tapes.

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Nuclear Freeze Campaign
On June 12, 1982, children and octogenerians were on the march. So were World War II veterans and Tibetans for World Peace. Coretta Scott King and the Bread and Puppet Theater. College students and trade unionists. Movie stars and rock stars. Quakers and Roman Catholic bishops. International pilgrims hailing from such far corners of the globe as Japan, Europe, the Soviet Union, Zambia, and Bangladesh. The total tallied somewhere around three-quarters of a million souls, all making the trek from the United Nations to the Great Lawn of New York City’s Central Park, where the march concluded with a rally for nuclear disarmament. The gathering marked a high point of popular support for the disarmament movement, the largest protest rally in United States history to date. Contemporary observers repeatedly noted its diversity. Phrases like “kaleidoscope of humanity,” “rainbow spectrum,” and “largest, most diverse gathering for a single cause” redounded through media accounts of the event.1 Within that diversity, discernible patterns appeared. The usual suspects on the political left were well represented. Established peace and disarmament groups, from Mobilization for Survival to the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), organized the event to coincide with the United Nations second special session on disarmament. Peace-oriented religious groups, including the American Friends Service Committee, Pax Christi USA, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, loomed prominently among the sponsors. Professional organizations from Physicians for Social Responsibility, to the Union of Concerned Scientists, to the National Lawyers Guild all lent support. Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez, and Linda Ronstadt, musicians with long track records of support for peace and antinuclear causes, all performed.
But though the usual suspects organized the rally, its vast, broad-based assemblage made the Central Park gathering different. The Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, as the central organization’s official title ran, struck upon a simple and galvanizing idea—for the United States and the Soviet Union to enter a mutual and verifiable freeze on the testing, production, and deployment of all nuclear weapons—and through widespread grassroots activity delivered that message to mainstream America. The campaign drew from all socioeconomic groups in almost every geographic region—and even garnered support from Republicans.
The campaign rode this wave of enthusiasm through the 1982 midterm elections, which saw a number of freeze resolutions around the country succeed in state referenda. After that, the movement declined, failing to translate popular momentum into concrete policy measures and faltering badly with the advent of President Reagan’s Star Wars plan and his 1984 reelection.2 But along the way, the movement wielded more influence than popular accounts suggest, reshaping the foreign policy landscape in which the Reagan administration operated. The saber-rattling Cold Warrior rhetoric of Reagan during his candidacy and the early part of his first administration asked the American public to envision fighting and winning a nuclear war and to commit the necessary resources to building nuclear arsenals to achieve superiority over the Soviets. The freeze campaign pressured the administration to tone down its foreign policy ambitions and encouraged a move toward arms reduction negotiations. It eroded the authority of the high priesthood of defense intellectuals, a group that developed a self-reinforcing idea that nuclear weapons policy ought to remain the exclusive domain of expert insiders who had mastered the highly technical intricacies of ICBMs and MX and Pershing II missiles. It reenergized public discussion about national security by making it more accessible. Most Americans, whether or not they agreed with the idea, could wrap their minds around the concept of stopping the creation of more nuclear weapons as a logical first step to eliminating them altogether. Finally, the movement succeeded in orienting many Americans toward a more internationalist and global peace perspective and away from fixation on the bipolar superpower conflict by exploring common ground between the interests of American citizens and those of people around the world.
The freeze movement combined veteran activist leadership at the national level with a tremendous vitality at the grass roots. From the local pressure of Vermont town meetings passing resolutions to the populist statement of half a million Californians signing a petition, the campaign empowered ordinary people to challenge the national security establishment. It fostered greater awareness of Americans’ interconnectedness with European “neighbors” threatened by the specter of nuclear war, and it represented genuine ferment at the grass roots that surfaced at the level of national politics. Despite the simplicity of its appeal, it failed to achieve its targeted results of stopping nuclear weapons testing, production, and deployment. Though it mobilized new activists by the thousands, its lack of a militant wing, capable of direct action when necessary, encouraged co-optation and discouraged more substantive concessions from national leaders. Priding itself on being a more reasonable, tempered kind of movement that eschewed the excesses of 1960s activism, the freeze movement reflected the resurgence of a consensus-oriented, anti-dissent mood that pervaded the dominant culture of the 1980s. This attitude set limits on the movement’s potency. But against the backdrop of the early Reagan administration’s militant tone and actions, freeze supporters elevated public awareness of peace and disarmament issues, reshaped the dialogue about nuclear weapons, and forced national policymakers to adopt a subtler, less frontal approach to waging the Cold War.
Calling to Halt: Randall Forsberg and the Idea of the Freeze
Though mass movements frequently downplay the importance of individual leaders, Randall Forsberg was the freeze’s most identifiable figure. Forsberg’s arms control career took her from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), to a political science doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to founding the Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies in 1980. Her experience at SIPRI, an institution dedicated to independent analysis of U.S.-Soviet rivalry, loomed large. There, originally working as a typist, Forsberg discovered that superpower talks over a 1963 test ban treaty had broken down over U.S. insistence on seven inspections a year, while the Russians held the line at three. The experience made her wonder, “Why not compromise on five?”3 This evenhanded, commonsense approach to the Cold War pervaded Forsberg’s intellectual outlook and shaped the freeze’s bilateral approach. It also guided her willingness to confront the arms control establishment’s insular technocracy.
Forsberg crafted the freeze’s seminal statement, “A Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race,” to penetrate the nuclear elite’s intimidating culture of expertise. The 1980 document built on the work of groups such as Mobilization for Survival, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which had also called for a moratorium on constructing and deploying nuclear weapons. In 1979 the AFSC sponsored a delegation to the Soviet Union, which included Forsberg, to explore the feasibility of this plan. Upon her return, Forsberg revised the freeze idea to maximize its potential to attract support from mainstream America. She conceived of the proposed freeze as a manageable first small step toward further, more comprehensive disarmament initiatives—one that could unify diverse groups of activists and citizens on the way to something much bigger that would ultimately produce a more peaceful world.
Yet against the backdrop of the arms race, a total freeze was no mere baby step. Halting the testing, production, and deployment of nuclear weapons would mean that neither the United States nor the Soviets could add to their stockpiles or improve nuclear technologies to newly lethal levels. Seductively simple, Forsberg’s plan transcended previous arms control proposals by promising first to stop the arms race in its tracks, then to pursue further reductions.4 Proponents of a mutual and verifiable freeze cleverly provided an accessible goal that a broad cross section of the American public could rally behind.
Moreover, the clear language of “Call to Halt” gave activists the confidence to enter the national policymaking debate on nuclear weapons. Contending that “the horror of a nuclear holocaust is universally acknowledged,” the freeze proposal cast the issue as simple common sense. It claimed that the two superpowers possessed upward of fifty thousand nuclear weapons, a stockpile that could wipe out “all cities in the northern hemisphere” in half an hour. With these facts simply stated, “Call to Halt” underscored the excessive nature of plans for the United States and the U.S.S.R. to build twenty thousand more nuclear warheads, along with new missiles and aircraft. Echoing Albert Einstein’s maxim about the impossibility of simultaneously preparing for and preventing war, the freeze proposal claimed that burgeoning weapons programs would “pull the nuclear tripwire tighter,” creating “hairtrigger readiness for a massive nuclear exchange.” Rejecting the logic of deterrence that underpinned three decades of arms race escalation, the freeze idea posited that more nuclear weapons made the world more dangerous rather than safer. “Call to Halt” also invoked the mammoth fiscal savings a freeze would entail, sketching out numerous domestic spending alternatives and a range of attendant social and economic benefits. Finally, the proposal pointed to further steps toward a lasting peace that could be addressed after achieving a U.S.-Soviet freeze, including extending the freeze to other nations and reducing existing nuclear arsenals.
An inspiring document with populist appeal, “Call to Halt” was quickly endorsed by a laundry list of prominent activists, intellectuals, and leaders, including the former undersecretary of state George Ball, the most prominent of President Lyndon Johnson’s advisers to oppose escalation in Vietnam; the former secretary of defense Clark Clifford; the former CIA director William Colby; the former ambassador to the Soviet Union Averell Harriman; and the U.S. Cold War policy architect George Kennan. Scientific community supporters included the two-time Nobel laureate Linus Pauling, the former MIT president Jerome Wiesner, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists editor Bernard Feld, Jonas Salk, and the Cosmos host Carl Sagan. With these and other illustrious names behind it, the movement swiftly gained legitimacy.5
But just as the freeze movement gained popular support, it was forced to grapple with an event that posed a grave threat to its goals: the election of Ronald Reagan. The complex public sentiment that could simultaneously produce a potent statement against nuclear weapons and install a hard-line Cold Warrior in the highest office reflected a transitional moment in national politics. Americans wrestled in a psychic tug-of-war between fear of nuclear annihilation and desire for renewed military might. One New York Times/CBS poll showed 72 percent support for a freeze but hastened to point out that the numbers roughly flipped if such a moratorium froze a Soviet weapons advantage in place.6
Sensing this ambivalence, peace activists recognized the need to develop a systematic approach to organizing, educating, and wielding political influence, and in March 1981 they convened in Washington, D.C., to formulate the game plan. Though excitement pervaded the conference, a set of conflicts emerged among the attendees. Some activists viewed the nuclear freeze as an end in itself, an important and legitimate arms control goal worth striving for; others, including Forsberg, saw it as a discrete, winnable battle that could open up the policymaking terrain for confronting broader issues of militarism. Further, they contended that such a freeze might ultimately transform international relations, especially U.S.-Soviet animosity and suspicion. The competing goals and visions for the freeze raised complex questions for movement strategy as well. If freeze activists wished to use the proposal to confront the arms race and militarism more broadly, this suggested a more militant approach that could educate about the connections, for instance, between the bipolar weapons race and Cold War interventionism in the Third World. On the other hand, if the vision of the freeze as its own prize prevailed, this suggested avoiding larger, more ideologically charged issues, since these risked alienating mainstream supporters who bristled at leftist critiques of militarism that flowed from the ranks of the more radical peace activists.
Ultimately, the conference committed to a tight focus on the main issue and a strategy that emphasized slow, steady education and building grassroots support. Restricting the agenda was a conscious choice, contrary to the wishes of supporters who also wanted a movement that indicted Cold War militarism generally. Though most organizers agreed that the freeze was a legitimate goal, it also represented a lowest common denominator strategy. Steering clear of controversy enough to attract support from mainstream Americans with no previous activist experience, it was “small enough to be achievable, and large enough to be inspiring.” The residue of distaste for the excesses of 1960s-era radical protest, increasingly excoriated and discredited by 1980s media and intelligentsia, hung heavy. Accordingly, the conference’s resolution—a four-phase strategy of demonstrating the concept’s potential, building public support, leveraging policymakers and provoking national debate, and making the freeze a national policy objective—sought to maximize mainstream participation at the grass roots. Freeze organizers wanted to avoid creating a movement where veteran radical peace activists played the central role. As Forsberg remarked, she wanted the movement “very middle class.”7 As it turned out, this strategy succeeded, for better and for worse.
Grass Roots
Independently of Forsberg’s efforts, Massachusetts peace activists led by Randy Kehler of the Traprock Peace Center had been collecting signatures at supermarkets and shopping centers for a state ballot measure calling on the president to propose a bilateral nuclear weapons moratorium. In November 1980, after a summer and fall educational campaign about the arms race and its social and economic impact that included house meetings, study groups, film showings, and school presentations, voters in three western Massachusetts state senatorial districts endorsed the freeze measure by a 3:2 ratio. Kehler, later the freeze campaign’s national coordinator, touted its potential: “The nuclear race transcends party division and conservative-liberal divisions, and this proves that the American public is indeed ready to see the nuclear arms race ended.” Kehler waxed enthusiastic about the possibilities for broad-based support and predicted that the Massachusetts victory would catalyze similar campaigns elsewhere. This proved prophetic when, in March 1981, sixteen towns in neighboring Vermont and New Hampshire passed freeze measures, calling on their state congressional delegations to sponsor a resolution in Congress. The scenes of these victories, in time-honored New England town meetings, were not completely without controversy. Traditionally held on the second Tuesday of March, these meetings embodied American democratic traditions at their best, but nevertheless the freeze issue inspired debate about whether the forum was appropriate. Echoing the view that matters of national security and nuclear weapons policy ought to be the exclusive terrain of expert federal policymakers, one opponent cried, “There’s no place in town meeting for politics!” Of course, what this New Hampshirite meant was that nuclear policy—as part of national politics, and a highly technical area within national politics at that—did not appropriately deserve consideration alongside other town affairs he regarded as more direct and legitimate.8 Yet the majority of voters in these sixteen Yankee towns staked their claim that ordinary citizens merited a role in a national discussion of how to avoid nuclear peril. The wide margin of these victories suggests the issue’s immediacy at the dawn of the Reagan presidency.
On the other coast, the Massachusetts news energized the Southern Californian Nick Seidita, who remembered, “I jumped from my chair exclaiming to myself, ‘If they could put the Freeze on the ballot in Massachusetts, we can put it on the ballot in California.” Along with his wife, Jo, a veteran of the antiwar Democratic candidate Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 campaign, Seidita engineered California Proposition 12, jump-starting the freeze movement on the West Coast. The Seiditas also initially encountered skepticism about whether a state referendum was an appropriate forum for a measure aimed to halt the arms race that was the centerpiece of national Cold War strategy. Told that California law would not permit a national policy issue on the state ballot, the Seiditas got some help from a lawyer friend and tweaked the future Proposition 12 to require the governor to write to the president to notify him that a majority of the state’s electorate voted for a nuclear freeze.9
The California freeze campaign spawned feverish political organizing and educational efforts in the quest to secure the more than three hundred thousand signatures necessary to get the initiative on the ballot. These included showings for high school, college, and community groups of The Last Epidemic, a documentary film that enshrined itself as a movement staple. The film, distributed by Physicians for Social Responsibility, detailed the horrific effects of a hypothetical nuclear detonation on the San Francisco area. But this same fear of atomic conflagration that freeze proponents used to stir up legions at the grass roots also attracted another element to the movement—establishment arms control advocates. In California, the millionaire businessman and former anti–Vietnam War activist Harold Willens infused the campaign with copious cash and new tactics, hiring media consultants and mobilizing direct mail marketers to sway public opinion, leverage endorsements, raise money, and get Californians to sign the petition. As it would prove in the freeze campaign as a whole, this influx of professionalism in California was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the California freeze rustled up more than seven hundred thousand signatures to gain a spot on the November ballot. On the other hand, to secure such broad-based support, Willens pushed to add language assuring Californians that the proposal mandated U.S. verification of Soviet compliance, thus erasing any potential qualms about unilateralism. Willens also prevailed in deleting language calling for redirecting funds slated for nuclear arms toward social uses, a measure that polls suggested might cost Proposition 12 close to 10 percent of voters. The strategy of maximizing support by making the ballot language as “inoffensive” and “free from peace rally rhetoric” as possible undermined its moral critique of militarism. The quest to make the freeze palatable to the mainstream both encouraged its great vitality at the grass roots and ultimately weakened its impact as national policy.
Willens’s involvement in the successful California campaign also signified a sea change in the style of mass democratic activism in the 1980s. Kehler, the freeze’s national coordinator and also a veteran of 1960s anti–Vietnam War activism, recalled Willens’s advice when the two first met: if the movement was to succeed, it needed to “scrap the 1960s retreads.”10 This comment spoke to the perceived need amid the more conservative 1980s political terrain to mute the roles of veteran activists like Kehler, who had cut their teeth on the previous generation’s activist movements—in a play for a more professionalized, clean-cut middle-class sensibility to maximize mainstream appeal. Though the strategic experience of 1960s veterans was vital to the freeze campaign, Willens’s advice was largely heeded in the movement’s public presentation.
The movement’s public influence peaked in 1982. In March, the Vermont town meetings were once again the site of democratic ferment and national media attention. Of the state’s 180 towns, 159 passed resolutions calling on their senators and representatives to urge the president to propose to the Soviets a mutual and verifiable freeze on nuclear weapons testing, production, and deployment.11 Once again at issue in the Vermont deliberations was the legitimacy of small-town politics as a forum for national security matters. In Cornwall, Vermont, the proposed article appeared on the town meeting agenda between measures calling for a new furnace in the firehouse and the purchase of land to make a parking lot for the town hall.12 One resident claimed that the freeze resolution was his best chance as “one citizen” to “send a message to our elected officials” for the United States and the Soviets to cease adding to nuclear stockpiles that are “set on triggers, ready to go off.” Others dissented. One retired army colonel argued, “It is pretty silly for us to be advising the country on foreign policy,” though he conceded the freeze’s appeal. In Northfield, Vermont, where the measure lost by a single vote, one opponent contended that “it is very presumptuous for people to send a message to the President suggesting how we should conduct the foreign policy of this country.” Yet a Newfane businessman, in a flourish of political metaphysics, eloquently elucidated a counterargument: “To reverse the trend toward nuclear warfare is a voyage of a million miles. Like all voyages, it starts with a single step. This town meeting is a place to take that first step.” Patty Seubert, nuclear freeze coordinator for Addison County, Vermont, concurred, citing the long-standing tradition of the petition as an “effective force” for addressing national issues “even when it’s operating at the very bottom rung of the political ladder.”13
This latter position won out as momentum at the grass roots surged through 1982. Though freeze support found a heavy concentration in New England, the mid-Atlantic states, and the West Coast—the “usual suspects” of left/liberal activism—the movement gained traction with Americans of all ages and social classes, with additional pockets of support in the Midwest, Colorado, and even the South. Indeed, freeze support had a knack for cropping up in unusual places.14 In Nebraska, the state with the third-highest percentage supporting Reagan’s 1984 reelection, the Omaha freeze chapter conducted petition campaigns against the MX missile, organized freeze walks, ran freeze voter workshops, and sponsored an array of pro-freeze speakers. In Lincoln, a highly active chapter addressed the arms crisis from a decidedly Nebraskan perspective. It appealed to locals by linking increased military spending under Reagan with cuts to agricultural programs, and it argued that with money freed from the arms race to help American farmers, the resulting increased production of U.S. food exports could relieve hunger and promote security around the globe, concluding, “What a boon for American agriculture!” The Oklahoma freeze introduced educational and electoral strategies that reflected local politics as well, arranging screenings of The Day After, leafleting the Billy Graham Crusade, and holding a freeze walk that was praised as a “pioneer effort in fundraising for disarmament in a conservative state.”15
The campaign even generated a respectable level of support in the traditionally conservative and pro-military South. This support was strongest in the economically depressed states of the border south such as West Virginia and Arkansas, where Pentagon spending was minimal. Invoking Dwight Eisenhower’s eloquent warning that national security is the “total product” of economic, intellectual, moral, and military strengths, and that while “absolute security” can never be attained, a nation can easily become “bankrupt” in “attempting to reach that goal through arms alone,” the West Virginia freeze campaign prepared a Jobs with Peace Budget, delivered in a well-crafted pamphlet that connected the state’s dire economic predicament to Reagan administration defense spending gone amok. Rejecting the pursuit of defense largesse to bolster the Mountain State’s vitality, the pamphlet affirmed, “Our future lies in a strong civilian economy” and not in “Star Wars schemes of laser weapons and particle beams.” Even in the heart of the former Confederacy, where post–World War II Dixie politicians built careers on luring military bases and contracts to the region, the freeze managed to scare up a modicum of support. In North Carolina, home to Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune, freeze petitions gathered forty thousand signatures and won approval from seven cities. A statewide resolution passed the North Carolina house but was defeated by a single vote in the senate. Perhaps its most important symbolic victory came when the North Carolina freeze won the support of the Tarheels’ legendary basketball coach, Dean Smith, who filmed a series of television messages on its behalf. Even in the Deep South, three different Alabama freeze groups labored to spread the word, invoking the arms race’s threat to planetary security, the increasing likelihood of a nuclear accident, and the economic drain on the state’s citizenry caused by runaway defense spending and its accompanying high tax burden.16
Of course, pockets of ardent support in the heartland and in the South did not change the fact that these areas remained fundamentally conservative and in many ways reflected movement leaders’ perception of public support as “a mile wide and an inch deep.” But this widely scattered support also gave the freeze movement widespread visibility and conveyed that it was not limited to bleeding heart liberals in the North. Geographic diversity at the grass roots enhanced its legitimacy as a national movement with the strength to put freeze referenda on the ballot in nine states in November 1982. One organizer pointed out how even in a small state—where putting such a measure on a statewide ballot would have cost many hundreds of thousands of dollars—hearty volunteer support at the grass roots “substituted human labor and energy for a lack of financial capital.” Door-to-door canvassing campaigns allowed a level of coverage and pro-freeze educational activity that a “couple of peace bureaucrats sitting alone in an office” never could have done.17 As grassroots ferment crested at home, it was paralleled and fueled by a fervent movement across the pond.
European Peace Activism
Americans who joined the freeze movement were not the only ones alarmed at Ronald Reagan’s saber rattling in the early 1980s. Europeans voiced concern early and acted quickly, since Europe loomed as the most likely battleground for a prospective U.S.-Soviet nuclear confrontation that many forecast as World War III. Europeans’ uneasiness with their security had roots in the Carter administration’s 1979 decision, with the lukewarm assent of NATO’s European members, to deploy hundreds of intermediate-range nuclear missiles, including the notorious Pershing II’s, in five European countries. But with Reagan’s more strident Cold Warrior rhetoric, the chance of nuclear war appeared much larger to the United States’s Western European allies. While Carter played both ends against the middle, simultaneously deploying Euromissiles and negotiating with the Soviets for reductions, Reagan casually discussed the possibility of a limited exchange of tactical weapons “without it bringing either one of the major powers to pushing the button.” His secretary of state, Alexander Haig, remarked that NATO contingency plans for deterring a Soviet incursion on Western Europe included the option of exploding a nuclear warhead as a “demonstration.”18 Though administration officials swiftly backtracked from these provocative comments, their tone nevertheless alarmed European ears; the West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt dubbed American foreign policy makers “nuclear cowboys.”19 In response to the perceived threat, grassroots peace movements sprang up throughout Europe. These movements mobilized great masses of Europeans for demonstrations against the dangers of nuclear weapons, and in 1981 and 1982 hundreds of thousands turned out for rallies in Bonn, London, Paris, Rome, and Amsterdam as Europeans were energized, or frightened, into disarmament activism.20
Across Europe, mass rallies were accompanied by sustained activism. The leading British disarmament group, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) saw its membership flourish from nine thousand in 1980 to more than a hundred thousand in 1985. Like Americans, British peace activists reacted to the rise of a stalwart Cold Warrior—the “Iron Lady,” Margaret Thatcher. Britain’s first woman prime minister, Thatcher steadfastly opposed Soviet Communism and supported the Euromissile deployment. CND members, when surveyed about why they joined the movement, often responded with one of two replies: “Thatcher” or “Reagan.” British disarmament forces resembled their American cousins demographically as well, receiving disproportionate support from the educated, professional sector of society.21 Though students and young Britons played a greater role in the U.K. movement than their U.S. counterparts, the political Left and women played an important role in both, with blue-collar workers notably absent. Like freeze activists in the United States, CND supporters focused on the dangers of nuclear arms, avoiding divisive distractions and partisan rancor by embracing single-issue coalition politics. Unlike the freeze proposal, which called for “mutual, verifiable” action by the United States and the Soviets, the CND hoped unilateral action by the West would catalyze Soviet disarmament through the court of world public opinion, yet it embraced bilateralism as well when strategy dictated.
Closely linked to the CND, European Nuclear Disarmament (END) strove to coordinate the wide-ranging disarmament activities throughout Europe and took inspiration from the philosophical and intellectual guidance of E. P. Thompson. The renowned author of the seminal history The Making of the English Working Class, Thompson, a fifty-four-year-old scholar and Left activist at the time of END’s creation, emblematized the professional intelligentsia’s leadership role in European disarmament. Thompson, a former Communist Party member after World War II and a pioneering Marxist historian, left the party in the 1950s and sought a resolution to the Cold War that eschewed the perspective of both superpowers. He proved a trenchant critic of both Communist repression—arguing that peace and liberty must go hand in hand—and U.S. militarism. His “Appeal for European Nuclear Disarmament,” which launched END in 1980, highlighted this equal opportunity for ladling out blame. “Guilt lies squarely on both parties,” END’s founding statement contended, underscoring that both the United States and the Soviets “have adopted menacing postures and committed aggressive actions in different parts of the world.”22 Thompson and END argued that rather than waiting for these two nuclear giants to either disarm themselves or actually use the bombs in a “limited” nuclear war that seemed “increasingly likely,” Europeans needed to launch a “third path to peace,” independent of the two superpowers. Thompson galvanized an aggressive, well-coordinated, and nonaligned peace movement across the continent to wage “détente from below.”23 To END, this meant energizing an independent grassroots movement, led by professionals and citizens with specialized disarmament expertise, that would bridge Eastern and Western Europe, and calling for the removal of nuclear weapons from the continent in the most expedient way possible, either unilaterally or bilaterally. Thompson and END left wide latitude for groups representing a range of goals, tactics, and strategies to get involved, suggesting, “We do not wish to impose any uniformity on the movement.”24 Accordingly, an eclectic array of European groups joined the cause.
The Greenham Common women were among the most memorable. In September 1981 a group of thirty-six women called Women for Life on Earth marched from Cardiff, Wales, to Greenham Common, in Berkshire, England, home to an air force base where ninety-six cruise missiles were slated for deployment. Demonstrating great urgency, the Greenham Common women intervened using direct action tactics, launching a protest that ultimately lasted nineteen years. The women’s immediate demand—a television debate on nuclear weapons with the British government—suggested a larger desire to educate and publicize the cause of disarmament. When this demand failed, several women remained at the base, importing tents, cooking utensils, and bedding, until they established a “permanent peace camp.” With the peace camp established, the women stepped up efforts to disrupt business as usual. Nonviolent resistance was common beginning in March 1982, when 250 women blockaded the base, resulting in thirty-four arrests. As though in reprisal for the heightened civil disobedience, local police commenced efforts to evict the women, initiating a “cat and mouse” game with the local district council that lasted more than a decade. The Greenham Common women proved resilient, however, and the original peace camp sprouted into several decentralized encampments around the base. In December 1982, thirty thousand women showed up to “Embrace the Base,” linking arms to surround the nine-mile perimeter fence and create a consummately media-friendly event.
Though many of the Greenham Common women were linked to the CND, the women’s protest broached larger cultural issues than the technical and practical considerations that often dominated disarmament activism. The protest at Greenham Common reflected an awareness of women’s traditionally strong role in peace movements and also incorporated ideas of contemporary feminism. This was evident in its February 1982 decision to become a female-only peace camp. A press release announcing the move cited women’s initiative in conceiving the project and the desire to safeguard women’s roles as its primary leaders and decision makers. Though the organizers carefully sought to preserve an off-site role for sympathetic men, the decision to make the peace camp women-only resonated with the feminist movement’s ideal of self-determination and its critique of power relations between the sexes. “We said we want to achieve something for ourselves and by ourselves,” the activist Sarah Hopkins contended. “If men are at the camp it will be assumed they did it all.”25 These remarks demonstrated the Greenham women’s concern with how their protest would “play” to the media.
Their deft approach to public relations indicated that they could do more than simply oppose the siting of a bevy of cruise missiles in rural England. Rather, through its numerous symbolic actions at the Greenham air base, the group succeeded in dramatizing larger ideas about how to achieve a peaceful society and women’s role in that transformation. In the Embrace the Base action, the women not only encircled the fence, they adorned it with “gifts” designed to “symbolize life”—from flowers and paintings to pictures of babies and embroidery and newly planted daffodil bulbs. Other symbolic statements at Greenham Common included two hundred women dressed as furry animals and teddy bears, trespassing on military grounds for a protest picnic, and a 1983 reprise of encircling the base, this time holding up mirrors to reflect the image of nuclear peril and militarism back at the base itself. Though the Greenham Common women represented a level of direct action and symbolic politics that was largely absent from the American freeze and disarmament movements, they were aware of developments on the other side of the Atlantic. Embrace the Base, for instance, had been adapted from a similar women’s action at the Pentagon. At one point the Greenham Common women, along with two U.S. congressmen, actually sued President Reagan, arguing that the deployment of cruise missiles on British soil was unconstitutional. Though the suit proved unsuccessful, its existence demonstrated how, during the early 1980s, the Greenham women and European disarmament activists intertwined with freeze representatives and American pro-disarmament forces transatlantically, creating an atmosphere of ferment in opposition to nuclear weapons.
The U.S. freeze movement was in close contact with END and with European groups focused on eliminating the Euromissiles. Though the American movement was more domestically oriented than its European counterpart, and sometimes Europeans registered frustration with the Yanks for insufficient focus on eradicating the Euromissiles that imperiled European life and limb, there was considerable connection and collaboration. European and American speakers ventured back and forth across the Atlantic continuously, sharing reports of their respective movements’ activities and inspiring globally minded disarmament activism in the locales they visited. Whenever possible, specific rallies and demonstrations were coordinated between the American and European movements. There were structural connections through the International Peace Communication and Coordination Center—which met four times annually in various European cities—and representatives from disarmament organizations in the United States and Europe. Though both movements viewed the state-sponsored Soviet-aligned peace movements of Eastern Europe warily, preferring to parcel out blame for the Cold War’s nuclear escalation in equal measures to both superpowers, the European movement proved able to fashion a more thoroughgoing critique of the militarism on both sides, while the American freeze hewed to a tight policy agenda, hoping for incremental progress.26 The sheer presence of this growing international coalition figured among the factors propelling the issue to the forefront of American domestic politics. It wasn’t long before national politicians began regarding the freeze proposal opportunistically.
The Freeze on the National Stage
In February 1982 the Massachusetts representative Edward Markey, a Democrat, sensing political advantage from allying with the freeze movement, introduced a resolution to the House. Shortly thereafter, Ted Kennedy, already eyeing the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination, introduced a similar measure in the Senate, gaining bipartisan sponsorship from the Republican senator Marc Hatfield of Oregon. Deliberations and debate, jockeying and lobbying proceeded apace in Congress as popular momentum for the proposal surged. The June Central Park rally generated a largely positive wave of national media coverage. Reports noted its broad-based support among the 750,000 participants and praised its “orderlinesss” and good manners. Favorable comparisons with 1960s-era protests abounded, with observers applauding the lack of animosity among the protesters and the spirit of antinuclear consensus: “It’s not just the hippies and crazies anymore,” a demonstrator told The New York Times. “It’s everybody.” On the other coast, in Pasadena, California, 85,000 music-loving antinukers jammed the Rose Bowl for a “Peace Sunday: We Have a Dream” benefit that, like the Central Park rally, was timed to coincide with the U.N. special session on disarmament. Peace Sunday was the largest benefit to that point, and it anticipated mid-1980s “mega-events” from Live Aid to Band Aid to Farm Aid. Graham Nash assembled the performers, who ranged from musicians with prior antinuclear credentials such as Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, and Dan Fogelberg to 1960s protest music veterans Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. While singing familiar peace anthems such as “Teach Your Children” and “Give Peace a Chance,” together they raised a quarter of a million dollars. Even the macho ironic posturing of Van Halen’s David Lee Roth—who stood on the sidelines and quipped, “I’d agree to a freeze, but I’d tell our guys to stash a few on our side”—could not derail the day’s buoyed spirits and heady optimism.27
That November the broad-based support was evident at the polls as voters in Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oregon, and Rhode Island approved freeze resolutions by substantial margins. Even in California, where Reagan administration officials went on a speaking tour to oppose the freeze referendum and a shoestring citizens group called Californians for a Strong America mobilized the Federal Communications Commissions’ fairness doctrine to air an anti-freeze ad starring Charlton Heston, the freeze campaign still eked out a 52 percent to 48 percent victory. Nationwide, a total of eighteen million Americans weighed in on the question, with freeze resolutions garnering 60 percent support. In Congress, pro-freeze forces picked up twenty-six votes, a development that allowed a freeze resolution to pass overwhelmingly in May 1983, erasing the narrow failure of an earlier version the previous August. With political pundits stressing that the Reagan administration now faced the choice of whether to “exploit this strong popular tide” or to ignore it at its own peril,28 freeze proponents might have basked in their own elation. But far from ushering in a new era of enhanced impact on weapons policy, this success only portended the beginning of the end.
So how did such an auspicious victory lead to a quick demise? The answer lies in the late Cold War politics that permeated the rhetoric of freeze opponents. One key anti-freeze argument was that a halt to weapons testing, production, and deployment would leave the Soviets in a position of advantage. Echoing 1950s anticommunist invective, critics from the arms control establishment and outside commentators lambasted freeze proponents for their naïveté. The prominent conservative William F. Buckley ridiculed freeze supporters as Communist dupes and speculated that Soviet propagandists conjured support for the freeze in much the same way as ad execs hyped consumer baubles. Reagan himself went so far as to blame the freeze on “foreign agents,” who, desiring “the weakening of America,” manipulated unwitting activists, though in a conciliatory gesture the president conceded that a majority of pro-freeze Americans were “sincere and well-intentioned.”29
Just as the freeze neared its apex, it suffered a number of ironic disappointments. Simplicity had won the movement its widespread following and generated considerable bipartisan support in Congress. By the middle of 1982 many legislators scrambled to get behind a freeze proposal for their own political advantage. Yet they were also mindful that though polls demonstrated that a majority of the public supported a freeze, the same polls also revealed that most Americans did not want to freeze a Soviet advantage in place. Competing attempts to find politically palatable resolution language proliferated. Conservatives introduced their own version of a “freeze,” which would occur only after both sides completed major reductions to achieve parity. This approach co-opted the politically popular term “freeze” but reversed its original intent as a first step toward nuclear disarmament, earning it the sobriquet “phony freeze” from movement activists. Another version made the freeze conditional upon first catching up to the Soviets from a presumed weapons deficit. Such nuances allowed politicians to reap the benefits of the politically “hot” freeze label while maintaining a loophole allowing for military modernization and the development of new weapons systems that left their credentials as Cold Warriors intact. The eventual result was that in May 1983 Congress passed a watered-down resolution fraught with contingencies and compromise. The resolution was not binding: only weapons for which both superpowers could agree to verification terms would be frozen, and even then it was revocable if negotiated arms reductions failed to follow within a specified time limit. To the activist community that had launched the campaign with hopes of spawning a larger movement against militarism and nuclear peril, this “freeze” amounted to small recompense. Adding insult to injury, within a few weeks after this vote, which observers claimed “reflected less the strength of support for the freeze than the ambiguity of the resolution,” the House and Senate decisively approved funding for Reagan’s controversial MX missile, underscoring the impotence of the measure’s final incarnation.30
After the state resolution victories in November 1982, one observer had predicted that as a “canny” politician, Reagan would not turn a political tin ear toward the growing din, but rather would work toward more effective arms control to counter the movement’s popular appeal. This forecast proved accurate, if in unexpected ways. In a March 1983 televised address, the president outlined his case for increased defense spending, arguing that defense was “not about spending arithmetic,” but rather about seeking security through preparedness to meet all threats. Reagan mocked the freeze idea, citing the Soviets’ ongoing deployment of SS-20 missiles despite Premier Leonid Brezhnev’s pledge to cease and desist. With characteristic movie star aplomb, Reagan quipped, “Some freeze!,” scorning the idea of taking Soviet promises to disarm at face value. Reagan did acknowledge the sincerity and breadth of the movement: “I know too that many of you seriously believe that a nuclear freeze would further the cause of peace.” Yet after giving the freeze its due, he quickly underscored the shortcomings that he believed prohibited its adoption, citing problems with verification and arguing that it would reward the Soviets for their military buildup and hamper U.S. military modernization. Then Reagan unveiled the evening’s major surprise. Lamenting the Cold War–era ideology of national security based on deterrence, massive retaliation, and mutually assured destruction as “a sad commentary on the human condition,” he speculated, “What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant U.S. retaliation to deter a Soviet attack?” Reagan proceeded to sketch out plans for a Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) that, through massive mobilization of technology and resources, would produce the capability to intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached American soil. The immense technical challenges of such a program, acknowledged by the president himself, caused opponents and proponents alike to dub the project “Star Wars,” evoking a greater connection to science fantasy than to reality.
Despite a tenuous relationship with the landscape of possibility, Star Wars dealt a serious blow to the freeze movement. Like the diluted congressional resolutions, Star Wars managed to steal the movement’s thunder by addressing and redirecting some of its key concerns. Where the freeze campaign had gained popularity by stressing the danger of nuclear weapons, suddenly Reagan was offering a space shield that would make such weapons obsolete. The SDI idea allowed Reagan to claim the moral high ground by using language indicating that he too was looking forward to a world without nuclear weapons and to the end of the Cold War. This bit of turnabout let the wind out of the movement’s sails as the Reagan administration seized the initiative in matters of defense and disarmament.31
Yet from another angle, even if its momentum had ebbed, the freeze movement had achieved a discernible impact. The grassroots coalition spearheaded the disarmament activism that created the political climate that encouraged Reagan to sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, removing the provocative cruise and Pershing II missiles from Europe. Its meteoric rise energized the broader public climate and ultimately pressured Reagan—who boasted of his opposition to every arms control agreement before the freeze movement—to weigh in with proposals for reductions of his own. That these proposals were motivated by a desire to assuage domestic critics rather than a genuine wish for international rapprochement proved less relevant than the reality that it opened the door for the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to pursue reductions and a reawakening of détente. The freeze debate successfully eroded the nuclear priesthood’s aura of expertise and opened up national discourse on disarmament and national security policy. Furthermore, it set limits on the aggression and scope of the Reagan administration’s Cold War rhetoric and ambition, and it restored an environment of bipartisan consensus on arms control in national politics. Though the arms control establishment and the Reagan administration viewed the end of the Cold War as a testament to “peace through strength” caused by an arms race that created debilitating financial pressures on the Soviet Union, it is equally true that the freeze campaign coalesced at the center of a growing popular call to end nuclear escalation in the 1980s, facilitating international cooperation and negotiations and diffusing hostilities. Finally, the freeze emerged as a tremendous recruiting effort, bringing thousands of new people into lifelong activism on behalf of what one movement leader called “a safer, saner, more just and peaceful world.”32
That said, it would be a mistake to paint too rosy a picture of the movement’s achievements. After all, nuclear weapons production and deployment were not halted, and in fact, several new weapons systems were introduced after the movement fizzled in the wake of Reagan’s 1984 reelection. Despite its potency at the grass roots, a lack of militancy undermined the cause. This was most evident in the movement’s reluctance to use direct action tactics at strategic moments in conjunction with its legislative agenda. Though the national media was quick to congratulate freeze activists for their lack of 1960s-style rancor, this very politeness left a gaping hole in anything that might have resembled a radical wing of the movement. There was no one left to pressure national politicians into making concessions to movement moderates. Furthermore, the narrow focus on the freeze as a simple first step toward an eventual larger disarmament campaign jettisoned much of the larger philosophical and ideological rationale in public discussion. Ultimately this left the substance behind the freeze vulnerable to the machinations of national politicians in Congress for whom nuclear disarmament played second fiddle to their own political advancement. Though a high proportion of freeze supporters were critical of U.S. foreign and military policy as a whole, the movement avoided engaging larger questions regarding the connections between the arms race, Reagan administration militarism, and Cold War interventionism. It was left to a smaller and more radical Central America solidarity movement to address those issues.

Copyright © 2011 by Bradford Martin

Meet the Author

Bradford Martin is an associate professor of history at Bryant University in Rhode Island. He is the author of The Theater Is in the Street: Politics and Public Performance in Sixties America.

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