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An Anniversary to Celebrate If You Oppose War

The largest peace organization in the United States, Peace Action, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.  Yet surprisingly few Americans know much about it.

Peace Action originated with the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (better known as SANE).  Responding to an invitation by Norman Cousins (editor of the Saturday Review) and Clarence Pickett (the former secretary of the American Friends Service Committee), 27 prominent Americans met on June 21, 1957 in New York City and launched an effort to focus American opinion on the dangers of nuclear weapons testing.

SANE made its debut on November 15, 1957, with a dramatic advertisement in the New York Times.  Signed by 48 well-known Americans, the ad called for the immediate suspension of nuclear testing by all nations—an action that they hoped would halt radioactive contamination and serve as the first step toward a world freed from the prospect of nuclear annihilation.

This advertisement unleashed a burst of antinuclear activity.  Thousands of people responded—writing letters to SANE’s tiny national office, re-publishing the advertisement in other newspapers, and holding local meetings.  By the summer of 1958, SANE had 130 chapters and some 25,000 members, making it the largest peace group in the United States.
In the following years, SANE became a very visible presence in American life.  Hollywood SANE, organized by Steve Allen and Robert Ryan, mobilized a bevy of movie stars.  In May 1960, SANE held an overflow rally at Madison Square Garden, with speeches by Eleanor Roosevelt and other luminaries.  Its newspaper ads were signed by influential world leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Albert Schweitzer, and Bertrand Russell.  The best-known ad featured the world’s most famous pediatrician, Dr. Benjamin Spock, looking gloomily at a young child under the headline:  "Dr. Spock is Worried."
These ventures—and others by comparable movements in other nations—had a major impact upon nuclear weapons policies.  Responding to the popular clamor, the U.S., British, and Soviet governments agreed in October 1958 to halt nuclear testing as they negotiated for a test ban treaty.  Later, President Kennedy dispatched Norman Cousins for talks with Soviet Premier Khrushchev—work that finally led to the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963, the world's first nuclear arms control treaty.
This early triumph, however, was followed by a more difficult experience.  SANE had been an early critic of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, and in November 1965 organized the largest antiwar demonstration up to that time. In 1967, SANE’s co-chair, Dr. Spock, headed up the Spring Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam. SANE became the first non-partisan group to oppose the re-election of President Johnson and the first to support the peace candidacy of Senator Eugene McCarthy, thereby initiating a process that drove the president out of office.  With the Vietnam War grinding on under the Nixon administration, SANE played an active role in the 1969 Moratorium campaign and in the massive marches on Washington to stop the war.  In 1972, it enthusiastically backed Senator George McGovern’s antiwar campaign for the presidency.  Although Nixon won re-election, the war was doomed. As Henry Kissinger complained, the war and the peace protests “shattered the self-confidence” of U.S. officials.

In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, SANE swung back to highlighting the dangers of the arms race.  Nevertheless, the post-Vietnam War era was hard on peace groups, which suffered from a sense of exhaustion.  SANE survived, but just barely.

SANE began to recover after October 1977.  With Soviet-American détente deteriorating, SANE focused upon backing the SALT II Treaty and securing economic conversion legislation.  Its recovery quickened thanks to the new Reagan administration’s militarist program and loose talk of nuclear war, which sparked a vast upsurge of peace activism around the world.  Denouncing the Reagan administration’s military priorities, SANE condemned plans for the deployment of new nuclear missiles in Europe and, in Congress, fought the administration to a near standstill over MX missiles.
During the early 1980s, just as SANE became a major force, so did a new organization: the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign.  The Freeze arose in 1979 as the brainchild of Randy Forsberg, a defense and disarmament researcher.  Recognizing that the division among peace groups rendered them ineffectual, she called on them to unite behind a proposal for a U.S-Soviet agreement to halt the testing, production, and deployment of nuclear weapons.  When they proved enthusiastic, she began circulating a “Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race.”

The Freeze campaign made remarkable progress.  Holding its first national conference in March 1981, the Freeze began organizing all across the country.  On June 12, 1982, when peace groups sponsored an antinuclear demonstration in New York City around the theme of “Freeze the Arms Race—Fund Human Needs,” it escalated into the biggest U.S. political demonstration thus far, with nearly a million participants.  That fall, Freeze referenda appeared on the ballot across the nation.  In this largest referendum on a single issue in U.S. history (covering about a third of the electorate), the Freeze emerged victorious in nine out of ten states and in all but three localities. Five different polls taken during 1983 found average support for the Freeze at 72% and opposition at 20%.  Hundreds of national organizations endorsed the Freeze, as did more than 370 city councils and one or both houses of 23 state legislatures.
This popular uprising had a major impact upon government officials.  Horrified by the Freeze campaign, the Reaganites did their best to discredit and destroy it.  For the Democrats, on the other hand, the Freeze meant political opportunity.  In May 1983, the Democratically-controlled House of Representatives approved a Freeze resolution by a vote of nearly two to one.  In 1984, the Freeze became part of the Democratic Party’s campaign platform.
On the defensive, the Reagan administration was forced to modify its policies.  In an effort to dampen popular protest, the President endorsed the “zero option,” a proposal to remove all intermediate-range nuclear missiles from Europe.  In October 1983, in the midst of massive demonstrations against the deployment of U.S. nuclear missiles in Western Europe, Reagan told his startled secretary of state: “If things get hotter and hotter and arms control remains an issue, maybe I should go see [Soviet Premier] Andropov and propose eliminating all nuclear weapons.” And, over the objections of his advisors, that’s just what he did propose.  Furthermore, in April 1982, shortly after the Freeze resolution was introduced in Congress, Reagan began declaring publicly that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”  He added: “To those who protest against nuclear war, I can only say: 'I’m with you!' ”
The Freeze also hit paydirt in the Soviet Union.  Taking office as Soviet party secretary in March 1985, Gorbachev was profoundly influenced by the worldwide antinuclear campaign.  His "new thinking" about war and peace, Gorbachev declared, "absorbed the . . . demands . . . of  . . . antiwar organizations."  At international disarmament conferences, he set aside time to confer with leaders of SANE and the Freeze.
Responding to advice from antinuclear activists, Gorbachev took Reagan up on the President's offer of the zero option.  Hardline U.S. officials—who had viewed U.S. government talk of the zero option as merely a propaganda gesture—were dismayed, but unable to resist.  The result was the signing in 1987 of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, which eliminated all intermediate-range nuclear missiles from Europe.  This opened the way for further nuclear disarmament accords, as well as for an end to the Cold War.
Meanwhile, starting in the mid-1980s, pressure grew to unite SANE and the Freeze.  In 1987, they merged to form SANE/Freeze, presided over by the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr.

Thereafter, the new organization—renamed Peace Action in 1993—threw its efforts into halting U.S. nuclear weapons production, reducing military spending, cutting off funding for U.S.-backed wars in Central America, and supporting sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa.  On a more positive note, it worked at bettering relations with Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, creating public support for a peace economy, and backing the Middle East peace process.

The new organization’s efforts to end nuclear testing proved particularly successful.  In 1992, it helped steer legislation through Congress that terminated funding for the only kind of U.S. nuclear tests permitted under the Partial Test Ban Treaty: those conducted underground.  With U.S. nuclear testing now halted, the new president, Bill Clinton, negotiated a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

However, despite its political victories and the hopes of its founders, Peace Action—like most of the peace movement in the United States and abroad—lost membership and influence after the late 1980s, thanks to the end of the Cold War and the sense of crisis that conflict had generated.
Even so, starting in the late 1990s, there were signs of renewed danger.  These included the eruption of many smaller wars, the Republican-dominated U.S. Senate’s rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the militaristic policies of the new Bush administration.

In response to these alarming developments, Peace Action experienced another revival.  Its membership grew dramatically, climbing to 100,000.  In 2003, Peace Action launched a Campaign for a New Foreign Policy, mobilizing sympathetic organizations behind a program of supporting human rights and democracy, reducing the threat from weapons of mass destruction, and cooperating with the world community.  Forging a close alliance with the Progressive Caucus in Congress, particularly in connection with ending the Iraq War, Peace Action also worked successfully to block the Bush administration’s proposals for new nuclear weapons.

Thus, as Peace Action celebrates its 50th anniversary this year with events all over the country (including a big bash on the evening of October 22 at the Alhamba Ballroom, in Harlem) it can look back upon an impressive record of accomplishments:  halting numerous wars, fostering nuclear arms control and disarmament, and—overall—creating a saner, more humane world.