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When I began a review of notes from my early years with AFSC, I already remembered many of the details of the New Hampshire peace movement in the early 1980s. Following the lead of AFSC in Vermont, we coordinated the introduction of resolutions into dozens of Town Meetings in March of 1982 calling on the United States and Soviet Union to halt—or “freeze”–all further production, testing and deployment of nuclear warheads and the missiles and planes designed to deliver them to targets across the globe. The surprising success of the Town Meeting campaign, in communities which by and large voted Republican, caught the attention of national political leaders and changed the discourse over nuclear weapons at a time in which a popular president was leading a massive military build-up against a foe he termed “the evil empire.” Within three years, Ronald Reagan had shifted from a strategy based on waging and winning a nuclear war with the Soviet Union to one built around negotiations for nuclear limits. In 1985, Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev came close to agreeing to the abolition of nuclear weapons. The basic story is clear in my memory.

But there were a lot of details of the peace movement’s vibrancy which had slipped from my memory. For example, the month after Freeze resolutions were adopted in 48 of the 61 New Hampshire towns which considered them, my staff report mentioned plans for a “New Englanders for Peace” march in Portsmouth, with 1000 people expected. The following month, rather casually, my report said 2500 people marched from Pierce Island, across the Piscataqua River from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard to Pease Air Force Base in Newington. Fourteen busloads went from New Hampshire to New York for the massive peace rally in Central Park in May 1982, timed to coincide with a Special Session on Disarmament at the United Nations.

Meanwhile, seventeen organizations, including the NH People’s Alliance and the NH chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, were participating in a NH Fair Budget Coalition, which sought to get the attention of elected officials to skewed federal budget priorities. My notes report that among the 40 or 50 people attending an April 1983 “fair budget” forum were Congressman Norm D’Amours and Will Abbott, then state director for Congressman Judd Gregg. “I set up a ‘penny poll,’” my notes say, “where people got the opportunity to ‘vote’ on how they wanted their tax dollars spent; military spending proved very unpopular compared to health care, education, transportation, and housing.”

And as I contemplate our current situation, in which a president averse to diplomacy and enamored of nuclear weapons drives a mostly horrendous foreign policy with little public resistance and shifts the public treasury more and more to military programs, I have to wonder why we were able to mount an effective peace movement in the Reagan period and seem to be unable to do so now.

I offer some thoughts on this and invite yours.

“We are surrounded by wars and rumors of war.”

First, let’s look at the current situation. Paul Shannon summed it up recently in a talk at the conference on “The Next Two Years and Beyond,” held in Boston shortly after the 2018 election. After describing the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Yemen, with weapons sold to U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, Paul observed, “That’s just one war, Yemen.’ He went on:

But we are surrounded today by wars and rumors of war:

A new base in Syria

War in Afghanistan

Troops back in Iraq.

Drone attacks all over.

Our president withdraws from the Iran nuclear deal even though Iran lived up to all its requirements. Instead he imposes deadly sanctions on Iran that will kill many as they did in Iraq under Bill Clinton. And he builds a dangerous alliance with Saudi Arabia and Israel specifically to confront Iran. A massive new war is not out of the question.

Our president has announced he will withdraw from the INF nuclear treaty with Russia, the very treaty that ended the cold war in the late 1980s.

Meanwhile Washington continues Obama’s trillion-dollar modernization of our nuclear arsenal.

The Pentagon’s new nuclear posture review makes using nuclear weapons thinkable.

NATO conducts military exercises near the Russian border after Russia has conducted its own massive military maneuvers. And the demonization of Russia by liberals and the Democrats rolls on.

And tragically we see the growing glorification of the military as the only institution in the country that Americans feel proud of.

Paul says, “The peace movement is building itself up again to counter these dangers and offer alternatives.” I hope this is not just wishful thinking.

It’s not that there is no activism. Consider the 2017 “Women’s March,” considered “the largest single-day protest in U.S. history” (although the largest assembly, in Washington, was still smaller than the 1982 disarmament rally in New York). Or consider the Families Belong Together rallies of 2018, when mobilizations took place in some 700 cities and towns to protest the cruelties of the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement practices.

The Peace Movement is Hard to Find in “The Resistance”

And yet, the anti-war movement is hard to detect amidst the “resistance” to Trumpist assaults on democracy and human rights. Opposition to militarism and ranks low on the progressive agenda. Presented with a resolution my own town passed earlier this year calling for a shift of public resources away from the military, my liberal Congresswoman said the issue ranks too low among her constituents’ concerns for it to matter.

Imagine you are a high school junior, born in 2001. Your country has been at war in Afghanistan for your entire life, but you will rarely hear about it in what passes for the news. And while working class people continue to enlist in the military – perhaps out of a sense of patriotism, perhaps out of a need for gainful employment with benefits, perhaps for lack of other attractive options – you may not know there are people in your own community who oppose the war and want it to end. If you think about it at all, you might conclude that perpetual war is a normal state of being.

It might be said that the urgency of other issues – racist police practices, institutionalized xenophobia, climate disruption, toxic masculinity come to mind – distracts attention from international events and U.S. foreign policy. But when I think back to the 1980s, I recall a period disturbingly similar to the present period, yet with a powerful peace movement.

Donald Trump’s Political Ancestry

In a sense, Reagan can be seen as Trump’s closest political ancestor. Coming out of the world of entertainment, with little interest in policy details and an understanding of the world based on the plots of movies in which he starred, he was known as “the great communicator” for his ability to sway people with platitudes and a promise to return America to a (white) paradise that never was. Reagan’s domestic policy priorities were tax cuts, deregulation, and increased military spending at the expense of human welfare programs. Sound familiar?

Reagan brought with him into his administration a troop of ideologues who would be right at home in the Trump White House. There was Attorney General Ed Meese, a Reagan confidante who was forced to resign in the midst of a corporate bribery scandal. As top law enforcer, Meese believed there was no need for police to inform suspects of their right to remain silent. “The thing is,” he told US News and World Report, “you don’t have many suspects who are innocent of a crime. That’s contradictory. If a person is innocent of a crime, then he is not a suspect.” (Meese later served on Trump’s transition team.)

There was James Watt, the Interior Secretary who believed environmental destruction was a sign that the second coming of Jesus was at hand. There was Oliver North, who ran arms to Nicaraguan counter-revolutionaries out of the National Security Council after Congress barred the CIA from doing it themselves. There was Chester Crocker, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, who engineered the “constructive engagement” approach to South African apartheid as a friendlier alternative to the Carter administration’s human rights focus. And there was General T.K. Jones, head of civil defense planning in the Pentagon, who famously said of nuclear war, “If there are enough shovels to go around, everybody’s going to make it.”

Resistance in the Reagan Era

The people rose up. When the AIDS crisis emerged, gay activists protested the administration’s callous disregard for their lives and forced the pharmaceutical industry to produce affordable drugs. The anti-apartheid movement spread from city to city, state to state, and campus to campus, forcing governments to withdraw economic cooperation with the South African regime, aiding in its eventual collapse. Nearly half a million people joined the AFL-CIO sponsored Solidarity March in Washington after Reagan fired more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers.

A massive solidarity and anti-intervention movement grew up in response to the administration’s aggression against Nicaragua and its support for brutal right-wing regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala. People of faith flocked to the border between Nicaragua and Honduras to “witness for peace.” Churches offered sanctuary to immigrants who had fled violence only to be denied a lawful right to remain in the U.S. Activists developed a “pledge of resistance,” a plan for nationwide sit-ins at local Congressional offices in the event of a Nicaragua invasion. When the administration declared an economic embargo instead, “Pledge groups across the country planned and executed acts of civil disobedience across 80 cities in 16 states, with over 10,000 demonstrators and 2,000 arrestees,” according to the Global Nonviolence Data Base. Pledge of Resistance actions expanded to 42 states by 1985.

The nuclear disarmament movement, which had been quiet since atmospheric testing was banned in the early 1960s, sprang back into life. With the 1979 “Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race,” the short paper by Randall Forsberg that outlined a demand for a US-USSR nuclear freeze, as a rallying point, the movement spread rapidly in response to the Reagan administration’s nuclear build-up, its doctrine calling for the USA to “prevail” in an all-out nuclear war, and the president’s inclination to see the US-Soviet conflict as a battle between good and evil. It wasn’t just the Freeze Campaign itself. There was Women’s Action for Nuclear Disarmament, inspired by Dr. Helen Caldicott’s apocalyptic warnings. Beyond War, a California-based group including ex-CIA officials, reached professional class audiences with the message that war was “obsolete” in the nuclear age. Physicians for Social Responsibility provided clinical warnings about the actual health implications of nuclear war. Bridges for Peace, Promoting Enduring Peace, and others promoted people-to-people exchanges with communities on the other side of “the iron curtain.” Ground Zero, founded by a former National Security Council staff member who didn’t even support the Freeze, ran educational programs on nuclear dangers alongside the rest of the movement.

Within a rather short time, the movement grew large enough to affect pop culture. I remember the “Bloom County” comic strip making friendly fun of the New England town meetings with a character introducing a resolution to fill missile silos with pudding. “99 Luftballons,” a German pop song, became “99 Red Balloons,” a warning about the danger of accidental nuclear war in a hit English language version. The movement reached its biggest cultural impact with the 1983 release of a TV film, “The Day After,” depicting the aftermath of a nuclear war. According to my staff reports, I joined the publisher of the right-wing Union Leader newspaper and a few others for a live, post-film panel discussion afterward at the local ABC affiliate.

By 1985, Reagan’s attitude had been adjusted. A new Soviet leader, determined to find a way out of endless conflict, made it possible for the US and USSR to get back on track for nuclear arms control if not on a path toward abolition. By the end of the decade, the Cold War was over, leaving too many people with the impression that the danger of nuclear war was in the past. But we had made a mark on history.

Why were we able to build such a powerful movement?

For one thing, Reagan was elected barely five years after the United States was booted out of Vietnam. By 1975, the war there was not only massively unpopular, but the resistance movement had developed a powerful critique of the U.S. policies which got us there in the first place. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had put it at Riverside Church in 1967, “the war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit.”

“These are revolutionary times,” Dr. King said. “All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born.” For growing numbers of participants in the anti-war movement, the United States wasn’t just wrong, it was on the wrong side. In other words, the war was not just built on lies, it was built on a deeply rooted and largely bi-partisan policy of aggressive imperialism. And with the ideology of the war system based in extreme anti-communism, the ideology of the peace movement was generally anti-anti-communist if not decidedly leftist.

By the mid-70s, the peace movement was looking at the U.S. role in the Caribbean, in Central and South America, in South Africa and the “frontline states,” and in the oil-rich Middle East. That Reagan’s election came before such lessons had been forgotten made it easier to mobilize the public to oppose a reprise of Cold War militarism.

Another development was the rise of the movement against nuclear power, especially in New England where the Freeze movement would find its first active expressions. After years of largely ineffective anti-nuclear intervention by mainstream environmental groups, the shift to nonviolent direct action at nuclear construction sites in Montague, Massachusetts and Seabrook, New Hampshire gave mostly young “No Nukes” activists a chance to apply lessons learned from anti-war, civil rights, and feminist struggles of the previous period. The Clamshell Alliance, the network of locally based New England groups which led the Seabrook protests, was unhesitant about linking opposition to nuclear power and weapons. It was internationalist in orientation, actively seeking ties to the anti-apartheid movement and to groups challenging the pro-nuclear, anti-communist Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines.

Although the Clamshell peaked in 1978, New England was still peppered with local No Nukes groups when Reagan was elected two years later. Not only did those groups provide fertile ground for a revived nuclear disarmament movement, they provided leaders with community and political organizing experience. Here we might single out for special attention Randy Kehler, the Vietnam era war resister credited with inspiring Daniel Ellsberg to release the Pentagon Papers. Kehler later settled in Franklin County, Massachusetts, where he was active in the local Alternative Energy Coalition opposing the Seabrook and Montague nukes. In 1980, he was the lead organizer of the referendum campaign that first put the nuclear freeze to a popular vote.

Why Not Now?

What I’m trying to understand is why a similar form of resistance, focused on U.S. foreign and military policy and especially the danger of nuclear war, has not arisen since Trump’s election. It’s not like we weren’t warned when candidate Trump revealed he had no idea what the “nuclear triad” is, or when he reportedly asked about the nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal, “if we have them, why can’t we use them?”

Could it be that the intense anti-war sentiment aroused by George W. Bush’s war in Iraq has thoroughly dissipated? At the time, it seemed like anti-war sentiment was not based just on reaction to American body bags but to a fuller critique of U.S. policy in southwest Asia. Didn’t significant parts of the anti-war movement develop an analysis that probed deeper than W’s personal animus against Saddam Hussein and the orchestrated campaign of lies about weapons of mass destruction?

Could it be that the trauma induced by the 9/11 terrorist attacks was so deep that the American public has been cowed into accepting anything done in the name of national security? That’s a tempting theory, but what, then, do we make of the massive movement that opposed the Iraq war? Recall the demonstrations in 150 U.S. cities and hundreds more across the globe on February 15, 2003, termed “the largest protest event in human history.” The NY Times equated the anti-war movement to a “superpower” rival of the U.S. and its military allies.

Yes, the “baby boomers” who grew up under the shadow of The Bomb and who hid under their desks in civil defense drills were more sensitive to nuclear dangers than the millennials who grew up after the Cold War had ended. But where is the foreign policy agenda of the baby boomer progressives who make up such a large component of the anti-Trump resistance?

Did the election of Barack Obama, who ran for president as an anti-war candidate and left office as droner-in-chief, cast a magic spell over the public? Can the fact that the massive nuclear build-up began with Obama’s approval account for the fact that Trump’s policy – largely an extension of his predecessor’s – make it immune from serious scrutiny? Were progressives that reluctant to criticize Obama that their critical capacities were wiped out?

Which brings me to the relationship between progressives and the Democratic Party. Could it be that progressive activists find it harder to distance themselves from the Democrats than they did in earlier generations? The 1960s anti-war movement arose in resistance to a Democratic president with liberal tendencies on the domestic front. While the movement later found champions among Democratic Senators like McCarthy and McGovern, and some of its leaders (e.g. Tom Hayden) found their way into Democratic politics, it did not lose its ability to critique a bi-partisan foreign policy consensus rooted in Cold War ideology and the dictates of capitalism.

That Hilary Clinton was a hawk offers little explanation, for foreign policy played little role in the 2016 campaign and her support was largely based on anti-Trump sentiments.

What of Bernie Sanders, who led a serious (he called it a “political revolution,” after all) alternative approach that almost captured the Democratic Party? I recall one of his earliest campaign stops in Concord, New Hampshire, months before the first-in-the-nation presidential primary, when he was asked about the power of the military-industrial-complex. Acknowledging its unwarranted influence, Bernie was quick to shift to more comfortable territory. “The military-industrial-complex is enormously powerful, no question about it,” he said, adding “You have on Wall Street six financial institutions that have assets that are equivalent to sixty percent of the GDP of the United States. You have big energy companies who are unbelievably powerful. So, I think what you have is a ruling class in America.” Then he was back to the power of insurance and drug companies to block progress toward single-payer health care.

Bernie’s campaign, consistent with his Congressional career, was built on economic issues: jobs, wages, health care, education. For Sanders (and much of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party), even international trade is considered primarily as a domestic issue. Despite Hilary’s reputation as a hawk, Bernie never tried to make an alternative to the bi-partisan national security consensus a significant component of his campaign. Could that be why his legions of followers have failed to do so as well?

Two months before the 2018 election, Katrina Vanden Heuvel of The Nation wrote “the progressive left’s national security policy has been mostly missing in action.“ That opinion is hard to argue with, and there are plenty of good outlines for what such a policy would be. But without some clamor from below, we can’t expect an agenda to have much clout.

Earlier this week, the town council in Durham, New Hampshire, approved a resolution calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Seacoast Peace Response, a local group formed after the 9-11 attacks, is working with activists in other communities to bring similar resolutions before City Councils and Town Meetings in the coming months. With the 2020 New Hampshire Presidential Primary about 14 months away and the tide of possible presidential candidates visiting the Granite State starting to rise, the timing is excellent.

Another ray of hope comes from the Poor People’s Campaign: a national call for moral revival. Following Dr. King’s lead, the campaign sees militarism, along with racism, poverty, and ecological devastation as inter-related pillars of an unjust system that needs radical change. As a new Congress takes office, this is a good time for a new peace movement to make its voice heard.

What do you think it will take?

December 7, 2018

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William Perry with Dr. Ira Helfand

The initial down payments toward the production of an entirely new generation of missiles, submarines and bombers designed to deliver a new generation of nuclear warheads are already in the federal budget. The ultimate pricetag would be in the vicinity of a trillion dollars if all the weapons on the Pentagon’s shopping list are produced. But it’s not too late to stop the nuclear assembly lines and get back to the business of nuclear abolition. That was the emphasis of a conference on “Reducing the Dangers of Nuclear War” held April 2 at MIT in Cambridge

“Once you start bending metal, it’s almost impossible to stop,” Joe Cirincione said at one of the workshops. Cirincione, a former staff member of the House Armed Services Committee who now heads the pro-disarmament Ploughshares Fund, said that means we have two to three years to stop the new weapons systems. “This is our moment,” he said.

The conference brought together an impressive array of activists and scholars, plus William Perry, the former Secretary of Defense who has joined the call for nuclear weapons abolition. “The danger of a nuclear catastrophe is higher today than at any time during the Cold War,” he warned. Perry is particularly alarmed by the proposal for a new cruise missile, the nuclear armed version of which would be indistinguishable from one carrying non-nuclear explosives until after it detonates. Eight thousand American and Russian nuclear weapons were dismantled while he was at the helm at the Pentagon, he said, but “we’re going backwards today.”

Given the stakes, “backwards” is an understatement. As Dr. Ira Helfand of Physicians for Social Responsibility reminded the conference attenders, detonation of a nuclear bomb over a major city would not only kill huge numbers of people in an instant, but by destroying hospitals and the doctors and nurses who work there, the ability to respond to burns and other injuries would be crippled. And as Alan Robock, a professor of environmental science from Rutgers stressed, detonation of a relatively small share of the world’s nuclear arsenal could throw so much smoke into the upper atmosphere that it could bring on a global cooling process so severe that food production would fall worldwide by 20 to 40% for a 5-year period.

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Mary Popeo of Global Zero with Joe Cirincione

“Only nuclear disarmament will prevent catastrophe,” he said.

It’s not just the number of nuclear weapons that poses a danger, it’s also their design. One of the features of the warheads now being pursued by the US nuclear weapons labs and the corporations that run them (on a for-profit basis) is increased accuracy. Aron Bernstein, an MIT emeritus professor of physics, said “when we make the missiles more accurate, we make them more likely to be perceived as a first strike weapon.” They might even be more likely to actually be intended for first strike or battlefield use, something which should not even be contemplated but which becomes an option for military strategists once they enter the arsenal.

Nuclear weapons have proven to be no use against terrorists or the regimes with which the USA has been in conflict in recent years. They certainly make no contribution to efforts to fight climate change, mass migration, growing inequality, and other dilemmas that ought to be top priorities. Whether “deterrence” even works is debatable. But nuclear weapons have proven useful to US leaders time and time again, said Joseph Gerson of the AFSC, who has documented the ways in which nuclear threats have backed up foreign policy objectives starting with their use in Japan 70 years ago. And they are certainly useful to the corporations that stand to get the contracts for new missiles, subs, and bombers.

That’s why the conference wasn’t just about spreading the alarm, it also spread news about a variety of ways to challenge the nuclear-industrial-complex. For a prime example, Cambridge’s Mayor Denise Simmons used the occasion to announce her city’s new policy of divesting city funds from corporations that build nuclear weapons. In this, her administration has the aid of a new web-based tool from MIT’s Future of Life Institute. The Responsible Investing Made Easy tool lists companies that produce nuclear weapons, cluster bombs, and landmines. It also gives grades to mutual funds which claim to be socially responsible. (Spoiler Alert: some of the funds have investments in other financial firms that invest in weapons makers.) The Netherlands-based Don’t Bank on the Bomb project has another set of useful lists.

Short of nuclear abolition there are steps, such as taking missiles off high alert status, which can reduce nuclear dangers. Ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and further nuclear reductions are important steps in the right direction. But for any of these steps to take place, the movement against nuclear weapons needs to grow. Stay in touch with AFSC and your local Peace Action chapter to get involved.

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A scruffy young man wearing a knapsack approached Martha Yager at a rally.  “How do I get to world peace,” he asked?

“Practice,” said Martha.

Okay, that didn’t really happen.  But it’s a pretty good summary of Martha’s message to a small group gathered at the Concord Friends Meeting House in Canterbury on September 23.

canterbury 9-23-12 004 Martha, who used to live in New Hampshire but now coordinates the American Friends Service Committee’s South Eastern New England Program, was invited to make a return visit as part of NH Peace Action’s “Amazing Women for Peace” series.  Acknowledging that the peace movement is in rough shape at the moment, Martha asked her audience to find a partner and answer the questions, “When I think about the state of the world, the thing that concerns me most is __________,” and “When I think about that, it makes me feel __________.”

“It’s all pretty overwhelming,” she said, as participants expressed concerns about apathy, resource depletion, climate change, inequality, and violence.   And it’s no surprise that “people kinda’ zone out,” she said.

“It’s not an accident that people are being encouraged into isolation, disconnected from each other,” she observed.   The powers that be use their power to silence people and keep people feeling powerless even when we’re not.

Martha recommended three types of action to pursue:

First, “holding actions,” or those that help people survive with dignity in a world where that can be difficult.  Local examples might include volunteering at the seasonal homeless shelter at South Church in Concord, a project Martha started several years ago.

Second, actions that support life sustaining practices outside the status quo system.  Examples include community gardens, time banks, food co-ops, anything that helps to create “a new society in the shell of the old.”

Third, Martha said we should support actions that lead to a change in consciousness, that help us shift from a paradigm of “power over” to “power with.”

We are small actors in the midst of a complex world, so we should think about how canterbury 9-23-12 006 our small actions can support changes that are likely to extend beyond our lifetimes to bear fruit. 

And we need to practice, in two senses of the word.  We need to put our ideas and values into practice, not leave them in our heads and hearts.  And we need to try them out, try them over again, and see what works. 

Martha finished up by asking pairs to fill in the blank:  “The thing I’m most passionate about is __________.”

There was some discussion of whether “passion” was what we should strive for, but the point was clear:  our capacity to make change will depend our willingness to put ourselves into it. 

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