For more than sixty years, Peace Action has organized successful campaigns to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons, create a more peaceful economy, and to support diplomatic resolutions to international conflicts. Peace Action’s long and accomplished history can be traced back to 1957.
Peace Action originated with the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, better known as SANE. In 1957, a group of prominent Americans, headed by Norman Cousins and Clarence Pickett, launched SANE to focus American opinion on the dangers of nuclear weapons testing.
SANE quickly became the largest, most visible peace group in the United States. Hollywood SANE mobilized a bevy of movie stars while, in May 1960, SANE held an overflow rally at Madison Square Garden, with speeches by Eleanor Roosevelt and other luminaries. SANE’s newspaper ads were signed by influential world leaders such as Albert Schweitzer, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bertrand Russell.
These ventures—and others by comparable movements abroad—had a powerful effect upon nuclear weapons policies. Responding to the popular clamor, the U.S., British, and Soviet governments agreed in October 1958 to halt nuclear testing as they negotiated for a test ban treaty. Later, President Kennedy dispatched Norman Cousins for talks with Soviet Premier Khrushchev—action that led to the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963.
SANE had been an early critic of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, and in November 1965 organized the largest antiwar demonstration up to that time. SANE became the first non-partisan group to support the peace candidacy of Senator Eugene McCarthy, thereby initiating a process that, in 1968, drove President Lyndon Johnson from office. Although the war continued for a time under the Nixon administration, pressure from the peace movement finally brought it to an end.
Thereafter, with Soviet-American détente deteriorating, SANE focused upon backing the SALT II Treaty and securing economic conversion legislation. During the early 1980s, responding to the new Reagan administration’s militarist program and loose talk of nuclear war, SANE condemned plans for the deployment of new nuclear missiles in Europe and, in Congress, fought the administration to a near standstill over building MX missiles.
As SANE became a major force, so did a new organization: the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign. The Freeze arose in 1979 as the creation of Randy Forsberg. Recognizing that the division among peace groups rendered them ineffectual, she convinced them to unite behind a proposal for a U.S-Soviet agreement to halt (freeze) the testing, production, and deployment of nuclear weapons.
The Freeze campaign made remarkable progress. On June 12, 1982, when peace groups sponsored an antinuclear demonstration in New York City around the theme of “Freeze the Arms Race—Fund Human Needs,” it escalated into the largest ever U.S. political demonstration to date, with nearly a million participants. That fall, Freeze referenda appeared on the ballot across the nation. In this largest referendum on a single issue in U.S. history (covering about a third of the electorate), the Freeze emerged victorious in nine out of ten states and in numerous localities.
The Reagan administration, on the defensive, was forced to modify its positions. In April 1982, shortly after a Freeze resolution was introduced in Congress, Reagan began declaring publicly that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” He added: “To those who protest against nuclear war, I can only say: `I’m with you!’”
The Freeze also hit pay dirt in the Soviet Union. Taking office as Soviet party secretary in March 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev was profoundly influenced by the worldwide antinuclear campaign, setting aside time to confer with leaders of SANE and the Freeze.
The result was the INF Treaty of 1987, which eliminated all intermediate-range nuclear missiles from Europe. It opened the way for further nuclear disarmament accords, as well as for an end to the Cold War.
SANE and the Freeze united in 1987 and, in 1993, formed Peace Action. Led by the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., Peace Action threw its efforts into halting U.S. nuclear weapons production, reducing military spending, cutting off funding for U.S.-backed wars in Central America, and supporting sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa. It also mobilized public support for a peace economy and backed the Middle East peace process. In 1992, it helped steer legislation through Congress that terminated funding for underground U.S. nuclear tests. Consequently, President Clinton negotiated the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
In response to the militaristic policies of George W. Bush’s administration, Peace Action launched a Campaign for a New Foreign Policy, forged a close alliance with the Progressive Caucus in Congress, and worked successfully to block the administration’s proposals for new nuclear weapons. Thereafter, it pressured the Obama administration to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, redirect bloated Pentagon spending to needed social programs and infrastrucure, settle the U.S. conflict with Iran through negotiations, and back a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Today, Peace Action continues its important work to build a safer, saner and more peaceful world.