Thinking About The Unthinkable

Rising fears about the dangers of nuclear war

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An idea whose moment may have arrived is sweeping the U.S.—for better or for worse. From the halls of Congress to Vermont hamlets to the posh living rooms of Beverly Hills, Americans are not only thinking about the unthinkable, they are opening a national dialogue on ways to control and reduce the awesome and frightening nuclear arsenals of the superpowers. This new awareness of the dangers of nuclear war cuts across traditional political boundaries. Advocates of a bilateral freeze on the development and deployment of nuclear weapons include some peacenik activists who led protests against U.S. involvement in the Viet Nam War a decade ago. But the new movement is far more broadly based; it includes more bishops than Berrigans, doctors and lawyers with impeccable Establishment credentials, archconservatives as well as diehard liberals, and such knowledgeable experts as retired Admiral Noel Gayler, former director of the supersecret National Security Agency, and former SALT II Negotiator Paul Warnke. Says Rabbi Alexander Schindler, head of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations: "Nuclear disarmament is going to become the central moral issue of the '80s, just as Viet Nam was in the '60s."

The central goal of the movement is to educate the public to the true horrors of what war would mean to the U.S. and the world today, and thereby put pressure on a hawkish Administration to negotiate a cutback in nuclear arms with the Soviet Union. Some of that prodding is already coming from Congress. Senators Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Mark Hatfield of Oregon two weeks ago introduced a resolution that calls for a freeze on the testing, production and further deployment of nuclear weapons by both the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The nonbinding measure has already attracted the support of 22 Senators and 150 Representatives.

That was not all. Republican Charles McC. Mathias of Maryland last week introduced another Senate resolution calling upon the President to "immediately invite" the Soviets to negotiations on strategic arms and the proliferation of nuclear weapons and technology. Mathias charged that the Administration was guilty of a "grievous failure" for not having initiated such negotiations. "Nothing less than the future of mankind is at stake," he said.

The resolutions on Capitol Hill are the small tip of a very large iceberg. In part, the Senators who favor the motions are responding to an unprecedented flood of teach-ins, referendums, legislative proposals, letter-writing campaigns, petitions, and books addressing the peril of nuclear war. The groups involved in the movement include such longtime disarmament organizations as SANE and the Union of Concerned Scientists. But with them are a host of fledgling organizations: Physicians for Social Responsibility, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, the Lawyers Alliance for Nuclear Arms Control, the Business Alert to Nuclear War, Artists for Survival. The St. Louis-based National Clearinghouse for the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, founded last December, estimates that 20,000 volunteers are now involved in the crusade nationwide.

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