The Alcove

The 1980s: The Good Ol’ Days?

Although analogies with the past are usually flawed, we can still look at the past in search for some hope against hope about the present.

By Kevin Mattson

Tagged Donald TrumpHistoryProtestsRonald Reagan

For many of us, history’s about big names—in America, usually presidents—and big events—like wars or course-turning elections. But on occasion, history can show us ordinary citizens entering the public sphere and changing politics from the bottom up. And today that seems just the right kind of history to explore.

Case in point over at Boston Review: Andrew Lanham’s provocative piece entitled “Lessons from the Nuclear Freeze.” In it, Lanham delves into how the nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s—during what is infamously now known as the “Age of Reagan”—can inspire contemporary activists living through, dare we call it what it is, the “Age of Trump.”

In a time of hyper-attention deficit disorder, the 1980s may feel to many like a bygone era. We have blurry memories of it, and, when we do think of it, we’re likely to associate it with one man in particular: Ronald Reagan, the one-time Hollywood actor, radio announcer, television host, Barry Goldwater supporter, California governor…and then, in 1980, President of the United States. Lanham reminds readers that Reagan came into office while stoking “people’s fears about the Soviet Union.” And he was quick to populate his Administration with what some call “neo-hawks”: Figures like then-National Security Council member Richard Pipes who “claimed that there was a 40 percent chance of nuclear war” and so it made logical sense  to prepare for it. Reagan himself, during a October 1981 press conference, argued that “it would be possible to use tactical nuclear weapons on specific battlefields without leading to an all-out nuclear war between the superpowers.” If you were a citizen of Europe at the time, Reagan’s plan to install missiles in Germany most definitely set off alarm bells—and inspired, in part, the renewal of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), which began holding major demonstrations opposing the arms race.

In America, the nuclear freeze movement originated in the mind of a woman named Randall Forsberg, a “researcher” in the area of arms control and later an activist. “In 1980,” Lanham writes, “she published a manifesto, ‘Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race’.” Two years later, with a real grassroots movement now in place, activists called for signatures to demand a freeze on weapons testing and drew a million protestors to march in New York City in June of 1982. It was a peaceful, grassroots movement and drew the attention of numerous Congresspeople on both sides of the aisle who signed onto it and tried, unsuccessfully, to press for a “nuclear freeze” in the halls of the legislature and then, with mixed success, voted on as “initiatives” (known as “freeze resolutions”) at the state and local level. The movement continued to warn about the prospects of nuclear war, which, Lanham believes, affected Ronald Reagan’s thinking on the matter. Lanham writes, “If Reagan had previously shown a cavalier willingness to launch a nuclear war, he now spoke of avoiding war and emphasized peace.” This evolution included Reagan’s infamous “Star Wars” plan to set up a mysterious sounding system that could fend off incoming nuclear missiles lobbed at the country. But it also included a “defense budget” that would “shrink every year after 1985.” Peace became yet more inevitable when Reagan decided to negotiate with Russia’s new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. The “freeze” movement had not won outright, but it certainly helped change the tone of debate in this country. Of this, Lanham is quite persuasive.

As you can imagine, Lanham believes that this story has something important to say about our contemporary times. First off, Trump looks, in many ways, like Ronald Reagan—he talks “tough” on foreign policy (even though he sometimes also sounds isolationist) and his budget, similarly to Reagan’s at the time, plans to “massively boost defense spending while slashing” domestic programs. And there’s little doubt now that Trump loves his saber-rattling technique against Syria and North Korea, the way Reagan spoke openly of nuclear war and invaded the island of Grenada in 1983, in large part to show off the country’s military capacity in an easy and direct manner. In opposition to the militarization of foreign policy, the nuclear freeze movement had called for quite the opposite of Reagan’s priorities—for defense spending to decrease so that social programs could, if anything, increase (slogan: “Save the Human Race, Stop the Arms Race”).

Lanham sees today’s protestors, those who “swarmed to airports across the country to decry” Trump’s Muslim ban as the beginning of a process of change from the grassroots up similar to what the nuclear freeze movement once clamored for.

Of course, there are always issues when one tries to retell history in a way that allows it to speak to contemporary times. First and foremost, though Donald Trump might want to be Ronald Reagan—what Republican doesn’t nowadays?—it’s not clear that Trump is like Reagan in many other important ways, particularly when it comes to public opinion. Reagan was simply not the total narcissist that Trump is. He wasn’t terribly intelligent or insightful, but he recognized that public opinion didn’t always go his way. From Lanham’s point of view, Reagan coopted the nuclear freeze movement. It’s hard to imagine that Trump would ever take any cues from similar movements. He is such a hardened, isolated man that this kind of cunningness would simply elude him. No doubt Reagan was the sort of President who loved to live in his own kind of fantasyland—he’d often mix up movies he had remembered seeing with reality as journalists at the time often discovered—but Trump appears to be almost completely shut off in his own alternative universe. Which means that, in his eyes, resistance movements are populated by paid raucous-makers, not ordinary citizens, a suggestion he made about the recent tax rallies that hit American cities last weekend.

Lanham’s hope for today is that “progressive opposition to Trump can maintain its grassroots energy, hold its leaders in Congress accountable to their base, and build bipartisan support on key foreign policy issues such as the immigration ban, torture, and nuclear non-proliferation.” Tracing the history of the nuclear freeze movement speaks to this demand and deserves our recognition and remembrance. But, as with any direct analogies, they don’t always work terribly well. The world of Reagan is not the world of Trump—nor is it the world of such great fragmentation and fierce, and almost blind, partisanship that we have today. Still, I think Lanham’s right to look at the past in search for some hope against hope about the present. History cannot serve as a therapeutic correction to contemporary gloom. But it can remind us that, at times, civic activism—democracy from the bottom up—can have a true and important effect on public discourse and political decision-making. And that’s something that we desperately need to continue holding onto.

Read more about Donald TrumpHistoryProtestsRonald Reagan

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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