The Alcove

Remembering Our Past “Fire and Fury”

Although it’s hard to say what impact, if any, the nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s truly had, in the age of Trump, it is worth revisiting.

By Kevin Mattson

Before Donald Trump’s “both sides” reaction to Charlottesville shook headlines around the country, much of the press was buzzing about the fiery words the President had uttered concerning North Korea. It seems eons ago, I know, but those words still rollick in my mind: First, it was “Fire and fury like the world has never seen.” It sounded a lot like “American carnage”—those wild, apocalyptic words from his inaugural address. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, potentially one of the only men playing the adult in the room, tried to assure the world that Trump didn’t really mean to say what it surely had sounded like to many—a promise of nuclear apocalypse. Yet no sooner had these corrections been made than Trump decided to channel the ghost of John Wayne, declaring the United States was “locked and loaded.” Once again, he suggested that the country was ready to fight a war that any thinking person knows cannot be won.

Trump’s rhetoric—plus the fact that we’ve just passed the 72nd anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—has made an article in the Baffler that much more intriguing. In “Over Our Heads,” Dave Denison has written an important piece, revisiting the past, and in doing so, showing us not just how scary Donald Trump truly is, but also inspiring us to revive the nuclear freeze and disarmament movements of the 1980s. Like many a revisiting-of-the-past-in-the-age-of-Trump piece, it provides a worthy historical lesson, even if the reconstruction it offers sometimes veers off-track.

For those of us who might think, well, he’d never really do it, Denison reminds readers of President Harry S. Truman, the man who did pull the atomic trigger. The portrait Denison paints of Truman and the nuclear bomb is an eerie one. When learning of the obliteration of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, he is said to have declared: “This is the greatest thing in history!” There were reports that he wore a “broad smile” after claiming that the United States had “just dropped a new bomb on Japan which has more power than twenty thousand tons of TNT.” This is most definitely the portrait of a President in over his head.

That’s a fine portrait to paint, but Denison underplays how Truman was not simply reacting with deranged glee to the bomb itself; he had also been worried about the prospects of a long, drawn-out land war against the Japanese, which had seemed to him as the only alternative. Though Denison is right to suggest that Truman was drawn to the “power” of this new weaponry, his decision also came with the recognition that there were few good options in combatting a fascist enemy. Would our current President make the same careful deliberations? One is left to wonder.

Denison’s primary focus, however, is not on the former President as much as it is on the anti-nuclear movement that grew up during the era of Reaganism, one he himself was involved in. He remembers the 1982 breakthrough publication of Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth. In this book, that started off first as a series of articles in The New Yorker, Schell imagined what might happen in the case of a nuclear war—“the United States would be a republic of insects and grass.” Denison offers strong praise for Schell’s work which he calls “one of those rare pieces of journalism that literally moved people.”

Though it no doubt had a strong influence on the movement, what is shocking in any re-reading of the book today is just how pretentious and ponderous it truly is. With long disquisitions on the philosopher Hannah Arendt, it reads mostly like a schoolboy excited about explaining a difficult (i.e. German) philosopher to his middle-brow readers. At times, Schell even turns metaphysical: “We need to remember that neither as individuals nor as a species have we created ourselves.”

Whatever Schell’s book had to do with it, the nuclear freeze movement did erupt and did mobilize a large number of ordinary citizens toward grassroots politics. Denison does admit, nonetheless, that it was a movement “Reagan and the hard-liners around him had been dismissive of.” That’s probably an understatement: After all, Reagan often hinted that the KGB and “foreign agents” were behind it. This was a President familiar with the legacy of the McCarthyite smear. And it should be remembered that—faced with what today we’d call a hot mic—he even joked: “We begin bombing in five minutes.” Although Reagan has been remembered by much of the American public for his affability, his mind often appeared cobwebbed in a frantic attack mode directed toward dissenters.

Indeed it was not until he watched The Day After, a made-for-TV movie released in 1983 depicting a nuclear war hitting the American middle west (Lawrence, Kansas), that he began to budge at all on questions of the massive military build-up that he directed. And when he did finally shift gears after viewing the film, as Denison points out, he did not turn away from nuclear arms. Instead, he chose to emphasize his “Star Wars” missile defense or shield plan. Which meant in fact that the President was hoping to carry out the arms race into space. There wasn’t anything dovish about this.

Which raises a difficult question that Denison sort of circles around without ever really asking: Just how much of an impact did the nuclear freeze movement have in the age of Reagan? If the President could write off all protest as communist-inspired, if it took a television show to get him to rethink but still move in the wrong direction, what, really, is the point? This is not to suggest a completely fatalistic view of such a heavy matter, but rather to temper any revival of the anti-nuclear movement with a bit of realism, a sense of humility about the reach of citizen activism.

After all, it probably wasn’t the freeze movement that pushed Reagan to talk with the Russians during his second term (the movement had in fact died down quite a bit as of 1982). It was a change in leadership in Russia and something called glasnost, and the Soviet leadership’s sense that it could no longer spend so much money on an ever-escalating arms race. However, history is written with more than one stroke, and is the happenstance of many overlapping and intertwined events. What the freeze movement had accomplished up to that point was galvanizing public opinion; it made the Reagan Administration nervous about its spin on escalating the arms race, helped it question the assumption that it had the trust of the American people. Some polls suggest that support for the freeze movement rose to 72 percent in the spring of 1982. It’s not clear just how much citizen action had to do with increasingly negative perceptions of the President around this time, but it’s also hard to dismiss the freeze movement’s impact outright. The huge march of freeze supporters in New York City on June 12, 1982—most of the participants appeared to be average middle-class Americans, certainly not KGB agents—conveyed a message that Reagan could not outright ignore: We, the citizens of the United States, don’t all have your back when it comes to escalating the arms race.

With this in mind, we should indeed strive toward a renewed anti-nuclear movement; and Denison points out that Global Zero, initiated in 2008, and some other groups have done precisely that. It’s too soon to figure out what the impact of these organizations has or will have, just as it remains difficult to know exactly what effect this movement had even back in the day. But Trump’s rhetoric about North Korea makes clear, in no uncertain terms, that we are facing a President who, in Denison’s words, lacks “moral awareness, emotional maturity, restraint and wisdom.” On a whole host of issues, for sure, but no doubt there is a clear danger here when we are speaking of the nuclear trigger. Such a portrait can only help heighten the wisdom of envisioning a world free of nuclear weapons.

But we should also remember that the movement’s past brings into focus, among other things, its glaring weaknesses and even, to a certain extent, the existential absurdity of activism itself.  Protest and activism is hard and difficult work. We can rest assured that Donald Trump will use smear tactics against a revived anti-nuclear movement, as he has against anti-Nazi protestors in recent weeks. Rather than deterring us, however, it should serve to reinforce at once its very necessity. However dim the prospects of successful anti-nuclear activism may seem today, the alternative, that of “fire and fury,” means it is certainly still worth a try.

Kevin Mattson teaches American history at Ohio University. He is author, most recently, of Just Plain Dick: Richard Nixon's Checkers Speech and the "Rocking, Socking" Election of 1952.

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