Although of very recent origin, the ‘freeze’ movement in the United States has already stimulated the first successful rebellion against a major weapons programme in American history. Prior to December 1982, when Congress turned down Reagan’s request for the immediate manufacture of the mx missile, no modern president had ever lost a vote over an important weapons appropriation, nuclear or non-nuclear.footnote1 To appreciate the relative novelty of the new movement, it should be remembered that in the late 1970s it was a commonplace that the popular surge against civil nuclear power—most conspicuously expressed in the 150,000 turnout for the Washington demonstration in May 1978—was not matched by equivalent agitation about the evils of nuclear power in its military incarnation. Indeed disarmers were often shunned by anti-nuclear-power organizers as either politically compromising or kooky or both. A political context propitious for the rapid growth of a new peace movement only began to be established with the onset of the new cold war: specifically the transition phase from Carter’s midterm bellicosity to Reagan’s inauguration. If any single event was the watershed, it was the unanimous vote of the Senate Armed Services Committee in the fall of 1979 against ratification of the salt ii treaty.footnote2 This was accompanied by nato’s agreement to the deployment of new ‘theatre nuclear’ weapons (the Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles) as well as Carter’s call for a 3% annual real increase in military spending.

The ensuing rout of liberal conscience is probably best evoked by the memory of Senator Frank Church, tagged as a ‘peacenik and appeaser’ in a tight re-election race against the New Right in Idaho, suddenly ‘discovering’ the menace of a Soviet brigade in Cuba and thereupon suspending his support for salt ii. Since Church was then Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, this was the final stake, amid a veritable thicket, through the Treaty’s heart. (Church lost anyway.) Amid the moral collapse of the arms controllers, and the spectacle of the Carter Administration promoting the most expensive weapons system ever conceived (the mx in a mobile basing mode), political seismographs began to indicate some reaction from a peace movement more or less in abeyance for most of the seventies. It is true, of course, that some old-line peace groups and organizers had been soldiering on: sane, the American Friends, the War Resisters’ League and similar groups were still active; Dave Dellinger and Sid Lens—major figures of the anti-Vietnam-War movement—were helping to found the Mobilization for Survival; and the indomitable Berrigans were still going to jail for acts of conscience.

But the actual rebirth of the peace movement should probably be dated to the winter of 1979/80 when the American Friends Service Committee called a meeting of arms control and disarmament advocates in the Princeton Club in New York to consider strategy in light not only of an unratified salt ii but also of the imminent manufacture and deployment of new weapons systems, like the cruise missiles, which were beyond the reach of traditional arms control procedures. By April 1980 Randall Forsberg published what could be called the first ‘freeze’ manifesto. But 1980 was hardly an annul mirabilis for disarmament or arms control. The simmering hysteria of the hostage crisis was combined with the escalating election rhetoric of Ronald Reagan and Carter’s promulgation of Presidential Directive 59 with its public disavowal of mutual assured destruction in favour of ‘counterforce’. It was not until summer, when organizers reassembled to consider the strategy for demonstrations to accompany the June 1982 un Special Session on Disarmament, that many present at these meetings agreed that the beginnings of a groundswell against the war lobby and nuclear saber-rattling were at long last apparent.

There were other auguries. In the same summer of 1981, cbs broadcast a five-part series called ‘The Defense of the United States’ which attracted national attention for its spectacular evocation of what would happen if a nuclear missile hit Omaha, Nebraska. (No more Omaha.) But, more importantly, the programmes also marked the first caesura in five years of virtually uncritical support for the arms buildup by the major networks and newspapers, as cbs openly questioned the premisses under which the Reagan Administration was unleashing a 7% real increase in defense spending while simultaneously talking in loose terms about ‘winnable’ nuclear war. The pendulum, in fact, had probably started to swing back a year earlier amid the torrid campaign rhetoric of 1980. John Anderson attracted significant though transitory support by saying clearly in April 1980 that he supported salt ii and believed that the Soviet entry into Afghanistan should not prevent its ratification. His stock among the famous ‘third force’ of the electorate promptly shot up. When, later in the year, he retreated into more cautious and ‘statesmanlike’ evasions, it shot down again.

Amid the clamour over the supposed Reagan landslide of November 1980, few people noticed the success of a non-binding ballot initiative in three state senate districts in western Massachusetts. The initiative, organized by Randy Kehler and others, called for the President to propose a freeze on the testing and deployment of missiles and delivery systems to President Brezhnev. It won in 30 of 32 towns by a two-to-one margin even though Reagan simultaneously carried the same areas against Carter by a similar margin.