Thinking About The Unthinkable

Rising fears about the dangers of nuclear war

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There was something else to Brezhnev's proposal: a vague but ominous warning to the U.S. that seemed to harken back to the days of an earlier showdown between the countries, the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. If the NATO allies did indeed station the new missiles on European soil next year, said the Soviet leader, "there would arise a real additional threat to our country and its allies." Warned Brezhnev: "This would compel us to take retaliatory steps that would put the other side, including the United States itself, its own territory, in an analogous position. This should not be forgotten."

It is precisely that kind of scare talk, whether emanating from the Kremlin or from the White House, that is galvanizing the nuclear-freeze advocates. For all the obvious reasons, they are uneasy about the military intentions of the Soviet Union. Unfairly or not, the Reagan Administration is also blamed for fueling the current jitters with loose talk—from the President on down—about the prospect of fighting a "limited nuclear war." Many Americans—including some with considerable expertise in the area—fear that their leaders are more comfortable than ever before with the thought of using nuclear weapons. "There is great concern that there are no serious efforts for arms control," says Thomas Halsted, 48, director of the Boston-based Physicians for Social Responsibility. "Instead, the Reagan Administration gives us pronouncements that nuclear weapons are usable and that nuclear wars are winnable." Adds Dr. Stephen Klineberg, professor of sociology at Rice University in Houston: "Reagan has terrified not only the Russians, but the Americans too."

Most of the groups lobbying against the spread of nuclear weapons embrace the belief that, as a first step, the U.S. should negotiate a bilateral nuclear-weapons freeze with the Soviet Union. The current proposal was written in 1979 by Randall Forsberg, 37, a former editor for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, who was then studying for a doctorate in military policy and arms control at M.I.T. "My objective was to come up with a goal in arms control that would have great appeal," she explains. "It had to be simple, effective and bilateral in order to involve people."

Forsberg's freeze proposal was first published in April 1980, in a booklet titled Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race, but it attracted scant attention. Only after November 1980, when voters in three state senate districts in Massachusetts approved a freeze resolution by 59% to 41%, did the proposal begin to draw wide support. "What that told us," says Randy Kehler, a former schoolteacher and antiwar activist, "was that Ronald Reagan's election was not necessarily synonymous with support of the nuclear-arms race." At last count, freeze resolutions had been passed in 257 town meetings in New England, 31 city councils, and six state legislatures.

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