The Nuclear Freeze campaign prevented an apocalypse, so can the climate movement

2014 was the hottest year in recorded history. 2015 is on track to be even hotter — and yet, before the most important international climate talks of the decade, even the most ambitious promises of action will fall short of what science demands.

At the same time, the movement to stop climate change is also making history — last year the United States saw the biggest climate march in history, as well as the growth of a fossil fuel divestment movement (the fastest growing divestment campaign ever), and a steady drumbeat of local victories against the fossil fuel industry.

In short, the climate movement, and humanity, is up against an existential wall: Find ways to organize for decisive action, or face the end of life as we know it. This is scary stuff, but if you think no movement has ever faced apocalyptic challenges before, and won, then it’s time you learned about the Nuclear Freeze campaign.

Following Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, the global anti-nuclear movement also stood up to a global existential crisis — one that was also driven by a wealthy power elite, backed by faulty science and a feckless liberal establishment that failed to mobilize against a massive threat. The movement responded with new ideas and unprecedented numbers to help lead the world towards de-escalation and an end to the Cold War.

Under the banner of the Nuclear Freeze, millions of people helped pull the planet from the brink of nuclear war, setting off the most decisive political changes of the past half century. The freeze provides key lessons for the climate movement today; and as we face up to our own existential challenges, it’s worth reflecting on both the successes and failures of the freeze campaign, as one possible path towards the kind of political action we need.

A short history of the Nuclear Freeze campaign

In 1979, at the third annual meeting of Mobilization for Survival, a scientist and activist named Randall Forsberg introduced an idea that would transform the anti-nuclear weapons movement. She called for a bilateral freeze in new nuclear weapons construction, backed by both the United States and the Soviet Union, as a first step towards complete disarmament.

Shortly afterwards, she drafted a four-page “Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race” and worked with fellow activists to draft a four-year plan of action that would move from broad-based education and organizing into decisive action in Washington, D.C.

Starting in 1980, the idea took hold at the grassroots, with a series of city and state referendum campaigns calling for a Nuclear Freeze, escalating into a massive, nationwide wave of ballot initiatives in November 1982 — the largest ever push in U.S. history, with over a third of the country participating.

The movement also advanced along other roads: In June 1982, they held the largest rally in U.S. history up to that point, with somewhere between 750,000 and 1 million people gathering in New York City’s Central Park, along with countless other endorsements from labor, faith and progressive groups of all stripes. Direct action campaigns against test sites and nuclear labs also brought the message into the heart of the military industrial complex.

The effort continued into electoral and other political waters until around early 1985, pushing peace measures at the ballot box and in the nation’s capital, but never quite returned to the peak of mobilization seen in 1982.

The impact of this organizing was palpable: President Reagan went from calling arms treaties with the Soviets “fatally flawed” in 1980, and declaring the USSR an “evil empire” in a speech dedicated to attacking the freeze initiative in 1983, to saying that the Americans and Soviets have “common interests… to avoid war and reduce the level of arms.” He even went so far as to say that his dream was “to see the day when nuclear weapons will be banished from the face of the earth.” The movement’s popular success led the president to make new arms control pledges as part of his strategy for victory in the 1984 election.

“If things get hotter and hotter and arms control remains an issue,” Reagan explained in 1983, “maybe I should go see [Soviet Premier Yuri] Andropov and propose eliminating all nuclear weapons.”

Reagan’s rhetorical and policy softening in 1984 opened the door for Mikhail Gorbachav -— a true believer in the severity of the nuclear threat, and an advocate for de-escalation — to rise to power in the Soviet Union in 1985. Gorbachev’s steps to withdraw missiles and end nuclear testing, supported by global peace and justice movements, created a benevolent cycle with the United States that eventually brought down the Iron Curtain and ended the Cold war.

Although the freeze policy was never formally adopted by the United States or Soviet Union, and the movement didn’t move forward into full abolition of nuclear weapons, the political changes partially initiated by the campaign did functionally realize their short term demand. As a result, global nuclear stockpiles have indeed been declining since 1986, as the two superpowers began to step back from the nuclear brink.

The climate movement has room to grow

While the Nuclear Freeze shows that movements can move mountains — or at least global super powers — it also shows that the climate movement isn’t yet close to doing so. For starters, its size is not at the scale of where it needs to be — not by historical measures, at least. The largest mobilization of the Nuclear Freeze campaign was the largest march in U.S. history up to that point, and included double the number of people who participated in the People’s Climate March. The referendum campaigns that reached their peak later in 1982 were historic on a different scale as well: They were on the ballot in 10 states, Washington, D.C., and 37 cities and counties, before going on to win in nine states and all but three cities. The vote covered roughly a third of the U.S. electorate.

This was a movement powered by thousands of local organizations working in loose, but functional, coordination. Even in 1984, which is generally considered after the peak of the Nuclear Freeze campaign, the Freeze Voter PAC (created at the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign conference in St. Louis in 1983) included 20,000 volunteers in 32 states — an electoral push thus far unmatched in the climate movement’s history.


Nuclear Freeze referendum campaigns reached the ballot in 10 states. (Peace Development Center)

At the same time, this moment also showed how quickly movements can decline. While the Nuclear Freeze campaign thrived in the very early 1980s, press and popular attention rapidly dissipated. There are many possible reasons that could explain this: from a shift in strategy away from grassroots campaigns towards legislative action (the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign conference moved from St. Louis to Washington, D.C., around this time), to a softening of President Reagan’s nuclear posture, taking the wind out of the movement’s sails. The real answer is probably a combination of all of the above. From a peak of organizing in 1982-83, participation in the movement significantly declined by the mid-1980s, and mostly dropped off the political radar well before 1990.

Fear is a real motivator and a real risk

What drove the initial outpouring of action? In no small part, it was fear. As Morrisey, lead singer of The Smiths, sang in 1986, “It’s the bomb that will bring us together.”

In the late 1970s, research about the survivability of a nuclear conflict became dramatically clearer, showing that even limited nuclear exchanges could threaten all life on Earth. Also in this period, Physicians for Social Responsibility initiated a widespread education campaign that dramatized the local impacts of nuclear conflict on cities around the country. These developments, combined with the real impact of Reagan’s escalatory rhetoric, created fertile ground for the freeze campaign, allowing movement voices to appear more reasonable than the technocratic nuclear priesthood that had lost touch with the public’s fears. Only when Reagan began to step back his posturing and present alternative arms control proposals was he able to blunt the power of the movement.

The debate about the use of fear in the climate movement is ongoing, but compared to the debate about nuclear weapons, the mainstream climate movement under-appeals to the fear of climate change. While it’s clear that apocalyptic, decontextualized appeals to fear are demotivating, grounded assessments of the problem that speak honestly about how scary the problem really is, and are attached to feasible solutions are crucial to mobilizing large numbers of people. One example of an effective appeal to fear was Bill McKibben’s widely-read 2012 Rolling Stone article “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” which succeeded for several reasons: First, it used specific, scientifically grounded numbers to explain approaching thresholds for serious change. Secondly, it also was connected to a new, national organizing effort to divest from fossil fuels, including a 21-city tour that provided critical mass to begin campaigning.

Nevertheless, fear is, by its nature, hard to control and — in the case of the freeze campaign — it provided an opportunity for co-optation of the movement’s rhetoric. Most significantly, President Reagan’s Star Wars program was able to redirect the fear of nuclear exchange into a technocratic, bloated military project — rather than solutions to the root cause of the problem. The Reagan administration drew on the president’s personal charisma and reflexive trust in the power of the military industrial complex to transform some of the concern generated by the movement, and turn it towards his own ends.

The climate movement faces a similar threat from technical solutions that benefit elites, such as crackpot schemes to geoengineer climate solutions by further altering the Earth’s weather in the hopes of reversing planetary heating, as well as other unjust ways of managing the climate crisis. Discussions about big problems need to be paired with approachable, but big solutions.

One simple demand

The Nuclear Freeze proposal turned the complex and treacherous issue of arms control into a simple concept: Stop building more weapons until we figure a way out of the mess. It was a proposal designed to be approachable in its simplicity, and careful in the way it addressed competing popular fears of both nuclear annihilation and perceived Soviet aggression.

The idea of a bilateral freeze — the United States stops building if the Soviet Union does too — handled both of these concerns in a way that made the nuclear problem about growing arms stockpiles, not the specifics of Cold War politics. Even though the movement against nuclear weapons had existed as long as the weapons themselves, the idea of the bilateral freeze turned arms control much more into the mainstream of American political discussion at a moment of real escalation with the Soviets.

In a certain way, climate change is simple too: We need to stop building fossil fuel infrastructure wherever there are viable renewable or low-carbon alternatives, and do it quickly. Growing the movement in this moment will require bold, bright lines that provide moral directness and opportunities to take giant leaps forward in terms of actual progress to reduce carbon emissions.

The simplicity of the freeze idea was intentional. At their meeting in 1981, the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign made it clear that the path to power was not through access in Washington, but through “recruiting active organizational and public support” — a strategy that required demands that were easy and quick to explain.

Developing such active public support was a wide-ranging process, but the campaign distinguished itself from other contemporary peace movements by its use of the electoral system — first via local and state referendums in 1980-82, and then with initiatives like Freeze Voter in 1984.

The referendum strategy, in particular, was a tool that offered intuitive, broad-based entry points for organizing with clear steps for participants. And it worked: The freeze campaign won an overwhelming number of the referendums it was a part of in 1982. Combined with demonstrations, education campaigns and other grassroots actions, this strategy allowed the movement to translate public sympathy into demonstrable public support.

It is possible that the current moment in the climate debate could be ripe in a similar way. The public broadly favors more climate action, but is faced with relatively few meaningful opportunities to act on it. The task of growing the climate movement is in many ways a task of activating these people with opportunities for deeper involvement.

Other lessons learned

An important caveat must be made when discussing the breadth of the freeze campaign’s support. Its demographics — mostly white and more middle class than the public at large — reflected those of the establishment peace movement from which it came. That lack of diversity not only represents a failure of organizing, but also could have contributed to the movement’s lack of staying power and lasting political potency.

While at least one key freeze organizer I spoke with said explicitly that the climate movement is succeeding in this regard in ways they never did, the experience of the Nuclear Freeze explains just a few of the perils of failing to create a real diverse climate movement. This is a challenge that will take work throughout the life of the climate movement, but it’s at least underway in some key regards.

The freeze campaign thrived on an initial wave of activism that was grounded in local organizing via the referendum strategy. But after organizing shifted (perhaps prematurely) more towards legislative strategies, the next steps for the hundreds of thousands of people involved in the campaign never emerged. After the freeze became mainstream discourse — supported by hundreds of members of Congress, presidential candidates and millions of voters — the next step towards disarmament remained murky.

1984 Freeze Voter campaign ad. (Oakland Museum of California)

1984 Freeze Voter campaign ad. (Oakland Museum of California)

Ultimately, the referendum strategy was symbolic: Cities and states did not have any formal power over U.S. or Soviet nuclear arsenals. But symbols matter, and so does democracy. The overwhelming vote for the freeze in 1982 shifted the political ground out from underneath liberal hawks and the president, allowing more progressive voices to ride the movement’s coattails — to the point where the 1984 Democratic Party platform included a freeze plank. In other words, it turned diffuse public opinion into a concrete count of bodies at the polls.

The referendum vote also asserted the right of people to decide such weighty issues, taking them out of the realm of the military industrial complex and into the light of day. When asked, people wanted a chance to be involved. The massive and democratic nature of the freeze campaign struck a blow against the social license of the nuclear industrial complex by yanking the implied consent of the majority of the American people from both the military’s leadership and their tactics.

The path forward in an uncertain time

As the divestment movement grows, particularly on college campuses — another effort aimed at the social license of an entrenched and distant power elite — the lessons of the freeze campaign suggest that the climate movement will need to answer many important questions in the coming months and years.

We know how to march, but what comes next? Public opinion has shifted, perhaps decisively, but how do we turn that diffuse energy into a story about the need for action? If we mobilize in 2016 for the election, what comes in 2017? And if we organize towards a single big demand, as the Freeze campaign did in the 80s, how will we translate that into ongoing power?

The climate movement faces an epic, unique struggle, but the challenges it faces as a movement are not as singular as some may think. As the movement ventures onto new ground, it’s worth remembering that others have done what felt like the impossible, in the face of an uncertain future — and triumphed.

The author thanks Freeze campaign activists Leslie Cagan, Randy Kheeler, Joe Lamb and Ben Senturia for supporting the research of this article.

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