New Realities for the Peace Movement

By Metta Spencer, Department Of Sociology University Of Toronto

After the disarmament movement burgeoned in 1982-83, there was a long period when the disarmament movement seemed to accomplish nothing and when the terms of debate seemed not to shift at all. Then Mikhail Gorbachev markedly changed that debate by offering new and remarkable disarmament possibilities, especially at Reykjavik, which was a watershed for the whole issue. Within a year, the discourse concerning peace and disarmament shifted and, with the INF agreement between the superpowers, entered a new period in its development The purpose of this paper is to review the state of the world’s conversation on this issue, appraise how it has changed, and anticipate its next phases. This analysis is taking place at the end of September, 1997, just after the announcement of the first agreement to reduce nuclear weapons in Europe.

Reagan’s near-acceptance of drastic nuclear disarmament at Reykjavik proved to be the turning point. It cast a new legitimacy on that policy which could not be retracted. Everyone — including a U.S. President — is the prisoner of his own public statements. This fact has a ratchet-effect upon public discourse. The purpose of any social movement is to clarify public discourse on a particular area of policy concern and preparing the way for social change; the disarmament movement has much to thank Mr. Gorbachev for in making its campaign easier. The General Secretary cleared away several false arguments which had confused public opinion in the West, impeding pressure for nuclear disarmament. The debate is clearer today because several of the specious arguments of foot-dragging Western politicians have been unmasked — notably those surrounding the prospects of verifying mutual disarmament and the purpose of the Euromissiles.

Where the Debate Stands Now


The first problematic issue that has been eliminated is verification. Until 1986 one had to be an expert on the technologies of verifying nuclear tests and deployment sites in order to judge whether disarmament was a realistic option. The American negotiators claimed that it would be madness to disarm, since the Soviets would keep large stockpiles and would permit too few on-site inspections for cheating to be detected. Since few people were versed on “national technical means” of verification (e.g. satellites and seismology) one could only suspect (but not prove) the Americans of using this argument as a ruse. Now, it has been exposed as an excuse, since the Soviets not only allowed Western seismologists to monitor their test moratorium, but have offered virtually limitless on-site inspections of manufacturing and deployment sites. Since mid-1987 they have been asking for more intrusive verification practices than the West ever wanted, and the U.S. Has now switched sides on the question, saying that few on-site inspections are needed. The array of flimsy excuses is narrowed by one.

What Were the Euromissiles For?

Also eliminated are two of the main arguments for the development and deployment of cruise and Pershing II missiles. One was that these were “bargaining chips.” The NATO side (it was claimed) must build things that it doesn’t really want, so it will have something to give up in exchange for the weapons the other side would dismantle, in the event of a disarmament agreement. A related justification for building these missiles was to “force the Russians to the bargaining table.” This was to be accomplished by upping the cost of the arms race to the extent that they could not afford to keep up. (Never mind whether our side could afford to keep up).

That argument proved embarrassing when the Soviets did come to the bargaining table to accept Reagan’s offer—the “zero option.” Given the perfect occasion to use these “bargaining chips,” his administration proved reluctant to do so and thereby rendered that story untenable. The list of plausible justifications for the deployment of Euromissiles was reduced by one.

Moreover, the Americans’ slowness to accept an agreement for denuclearizing Europe exposed yet another of their explanations. They had excused the Euromissiles as merely tit for tat — a response to the Soviets’ SS-20s. However, when the Soviets offered to withdraw their S5-20s in large numbers, the U.S. Was reluctant to match the reduction. Thus their original explanation no longer held water. (Three arguments down, ten or fifteen still to go.)

Stripped since Reykjavik of this plausible excuse, Western hawks were forced back to this earlier and more accurate explanation for the placement of American missiles in Europe. The Europeans fear, yet have been unwilling to spend enough money to match, the superior armies of the Warsaw Treaty Organization. Any European government that proposed spending enough to defend its homeland would be defeated at the polls. Europeans want security, but on the cheap. The cheapest means is to ask the Americans to promise using their nuclear missiles in any European war with the Russians. We had not heard much of this account so long as the other arguments were in general currency.

This shift of argument means that the disarmament movement must also shift its grounds and highlight the following two points: (a) The existing conventional forces in Europe are not inferior to Soviet ones, as the military leaders claim.1 Moreover, (b) we should promote a balanced reduction and not an increase in conventional forces in Europe. This second point was not developed much during the early 1983-87 phases of the disarmament discourse. Indeed, antinuclear activists were divided in their attitude toward conventional defence policy. Being forced to take a stand on more than nuclear policy will press disarmament activists into a deeper analysis of Europe’s problems — the recognition that real peace will require a solution to the issues that were unresolved by the superpower rivalry that followed World War II. We will return to this issue shortly, after discussing the most pressing debate remaining within the strictly nuclear-related aspect of the disarmament movement.

Top Priority: Star Wars

Not only did Mr. Gorbachev eliminate certain arguments from the debate but (inadvertently) so did Mr. Reagan. He attempted two contradictory courses—to satisfy the Europeans who want to ensure American commitment, and to protect the United States, even at the expense of Europe. He could not have it both ways.

A third reason for the installation of American missiles in Europe was rarely stated by its proponents, those European leaders whose motive for inviting American missiles to Europe was to expose them to the same attack that the Europeans themselves would experience. There was not, of course, any shortage of nuclear weaponry even before the coming of the Pershings and cruises, but the American missiles were based on another continent, where they might not be employed suicidally by their owners. Placed in Europe, their vulnerability would drag the Americans, willy nilly, into war on the same basis as their allies. In any war, American missiles stationed there would have to be used, and the American homeland could not escape Soviet retaliation. Hence the credibility of the American threat would be enhanced.

Star Wars, Ronald Reagan’s response to this predicament, countered that whole objective, since it is designed to protect the United States, but not Europe, from Soviet missiles. Even in its most expansive version, Star Wars was supposed to defend only U.S. Cities, but that prospect proved so unrealistic that it was scaled down and now proposes only to defend a few key military sites in the United States. Europe is just too close to Russia to be shielded. Therefore, the Europeans who wanted to ensure that their ally would make good on their mutual suicide pact drew no comfort from the Star Wars proposal. Still, the NATO leaders have not broken solidarity and spoken out against the weapons or against Star Wars. This fact reflects negatively on the effectiveness of the European peace movement in addressing the issue. Popular opposition to Star Wars ought to be overwhelming in Europe—even more so than in North America.

Now, however, Mr. Gorbachev is forcing the issue. All disarmament activists must address the question, for everything explicitly hinges on convincing the public of the folly of Mr. Reagan’s fond dream.

While the support for Star Wars is far from solid or enthusiastic, in most places it is a majority view in the United States. The peace movement has not been notably successful in countering its appeal. Criticisms have been offered, but apparently not telling ones; even the 1986-constituted Congress, controlled by Democrats in opposition to a Reagan weakened by Irangate, does not dare reject the project entirely, but merely trims the budget requested for it.

The discussion has been framed in terms of the technical feasibility of the scheme. Scientists are divided as to the prospects of eventual success. They emphasize that immense sums will be required even to find out whether the plans are realistic, but Americans are used to spending lots on weapons and there is nothing about this that disturbs the average voter. It is, in fact, part of the American Way of Life, to dream big and hold daring ambitions. Except for the expense, Star Wars is portrayed as a harmless project—a defence, and who could be against defence? The objections to its workability are supposedly technical—and any technological obstacle can be overcome by technology itself.2

If the peace movement is to turn the tide against Star Wars, it must emphasize the following points:

  1. It is not just a defensive system. Lasers and satellites may not be able to shoot down enemy missiles, but future versions of them will be able to incinerate cities. Whoever can cover the entire globe with machines capable of spraying it with laser beams has a degree of power that no nation or individual, should ever be permitted to gain.
    Moreover, while this version of Star Wars weapons could not knock out missiles in sufficient numbers to protect the U.S. Against a Soviet first strike, it could perhaps knock out the few remaining Soviet missiles retaliating after a first strike from NATO. Indeed, the only way either superpower could conceivably believe itself capable of winning a nuclear war would be if it owned an SDI-type system behind which to hide after launching a first strike. The only plausible use of Star Wars, then, is as a component of an offensive war-fighting (not a deterrence) strategy.
  2. Star Wars is a computer system. Enough people own personal computers these days to appreciate the problems that arise in setting up a system. The effectiveness of the programs cannot be tested since to do so, we would have to stage a real nuclear war. Who would want to depend on an untested system?
  3. The methods of overcoming Star Wars already exist and cannot be surmounted merely by improved technology. For example, missiles themselves are not necessary. Many nuclear weapons weigh about 35 pounds and fit nicely inside an average waste basket. A suitcase is a perfectly adequate delivery system. Such bombs can be detonated by remote control, even by satellites.
    Moreover, the United States has both stealth missiles and stealth bombers, both of which can evade SDI detection or interception. Stealth bombers do not show up on radar screens. Cruise missiles fly low, under the range of radar systems and the stealth version cannot be detected by radar even when it flies higher. What the U.S. has, the USSR will soon have. These developments, plus the cheapness of counter-Star Wars measures, will render Reagan’s pet project an irrelevant waste of money.

The peace movement actually did a good job of explaining the theory of nuclear winter to the public. However, it has apparently influenced military strategists not at all. They take no account of the fact that a few hundred missiles that penetrate Star Wars and reach urban targets might be enough to end life on earth. Moreover, they have undertaken a publicity counter-offensive directed toward undermining the theory of nuclear winter, without actually citing any relevant research. Actually, more recent studies such as the SCOPE research3, have reinforced the conclusion that the biosphere would be uninhabitable after a nuclear war. The work of publicizing this fact must be an ongoing task. Every public speaker defending Star Wars should be questioned on this topic. The compartmentalization of issues should be challenged at every opportunity.

A second body of scientific information that needs to be disseminated better deals with the risk of accidental nuclear war. The dangers have been minimized by the U.S. Military, whereas such investigators as Daniel Ford have been able to point out potentially fatal flaws in the existing Command, Control, Communication, and Intelligence systems.4

Finally, it must be expected that a few military strategists are imaginative enough to think of other, non-nuclear methods of waging war. There are chemical, biological, and even more innovative technologies at hand, such as those that change the climate, or that cause earthquakes, or that set up force-fields, or that zap enemies with microwaves.

In a word, the primary objective of the disarmament movement remains this: to continue convincing the public that any defence against nuclear weapons is a futile exercise. The only defence against nuclear warfare is political.

Nuclear Peace, Conventional Peace

Even the modest beginnings at nuclear disarmament so far undertaken have been opposed by NATO military strategists who work on Europe’s defence. Notable in this camp was the Commander in Chief of NATO, General Bernard Rogers, who trotted out the old argument that the Pershing II missiles are needed in Europe because the conventional forces there would be inadequate to win a fight against Soviets, The NATO forces would have to “go nuclear” unless everyone agreed to replace nuclear weapons with a much larger conventional force.

So the peace movement is, in some respects, back where we started five years ago. The range of credible arguments has been narrowed, yet the original positions and the old arguments have not been disposed of. If we are not to go around this circle again, we must ask why we have failed to change public opinion.

Answer: Activists have not properly addressed the real reason for the general toleration of the arms race. For example, the peace movement has never debated General Rogers theory. We have fought a one-issue campaign against nuclear weapons, and when people proposed that the nukes could be given up only if replaced with stronger conventional forces, our movement has had nothing to say. It is only nuclear weapons that we have tried to stop, People can keep the rest!

But it is ordinary tanks and bullets that keep Europe in thrall now. It is ordinary bullet holes that pepper the walls in Budapest. Only if Europeans can rid themselves of these ordinary tanks and troops and bullets can they have a normal life again. Quite apart from the ridiculous argument that the United States or its allies are not spending enough money on defence, it is also ridiculous to claim that increasing conventional weapons will give more security than exists now. Security will not be created by matching or exceeding the Russians in conventional weapons. On the contrary, the pursuit of conventional defence system is the justification for nuclear weapons, Nobody would begin firing off nuclear weapons in Europe unless they had already been using conventional ones. Instead of increasing conventional forces, we must look to the political conditions that make people want them.

Furthermore, we should listen when Europeans say that they want nuclear weapons because the Russians may come. It is useless to protest, as the Western peace movement has done, that the Soviet Union has no intentions of invading. That may be so, but Europeans immediately point to Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the Berlin Wall. To dismiss their concerns as unreal is to miss the chance to create the only kind of security that they will trust.

There is no military method of bringing peace and security to Europe. Security will result from demilitarization. It requires a political solution to the deeper tensions that cause the arms race.

The Legacy of World War II

World War II is still shaping Europe. People seek shelter under the protective embrace of one superpower to avoid the oppression of the other. The only solution is a root one—to create a secure space between and outside the domain of either superpower.

The peace movement has been only a disarmament movement. It has dealt with the arms race as if it could be solved separately from other issues. But the arms race is really a symptom. If disarmament is attained, the real work of addressing the tensions of the world will only just begin.

Fortunately, the European peace movement has undergone a continuing dialogue over the past four years. A common platform and text has been proposed by a network of Eastern and Western independent peace activists. Their position was presented to the public in November, 1986 in Vienna5 at a review meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). It calls for the development of a neutral Europe, country by country, under the leadership of the CSCE. It links human rights with peace, saying that both are essential, but that either without the other is deeply flawed. At the same time, it explicitly rejects any effort to trade off any of the Helsinki “baskets” for any of the other three baskets. For example, human rights are not to be surrendered or bargained for by offering disarmament in exchange.

A Demilitarized Europe

Quite apart from the peace movement’s responsibility to influence public opinion on Star Wars, it must also work at this fundamental level—on the root causes of anxiety, the reasons why people have accepted nuclear weapons in Europe. This requires proposing a better substitute for conventional weaponry. The main objective is to demilitarize Europe. The North American peace movement has not developed any proposals for this sort of campaign, but it is a well-developed proposal among European activist groups.

Now is the time for this to be taken up, since there are reasons to believe the Soviets open to the idea. Indeed, Andrei Gromyko was the source of such an early version of this plan; Adam Rapacki, Foreign Minister of Poland, again raised such an prospect in the late fifties, and the Palme Commission picked it up again a few years ago. It is time for peace activists to promote it anew in a more expanded form.

The thirty-three nations of Europe, through the organizing the Helsinki process could decide to require the withdrawal of troops and heavy military equipment from all the countries that do not now own nuclear weapons. This could be combined with a statement that such weapons may be neither on nor aimed at their territories. The occupying troops in these countries could be replaced with an international peacekeeping and verification force, which would monitor compliance with the new plan. An ombudsman and other mechanisms for adjudication of violations could be set up.

This evacuation of foreign troops would allow for the democratization of European society, so that citizens could decide to allow for freedom of travel and trade in both directions, for example, The citizens of both Germanys might develop some new political relationship, up to and including re-unification, so long as their demilitarized status could be assured permanently.

While Central Europeans would be delighted with this prospect, many of them doubt that the Russians would accept it, since as they point out, all changes from the “Potsdam” terms have previously been unacceptable to the Soviets. Still, the Europeans’ fatalism (which results from bitter experience) must be shaken off. Possibilities exist that have not been present since World War II.

Actually, the Soviets are far more open to the idea than are the Western nuclear nations, the United States, Britain, and France. After all, the whole thrust of the western alliance has been to convince Europe that its security depends on supporting NATO’s military ambitions. A free Europe, put together again as a unified continent, would be an economic and social force equal to either superpower—a prospect that would be unwelcome to the nuclear nations.

But the Soviets would be interested in the neutralization of Europe only if it included a solution to the German question. No peace treaty has been concluded with Germany since World War II, and hence there has never been any official statement made as to whether the partition of Germany is a permanent or temporary matter.

Same Central European activists, such as Charta 77 in Czechoslovakia, take the view that the reunification of Germany should be accepted—an idea that the Soviets find generally abhorrent. However, if they could be assured of the permanent neutrality and de-militarized status of Germany, they might accept the idea.

Another factor also counts in their calculations. Central Europe is an albatross to them. The regular uprisings there have made it obvious that they are oppressors, not (as they pretend) welcome defenders of popular governments. The maintenance of this embarrassing state of affairs is a costly and onerous burden which the Soviets might very well prefer to discontinue, should it be possible to assure their own security in some other way.

Nevertheless, most Central Europeans do not believe such a change is possible, even if Gorbachev should wish it. Suppose, they point out, that Czechoslovakia, Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, and the German Democratic Republic were allowed such independence. Surely the Latvians, Ukrainians, Estonians, Armenians, and other national groups within the Soviet Union would want an equivalent deal, not to mention the Soviet Moslem populations. Any liberalization in central Europe would court uprisings within the USSR itself.

Moreover, Central Europeans are keenly aware of the opposition to Gorbachev’s initiatives in the Soviet Union. His liberalization campaign already challenges the privileges of an immense bureaucratic and military elite and risks overt resistance; Khrushchev was unable to carry out even milder reforms than Gorbachev has attempted.

All the same, if a solution is to emerge for the nuclear arms race, it will come only from realizing that the weapons are not alone the problem. A real solution will reduce the tensions that might give rise to their use. This is the proper agenda for the peace movement of the 1990s.


1 Tom Gervasi, The Myth of Soviet Nuclear Supremacy York: Harper and Row, 1986.

2 Sidney D. Drell, Philip J. Farley, and David Holloway, The Reagan Strategic Defense initiative: A Technical, Political and Arms control Assessment, (Hagerstown, MD.: Ballinger, 1986.) William M. Arkin and Richard Fieldhouse, Nuclear Battlefields:. Global Links in The Arms Race (Hagerstown, MD: Ballinger, 1986.)

3 A massive study by Scientific Committee On Problems Of the Environment (SCOPE) has been presented in a popular form by Lydia Dotto in Planet Earth in Jeopardy. Environmental Consequences of Nuclear War (New York: John Wiley,. 1986).

4 Daniel Ford, The Button: The Pentagon’s. Strategic Command and Control System. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965. Also, Daniel Frei, The Risks of Unintentional Nuclear War

5 Giving Real Life to the Helsinki Accords, the European Network for East-Dialogue. 12 pages, mimeo. Contact East European Cultural Foundation, Jan Kavan, P.O. Box 222, London WC2H 9RP. Phone 01/609 0152.

The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy, by Metta Spencer, published by Lexington Books