Framing Matters: Lessons from the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign

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Waging Nonviolence

Framing Matters: Lessons from the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign

Thirty years ago today the United Nations passed by overwhelming margins two resolutions calling for a verifiable end to all testing, production and deployment of nuclear arms by the United States and the Soviet Union. This was one of a series of victories for the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, a grassroots initiative that swept across the U.S. in the early 1980s and played a key role in broadening the global anti-nuclear movement and its determined effort to draw the world back from the nuclear brink.

Three decades on, are there lessons we can take from this campaign as we build, strengthen and broaden movements to tackle the monumental challenges facing the planet today?

To explore these possible applications it is first necessary to reflect on The Freeze’s relationship to the larger anti-nuclear movement, which has been called by at least one historian the longest continuous social movement in history. Sparked by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, the nuclear disarmament movement in the 1950s and 1960s mounted numerous campaigns to end above-ground nuclear testing and its plumes of radioactive fallout. For years afterwards the movement rose and fell as it clamored for a series of nuclear arms agreements. Toward the end of the 1970s the movement ballooned again after the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the SALT II arms control agreement with the USSR, after the deployment of first strike weaponry, after the neutron bomb was announced (designed to kill people, not property), and after Ronald Reagan came to power promising a confrontational approach to the Soviet Union, a resolution that he backed with an unprecedented military buildup. The arms race was barreling out of control, and — whether out of malice, brinkmanship or human error — nuclear war seemed increasingly possible.

In this climate, anti-nuclear activism proliferated, with numerous direct action campaigns focused on dismantling particular weapons systems or preventing them from coming online, including a powerful year-long action at the Rocky Flats facility outside Denver, which manufactured plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs, and actions at Electric Boat in Groton, Conn., where the Trident submarine was built.

While most campaigns from the beginning concentrated on trying to get the United States or the USSR to individually shed its atomic stockpile, the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign took a different strategic tack. It proposed that the U.S. and USSR agree to halt their escalating arms race on a mutually verifiable basis–and then begin to reverse it. This idea was the brainchild of Randall Forsberg, a defense and disarmament researcher who was convinced — as she said in a speech at a meeting of the Mobilization for Survival, one of the largest anti-nuclear coalitions of the era — that if peace activists shifted from a focus on a unilateral moratorium to a bilateral one, “the great majority of the American people would completely agree with you. And you could change the world!” Encouraged by the group’s receptivity to this idea, Forsberg wrote a four-page “Call to Halt the Arms Race.”

After Forsberg issued her call, hundreds of national and local organizations sprung into action to put The Freeze on local ballots in cities, counties and states from coast to coast. By 1982, fully one-third of the U.S. electorate participated in voting on The Freeze, making it the largest referendum on a single issue in United States history. The Freeze also played a key role in organizing what was at that time the largest demonstration in the nation’s history. On June 12, 1982, nearly one million people took part in a march and rally in New York City whose theme was “Freeze the Arms Race — Fund Human Needs.” As part of the event, petitions bearing the signatures of 2.3 million U.S. citizens were delivered to the U.S. and Soviet missions to the United Nations. Numerous national polls taken in 1982 and 1983 found that over 70 percent of the public supported The Freeze.

I didn’t come to the anti-nuclear movement through The Freeze. As a graduate student I fell in with a group that took prophetic nonviolent action at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which had designed 50 percent of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and I spent days or weeks in the local county jail as part of a growing movement focused on nuclear facilities, military bases and test sites. Our inspiration came from nonviolent Plowshares actions and communities like Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action, which engaged in civil disobedience that often resulted in six-month sentences for protesting nuclear weapons-capable submarines. The Freeze campaign seemed chary of direct action (to the point where some of its campaigners eventually founded American Peace Test to engage freely in civil resistance at the Nevada Test Site). We, in turn, were wary of a campaign that sometimes seemed more intent on halting the arms race than abolishing it. Most of us also felt that, as the creator of nuclear weapons, the U.S. had an obligation to dismantle them, regardless of another country’s decision.

The vantage point of 30 years, however, helps clarify The Freeze campaign’s importance. As social change strategist Bill Moyer held, the job of movements is to alert, educate, win and mobilize the populace to dramatically and systematically withdraw support for policies, conditions and structures that violate widely held values. Successful movements don’t convince presidents. Instead, successful movements convince the populace to withdraw the support on which presidents (or any other power-holder) ultimately depend. This requires mobilizing a series of strategies aimed at shifting public consciousness. The Freeze was intent on changing the mind of America, and it did this through grassroots organizing, referendums, petitions and events.

The Freeze was never adopted as national policy. (The resolution passed the House of Representative but was derailed in the Republican-controlled Senate.) Nevertheless, it is credited with creating the conditions for the Reagan administration to reverse its stance on refusing to negotiate with the Soviets. (The Soviet leadership itself embraced the Freeze and took unprecedented steps to establish its bona fide commitment by removing nuclear missiles from Europe, negotiating major reductions in strategic weapons and unilaterally halting Soviet nuclear testing.) These negotiations produced a burst of arms control agreements with the Soviet Union during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, and they helped create the conditions for the establishment of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

What, then, can we take away from this example of social change?

First, the way we frame our goal — and our strategies for achieving it — is crucial. In the case of The Freeze, the concept was powerful. Unlike most matters related to nuclear weapons (from their physics to their impact on society to the complexities of most arms negotiations) this was simple and clear. We stop where we are — together. We build down — together. The goal went from being something faraway and utopian to a concrete outcome that could be achieved methodically. Also, the metaphor—“freezing”—held a beguiling power. It suggested cooling things off, slowing things down and stopping the arms race cold in its tracks before it went very, very wrong. Something that seemed unbridled and threatening could be brought under control. This framing consequently had the added benefit of seeing the Freeze proposal less as a negative (opposing something) and more as a positive (responsibly ending a runaway disaster just waiting to happen). Most compelling of all for many ordinary citizens was that the proposal had a built-in safeguard: mutual cooperation. For a population inveterately trained to regard the Soviets as untrustworthy, the proposal hinged on both sides delivering or the agreement was off. It was seen as a fair and reasonable deal, and it could also be rescinded if the opponent didn’t keep its side of the bargain.

This case and its framing suggests that our campaigns will benefit from goals and strategies that are simple, clear and concrete, but also evocative, positive, fair and reasonable. They must instill the incentives and disincentives needed to create enduring alternatives and solutions. They must capture our imaginations — and our need to know that it can work.

Second, concrete, strategic ways to alert, educate, win and mobilize the populace are central. The Freeze poured a huge amount of energy into education and information sharing. This in turn paid off in innumerable events, from local referendums to mass demonstrations.

Third, while our specific objectives may or may not be met, the power of our movement can have far-ranging impacts. No president ever signed a Nuclear Weapons Freeze bill into law. Nevertheless, this campaign laid the groundwork for many anti-nuclear milestones. (It also eventually merged with SANE and formed Peace Action, which carries on the struggle for peace and justice today.)

Even the concept of The Freeze itself might be transferable. Shall we freeze the rate of carbon emissions — and throw it in reverse? Shall we freeze the gap between the rich and poor — and finally begin to close it? Shall we freeze the number of foreclosures — and navigate our way to zero?

It might be time for a new call.

Ken Butigan

Ken Butigan is director of Pace e Bene, a nonprofit organization fostering nonviolent change through education, community and action. He also teaches peace studies at DePaul University and Loyola University in Chicago.

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