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Reviewed by:
  • Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Disarmament Movement 1971 to the Present
  • Patrick Glynn
Lawrence S. Wittner, Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Disarmament Movement 1971 to the Present. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003. 657 pp. $32.95.

Those of us who lived through the fierce anti-nuclear debates of the 1980s—whether as proponents or opponents of the anti-nuclear position—cannot but have vivid memories of that turbulent era. Doubtless some remember those years as a period tinged with fear. I certainly recall the evening in November 1983 when the ABC network treated us all to a made-for-television movie, The Day After, depicting the town of Lawrence, Kansas, being obliterated in a nuclear war. The film left even Ronald Reagan feeling depressed, as he recalled in his memoir. Yet by and large the debate over nuclear weapons in the 1980s was marked by a high-mindedness and seriousness of moral purpose—I would argue on both sides—that is rare in democratic dialogue. (The debate certainly compares favorably with the kinds of issues that dominated public debate during the final years of the Clinton presidency.) Although it may seem strange to say so, the challenge of nuclear weapons—the dilemmas of disarmament and deterrence—in many ways brought the best out of American democracy in that era.

The value of Lawrence S. Wittner's Toward Nuclear Abolition—the third and final volume in his history of the nuclear disarmament movement—is to capture and preserve some of the spirit of that time. Reading Wittner's account, one is almost astonished at the true scope of the 1980s anti-nuclear movement, which spanned the globe. Western Europe, Asia, North America, Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union itself—almost no country, it seems, was untouched by the welling up of popular protest against the specter of nuclear annihilation. Wittner writes as a partisan of the movement, and probably no one but a partisan would have had the patience to chronicle such a sprawling international phenomenon in such detail. Wittner draws on memoirs, archival records, and, perhaps most valuably, personal interviews with activists and government officials of the era.

In most accounts, the anti-nuclear movement forms a mere backdrop to superpower diplomacy. Here Wittner brings the tragic chorus to center stage. However, the risk of such an approach is that it introduces a measure of distortion into the historical drama. In Wittner's account, the anti-nuclear movement becomes the main historical actor in the period—not to say its hero. For Wittner, it was not Reagan or the United [End Page 128] States but quite literally the anti-nuclear movement that was the true victor in the Cold War. In his analysis, the movement caused hawkish leaders, especially Reagan, to abandon arms race policies, thus averting nuclear annihilation. Wittner's goal is to refute the "triumphalist" view of conservatives, who attribute the Cold War victory to Reagan's arms buildup and the Strategic Defense Initiative.

To be sure, the end of the Cold War has by now become a kind of political Rorschach test. Everybody reads into it his or her own pet theory of international affairs. Conservatives cite Reagan's hawkish policies; liberals discount them; Wittner credits the anti-nuclearists. Yet after the memoirs and discussions and opening of archives, a measure of mystery remains, and probably always will remain, about how and why this strange sequence of events unfolded.

Nonetheless, I find myself compelled both to quibble and to quarrel with Wittner's more categorical conclusions. My quibble: Wittner lays too much emphasis on the street protests. The protests were important, but the larger problem confronting Reagan was an establishment (read: liberal Democratic) consensus that saw arms concessions to the Soviet Union as the only path to peace—a consensus often embraced by the media. As speechwriter and media adviser for Reagan's arms-control director in the mid-1980s, I worried less about the protesters than about the arms-control reporters for TheNew York Times and TheWashington Post.

As for my quarrel: Although we probably lack the definitive evidence to clinch anybody's all-purpose explanation for the...