The Anti-Nuclear Movement in Review: Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

Wayne Hall

In late 1991, the Russian senior officials in the Foreign Ministry were very receptive to doing a whole number of things that would have permitted the United States to assist them in better control over their (nuclear) material. But the U.S. Government didn’t take advantage of that opportunity.
—Dr. Thomas Cochran, Director of Nuclear Programs of the National Resources Defense Council

EVERY NOW AND then Time magazine comes out with front cover screaming something like: “Russian Nukes: Is Anyone in Control?” The idea of a fanatic blowing up New York City with a Russian nuclear weapon hidden in a suitcase fits neatly into the mental slot once reserved for nightmares of Soviet intercontinental missiles raining down on American citizens and the Red Army landing in Miami.

Just as the vision of hell played such an important role in medieval cosmology, the Russian nuclear threat is apparently too integral a part of American culture to be easily dispensed with.

Enough is now being written on the responsibilities of mainstream politicians and officials for the perpetuation of Cold War nuclear weapons problems into the post-Cold War era. My concern as a participant in the European anti-nuclear campaigns of the eighties is to focus on the responsibilities of the anti-nuclear movements themselves for what has happened, or rather not happened, since 1991.

Many prominent activists in the `80s “new social movements” responded to the collapse of the USSR not by redoubling their insistence on nuclear disarmament(1), but by forgetting about nuclear disarmament altogether and moving on to other questions, such as fascism and nationalism—often with an arbitrary emphasis on the nationalism of Russia and Serbia.(2)

Not once over the last six years have I seen a reference to the anomaly of permitting Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus to enjoy the status of nuclear-weapons free zones while denying this right to Russia. To the extent that anyone thought at all about nuclear weapons in 1991, the illusion seems to have prevailed that with the collapse of Communism the problem could be left to solve itself. The fact is, of course, that the nuclear weapons problem will not solve itself, either in the ex-Soviet Union or globally.

It is true that under pressure from anti-nuclear lobbyists, chiefly in the United States, sections of the “international community” do give the impression of moving, or at least trying to move, in an anti-nuclear direction. The passage of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996, even if unsigned by Pakistan, India and Israel, does give ground for hope that large-scale nuclear testing may now be a thing of the past. [Editors’ Note: The fact that this hope has gone out-of-date is not the fault of the author, who submitted this manuscript to us well over a year ago! His magazine, Nea Ecologica, organized a protest in November 1996 against India and Pakistan’s refusal to sign the CTBT.]

But the obstacles are still formidable. European Social Democracy, once under pressure to compete with Communists for its peace-loving credentials, no longer feels that pressure. It has rallied to the Bomb. French and British nuclear planners continue serenely with their plans for coordination of these two countries’ nuclear arsenals.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT) has been indefinitely renewed, more or less on American terms, in effect favoring the continued possession of nuclear weapons by certain states. There is little indication that the United States is willing to reduce the size of its nuclear arsenal below a limit of 3,500 strategic warheads. “Paranoia” is also resurgent in Russia, with the Start II Treaty blocked in the Duma.

Dismantlement of the Soviet—or Russian—nuclear bogy would have of course meant, and would mean, abolition of a central mechanism of political discipline in the advanced Western democracies. It was a basic tenet of the “new social movements” that nuclear weapons served this function in both East and West.

The preferred strategy seems to have been to preserve the Russian nuclear arsenal in a state of disintegration, leaving open the options of evoking not only the old threats but also new ones, such as nuclear terrorism.

When the END (European Nuclear Disarmament) Appeal was launched in April 1980, it represented in many respects nothing more than a new incarnation of the “non-aligned” logic that had informed non-Communist peace movements from the earliest days of the Cold War.

Rejecting the Communist-controlled peace movements of the World Peace Council, which were said not to be really interested in peace because sponsored by states which were participants in the nuclear arms race, END signatories took the position that the nuclear arms race was fueled by antagonism between the two superpower blocs, each of which needed the other as an external threat in order to justify the imposition of internal discipline.

The antagonists were in a sense in collusion: The enemy images each projected of the other functioned reflectively as a source of legitimation for both sides. The abstract pacifist propaganda of the WPC was merely one of a number of instruments used to perpetuate the rule of an undemocratic Communist bureaucracy. A nuclear-free Europe could not be achieved through peace activists following the dictates of Warsaw Pact diplomacy. It must be a product of the self-emancipation of civil society in both East and West.

In one respect END went further than its non-aligned predecessors. Perhaps as a reflection of relaxation of internal controls in the Warsaw Pact states, peace groups independent of—and in opposition to—the official World Peace Council organizations, were established with the encouragement of END and its allies.

The first was the Moscow Group for Trust, set up in June 1982 and setting a precedent soon to be followed in Hungary, East Germany and Poland. The historian E.P. Thompson played a key role in publicizing the existence of these groups.

END’s annual conventions, held every summer from 1982 onwards, became the arena for an ongoing dispute between two basic tendencies in the non-aligned peace movement. The first opposed all collaboration or even dialogue with the organizations of the WPC until the Warsaw Pact states afforded equal recognition to the END-supported “independent” groups.

The second current, represented in Britain by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), was less absolute in its stance. It was to a certain extent prepared to acknowledge the WPC’s bona fides as a peace movement, and it was correspondingly hesitant to subordinate all activities to the demands of the Eastern European “independents.”

After the British Labour Party’s failure in 1983 to get itself elected on a platform of unilateral nuclear disarmament, the nationally oriented strategy of CND came under increasing attack from activists sympathetic to END. The attempt to bring to power a British government which would set the anti-nuclear example for other governments was tacitly abandoned.

Since the British electorate could not be induced to overcome enemy-image stereotyping, END gained general acceptance for its view that effective opposition to nuclear weapons had to mean opposition to the bloc system which generated the perceived need for them.

Gorbachev Comes to Power

Mikhail Gorbachev’s coming to power in the Soviet Union in 1985 introduced a new factor into the equation. The cooperative stance he adopted conflicted with the expectations of his more routine-bound opponents in the West.

Specifically, Gorbachev’s willingness to subscribe to the Western propaganda equation between the Soviet SS-20s and NATO’s highly accurate new “first strike” Pershing 2 missiles was noted with distrust by the original purveyors of the propaganda. For Mrs. Thatcher in Britain, and even more so for the Kohl government in West Germany, the prospect of the Reagan administration’s celebrated “Zero Option” actually receiving the imprimatur of Moscow was at first profoundly puzzling and disturbing.

When in mid-1987 the WPC organizations started embracing proposals they had previously denounced, the wheel seemed to have come full circle. The resulting INF Treaty of December 1987 represented a legitimation of inequality, with the Soviet Union agreeing to destroy four times as many missiles as NATO. Both CND and END hailed the Treaty as a victory, thereby substantially demobilizing both their organizations.

The INF Treaty’s contribution to real nuclear disarmament was minimal. On the NATO side it was immediately subverted through replacement of the categories of weapons withdrawn with new varieties or sea-launched and air-launched cruise missiles. END’s real victory was ideological: the END conception of what might be construed as nuclear disarmament had now displaced the World Peace Council conception.

Incapable of finding the right response to the misleading triumphalism of the media, the non-aligned peace movement became divided. Some contented themselves with the role of passive spectators of the Gorbachev personality cult, then in full swing. Others started to have misgivings about the real political direction of the Soviet “reforms.”(3) END gradually lost interest in nuclear weapons, devoting more and more energy to the promotion of the Prague-based Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly (HCA).

German Reunification

The fall of the Berlin wall produced more upheavals and more disorientation. The pages of CND’s Sanity of this period offer many testimonies to the cognitive dissonance prevailing among peace activists regarding the earth-shattering events in Eastern Europe.

END (and the HCA) had always favored German reunification, but had considered it unrealistic in the absence of more general East-West unification entailing denuclearization and dissolution of the Cold War blocs. The fall of the Berlin wall and subsequent Soviet consent for the incorporation into NATO of the Eastern parts of Germany discredited this view.

END and the HCA were left supporting utopian East German groups, like Bundnis 90, that clung to the dream of an advanced and socialist GDR unsheltered by any “anti-fascist protection wall” and yet coexisting harmoniously with its powerful neighbor.

According to the END-HCA analysis, the collapse of one of the mutually supporting participants in the nuclear arms race would automatically entail the collapse of the other. Thus the end of the Warsaw Pact would set in motion a similar disintegrative process in NATO. Instead, what followed the collapse of the Warsaw Pact was a reorganization of NATO to equip it for participation in operations formerly classified as “out of area.”

Then came the first such operation: the Gulf War. In its aftermath, CND’s magazine Sanity closed down (in circumstances that leave much room for speculation).(4) Only months before the crucial events of August 1991 in Moscow, the British anti-nuclear movement was losing its most important independent information source.

The August 1991 Coup in Moscow

The confusion that gripped European peace activists and ecologists in the wake of the Gulf War unfortunately impeded exploitation of the next great development in this turbulent period: the Moscow coup of August 1991.

This abortive coup against Gorbachev clarified the political situation in a way that appeared to provide grounds for optimism. Until that time the proponents of nuclear deterrence had secured mass support for the nuclear arsenals by conflating nuclear weapons with ideological loyalty and patriotism. The banning of the Communist Party by Gorbachev put an end to one of the Soviet nuclear arsenal’s most significant ideological props: the myth of Soviet nuclear weapons as guarantors of the conquests of socialism.

The characteristic conflation of nuclear weapons and political alliances had worked (as END observed) to the advantage of both parties in the Cold War system. In Britain the Tories had long ridiculed proponents of the unilateral nuclear disarmament of Britain, summoning them in a spirit of jest to make the same proposal to the Soviets.

In August, 1991 the anti-nuclear movements suddenly found themselves in a position to do exactly that. If they had raised the demand for unilateral destruction of the Soviet nuclear arsenal, Right-wingers would have been at a loss. Refusal to support such a call would have exposed the reality that it was not the Left or the “new social movements,” but the Thatchers and Reagans, that were the objective allies of Russian nuclear militarism.

Tremendous ideological pressure was exerted in August 1991 for respectable citizens to denounce the August 1991 coup. Only a minority of Stalinist die-hards refused to do so. Nowhere, however, was the question of the coup linked to that of nuclear weapons. Yet, as later emerged at the trial of Krioutchkov, the last head of the KGB, the August 1991 coup was largely motivated by Communist anxieties at the impending transfer of the Soviet nuclear arsenal into the control of the Americans.

The new social movements could have condemned the coup while at the same time calling for the destruction of the Soviet nuclear arsenal. Suppose that the two issues had been linked, not just in arguments in the Greek Ecologists-Alternatives’ parliamentary office in Athens (where the present author happened to be at the time) but in policy statements issued by people of influence.(5)

A division of labor could have been established: END and the other “against the blocs” pan-European peace movements calling for destruction of the Soviet nuclear arsenal, while CND and the U.S. movements concentrated their attention on abolishing their own national nuclear arsenals. The WPC groups could have been co-opted into the former project.

This could have meant, for the first time, an assumption of leadership by the non-aligned peace movements. It could have been a first step towards realization of the general principle of societal verification of nuclear disarmament, as put forward by Joseph Rotblat and the Pugwash conferences. It would have given real content to END’s rhetoric of civil society.

In the event the new social movements took no steps to ease the burdens of their defeated Communist rivals. The Soviet Union’s official peace committees were simply allowed to disintegrate as their members occupied themselves with more basic problems of subsistence. The field was left free for Russian nationalists to occupy political space vacated by an internationalism so obviously ineffectual or hypocritical.

CND took the line that there was now no enemy, so that Western nuclear arsenals had lost their last shred of justification. This overlooked the fact that the Cold War mindset had involved not only anti-Communism but also geopolitical anti-Russianism. The dissociation of these two elements in the wake of the August coup had presented certain opportunities, as I’ve indicated, but CND did not take them.

The peace movement could not grasp that the conceptual confusions of Cold War politics were two-edged weapons that could be turned against their originators. Whatever its subjective intentions, CND’s “there-is-now-no-enemy” stance was only too easy to recast as an invitation to find a new enemy, or a new definition for the old one. END-HCA accepted the invitation, systematically demonizing Russian nationalists (in particular the now forgotten clown Zhirinovsky) as well as Serb leaders such as Milosevic and Karadjic.

The problem extended to the farthest reaches of the far left. Even a theorist of the stature of Ernest Mandel was out of his depth. While recognising the significance of the August events for his own world-view, he had no slogans to raise and nothing to propose.

Mandel had put forward the view in the early days of the “new social movements” that “Soviet nuclear strength affords a measure of protection to anti-imperialist revolution.” Meant as a counter to what he saw as pacifist-ecologist doomsday-mongering, this endorsement by Mandel of the doctrine of nuclear deterrence testified to a profound unawareness of the military aspects of Soviet “new thinking.”

The deterrent effect, real or imaginary, of Soviet nuclear weapons must be balanced against the consideration that the huge expansion of the Soviet nuclear arsenal after the Cuban missile crisis provided a raison d’etre, and an ever-increasing number of targets, for the strategic nuclear arsenal of the United States. The final act of the Cold War, the hostage-taking of European populations by the Pershing 2 and Cruise misiles, was possible only because of Soviet embroilment in the nuclear arms race.

Circulating on trucks in built-up areas where the Soviets would never dare a pre-emptive strike against them, the Euromissiles targeted nuclear installations in the Soviet Union. The threat from them was contingent on the existence of the Soviet nuclear arsenal. If this massive arsenal had not been built in the first place, creating the political prerequisities (mass hysteria) for a plausible threat of second-strike bombardment of Soviet cities, there would have been no politically credible targets for the Euromissiles.

It is unclear how far the Soviet Union was ever truly threatened by nuclear strikes in the forties and fifties. After the initial atrocities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki American presidents had always opted for less extreme measures than actual utilization of nuclear bombs in war, despite the legendary uncooperativeness of the then Soviet leadership and despite the fact that for much of this period Stalin possessed no nuclear “deterrent” worth mentioning.

United States deployment of nuclear weapons against the two Japanese cities came at the end of a long and bloody war. It is not apologetics to suggest that subsequent nonutilization of nuclear weapons by the United States points to lack of domestic political support as a restraining factor.

Brezhnev and his colleagues’ decision to accelerate the nuclear arms race instead of withdrawing from it (even if on unfavorable terms) sealed the fate of the Soviet Union. By the time more clear-sighted policies were introduced by Andropov and Gorbachev, it was too late.

Any Marxist whose political identity had been predicated on faith in the “balance of terror,” i.e. on a conception that Soviet nuclear weapons are or were in some sense defending “us,” would be profoundly disoriented by a realization of the uselessness of the Soviet nuclear arsenal.

Unlike others in the “new social movements,” Ernest Mandel was convinced that media propaganda about “limited nuclear war” in Europe was bluff:

“The general public may be fooled by monstrous talk of nuclear wars which will only cost some hundreds of millions (sic) of dead and that those who have nuclear shelters will survive. Those in power are not duped.”(6)

But by subscribing to doctrines of nuclear deterrence, Mandel in effect argued that Western power centers could be “duped” by the Soviets. If those in power are truly not duped, then it would make no difference to Western behavior whether the Soviets did or did not have nuclear weapons. This was confirmed by developments.

Gorbachev: Guardian of the Bomb

Even after the August coup, in the months remaining before Gorbachev’s final demise, there was time for the “new social movements” to intervene. With powers greatly reduced, virtually confined to presiding over the nuclear arsenal, Gorbachev tried to act as mediator between Russia and the Muslim republics of the Union.

Yeltsin, at that time unencumbered by the need to retain credibility with the military, was even keener in his advocacy of nuclear disarmament. On 3rd September 1991 he announced to the Russian parliament that he favored total destruction of the Soviet nuclear arsenal.(7) The French Defense Minister of the day, Pierre Joxe, stated publicly that “France will not be the first to put on the brakes if there is a large world-wide movement for nuclear disarmament.”

At this point a call from the new social movements for unilateral Soviet nuclear disarmament would have cut like a knife through the established political world. The call could have incorporated a recommendation that Gorbachev head a Soviet Nuclear Disarmament Commission. The establishment of such a post could have made it possible for him to make a more dignified and constructive exit from the summit of Soviet political life than he in fact made a couple of months later.

Since the call did not come, the opportunity began to recede. First came President Bush, with announcements of “unilateral nuclear disarmament of the United States,” basically cutbacks in land-based ICBMs and tactical nuclear weapons.

It was a move which seemed to catch Gorbachev off-guard. Perhaps he was uncertain as to whom he should attempt to represent, the comatose Western anti-nuclear movements or his own disintegrating country. In his response to Bush’s “unilateral” proposal, Gorbachev agreed to reductions in the Soviet land-based strategic arsenal, but not to its total abolition.

President Bush’s “disarmament proposals” had been well prepared. Throughout September 1991, NATO had been announcing plans for a new generation of air-launched nuclear missiles, the TASM. Such interest in nuclear weapons as existed among the public was artfully focused on the nuclear weapons not of the USSR but of NATO.

NATO’s sudden bout of muscle-flexing injected fear into an already dazed public consciousness, making it even less likely that Gorbachev or Yeltsin would find an audience that could penetrate the logic of the games being played at the top and persist in demands, in the first place, for Soviet nuclear disarmament.

Bush’s spectacular public relations coup had succeeded in demonstrating that Gorbachev was not prepared to make corresponding offers of “unilateral nuclear disarmament of the Soviet Union.” The political sophisticates of END made no attempt to help Gorbachev by exploring how the Soviet leader would react if called upon by “civil society” to adopt such policies.

Where Were the Unilateralists?

The failure of both the pacifist-ecologist and the Marxist component of the “new social movements” is sufficiently evident. Retrospectively, their failure can be seen to stem from diametrically opposed causes. END activists possessed the concept of a common civil society in Eastern and Western Europe but no unequivocal commitment to unilateralism (or to nuclear disarmament at all, it seems now). The Marxists (and the CND people) were unilateralists but incapable of grasping that the Soviet “workers’ state” and not one of the bourgeois states such as Britain, should be the initial testing ground for projects of unilateral nuclear disarmament.

Ernest Mandel’s conception of unilateralism comes out clearly enough in his “Socialism and Nuclear War:” “Every mass movement in the West,” he wrote, has to fight for unilateral removal of its own government’s nuclear weapons . . .”

The `non-aligned’ demand for mutual and parallel nuclear disarmament “should not become the central goal of the anti-war movement,” because “if that happens the movement will withdraw from the area of mass mobilization in the streets of Western cities, to become a diplomatic pressure group in Geneva, Washington and Moscow; and the movement will see its democratic and non-exclusive character dissolve under the pressure of anti-unilateralism, red-baiting and anti-activism.”

This passage demonstrates a keen enough sensitivity to the dangers facing advocates of unilateral nuclear disarmament in Western countries—but leaves out of account the political problems of their Eastern counterparts. Should they or should they not have subscribed to Mandel’s view that “Soviet nuclear strength affords a measure of protection to the anti-imperialist revolution” (and so to themselves)?

The question of defense of the Soviet Union that had so divided Marxists would have been further complicated by a factoring in of the nuclear weapons problem. There would have arisen the question of the appropriateness of such instruments of indiscriminate (or at best nationally specific) destruction to the defense of any emancipatory project.

The Soviet nuclear arsenal—let us ponder the fact—was the highest embodiment of “socialism in one country.” It was its supreme creation.

The pacifist-ecologist majority in the “new social movements” had sidestepped such disputes by displacing onto capitalist society the ambiguities of the revolutionary Marxist attitude to “really existing socialism.” Just as many Marxists both identified with and dissociated themselves from the Communist states, so the pacifist-ecologists saw civil society as both represented in and suppressed by the parliamentary democracy of the developed capitalist states.

In relation to the regimes of the Communist bloc, identified as totalitarian, most subscribed to a simple state-power-vs. civil-society dichotomy which blurred the distinction between Communism as a political current and Communism as a state ideology. To the extent that Communists remained in control of the state machinery of the Soviet Union, this simplistic analysis enabled the peace movements to remain in step with the unfolding “political revolution.”

In August 1991, however, the banning of the Soviet Communist Party and its separation from the organs of the state signified a change in its objective identity. With the transfer of state authority and thus the nuclear arsenal into the hands of the opponents of Communism, Soviet Communists effectively joined civil society.

An appeal at this time from the “new social movements” of Western Europe to civil society in the Soviet Union (including the Communists) for them to support the internationally-supervised destruction of the Soviet nuclear arsenal would have made immediately transparent the identity of interests between Russian (or ex-Soviet) and Western European civil society.

It would have been the first brick in the “common European home” and the first genuine step towards the nuclear-free Europe projected in the END Appeal of April 1980.

No such call was forthcoming. The movements which had spent the entire decade of the ’80s undermining, in the name of civil society, the power of the Communist party-state in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, lost interest in Russian civil society the instant that the Communists, forfeiting their control of Soviet nuclear weapons, joined it.


  1. The first meeting after the Soviet collapse of the different currents of the Western European Left, held in Paris in June 1993 under the auspices of the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire, did not so much as mention nuclear weapons in its nine-point agenda. Nor were nuclear weapons mentioned at all in the program for the Third Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly which took place in Ankara in December 1993 (to take just two examples of post-1991 activities of the “new social movements”).
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  2. One of the best-known leaders of the “new social movements,” Petra Kelly, focused her attentions not on the Balkans but on the Far East. Her close collaboration with the Dalai Lama was terminated by her murder in 1992 at the hands of her companion, the dissident NATO general Gert Bastian, who then proceeded to take his own life. Bastian’s motives for the murder appear to have been both personal and political, a confusion reflected in the ensuing argument among the German Greens as to whether the pair should be buried together or separately.
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  3. See Simon Bromley and Justin Rosenberg: “After Exterminism.” New Left Review 168, March-April 1988.
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  4. Sanity‘s last number, coming out in April 1991, includes the following edited communication from a Mr. Hamish Souter of Salisbury: “Hidden in the financial report for CND Council is an assumption that Sanity is going to close down—though council members have not been asked to discuss any such proposal or presented with any reasons for closing it. Not for the first time, the internal politics of national CND appear somewhat murky.”
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  5. The author’s private correspondence with E.P. Thompson is revealing in this respect. Thompson, gravely ill by 1991, reacted with initial hostility to the idea of unilateral Soviet nuclear disarmament but subsequently came round to the view that the idea was “not daft.” When pressed to go public, he reverted to his original negative stance. He also upbraided the author for purported lack of concern about the civil war in Yugoslavia.
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  6. “Socialism and Nuclear War,” New Left Review 141, Sept.-Oct. 1983.
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  7. See Robin Blackburn’s related comments in New Left Review 189, Sept.-Oct. 1989.
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ATC 75, July-August 1998