Comparing Climate Activism to the 1980s Nuclear Freeze Campaign

In an interesting piece, Duncan Meisel, Digital Campaigns Manager for, compares the climate movement to the global anti-nuclear weapons movement in the 1980s.

Here are some excerpts:

The climate movement, and humanity, is up against an existential wall: Find ways to organize for decisive action, or face the end of life as we know it. This is scary stuff, but if you think no movement has ever faced apocalyptic challenges before, and won, then it’s time you learned about the Nuclear Freeze campaign.

Following Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, the global anti-nuclear movement also stood up to a global existential crisis – one that was also driven by a wealthy power elite, backed by faulty science and a feckless liberal establishment that failed to mobilize against a massive threat.

The [nuclear freeze] movement responded with new ideas and unprecedented numbers to help lead the world towards de-escalation and an end to the Cold War.

Under the banner of the Nuclear Freeze, millions of people helped pull the planet from the brink of nuclear war, setting off the most decisive political changes of the past half century.

Nuclear Freeze

The freeze provides key lessons for the climate movement today; and as we face up to our own existential challenges, it’s worth reflecting on both the successes and failures of the freeze campaign, as one possible path towards the kind of political action we need.

A short history of the Nuclear Freeze campaign

In 1979, at the third annual meeting of Mobilization for Survival, a scientist and activist named Randall Forsberg introduced an idea that would transform the anti-nuclear weapons movement. She called for a bilateral freeze in new nuclear weapons construction, backed by both the United States and the Soviet Union, as a first step towards complete disarmament.

Shortly afterwards, she drafted a four-page "Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race" and worked with fellow activists to draft a four-year plan of action that would move from broad-based education and organizing into decisive action in Washington, D.C.

Starting in 1980, the idea took hold at the grassroots, with a series of city and state referendum campaigns calling for a Nuclear Freeze, escalating into a massive, nationwide wave of ballot initiatives in November 1982 – the largest ever push in U.S. history, with over a third of the country participating.

The movement also advanced along other roads: In June 1982, they held the largest rally in U.S. history up to that point, with somewhere between 750,000 and 1 million people gathering in New York City’s Central Park, along with countless other endorsements from labor, faith and progressive groups of all stripes. Direct action campaigns against test sites and nuclear labs also brought the message into the heart of the military industrial complex.

The effort continued into electoral and other political waters until around early 1985, pushing peace measures at the ballot box and in the nation’s capital, but never quite returned to the peak of mobilization seen in 1982.

The impact of this organizing was palpable: President Reagan went from calling arms treaties with the Soviets "fatally flawed" in 1980, and declaring the USSR an "evil empire" in a speech dedicated to attacking the freeze initiative in 1983, to saying that the Americans and Soviets have "common interests… to avoid war and reduce the level of arms." He even went so far as to say that his dream was "to see the day when nuclear weapons will be banished from the face of the earth." The movement’s popular success led the president to make new arms control pledges as part of his strategy for victory in the 1984 election.

"If things get hotter and hotter and arms control remains an issue," Reagan explained in 1983, "maybe I should go see [Soviet Premier Yuri] Andropov and propose eliminating all nuclear weapons."

Reagan’s rhetorical and policy softening in 1984 opened the door for Mikhail Gorbachav — a true believer in the severity of the nuclear threat, and an advocate for de-escalation – to rise to power in the Soviet Union in 1985. Gorbachev’s steps to withdraw missiles and end nuclear testing, supported by global peace and justice movements, created a benevolent cycle with the United States that eventually brought down the Iron Curtain and ended the Cold war.

Although the freeze policy was never formally adopted by the United States or Soviet Union, and the movement didn’t move forward into full abolition of nuclear weapons, the political changes partially initiated by the campaign did functionally realize their short term demand. As a result, global nuclear stockpiles have indeed been declining since 1986, as the two superpowers began to step back from the nuclear brink.

The climate movement has room to grow

While the Nuclear Freeze shows that movements can move mountains – or at least global super powers – it also shows that the climate movement isn’t yet close to doing so.

For starters, its size is not at the scale of where it needs to be – not by historical measures, at least. The largest mobilization of the Nuclear Freeze campaign was the largest march in U.S. history up to that point, and included double the number of people who participated in the People’s Climate March.

The referendum campaigns that reached their peak later in 1982 were historic on a different scale as well: They were on the ballot in 10 states, Washington, D.C., and 37 cities and counties, before going on to win in nine states and all but three cities. The vote covered roughly a third of the U.S. electorate.

One simple demand

The Nuclear Freeze proposal turned the complex and treacherous issue of arms control into a simple concept: Stop building more weapons until we figure a way out of the mess. It was a proposal designed to be approachable in its simplicity, and careful in the way it addressed competing popular fears of both nuclear annihilation and perceived Soviet aggression.

The climate movement faces an epic, unique struggle, but the challenges it faces as a movement are not as singular as some may think. As the movement ventures onto new ground, it’s worth remembering that others have done what felt like the impossible, in the face of an uncertain future – and triumphed.

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