Why Isn't Everybody in the Peace Movement?

By Metta Spencer, University of Toronto.
A paper presented at the Canadian Sociological and Anthropolgical Association Meetings, Guelph, June 9, 1984. Disponable en français sous le titre Pourquoi le mouvement pour la paix ne rallie-t-il pas tout le monde?

Since 1982 the nuclear arms race has become an issue again, and a world-wide social movement has sprung up demanding a reversal of that military build-up. The movement in Canada has been almost entirely limited to actions oriented to preventing the testing of the cruise missile; and although that testing is by now a fait accompli, the disarmament movement has not diminished noticeably and may even be growing. (A Vancouver demonstration set the Canadian record in April 1984, when an estimated 115,000 Canadians marched in the streets.)

Nevertheless, on the whole, the Canadian movement is not comparable in scale or intensity to the movements in Britain, west Germany, and other European countries — which for their part have not been strong enough to date to prevent the deployment of Euromissiles. Polls suggest that popular opinion in all western countries strongly favors disarmament, but apparently not fervently so: Other issues, such as economic policy, have been determining the outcome of political contests far more than the parties’ position on disarmament.

In view of the serious threat to humanity that these weapons present, it would be ludicrous to ask why the current peace movement has begun. The only reasonable questions to ask are these: What took us so long? And why isn’t everybody in the disarmament movement? Canadian research naturally must begin with a Canadian focus, which I propose to do. However, we are dealing with a question of general significance, and so the major part of this paper will attempt to account for the relative weakness of the global peace movement.


It is easy to identify certain structural and cultural factors that influence the ability of peace activists to mobilize political support in Canada.

Canada as an American Satellite. When Prime Minister Trudeau was elected, he began a general retrenchment in Canada`s militarization, clearly against the wishes of the several American administrationsi that have come and gone during his lengthy period of leadership. In recent years, the U.S. has increased its demands for Canada to “meet its obligations” by spending more on weapons destined for Europe. Though Canada has complied to some extent, a far less expensive way for it to demonstrate commitment to the NATO alliance was to make a symbolic gesture, i.e. permitting the testing of cruise missiles and other American weapon systems in Canada. A refusal of this request would indeed constitute a breach of friendship with unpredictable consequences.

Canadians are especially aware of their economic interdependence with their neighbors to the south, who without any provocation are already in a protectionist mood that threatens Canadian interests. To refuse the requests of a popular American president would likely aggravate the situation and hurt the Canadian economy, and the voters know it. (Indeed, they probably even exaggerate the potential for this, and underestimate their potential influence on U.S. pro-freeze politicians, who would appreciate Canadian moral support.)

Regionalism. Another factor impeding the development of a coherent, nation-wide disarmament movement in Canada is geographical: Since the Canadian population is distributed in a long, narrow ribbon of land across the continent, few movement organizers can afford to` travel or even phone across the country. That, plus its linguistic diversity means that Canada“s movement is organized on a more regional basis than any of the other countries that are equally implicated in the East-west power struggle. To date, only one national conference has brought peace activists together for a coordinated effort: It was in winnipeg in February of this year, under the auspices of the Peace Petition Caravan Campaign. (That campaign is now canvassing on a nation-wide scale with a petition demanding that parliament declare Canada a Nuclear weapon Free Zone.) Most peace activists are working in local groups; since no national coalition exists or can even be anticipated in the near future, no coherent policy can be enunciated for the peace movement as a whole. The government, which dyes have a unified policy, can hardly be blamed for ignoring a movement that does not. And the media do not know where to turn for interviews with authoritative spokespersons for the entire Canadian disarmament movement.

Electoral System. A third factor that may hamper efforts to translate opposition to militarism into a political force is the Canadian electoral system. This is, of course, a relative matter, since many other nations have the same constraints. In a political system with proportional representation, people do not feel that they are “wasting” their vote by supporting very small parties, and this gives an opening to groups demanding social change. The Greens, for example, were able to enter the Bundestag in W. Germany while they had only a small following, and carry on their campaign as parliamentarians. No upstart group of activists could hope to accomplish the same thing in Canada, Britain, or the United States, where the “winner takes all” in elections. Even if 30 percent of Canadians could be convinced to place their vote on the basis of peace issues, they might still find no ridings in which they were the majority.

Political Freedom. Although Canadian peace activists find themselves constrained by all of the above factors, these disadvantages are of course strikingly minor in comparison to those’ confronting would-be peace activists in many repressive societies, where demonstrations are crushed instantly by the full coercive potential of the regime. Canadians complain when their phones are tapped and when the police are less than gentle in carrying them away from a demonstration at Litton Industries; in relative terms, however, they probably enjoy as much opportunity to organize protests as any people on earth. Thus the restrictive structural factors that we have named are by no means adequate explanations for the failure of Canadians to make the disarmament issue into the uppermost political issue of the day.

It would seem appropriate, then, not to attempt any explanation of Canadian apathy as if it were unique, but to seek a general understanding of the considerable indifference that anti-nuclear protestors are meeting in every society.


Whether it represents a mere sociological fashion or something more profound, the trend among students of social movements is to explain participation, not as irrational, but as a decision made in the usual way — by weighing anticipated costs against probable benefits.

Resource mobilization theory, the approach that rests most firmly on this rational model of behavior, has sometimes successfully shown how seemingly irrational incidents of collective behavior can be explained in terms of costs and benefits-i.e. in terms of risks and likely rewards anticipated by individuals pursuing their individual goals. Indeed, the most fruitful aspect of the model may be its pointed distinction between the benefits that may come to one as an individual and those that can be won or lost only collectively.

It was Mancur Olson (1965) who developed some of the implications of this distinction, highlighting the fact that one’s interests as a group member may conflict with one’s interests as an individual. Social movements are collective efforts to provide benefits that accrue to the whole group, not just to the individual. Yet any social movement depends on the personal sacrifice of members, who pay the costs of participating in the full knowledge that, if they succeed, they will gain no more from it than those members who contributed nothing. The “rational” person, according to Olson, is the “free rider” — the member who does not incur the costs of participating in the movement, but who enjoys all the benefits of its ultimate success. Indeed, Olson finds inexplicable the acceptance of burdensome participation, except perhaps as responses to certain side benefits, such as the prospect of glory or an opportunity to become a leader.

This theory has some dubious aspects, to be sure. The most questionable aspect is probably Olson’s apparent assumption that one`s individual interests somehow count more than the interests one has as a group member. Nevertheless, the theory has a certain obvious logic: Participation in a social movement is as an investment of time, energy, and money that is presumably influenced by the likelihood of a successful outcome, To mobilize many participants and thus realize good results, a movement needs demonstrably favorable prospects; the ratio between its probable rewards and the risks that one must incur by joining must be attractive. when this is the case, resource mobilization theory predicts that the movement will gain supporters who, by their numbers, will increase the probability of victory. (Walsh and Warland, 1983) The power of the movement is a function of the plausibility of the incentives for individuals to participate, which are rarely compelling in the early phases of a movement.

We must consider then whether resource mobilization theory contains the solution to our question. Perhaps the explanation for the disarmament movement’s limited success is simply thisi The probability of a successful outcome seems small in comparison to the great costs that such a campaign will impose on participants.

There is no empirical disproof of this explanation. However, a moment’s reflection diminishes its appeal on logical grounds. The costs of carrying out a disarmament movement must be measured against the likely costs of not carrying one out-i.e. of allowing the arms race to run its course. Many polls show that a majority of respondents expect a nuclear war. Moreover, there is substantial and growing agreement among informed people (military specialists, scientists, and peace activists alike) that the nuclear arms race may result in the self-extinction of the human species.(Ehrlich, 1983; Sagan, 1983; Turco, 1983) Surely this would be, in human terms, the ultimate cost. Since no conceivable outcome could be worse, this cost is immeasurable, even infinite. Measured against that, the cost of participating in the disarmament movement, however great, is a matchless bargain.

What are we to call a human being by whose reckoning such a commitment is judged a poor investment? Rational? Hardly.

Yet such people exist. In fact, the planet teems with them. And while we may permit ourselves, as sociologists, to stipulate that they are irrational (since that acknowledgment so handily disposes of one bad theory and clears the ground for better ones) it doesn’t help us answer our original question: Rational or irrational, why aren’t they all in the peace movement? What’s the matter with people when they don’t protest against their own impending extinction? we need a more powerful theory than any current sociological one to explain that kind-of mind-set.


Question: what is so important to human beings that they cannot let go of it, though the world perish?

Answer: A coherent, stable world view; an ordered notion of reality. In short, an ideology. Whether it’s right or wrong, we depend on the one we`ve pieced together. Right or wrong, it gets us through the day.

Every world view is a tissue of assumptions held together by dubious conclusions, too flimsy to stand much scrutiny. Just to get by, we must infuse the thing with enormous faith and question it as little as possible. And whenever we can incorporate, as a part of our world view, a system of beliefs that are coherent, self-consistent, and reliable in accounting for ongoing events, we prize it as indispensible.(cf. Festinger, 1957) woe to anyone who points out its flaws.

What does this have to do with social movements? Simply this: People have cognitive limits. If they can see a problem clearly and imagine a solution to it, they may commit themselves to work on it. If the proposed solution only brings to mind new and incomprehensible difficulties, they will throw up their hands and balk at discussing the matter further. Never mind the costs and possible benefits; if the solution requires too many shifts in an otherwise serviceable system of beliefs, it will not be adopted.

Some social movements demand simple, comprehensible social changes. The Vietnam war was a barbarity that revealed itself starkly before viewers every night on the evening news. Not much imagination was required to see a practical solution to it: Bring the boys home and let the Vietnamese decide their own fates. Likewise, the Civil Rights movement was straightforward and uncomplicated in its principles: Discrimination is unfair; Blacks should be treated like everyone else. The wor1d-wide Student Movement of the 1960s was straightforward in calling for more human-scale universities with democratic governance. The Women`s Movement clearly called for new social arrangements, but whether one liked them or not, one could see what they would amount to. The Ecology movement may be costly and difficult, but it too is comprehensible: Just install smokestack scrubbers and fine the firms that dump chemicals, and all will be well.

In comparison to these social movements, the protest against the nuclear arms race is staggering in its complexity. First the mind boggles; then it turns off. Even good minds do. Anger arises when the issue is pressed beyond this phase.

Peace activists, after they have led a public discussion of the issue, rarely come away filled with satisfaction at the outcome. Most such events are frustrating and unproductive. The discussions begin well enough: People do not disagree with the experts’ predictions of catastrophic outcomes. Everybody knows that the bombs will probably kill us all. They shake their heads sadly and say that, yes, it is terrible. Nobody wants nuclear weapons.

But then the discussion enters its next phase: The audience begins to consider what would happen if we actually disarmed? There are so many lines of thought, so many problems and objections, that no orderly discussion is possible. Arguments break out but cannot be pursued to any conclusion because other arguments divert the discussion. when people leave, their original world views are still intact. To change any component belief, the whole system of ideas would have to change simultaneously.

Some of the most important beliefs in our society are profoundly mistaken. But because ideologies are integrated systems, they cannot be disassembled in a piecemeal way through rational criticism or the imparting of correct information. Each component belief would, if corrected, be dissonant in the context of the whole. The mind struggles to maintain the coherence of its cognitions. Only social movements that demand a modest amount of adaptation in culture-wide systems of ideas have much chance of being supported.

Without suggesting that there is any solution to this problem, I propose to list, in the remainder of this paper, the main considerations that arise in almost every audience that begins to entertain seriously the prospect of nuclear disarmament. One will see the complex linkages that exist among these topics, and the consequent difficulty of resolving any of them separately. Some of them can be answered with some confidence; others are more uncertain. There may be value in appraising these questions and suggesting which ones are especially problematic and which less so. Moreover, there is some specialization among the Canadian peace groups, and I will point out which organizations are especially concerned with each of the considerations that will be listed.


We Need the Bombs to Deter Aggression

The key concern that arises when people begin to imagine disarmament is their fear of becoming vulnerable. They acknowledge that no defense exists against nuclear weapons, but take comfort from the capacity to retaliate with such severity that no enemy in his right mind would initiate a nuclear fight. “After a1l,” they insist, “nuclear weapons have kept us out of a major war for 37 years.” In their response to this question, peace groups are absolutely united. Any knowledgeable anti-nuclear lecturer, given sufficient time without interruption, will cover most of the following points:

1. Historically, deterrence policies have generally led, not to a stable peace, but to war. Each side, feeling threatened by the other`s “deterrent” force, increases its own in response, with an arms race resulting. And 70 percent of the arms races in history have resulted in war (Singer, 1980)

2. Alan Newcombe’s study of wars shows that, far from being safer from war because of their deterrent capacities, nations that are armed more heavily than average for their income level, are 30 times as likely to get into a war within five years as nations that are relatively “under-armed.” The over-armed nations hardly ever attack “weak” ones; instead, they fight each other. (Newcombe,l982).

3. The current arms race has reduced the time available for checking false reports of incoming attacks. The shorter the available checking time, the more likely one nation is to respond to a false alarm, thus unintentionally delivering the first strike. (Bereanu, 1983) One study estimates that during a crisis, when the “safety locks” are removed from many missiles, ithere is a 95 percent probability that our side will respond to a false alarm within eight days. (Wallace, 1984)

4. The policy of “mutually assured destruction,” which is based on the hope of deterring aggression, has been gradually replaced by other military policies, which specifically contemplate using nuclear weapons in a variety of situations. Indeed, the present military build up is a development of first-strike weapons, not ones designed to retaliate against an aggression by the other side. This policy, called the “counterforce strategy” does not threaten retaliation against the opponent`s cities, but seeks the capacity to deliver a PRE-EMPTIVE surprise attack against the opponent’s missiles and military installations, so precise that they could not retaliate. This is not a policy of deterrence, but a plan for actual war.(Zuckerman, 1982:53)

5. The argument that “nuclear weapons have kept us out of war so far” is untenable. For one thing, many millions of people have died in “proxy” wars in Third world countries since world war II ended. And the causal inference about “prevention” fails the test of logic. One might as well say, “I have smoked cigarettes for 37 years and I don’t have cancer. That proves that smoking prevents cancer!”

While all Canadian peace groups have repeatedly stressed these points in public discussions, relatively few people in each audience have been converted to the disarmament program. Instead, as soon as their minds have been unsettled by hearing the first one or two of the above points, they shift away and raise one of the other considerations.

The Unverifiability of Mutual Disarmament

Contrary to widespread opinion, probably less than 10 percent of Canadian peace activists support “unilateral disarmament.” Instead, they generally favor a gradual, mutual reduction in nuclear weaponry A effected either by treaties calling for verification procedures, or by a “unilateral initiative.” Such an initiative would involve a pre-announced reduction in weaponry by a specified amount — say ten percent — and an offer to reduce it still further whenever the other side reciprocates.

Nevertheless, there are many who worry that neither side could determine whether their opponents have actually carried out such reductions. They would therefore refuse to take the “risk” of starting such a reduction.

While the Soviets have dropped many of their objections to on-site inspections, it does indeed remain realistic to recognize the possibility of limited concealment on both sides, and take precautions to avoid it.

Science for Peace, an organization representing academics of all disciplines, especially the physical sciences, has led the way in the Canadian peace movement in discussing the question of verification. It prepared a document promoting the development of an International Satellite Monitoring Agency that would be administered through the United Nations and would serve the whole world by providing photographs to all the nations that cannot now monitor the movements of troops and weapons.

While satellites can keep track of many weapons, other forms of verification are also necessary; Science for Peace has proposed to carry out a comprehensive study of all known methods of verification, such as seismology, atmospheric radiation counts, and other technologies directed at detecting other non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction, such as biological and chemical warfare. So far it has not obtained funding for such a study, but several of its members have expertise and can evaluate the verification problems authoritatively. They agree that many of the current developments in the nuclear arms race are especially dangerous precisely because they render verification so difficult and therefore jeopardize the prospects for verifiable arms control treaties in the future.

What About the Russians?

Everyone can see that the arms race continues because of the bad relations between the capitalist and socialist blocs. If hostilities could be reduced, disarmament would be easy — and considerably less urgent. (we don’t worry about being bombed by the British nuclear weapons, for example, since they are owned by our friends. We worry only about those owned by our “enemies.”) Advocates of disarmament inevitably are challenged to provide a workable view of the Russians consistent with an arms reducation policy. It is in such discussions that the fur always begins to fly.

The issue, as perceived by the general public, is starkly simple: Either (a) the Russians are bad and we need our bombs or (b) they are good, and we don`t need them.

The conservative governments of the western countries operate with the former assumption. Thus President Reagan calls the Soviets “that evil empire,” and prides himself on holding them in check with his hard-line military threats. He says they are “hunkered down” waiting for an opportunity to pursue their evil ambitions as soon as a weaker U.S. administration comes to power. Only his firm military readiness keeps them in line. Evidence is clear that they are a dreadful society: They do not allow their citizens the most fundamental human rights, such as freedom of speech and assembly. They have most recently invaded Afghanistan, and lots of other countries before that. If they would just “give in,” we could reduce the nuclear arms race, but until they do, we must not.

The peace movement, recognizing this view as the source of our present danger of nuclear war, is obliged to provide a different view, but its member groups do not agree about which view to promote. There are difficulties in each approach. I will list the most common alternatives to the hard line anti-communist view.

1. The Russians are good, so we don’t need the bomb. The left wing peace groups (such as the Canadian Peace Congress) generally promote this view, but without much effect on public opinion.

Their spokespersons argue along these lines: Of course, the Soviets are human, and they have their problems too. But most of our image of Soviet life is created by the biased portrayals of the western media. Get to know some Russians and you’ll find out that they are not very different from the rest of us. True, there are a few e political prisoners in that country, but it has basically straightened out its problems since Stalin’s day, when millions were prisoners of conscience. And besides, the U.S. is giving support to political regimes that have human rights violations a hundred times worse than the USSR: El Salvador and the Philippines and Chile are only a few examples. People aren’t being killed by death squads in the USSR, as they are by certain “a1lies” of the U.S.

Furthermore, as the proponents of this “soft-line” approach to the Soviets point out, in the United Nations the Soviet Union has repeatedly voted, along with almost all other countries, for disarmament resolutions that the United States has been virtually alone in rejecting. The Americans, and not the Soviets, have led the arms race by inventing virtually every new nuclear weapon, and the Soviets have been “forced” to match these threats 3 or 4 years later. (Wallis, 1982: 34) Now for the first time the two sides are about equal in power and the U.S. doesn`t like that and intends to get ahead again. It is they, and not the Russians, who are to blame for the whole problem.

While this view contains several factual points that are indisputably correct, as a whole it is unconvincing to most Canadians who hear it. There is no prospect whatever that they will simply switch from a supporting the Reagan/Thatcher hard line position to the opposite extreme-a sweeping endorsement of the Soviet position. In partie cular, audiences react with great suspicion whenever a speaker appears too uncritical of the Soviet`s human rights violations, its domination of its European satellites, or its invasion of Afghanistan, Playing down the importance of these problems is the surest way for a speaker to find oneself written off as a “dupe.”

2. The Russians are dangerous, all right, because they are afraid. This perspective does not whitewash the aggressiveness and repression of the Soviet regime, but its explanation and proposed responses differ from those of the hard·line anti-communists. And this is the approach that most peace activists share.

Their reasoning goes like this: The Russians have been invaded 5 times. Fourteen Western nations, including the United States, invaded in 1920 to crush the revolution. In World War II, over 20 million Soviet citizens were killed by the Nazis. They are exceedingly nervous about the security of their borders, and want a buffer zone of friendly states around their perimeter. They have rarely intevened in distant places, as the U.S. frequently does, but any neighboring country that turns anti-communist must expect a forcible response from the USSR.

The Russians’ fear makes them very dangerous. In order to allay their anxieties and reduce the danger of war, we must be careful not to intimidate them militarily, but show them our readiness to reverse the arms race. we haven’t forced them to “give in” by threatening them; now let’s try reducing the pressure instead and see if they respond to that.

Hands are always raised in the audience at this point. Someone asks, “Maybe so, but what about the way they repress their own dissidents? That can`t be caused by fear of us”.

Peace activists differ in their responses to this issue. One speaker may reply, “Their internal repression comes from fear too — the government`s fear of the ordinary citizens. They think they have to keep the lid on because if they allowed any protests, there would be turmoil and they might get thrown out.”

Other people in the peace movement have quite different views. They say that the internal repression in the Soviet Union is not motivated by the government’s fear, but is just traditional. The Czars were always tyrants, and the people have never expected anything else. They don`t even want it to change. Russians really despise dissidents and want them to be jailed. They don`t believe in individualism or personal freedom, and we can’t change their culture and make them think the way we do. But that doesn’t mean that they want to attack us. Internationally, they want peace.

Probably neither of these two interpretations is entirely correct; the truth is likely someplace in between. However, neither answer, nor any combination of the two, is entirely satisfying to most Canadians in the audience. Neither approach proposes any clear, practical way of dealing with the Soviets. Whatever the reason may be for their policy of internal repression, it remains a thorny problem for Westerners. There is, however, a third interpretation of the matter, as follows:

3. The West should avoid polarizing its relations with the East. Unfortunately, ambivalence is an uncomfortable state of mind. The normal, easy way of thinking is to blame one`s enemies and justify whatever one`s friends do. This is why the relations between the Warsaw pact and NATO countries are so polarized now . According to some Canadian peace activists-notably pacifist groups such as the Quakers and Mennonites-any improvement must begin by bridging this gap. They insist that we have to learn to deal with our “enemies” and “friends” with equal civility, and without pretending to approve or disapprove of everything they do. Harmony is best preserved by keeping communication lines open, searching for areas of agreement and cooperation, yet standing up honorably for one’s own values. In dealing with the Soviets, this means saying when we are offended by human rights violations, yet saying so in a constructive manner.

This perspective requires the maintenance of a delicate balance, an ambiguity that is psychologically difficult to sustain. People normally find it easier to identify the Russians as either friend or foe, and treat them accordingly.

Speakers who promote this perspective actually seem to frustrate their audiences, who demand that they “stop sitting on the fence and declare which side they are on.” Yet the solution to the present impasse or example, requires just such a balancing of truths. The average Canadian is right in viewing the USSR as a repressive society. Few of us would enjoy living there; this, however, is no reason for maintaining NATO’S nuclear arsenal.

The peace movement’s task (not yet fulfilled) is to propose a civil, reasonable way, comprehensible to the average Canadian, of orienting toward the Soviet regime without betraying our own ideal of freedom.

The Economics of the Arms Race

People readily wade into conflictful discussions of deterrence and the Russian question. They are slower to raise the question of jobs, perhaps because it is a delicate matter to imply that anyone might promote militarism just for economic advantage. Nevertheless, the question is there is every mind, and it probably influences more political decisions than people admit.

There can be little doubt that it was the government’s expenditures on world war II that ended the Great Depression. This conclusion has been generalized, in popular thinking, producing the widespread conviction that military expenditures keep the economy going and assure jobs for everyone.

Unless this belief is dispelled, disarmament will not be a popular policy.

But the question is far too complex to dismiss with a few airy remarks. The inability of economists to predict has been demonstrated over the past decade; there are few certainties in this field. However, despite the difficulties involved, some peace groups have tackled the question bravely. The Cruise Missile Conversion Project, for example, has pressed hard for a serious program that would divert funding from Litton’s production of cruise guidance systems to work that would sustain human needs. Likewise, the Christian Initiative for Peace has emphasized the same point, while demonstrating in a style befitting religious leaders.

Some facts can easily be adduced concerning the relation between the economy and militarization. Statistics provided by the U.S. Labor Department itself indicates that spending on military production is a poor way of creating jobs; such production is capital intensive, not labor intensive. Dollar for dollar, investing in other industries- construction, education, virtually anything else-would create many more jobs than military expenditures (Sivard, 1981:20).

Moreover, there is evidence in the comparative productivity of various nations that the more of its income that an industrialized nation spends on the military, the less productive its economy becomes, and the less it is able to compete on the world markets (Sivard, 1981: 19) .

However, such evidence is insufficient to allay rational concerns. The world`s military budget is of a staggering scale now. There are many questions as to the possible effect of cutting it sharply, and investing the savings in production for peaceful uses. The most serious question has to do with the effect of such conversion on the demand for products. Unless demand remains high and fairly steady, factories must shut down. Military hardware has this advantage to manufacturers: It is forever becoming obsolete and having to be replaced, even if it is never used. One can keep producing the stuff endlessly without worry about creating a glut on the market that would diminish the demand and force producers to shut down. Conversion to the manufacture of good for real human needs would make the market more susceptible to the variability of demand for products.(Simoni, 1984: 74-100)

This may not be a serious problem. The Third world countries, which are now buying military hardware from the industrial countries, could divert their expenditures to the purchase of machine tools and other useful products. Even if there are limits to the consumers’ demands in the rich countries, basic wants remain unmet in the poor ones. Still, finding a way to make the transition in an orderly fashion is a challenge we cannot be confident of meeting adequately, even if the effort is made.

However, it is certain that the current wasteful system of consumption and production typical of capitalist societies cannot continue indefinitely anyway, if only because the resources will be depleted. A more modest standard of living, with more equality between the rich and poor countries, will be forced upon us by circumstances alone if we do not voluntarily move in that direction. (U.N. Disarmament and Development). All the same, the shift to a New International Economic Order, as proposed by Third world countries, is a political task of a scope almost as daunting as the objective of disarmament itself. It would have to begin, for example, by organizing institutions capable of managing the multinational corporations and international banking system that now are beyond the control of any nation state.

Some peace organizations nevertheless are rising to the challenge of studying and recommending changes along these lines. Project Ploughshares approaches militarization in the context of human needs. And a long term educational project is now being prepared by CCIC (the Canadian Council of International Cooperation), an umbrella organization that coordinates the work of the country’s international development groups.

The Cat is Out of the Bag

However persuasively a peace worker addresses the issues we have mentioned so far, many members of the audience raise an even more depressing consideration: Nuclear know-how is not very scarce. A high school boy designed a perfectly workable bomb, just from what he had learned in his ordinary studies. Every terrorist group can acquire a bomb, if it wants to. Even if we dismantled every bomb on earth, humankind cannot forget how to make new ones and, should the occasion arise, will promptly do so. (Schell, 1982)

This may be the ultimate and fatal fact. However, not everyone is prepared to sigh and shrug about the matter; some Canadian peace organizations have realistic proposals to offer that will at least reduce the prospect of such an outcome.

While nuclear know-how is easy to come by, fissionable material is not. Hence the same groups that have dedicated themselves to stopping the spread of nuclear power are in the forefront of groups suggesting ways of controlling nuclear weapon manufacture. And as it turns out, nuclear energy is quickly becoming recognized as a bad idea, both in economic terms and for reasons of safety. If new reactors are not proliferated, the monitoring of the location of bomb-grade fissionable material may turn out not to be unattainable. An existing organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency, if strengthened and expanded, could do a much better job of monitoring the location of fissionable materials for bombs.

Speaking generally, however, it is obvious that all of these problems require solutions at an international level that go beyond any political proposals now current. International law, properly supported and enforced, is required. Canada is not lacking in visionary peace organizations that have been addressing these questions with intelligence for many years. The world Federalists and the United Nations Association are among the leaders in this respect. Their far-reaching proposals deserve the public discussion that is at least 30 years overdue. The world has not come to an end yet. we may have a grace period.


Neil Smelser’s (1963) seminal work on the sociology of collective behavior lists several types of pre-conditions for the emergence of a social movement. what he calls “structural conduciveness” is the type which is most emphasized in empirical research. The glance that we have cast at the Canadian social and political structure in this paper reveals nothing that would seem to impede a social movement in favor of nuclear disarmament, yet that movement has not gathered as much momentum as one might expect, in view of the widespread expectation that nuclear war is an growing threat.

I have argued here that the limitations of this movement must be explained in other terms. It is not that the costs of participating are high and the probable benefits minor: Quite the contrary. Many people are quite aware of the infinite cost of allowing the arms race to proceed unchecked; that awareness, however, is insufficient to A prompt them to act. Something more is needed-namely, what Smelser calls a “generalized belief.” To become engaged in a protest movement demanding social change, one must first have a clear analysis-a shared definition of the situation that states unmistakeably what needs to be done and why. Such clarity has not been attained by the Canadian peace movement.

The essential elements of the “generalized belief” that might become a basis for such a movement are as follows:

  1. The belief that nuclear weapons are not a source of security, but of insecurity. Deterrence is not a workable policy, and besides, the arms race today is not organized to deter aggression, but to initiate it.
  2. The belief that verifiability is a realistic goal that should be pursued wholeheartedly for the sake of secure disarmament.
  3. The belief that the Soviet Union, although perhaps deplorable in many respects, is not unresponsive to peaceful gestures. Its defensive stance is comprehensible as a counterpart to that of the West, and has a similar origin-fear. The reduction of fear is best accomplished, not by increasing, but by decreasing threats.
  4. The belief that the economy is not the beneficiary but the victim of high military expenditures. we can afford to disarm, and can even profit from so doing.
  5. The belief that the proliferation of nuclear weapons can be contained through popular world-wide commitment to international law, international monitoring agencies, and the development of alternative non-nuclear energy sources.

It is not enough to khow that we are in danger. The absence of one or more beliefs in this list may be sufficient to inhibit participation in the peace movement, even by people who fully recognize the catastrophic effects that must be expected of a nuclear exchange. Yet each of the above considerations is a complex and debatable issue about which popular opinion has generally diverged from the views that would support peace activism.

The development of public consciousness on these topics is impeded by the probable effects of “cognitive dissonance.” That is, it is hard to persuade people to change these beliefs one at a time. The mind struggles to maintain the coherence of its beliefs as a whole system. To change one’s opinion on any one of these issues is to create a state of “dissonance” or subjective inconsistency and ambivalence that is usually experienced as stressful.

For these reasons, whenever a peace activist attempts to convince an audience of their errors, all of the other considerations are brought into the discussion in a haphazard stream of thought, with results that rarely meet the activist’s hopes.

What is needed, then, is the concerted contribution of intellectuals. Ordinary citizens lack the patience to assess the components of a belief system of this scale; frustrated by the complexity of the subject, they usually give up in dismay.

The construction of a new, coherent world view is the responsibility of a society’s intellectuals, who then should communicate it to their students or through the popular press in a comprehensible form. Canadian intellectuals, perhaps understandably daunted by the scope of this challenge, have utterly rejected it and remain, even more than the average citizen, pointedly oblivious to the gathering peril. The failure is one of nerve and of mental stamina. Those whose minds have been trained for rigorous work have an opportunity now for heroic commitment.

The predicaments that we face are products of the human imagination. The failure of the intellectual community to rise to this challenge may result in the greatest disaster in the world`s history.

Nature itself has never endangered the survival of our species; we are our only known enemy. There is little basis for hope. By any realistic appraisal, we are likely doomed. Yet for the most part, our doom is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Anticipating the worst, we do nothing to forestall it. It is useless to pretend that anything better is likely, yet it is the ultimate evil to let ourselves be victimized by our listless, value-free work habits. The prophecy is our own utterance, and its fulfillment our own deed.


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