Remembering the Nuclear Freeze Movement and Its Futility

It’s ironic that something that so much effort went into in the early 1980s came to amount to less than nothing. The problem with the movement to reverse the global arms race was that while it raised consciousness about nuclear war and nuclear proliferation, it made no demands on power. It was like a gigantic coffee klach. And it was a very expensive endeavor.

The Nuclear Freeze (“The Nuclear Freeze Campaign Prevented an Apocalypse, So Can the Climate Movement,” Common Dreams, May 26, 2015), the brainchild of the late arms expert Randall Forsberg, did nothing as the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has moved the doomsday clock to 100 seconds before midnight. The Trump administration abrogates nuclear treaty after nuclear treaty and continues the US drive to modernize its nuclear weapons force, a bipartisan policy.

I admit that the Nuclear Freeze captured the imagination of millions of people like myself around the world and in the US, and it seemed for a brief moment that the energy of the Vietnam antiwar movement would rise again. The sense of community was tremendous, as we had bake sales, concerts, regular planning meetings, yard sales, community petition blitzes, and a huge rally in New York City in June 1982 that drew just under a million people to the streets, some carrying beautiful artwork about the threat of nuclear war. Demonstrations also took place at the same time as the Freeze, and I took part in one at the Electric Boat nuclear submarine manufacturing facility of General Dynamics at Groton, Connecticut, that also had no effect besides building esprit de corps. A few people risked arrest during some of the protests, but the more strident Plowshares movement presented a cautionary tale. Protest when it means something demonstrative and the risk of going to jail for years is very real.

I recall canvassing door-to-door a few miles from my home in Rhode Island and having a worker from Electric Boat happily sign the petition for the Freeze because it meant absolutely nothing. Sure, I’m for a Nuclear Freeze and apple pie and motherhood [sic] for all! It required no effort and no sweat.

A fond memory of the Freeze movement was meeting two friends, Sy Pressman and John Grifalconi. John would soon battle cancer that may have come from his role in photographing nuclear tests while in the Navy in the Pacific following World War II. He fought tirelessly for recognition of his disease and its likely connection to nuclear testing. Sy, another friend from the Freeze, told of being questioned by the government for his role as a campaign worker for Henry Wallace.

Bipartisan support for nuclear weapons proliferation was part of the push for superpower dominance during the period of the Freeze, with Ronald Reagan (“Reagan Calls Nuclear Freeze Dangerous,” New York Times, April 1, 1983), giving a right-wing bent to his dealings with the Soviet Union. Reagan completely ignored the Freeze as if it didn’t exist. There were and are great profits made from nuclear proliferation and during the Nuclear Freeze movement it could all be achieved with the aid of anti-communism.

My wife Jan and I hosted a community picnic at our home as part of the Freeze campaign, and someone had the gumption to chalk the words “Bomb the Russians, we’ll win” on our driveway. Strange, but not much has changed since the Freeze.

The US is the only nation to use nuclear weapons against another nation, with massive civilian deaths resulting, and has repeatedly resorted to using threats of using nuclear weapons against other nations. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were both executed by the federal government for giving the so-called secret (it wasn’t) of the atomic bomb to the former Soviet Union.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).