The Freeze: A Look Back

By Catherine Cevoli


It was the summer of 1992, and I was watching the second presidential debate. George Bush was explaining how Reagan’s military build-up ended the Cold War. “The Russians couldn’t keep up and it destroyed them,” he said. “If we’d listened to all those nuclear freezers, we’d still have the Cold War today.”

I put down my coffee. “Hey, ”I thought. “That’s me. He just mentioned me.” Could he possibly be right?

“I seriously believe the world might end in my lifetime” is a sentence in the first piece of writing I ever published. It was the early 1980s, and I had recently heard Ronald Reagan say the phrase “limited nuclear war.” It made me feel like a woman who’s heard from the stalker she thought was dead.

That year I read enough on nuclear weaponry to get a masters degree. I knew the difference between theatrical and strategic, the two reasons the cruise missile would subvert arms control, the qualitative dangers posed by Reagan’s third generation of weapons, and, of course, precisely what would happen if someone dropped a hydrogen bomb on my town.

By the time I began volunteering for the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, I was at my wit’s end with terror and guilt over what humanity had done to itself. I didn’t like that nuclear war was my issue; the enormity of it made me feel idiotic. Still, I was drawn to everyone who was responding as I was, and I don’t want to disparage what for so many of us was a profound response. It’s just that it’s ten years later, and I now give the arms race no thought.

Looking back at the Freeze sparks many emotions. There is pride that I responded to the incident, relief that the 1980s are over, secret embarrassment that I imagined nuclear holocaust and then forgot it. I hardly miss it. And there are things about the peace movement—like the slogan “You can’t hug your kids with nuclear arms”—I’m glad to have left behind. Yet I sometimes feel nostalgic for a more committed part of myself. I found myself wondering what to make of the Freeze, itself. Was all the agony necessary? What did it accomplish? Is there virtue and strength in having faced apocalypse? Or is there any chance we were alarmist?

How should we feel about the surprise ending, the deus ex machina of the Soviet Union’s collapse? We wanted to change the world and, amazingly, it changed. Can we take any credit? Or is it possible Bush was right, and the largest peacetime military build-up in our history helped end the Cold War? Last year I decided to put these questions to some of the peace movement’s leaders. After all, with 35,000 nuclear weapons still in the world, the issue is not really over. And the Freeze ended so fast, we never had the postmortem.

For Randy Kehler, the legacy of the movement is that it happened at all. “Just the fact that there was this phenomenon of groups all over the country, largely in sync with one another, raising a voice where no voice had been raised before, is a tremendously significant legacy.”

Former President of the Freeze Campaign, Kehler is a veteran left-wing activist famous in western Massachusetts as the war tax resister whose home was seized by the IRS. He now devotes his time to campaign finance reform. “The Freeze fuels my hope about creating a grassroots movement to get money out of politics. People I work with, just because they remember the Freeze, say, if it happened then, it can happen again.”

“There’s always a lot of deus ex machina in history,” he continues. “We set out to do something and we have no idea what effect it will have. But I do feel there is far more governmental and public hostility to nuclear weapons than there was before the Freeze, or would have been without it.”

Kehler also rejects the idea that we were too apocalyptic. “I first thought of the world ending when I was 16 and heard the military editor of the New York Times say the statistical chances of a nuclear war by 1990 would approach 100 percent. I was psychologically paralyzed for days. I cried. I certainly felt during the 1980s that the world could end in our lifetime. Christ, with Cruise missiles being deployed, these launch on warning systems being put in place, how could any rational person not think it was possible. Likely is another question.”

I asked Kehler how he felt about the world’s having lost interest in this topic. It’s a question he takes personally. “I have stopped paying attention, even though I pay more attention than 99 percent of the world. But one of my conclusions after the Freeze is that it’s very hard to affect the U.S. political process given the corrupting effect of big money. So what I chose to do next is very much related, though it seems less of an uphill battle.” He laughs at his own implication that campaign finance reform is easy. “Still, compared to the Freeze it is.”

“I feel immensely privileged to have been a part of it,” he concludes. “There’s something about acts of human solidarity, when people come together to face common threats. This was solidarity on such a grand scale. It touched something deep in us. To feel like you’re doing the right thing with other people, in a relatively harmonious way, regardless of the outcome is a great blessing.”

We played a role in making the world safer," says David Cortwright, former President of SANE Freeze, at one time the largest peace group in the country. “The legacy is all around us. Even before Gorbachev came along, the Reagan administration was starting to bend to our way of talking. There are a lot of specifics to show they started to negotiate and tone down their bellicose rhetoric in response to this very dramatic expression of public concern.”

An author and scholar, Cortwright teaches peace studies, including the history of movements like the Freeze, at Goshen College. “An interesting thing about social movements is that their very success will lead people to forget about them and go back to their normal lives. It’s not normal to go to meetings on weekends and stand on street corners handing out flyers. We did it because we were scared out of our minds.

“But all those people who stood up in Central Park in 1982—that doesn’t happen without having a long-term impact. I think we have in our country and Europe a post-nuclear consciousness.” He cites the fact that France’s resumption of nuclear testing in the South Pacific sparked greater protest in some parts of Europe than the war in Bosnia. “I have a feeling that as long as the nuclear issue seems to be fading away, people will be complacent. But if there’s a sense that it’s coming back, so will this post-nuclear consciousness.”

Randy Forsberg begins by explaining that “the most important things are too big to be sure about. But,” adds the person who wrote the actual Proposal for a Nuclear Weapons Freeze, “it seems likely that the antinuclear movement in the U.S. and Europe contributed to the rise to power of Gorbachev and his subsequent decision to support glasnost.” In particular, Forsberg believes the contact between doctors and scientists in Russia and the West supported Gorbachev’s own inclinations, and made him feel safer in opening up.

“Of course, I think this movement led him to feel that if he took the lid off the repression, he’d find popular sentiment he would tend to agree with. I think he was surprised at the degree of nationalism that emerged instead.”

Though she was thrust into a major role in the peace, movement, Forsberg is a scholar of militarism who can speak at length against the idea that Reagan was right. “I think the arms race did do in communism, but that had nothing to do with Reagan. It was lack of investment in the civilian economy, lack of invention and creativity” that held the communist economies back. “That didn’t happen in the latter part of the 1980s as a result of what Reagan did. Also, the initiatives Gorbachev took were not designed to counter Reagan’s build-up. In 1988 he was ready to make unilateral reductions as a gesture of good faith. But just like people in the West, he was taken aback to learn that cutting military expense didn’t help the civilian economy, because there were no methods of conversion in place.”

Forsberg thinks the Freeze was undone by good and bad developments. Our first mistake was believing that getting Congress to vote for a non-binding resolution meant anything. “Meanwhile, Congress was approving bills for new nuclear weapons, with no caveats. A referendum supporting apple pie was not the same as changing national policy.” At the time, Forsberg argued that funds for more nuclear weapons should be made contingent on the President proposing a Freeze and the Russians rejecting it. “At least that was a way of translating our goals into legislation. ”Instead, another approach developed, to go after certain weapons systems. In 1984, different Democrat candidates offered to stop different things, when the whole ball of wax was the problem. Mondale didn’t offer to stop anything and still said he was for the Freeze. The movement was co-opted by the Democratic Party. By giving the idea lip service, they made Reagan look good, because he always gave the sense of believing in everything he said.

“In the second four years, more positive things happened” as NATO was almost forced into negotiating reductions in Europe. “So there was slow but steady progress in arms control, Gorbachev’s liberal policies, and the typical fragmenting of the peace movement. That combination did us in.”

Still, she agrees that the world is a bit safer. “You know, my public appeals were never based on the imminence of the end of the world. They were based on the idea that this was a dangerous policy and in a crisis things could get out of hand, which is a slightly different version of the same thing. There were nuclear weapons within 20 miles facing each other in Europe. We were headed in the wrong direction, getting weapons more adapted for use, in war, increasing the likelihood that they might be used. I did think it was insane to deliberately take that risk.”

“You always have to recognize that it would have been worse had there been no Freeze,” says Reverend William Sloane Coffin. “Just as it would have been worse had there been no riots in LA after the Rodney King verdict and all that despair stayed locked inside. The fact that there was a Freeze showed that people aren’t so hopeless that they can’t do anything.”

Minister of New York’s Riverside Church when the Freeze began, Coffin later took over the presidency of SANE Freeze until retiring a few years ago. He remains a source of forthright eloquence. “What was lacking was a goal. People were leery of linking domestic and international disarmament. I think the Brady Bill should have talked about weapons of nations, but Mrs. Brady wouldn’t hear of it. Plus we weren’t clear abolitionists. Those of us in the religious community felt that only God has the authority to end life on the planet, we just have the power. So it’s a sin just to possess nuclear weapons.

“This is coming out now. Most people today, if they could wave a magic wand, would end the nuclear age. Nuclear energy is a latent form of proliferation. Terrorists could blow up one of those plants. The next Oklahoma City bomb could be made out of nuclear material. We didn’t know that then; it would have been useful.

“The other tie-in that was hard to make, because it’s so hard to cross the class divide, was the amount of money being spent on weapons.”

But the movement faced obstacles both intractable and subtle. “The Freeze was always attacked for advocating unilateral disarmament. It became one word, like forced busing, gay lifestyle. It could be this problem was so emotionally rooted that it wasn’t intellectually soluble. It is psychologically hard for Americans to say nuclear weapons are evil when we’ve used them.”

Author of A Passion for the Possible, today Coffin is a teacher at Lawrence College and a busy public speaker. (“I’m flunking retirement.”) In 1995, he joined a three-week fast to draw attention to the renewal of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. But he works with a robust awareness of the difficulty of reviving public interest in a country that’s “slothful right now.”

“My expectations of the world are very low,” he says cheerfully. “Abba Eban said it best: ‘People always do the right and wise thing, but only after exhausting all alternatives’.”

Daniel Ellsberg feels even more cynical. “The major effect of the Freeze was to give us Star Wars,” says the former Defense Department official who released the Pentagon Papers and spent most of the 1980s fighting the arms race. “There’s not a whole lot more it can point to. It was not a big success. It deserved to be. But it ran into an immovable object: Reagan.”

For Ellsberg, the great paradox of the Freeze is that it couldn’t have happened without Reagan, or win because of him. “We can’t assume there would have been a Freeze movement under somebody other than Reagan. But if somehow he could have been displaced, the Freeze would have had much more impact.

“There was a paradox here. Reagan did seem to have a real aversion to the idea of all­ out nuclear war. It’s what led him to the strange, grandiose prospect of Star Wars. But he was just not willing to temper the arms budget. Certainly the Democrats went along with that pretty willingly.”

In retrospect, Ellsberg is disillusioned by the fact that so many Americans supported ending the arms race. “Our optimism, such as it was, was based on these very impressive polls that showed we had from 75 to 85 percent of the public on our side. Yet Reagan was reelected in a landslide. That could only mean, as I read it, that the arms race was a rather low priority in people’s minds. We were very unrepresentative of the public at large.

“And by the way, the public’s attitude that the threat of nuclear explosions has disappeared is false. It’s actually gone up, and that’s a cost of the Cold War ending the way it did, with the abrupt collapse of the Soviet Union.”

For Ellsberg the great lesson of the Freeze is pessimistic. “Another enormous disillusionment was when Congresspeople who had just voted for a Freeze resolution voted for the MX. The MX was so dangerous, so clearly unnecessary and wasteful, and so crazy in its deployment strategy, that to vote for it was a clear sign of addiction. It was very hard to make a rational argument for the MX. When those Congresspeople raised their hands, I was reminded of nothing so much as the 12-step program. Their political lives were out of their control if they could not get themselves to vote against a major weapons system.

“There was always the question, does the arms race depend on the rationale of the Cold War, or does it have domestic political motives? That question has been answered in the 1990s. The rationale has disappeared and the spending goes on. So I think we have, today, real evidence of what we were up against. We were proposing change to a system that didn’t want change and was far more committed to a status quo of arms spending than almost any of us fully appreciated.”

A success or a failure? Cause for despair or hope? Randy Forsberg told me that “more people than you think are still working on this.” She cited the “substantial amount of activity among the scientifically minded arms control community,” Australia’s Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons and the grassroots campaign Abolition 2000.

Jonathan Schell is another who thinks these questions aren’t purely historical. “For me the issue remains of fundamental importance,” says the author of The Fate of the Earth. “In a certain way it’s a lens through which I see everything else.”

Schell puts the Freeze in perspective. “The best legacy of the Freeze is that it proved civic action can be effective in the arena of nuclear affairs. There’s such an immense-seeming gap between the humble citizen in the town hall and this tremendous arsenal hidden away in secrecy. But I think it’s a matter of record that, by a curious and circuitous route, we influenced Reagan to move in a better direction.

“I also think the Freeze was largely a response. First, to Reagan’s nuclear policies. But on a deeper level, nuclear weapons and strategy had been evolving to a point of absurdity that became visible at that moment. It was becoming perfectly clear that the whole thing was crazy. I think things changed and that’s why the Freeze died away. But the whole history of the nuclear age is people getting worried and then forgetting about it as soon as possible. It’s just too horrible to think about all the time.”

Yet Schell is convinced it’s now when the world should be paying attention. In “The Gift of Time,” an article in The Nation of February 2-9, he makes the post-Cold War case for abolishing nuclear weapons and finds support in unexpected quarters, including many nuclear theorists and actual former cold warriors.

“The nuclear danger is assuming a new form,” he explains, “multilateral and global. More and more nations are nuclear-capable. That means some very basic decisions are on the table—namely whether nations need nuclear weapons to defend themselves or not. Because if they do, why do some need them and others don’t?”

Speaking to Schell, I feel chastised for learning to live with the bomb. “Not in any way were our fears overblown,” he tells me. “The fact that we brought ourselves to the edge of extinction—and can do so again—is the single most important political fact of our time. It’s a fundamental and everlasting future fact of the human condition.

“So my response to the end of the Cold War is exactly the opposite of feeling we exaggerated back then. My reaction is to say by a gift of God we were delivered from this terrible fate, which still awaits us if we don’t seize this opportunity. It’s exactly now, more than any other time in the nuclear age, that we should be concentrating our energies on this issue. Ten years ago it was hard to believe we could accomplish very much. With the end of the Cold War, we can finally turn to this question with a well-founded hope of doing something about it.”


Catherine Cevoli spent much of the 1980s volunteering for the Freeze and worrying about nuclear war.