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Toward Nuclear Abolition By: Tom Nichols
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, January 07, 2005


Toward Nuclear Abolition [Volume Three of The Struggle Against the Bomb],
By Lawrence Wittner
Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003. 657 pp, notes, bib, index

The views expressed are those of the author and not of any agency of the U.S. government.

Reading Lawrence Wittner’s massive and adoring trilogy on the nuclear disarmament movement, one cannot help but feel a pang of sympathy. With the Cold War over, the antinuclear movement has fallen on hard times (especially since it’s apparently just not as gratifying to protest against North Korean or Iranian nuclear ambitions), and there is almost a wistfulness to Wittner’s account of what he sees as the greatest citizen’s movement in history. This was a movement that above all wanted to matter, to believe that their protests did more than just annoy rush-hour commuters who would have to take the dreaded “alternate routes” home when they blocked the streets with banners and chants. They wanted to believe that their ideals somehow made it through the bubble around the Washington Beltway, and seeped under the walls of the Kremlin, having an impact behind policymaking doors that were otherwise closed to them.

Wittner has answered the call and written the definitive work for those who want to believe the movement mattered. And make no mistake: this study is genuinely magisterial, and clearly represents a life’s work. Everything one might wish to know about the antinuclear movement anywhere in the world since the dawn of The Bomb is somewhere in these books, and for the few who will be curious about this particular corner of the Cold War, these books will be a valuable reference. But it is unfortunate that such monumental research and scholarship results only in an interpretation that Wittner himself admits many readers might find “startling.” Startling, indeed. And wrong.

 

Wittner argues that the anti-nuclear movement was not only important, but in fact instrumental in keeping the peace and bringing about the end of the Cold War itself.  “Most government officials—and particularly those of the major powers,” he writes, “had no intention of adopting nuclear arms control and disarmament policies.”[1] It was only the dedicated pressure of the antinuclear movement that kept the Cold War cold, and all of us alive.

 

To anyone who lived through the late period of the Cold War, this doesn’t seem so incredible a claim at first blush: the rallies, protest, and general hysteria of the early 1980s clearly had an impact on the way the United States and the Soviet Union vied for public advantage in the war for the world’s hearts and minds. And no matter how silly they could get, people like the insufferable Helen Caldicott (whose training as a pediatrician in Australia quite naturally qualified her as an expert on ballistic nuclear weapons) were ubiquitous in the media, hammering on the Reagan administration and shaping many aspects of the debate whether conservatives liked it or not.

 

But there is a significant difference between helping to generate public hysteria and actually having a detailed impact on foreign policy. (Even Wittner admits that for the first few years of the Reagan administration, the highest levels of government were “quarantined” from infection by the antinuclear movement.) The disarmament campaigners, to be sure, were a considerable pain in the neck to both Washington and to America’s NATO partners. They increased the cost of conducting the Cold War and managed to give the West a few serious black eyes in the propaganda struggle. (The image of British mommies being arrested while protesting the deployment of NATO nuclear arms at Greenham Common was not a particularly attractive one.) But in the end, the question remains: did any of it matter?

 

Wittner’s third volume, Toward Nuclear Abolition, boldly claims that it did. Reagan reaching out to the Soviet leadership in the mid-1980s? That was the result of the movement. Gorbachev and his “new thinking?” Yes, that too. The INF Treaty? Of course. One thing happened in the wake of the other: there were protests, and then changes in policy. QED.

 

Before criticizing Wittner too severely, let us give the protesters their due. On many occasions, as Wittner rightly points out, the public pressure and propaganda they could generate did force NATO to alter its tactics. It is unarguable, for example, that the “zero-option” that would become the INF treaty later had its roots in an attempt to outflank popular protests in Europe. Likewise, the British government did in fact limit the number of nuclear cruise missile sites in the UK so as to limit the possible number of locations for protests. These are important facts, ones worth knowing, and there are many like them to be found in Wittner’s hefty 600-page study. There is no doubt that Western leaders felt significant pressure from public protests, and did what they could to ameliorate them.

 

But Wittner constantly overestimates the coherence and reach of the antinuclear movement. There are two specific problems with Wittner’s claims. First, to credit public anxiety about nuclear war and consequent political pressure to “the movement” is to place too much importance on the disarmament organizations. I lived in New York (and for a summer, in the USSR) as a young graduate student during the very worst years of the Soviet-American confrontation in the 1980s, and while I recall the protests (including the huge outpouring in Central Park), I also recall that what had so many of us scared both in New York and Leningrad was not the bullhorns of the demonstrators but the apparent inexorable movement of United States and the Soviet Union toward some sort of apocalyptic showdown. We needed no encouragement from disarmament activists to feel that we were living in dangerous times.

 

Indeed, the rhetoric of the antinuclear movement in those days reached almost cartoonish silliness that made it easy to dismiss: I remember, for example, Caldicott saying in 1984 that nuclear war was “a mathematical certainty” if Ronald Reagan were reelected. (Check your math, Helen, we’re all still here.) While some of this panic-mongering unarguably had an effect, Witter grants the movement credit for what was really a more widespread anxiety derived not from propaganda but from the day’s headlines.

 

This generalized climate of fear led to a situation in which the popular media and culture seemed simply drenched with the idea that nuclear war was inevitable. MTV, for example, probably had more effect on the politics of young people than SANE, CND, or any of the other peace groups, especially for young men and women who lived outside the Boston-Washington corridor. By the estimate of one researcher, in the early 1980s MTV was showing some nuclear war-related theme almost hourly. Pop music was saturated with words and images relating to nuclear war, with at least two popular videos showing (for comic effect, of course) someone accidentally pressing the nuclear button. Another, by a British group, actually had actors resembling Reagan—who showed up in one way or another in many songs and videos—and then-Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko literally beating each other to death in an arena of cheering people, until at the end of the match, the world explodes. I don’t know if the German singer Nena was a member of the “movement,” but if she was, she probably radicalized more German (and later, American) kids with her wildly popular song “99 Red Balloons”—in which she accidentally starts a nuclear war by releasing some balloons—than most antinuclear organizations can ever claim.

 

The point in all this is that anyone who was alive in the late 1970s and early 1980s had every reason to be frightened. The Soviet Union of that time was a paranoid and aggressive country, armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons, invading and coercing even its own “allies,” and spewing increasingly alarming propaganda. The United States, in turn, was led by an administration that embraced the Soviet challenge, and more than willing to issue some pretty terrifying propaganda itself. (The comment by an a U.S. undersecretary of defense in 1982 that “everyone’s going to make it if there are enough shovels to go around” for people to dig little makeshift shelters was a particularly cold-blooded touch.) In short, people were scared not because the antinuclear movement had educated them into their fear, but because anyone with at least minimal literacy and an ounce of common sense should have been scared out of their wits.

 

But even if we grant that disarmament organizations managed to prime the pump of public fear, the more important problems with the book, and particularly with the section on the latter years of the Cold War, are Wittner’s claims about the movement’s immense influence on policy in both Washington and Moscow. This constant overreaching is the central flaw in a book that is in many other respects a well-researched and engagingly written work, and it creates an undertone of sanctimoniousness that undermines a relatively laudable attempt at scholarly balance.

 

This claim of influence is striking because the record of the antinuclear movement is not exactly littered with success. Wittner repeatedly stresses—again, rightly—the maneuvering that Western governments had to engage in to press their policies in the face of protest. But press ahead they did, and Wittner cannot explain away the most salient fact of all: on the most important issues of the day, the antinuclear activists were actually defeated every time. Moreover, he does not seriously consider the most damning charge against the antinuclear campaign: the likelihood that the world might well be worse off today if the movement had gotten its way twenty or thirty years ago.

 

The list of failures is obvious. The holy grail of the movement at the time, the nuclear freeze, was never enacted; had it been, it would have emboldened the Soviets to drag their feet on further negotiation forever, as Moscow was counting on the peace movement to achieve what Soviet negotiators could not. The Pershing nuclear missiles were deployed, wrecking a Soviet strategy that tried to hold arms negotiations hostage to NATO’s willingness to remain in a position of inferiority. Gorbachev later called the Pershings a “gun to the USSR’s head” that he had to negotiate to remove, which showed the wisdom of deploying them in the first place. SDI was announced and funded, and development on national missile defenses continues to this day. Wittner tries to take heart in anecdotal evidence that Soviet scientists, influenced by the movement, putatively restrained the Soviet response to SDI, and downplays the significant evidence that SDI in fact sent a seriously damaging shock wave through the Soviet scientific and defense establishments.

 

Indeed, in a typical sort of passage, Wittner claims that SDI was “designed, in large part, to counter the flourishing Nuclear Freeze movement.”[2] The book is structured around these heads-I-win, tails-you-lose arguments, in which Wittner claims at least partial victories for the movement when policymakers reject their position, and full victories when policymakers do something the movement finds appealing. But if this is the profile of a successful movement, one can only wonder what it would have looked like had the movement failed.

 

As Wittner himself discusses, the most common sin in the sciences, including the social sciences, is the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc, the idea that because two things happen in sequence, the first must have caused the second—i.e., roosters crow, the sun rises, therefore, roosters make the sun rise. He uses this concept to dismiss the idea that the United States won the Cold War through strength and to make the case instead that the Cold War ended because antinuclear ideals rose to dominance. (And yes, he refers to the idea that West won through strength as “triumphalism,” a word that increasingly has come to mean that Americans may take no pleasure in the destruction of one of the most evil regimes in modern history because to do so irritates the intellectuals who were on the wrong side of the struggle.)[3]

 

And yet, Wittner himself has produced a volume replete with the type of arguments he criticizes. It’s true, for example, that SDI was useful in countering the arguments of the freezeniks, but Wittner wants to leave the impression that Reagan concocted SDI largely because of the crushing pressure of the movement and its agitation of the American public, and less because he genuinely believed in missile defense. (He also gets an important fact wrong here, claiming that SDI and the Pershing deployments resulted in a KGB warning order to foreign stations to watch for signs of attack in 1983, but that order was given in 1981, two years before either event.) What about the possibility that SDI was going to happen because Reagan wanted it, and the ammunition it provided to argue against the freeze was just a bonus? Simply because Reagan mentions the Freeze in his speech announcing SDI does then mean that SDI was a result of the Freeze.

 

This kind of reasoning permeates the book. Elsewhere, Wittner writes: “As Soviet-American relations deteriorated, nuclear arms control negotiations stagnated, and antinuclear demonstrations escalated, the Reagan administration—and particularly the President—grew increasingly defensive, as well as increasingly dovish.”[4]Well, yes, but the first two factors were probably somewhat more important than the third. In any case, no reasonable person would disagree with an assertion that public anxiety over the tense standoff between Moscow and Washington limited and shaped American political options. But what does this say other than that the United States is a democracy, and that the Reagan administration was not completely deaf to polls showing that Americans were scared that the president was taking too hard a line with the Soviets?

 

In fact, the agitation of the peace movement had relatively little to do with the strategic sea-change in U.S. policy in early 1984. Rather, it happened because Ronald Reagan became convinced in late 1983 that the United States and the Soviet Union were dangerously close to war. That year was a truly horrible one in the Cold War—in my view, it should be dubbed “The Year We Almost Didn’t Make It”—and as Beth Fischer has shown in her book The Reagan Reversal­, there were several incidents that had a serious impact on the president’s thinking, including the shock of the Soviet downing of a Korean airliner, and Reagan’s visceral reaction to an advance screening of the film The Day After (a case in which antinuclear propaganda really did manage to make it into the halls of power and have an effect).[5]

 

The most hair-raising moment, however, was one that the antinuclear movement couldn’t have even known about. In November 1983, NATO conducted an exercise code-named “Able Archer,” designed to test the alliance’s communications and procedures for releasing nuclear weapons. Soviet forces in Europe, to the alarm of the Western intelligence community, began to prepare for a nuclear retaliatory strike. When NATO stood down, the Soviets apparently accepted that what they were seeing was only an exercise and not an actual preparation for Armageddon. It was a close call; Fischer claims Reagan reacted with “shock and disbelief” that the Soviets would actually think he would start a nuclear war out of the blue. (The Russians were so paranoid by this point that a KGB defector later revealed that even some KGB agents were more worried about the alarmism of their own leaders than about the Americans.)

 

Wittner does discuss Able Archer, but for some reason focuses primarily on its impact on the Soviets, rather than the Americans. Of course, to discuss the effect on Reagan and other U.S. policymakers would lead to an explanation that change came about for reasons unrelated to the antinuclear movement, and while Wittner might reject that possibility, it should be taken seriously. The most plausible explanation of the turn in U.S. policy is that we had scared the hell out of the Kremlin, and in doing so had scared ourselves. Reagan realized that the Americans, however inadvertently, had gone too far in trying to convince the Soviet leadership that the United States was determined to oppose communism. He consequently turned American policy toward a more accommodating line, one that would find no takers until the emergence of Gorbachev, whose elevation to power itself reflected the Soviet leadership’s desire to get out of the bind in which American military and economic strength had placed them. Wittner tries heroically to shoehorn all this into a narrative that somehow still places the antinuclear movement at the center of events. But this pivotal moment in history rested not on antinuclear activists but on what even Wittner admits was Reagan’s longstanding and deep-seated hatred of the very idea of nuclear weapons and his realization that the last chance for peace might have been slipping away.

 

Wittner’s depiction overall of Reagan is relatively balanced, but there is a tone-deafness to politics in general throughout the book. For example, Wittner repeatedly credits the movement with generating opposition in the U.S. Congress to Reagan’s arms programs. This is stunningly apolitical and even slightly insulting to the people involved. The political animosity toward Reagan on the part of people Wittner mentions such as congressmen Richard Gephardt and James Wright was so great that they certainly needed no goading from the antinuclear movement to oppose him. The idea that a Democratic-controlled Congress needed cues from the disarmament community in order to attack Reagan’s defense policy is typical of Wittner’s reasoning, and does not reflect (at least in my brief experience as a Senate aide) how lawmakers calculate such decisions.

 

On the Soviet side, Wittner shows a reasonable understanding of the rigidity of the Soviet leadership in the early 1980s, and in particular the military influence on Soviet foreign policy. But even here, he is so eager to show the ostensibly far-reaching influence of the disarmament campaigners that he posits relationships between the movement and Soviet policy that are based on little more than assertion. “The Soviet government’s arms control proposals,” he writes,

 

reflected even more clearly a response to pressures from the antinuclear campaign. In May 1982, with Nuclear Freeze resolutions before the U.S. Congress and START talks about to open in Geneva, Brezhnev announced the Soviet government’s willingness to support a variant of the Nuclear Freeze proposal. “We would be prepared to reach agreement than the strategic armament of the USSR and the USA be frozen right away,” he stated, “as soon  as the talks begin, frozen quantitatively—and that modernization be limited to the utmost.” Although this was a weaker arms control agreement than promoted by the Freeze campaign, it demonstrated the Kremlin’s willingness to tailor its policy proposals to popular antinuclear ideas…[6]

 

Well…it might have been the Kremlin tailoring policy proposals to antinuclear ideas, but better evidence suggests that it was more likely a cynical Soviet ploy to make the Americans sweat under the glare of public opinion. This was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that the Soviets would make proposals they knew were unacceptable both to the Americans and to themselves (a tactic the Americans used as well). Worse, with the exception of the occasional nod to the “power of the military,” Wittner unmoors any of these Soviet actions from what we know now to have been an ongoing and serious struggle over policy between Soviet and civilian and military elites in this period. Instead, he simply asserts a connection between Soviet rhetoric and the peace movement, and leaves it at that without further remark or explanation.

 

Wittner is on to something in terms of the Soviets noticing the peace movement—but not in the way he might hope. He notes that in December 1982, Yuri Andropov delivered his “first arms control speech” a month after succeeding Brezhnev, and that it was dismissed by Washington as propaganda aimed at the Europeans. “In fact,” he writes, “the Soviet government made numerous proposals for nuclear weapons reductions—many of them publicly appealing, but none of them acceptable to the U.S. government.” This, of course, was the point: to make publicly appealing proposals that your adversary cannot accept. This is the game of public diplomacy, and the Soviets at least for a time played it better than almost anyone else.

 

But while Wittner discusses Andropov’s public comments in December 1982, he is apparently unaware of an interesting speech Andropov made behind closed doors to the Warsaw Pact leadership a month later. (To be fair to Wittner, I do not know if this source was available when he wrote Toward Nuclear Abolition.) Lamenting the hard line of the Reagan administration (whom he refers to in his speech as a “political boor”), Andropov notes:

 

Isn’t it characteristic that, independently of the World Peace Council, the mass anti-nuclear movement, which is already affecting the political climate, has emerged and is becoming more powerful in Western Europe and in the United States itself. The idea of freezing the nuclear arsenals enjoys wide support in the Democratic Party of the United States. The Labor party supports nuclear disarmament of Great Britain. These are not just little things.[7]

 

In other words, Andropov is indeed grateful for the effect an independent peace movement is having—on the Americans. And why is the new Soviet leader so interested in curbing the arms race? “We cannot allow US military superiority,” he vows to his allies, “and we will not allow it.” But later, he makes clear the price of competition with the Americans:

 

Probably, the Soviet Union feels the burden of the arms race into which we are being pulled more than anybody else does. It is not an easy task for anybody to appropriate additional resources, to strengthen their military forces. It is not a big problem for Reagan to shift tens of billions of dollars of appropriations for social needs to the military industrial complex. Meanwhile, we cannot stop thinking about the well being of the workers. But unfortunately, today we do not have any other alternatives, except to respond to NATO’s challenges with our counter-measures, which would be persuasive for the present American politicians. Our peoples would not understand it if we showed carelessness regarding the threats from NATO.

 

In other words: “this arms competition is having ruinous effects on our economy, and the Soviet Union needs to find a way out of it for our own good”—exactly the kind of reaction to American pressure that Wittner calls “triumphalist” and mistaken.

 

Wittner and I have been speaking to different Russians, apparently, since more than a few former Soviet diplomats and military officers I interviewed in recent years thought it unremarkable to accept that a large part of what brought about the Gorbachev line and the eventual end of the Cold War was the unbearable cost of military competition with the West and particularly with the Reagan administration. His sources for disputing this version of events are former Soviet officials such as Politburo advisor Georgii Arbatov, whom Wittner quotes as calling “absolute nonsense” that the U.S. military buildup altered Soviet policy.[8] And yet, this is the same Arbatov who wrote in his memoirs:

 

[In the 1970s] we showed the Americans and NATO, more clearly than ever before, that we were going to keep up with any new military program, and not only duplicate it, but sometimes even respond to one program with two or three of our own. The Americans quickly understood that the USSR’s gross national product was three or four times smaller than their own and that of their allies, and that this provided a reliable and, more important, completely safe opportunity to undermine the might of the Soviet Union, perhaps eventually to inflict a total defeat upon it through economic exhaustion in a hopeless military rivalry.[9]

 

Interestingly, this passage is omitted from the translated version of Arbatov’s memoirs published in America. (As Hunter Thompson would say, res ipsa loquitur.) If Wittner believes that antinuclear demonstrations were more important than American strength in forcing the Soviets to seek an exit from the military competition, perhaps he should take it up with Arbatov.

 

As for Gorbachev, Wittner’s depiction is unsurprisingly fawning (and dealing with Gorbachev’s general mendacity would take up an entire review itself), but even here Wittner feels the need to claim that even Gorbachev would not have gone down the path of disarmament were it not for the antinuclear movement. Apparently, no one—not even the sainted Gorbachev—was able to think independently about nuclear arms without the tutelage and example of the activists.

 

Toward the end of the volume Wittner makes a strange attempt to link disarmament issues to the course of great events, going so far as to assert that the signing of the START I treaty precipitated the Soviet coup against Gorbachev in 1991. This might be one of the most implausible explanations of the coup I have ever read, and I have never encountered any evidence (and still haven’t) to support that interpretation. The more immediate trigger—and we know this because, er, the plotters said so at the time—was the signing of a new Union treaty that would have effectively disbanded the USSR. But then, the constant need to place the disarmament movement at the center of events means that the book is full of such moments, in which correlation becomes causation and context is lost.

 

In any case, whatever optimistic face he puts on the supposed successes of the disarmament movement, Wittner’s true frustration pours out at the very end of the book. He knows that an outright ban on the bomb is unlikely in our lifetimes, but why? There are obvious reasons, of course; atomic bombs cannot be disinvented any more than telephones or safety pins can be disinvented. Their immense destructive capacity offers weak actors in the international system, whether they are states or other groups, a shortcut to power and influence. And as long as there are people who seek to do harm to others, there will always be a market for nuclear technology.

 

But for Wittner, the Bomb survives not because it is impossible to make bad people forget how to build it, but rather because it is kept alive by “the pathology of the nation-state system,” in which the anarchy of international life tempts national leaders to choose the most lethal means available to compete with each other for power.[10] This worship of weaponry is abetted by a cabal of sinister forces, “a substantial public constituency that military-oriented officials have been able to tap for support.” (It’s not clear to me what a “military-oriented official” is, or how that differs from a “military officer.”) This constituency includes self-described “nationalists,” and another “drawn from fundamentalist religious groups and conservative parties,” whose members are “zealous believers in curbing individual ‘sin’ through punishment and national misbehavior through war.” As if this weren’t bad enough, these right-wing crackpots have made common cause with the Beltway Bandits. “Together with defense contractors and the armed forces, the believers in national glory and irredeemable human wickedness provide national security officials with useful political leverage.”[11]

 

It’s unfortunate to see an author as good as Wittner lapse into Noam Chomsky-like hyperventilation at the end of a three-book opus that is an admirable achievement whether one agrees with it or not. But in a sense, his anger is understandable. In the end, what does the disarmament movement have to show for its efforts? Even now, it must be difficult for its members to accept that the first treaty abolishing an entire class of nuclear arms was negotiated and signed by Ronald Reagan. And it must be incomprehensible that a Western strategy of military strength finally kicked the pillars out from under the rotting communist empire. Today, with the manifest failure of international diplomatic efforts to contain nuclear programs in Iran, North Korea, and yes, Iraq, the antinuclear movement seems more dated and feckless than ever. Who can blame Lawrence Wittner, or anyone else who has devoted their life to peaceful disarmament, for being angry?



[1] Lawrence Wittner, Toward Nuclear Abolition (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 2003), p. 486.

[2] Wittner, p. 326

[3] Wittner, p. 487.

[4] Wittner, p. 317.

[5] See Beth Fischer, The Reagan Reversal (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1997).

[6] Wittner, p. 300.

[7] Available online at the National Security Archive, http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB14/doc19.htm

[8] Wittner, p. 487.

[9] Georgii Arbatov, Zatianuvsheesia vyzdorovlenie (Moscow: Mezhdunarodnye Otnosheniia, 1991), p. 235.

[10] Wittner, p. 488.

[11] Wittner, p. 489.


Tom Nichols is the Chairman of the Department of Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI.


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