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date: 30 March 2023

The American Antinuclear Movementfree

The American Antinuclear Movementfree

  • Paul RubinsonPaul RubinsonDepartment of History, Bridgewater State University


Spanning countries across the globe, the antinuclear movement was the combined effort of millions of people to challenge the superpowers’ reliance on nuclear weapons during the Cold War. Encompassing an array of tactics, from radical dissent to public protest to opposition within the government, this movement succeeded in constraining the arms race and helping to make the use of nuclear weapons politically unacceptable. Antinuclear activists were critical to the establishment of arms control treaties, although they failed to achieve the abolition of nuclear weapons, as anticommunists, national security officials, and proponents of nuclear deterrence within the United States and Soviet Union actively opposed the movement. Opposition to nuclear weapons evolved in tandem with the Cold War and the arms race, leading to a rapid decline in antinuclear activism after the Cold War ended.


  • 20th Century: Post-1945
  • Foreign Relations and Foreign Policy
  • Cultural History
  • History of Science and Technology
  • Environmental History

Nuclear weapons do not discriminate. They annihilate the human body in especially gruesome ways, by exploding, vaporizing, burning, and poisoning with radiation. They do this regardless of age, race, class, gender, nationality, or ideology. Scientific evidence even exists that the indirect climatic effects of nuclear weapons, known as “nuclear winter,” can disrupt global agriculture and kill millions of people far removed from a nuclear ground zero. And nuclear weapons are not without irony—through testing, a nation’s nuclear weapons can harm the very people they are meant to protect.

Unleashed on August 6, 1945, the Hiroshima bomb killed some 75,000 people instantly, with that number increasing to 140,000 or so by the end of the year. As the long-term effects of radiation took their toll, perhaps 60,000 more had died by 1950, though an exact tally is elusive because of the nature of radiation, cancer, and birth defects. The Nagasaki bomb, dropped on August 9, 1945, killed roughly 40,000 upon detonation, 30,000 more by the end of the year, and perhaps 140,000 total by 1950. About a decade after the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, atomic bombs, based on nuclear fission, were considered small and technologically retrograde compared to the exponentially more powerful thermonuclear weapons based on nuclear fusion that replaced them in the arsenals of the nuclear powers. By the 1980s, an estimated 50,000 nuclear warheads existed with enough combined explosive power to destroy Hiroshima one million times. It is no surprise, then, that throughout the Cold War, human beings around the world rose up to contest nuclear weapons, a movement that started even before the first atomic bombs were used.

An analysis of the antinuclear movement reveals several themes. Because of the totalizing nature of nuclear weapons, the movement against them was diverse and wide-ranging, more so than perhaps any other social movement. Since nearly everyone on earth was a potential victim, many types of people were represented in the movement. The movement also reflected diversity in methods, from traditional and law-abiding tactics aimed at working within the electoral and legislative systems, to radical civil disobedience designed to physically disrupt the nuclear weapons complex. In many countries, there existed, to an extent, a divide in the movement between elites such as politicians, scientists, and intellectuals on the one hand, who used traditional methods within the bounds of democratic society, and grassroots activists on the other, who sometimes relied on dramatic demonstrations and confrontational direct action. But often the categories blurred: there were radical scientists and moderate grassroots activists, for example.

In addition to its diversity, the movement was remarkable for its attempt to influence the national security and foreign policies of both nuclear and non-nuclear states around the world. Social movements frequently push for changes in domestic policy, and while these campaigns face real obstacles, governments are usually much more resistant to challenges to foreign policy. Foreign policymakers and powerbrokers have self-interested reasons to deny that public opinion or protest influences their decisions, thereby obscuring the role of social movements. So part of studying the antinuclear movement involves teasing out the ways in which the movement did, in fact, influence world leaders.

Related to the problem of recognizing its influence is the challenge of discerning between the movement’s achievements and failures. Although this task may sound straightforward, it is, in fact, not. Many antinuclear activists wanted nuclear disarmament, and even abolition in some cases. But the arms race did not end, and nuclear weapons were rarely dismantled. Before judging the movement a failure, it should be noted that, since August 6 and 9, 1945, nuclear weapons have not been used in combat. Was this result of well-crafted strategies by statesmen? Or the efforts of ordinary activists? Furthermore, only a few states have nuclear weapons, and even fewer have substantial arsenals. Is this success or failure? During the Cold War, the superpowers signed several treaties restricting the testing and deployment of different types of nuclear weapons. But were these treaties effective? Should they be celebrated or bemoaned? This ambivalence still affects perceptions of the movement.

Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of the antinuclear movement was its international and transnational scope. People protested nuclear weapons literally around the globe; countries as different as New Zealand and Argentina, Ghana and India, Japan and Papua New Guinea had movements of some consequence. Nevertheless, the emphasis here is on the movement in the West, where the majority of the nuclear weapons resided and the majority of protest occurred.


Nuclear weapons emerged from a number of scientific and geopolitical events occurring across Europe and the United States in the first half of the 20th century. The quantum revolution in physics during the 1920s uncovered the nature and structure of the atom and suggested the massive explosive potential in its nucleus. The Manhattan Project, the successful U.S. effort to build an atomic bomb during World War II, was in a sense, a huge international science experiment involving scientists from Europe and the United States, so it is entirely appropriate that when opposition to the atomic bomb began, it was similarly international in nature.

Since scientists were among the select few who knew about the bomb, it fell to them to protest its use. A number of them displayed courage in standing up to the massive Manhattan Project bureaucracy and attempting to stop the use of the bomb before it was even finished. The Polish-British scientist Joseph Rotblat quit the Manhattan Project in late 1944, after learning that Germany had failed in its attempt to build an atomic bomb. In Rotblat’s words, “the whole purpose of my being in Los Alamos ceased to be, and I asked for permission to leave and return to Britain.” Especially galling to him was the assertion of Manhattan Project head General Leslie Groves that “of course, the real purpose of making the bomb was to subdue the Soviets.” “Until then,” Rotblat later wrote, “I had thought that our work was to prevent a Nazi victory, and now I was told that the weapon we were preparing was intended for use against the people who were making extreme sacrifices for that very aim.”1 Rotblat’s stance was not exactly a public protest, however, as Groves ordered that he keep silent his moral reasons for leaving the project. He only revealed the truth in an article published in the 1980s.

Conversations with the Danish physicist Niels Bohr had also influenced Rotblat’s views on the bomb. Known for his revolutionary model of the atom, Bohr had mentored many of the brightest scientific lights of his generation. Beyond the laboratory, he had assisted Jewish scientists leaving Germany during the Hitler years and thought deeply about the significance of atomic weapons. Cognizant of the potential for a U.S.-Soviet arms race after the war, Bohr managed to meet with Winston Churchill to express his concerns. His arguments for openness with the Soviets had no effect on the British Prime Minister, who, along with President Franklin Roosevelt, preferred an Anglo-American monopoly and viewed Bohr with suspicion. Although Bohr continued to press U.S. policymakers to discuss atomic weapons with the Soviets, the majority of government officials continued to advocate secrecy in an attempt to maintain an atomic monopoly.2

By spring 1945, momentum toward the use of the bomb seemed unstoppable. Even as Bohr failed to alter official thinking on the bomb, Leo Szilard, a Hungarian physicist and iconoclastic thinker, tried a different approach to the same goal. Szilard had been essential in getting the bomb project started, having been the first to envision a nuclear chain reaction, and later helping to identify uranium as the element that would fission in such a way as to sustain this chain reaction. Szilard also drafted the letter, signed by Albert Einstein, which spurred Roosevelt to initiate the U.S. atomic bomb project. At the Met Lab in Chicago during the war, Szilard and his peers completed their theoretical work relatively early, so they had more time to ponder the implications of the bomb. Szilard accordingly drafted a petition addressed to the president on July 17, 1945, and asked his scientific colleagues to sign it. In the petition, Szilard recognized that Germany had failed to build an atomic bomb, so the United States faced no A-bomb threat. Since the government obviously planned to use the bomb against Japan, Szilard believed that the Japanese people needed to know the specific terms of surrender before enduring atomic warfare. The nation’s “moral responsibilities” had to be considered, Szilard continued. Using the bombs could, he wrote, open “the door to an era of devastation on an unimaginable scale.” As atomic bombs spread in the postwar world, the United States would be in danger of being both attacked and permanently mobilized on a wartime footing. Finally, using the bomb would weaken the country’s “moral position . . . in the eyes of the world and in our own eyes.”3 The petition garnered 155 signatures but never made it to the president’s eyes; furthermore, Los Alamos scientific director Robert Oppenheimer prevented the document from circulating at his laboratory. In April 1945, Szilard was scheduled to meet with President Roosevelt, who died before the meeting occurred. Instead Szilard met with future Secretary of State James Byrnes, who expressed contempt for Szilard’s views.

Szilard’s thinking on the bomb influenced the Franck Report, a discussion of the political ramifications of the bomb that emerged from a committee at the Met Lab chaired by James Franck, a father figure to many Manhattan Project scientists. Written largely by biophysicist Eugene Rabinowitch, the Franck Report asked policymakers to reconsider combat use of the bomb against Japan. “If the United States were to be the first to release this new weapon of indiscriminate destruction upon mankind,” the report stated, “she would sacrifice public support throughout the world, precipitate the race for armaments, and prejudice the possibility of reaching an international agreement on the future control of weapons.” The report suggested instead a demonstration of the bomb to Japanese leaders.4

By the time the Franck Report landed—and remained unread—on the desk of Secretary of War Henry Stimson, the decision to use the bomb had long since been made. In fact, discussions in Washington took it for granted that the bomb would be used when ready. Undeterred, however, scientists resumed their efforts to shape atomic policy almost as soon as the war ended. This postwar activism came to be called the Atomic Scientists’ Movement, and it concentrated on two separate but related issues: civilian control of atomic energy in the United States, and international control of atomic energy worldwide. Rabinowitch explained the scientists’ motivations: “Having helped man to make the first step into this new world, [scientists] have the responsibility of warning and advising him until he has become aware of its perils as well as its wonders.”5

At the dawn of this new age, the U.S. government had to decide who would oversee atomic energy policy. The bill Congress was considering, the May-Johnson bill, would have placed atomic energy research and development under military control. Uncomfortable with their connection to the military during the Second World War, many Manhattan Project veterans mobilized to oppose this arrangement. The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) (originally the Federation of Atomic Scientists until early 1946), an umbrella organization that evolved from the Manhattan Project, established an office in Washington and coordinated lobbying efforts against May-Johnson. Throughout the first half of 1946, organizations such as the FAS and the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, and individual scientists such as Szilard, lobbied Congress and spoke to the public on the need for civilian oversight of atomic energy. Supported in Congress by Brien McMahon (D-CT), the atomic scientists succeeded in their quest. The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 established the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) run by civilian, not military, commissioners. While this outcome seemed to bode well for scientists’ role in guiding atomic policy, the assumption that civilian overseers would be inherently less enamored with nuclear weapons than the military eventually proved off base.

Participants in the Atomic Scientists’ Movement had goals beyond civilian control of atomic energy in the United States; after all, atomic weapons menaced the entire world. With such a large threat looming, scientists and some members of the public came to believe that some form of world government would have to be established to control atomic energy on a global level. The slogan “One World or None,” also a popular book of the time, emphasized the shared peril, an idea that caught on in most of Western Europe. A truly sovereign world government, however, was at best a lengthy task and at worst a utopian fantasy. Instead, hopes for international control came to center on the United Nations. In March 1946, Oppenheimer, along with New Deal administrator David Lilienthal, drafted a plan proposing UN-enforced regulation of atomic energy, including sharing of nuclear information and inspections to guarantee that it be used to create nuclear power, not weapons. By the time the Truman administration’s appointee, Bernard Baruch, submitted the plan to the United Nations, however, Cold Warriors in the U.S. government had transformed the measure into a mechanism to secure U.S. nuclear superiority rather than international control, particularly in its provision that the United States could maintain an atomic monopoly until international control was firmly established; the Soviets rejected the plan.

At its height, the Atomic Scientists’ Movement counted roughly three thousand participants. It left a mixed record of success, meeting its goal of achieving civilian control of atomic energy in the United States, although its attempt for international control fell victim to Cold War ideology. The movement also managed to educate the public about atomic weapons to some degree. But its emphasis of danger and urgency, along with a proliferation of organizations, combined to weary the public, blunt the movement’s message, and disperse its potential constituents. Furthermore, it would not take long before civilian control of atomic energy proved as hawkish as any military control would have been. By the end of the 1940s, as the Red Scare repressed domestic dissent and rigid anticommunism achieved near-consensus in foreign policy, opposition to nuclear weapons dwindled.

In general, public opinion about atomic weapons reflected widespread ambivalence, as historian Paul Boyer has demonstrated. Although the A-bomb was heralded as the weapon that won the war, reactions immediately after the bombings showed more fear than triumph. Upon the destruction of Nagasaki, the New York Herald Tribune intoned, “one senses the foundations of one’s own universe trembling.” After Japan’s surrender, however, Americans became more proud of the A-bomb, seeing it as, among other things, proper vengeance for the Pearl Harbor attack. A Gallup poll from September 1945 found that 69 percent of respondents saw the atomic bomb as a “good thing,” and only 17 percent as a “bad thing.” But attitudes toward atomic weapons could change just as easily, as shown in an October 1947 poll where these numbers changed to 55 percent and 38 percent, respectively.6


During the 1950s, nuclear weapons became vastly more powerful, but so did the movement against them, as dramatic changes in the weapons themselves and their intended uses inspired new waves of activism. Ordinary people around the world mobilized, although protest began with scientists because, as before, U.S. nuclear policy debates were kept secret from the public. These debates began in late 1949, when the Soviets successfully tested their own A-bomb. At the highest levels of the U.S. government, policymakers nervously pondered the country’s next step, specifically whether to attempt to build a thermonuclear bomb, a weapon that used the fusion, rather than fission, of atoms to create an exponentially more powerful nuclear explosion. (The thermonuclear design under consideration, it bears noting, had, in theory, no limits to its explosive power.) The AEC’s General Advisory Committee (GAC), chaired by Oppenheimer, reported to the president and recommended against a crash program to build the Super, as it was known, deeming it a potential “weapon of genocide” and an “evil thing.”7 James B. Conant, the influential science administrator under Roosevelt, said it would be built “over my dead body.”8 In addition to the questionable ethics of the weapon, the knowledge to build a Super was lacking; attempts to design a thermonuclear weapon had failed, and the GAC feared that the resources needed to build it would hinder the atomic weapons program. President Truman nevertheless overruled the GAC and ordered the AEC to pursue design of the Super as its priority.

In early 1951, the physicist Edward Teller, working with Stanislaw Ulam, conceived of a new way to initiate a thermonuclear explosion, using x-rays from an atomic explosion to fuse an isotope of hydrogen. They presented this hydrogen bomb design, which Oppenheimer later described as “technically sweet,” to the GAC in June 1951.9 Los Alamos scientists tested the design by exploding a thermonuclear device in 1952 and a true thermonuclear weapon in 1954. Importantly, the H-bomb had, unlike the hypothetical Super, finite explosive power, meaning it was very different from the genocidal weapon of infinite size that the GAC had advised against. (The Soviets detonated the largest H-bomb in history in 1961, with the weapon yielding a still-incredible 60+ megatons.) The sheer size of the weapon worried a great number of people, especially when AEC officials and others illustrated the H-bomb’s power in public statements by comparing its swath of destruction to New York City.

Although designed for use in war, the H-bomb became most deadly when it was tested. The first U.S. H-bomb test took place on March 1, 1954, on the Bikini Atoll in the south Pacific. In addition to the new method of fusion, the explosion revealed further unique dangers: radioactive fallout in the form of new elements strontium 90 (Sr90) and carbon 14 (C14). Because of the vast explosive power of the H-bomb, these elements spread much wider than atomic fallout. The AEC had evacuated a large area surrounding the Bikini test site but grossly underestimated the area covered by the blast. The successful test accidentally triggered a health crisis, as radioactive fallout from the blast fell on a Japanese fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon, causing the death of one crew member and poisoning over twenty others. A number of Marshall Islanders were poisoned by fallout as well, leading the United States to eventually relocate its testing site from the Pacific Ocean to Nevada.

The Lucky Dragon incident caused alarm on many levels. It brought the AEC’s competence and honesty into question, suggested that nuclear weapons might be beyond human control, and introduced the threat of fallout to the world public. Furthermore, Britain tested an A-bomb in 1952 and an H-bomb in 1957, France did the same in 1960 and 1968, and China followed suit in 1964 and 1967. Most ominously, the Soviet Union went thermonuclear, with a device in 1953 and a weapon in 1955. With the Red Scare diminishing but the arms race intensifying, the antinuclear movement revived in order to challenge this evolutionary leap in nuclear weaponry.

Once again, scientists made up the vanguard of antinuclear opposition. But instead of confining themselves to lobbying activities, as they had during the Atomic Scientists’ Movement, scientists’ activism varied greatly. Linus Pauling, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist, embarked on a crusade against fallout, challenging government complacency by writing articles, giving talks, participating in debates, circulating petitions, and even suing the president for exposing him to nuclear fallout. Geneticist Ralph Lapp, on the other hand, chronicled the danger fallout posed to humans in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Biologist Barry Commoner, meanwhile, started the Committee for Nuclear Information (CNI), providing the public with apolitical information about and evidence of fallout risks, such as the famous survey that revealed the common presence of radiation from fallout in baby teeth. Overseas, the influential Soviet nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov referred to nuclear testing as “a direct crime against humanity.”10

Fallout galvanized the movement, especially in the United States, where nuclear testing threatened the health of many citizens who, unlike the Soviet Union, could openly protest against nuclear weapons. Those at risk included the so-called downwinders, people who lived downwind from the Nevada testing site and experienced abnormally high occurrences of fallout as well as cancer and other diseases. These downwinders were not initially antinuclear activists by any stretch of the imagination. Living in Utah and Nevada, the downwinders were almost exclusively white, Mormon farmers who, according to one historian, lived lives of “Church, Flag, Mother, Apple Pie, and Chevrolet.” Far from opposing nuclear weapons, these people exhibited “extreme pride and fierce patriotism” as well as ardent anticommunism and complete faith in the U.S. government. They saw their close proximity to the Nevada nuclear testing site as a source of pride, evidence of their support for national defense.11

But medical research in the early 1960s showed a dramatic increase in leukemia in those areas of Utah and Nevada where fallout from the testing site frequently settled. The region’s incidence of acute leukemia was demonstrably higher than the national rate, convincingly—though not conclusively—showing an unfair rate of misery caused by nuclear explosions. While the AEC ignored or downplayed these concerns, studies attempted to discover the cause of these cancers. Only by the late 1970s was there enough evidence and willingness on the part of the downwinders to sue the AEC and the Nevada test site for gross negligence and carelessness. In one case, Judge Bruce Jenkins ruled that government operatives did indeed act negligently at the Nevada test site and were more than likely responsible for the deaths of or injuries to ten plaintiffs who had been exposed to radiation by the AEC.12 While court cases lacked the drama of civil disobedience or public protest, environmental activists in later decades often used lawsuits successfully to challenge nuclear power.

Children proved especially vulnerable to fallout, as Sr90 and C14 showed up in milk and bonded to young bones. The CNI’s famous baby tooth survey asked parents to send in their children’s lost teeth, allowing scientists to analyze the amount of radiation in them. This survey objectively demonstrated the dangers of nuclear weapons testing at a time when widespread anticommunism made more straightforward protest politically questionable. Government officials, for their part, argued that improving national security inevitably involved risks, but the CNI emphasized the difference in exposing citizens to voluntary and involuntary risks. The cavalier AEC, however, carried on with testing and even pursued Project Plowshare, a plan to use nuclear bombs as excavation tools. An attempt to test the program in Alaska was ultimately halted by local activists and scientists alarmed by the possibility that a blast might as much as double the amount of radiation to which they were normally exposed.13 Alaska also witnessed the birth of the organization Greenpeace, when in 1971, several environmental activists attempted to sail a boat to Amchitka Island in order to prevent a nuclear test slated to occur underground. Although authorities intercepted the ship before it reached its goal, Greenpeace continued to commit acts of civil disobedience against nuclear weapons in the ensuing decades.

Very real disagreement existed about the extent of the threat that radioactive fallout posed to society. But the fallout debate was not only about public health and the environment. Much of the opposition to fallout contained a tacit desire for nuclear disarmament or arms control. Without testing, fallout would barely exist, and furthermore there could be no new weapons in the arms race. Limiting the public discussion to fallout made for an effective tactic since most Americans could agree on the importance of health and children’s safety. Redefining national security, however, was not so easily done. The anticommunist consensus was still strong, and deterrence remained a relatively inexpensive and seemingly effective counter to what the U.S. populace was told was a menacing Soviet Union. Crises in Berlin, Hungary, Suez, Indochina, and space made clear the danger inherent in the geopolitical system, and nuclear weapons appeared to put out the fires in many of these hotspots. But Americans continued to demonstrate uneasiness at living with nuclear weapons; historian Lawrence Wittner has highlighted the pendulum of public opinion swinging back and forth in polls of the time, including 63 percent support for a multilateral test ban in April 1957, which dropped to 49 percent in January 1958 (with 36 percent opposed). By March 1958, support for a hypothetical global system eliminating nuclear weapons reached 70 percent, but just 29 percent approved of a unilateral test ban one month later.14

Anxiety about the mushroom cloud was not limited to the United States. Although opposition to nuclear weapons remained very much confined within national borders, the movement was global in its presence. The Japanese, for obvious reasons, most universally embraced antinuclearism, as people, from housewives to students to scientists, signed petitions and joined demonstrations. In Britain, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) grew to well over one hundred local chapters, arranging speeches, fundraising events, and staging protests. Its most famous action, beginning in 1958, was the annual march to Aldermaston, the center of British nuclear weapons production. By the early 1960s, CND had grown into a substantial organization, with around one hundred thousand protestors attending a 1961 demonstration in London. With nuclear opposition gaining widespread appeal, the British Labour Party chose to endorse a test ban, and many unions went even further, calling for total nuclear disarmament. While CND remained the largest organization, the Committee of 100 engaged in more radical direct action and civil disobedience, including sit-downs at nuclear and defense sites with hundreds arrested. Citizens of several countries in Western Europe protested the possibility of their respective nations pursuing nuclear weapons, and in Eastern Europe, a large but clearly government-directed antinuclear organization, the World Peace Council (WPC), made propagandistic denunciations of nuclear weapons. Taking its orders from the Communist Party, the WPC ignored the Soviet bloc’s nuclear weapons, insisting that the West was solely responsible for menacing the world with nuclear destruction.

Some critics of the arms race believed that only by transcending national boundaries could the human race achieve salvation from nuclear weapons. British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell saw scientists as best exemplifying this internationalism and called upon them to join together against the nuclear arms race. “Scientists should assemble,” he wrote, “not as members of this or that nation, continent, or creed, but as human beings, members of the species Man, whose continued existence is in doubt.”15 Close to death in 1955, Albert Einstein signed Russell’s document, which became known as the Russell-Einstein Manifesto. Answering the call, twenty-two scientists from both sides of the Iron Curtain gathered in Pugwash, Nova Scotia, in 1957, to discuss methods of arms control and ways of ending the arms race. Over the next few years, Pugwash scientists relied on the objectivity of science and their influence on policymakers to push their respective governments to pursue a test ban.

Grassroots antinuclear protest increased dramatically in the United States as well. The Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy, created in November 1957, resembled the CND. Consisting of hundreds of local chapters, SANE members wrote, debated, and petitioned to reduce or ban nuclear testing. SANE’s leaders announced the organization in a newspaper ad that emphasized the dangerous and obsolete nature of Cold War bipolarity: “the slogans and arguments that belong to the world of competitive national sovereignties . . . no longer fit the world of today or tomorrow.”16 By 1958, SANE counted about twenty-five thousand members, though its presence in public life was much greater. Famous for its dramatic print advertisements—one featuring the “worried” childhood expert Dr. Benjamin Spock fretting over the bomb—SANE did a great deal to inform the public and pressure policymakers. Other organizations represented more specific constituencies, especially Women Strike for Peace, created in 1961, and the Student Peace Union, created in 1959. These groups stridently protested nuclear weapons, including several pickets of the White House, but in general civil disobedience was, at this point, less common than in Britain, with little that compared to the Committee of 100. Among these sporadic efforts was the attempt of a small group of pacifists to sail their boat, The Golden Rule, into the U.S. nuclear test site in the Pacific Ocean.

Despite participating in a movement with no martyrs or harsh repression, antinuclear activists in the United States managed to push public opinion in the direction of antinuclearism. Most popular was the idea of some form of limit on nuclear fallout, which was most easily achieved with a nuclear test ban. So much sentiment existed in favor of limiting tests that Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate for president in 1956, endorsed a test ban as part of his platform. Although Stevenson handily lost the election, the popularity of a test ban did not wane and in fact pushed the Eisenhower administration toward arms control. While he remained relatively aloof from the antinuclear movement, Eisenhower was aware of the rising opinion in favor of a test ban at home and among the nation’s NATO allies. And even though Eisenhower had earlier pushed U.S. Cold War policy sharply toward increased reliance on nuclear weapons, he started to back away from this in the final years of his second term. Thus, in late 1958, Eisenhower and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev each agreed to halt nuclear tests, at least temporarily preventing fallout from poisoning the atmosphere. Despite the popularity of this moratorium among the antinuclear movement, Eisenhower also recognized a test ban as a way to lock in U.S. superiority in nuclear weapons development; Khrushchev similarly saw it as a way to prevent the United States from pulling further ahead in the arms race. Nevertheless, the arms race had been paused, giving the superpowers time to work out a permanent test ban.

Such a ban was not to occur with Eisenhower in office. Cold War pressures, including the U-2 affair and lobbying by what Eisenhower decried as the “military-industrial complex,” combined to break off test ban talks, and the moratorium ended with Soviet and U.S. tests in September 1961. Although John F. Kennedy promised—and delivered—a more aggressive Cold War policy, he also proved friendlier to the antinuclear movement than Eisenhower. Still, ambivalence prevailed, as Kennedy poured millions more into defense spending; diversified the U.S. nuclear arsenal, especially with the advent of submarines capable of launching nuclear missiles; and risked nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. After this close brush with World War III, Kennedy appeared chastened, stating in a speech at American University, “Total war makes no sense in an age when great powers can maintain large and relatively invulnerable nuclear forces and refuse to surrender without resort to those forces. It makes no sense in an age when a single nuclear weapon contains almost ten times the explosive force delivered by all of the allied air forces in the Second World War. It makes no sense in an age when the deadly poisons produced by a nuclear exchange would be carried by wind and water and soil and seed to the far corners of the globe and to generations yet unborn.”17

In August 1963, U.S. diplomats met with Soviet leaders in Moscow to sign a test ban agreement, and the resulting Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT) was ratified by the U.S. Senate in September 1963. Many antinuclear activists had hoped for a comprehensive test ban, but the LTBT banned testing only above ground and in space, allowing testing to continue underground. The measure was nevertheless an unqualified environmental success, as fallout was almost entirely eliminated as a problem. Many people agreed with British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan, who hailed the treaty as a worthy measure but also as the beginning of the end of the Cold War. “The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty,” he declared, “has been a notable step towards relaxation of tension. But it is only a first step and now we need others.”18 With the passage of the LTBT, antinuclear activism had become a respectable endeavor; whereas Linus Pauling had been branded disloyal and suspicious in the 1950s, he won the Nobel Peace Prize and met with President Kennedy in 1963.

The years before 1963 had, in many ways, proved nuclear critics correct. Fallout poisoned the air, and the superpowers had nearly started nuclear war over Cuba in 1962. With the signing of the test ban in 1963, the first great era of nuclear protest came to an end. While nuclear deterrence remained a bedrock of national security, activists around the world had made it clear to their governments that nuclear war itself was abhorrent as an official policy. In general after 1958, governments looked upon the antinuclear movement more favorably, and in the United States, every president after Truman steadfastly expressed at least lip service to nuclear arms control (even if they did not pursue it in reality).

At the same time, the test ban was more of a paradox than an unqualified victory. While fallout was practically eliminated, nuclear weapons testing actually accelerated after the agreement went into effect, with both superpowers testing vastly more weapons underground than they had aboveground before the ban. The Kennedy administration, in order to get the U.S. Joint Chiefs to sign off on the treaty, had in fact promised that nuclear weapons development and testing would proceed without pause. Bernard Feld, a Pugwash participant, called the test ban an “arms control disaster.”19 Yet antinuclear activists and organizations went into a profound slumber after the test ban. The threat of fallout had essentially disappeared, but so had its galvanizing effect. With no end in sight to the arms race, would anyone continue to protest it?


The LTBT had buried fallout far below the earth with underground tests, and metaphorically, it buried the danger of nuclear weapons in the public mind. As tension between East and West decreased and gave way to a stabilizing détente, nuclear weapons were mostly out of sight, out of mind for the remainder of the 1960s and much of the 1970s. Those who continued to observe the arms race hoped that the LTBT would lead to more agreements, moving the world closer to actual disarmament. In some ways, this happened, as a pair of substantial treaties emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s, though these did not actually reduce the global stockpile of nuclear weapons. For the most part, antinuclear protesters had moved on to other, more urgent problems, a process historian Paul Boyer described as moving “from activism to apathy.”20 At the same time, however, some policymakers saw the stagnant antinuclear movement as “nascent domestic protest,” in the words of political scientist Jeffrey Knopf, which might combine with the fury of the anti-Vietnam War movement. This nightmare scenario made the Nixon administration eager to reach agreements on arms control and prevent such an alliance.21

By the mid 1960s, many former antinuclear activists found themselves protesting the Vietnam War. The Port Huron Statement, the New Left manifesto of the Students for a Democratic Society, specifically mentioned “the Bomb” as a politicizing force, having brought the baby boom generation “awareness that we ourselves, and our friends, and millions of abstract ‘others’ we knew more directly because of our common peril, might die at any time.” Along with civil rights, the threat of the mushroom cloud “demand[ed] that we as individuals take the responsibility for encounter and resolution.”22 Nevertheless the organization became overwhelmingly dedicated to opposing the Vietnam War as that conflict escalated after 1965. SANE, the most visible U.S. antinuclear group of the 1950s and early 1960s, followed suit, dropping the word “nuclear” from its name. Even the relatively staid scientists of Pugwash found themselves absorbed in debates over Vietnam. With death on a massive scale in Southeast Asia involving chemical defoliants, massacres, and civilian casualties, many people became convinced that perhaps nuclear weapons were no longer the greatest threat to peace in the world.

This did not mean that nuclear weapons had gone extinct. In the early 1970s, world nuclear arsenals contained enough explosive power to equal a million Hiroshima bombs; the Soviets were making good on their promise, made after the Cuban Missile Crisis, to achieve parity with U.S. nuclear forces. Détente had eased the bipolar conflict, but advances in the arms race constantly threatened to upset the fragile peace. Nuclear proliferation most concerned those still paying attention. Israel achieved nuclear status in the late 1960s, while India went nuclear in 1974, with Pakistan vowing to match its rival; South Africa detonated an atomic bomb in 1980. Just as dangerous as proliferation were the new weapons that scientists continued to develop in the hope of finding a weapon to win the Cold War. While such a magic bullet proved elusive, the new inventions of the age were potentially highly destabilizing, in particular MIRVs (multiple warheads on one missile) and antiballistic missiles (ABMs).

In the eyes of nonactivists, however, the evolution of nuclear weapons was not inherently dangerous or destabilizing. Advocates of nuclear weapons often argued that these new technologies were necessary to maintain deterrence and prevent the Soviets from gaining superiority. This assumes, however, that the Soviet Union planned to launch a nuclear first strike once it achieved superiority, and there is currently no evidence to support this. Instead, Cold War historians have shown that the U.S. persistence in the arms race resulted from a coalition of domestic interests in the United States, including politicians and defense industries.23

While nuclear disarmament continued to seem unlikely, the late 1960s and 1970s were not without landmark agreements. To address the destabilizing process of proliferation, the extant nuclear powers and many of the world’s nonnuclear states agreed on a nonproliferation treaty (NPT) in 1968. The NPT prohibited the extant nuclear powers (at least those who signed; China and France did not) from assisting other nations in the acquisition or development of nuclear weapons, and pledged the non-nuclear signatories not to pursue weapons programs. For their adherence, the nonnuclear states would get assistance with nuclear power development. The treaty has been criticized for formalizing a double standard, that nuclear weapons were safe in the hands of superpowers but not in others’, but at the same time Article VI of the treaty instructed the nuclear powers to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”24

ABMs exemplified the blurry lines between weapons for offense and those for defense in the arms race. The idea was to surround ICBM sites and important cities with missiles capable of taking out incoming enemy ICBMs. But the ostensibly defensive nature of ABMs did little to convince nuclear skeptics. A familiar constituency of antinuclear protesters emerged, albeit much smaller in scale, including scientists who questioned the technology behind ABMs and grassroots Americans who objected to surrounding their neighborhoods with missiles, for defensive sites could easily become primary targets for enemy attacks. Beyond neighborhood activists, the destabilizing nature of this new weaponry provoked backlash. Many opponents of ABMs worried that defensive weapons might embolden the United States to launch a nuclear attack, confident that it could withstand retaliation. In addition, the possibility that the Soviets might initiate a first strike before U.S. ABMs were operational added to public concern.

While the Johnson administration made the decision to deploy an early ABM system meant to deter Chinese attacks in 1967, the controversy truly heated up during Congressional hearings at the beginning of Richard Nixon’s first term. On Capitol Hill, a number of scientists, including physicist Herbert York, lined up to oppose Safeguard, the Nixon administration’s ABM system. York, a former Pentagon scientist, stated his fear that with ABM, “the people and the Congress would be deceived into believing that at long last we are on the track of a technical solution to the dilemma of the steady decrease in our national security which has accompanied the steady increase in our military power over the last two decades. Such a false hope is extremely dangerous.”25 Congress split over the issue, effectively halting deployment. In 1972, Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev signed an ABM treaty, limiting each side to two ABM deployment sites, a purely token number.

Antinuclear activism outside the United States dwindled as well, moving into “the doldrums,” in the words of the movement’s foremost historian Lawrence Wittner.26 But as the movement against nuclear weapons faded, an environmentalist movement began, which would help revive opposition to nuclear weapons by the end of the decade. Environmental activists focused increasingly on the effects of nuclear power, such as the Clamshell Alliance, which in 1977 held demonstrations against a nuclear reactor in Seabrook, New Hampshire, resulting in fourteen hundred arrests. The 1979 Three Mile Island meltdown further tainted nuclear power in the eyes of many Americans, who increasingly linked the threats of nuclear power and nuclear weapons. The group Mobilization for Survival manifested this combination, as it launched opposition to both nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Members of Greenpeace attempted to disrupt French nuclear tests in the South Pacific, leading French agents to destroy their ship Rainbow Warrior while it was docked in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1985. France’s bombing of Rainbow Warrior, which resulted in one death, only increased agitation against French nuclear tests, and by 1987 New Zealand had officially declared its territory a nuclear free zone. With the rise of environmentalists, a huge constituency had been added to the antinuclear movement.

The antinuclear movement spent the fifteen years after the test ban partially in abeyance and partially regrouping. Despite a serious lull in activism, some important treaties were signed. The NPT at least pledged the nuclear powers to attempt to stem the tide of nuclear weapons, though in the years since the treaty, some five nations achieved nuclear capability. ABMs were scuttled, but it seems unlikely they would have dramatically altered the Cold War balance of power since, in order to be effective, defensive weapons have to stop 100 percent of incoming nuclear missiles. The absence of antinuclear protest can, however, be deceiving. While there was no widespread activism against nuclear weapons in the 1970s, rancor against the Vietnam War and opposition to military spending produced “fertile conditions” for protest. While the transformation of antinuclear activists into anti-Vietnam activists (such as SANE) signaled for many the end of “ban the bomb” movements, many policy makers saw this as having created “a reservoir of activists” that could, at any movement, switch back to nuclear protest. This potential threat created no real electoral pressure, but it did encourage enough fear in the Nixon administration that the president pursed the ABM treaty.27

Détente yielded some of its most obvious and celebrated achievements in the realm of arms control. And yet the arms race was in many ways out of control; causality is hard to determine, but without a substantial grassroots movement, the number of nuclear weapons around the world jumped tremendously. These numbers were so alarming, in fact, that as the 1970s drew to a close, antinuclearism woke from its slumber, soon to erupt worldwide in the 1980s. As before, one of the great challenges for antinuclear activists was the widespread mindset that more nuclear weapons were not inherently more dangerous—that they only enhanced the stability of deterrence. To this claim, activists would have responded that an escalated arms race meant two things: first, coinciding as it did with the end of détente, this escalation meant that the two sides had stopped trusting each other and begun to again compete for global supremacy. Second, more nuclear weapons encouraged the use of nuclear weapons, as nuclear superiority might embolden a nation to launch a first strike. Conversely, nuclear inferiority might provoke an enemy to attack before the nation got too far ahead.


Détente did not last. After about a decade and a half of relatively cordial relations, the United States and Soviet Union resumed their earlier hostility. While the arms race had never really slowed, the return to active competition meant that the superpowers wielded nuclear weapons more aggressively than ever. With nuclear arsenals at their peak, humans around the world began to seriously contemplate the destruction of the world at the hands of the superpowers. In this atmosphere of danger and perceived folly, the antinuclear movement revived, growing into a behemoth of a movement, more contentious and confrontational than ever. Millions of protesters took to the streets during the 1980s, engaging in massive and sustained civil disobedience that challenged nuclear weapons and the world leaders who relied on them. Adding strength to the movement was the huge array of constituents that took part, including religious adherents, feminists, pacifists, doctors, and environmentalists.

The antinuclear opposition showed signs of life in the late 1970s. Environmentalism had given new reasons to oppose nuclear energy, and in 1978, the United Nations convened a Special Session on Disarmament. Meanwhile the Carter administration pursued development of a neutron bomb, a nuclear weapon that would cause most of its damage by releasing massive radioactive fallout and very little blast. In December 1979, NATO leaders had agreed on a “two-track” policy: The United States would deploy new Cruise and Pershing missiles to Western Europe in 1983, while simultaneously attempting to negotiate with the Soviet Union for removal of these missiles. Reflecting the power of antinuclear sentiment, one Carter adviser admitted that the negotiations were “necessary for domestic political reasons.”28 In response, the Soviets planned to deploy SS-20s into Eastern Europe. These moves inspired notable opposition in Western Europe, especially from churches, while Britain’s CND also made a comeback.

Perhaps the biggest catalyst in the movement’s revival was the quick cessation of the arms control process that followed the end of détente, which resulted in a subsequent escalation of the arms race. In the second half of Carter’s term, U.S.-Soviet relations had begun to deteriorate. Under attack from hawkish Cold Warriors, especially the Committee on the Present Danger, Carter effectively scuttled negotiations over a second SALT agreement. Then in the final days of 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in an attempt to bolster the collapsing socialist government there. This move finally ended détente and turned Carter into an anticommunist hardliner. In the last year of his presidency, Carter provided aid to Soviet enemies in Afghanistan, increased domestic military and nuclear spending, and completely reassessed U.S. nuclear strategy, coming to the conclusion that the United States must be able to fight and win a nuclear war. By 1980, roughly 60,000 nuclear warheads existed worldwide.

Carter’s hawkish turn paled in comparison to his successor’s nuclear buildup and militant rhetoric. To Ronald Reagan, the Soviet Union was an “evil empire” and the “focus of evil in the modern world,” while he described the ideology of communism as a “sad and rather bizarre chapter in human history.” Other administration officials referred casually to winnable nuclear wars, while Pentagon budgets soared. The administration’s policy of pursuing “peace through strength” resulted in the increase of defense spending by about 7 percent a year between 1981 and 1986, for a total of $2 trillion, an incredible rate of $28 million per hour.29

Naturally the arms race introduced new weapons and delivery systems, though not without backlash. The MX missile and the B-1 bomber, for example, faced continual challenges in Congress. But the most alarming weapons, at least for Europeans, were the so-called Euromissiles: intermediate range Soviet SS-20s and U.S. Cruise and Trident missiles deployed to Warsaw Pact and NATO nations.

The intended purposes of new weapons created new waves of protest. Since they were designed for use within Europe, the Euromissiles inspired tremendous opposition there. Britain’s CND was once again very active, growing to one hundred thousand members in 1985 and drawing four hundred thousand people to a rally in 1983. Civil disobedience against nuclear weapons grew as well; the most notable campaign took place at Greenham Common, a U.S. air base slated to house cruise missiles. In 1981, a group of women established a peace camp outside the base, reaching about thirty thousand exclusively female protesters at its height. The demonstrators remained for years, defying the authorities and disrupting as much as possible the workings of the base.

Opposition extended well beyond Britain; France, West Germany, Italy, and Scandinavia all had substantial movements. But national movements within specific countries were soon overtaken by the international campaign led by European Nuclear Disarmament (END). END’s Appeal, drafted by historian E. P. Thompson in 1980, deemed the arms race “demented,” and held both East and West equally guilty. Only the people could solve the dilemma of nuclear weapons, Thompson asserted; “the remedy lies on our own hands. We must act together to free the entire territory of Europe . . . from nuclear weapons.”30 END’s annual conventions drew thousands of activists, mainly from Western Europe, and encouraged the development of new thinking about the Cold War and new ideas about the arms race. Seeing Europe as a single entity, END members reached across the Iron Curtain and described this process as “détente from below.”

In the United States, antinuclear protest also reached new heights. Ground Zero Week increased awareness of nuclear dangers, with education campaigns and demonstrations in hundreds of American cities in 1982. Civil disobedience also increased, including vandalism against nuclear missile sites and even the missiles themselves (pouring blood on them was popular), as well as a women’s encampment at Seneca Falls modeled on Greenham Common. The organization SANE returned after being battered by the Red Scare and the Vietnam War, while pop culture demonstrated an antinuclear bent, with rock bands badmouthing nuclear weapons and films, especially ABC’s The Day After (1983 television movie), showing the nihilistic horror of nuclear war.

Most American antinuclear sentiment coalesced around the concept of a Nuclear Freeze. Proposed by arms control expert Randall Forsberg, a freeze would “stop the nuclear arms race quite literally, by stopping the development and production of all nuclear-weapon systems” in the United States and Soviet Union.31 Enthusiasm for a freeze spread across the country in 1982, culminating in a rally in Central Park that drew perhaps as many as 1 million people, making it the largest demonstration in U.S. history. Meanwhile, Nuclear Freeze referenda and endorsements made their way onto ballots across the country, with nine states and hundreds of city councils passing them. On the national level, a freeze proposal passed the House of Representatives, though the Senate defeated the measure. Despite this setback, public opinion polls increasingly showed public opinion weighing against nuclear weapons.

To most American activists, Reagan was the primary obstacle to nuclear disarmament. The 1983 NATO military exercise known as Able Archer sparked alarm in the Soviet Union that the United States was actually preparing for a nuclear attack. This reaction in turn alarmed Reagan, who confessed shock that the Soviets would actually believe the United States was willing to launch a premeditated first strike.32 Reagan’s belligerent rhetoric and aggressive policies had brought the world closer to nuclear war than any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, and he seemed intransigent in the face of widespread revulsion against nuclear weapons. In retrospect, however, Reagan is more of a paradox. While activists’ characterization of him is fairly accurate, he claimed to personally hate nuclear weapons. “I’ve become more and more deeply convinced that the human spirit must be capable of rising above dealing with other nations and human beings by threatening their existence,” he stated in one address. “One of the most important contributions we can make is, of course, to lower the level of all arms, and particularly nuclear arms.”33

But Reagan diverged from most antinuclear activists when he saw the Soviet Union as the prime danger in the world and the instigator of the arms race. For Reagan, then, eliminating nuclear weapons was secondary to eliminating the Soviet Union. His administration’s efforts at arms control, such as they were, accordingly contained—even threatened—the Soviet Union. “America does possess—now—the technologies to attain very significant improvements in the effectiveness of our conventional, nonnuclear forces,” he asserted. “Proceeding boldly with these new technologies, we can significantly reduce any incentive that the Soviet Union may have to threaten attack against the United States or its allies.”34

The new technology Reagan promised became known as the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Rather than diplomatic agreements, the Reagan administration would pursue defensive systems. SDI, often derided as “Star Wars,” took various forms during the Reagan administration, but the most-discussed version was an array of satellite-based lasers that would destroy enemy ICBMs from space. Emphasizing defense rather than offense gave Reagan a way to live up to his expressed dislike of nuclear weapons and “mutually assured destruction” while not appearing to be influenced by antinuclear activists.

Reagan’s overwhelming reelection victory in 1984 sapped a great deal of the momentum built in the early 1980s against nuclear weapons, but activism did not end. Supporters of SDI, including physicist Edward Teller, repeatedly emphasized the strictly defensive nature of SDI, characterizing it as a shield, not a sword, though critics (and the Soviets) argued that a shield could easily encourage the use of a sword. Large numbers of scientists challenged SDI on technical levels. In a debate with Teller, the most vocal advocate of SDI, physicist Hans Bethe listed the program’s flaws, including the possibility that SDI satellites might have to target as many as 100,000 objects, and the prohibitive expense of launching some three hundred satellites weighing roughly 100 tons each.35

Challenging SDI was just one way scientists mobilized against nuclear weapons in the 1980s. Another effort, led by astronomer Carl Sagan, offered scientific proof that nuclear war could quite possibly end all life on earth. Known as nuclear winter, the theory argued that the fire, smoke, and soot from nuclear explosions would darken the skies and block sunlight, disrupting the global climate and destroying agriculture around the world. Billions of people, most of them far removed from the Cold War and the superpowers, were thus at risk in a nuclear war. While scientists disagreed vehemently over the validity of nuclear winter, the theory inspired a great deal of public discourse and launched three separate hearings in Congress. At one point, Congress even forced the Pentagon to address the implications of nuclear winter for U.S. nuclear strategy in order to receive budget authorization.

Overseas, the Soviet dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov, known as the Father of the Soviet H-bomb, had long angered Soviet authorities by championing disarmament and arms control. In his 1968 essay, “Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom,” he called for reform in the Soviet Union and convergence between the communist and capitalist states to prevent nuclear war. Elsewhere he wrote, “The unchecked growth of thermonuclear arsenals and the build-up toward confrontation threaten mankind with the death of civilization and physical annihilation. The elimination of that threat takes unquestionable priority over all other problems in international relations. This is why disarmament talks, which offer a ray of hope in the dark world of suicidal nuclear madness, are so important.”36 Sakharov won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, making him increasingly outspoken—and irritating—to the Soviet government. After he denounced the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980, he was exiled internally to Gorky and kept under house arrest. Smuggled letters to the West made him a cause célèbre and a powerful voice for disarmament, though he was ultimately most visible as a symbol of human rights rather than the antinuclear movement.

Scientists had long used their expertise to guide the movement, starting with Szilard’s efforts during the Manhattan Project. But during the 1980s, they began to be overtaken by other professional groups. Leading this new wave were physicians. In 1978, Helen Caldicott revived the group Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) originally founded in 1961; the organization grew dramatically when it began to focus on nuclear disarmament in 1980, and its membership ballooned to ten thousand. The members of PSR drew authority from their medical expertise, with direct knowledge of the damage that could be done to a human body. But Caldicott also added a distinctly female point of view to the debate over nuclear weapons. “Understand emotionally the magnitude of the forces we are talking about,” she said during one public appearance. “How many leaders of the world have witnessed the miracle of the birth of a baby? How many leaders of the world have helped a child to die and supported the parents in their grief?” She prescribed a freeze to address the “acute clinical emergency where we are about to die.”37

And while scientists had used their international connections to contribute to arms control during the late 1950s and early 1960s, that role also fell to physicians in the 1980s. In particular, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) embraced a global approach to antinuclearism. Founded in 1980, the IPPNW had branches in forty-one nations and 135,000 members by 1985, the year in which it won the Nobel Peace Prize. Reflecting its international approach, the IPPNW featured co-presidents from the United States (Bernard Lown) and the Soviet Union (Evgenii Chazov).

The IPPNW managed to avoid the repression suffered by most antinuclear groups in the Soviet Union, but official government sanction made its credibility suspect to some Soviet activists.38 Membership in the group was restricted, and Chazov had been Leonid Brezhnev’s personal physician, which raised accusations that he was a government mouthpiece. Despite the repressive atmosphere, dissident movements continued to bloom, including the Moscow Trust Group, a loose coalition of academics, artists, and other fringe members of Soviet society who opposed nuclear weapons as well as the Soviet regime’s oppression of human rights. To the Trust Group, nuclear weapons violated human rights. One member, Vladimir Brodsky, described this duality in a letter to President Reagan. “[M]issiles are actually killing people already even though they haven’t yet been launched from their silos,” he wrote from a Soviet prison. “Medicine has received far less financial support than is necessary for its rapid and successful development, and that can only mean, more often than not, that physicians will not be able to preserve the most valuable gift given people, that is, human life.”39 Soviet authorities harshly punished these activists with surveillance, arrest, and imprisonment in psychiatric hospitals well into the mid-1980s.

Mikhail Gorbachev emerged as the new Soviet leader in 1985, hoping to reform the country by liberalizing (somewhat) the economy and loosening restrictions on free speech. Economic reform, in Gorbachev’s mind, required reducing the bloated Soviet defense budget as well as ending military forays abroad, especially the war in Afghanistan and, eventually, defense commitments to Warsaw Pact nations. This was not because the Soviet Union could not afford the arms race, but rather because Gorbachev hoped to free up the budget for modernizing the rest of Soviet society. Crucial to this transformation were limits on nuclear weapons, as both their expense and potential danger concerned Gorbachev. Scholars of the nuclear age have shown how antinuclear sentiment profoundly influenced Gorbachev and his advisers, who sympathized with nuclear arms control and disarmament.

Reagan and Gorbachev got along famously and found common ground on their wish to live in a world freed from mutually assured destruction. Although Reagan balked at Gorbachev’s proposal, at Reykjavik in 1986, to eliminate all nuclear weapons, rejecting his demand that SDI research and testing be confined to laboratories, by 1987 the two men trusted each other enough to sign the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, removing the Euromissiles. Europe had always been the potential battlefield of a third world war, so with these weapons removed, the end of the Cold War was in sight. Gorbachev hoped to keep the Soviet Union intact, but circumstances thwarted him. By 1991, the Soviet state had dissolved, a combination of Gorbachev’s loosening of control and human rights activists’ seizure of it. (Some of these human rights activists had emerged from the antinuclear movement, including Sakharov, END, and the Moscow Trust Group.) With the end of the Soviet Union came the end of the Cold War which, more than anything, drastically reduced the threat of nuclear war.

The influence of antinuclear protest in the 1980s is easier to see than in previous eras. During the decade, the movement put pressure on governments everywhere. Discontent with the Euromissiles profoundly shook European politics, and in Britain, sentiment against nuclear weapons was so popular that the Labour Party endorsed an arms control agenda. Even in the Soviet Union, the movement so worried authorities that they actively repressed it. And finally Gorbachev emerged, sympathetic to the movement’s goals and shrewd enough to outmaneuver hardliners in his own government. In the United States, countless activists of all stripes opposed nuclear weapons, even shifting Congressional opinion on the matter. The movement never really threatened Reagan’s presidency, but it proved enough of a thorn in his side that his administration felt compelled to co-opt the movement with the introduction of SDI. Protest had not achieved anything close to total nuclear disarmament or even a freeze, but the INF treaty had eliminated at least some nuclear weapons, and ultimately the end of the Cold War practically eliminated the possibility of nuclear war. Activists could surely be happy with that.

After 1991

Despite the rapid decline in global tensions following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War was not the end of nuclear weapons. The threat of nuclear war had been reduced, to be sure, but the number of nuclear weapons barely changed. In the public mind, the nuclear threat had abated, and the antinuclear movement faded quickly. In reality, many dangers remained. The most immediate concern was the nuclear weapons located in former Soviet republics, which diplomats managed to get transferred back to Russia (although in retrospect this was hardly akin to nuclear disarmament). After the September 2001 attacks on New York City, concern grew over the possibility of terrorists acquiring some form of nuclear weapon.

Nuclear proliferation continued to cause the greatest concern. While South Africa willingly dismantled its nuclear weapons in 1990, in response to a lack of national security concerns, a South African atomic energy official admitted that the apartheid regime’s transition to a black majority government was “a major consideration.”40 Meanwhile, Pakistan had gone nuclear by 1998 and rattled nuclear sabers with India, while early in the 21st century, North Korea attained a modest nuclear capability, and world powers suspected Iran of undertaking the development of nuclear weapons. Worldwide nuclear forces have come down significantly, though around 17,000 nuclear warheads remained as of 2013.41

In the absence of the Cold War, the nuclear threat has been too diffuse and invisible to inspire another mass movement. One exception to this dissipation is the Global Zero movement, which combines grassroots activism with the efforts of elite policymakers, former presidents, prime ministers, and diplomats from around the world among them. Its founders include Bruce Blair, a former Air Force launch control officer, and Richard Burt, former U.S. ambassador to Germany. Giving nuclear disarmament the blessing of policymakers that it rarely had during the Cold War, these elites advocated for a “Compact to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons,” an international treaty that would abolish nuclear weapons.42 In addition, periodic reviews of the NPT, by the United Nations, assess compliance with the treaty and the progress made toward nuclear disarmament. Also of note is the U.S. adherence to the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, though the Senate has yet to ratify the agreement. But for the most part, the public had once again moved from activism to apathy.

Since many nations continue to base their security on nuclear weapons, it seems logical that a widespread grassroots antinuclear movement could return. At the same time, such a resurgence seems unlikely. During the Cold War, activism increased with the advent of new threats: the A-bomb itself, the H-bomb and fallout, the Reagan arms race. Without the rhetoric and threat inflation that ran rampant during the Cold War, the United States seems unlikely to use nuclear weapons. Reviving the movement would involve demonstrating to the public that nuclear weapons are an urgent and relevant problem on the level of other contemporary movements, including global climate change, marriage equality, economic inequality, and police killings (such as the event in Ferguson, MO).

Discussion of the Literature

Until relatively recently, scholarship of the Cold War and nuclear weapons generally omitted discussion of the antinuclear movement. Since Cold War history is littered with powerful leaders and political elites, the idea that a rabble-rousing public could influence geopolitics had little place, though the decades since the end of the global conflict have done away with this viewpoint. Policymakers usually dismissed, for professional reasons, the notion that a social movement could affect policy, distracting historians from the power of social movements. This disregard was unfair, since many social movements have obviously affected domestic policy, at least in the United States (the Progressives, civil rights, and environmentalism, for example). When it comes to foreign policy and national security, however, policymakers look weak if they appear to be beholden to protesters at home. In terms of the antinuclear movement, in fact, the deterrence strategy depended on ignoring dissent against nuclear weapons, since any reluctance or inability to use nuclear weapons rendered deterrence totally unconvincing.

After the Cold War ended, historians began to reassess the conflict, placing heavy emphasis on the origins of the Cold War, the end of the Cold War, and the avalanche of newly available international sources. Accordingly, the new Cold War history frequently focused on the actions of Mao, Truman, Stalin, Kissinger, Gorbachev, and the like. But a number of strong works emerged in the late 1990s that recognized the significance of the antinuclear movement, not least because it was perhaps the largest mass movement of the 20th century. Foremost among these is Lawrence Wittner’s three-volume chronicle of the global movement, The Struggle Against the Bomb. Covering the advent of the Bomb to the present, Wittner contends that the dramatic scale and international reach of the movement restrained world leaders from seeing nuclear weapons as viable instruments of war. For some time, Paul Boyer’s “From Activism to Apathy” explained how and why the antinuclear movement all but disappeared after the 1963 Test Ban Treaty, though scholars have begun to find that activism was more widespread during the late 1960s and 1970s than previously realized.

Since the movement spanned the Cold War, the globe, and the political spectrum, historical approaches to the antinuclear movement are as diverse as the movement itself. One way to analyze the movement is in chronological terms, with distinct phases appearing in the 1940s, the 1950s to the early 1960s, the mid 1960s to the late 1970s, and the early 1980s to the end of the Cold War. Each time period varied distinctly in goals, actors, and tactics. Other themes include the political alignment of the movement, with Wittner especially making a distinction between the Communist-sponsored and the nonaligned movement, and the international dimension, as antinuclear sentiment existed in nearly every country, though without much interaction across borders. Yet some activists (notably scientists and pacifists) took an international approach, which came to characterize the movement in Europe by the 1980s. Much of the scholarship focuses on individuals within the rich array of constituencies that made up the movement, including scientists, grassroots activists, moderates, radicals, physicians, and environmentalists. Michael Bess, Andrew Brown, Philip Taubman, and Michael Egan, to name just a few, have written on important scientists, intellectuals, and groups of elites who participated in the movement in various ways. As with any social movement, organizations played a large role; Milton Katz’s Ban the Bomb offers an organizational history of SANE, while Alice Smith covers the Atomic Scientists’ Movement in A Peril and a Hope.

In contrast to Wittner’s comprehensive synthesis, other historians have investigated the smaller, unique movements that made up the broader coalition of antinuclearism. For public reaction to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, see Paul Boyer’s By the Bomb’s Early Light. The reaction to nuclear testing in the United States after 1950 has been chronicled by Howard Ball, in Justice Downwind, and by A. Constandina Titus, in Bombs in the Backyard. Dan O’Neil’s Firecracker Boys shows how the AEC’s plan to test an H-bomb in Alaska was thwarted. David Cameron’s “From the Grass Roots to the Summit” explains the effect of protest against ABMs in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Paul Loeb’s Hope in Hard Times offers an account of different aspects of the antinuclear movement in the 1980s, while Toshihiro Higuchi’s “Tipping the Scale of Justice” traces the connections between the antinuclear movement and environmentalism.

Perhaps the most important theme is the movement’s influence on policy and how to measure that influence. Naturally, conclusions in this vein depend on methodology, sources, subject matter, and interpretation. With so many variables, analyzing the antinuclear movement could amount to a Rorschach test for the historian. Different historical actors and sources will alter the view of the movement’s role in, for example, the LTBT. Was the treaty the result of widespread demand for an end to fallout? Or was it a cynical measure aimed at cementing U.S. nuclear superiority over the Soviets? Or, as has been argued, an informal settlement to the German question after World War II? Determining the success or failure of the movement inspires similar questions. Was the Atomic Energy Act, for example, a successful outcome of an engaged scientific community? Or was it folly that should be criticized for subverting the very values it was meant to uphold? The answers to these questions have a great deal to say about the nature of a democratic society and the role—even the value—of public protest.

Scholars from outside the discipline of history have weighed in on this question of influence. From a political science approach, Jeffrey Knopf’s Domestic Society and International Cooperation provides a model of how grassroots protest can pressure elites into changing policy, and looks at several important case studies from the Cold War. Matthew Evangelista, also a political scientist, looked at the influence of transnational activists on Soviet policy in Unarmed Forces, finding that, in some ways, the closed Soviet system could be moved toward policy change by peace activists. Sociologist David Meyer’s A Winter of Discontent provided one of the first—and still important—analyses of the Freeze movement in the United States.

Primary Sources

Archives of relevance to the history of the antinuclear movement are rather scattered, but two archives contain a range of important collections. A nearly exhaustive account of the movement could probably be assembled from the vast holdings of the Swarthmore College Peace Collection alone; the papers of SANE, numerous Freeze campaigns, and countless other peace organizations cover the entirety of the movement. In Britain, the London School of Economics and Political Science houses the papers of both the CND and END, essential for understanding Europe’s antinuclear movement.

For government policy on nuclear weapons, the Foreign Relations of the United States series are especially useful and can be found both in print and online. The National Security Archive has an entire section on its website dedicated to documents on nuclear history, while the Wilson Center Digital Archive holds massive materials on nuclear history outside of the United States. In addition the Department of Energy maintains a website on Manhattan Project Historical Resources.

Scientists made up a small but influential part of the movement; their papers are usually held by their institutions’ archives. MIT and Harvard, for example, contain the papers of several active scientists and advisers, while the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago has the papers of Eugene Rabinowitch, including his work with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Papers relating to the Atomic Scientists’ Movement and the FAS are also contained there. The Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Collection at Oregon State contains a massive amount of material, while the Hans Bethe Papers at Cornell University document the career of this arms controller scientist who spanned World War II to beyond the Cold War.

Further Reading

  • Ball, Howard. Justice Downwind: America’s Atomic Testing Program in the 1950s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
  • Bergman, Jay. Meeting the Demands of Reason: The Life and Thought of Andrei Sakharov. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009.
  • Bess, Michael. Realism, Utopia and the Mushroom Cloud: Four Activist Intellectuals and Their Strategies for Peace, 1945–89. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
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  • 1. Joseph Rotblat, “Leaving the Bomb Project,” in The Manhattan Project: The Birth of the Atomic Bomb in the Words of Its Creators, Eyewitnesses, and Historians, ed. Cynthia Kelly (New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 2007), 279–280.

  • 2. Martin Sherwin, A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and Its Legacies, 3d ed. (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 90–114.

  • 3. Leo Szilard, “Petition to the President of the United States,” in Kelly, The Manhattan Project, 292–293.

  • 4. Quoted in Lawrence Wittner, Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009), 5–6.

  • 5. Quoted in Paul Boyer, By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985), 50.

  • 6. Boyer, Bomb’s Early Light, 6–24.

  • 7. United States Atomic Energy Commission, General Advisory Committee Report on the “Super,” October 30, 1949, in The American Atom: A Documentary History of the Nuclear Policies from the Discovery of Fission to the Present, 1939–1984, ed. Robert C. Williams and Philip L. Cantelon (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984), 126–127.

  • 8. Quoted in Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (New York: Knopf, 2005), 419.

  • 9. Quoted in Richard Polenberg, ed., In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer: The Security Clearance Hearing (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002), 46.

  • 10. Gennady Gorelik and Antonina W. Bouis, The World of Andrei Sakharov: A Russian Physicist’s Path to Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 215.

  • 11. Howard Ball, Justice Downwind: America’s Atomic Testing Program in the 1950s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 53–55.

  • 12. Ball, Justice Downwind, 86, 107, 128, 155.

  • 13. Michael Egan, Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival: The Remaking of American Environmentalism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 47–78; Daniel T. O’Neill, The Firecracker Boys: H-bombs, Inupiat Eskimos, and the Roots of the Environmental Movement (New York: St. Martin’s, 1994); and István Hargittai, Judging Edward Teller: A Closer Look at One of the Most Influential Scientists of the Twentieth Century (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2010), 371.

  • 14. Lawrence Wittner, Resisting the Bomb: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1954–1970 (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997), 59.

  • 15. Joseph Rotblat, Pugwash—the First Ten Years: History of the Conferences of Science and World Affairs (New York: Humanities Press, 1968), 77.

  • 16. Quoted in Wittner, Confronting the Bomb, 64.

  • 17. John F. Kennedy, “Commencement Address at American University in Washington,” June 10, 1963, in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office), 460.

  • 18. British National Archives, Harold Macmillan to Secretary General, Pugwash, Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia 1963, FO 371 IA D1092/30.

  • 19. MIT Institute Archives. Bernard Feld, unpublished autobiography, “VIII: Nuclear Politics in the U.S.A.,” Doc. 11, March 8, 1988, Box 65: Writings, Folder unnumbered: Autobiographical, Bernard T. Feld Papers.

  • 20. Paul Boyer, “From Activism to Apathy: The American People and Nuclear Weapons, 1963–1980,” Journal of American History 70 (March 1984): 821–844.

  • 21. Jeffrey Knopf, Domestic Society and International Cooperation: The Impact of Protest on U.S. Arms Control Policy (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 159.

  • 22. Students for a Democratic Society, “The Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society, 1962,” SDS (New York: SDS, 1962).

  • 23. Campbell Craig and Frederik Logevall, America’s Cold War: The Politics of Insecurity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).

  • 24. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” 2005 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, May 2–27, 2005.

  • 25. Herbert York, Making Weapons, Talking Peace: A Physicist’s Odyssey from Hiroshima to Geneva (New York: Basic Books, 1987), 239.

  • 26. Wittner, Confronting the Bomb, 115.

  • 27. Knopf, Domestic Society, 167–168.

  • 28. Quoted in Wittner, Confronting the Bomb, 133.

  • 29. Quoted in George Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 866–867.

  • 30. Quoted in Wittner, Confronting the Bomb, 128.

  • 31. Randall Forsberg, “A Bilateral Nuclear-Weapon Freeze,” Scientific American 247.5 (November 1982): 52.

  • 32. Richard Rhodes, Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race (New York: Vintage, 2007), 163–167.

  • 33. Ronald Reagan, “Address to the Nation on Defense and National Security, March 23, 1983,” Archives, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum, Simi Valley, CA.

  • 34. Ibid.

  • 35. “Transcript of Teller-Bethe Debate,” November 1983, Folder 20.45: Teller-Bethe Debate, Box 20, Hans Bethe Papers, Cornell University; published in Technology Review 87 (April 1984), 38(3).

  • 36. Sakharov is quoted in Sidney Drell, “Opening Remarks at the International Conference in Honor of Andrei Sakharov,” May 1–2, 1981, Files of Jeri Laber: USSR: Sakharov: General, 1981, Records of Human Rights Watch, Columbia University.

  • 37. “The Nuclear Arms Freeze,” Proceedings of a Roundtable Discussion, 5–7, February 14, 1983, Folder 29.6: Nuclear Arms Freeze, Box 29, Edward Teller Papers, Hoover Institution, Stanford University, 18.

  • 38. Paul Rubinson, “The Global Effects of Nuclear Winter: Science and Antinuclear Protest in the United States and the Soviet Union during the 1980s,” Cold War History 14.1 (February 2014): 47–69.

  • 39. “Soviet Independent Peace Activist Vladimir Brodsky Tried,” Files of Cathy Fitzpatrick: USSR: Moscow Trust Group: Mailing to Members, 1985–1987, Records of Human Rights Watch, Columbia University.

  • 40. David B. Ottaway, “South Africa Said to Abandon Pursuit of Nuclear Weapons,” Washington Post (18 October 1991): A23.

  • 41. Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, “Global Nuclear Weapons Inventories, 1945–2013,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 69.5 (2013): 75–81.

  • 42. Taubman, The Partnership: Five Cold Warriors and their Quest to Ban the Bomb, xiii–xiv, 338–340, 439.