An aging TV personality occupies the White House. Representing the Republican Party, he denounces his predecessors for coddling the nation’s enemies. Not long after taking office, he begins rattling nuclear sabers with the country’s most dangerous nuclear rival, threatening complete destruction and promising victory in nuclear war. His rhetoric concerns people at home and abroad.
Just as this description applies to Donald Trump in 2017, it also characterizes Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s. A longtime critic of his predecessors’ détente policy, Reagan took a fierce stand toward the Soviet Union. He promised that the communists would end up on the “ash-heap of history,” while members of his administration boasted about the ability to win a nuclear war. Reagan himself refused to make any serious attempt at arms control and instead committed to an enormous buildup of nuclear weapons. Each side provoked the other: the Able Archer NATO exercises, the Soviet destruction of Korean Airlines flight 007, and other Cold War incidents led to the direst nuclear war scares since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
And yet in the face of nuclear doomsday, the American people did not wilt. They did not retreat into fear or powerlessness. Artists, writers, musicians, and filmmakers denounced nuclear weapons. Millions of protesters took to the streets, including Ground Zero Week and the Second UN Special Session on Disarmament, both in 1982. Dozens of states and cities passed resolutions calling for a freeze on nuclear weapons production. African Americans marched to show that nuclear weapons squandered money that could have funded urgent social needs.
Women blockaded nuclear weapons depots and shaped congressional races. Scientists explained how nuclear war would destroy the global environment while physicians detailed how a nuclear blast would disintegrate the human body. Religious believers practiced civil disobedience while children deluged the White House with angry letters. This resistance movement told Reagan that if he used nuclear weapons, he would never be forgiven.
By 1984, Reagan had made an “about-face,” solemnly stating in that year’s State of the Union address that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Reagan’s transformation mimicked other presidential reversals on nuclear weapons. When Dwight Eisenhower said he considered nuclear weapons equivalent to bullets and tested H-bombs at a furious rate, groups such as the Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy and the Committee for Non-Violent Action protested. By the end of his second term, Eisenhower had paused nuclear testing and pursued a permanent test ban. John F. Kennedy resumed nuclear testing, a move challenged by Women Strike for Peace, and soon he was signing a test ban treaty. Richard Nixon began his tenure by trying to convince North Vietnam he was a nuclear “madman,” but when he tried to deploy antiballistic missiles (ABMs), scientists and NIMBY protesters scotched the plan. In 1972 Nixon signed an ABM treaty with the Soviet Union in order to boost his re-election prospects. In each case, it fell to antinuclear protesters to demonstrate that the president’s initial view of nuclear weapons was morally unacceptable.
These shifts were not inevitable; they depended on ordinary people rising up to defy their leader. It helped that from the start nuclear weapons were stigmatized as morally worse than conventional bombs. Even Harry Truman, not known for sentimentality, recognized this when he halted atomic bombings after Nagasaki in order to stop the killing of, as he put it, “all those kids.”
And now, in 2017, Trump has promised the complete destruction of North Korea. Will there be an about-face? As unlikely as that seems, it most certainly will not happen without an antinuclear movement. And antinuclear efforts do persist: This year’s Nobel Peace Prize went to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons in recognition of the recent UN treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. But we have not yet seen the wide coalition that confronted nuclear weapons throughout the Cold War, from Abolition 2000 and American Peace Test, to the War Resister’s League and Women’s Action for Nuclear Disarmament. And yet, so many Americans have already mobilized against Trump, including women and scientists, groups that have in the past opposed nuclear weapons as part of their agenda. Why not once again?
For all rhetoric, Trump’s nuclear weapons policy is, so far, in line with previous presidents. His reputation suggests Americans can do nothing but cross their fingers and prepare to duck and cover. But in the past, the American people have demanded cautious nuclear policies. Will Trump listen to public opinion? Will he recognize the stigma of nuclear weapons? If such a goal appears futile, it bears remembering that nuclear war has seemed all but certain in the past as well. And instead of succumbing to despair, apathy, or paralysis, millions of Americans chose inspiration and action instead.
Featured image credit: Nuclear Weapons Test by WikiImages. Public Domain via Pixabay.