Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1971 to the Present

Volume Three of The Struggle Against the Bomb, Lawrence S. Wittner, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2003

By Metta Spencer (reviewer) | 2004-07-01 12:00:00

Wittner's three-volume history is masterful -- by far the most impressive account of the world disarmament movement yet published . You shouldn't expect to read it straight through without a break from covers to covers to covers (each volume extends about 600 pages) but do tackle it gradually. If you choose only one of the three volumes, pick this final one, which, by bringing us nearly up-to-date on the Bush administration's policies, revives waning adrenaline output. Long-time activists may recognize the story as a partial biography of their own lives, recounting events, people, and policies they had almost forgotten. (For example, does the term 'walk in the woods' sound vaguely familiar?)

The book's hortatory rhetoric is sparse, for Wittner concentrates on describing with meticulous precision the events of the global movement. (I did not spot a single error or exaggeration.) Yet the impeccable display of this record refutes an alternative, but conventionally accepted, argument. We have heard -- possibly even believed -- the triumphalist account advanced by Western militarists: that the Reagan administration won the nuclear arms race by building newer and ever-costlier weapons systems until at last "Gorbachev blinked." But Wittner shows that the historical sequence was otherwise. He attributes the dramatic easing of the arms race in the later 1980s, not to the staying power of Western hawks, but primarily to the powerful, world-wide nuclear disarmament campaign that forced hawks to change course. And indeed, these effects were already visible in the United States before Gorbachev came to power.

Reagan took office in 1981 promising "strategic superiority," speaking lightly of fighting a nuclear war, and inveighing against "appeasement." As Wittner reminds us, the hawks of the late 1970s and early 1980s (notably the Committee on the Present Danger) believed that the Soviets could be stopped only be a display of military "strength." Consequently, during their sabre-rattling heyday, Soviet-American relations deteriorated so sharply that Yuri Andropov vowed to match the American expansion at whatever cost. When in 1983 NATO prepared to hold European war games ("Able Archer"), the alarmed Soviet leaders expected that "exercise" to culminate in an actual nuclear attack. Therefore, they placed their own nuclear forces on alert in preparation for action. (During those days only the courage of a Soviet officer, Stanislav Petrov, prevented a mistaken retaliatory launch, as described in Peace Magazine in April 2001.) That same year, when the new U.S. missiles began to be deployed in Europe, the Soviets also broke off arms control negotiations and resumed deployment of their own SS20s and SS-23 nuclear missiles. Instead of "winning" such contests by inducing the Soviets to back down, each of Reagan's hard-line efforts to intimidate backfired, strengthening the militarists in the Kremlin.

But Reagan's arms build-up simultaneously alarmed vast numbers of Westerners who, unlike citizens of the Communist bloc, were able to organize public protests against government policies. Reagan and Congress were alike rattled by these demonstrations and began to recognize that the arms race was dangerously unpopular with voters.

If anyone "blinked," it was Reagan. His wife Nancy was shocked by the belligerence of Secretary of State Alexander Haig, who proposed that Reagan bomb Cuba and who saw nuclear weapons as "an expression of the strength of the nation possessing them." At first Reagan encouraged the Pentagon's plan to modernize all US strategic forces, but by late 1981 he began reversing some tough policies and stating that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought." He observed the terms of the SALT II treaty, to which he had previously objected and which was unratified. In response partly to the mounting concerns of European allies, he called for a "zero option" -- the removal of all Soviet intermediate range nuclear weapons from Europe and Asia in exchange for a US promise not to deploy the cruise and Pershing missiles. This was an asymmetrical proposal that would have required deeper cuts of the Soviets than of NATO. Insiders said that the proposal was put forward only because the Soviets would reject it, allowing the American deployment to proceed with apparent justification, despite the objections of the growing European peace movement. Still, in 1984 Reagan publicly called for a nuclear-free world and not until March 1985 did he find a Soviet leader who would respond to his tentative relenting in the competition for strategic superiority. Soon after taking office, Mikhail Gorbachev showed his enthusiasm for "new thinking," in terms of both democratization and peace. Indeed, his remarkably positive attitude toward the international peace movement contrasted so sharply with Reagan's obvious disdain and hawkish rhetoric that activists probably overestimated the gap between their respective policies.

Certainly, at the time one could hardly regard Reagan as responsive toward disarmament movement demands, since he did not disguise his dislike of us, whereas Gorbachev met with hordes of Western peaceniks, always responding warmly to their suggestions. Only a historian, viewing the timeline of actual performances during this period, would notice how frequently Reagan had accepted (albeit grudgingly) the movement's demands after they had gained popularity and political clout.

Those Soviet officials such as Aleksandr Yakovlev and Georgi Arbatov who became influential Gorbachev advisers confirm Wittner's account. Indeed, Anatoly Dobrinin stated that if Reagan "had not abandoned his hostile stance toward the Soviet Union, Gorbachev would not have been able to launch his reforms and his 'new thinking,'" but would have "been forced to continue the conservative foreign and domestic policies of his predecessors."

Wittner is careful to point out that the Communist-sponsored World Peace Council enjoyed little credibility, either among Western peace organizations or even in the Soviet Union itself. And the courageous independent activists in the socialist bloc never gained a hearing in the Kremlin. Indeed, they continued to be sent to prison camps until glasnost was in full bloom. It was foreigners whose opinion Gorbachev sought and respected. Even at the end, his feelings toward the leading independent spokesman Andrei Sakharov were decidedly mixed, though Wittner does not make much of this fact. Nevertheless, the international peace movement, which had influence in East and West alike, supported their independent counterparts in the East.

Wittner's makes an air-tight argument for his main point -- that the peace movement was the causal force behind the dramatic nuclear arms control agreements of the late 1980s. Reagan was pushed involuntarily toward disarmament by the same international peace groups to whom Gorbachev turned voluntarily and warmly. There is no other plausible way of explaining Reagan's policy changes. Gorbachev's intentions may, however, have been mixed: Because Wittner did not analyze economic factors, he did not have to mention all the constraints that influenced Gorbachev's policies. Without a doubt, Gorbachev was an authentic dove, but he also needed to disarm for practical reasons. Only after taking office did he discover that his country was bankrupt. Probably financial considerations probably influenced his military policies more than Wittner acknowledged. This is not incompatible with his morally principled readiness to disarm. In any case, the worst of the weaponry was dismantled on both sides, and for a time there were bright prospects for a truly denuclearized future world.

Unfortunately, the movement quickly began to disintegrate from false confidence, leaving the way open for a new generation of American hawks to gain power. Now the George W. Bush administration has cancelled existing treaties and launched another round of nuclear development -- somehow without arousing a new global outcry. There is a lesson to be drawn from this: the struggle against the bomb may never be finished. Only eternal vigilance and unceasing political pressure will preserve the world from the ambitions of nuclear weapons proponents.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2004

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2004, page 27. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Metta Spencer here

Peace Magazine homepage