• U.S.

Full Ahead, Course Uncertain

6 minute read
Kurt Andersen

Flush with success, antinuclear groups still lack direction

It was an altogether impressive turnout in New York City’s Central Park. Upwards of 700,000 people assembled for a festive day of speeches by antinuclear activists and pop music by antinuclear performers. “That was America out there,” said New York City Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis. But what did America want?

Virtually everyone shared an acute concern about the prospect of nuclear war. An overwhelming majority favored an immediate U.S.-Soviet freeze on the development of nuclear arms. But beyond those points of agreement, the consensus was shaky. Some groups urged continued public education about the dangers of nuclear arms, but proposed no particular political action. At the other extreme, a few argued blithely for unilateral U.S. disarmament. Thronging along, too, were dozens of divergent factions seeking to hitch a ride on the antinuclear bandwagon to promote just about everything from Government day care funding to African development.

The broad appeal of the antinuclear arms movement, which up to now had been its main strength, may have become its most serious weakness. With so many constituents to please, the movement seems uncertain about what to do next. There is a vision of ultimate success, of course: the dismantling of all the world’s nuclear arsenals, no more threat of annihilation. With this dream no sane person can quibble. Where the disagreement comes is over what workable, real-world arms control measures will be acceptable and, even more, how to achieve them.

Hundreds of towns and states have endorsed practically identical freeze resolutions, all of which call on President Reagan to pursue such a treaty with the Soviet Union. In California, campaigners for a bilateral freeze initiative, placed by petition on November’s ballot, have an advertising budget of $1.2 million. Yet all the widely supported antinuclear initiatives are almost certain to be only symbolic outcries, since neither the House nor Senate is likely to heed the calls for an immediate nuclear freeze. In any case, Reagan is adamantly opposed; he believes such an arms control gambit would be a simplistic quick fix, one that would, moreover, only lock in a putative Soviet nuclear advantage.

Even some allied with the movement are unhappy about the obsession with a simple freeze. “We can’t just say, ‘We want a freeze,’ and pray that we get one,” explains Ezekiel Emanuel, a second-year student at Harvard Medical School. “We have to articulate a position on what the next step is in the long process of ending the arms race.” Roger Molander, the former White House strategic analyst who heads Ground Zero, a scrupulously non-partisan antinuclear educational campaign, understands that it is hard for an impassioned mass movement to accommodate either slow practical progress or technical complexity. “What people are looking for,” says Molander, “is someone who will say, ‘Here is the path to the solution to the problem.’ But it’s characteristic of this problem that thoughtful people don’t know the answer yet.” To invest so much energy and hope in campaigns for a freeze, he believes, is a bit misguided. Says he: “There are those who say the whole house of cards will fall into place once we have a freeze. That is clearly not true.”

Yet the very simplicity of the freeze proposal has helped attract so many millions of sympathizers. More precise or complicated nuclear arms control prescriptions—shelving plans for land-based cruise missiles in Europe, say —would not make inspirational rallying cries. And although the movement’s freeze resolutions call for “bilateralism,” the daunting difficulties implicit in U.S.-Soviet negotiations are rarely given more than glancing, wishful consideration. Says Molander of Ground Zero’s 1983 plans: “Our next step is to approach the problem of how you go about dealing with the Russians.”

Molander may be the single most visible (and thoughtful) leader in the nebulous movement, but there is no individual or organization in command. And there are already signs of strain. The day after the Central Park turnout, Moorhead Kennedy, one of the 53 Iranian hostages and now the director of a peace institute at New York City’s Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, was heckled by anti-nuclear activists as he delivered a lecture on disarmament. He had expressed some wariness of the “extremely seductive” promises that arms control “is an issue for ‘the people,’ that ‘the people’ will take peace into their own hands. Forgotten in this simplification,” he said, “is that governments exist. And it is only they who dispose of these weapons.”

It is too soon to tell if the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks, which begin next week, will blunt the urgency of the movement. But for now, agitation and consciousness raising continue. Last Monday in New York City, nearly 1,700 protesters staged sit-ins—and were arrested—outside the U.N. offices of seven nations: the U.S., the U.S.S.R., China, Britain and France, all of which acknowledge having nuclear weapons, and Israel and South Africa, which are suspected of having them. The 16,000-member Physicians for Social Responsibility is planning a “national day of prayer” in October. The 2,000-member Lawyers Alliance for Nuclear Arms Control will, in August, try to convince the American Bar Association convention to support a modest resolution urging a nuclear nonproliferation treaty and a more temperate U.S. negotiating posture. United Campuses to Prevent Nuclear War, which claims members at 500 colleges, plans to grill congressional candidates in the fall about their arms control stands.

Otherwise, followers are simply urged to spread and keep the faith. Last Wednesday, Activist Dr. Benjamin Spock spoke in Washington. “Don’t ever say that you sent a letter, or went to a demonstration, and nothing happened. Keep it up,” he counseled. “It will happen.” Perhaps it will. But so far, apart from an unimpeachable opposition to nuclear war, the movement is far from determining just what “it” ought to be. —By Kurt Andersen.

Reported by Gary Lee/Washington and Bruce van Voorst/New York

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