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Reviving the nuclear disarmament movement: a practical proposal

December 10, 2018

The Nuclear Freeze movement in the 1980s brought millions of protesters into US streets to demand an end to nuclear danger.

In late November 2018, Noam Chomsky, the world-renowned public intellectual, remarked that “humanity faces two imminent existential threats:  environmental catastrophe and nuclear war.”

Curiously, although a widespread environmental movement has developed to save the planet from accelerating climate change, no counterpart has emerged to take on the rising danger of nuclear disaster.  Indeed, this danger―exemplified by the collapse of arms control and disarmament agreements, vast nuclear “modernization” programs by the United States and other nuclear powers, and reckless threats of nuclear war―has stirred remarkably little public protest within the United States and even less public debate during the recent US midterm elections.

Of course, there are US peace and disarmament organizations that challenge the nuclear menace.  But they are fairly small and pursue their own, separate antinuclear campaigns.  Such campaigns―ranging from cutting funding for a new nuclear weapon, to opposing the Trump administration’s destruction of yet another disarmament treaty, to condemning its threats of nuclear war―are certainly praiseworthy.  But they have not galvanized a massive public uprising within the United States against the overarching danger of nuclear annihilation.

In these circumstances, what is missing is a strategy that will rouse the general public from its torpor and shift the agenda of the nuclear powers from nuclear confrontation to a nuclear weapons-free world.

The Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, launched decades ago in another time of nuclear crisis, suggests one possible strategy.  Developed at the end of the 1970s by defense analyst Randy Forsberg, the Freeze (as it became known) focused on a simple, straightforward goal:  a Soviet-American agreement to stop the testing, production, and deployment of nuclear weapons.  As Forsberg predicted, this proposal to halt the nuclear arms race had great popular appeal (with polls showing US public support at 72 percent) and sparked an enormous grassroots campaign.  The Reagan administration, horrified by this resistance to its plans for a nuclear buildup and victory in a nuclear war, fought ferociously against it.  But to no avail.  The Freeze triumphed in virtually every state and local referendum on the ballot, captured the official support of the Democratic Party, and sailed through the House of Representatives by an overwhelming majority.  Although the Reaganites managed to derail it in the Senate, the administration was on the defensive and, soon, on the run.  Joined by massive antinuclear campaigns in Europe, Asia, and other parts of the world, the Freeze campaign forced a reversal of administration priorities and policies, leading to previously unthinkable Soviet-American nuclear disarmament treaties and an end to the Cold War.

How might a comparable strategy be implemented today?

The campaign goal might be a halt to the nuclear arms race, exemplified by an agreement among the nuclear powers to scrap their ambitious nuclear “modernization” plans.  Although the Trump administration would undoubtedly rail against this policy, the vast majority of Americans would find it thoroughly acceptable.  An alternative, more ambitious goal―one that would probably also elicit widespread public approval―would be the ratification by the nuclear powers of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.  This UN-brokered treaty, signed in July 2017 by the vast majority of the world’s nations and scorned by the governments of the United States and other nuclear-armed countries, prohibits nations from developing, testing, producing, acquiring, possessing, stockpiling, using, or threatening to use nuclear weapons.

The second stage of a current campaign strategy, as it was in the strategy of the Freeze, is to get as many peace groups as possible to endorse the campaign and put their human and financial resources behind it.  Working together in a joint effort seems feasible today.  Some of the largest of the current organizations―such as the American Friends Service Committee, the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, Peace Action, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and Veterans for Peace―are already thoroughly committed to building a nuclear weapons-free world.

The third stage of an effective strategy is winning the battle for public opinion.  In the case of the Freeze, this entailed not only distributing crucial information to members of the general public, but introducing Freeze resolutions at local gatherings or national conventions of religious denominations, unions, professional associations, and the vast panoply of voluntary organizations, where they almost invariably passed.

A final stage involves turning the objective into government policy.  The Freeze campaign found that many politicians were quite willing to adopt its program.  Similarly, at present, some key Democrats, including the chair of the incoming House Armed Services Committee and likely Democratic presidential candidates, are already attacking the Trump administration’s nuclear “modernization” program, its withdrawal from disarmament treaties, and its eagerness to launch a nuclear war.  Consequently, if a major public campaign gets rolling, substantial changes in public policy are within reach.

To be fully effective, such a campaign requires international solidarity—not only to bring domestic pressure to bear on diverse nations, but overseas pressure as well.  The Freeze movement worked closely with nuclear disarmament movements around the world, and this international alliance produced striking results in both East and West.  Today, a new international alliance, enhanced by the current strong dissatisfaction of non-nuclear nations with the escalation of the nuclear arms race and the related dangers of nuclear war, could help foster significant changes in public policy.

Of course, this proposal suggests only one of numerous possible ways to develop a broad nuclear disarmament campaign.  But there should be little doubt about the necessity for organizing that public mobilization.  The alternative is allowing the world to continue its slide toward nuclear catastrophe.

Lawrence Wittner ( is Professor of History Emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press).

[This is a revised version of an article published by Foreign Policy in Focus on December 7, 2018.]

  1. December 10, 2018 10:18 pm

    Reblogged this on AGR Daily 60 Second News Bites.

  2. Chuck Johnson permalink
    December 10, 2018 5:34 pm

    To John Loretz’ excellent comments I would add that cities such as Baltimore and Los Angeles, and the State of California have already passed “Back from the Brink” resolutions that include support for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons – and many more cities and states are now in the process of considering their own nuclear ban resolutions.

    The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), inspired by these successes, began an international Cities Appeal last month – “ICAN Save My City” – a global campaign to persuade cities to express support for the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Manchester has passed a similar resolution and Madrid, Barcelona, Paris, and others are actively considering joining the growing worldwide movement.

    What Professor Wittner suggests as a great new idea may have already begun!


  3. December 10, 2018 2:32 pm

    Larry, while you’re right that the US public has failed to engage with the nuclear threat in the same way it has taken on the climate crisis, the same thing has not been true internationally. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which you cite as a significant forward step, came about as a direct result of global public campaigning organized by ICAN in more than 100 countries. This did not always take the form of large street actions (although sometimes it did). The strategic use of social media, which did not exist in the 1980s, combined with very sophisticated diplomatic lobbying and civil society partnerships with supportive governments, brought public opinion into the treaty process in a sustained and highly visible way. The impact of public campaigning for this treaty was recognized by the Nobel Committee one year ago today, when ICAN received the Nobel Peace Prize.

    None of that changes the fact, of course, that the US government has refused to recognize the TPNW and that the US public knows very little about it. Having said that, the practical proposal you’re recommending is already the basis of the Back From the Brink campaign (, which has been launched in the US by PSR, UCS, NAPF, and others. The goal of Back From the Brink is to support very specific steps to reduce nuclear danger on a path toward the elimination of nuclear weapons and compliance with the prohibitions spelled out in the TPNW. Whether the campaign, which is only just getting underway, can galvanize the US public as the Freeze did remains to be seen. But that’s certainly the intent, and some early successes with nuclear disarmament resolutions at the city and state level are really encouraging. I absolutely agree with you that nuclear disarmament and peace campaigners in the US would benefit greatly from closer contacts and solidarity with the thriving global movement.

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