Soviet inspectors and their American escorts stand among several dismantled Pershing II missiles as they view the destruction of other missile components. The missiles are being destroyed in accordance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. 14 January 1989. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons / US Department of Defense / MSGT Jose Lopez Jr.
How Boycott and Divestment Campaigns Helped Halt the Nuclear Arms Race in the 1980s
Timmon Wallis, PhD
Executive Director, NuclearBan.US and author, Disarming the Nuclear Argument
Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1980 with a commitment to the largest military build-up in history, including a $1.5 trillion program of upgrading and modernizing every nuclear weapon in the US arsenal. Seven years later, he was signing the most comprehensive nuclear disarmament treaty every agreed up to that point, abolishing an entire class of nuclear weapons. Reagan’s first term in office saw a revival of US and European peace movements on an unprecedented scale, yet it was only towards the end of his second term that a real change of policy on nuclear weapons took place. By this time, most of the more visible peace movement activities had long since died down. However, boycott and divestment campaigns targeting the nuclear weapons companies, especially coming from cities and county governments, were on the increase. We need to focus attention on these campaigns if we are to understand the political pressures that ultimately led to the signing of the INF Treaty.
How can we ‘explain’ the INF treaty of 1987, which for the first time in history resulted in the actual material destruction of some of the most modern weapons available to the countries involved? Certainly a great deal of credit must go to the personality of Michail Gorbachev, who made far more concessions to the Americans than any of his predecessors were willing to make in order to secure an agreement. For the Soviets agreed to remove more than double the number of American missiles to be removed (1,752 vs. 859) and these included all the SS-20s based in the Far East of the Soviet Union which the Soviets had claimed all along had nothing to do with a European treaty.
Reagan, the most right-wing President in modern US history up to that point, came to power with a one and a half trillion dollar programme to build up American military might against the ‘clear and present danger’ from the ‘evil empire’ of the East. The concessions made by Gorbachev are on their own an insufficient explanation for how this man came to agree to such a treaty.
Many have attempted to explain Reagan’s ‘conversion’ to nuclear disarmament by refering to isolated events taking place during his presidency, such as the million-strong rally against the arms race in New York in June 1982, or the screening of The Day After nuclear war television docu-drama in November 1983.
Just five days after the New York rally, the largest in US history, Reagan stood before the United Nations to bring “the heartfelt wishes of my people for peace”. But the rest of his speech was peppered with his usual railings against the Soviet Union, including the accusation that they were “trying to manipulate the peace movement in the West” – a clear attempt to distance the protesters in New York from “his people”.
After watching The Day After, Reagan confided in his diary that the film had ‘depressed’ him. But his diary entry goes on to say that it made him all the more determined “to do all we can to have a deterrent and to see there is never a nuclear war.” In other words, what he said in his diary is entirely consistent with what he was still doing as President at that point: working harder than ever to build up the US nuclear arsenal so that the Soviets would never dare to attack Kansas, as was simulated in the movie.
It would be nice to think that Reagan, after a lifetime of holding such strong views on the subject, was personally convinced to change his position as a result of some encounter or a combination of encounters such as those just mentioned. And, of course, even nicer to think that Reagan – or any President – could then have such a direct and immediate effect on the long-standing policies of the US government as to dramatically change those policies mid-way through his Presidency.
Another way to understand what led to the signing of the INF Treaty would be to look at what political, economic, and other pressures may have been bearing down on him and his closest circle of advisors that may have ‘forced’ his administration to change course during his second term.
And if we want to understand how the INF Treaty was possible in 1987, we would be wise to look at what was happening then, in his second term and at the end of his Presidency – not at what was happening in 1982 or 1983, during his first term and at a time when the anti-Soviet rhetoric, as well as nuclear weapons build-up, was still at its height and going full-speed ahead. We might want to ask whether there developments brewing in 1987 that could potentially get “worse” in the near future, from the Reagan administration’s point of view, if they were not dealt with first?
We know, for instance, that there was a massive peace movement in this country in the early 1980s. Upwards of one million people marched in the streets of New York City in June 1982, calling for an end to the nuclear arms race. The US House of Representatives voted for a “nuclear freeze” in 1983. And over 100 cities and towns across the US had passed resolutions declaring themselves to be “nuclear-free zones” by 1984.
But despite the frenzy of peace movement activity between 1981 and 1984, the reality is that there was no change in US policy on nuclear weapons during this period – none at all. And immediately after Ronald Reagan’s re-election for a second term in November 1984, the US peace movement nearly went extinct. The National Freeze campaign lost its momentum and most of its activists. The resolutions dried up. The petitions dried up. Demonstrations got smaller and smaller. The media lost interest.
So what happened in the second half of the 1980s that can possibly explain the INF Treaty? Well, one thing that was happening, and indeed trending, was a growing interest in divestment and boycott campaigns that were putting pressure on some of the companies involved in the nuclear weapons business at that time.
These included a consumer boycott of General Electric – makers of light bulbs AND nuclear weapons; another one against Morton Thiokol – makers of table salt AND nuclear weapons; and another one against AT&T – providing telephone services AND nuclear weapons. Other household names also started to get hit, including Ford Motor Company, IBM and Hewlett Packard.
A growing number of nuclear-free zones started to pass legally-binding legislation to enforce their nuclear-free status with divestment from nuclear weapons companies and refusal to award city contracts to these companies. This began with a few small towns like Takoma Park, Maryland and Berkeley, California, but quickly spread to Chicago, Oakland and other larger cities.
We know that these companies did not like the attention they were getting, because they started to file lawsuits to try to stop the boycotts and divestment. States like Massachusetts and New York tried to block cities in those states from implementing these measures, and the federal government also stepped in with court cases against, for instance, the city of Oakland. General Electric, to this day, has a page on its website devoted to making sure its customers know that it is no longer involved in nuclear weapons work in any way.
The Nuclear Freeze Movement
In November 1980, as Ronald Reagan was winning his landslide victory at the polls, three local districts in the state of Massachusetts were voting on a referendum which called on the US government to ‘freeze’ the nuclear arms race. That referendum won 59% of the vote (to 41% against) in those three districts. In June 1981, the state legislatures in Massachusetts and Oregon also voted for a nuclear freeze. A ‘Freeze Movement’ was underway in America. This movement was overwhelming focused on building a consensus across all parties and all persuasions in America to put a halt to the arms race as a first step to re-thinking where the US is going with all this weaponry and military expenditure.
By January 1982, there were 20,000 activists campaigning nation-wide on the Freeze, which had by this time been endorsed by 50 national peace organisations and voted on in five state legislatures and eight city councils around the country. In March 1982, 157 ‘town meetings’ in Vermont voted in favour of the Freeze. This was immediately followed by votes for the Freeze in 162 more towns thoughout the New England states.
Although New England is traditionally one of the most ‘liberal’ regions in the country, it was becoming apparent from the scale of the Freeze movement that it was coming not from any ‘radical fringe’ but from a very broad cross-section of the American people – including the very people who had voted Reagan into office.
By June 1982, over 2 million signatures in favour of the Freeze had been collected across the country to present to the UN Special Session on Disarmament in New York. Still the momentum of the Freeze continued. In August 1982, the US House of Representatives voted on the Freeze. The resolution lost by just two votes (204 – 202). By September, the Freeze had been endorsed by 276 city councils, 446 town meetings, and 11 state legislatures across the country. On November 2nd 1982, the nation returned to the polls for the first time since Reagan’s landslide to elect Congressional and State officials. In what was claimed to have been the ‘largest public referendum in US history’, over one third of the American electorate had the opportunity to vote directly on the question of the Nuclear Freeze, as referendums appeared in nine states and 38 cities and counties. Only one state (Arizona), one city (Fairbanks, Alaska) and one county (Stone County, Arkansas) rejected the Freeze. All the others passed it by wide margins. In Massachusetts and New Jersey, the Freeze won over 75% of the vote. Overall across the country, it passed by 60% to 40%. Some 11,767,000 Americans had voted in favour.
In May 1983, the US House of Representatives again voted on the Freeze resolution they had defeated a year earlier. This time it won by a vote of 278 to 149. But to have the effect of law, it required the vote of the Senate as well (not to mention the signature of the President!). On October 31st 1983, the US Senate defeated the Freeze by 18 votes. National opinion polls were showing 70% to 80% of the American public favouring the Freeze by this point.
At the start of 1984, the Freeze movement had reached about as far as it could go into the American political system without a change of government. The focus then turned to the national elections due in November of that year. The movement managed to raise $6 million towards the election costs of trying to ‘unseat’ Congressional opponents of the Freeze. Some 25,000 Freeze volunteers offered their services to the electoral campaigns of pro-Freeze Senators and Representatives, as well as to the Democratic Presidential candidate, Walter Mondale, who had come out in favour of the Freeze in his campaign manifesto. Mondale was resoundingly defeated and only five new pro-Freeze Senators were elected – not enough to secure victory in the Senate.
The Nuclear-Free Zone Movement Begins to Bite
As the Freeze movement was receding from the national scene following the election defeat in November 1984, a different yet related movement was taking shape in towns and cities across the United States. The nuclear-free zone movement began in Japan in 1958, and took off in the UK, and then in the US, at the beginning of the 1980s.
Around the time that the US Congress was voting on the Nuclear Freeze in the spring of 1983, the US peace movement was turning toward a more grassroots approach to the problem of the arms race – tackling it at the local and state level, where the weapons researchers and producers were working. Eight American towns had declared themselves nuclear-free zones by March 1983. Then in April, twelve towns in Wisconsin joined the nuclear-free zone ‘club’ and seven more joined from Massachusetts. Soon there were 37 nuclear-free zones in the US, including New York City, the second largest city in the country (population: 8 million).
The nuclear-free zones continued to grow throughout 1983 and 1984, with fifteen more towns and cities joined the movement through referendums on the ballot papers which brought Reagan his second landslide victory. By the end of the following year, there were over a hundred nuclear-free cities and towns in the United States, and the movement continued to grow, despite the Reagan victory and the effective end of the Freeze movement.
In March 1986, Chicago, the nation’s third largest city, became a nuclear-free zone, bringing the total population effected to nearly 14 million. Twenty-seven more areas joined during 1986, and by now it was spreading into the more wealthy suburbs of California, New Jersey, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. It was also spreading into the mainstream of ‘middle America’ – Iowa City, Iowa; Louisville, Kentucky; Las Vegas, Nevada; Durham, North Carolina; Springdale, Utah.
The significance of the nuclear-free zone movement does not lie simply in the fact that cities and towns were passing resolutions, as in other countries. In the US, many of these were legally-binding and enforceable pieces of legislation. Many of them, including Chicago (but not New York) included legally-binding statutes effecting the transportation of nuclear materials within their boundaries, divestment from corporations involved in nuclear production, or other clauses which could have direct and damaging effects on nuclear weapons contractors. The City of Takoma Park, Maryland (population: 16,231) adopted a city ordinance in December 1983, declaring by law that (among other things):
“No person, corporation, university, laboratory, institution or other entity in the City of Takoma Park knowingly and intentionally engaged in the production of nuclear weapons shall commence any such work within the city after adoption of this chapter.“
Anyone found in violation of this ordinance would be liable to fines of $100 for each day of the violation.
The most ambitious piece of nuclear-free zone legislation of that period involved a plan to phase out all nuclear weapons contracting throughout the state of Oregon by providing tax credits to industries in the state proportional to their conversion from military to civilian production. That was linked to two other proposals presented to Oregon voters in November 1986. One would have immediately shut down the only existing nuclear power station in Oregon, and the other would have forced a major uranium mining company to remove their mill tailings and low-level ‘sludge’ from the state. These were all defeated 59% to 41%, but the threat was clearly there that states could start passing laws like this one in the not-too-distant future.
In March 1986, the nuclear-free zone movement, emboldened by continuing gains, announced a nation-wide consumer boycott of Morton Thiokol Corporation – one of the top 50 nuclear weapons contractors and the largest producer of table salt in the world. Twelve months later, Morton claimed the boycott was having no effect on their business and they remained ‘proud to be part of the defense industry’. A decade later, Morton Thiokol was no longer part of the defense industry.
The Morton boycott was followed by a boycott of the telecommunications giant, AT&T. This seemd to hit at a raw nerve in the company, at a time of intense competition resulting from the ‘de-regulation’ of the long-distance telephone services. The chairman of the board himself went on a public relations offensive to win back public support, claiming that AT&T played ‘but a small part’ in the nuclear industry.
Most industries affected by the nuclear-free zone movement made a desperate bid to dissociate themselves from the nuclear arms race. Ford Motor Company filed a lawsuit against Marin County, California in March 1988 over the county’s nuclear-free divestment policy. Ford claimed they had nothing to do with nuclear weapons production, but when evidence of Pentagon contracts were presented at a public hearing, Ford withdrew and dropped the suit. IBM and Hewlett Packard were threatening to sue on the same grounds.
There is no direct evidence of the impact which these divestment policies had on the nuclear industry. Nevertheless, they were beginning to affect an increasing number of ordinary Americans with the ‘institutionalisation’ of the disarmament message and it was providing not only an embarrassment to the Reagan administration but a direct threat to American business interests. These were the pressures likely to lead to results – not necessarily the results that the peace movement wanted, which was an end to the arms race – but results that would effectively defuse and destabilise that movement.
Cruise and Pershing, however much ‘loved’ in certain military and political quarters, were, in comparison to the growing threat to the whole American nuclear establishment, expendable systems and a small price to pay for a return to stability and a return to the status quo ante. The INF Treaty was signed by President Reagan at least in part because to fail to do so would have further fuelled this movement in his own backyard which was affecting the interests of the people who supported him – the nuclear industry itself.
Who Wanted Cruise?
In order to understand how and why the Cruise programme was stopped, we need to understand the reasons for Cruise in the first place. Who wanted them, and why?
The deployment of Ground-Launched Cruise Missiles (GLCM) in Europe was being considered by the Pentagon as early as 1975. The GLCM programme was only a very small part of a massive military build-up underway in the United States at the end of the 1970s. This build-up involved the spending of $1,500,000,000,000 (1.5 trillion dollars) over a five-year period to upgrade every aspect of American conventional and nuclear forces. The 464 GLCM and 108 Pershings due for deployment in Europe must be seen in the context of 16,600 new nuclear warheads which were being added to the US arsenal during this period.
Pentagon planners had long been obsessed with the idea of the nuclear ‘triad’ – ensuring the Army, Navy and Air Forces all had their fair share of the weapons. When the modern cruise missile was being developed in the early 1970s it was thus inevitable that there would have to be air-launched, ground-launched and sea-launched versions. The ground-launched cruise was militarily the least significant of the three, but became important as a political football between the US and its European allies.
For the previous two decades, the ‘balance’ of intermediate-range nuclear forces in Europe (INF) consisted of about 380 Soviet SS-4 and SS-5 missiles versus about 400 NATO nuclear bombers (plus 80 Polaris missiles assigned to NATO out of the US strategic submarine fleet). In 1977, the Soviet Union began replacing the SS-4 and SS-5 with an equivalent number of SS-20, each of which however, had three warheads. NATO had already replaced the Polaris with multiple-warhead Poseidon missiles and sent over additional F-111 bombers by this point, so by 1983 the INF ‘balance’ consisted of 1000 or so SS-20 warheads versus 480 NATO bombers and 640 Poseidon warheads.
The tripling of nuclear stockpiles on both sides in Europe had thus been completed before ever the first Cruise or Pershing missile arrived. The NATO ‘modernisation’ decision of December 1979 was not, as it was commonly presented, a ‘response’ to the Soviet SS-20 deployments but rather a programme to replace aging F-111 and F-104 nuclear bombers with the latest Cruise Missile technology.
Bombers were considered too vulnerable to attack and no longer able to penetrate Soviet air defences. GLCM was designed to evade Soviet radar and be deployed from the back of a truck where it could not be targeted in advance. Full-scale development of GLCM was thus given the go-ahead in January 1977, and the plans for deployment in Europe were begun a year later. By the time NATO defence ministers were discussing the matter in December 1979, the first GCLM had already been flight-tested and contracts to produce 696 missiles had already gone out.
To the military then, Cruise was a foregone conclusion. To European politicians it was not so simple. Earlier plans to deploy the ‘neutron bomb’ had already caused an uproar across Europe forcing President Carter to withdraw the idea. NATO did not want to follow that with another embarrassment over Cruise, and so it was decided to adopt a ‘twin-track’ policy – deploying the missiles only if negotiations failed. This would pin the blame for deployment on the Soviet Union.
Nevertheless it was clear that NATO had every intention of deploying some, though not all, of the 572 Cruise and Pershing missiles announced in the twin-track decision. According to the memoirs of Z. Brzesinski, President Carter’s National Security Advisor, the NATO decision was to deploy anywhere from 200 to 600 missiles. Since Cruise came in multiples of 16 missiles (a Cruise ‘flight’ of four launch vehicles each with four missiles), and the number of Pershing II was set at 108 (to replace 108 Pershing I), the minimum deployment would have been 96 Cruise plus 108 Pershing (totalling 204 missiles).
With 108 Pershings due to be deployed in Germany, it is reasonable to assume that a minimum of 48 Cruise missiles each were due to be deployed at Greenham and at Comiso in Sicily, to ensure the minimum deployment of 96 Cruise. Above that bottom line of deployment, the rest was negotiable. Deployments were to be spread out over a five-year period, allowing ample time for an arms control agreement to be reached. Belgium and Holland were not due to receive their share of 48 missiles each until well into that five year timetable, and thus we may further surmise that behind the scenes there was at least an implicit assurance to the governments of Belgium and Holland that if they went along with the twin-track decision, they could reasonably expect that negotiations would save them from the potentially high political costs of proceeding with deployment against very strong opposition at home. If these assumptions are correct, then the twin-track decision was not just a commitment to deploy. It was a definite commitment to negotiate at least some of the missiles away before they ever were deployed.
Political pressures were not enough
The pressures which the peace movements of Western Europe were able to put on their governments during the 1980s were enormous. Yet in election after election not a single European government fell as a result of this pressure. The issue put severe strains on the ruling coalitions in Belgium and the Netherlands in particular, but they nonetheless proved able to weather out the storm. The intense conflict which developed over Cruise may itself have been sufficient to polarise opinion where it stood in 1981 – that is, just short of altering the political balance of forces in Europe.
In the United States, the situation was quite different. It was political pressure from below which probably pushed Reagan into his first meeting with Gorbachev in 1985, but it was social and economic pressure that by 1987 had forced him into signing the INF treaty. The American peace movement was by then putting muscle behind its demands by enacting local, state and Congressional legislation that affected American business interests and began to ‘tie the hands’ of the Reagan administration over its foreign policy.
The initiative coming from nuclear-free zones threatened the profit margins of some of America’s largest corporations. Rather than give in to the demands that were being made – for an abrupt end to the nuclear arms race full stop – Reagan bargained away the only thing that might have an effect on the peace movement without having an appreciable effect on the nuclear industry itself: Cruise.
It was the European peace movement who made Cruise an attractive card for Reagan to play in order to appease his own peace movement back home. The European peace movement also played a key role in opening the political space for the innovations of Gorbachev in the Soviet Union. But the demands of the European peace movement could not be met by the governments of the Western European governments to whom they were directed. If a single government had fallen as a result of the Cruise issue, the situation might have been radically different.
Effective political or economic pressure can only ever be brought to bear against those parties which stand to lose something as a result of that pressure. But politically speaking, Cruise was never a sufficiently salient issue to have an impact on elections dominated almost entirely by major economic issues in those European countries under consideration. Nor was Cruise of any major economic importance in those countries. Whereas the Cruise programme injected several billion dollars into the US nuclear industry, and was but the tip of an iceberg involving the capital flow of over one and a half trillion dollars to the American ‘military-industrial complex’, the economic benefits to European industry were paltry in comparison.
Conclusion – A small price to pay
Ultimately, the explanation for US willingness to agree to the INF Treaty by 1987 must be found within the economics of the Cruise Missile programme itself. The total US government outlay for the Ground-Launched Cruise Missile programme was more than $1 billion. This money had all been spent by the end of 1987. All the missiles had been built and sent to Europe, and the industry was already in production of other weapons systems. It was these new systems that Reagan was trying to protect from the ‘threat’ posed by the growing divestment and boycott movements in the US. That threat was challenging not simply Cruise but the whole logic of the nuclear arms race itself. In that context, Cruise was an easy sacrifice to make on the altar of Reagan’s $1.5 trillion military build-up.
When the companies that funded Reagan’s re-election started feeling pressure from consumer boycotts and especially from city and county divestment efforts, they naturally turned to the Reagan administration and demanded that something be done to relieve this pressure. By signing the INF Treaty and ushering in a new era of ‘peace’ with the (soon to disappear) Soviet Union, Reagan was able to dissipate what little energy remained for going after the nuclear weapons companies. Some of the strongest NFZ legislation remains on the books to this day in places like Oakland, CA, and Takoma Park, Maryland, but the movement quickly faded away after the INF Treaty was signed, much like the Freeze campaign did in 1984.
Just as with the anti-apartheid movement, or the campaign to stop Nestle selling its baby formula in countries with unsafe drinking water, or more recent campaigns against the tobacco industry, the NRA and the fossil fuel industry, what the 1980s show us is that boycotts and divestment campaigns can work. They work because they affect the only thing that matters to these companies, which is their bottom line. And that bottom line includes the value of their brand and how it is perceived by the broader public.
Companies are thus susceptible to public opinion in a way that politicians are not. A famous Princeton University study of 2,000 proposed pieces of legislation over a 20 year period found zero statistical correlation between public support for a particular piece of legislation and whether it was passed into law or not. Why? Because politicians need increasingly large sums of money to get re-elected. They need increasingly specialized know-how and advice to deal with increasingly complex legislative issues. And they need to know there is a job waiting for them if and when they don’t get re-elected.
The corporations who have to most to gain or lose by the decisions of our politicians provide those very same politicians with all those things they most need: campaign finance, specialized lobbying and the revolving door to corporate board rooms and consultancies. And when those corporations are threatened by divestment and boycott campaigns, the corporations themselves can become the vehicles for change, by demanding that their client politicians ‘do something’ to relieve the pressure.
In the final analysis, it is clear that the INF Treaty was a small price for the US to pay in exchange for going full steam ahead with a massive nuclear modernization program that produced a much more powerful and dangerous set of nuclear missiles on land, sea and in the air that remain with us to this day.
 Chadwick (1984), pg 93, gives this as one of the main reasons for the continued failure of the INF talks in Geneva from 1982 onwards.
 See https://www.reaganlibrary.gov/archives/speech/remarks-new-york-new-york-united-nations-general-assembly-special-session-devoted
 See https://medium.com/war-is-boring/this-tv-movie-about-nuclear-war-depressed-ronald-reagan-fb4c25a50044
 See https://www.ge.com/sites/default/files/GEA33634_Military_Products_2021.pdf
 In the New England states of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, each town or village holds an annual public meeting which all adult citizens may attend to propose and vote on legislation affecting the town. State and national legislation may over-rule these local laws, but the towns still retain a degree of autonomy unknown in the British system.
 30 of the 33 towns in Western Massachusetts that voted for Reagan in 1980 also voted in favour of the nuclear freeze.
 Waller (1987), pg.163
Waller (1987), pg.291
 Waller (1987), pg.284
 By the end of October 1987, there were 3,923 nuclear-free zones in 24 countries, including 184 in Britain, and over 1,000 in Japan, where it all started. (New Abolitionist magazine, October 1987)
 Bennett (1987), pg.259
 The campaign tried to make a symbolic link with Gandhi’s salt campaign of 1930-31.
 Quoted in New Abolitionist, February 1987, pg 12.
 Nuclear Free America, Memorandum, 21 March 1988.
 Chadwick (1984), pg.25.
 Greene (1983), pg. 46.
 LaRoque (1982), pg.4.
 Brzesinski (1982), pg.308
 The first breakthrough in the INF negotiations, the so-called ‘walk in the woods’ agreement of June 1982, involved a ceiling of 225 missiles on both sides (see NATO (1983), p 17.
 See Randle (1991)
21 Gilens, Martin, and Benjamin I. Page. ‘Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens’. Perspectives on Politics 12, no. 3 (September 2014): 564–81. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1537592714001595.
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