The 1980s: The Good Ol’ Days?Roundup
tags: Reagan, Trump
For many of us, history’s about big names—in America, usually presidents—and big events—like wars or course-turning elections. But on occasion, history can show us ordinary citizens entering the public sphere and changing politics from the bottom up. And today that seems just the right kind of history to explore.
Case in point over at Boston Review: Andrew Lanham’s provocative piece entitled “Lessons from the Nuclear Freeze.” In it, Lanham delves into how the nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s—during what is infamously now known as the “Age of Reagan”—can inspire contemporary activists living through, dare we call it what it is, the “Age of Trump.”
In a time of hyper-attention deficit disorder, the 1980s may feel to many like a bygone era. We have blurry memories of it, and, when we do think of it, we’re likely to associate it with one man in particular: Ronald Reagan, the one-time Hollywood actor, radio announcer, television host, Barry Goldwater supporter, California governor…and then, in 1980, President of the United States. Lanham reminds readers that Reagan came into office while stoking “people’s fears about the Soviet Union.” And he was quick to populate his Administration with what some call “neo-hawks”: Figures like then-National Security Council member Richard Pipes who “claimed that there was a 40 percent chance of nuclear war” and so it made logical sense to prepare for it. Reagan himself, during a October 1981 press conference, argued that “it would be possible to use tactical nuclear weapons on specific battlefields without leading to an all-out nuclear war between the superpowers.” If you were a citizen of Europe at the time, Reagan’s plan to install missiles in Germany most definitely set off alarm bells—and inspired, in part, the renewal of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), which began holding major demonstrations opposing the arms race.
In America, the nuclear freeze movement originated in the mind of a woman named Randall Forsberg, a “researcher” in the area of arms control and later an activist. “In 1980,” Lanham writes, “she published a manifesto, ‘Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race’.” Two years later, with a real grassroots movement now in place, activists called for signatures to demand a freeze on weapons testing and drew a million protestors to march in New York City in June of 1982. It was a peaceful, grassroots movement and drew the attention of numerous Congresspeople on both sides of the aisle who signed onto it and tried, unsuccessfully, to press for a “nuclear freeze” in the halls of the legislature and then, with mixed success, voted on as “initiatives” (known as “freeze resolutions”) at the state and local level. The movement continued to warn about the prospects of nuclear war, which, Lanham believes, affected Ronald Reagan’s thinking on the matter. Lanham writes, “If Reagan had previously shown a cavalier willingness to launch a nuclear war, he now spoke of avoiding war and emphasized peace.” This evolution included Reagan’s infamous “Star Wars” plan to set up a mysterious sounding system that could fend off incoming nuclear missiles lobbed at the country. But it also included a “defense budget” that would “shrink every year after 1985.” Peace became yet more inevitable when Reagan decided to negotiate with Russia’s new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. The “freeze” movement had not won outright, but it certainly helped change the tone of debate in this country. Of this, Lanham is quite persuasive.
As you can imagine, Lanham believes that this story has something important to say about our contemporary times. First off, Trump looks, in many ways, like Ronald Reagan—he talks “tough” on foreign policy (even though he sometimes also sounds isolationist) and his budget, similarly to Reagan’s at the time, plans to “massively boost defense spending while slashing” domestic programs. And there’s little doubt now that Trump loves his saber-rattling technique against Syria and North Korea, the way Reagan spoke openly of nuclear war and invaded the island of Grenada in 1983, in large part to show off the country’s military capacity in an easy and direct manner. In opposition to the militarization of foreign policy, the nuclear freeze movement had called for quite the opposite of Reagan’s priorities—for defense spending to decrease so that social programs could, if anything, increase (slogan: “Save the Human Race, Stop the Arms Race”). ...
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