Thirty(three) years ago today, one million people marched in the streets of New York City to protest the nuclear arms race in general and the policies of Ronald Reagan in particular. Organized around a “nuclear freeze” proposal, the demonstration was a watershed for a movement that seemed to come out of nowhere, not just in the United States, but throughout what was then called Western Europe.
Of course, movements have deeper roots. Relatively small groups of people have been protesting against nuclear weapons since the idea of nuclear bombs first appeared. On occasion, they’re able to spread their concerns beyond the few to a larger public. Such was the case in 1982, when Europeans rallied against new intermediate range missiles planned for West Europe, and when Americans protested against the extraordinary military build-up/ spend-up of Ronald Reagan’s first term in office.
The freeze proposal, imagined by Randall Forsberg as a reasonable first step in reversing the arms race, was the core of organizing efforts in the United States, which included out-of-power arms control advocates and radical pacifists. Local governments passed resolutions supporting the freeze, while several states passed referenda. People demonstrated and held vigils, while community groups in churches and neighborhoods organized freeze groups to discuss–and advocate–on the nuclear arms race.
The freeze figured in large Democratic gains in the 1982 election, and Ronald Reagan ran for reelection as a born-again arms controller. Most activists didn’t buy it, but after Reagan won in a landslide, to the horror of his advisers and many of his supporters, he negotiated large reductions in the nuclear arsenals of the United States and what used to be called the Soviet Union.
The arms control agreements created the space in the East for reforms, reforms that spun out of control and eventually unraveled the cold war and the Eastern bloc.
The world changed.
It was both less and more than what most activists imagined possible.
Do you want to call it a victory?