The Surprising Effect of the Nuclear Freeze Movement on the Administration of Ronald Reagan


Mr. Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York at Albany.

Editor's Note: The following article is drawn from the latest installment in Mr. Wittner's trilogy, The Struggle Against the Bomb, published by Stanford University Press. His new book is called, Toward Nuclear Abolition (2003).

The first intimations that the public outcry against nuclear weapons was having an effect emerged in early 1981, during the intra-administration debate over U.S. policy toward the Euromissiles. Under pressure from West European leaders to resume Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF)negotiations, the Reagan administration divided sharply over the issue.

National Security Advisor Richard Allen and his aides argued that the United States should not accept "blackmail" and "pressure tactics" from Western Europe. Weinberger, too, complained that he was fed up with European "moaning and groaning." The State Department, on the other hand, pressed for an early resumption of negotiations. Although Haig was eager to have the cruise and Pershing missiles deployed, as secretary of state he recognized the importance of holding nuclear arms talks to satisfy America's NATO allies. Reagan recalled: "Partly because of concerns in West Germany and European countries, where there was growing political sentiment in favor of unilateral disarmament, Al Haig wanted to go to the arms control bargaining table with the Russians fairly soon."

Ultimately, Reagan agreed to accommodate the West Europeans and, that May, after a visit from Schmidt, who once again stressed the political imperative of arms control talks, he issued a communiqué committing himself to "execute both elements of the NATO resolution of December 1979 and to give them equal weight."

But what negotiating position would the administration adopt? The initial winner in the bureaucratic battle was the Pentagon's leading theoretician and hawk, Richard Perle, who convinced the administration to adopt the zero option: the removal of all Soviet General Al Haigintermediate-range nuclear weapons from Europe and Asia in exchange for a U.S. promise not to deploy the cruise and Pershing missiles. Haig objected that this was "not negotiable," and, furthermore, would "generate the suspicion that the United States was only interested in a frivolous propaganda exercise or, worse, that it was disingenuously engaging in arms negotiations simply as a cover for a desire to build up its nuclear arsenal." But, as Perle was less than eager to secure arms control agreements on Western INF missiles or other nuclear weapons that might be built and deployed by the United States, he did not see non-negotiability as a drawback at all. Weinberger, his boss, was initially skeptical about the zero option because--as Perle recalled--"he was afraid that the Soviets would accept it," thus precluding the deployment of the U.S. missiles. However, he soon came around, concluding that the zero option would lead eventually to missile deployment.

Other administration officials, too, have insisted that this initial U.S. position in the INF negotiations was crafted to trigger Soviet rejection and, thus, guarantee deployment of the U.S. missiles. Thomas Graham of the Arms Control Disarmament Agency remembered that the zero option "was adopted because it was believed the Soviets would never accept it. It was a formula for stalemate. ...The real reason that we proposed it" was "to make sure that those negotiations did not succeed, and the deployments would go ahead." Douglas MacEachin, a top CIA official, reported that he knew "from firsthand knowledge that some of the people who designed our zero solution to INF designed it believing that they had come up with a proposal which would not get a yes" from the Russians and "would therefore make it possible to deploy the missiles." Not surprisingly, National Security Decision Directive 15, which laid out the "zero option" formula as U.S. policy, had no fallback position for U.S. arms control negotiators. The Russians would have to take it or, hopefully, leave it.

Then President, Ronald ReaganBut there was a second factor behind the Reagan administration's adoption of the zero option: its propaganda value at this time of antinuclear upheaval. "My proposal of the ... zero option sprang out of the realities of nuclear politics in Western Europe," recalled Reagan. "Now that I was in office and the American-made INF missiles were being scheduled for shipment to Europe, some European leaders were having doubts about the policy. ...Thousands of Europeans were taking to the streets and protesting." Consequently, "I decided to propose the zero ... plan." Edwin Meese, counselor to the President, remembered: "There was a tremendous Soviet-inspired and Soviet-funded antinuclear movement in Europe. So the zero option did several things: 1) it carried out one of our primary objectives; 2)it was useful in defusing to some extent the antinuclear sentiment. ... and 3) it provided a proper counter-argument or counter-offensive from a propaganda standpoint." According to Reagan, Weinberger, too, argued that the zero option would "put the Soviets on the defensive in the European propaganda war." Analyzing the decision, National Security advisor Bud McFarlane later stated: "You had to have a plausible basis for advocating the [U.S. deployment] program, and the most plausible is that you're willing to do away with it. So the zero option was key to dealing with that popular, street-level criticism." On November 18, 1981, when Reagan unveiled the zero option in a public address, he did it at an hour designed to maximize its impact upon a European audience.

As fate would have it, the State Department's Richard Burt was having a drink that evening with activist Mary Kaldor. He told her, with a chuckle: "We got the idea of the 'zero option' from your banners--the ones that say 'No cruise, no Pershing, no SS-20.'" Burt apparently thought there was a nice irony to this fact. And there was. After all, the Reagan administration --ferociously hostile to nuclear arms control and disarmament--had just adopted a core position of its critics, albeit as a means of undermining their influence and providing the U.S. government with a convenient justification for its nuclear buildup. But, like the administration's shift toward an antinuclear rhetoric, it was altogether too clever. For what if the Soviet government, confounding all expectations, actually agreed to accept the American proposal, thus opening the way for the removal of all intermediate range nuclear missiles from Europe? Would the U.S. government--more comfortable with installing the missiles than with creating a non-nuclear Europe--be able to walk away from its own proposal? At the time, of course, Soviet acceptance seemed highly unlikely. But, in only a few years, the situation would change profoundly.


This study--like its predecessors--indicates that the nuclear arms control and disarmament measures of the modem era have resulted primarily from the efforts of a worldwide citizens' campaign, the biggest mass movement in modem history. Admittedly, this citizens' antinuclear crusade was uneven--stronger in some countries than in others, addressing a variety of national circumstances, and emphasizing priorities that differed from region to region. It was also rather structurally underdeveloped, drawing upon a shifting multiplicity of organizations. But, in the context of an escalating nuclear arms race, it had enough strength and cohesion to mobilize key institutions within civil society: professional associations, unions, religious bodies, and political parties. Even within Communist-ruled Eastern Europe, where civil society barely existed, it emerged as a force to be reckoned with, challenging dictatorial regimes and, ultimately, helping to sweep them away. At the core of the movement lay the educated middle class, and particularly the liberal intelligentsia. At its periphery, the general public, which, by and large, agreed with the movement's critique of the nuclear arms race and its demand for nuclear disarmament. Thus, at an exceptionally dangerous juncture in modem history, when numerous governments scrambled to build nuclear weapons and threatened to employ them for purposes of annihilation, concerned citizens played a central role in curbing the nuclear arms race and preventing nuclear war.

Excerpts from Lawrence Wittner, The Struggle Against the Bomb, Volume 3, Toward Nuclear Abolition, An History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement 1971 to the Present (c) 2003 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Jr. University. All rights reserved. By permission of Stanford University Press, www.sup.org. Any further use, distribution or reproduction is prohibited without prior written permission of the publisher.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Elia Markell - 11/26/2003

Look, I never doubted you did research.and never claimed you did not.

Nothing in your reply addresses the points I made or the very different take in Herf's book on the subject. Therefore, I see no reason to change my view.

Lawrence Wittner - 11/25/2003

I'm not sure how Mr. Markell knows what has "never entered my mind," but he and others would certainly have a much better idea about what I think if they read my book, TOWARD NUCLEAR ABOLITION (Stanford University Press). This book is based upon extensive research in the records, located in thirteen countries, of 126 organizations, individuals, and government agencies. These records include files that until quite recently were top secret, including those of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the STASI (the once-dreaded East German secret police), and the Reagan White House. Furthermore, the book is grounded in 116 interviews with leading antinuclear activists and government officials and in many memoirs by participants in the Soviet-American confrontation. If, instead of spouting their prejudices, people did some careful research, reading, and analysis, they would learn a a great deal more about the world in which they live. But, of course, that would require open minds rather than closed ones.

Elia Markell - 11/24/2003


Learn how to read. My point, and Herf's, is EXACTLY the opposite of what you appear to have taken it for. How you could have done that is beyond me. It is Professor Wittner who is arguing for the peace movement's positive effect on the susbsiding of the Soviet Union, not me or Herf.

Neville - 11/22/2003

appease (Webster's): to cause to subside, allay, conciliate, to buy off an aggressor by concessions

It is doubtful whether Jeffrey Herf, whoever the heck he is, or anyone else worth reading, believes that the "peace movement" of the '80s caused the USSR to subside, or bought it off with concessions.

Elia Markell - 11/17/2003

Once again, we get on this site Prof. Wittner's fanciful notion that the nuclear freeze movement pushed Ronald Reagan into offering the zero-zero option on INF first as a cynical ruse and (later) as something he was forced to accept when the Soviets did in 1987.

What does not seem to enter Wittner's mind is that it might well have been a ruse at the time, yet also a serious proposal if and when the Soviets got serious. When zero-zero was first put forward (1981-3), the freeze movement was disgracefully pressuring the U.S. but not the Soviets on intermediate range missiles, and the Soviets were showing no signs of interest in reducing their arms build-up. Under such circumstances, zero-zero was a smart tactical move. It forced both the freeze movement and the Soviets to put up or shut up, since it put the onus on the Soviets to eliminate their missies in exchange for our cancelling our deployment -- a perfectly reasonable offer since ours were only asked for originally by the Europeans as a counter to the SS-20s.

In fact, (a fact which Wittner glides over effortlessly it seems) the missiles DID GET DEPLOYED -- in spite of the freeze movement. Millions were in the streets, yet Reagan stood strong against them. Some caving to their pressure!

The impact of this deployment, and of the increasing U.S. threat of SDI, precipitated a crisis for the Soviets, one that dovetailed neatly with the domestic crisis of a collapsing economic and social order. The outcome of these internal and external pressures led to the last gasp of Soviet communism, Gorbachevism. Gorbachev quickly indicated a new spirit in negotiations with the U.S., Reagan quickly responded, and INF came about, in addition to other things. As soon as an accomodating Soviet leader was on the scene, in other words, Reagan moved zero-zero from rhetoric to actuality with no sign whatsoever of any consternation about it.

Wittner needs to read and respond to Jeffrey Herf's far more complex and plausible analysis of all this in "War By Other Means." Until he does so, his historical speculations cannot be credited as anything other than apologetics for a peace movement that consistently appeased the Soviet Union until there was no Soviet Union.