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Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement

July 20, 2009 // 12:30pm2:00pm
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History and Public Policy Program
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Public opinion, driven by the international arms control and disarmament movement, was the critical factor which led governments' decisions to reduce, limit, forswear, and abandon nuclear weapons during the past sixty years, according to Lawrence S. Wittner, professor of history at the State University of New York at Albany and author of Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, a volume which summarizes his massive three-volume trilogy The Struggle Against the Bomb.

Though the strength and popularity of the arms control and disarmament movement has ebbed and flowed over time, Wittner sees a correlation between the movement's peaks and more vigorous governmental action in the field of arms control and disarmament.

According to Wittner, the post-World War II period has seen three major upsurges in global disarmament sentiment, each more influential than the last. The first occurred in the mid to late 1940s in response to the U.S. use of the atomic bomb against Japan, but largely petered out as the Cold War intensified. The second wave in the late 1950s and early 1960s was inspired by concerns over atmospheric tests of the new hydrogen bomb, which dwarfed older atom bombs in their destructive potential and environmental impact. The third and most powerful resurgence in the late 1970s and early 1980s was, Wittner posited, the combined result of the collapse of Détente, the Reagan Administration's proposed strategic weapons build-up and bellicose rhetoric, and U.S. moves to deploy new intermediate range missiles and neutron warheads in Europe.

Drawing upon archival sources, memoirs, and personal interviews with key policy-makers, Wittner argued that each of these three waves of heightened anti-nuclear sentiment and activism led directly to policy shifts on the part of governments throughout the world. Public opinion influenced policy-makers by constraining their options—in part by perpetuating the taboo of nuclear first use—and also by forcing them to pursue certain policies. Thus, Wittner credits the pressure of public opinion and anti-nuclear activism with Truman's decision to explore the Baruch Plan, Eisenhower's efforts towards a nuclear test ban and the 1958 testing moratorium, and Kennedy's signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty.

The nuclear freeze movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Wittner pointed out, led to widespread protests throughout Europe and the United States and caused President Ronald Reagan to launch a major public relations effort against a nuclear freeze. Confronted with the growing public opposition, Reagan and his advisors came to view the President's pro-nuclear rhetoric as a liability, scrapped plans to deploy the neutron bomb in Europe and even came to favor the ‘zero option' to eliminate all U.S. and Soviet intermediate range nuclear forces (INF).

Commenting on Wittner's presentation, former FRUS Editor-in-Chief David Patterson and retired U.S. arms control negotiator Stan Riveles agreed with the broad thrust of his thesis, but differed with Wittner on important points.

Discussing the inherently controversial genre of peace history generally, most specialists, Patterson stated, either praise peace activists, or decry their naivete. Wittner, according to Patterson, is in the former camp, and his thoroughly researched book frequently allowed pro-nuclear policy-makers to indict themselves with their own extreme statements. The reality of policy-making, according to Patterson, was that most top leaders were in fact fairly pragmatic in their approach to nuclear policy, and the anti-nuclear/disarmament movement was only one of several important factors that influenced decision-making throughout the Cold War.

Speaking in a similar vein, Riveles also acknowledged the influence of the arms control and disarmament movement, pointing out that as an official he and his colleagues were responding to it on a daily basis. Based upon his own experience, however, this influence took the form of an ongoing interaction between the two sides, with each attempting to influence public opinion in support of its particular goals. As an example, Riveles explained how Reagan's early support for the "zero option"—expected by the administration to be unacceptable to the Soviets—was actually a ploy to win over public opinion in support of INF deployment

Though the anti-nuclear and disarmament movement was certainly influential, Riveles posited, policy-makers' wide latitude for action and ability to influence public opinion themselves prevented them from becoming the "beleaguered, apprehensive officials" that seemed to emerge from Wittner's book.
 

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Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Leopoldo Nuti // Co-Director, Nuclear Proliferation International History Project; Public Policy Scholar
  • Evan Pikulski // Program Assistant

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