Nuclear Freeze Movement

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During the first half of the 1980s, the nuclear freeze movement engaged in a number of local, national, and international efforts to induce the United States and the Soviet Union to halt the production, development, and deployment of nuclear weapons. The movement emerged at a time when many Americans and Europeans were increasingly concerned about the real possibility of nuclear war between the two superpowers. The new president, Ronald Reagan, and his senior defense and foreign policy advisors talked openly about nuclear war while stating their dissatisfaction with the Strategic Arms Limitations Treaties, which had substantially slowed the nuclear arms race.

Europeans were even more concerned about the prospects for nuclear war, given the 1979 decision between the United States and its NATO allies to deploy nearly six hundred nuclear missiles across Western Europe. Because of the heavy concentration of NATO forces in West Germany, which also was the site for close to two hundred of the new nuclear missiles, Germans were particularly concerned that their country would be "ground zero" in a nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union.

It was amid these fears and concerns that the nuclear freeze movement began. The movement was structured around two national organizations, the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign (NWFC), which focused on local, grassroots mobilization and consciousness raising, and the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), which tended to be more policy-oriented. The intent of these organizations was to reduce the risk inherent in the nation's defense strategy of "mutually assured destruction" (MAD), which was designed to deter war by assuring that any nuclear attack would be answered with a devastating nuclear counterattack. This strategy had contributed to the massive buildup of nuclear weapons. Following the slogan, "Think Globally, Act Locally," movement leaders orchestrated local and state elections in which pro-freeze resolutions were passed. Building on those successes, the movement also pressured the U.S. Congress to adopt nuclear freeze resolutions, one of which was passed in 1983.

The movement's major achievement was the June 12, 1982, "No Nukes" rally, the largest peace rally in America to date. The rally involved nearly one million protestors and was organized to coincide with the Second United Nations Special Session on Disarmament in New York City. By this time the movement had adopted an international approach to accomplishing the movement's goals, lobbying representatives at the Special Session to adopt pro-freeze positions. The demonstration and the lobbying efforts paid off—later that year the General Assembly passed two pro-freeze resolutions by large majorities, with only the United States, most of its Western allies, and China voting against one or both of the measures.

In spite of these successes, the movement was unable to accomplish its ultimate goal, a freeze on the development of new nuclear weapons by the United States and the Soviet Union. The Reagan administration successfully changed the dynamics of the nuclear weapons debate by offering arms control proposals that went beyond the aims of the freeze movement. Furthermore, the U.S. freeze movement failed to coordinate effectively with the antinuclear movement in Europe and both movements lost the opportunity to strengthen the efforts of the other. Finally, the thaw in U.S.-Soviet relations in the mid-1980s did much to alleviate the public's fears of

nuclear war. Both sides were making good-faith efforts at negotiating reductions in strategic nuclear arsenals and in 1987 agreed to eliminate an entire class of nuclear missiles. Given this progress, the objective of a nuclear freeze became superfluous. Nevertheless, the nuclear freeze movement was emblematic of the fear of nuclear holocaust that gripped American society at the height of the Cold War.


Cortright, David, and Pagnucco, Ron. "Limits to Transnationalism: The 1980s Freeze Campaign." In Transnational Social Movements and Global Politics: Solidarity Beyond the State, edited by Jackie Smith, Charles Chatfield, and Ron Pagnucco. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1997.

Rochon, Thomas. Mobilizing for Peace: The Antinuclear Movements in Western Europe. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.

Solo, Pam. From Protest to Policy: Beyond the Freeze to Common Security. Cambridge, MA: Ballinger, 1988.

Waller, Douglas. Congress and the Nuclear Freeze. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.

Steven Jones

See also:Arms Control Debate; Containment and Détente; Peace Movements; Reagan, Ronald.

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Nuclear Freeze Movement

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