The Legacy of the Nuclear Freeze Movement


Marching in midtown Manhattan on June 12, 1982 was quite an experience. One million people were on the streets of the city, the largest anti-nuclear demonstration in history. Whenever the north/south line of march approached a major intersection, other protesters could be seen across the streets in the distance as far as the eye could see. The objective of the masses of humanity on the streets was Central Park where a huge nuclear freeze rally would be held.

The momentum leading up to this march had been spectacular! My wife Jan and I had set out from Rhode Island after picking up a babysitter and leaving her at our house to take care of our two children for the day. Then we boarded a bus in a nearby town for the three-hour trip to the city. The nuclear freeze movement had been growing exponentially since the bellicose Ronald Reagan took office as President of the United States. His right-wing style of confronting the Soviet Union was mixed with the religious fundamentalism that had swept him into office in answer to the national malaise with the presidency of Jimmy Carter that had fallen prey to the Iranian hostage crisis and a slumping economy marked by high oil and consumer prices.

Placing the nuclear freeze movement into its historical context is easy. Besides the readiness of many from the sixties youth movement to become active again, there was a palpable fear that Reagan wouldn’t hesitate to fight a nuclear war. The latter was nothing new as history later revealed that Richard Nixon had been more than willing to drop nuclear weapons on Vietnam. Nixon and Reagan were in close historical proximity to John Kennedy and Harry Truman, the latter having ordered dropping nuclear weapons on Japan and the former ready to launch nuclear weapons against Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Sixties’ activists would have one additional last hurrah in the movement to halt US involvement in Central American during the 1980s, but that would come after the nuclear freeze movement.

From a sixties’ point of view as an activist, the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign that began in 1980 was a strange phenomenon. Launched by Randall Forsberg of the Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it drew millions of activists who worked in local communities throughout the country mounting nonbinding electoral campaigns to get towns, cities, and states to press for a freeze on the expansion of US nuclear armaments. Simply stated, a nuclear freeze meant that those cities and towns across the US voiced a wish at the ballot box to have the president stop the expansion of the US nuclear stockpile. In 1980, the US and the Soviet Union possessed more than 17,000 nuclear warheads. In 1982, both countries had about 21,000 such weapons. Reading John Hersey’s Hiroshima (1946), the disastrous effects of a single nuclear weapon far weaker than their 1980 and 1982 counterparts was enough to send chills up and down the spine of any rational individual.

The nuclear freeze movement was different in every respect from the sixties’ antiwar movement of in-your-face protest. While there were committed nonviolent activists who crossed over onto private property at nuclear weapons’ manufacturing plants during the freeze, and others who took more risky actions such as hammering on the nose cones of nuclear missiles, the mass of those in the freeze movement gravitated toward canvassing voters and holding various local events to fund the movement. I fell into the latter category since I could not risk being arrested while working in public schools, as I had already earned the reputation of being a troublemaker for my confrontations with school administrators over academic issues and workplace issues. I was also a member of my union’s executive board, another perceived wrong in the eyes of the administration. My antiwar and activist writing was also an ever-present reality in Rhode Island’s single daily newspaper the Providence Journal. When I asked our family lawyer about the advisability of being arrested for civil disobedience at an anti-nuclear demonstration, he said, “Good luck.” Nothing else needed to be said to drive the point home to me about the necessity of earning a living compared to the risk of taking part in civil disobedience.

Week after week I walked neighborhoods in southern Rhode Island getting signatures on a petition asking the government to stop the expansion of the stockpile of US nuclear warheads. All kinds of people signed the petition; including defense workers from the nearby General Dynamics plant at Quonset Point in Rhode Island and its sister facility in Groton, Connecticut. The nuclear freeze group also had huge weekly meetings at a local library where we filled an auditorium. Bake sales, tag (yard) sales, and large community picnics filled the summer before and after the huge Manhattan rally and march. When it was all over, nothing had changed and Reagan pressed on with his “vision” of world dominance in nuclear weapons. By 1983, Reagan had announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars) that sought to place nuclear weapons in outer space seeking to replace, to a degree, the prior policy of mutual assured destruction (MAD) through a huge nuclear deterrent. These policies followed upon the heels of the various unproven and illusory gaps in US strategic nuclear weapons in missiles, long-range bombers, and nuclear-armed submarines.

Two people made lasting impressions during the freeze movement. Sy Pressman had moved to Rhode Island from the Midwest after his retirement. Sy had long been involved in electoral politics and had campaigned for Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party’s nominee, during the 1948 presidential campaign. Sy told of being interviewed by the FBI during the campaign outside of his dry-cleaning business. John Grifalconi was a tireless worker in the freeze movement. John told of his experiences in the navy just after World War II as an official photographer taking pictures of nuclear tests in the Pacific. He developed leukemia a few years after the freeze and fought a valiant battle against the disease and for veteran’s benefits to help him deal with costs associated with his illness. He typified a person who had so much to both gain and lose by his efforts for a moratorium on the building of nuclear devices.

The nuclear freeze movement fizzled as the first half of the decade of the 1980s wore on. There was not much more people could do once they signed petitions to try and get the government to reduce its nuclear stockpile. Also, an argument could be made that during 1985 and 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev, as President of the Soviet Union, took the first steps in advocating for the reduction of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe with the goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons by 2000. The end of the Soviet Union in 1991 gave the false illusion that the threat of a nuclear holocaust was forever gone.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He can be reached at howielisnoff@gmail.com.

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