January 1, 1970We may all be alive today because of actions started 50 years ago to mobilize people to ban nuclear weapons. In 1957, the year I entered high school, in a rural county where thousands of bombs were stored in a military arsenal, a new civic group called the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy launched a campaign to stop testing atomic bombs. The group over the years grew into America’s largest antiwar organization, called SANE/Freeze in the 1980s and, more recently, Peace Action.
Not long after SANE’s founding by a group of prominent Americans that included famed baby doctor author Benjamin Spock, the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted in 1962, threatening to spark nuclear war over a move by the Soviet Union to put atomic missiles on the Caribbean island, barely 90 miles from Florida. I was a teenage Army private in radio school at Fort Benning, where my bemused buddies and I offered our arms to protect the young ladies of Columbus, Georgia, from nuclear fallout. Silly as it may seem, there wasn’t much else to do. While we trainees were left to our own devices, combat-ready infantry units were sent to guard Florida. It seemed absurd that soldiers were expected to counter nuclear missiles with rifles.
After an intense military stand-off with fleets of bombers, ships and submarines faced off to destroy each other, the Soviets withdrew their missiles. And the US removed the nuclear missiles it had placed near the Soviet border in Turkey. The military posturing stopped as both sides realized that nuclear missiles could reduce most of America and Russia to radioactive rubble before their armies could be mobilized.
In the wake of that crisis—as recounted in a new book, “Peace Action: Past, Present, and Future”—President Kennedy sent an emissary to Soviet Premier Krushchev to convey a peace message. That emissary was Norman Cousins, a magazine editor and co-founder of SANE. A few months later, “U.S., British and Soviet officials signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty, banning nuclear tests in the atmosphere, in outer space, and under water”—the very action that SANE pressed for when it launched its grassroots campaign in 1957, arguing that radioactive fallout was poisoning the land and people.
But getting rid of nuclear weapons proved far harder than convincing governments not to test them or use them on their adversaries. Another nuclear stand-off erupted in the early 1980s, when the Reagan administration declared the Soviet Union the “evil empire,” stationed nuclear missiles in Europe that could hit Moscow in minutes, and vowed to create a “Star Wars” system for shooting down enemy missiles from outer space. The Soviets rattled their nuclear sabers in response. Again SANE responded and with others mobilized millions of people in the US and Europe to press for a halt to the nuclear arms race under the umbrella of the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign.
With Reagan administration officials blithely talking about winning a nuclear war with the Soviets, I felt compelled to get involved, joining a New Jersey SANE committee that produced “Nuclear War and Montclair: Is There a Place to Hide?” That 1983 booklet, arguing that the best way to survive nuclear catastrophe was to prevent it, was mailed to every home in town. I got further involved as a founder of the Essex County Office of Peace, which in 1986 produced a public information booklet titled “The Great Challenge: How You Can Help Prevent Nuclear War.” I took copies of that booklet to the Soviet Union that year with a US-USSR Bridges for Peace citizen exchange delegation. My family and I helped host a Soviet delegation that visited New Jersey in 1987. Those mutual efforts spawned more exchanges and cultural, educational and business relationships that still continue today.
The nuclear freeze campaign reached out to and won the support of a majority of voters in New Jersey and other states in referendums on this issue. It provided a groundswell of support for negotiations between the Reagan and Bush I administrations and the Soviets that ultimately led to “the elimination of all medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe, sizable reductions in stockpiles of other nuclear weapons, and an end to the Cold War” between the US and USSR, as this book recounts.
Yet, despite that historic peacemaking, today nuclear weapons are still a threat to the world. India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea have developed nuclear arsenals. The US, Russia, China, Britain and France still have nuclear missiles capable of waging World War III. Again calls are rising for nuclear disarmament. Among the latest supporters of abolishing atomic bombs and missile warheads are an A-list of former government officials, led by former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, who signed a joint statement published in the Wall Street Journal in January to endorse “setting the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons and working energetically on the actions required to achieve that goal.”
So how can that goal be accomplished? As the contributors to “Peace Action” note, the key is widespread grassroots activism, as the early days of SANE and the 1980s nuclear freeze campaign demonstrated. Those campaigns mobilized myriads of community activists and religious leaders, local, county and state officials and members of Congress.
“At a time when corporations have more access and influence over our government than the people it was designed to serve and represent, Americans need an advocate like Peace Action,” Rep. Barbara Lee of California wrote in the introduction to this unusual history of international civic action. “I believe that members of Congress should be hearing more from constituents and peace activists than from lobbyists for the weapons and oil industry, and Peace Action is a model organization when it comes to making that happen.”
For further information: www.peace-action.org