The Peace Movement

The Beginning and End of Nuclear Disarmament Campaigning in Vancouver

Christine Kim, University of British Columbia


The Peace Movement was an active political campaign promoting total nuclear disarmament during a period in history where the two most powerful nations in the world seemed to be just one step away from blowing each other up, and, subsequently, the rest of the world. In the last decade of the Cold War, during the 1980s, the Peace Movement in Vancouver, BC, gained an unprecedented amount of traction. However, support for the movement was short-lived as peace activists dwindled in numbers moving into the 1990s and beyond. Today, sentiments ferociously opposed to the existence of nuclear weapons are far and few between. What were the factors that caused the peace movement in Vancouver to fail? Is the legacy it leaves behind one that supports the value of political activism as a powerful agent for change?

Reporter Christine Kim seeks to answer these questions as she pieces together voices of students, professors, and activists from the Vancouver Peace Movement of the 1980s into an hour-long radio documentary about the forgotten legacy of an activism movement in Vancouver that mobilized the entire city.

The Peace Movement: The Beginning and End of Nuclear Disarmament Campaigning in Vancouver

 April 27th, 1986 Vancouver BC

Over 115,000 people march from Burrard Bridge to BC Place Stadium in the Vancouver Walk for Peace. People hold up large banners that say phrases like “STOP STAR WARS” and “END THE ARMS RACE” in bold capital letters. The Vancouver Walk for Peace was an Annual Peace March advocating for the end of nuclear arms build-up. It began in 1982 but by 1986 became the largest annual peace event in the entirety of North America. The audio you are hearing in the background right now comes from video footage of the 30th anniversary of the Vancouver Walk for Peace. Vancouver was not alone in holding peace marches in the 1980s, though. The Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament in November 1986 was another notable peace advocacy event, promoting the elimination of nuclear weapons. It consisted of hundreds of people marching from Los Angeles, California all the way to Washington, D.C.

“We are marching from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. Our goal is to take a message to the leaders of the world that we want to take down nuclear weapons in the world.”

Sentiments to put an end to the arms race during the 1980s were echoed by people all over the world in countries like Australia and Norway. These sentiments, whether in the form of marches, rallies, or protests to put an end to the nuclear age, amalgamates into what we now call “The Peace Movement of the 1980s.” My name is Christine Kim and you are listening to “The Peace Movement, the Beginning and End of Nuclear Disarmament Campaigning in Vancouver:” a documentary produced for CiTR’s “An Audio Evolution of UBC.”

Despite The Peace Movement having been a popular advocacy campaign in North America and other parts of the western world, it is a curious fact that the sentiments behind the movement have dissipated dramatically since the end of the Cold War. Curious, because nuclear weapons still exist to this day and there are still enough of them to destroy every living thing on the planet. Today, the fervor behind getting rid of nuclear arms programs and research is no more. No longer do we see or hear about political activist groups vying for nuclear disarmament. No longer are the horrors of the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse or nuclear winter known or talked about among the general public. What was a determined and serious campaign for the end of all nuclear weapons has tacitly become an almost non-existent concern to some and nothing more than a distant memory of something long past to others. But why? Why did the peace movement in Vancouver falter and die so silently and steadily away from the minds of the general public conscience? What happened? To answer this question, I begin by exploring what drove The Peace Movement in the first place. For that, we turn to the historical context in which this campaign thrived.

Part One: Motivations Behind the Peace Movement

The 1980s was a decade in history marked by renewed acts of aggression between the U.S. and the USSR. After a hopeful thawing of relations between the two major superpowers in the 1970s, the Cold War strayed suddenly and rapidly from its previous course of détente. There were many catalytic events that propelled the sudden shift, not the least of which includes the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the inauguration of Ronald Reagan as the 40th President of the United States of America.

Golubev: “So that time dealt with the second escalation of the Cold War because the late 60s and the almost entire 70s were so-called détente.”

This is Alexey Golubev, a PhD student of History at the University of British Columbia. I spoke with him mid-November at a bustling coffee shop to gain some accredited knowledge about the relations between the United States and the Soviet Union during the 1980s.

Golubev: “By the late 70s, there is a growing mistrust between the Soviet Union and the United States and it’s interesting because both sides were interpreting themselves as primarily defensive. So, neither would admit that they would act as an aggressor. But, both rather feared that they would be an object of aggression. In this sense, what we see in the 1980s is a result of mutual misunderstanding.”

Kim: “So, there was a great build-up of defensive arms on both sides during the 1980s?”

Golubev: “Yes, and the reason for that build-up was that both sides feared that the other side would get a strategic advantage and would try to use this strategic advantage in order to attack. So in the 1980s, tensions were on the rise and allegedly in 1983, during one of the NATO operations, the tension among the Soviet leaders was so high that Yuri Andropov had his finger on the red button.”

The specific historical event Alexey is referring to here is what is known as the Able Archer Operation. It is arguably the closest the world has ever gotten to an all out nuclear war, next to the Cuban Missile Crisis that is. Here’s what happened:

Chowdhury: “The lead up to it was after Reagan’s election in 1980. He had taken on quite bellicose rhetoric versus the Soviet Union and he had promised a military build-up.”

This is Professor Arjun Chowdhury. He is a political science professor at UBC who specializes in issues of international security. Professor Chowdhury explains how badly shaken the sense of security was for both the U.S. and the USSR because of misunderstandings and misperceptions during the Able Archer Operation.

Chowdhury: “So what happened in 1983 was the Soviets were quite worried about the possibility of some kind of military attack. And in 1983, a standard NATO exercise called Able Archer went into play in Eastern Europe. The Soviets misperceived it as a possible first-strike and they stepped up their alertness level to a very high degree. At least on the Soviet side, there was some fear that this was the prelude to an all-out attack. It took a while for the Soviets to understand that this was actually just a military exercise.”

Kim: “How did they understand that?”

Chowdhury: “We are not entirely sure as of now. But, they stood down their forces and it took even longer for the Americans to realize that the Soviets were serious. So, this was a case of possible escalation through misunderstanding and misperception because what the Americans and NATO thought was just an exercise, the Soviets thought might be a preliminary strike and they stepped up their alertness levels. So, that and Cuba are said to be the closest to nuclear confrontation that happened in the Cold War.”

Because state relations were this dangerously packed with suspicions and fears, so too was the outlook of ordinary citizens in Vancouver. Consider listening to a speaker talk about the aftermath of a nuclear bomb hitting Vancouver. Would you feel uncomfortable? Scared? That is exactly what Australian Peace Activist Helen Caldicott did back in November of 1983 during a presentation on the UBC campus.

“What I’m going to do now is drop a bomb on this tent here and it will come in over treetop level. You won’t even see it coming. And then, it will explode with the heat of the sun. It will dig a hole right here, three-quarters of a mile wide and eight hundred feet deep. And it will turn all of us and all of campus and the earth below to radioactive fallout, which will be shot up in the mushroom cloud up into the stratosphere. So, we’ll just turn into radioactive molecules. And out to a radius of six miles from here in all direction, every building will be flattened, every person killed, but many of them will be vaporized. In Hiroshima, there are photographs of shadows of people. That’s all that was left of them: shadows. Out to twenty miles from here in all directions, every person will be killed or lethally injured. Now, the injuries are specific. Winds are created of up to five hundred miles an hour. A hurricane is one hundred and twenty miles an hour. The winds just literally pick people up and turn them into rockets, missiles, travelling at a hundred miles an hour until they hit the nearest solid object and die. The overpressures enter the nose and mouth and get into the lungs and rupture the lungs. You’re dead. They rupture the tympanic membranes, producing deafness. They popcorn the windows, and the windows then fracture into millions of  shards of  flying glass at  a hundred miles an hour, which will decapitate people and produce the most shocking lacerations and hemorrhages everywhere. Then, the burns . . . ”

Helen goes on and does not spare the audience one single, gruesome detail. For us, this explanation most likely does not strike as much fear and genuine anxiety as it would have to those physically present during that presentation back in 1983. In fact, Min Price and Jocelyn Sampson, hosts of a CiTR radio talk show called “Youth Focus” featured a segment in 1984 entitled “Youth and the Peace Movement.” Take a listen.

“In BC, Susan Hargreaves, a researcher for the Public Educators for Peace Society has paralleled the American studies. In June of 1984, Ms. Hargreaves distributed questionnaires to 730 Burnaby students in grades 5, 7 and 9–12. Of the responding students, 80% feared nuclear death. Of the 5th–9th graders, more than 92% had known of nuclear weapons by age 13. Seventy-nine percent believed that a nuclear war would occur in their lifetime. Although it is uncertain what effect the threat nuclear disaster is having on young people, the implications are obvious. Feelings of despair and anger contribute to a reluctance to form close relationships, work hard in school, and plan for the future.”

To bring these figure and numbers into a more personal perspective, I talked to Allen Sens, another professor at the University of British Columbia in the Department of Political Science. He was a student at UBC from the year 1982 to 1988 and he described for me what it was like attending UBC in the 1980s.

Sens: “There was a great deal of fear, a great deal of  concern.  It was the great existential concern of the day. There really was a sense that a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union was, if not highly likely, it was certainly a possibility. And, there was even some deep pessimism about the future. Remember, this was the 1980s. This was the arrival of Ronald Reagan onto the scene in the United States, and what some have called the “Second Cold War” followed after a period of relatively stable, reasonable relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. That all seemed to go downhill in the 1980s with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a subsequent increase in rhetoric, an increase in the arms race, the development of new weapons systems that were considered destabilizing and threatening. So, students really felt that. Even for students that really weren’t engaged in The Peace Movement, it was sort of an overall movement of fear about the direction the Cold War was heading and the feeling that a war was perhaps more likely than it had been since the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

Naturally, such intense fear fed into an intense desire for change. Due to the pervasive prevalence of nuclear weapons in the hands of the two most powerful nations in the world, and the anxiety that was attached to them given contentious foreign relations, Vancouver peace activists during the 1980s agreed that the nuclear arms buildup needed to be stopped. Thus, the backdrop to the advocacy campaign that was The Peace Movement, at least here in Vancouver during the 1980s was a pervasive public mood of anxiety and fear.

Part Two: The Debate Over Deterrents

Peace activists, galvanized behind the advocacy campaign, dedicated to seeing a complete disposal of all nuclear arsenals. However, in the 1980s, such a prospect went directly against the defense policies held by the superpowers. The arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the 1980s was based upon the theory of deterrence, and more specific to the Cold War, a doctrine of mutually assured destruction. Before getting into deterrence theory, first we take a deeper look into mutually assured destruction.

Alexey Golubev: “The doctrine of the mutually-assured destruction means that, if there is a war, this is the kind of war that is impossible to win, because both sides had so great nuclear arsenals that even the first strike wouldn’t give an advantage to any side. That’s why for instance one of the important treaties signed in the 1980s was the treaty that explicitly banned the creation of anti-missile systems.”

Kim: “Anti-missile systems? What is that?”

Golubev: “So, a system of interceptor missiles that would allow, in theory, to intercept nuclear missiles, nuclear ballistic missiles, and never let them reach the American continent, for example. If you have an effectively functioning anti-missile system, it means that the doctrine of the mutually assured destruction no longer works. It means that you might think, as a strategic analyst in Washington or wherever, that you might strike first, and intercept rockets launched in retaliation, and in this sense, the possession of this kind of anti-missile system would undermine this doctrine. And this doctrine has been fundamental kind of force that prevented any military engagement of the American and Soviet forces during the Cold War. It was perhaps the most important kind of, impeding factor, the factor that never led the third World War to break out.”

As Alexey pointed out, mutually assured destruction ensured that the U.S. would not risk a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union for fear of a retaliatory nuclear attack. For both the U.S. and the Soviet Union, it was their capabilities in firepower that they relied upon to scare and deter the other from attacking. Trying to dissuade a state from a particular course of action through threats, like a nuclear attack, is what deterrence is. Deterrence is the underlying concept behind mutually assured destruction. To help us in our understanding of deterrence, Professor Chowdhury provides a helpful analogy:

“Think of two people, and this is the logic thrown out in the U.S. to justify the carrying of weapons, if somebody just has their fist, you’re more likely to provoke them, to fight with them. Why? Because there’s limited damage they can inflict on you. You know, if they have a gun, you’re very unlikely to confront them; you’re very unlikely to rob someone who has a gun, compared to the same person who’s unarmed. So the basic idea here is, if the weapons are very destructive, the costs of war are very high. Nuclear weapons raise the cost of war to unimaginable levels. And therefore, that should make people think twice before fighting. So that’s why you think of deterrence working, why, because the costs of war are so high people don’t want to fight. They are better off talking to each other and figuring out a bargain that saves themselves the cost of fighting. Now if you’re disarmed, you may not have nuclear weapons, but that means the costs of war are not very high. Now the costs of war are not high, then you become more and more likely to get into border disputes, you get more likely to get into smaller conflicts, which can then escalate into something bigger. But if you think that, oh my God, there’s a possibility that if stuff gets out of hand there’ll be a nuclear weapon landing on one of our cities, you don’t get into the initial fight.”

Kim: “This wasn’t a very popular understanding back in the 1980s, right?”

Chowdhury: “So, there was debate, I’ll put it this way, there was much more debate over it than there is now. Now it’s kind of taken for granted. Now it’s taken for granted that yeah, you should have a general level of stability with deterrence. And that’s because we think, oh, the more costly war is, the less likely. The other concern that was there though was what happens in the case of accidental nuclear war. And (sorry) this theory does not give us much comfort for that. For example, if, say you have some kind of error, some kind of misperception, and you have a nuclear exchange, then things can get out of hand very quickly. And if that happens, then the costs of war, even when neither side wants to fight it, will be unacceptably high. And through the Cold War that was a reasonable fear, as most of your confrontations had a fair amount of misperception and error, you think of the Cuban Missile Crisis, you think of the exercise in 1983 called Able Archer. So that was another fear, which is less of a fear now.”

Thus, regardless of how effective we accept deterrence to be now in preventing large-scale, high-cost wars, deterrence was, like it still is today, vulnerable to fail through human error. This concern was simply magnified because the consequence of a mere fluke or slight mishap among the Soviet and U.S. generals during the Cold War was this: nuclear Armageddon. Nothing more, nothing less. As Professor Chowdhury pointed out, such flukes and mishaps were not at all that far-fetched, given events like the Cuban Missile Crisis and Able Archer.

So, let’s summarize. Bigger guns mean less conflict, but especially in the case of the Cold War, bigger guns also meant harsher consequences if anything goes wrong. And so the debate lies in whether states should keep the big guns to avoid the big risks, understanding that getting rid of the big guns would lead to less risk but also more conflict. Confused? You’re not alone.

Sens: “Few things have as much complexity as arms control.”

If Professor Sens, who has a profession in teaching topics like this, says it’s a complex topic, it’s a complex topic.

Part Three: The Dialogue Within the Peace Movement

Do we overhaul a seemingly unreliable system of deterrence and mutually assured destruction or do we keep faith and just pray the odds are in our favor? Are there ways to partially improve the unstable circumstances of the Cold War? It is these questions that were being thrown back and forth in the 6th General Assembly of World Council of Churches in November 1983. A range of peace activists from all over the globe including Randolph Forsberg, John Hadgood, Helen Caldicott, and Metropolitan Gregoris gathered at the University of British Columbia to talk about what needed to be done.

Forsberg: “The first step as you might guess is the nuclear freeze. The very first thing that we need to do to begin the process of moving toward a stable disarmed peace is to stop producing counterforce nuclear weaponry which is designed to back up conventional wars, while those conventional wars themselves are not defensive wars but interventionary wars. This is clearly the most absurd, insecure, imposing, construction of weaponry and type of military strategy there could be. That we should draw the nuclear tripwire tighter, by building nuclear forces designed to attack conventional military forces putting pressure on the two sides, both, to use their forces or lose them. That is the first thing that must be stopped.”

Hadgood: “There has to be some system of deterrence in the world, whether this is nuclear or not. So, we do not escape from the problem of deterrence by saying that we do not like nuclear weapons. And it seems to me that the fruitful question in this area is not how can we get rid of this or that, but how can we make deterrence be more stable but we have to face the fact that there must be some deterrence.”

Caldicott: “Britain’s got nuclear weapons. Why on earth Britain has them I don’t know; I think she still wants to be a great empire and can’t understand why she isn’t. And then India has tested one and South Africa has almost certainly gotten one and  they say Israel  has about

  1. And so, that’s called lateral proliferation of nuclear weapons, which destabilizes the balance of terror built up by the superpowers. And by 2000 there will be many many countries who can have nuclear weapons. The only way to stop it is by superpowers to start behaving themselves. They signed the non-proliferation treaty in 1968, promising that if no one else built nuclear weapons they would start to disarm bilaterally and they’ve done exactly the opposite. They can’t please the world they have no moral leg to stand on without behaving responsibly and like adults themselves and they behave like children.”

Gregoris: “We have agreed that the use of nuclear weapons is a  crime against  humanity.  Everybody  is  agreed.  We  say;  if  the U.S.

*Applause* Even if the other speakers like president Regan and Menachem Begin spoke in the assembly wouldn’t oppose that. But,  if the use of nuclear weapons is morally evil, then the intention to use is also morally evil, and therefore the doctrine of deterrence is not morally acceptable. This is the position which Phillip Porter has taken and which I think the World Council Central Committee has taken in the general debate that has ensued but whether the assembly has taken that position is one of the key issues but this would mean that we would condemn not only use, intention to use, but also manufacture, stockpiling, testing, all the rest, trading, all these will have to be condemned as morally evil.”

Christine: About a year after this assembly was held, Vancouver peace activists of the younger generation spoke freely on CITR’s youth focus program. They spoke specifically to the obstacles for youth involvement in the peace movement. Seventeen-year-old Negril Rogers, graduate of Vancouver’s ideal school;

Rogers: “Lots of my friends, lots of people I’ve talked to have had nightmares about nuclear war. I think part of that is due to the fact for quite a few years now, the peace movement has concentrated on filing people in on the dangers of nuclear war which is good because it mobilizes people and makes people aware of what’s going on but it has to be followed up by a means to take action and that I think has been lacking, there have been annual peace marches and stuff like that but hasn’t been the constant opportunity to take action which is needed to relive people to from feeling like sort of a pensive feeling where there is nothing they can do and there is things above their heads. So they haven’t been taught to take personal responsibility and to take personal action and that is something people have to be taught and have to realize that if things are going to happen they have to do them.”

Jennifer Kinloch, Member of Vancouver’s Youth for Peace action;

Kinloch: “Well it’s really important not to be daunted by the information and sort of say, “oh I don’t know enough I can’t get involved.” The peace movement needs more and more people and more new and fresh energy to get involved so that we can be effective and that once you do get involved you begin to realize what you do and don’t know, where your strengths lie. Many groups including Vancouver Youth for Peace Action have bibliographies that shorten those long lists of things you have to read to get informed about so there are shortcuts. And in speaking also with people who are informed in the peace movement and going to public events it makes the process of becoming more informed that much easier.”

Matthew Speir, treasurer of the Peace Education Coalition:

Speir: “When there are models, namely parents who are involved or concerned, those children usually show some interest and some concern themselves. However, most parents are not involved in this. In fact many parents, I don’t know how many or what percentage, choose not to think about it. They push it out of their consciousness and they engage in what Robert Jay Lifton, the Harvard psychiatrist, calls psychic numbing, they allow themselves to be numbed because of the anxiety, which this kind of a problem creates. And examples of that include a parent saying, “well let’s not talk about that it’s too horrible to talk about,”  “oh lets not even consider that as a conversation item lets change the subject.” In other words, it’s a real concern to avoid considering the issue. I think there are a lot of adults who are in in those shoes. I think this is an obstacle.”

From obstacles ranging from apathy to feelings of being overwhelmed, Vancouver youths faced many challenges to getting involved with the peace movement during the 1980s. However, a common motivation that drove youths to join and galvanize behind the peace movement was a frustration and a growing sense of distrust in political figures.

Twenty-three-year-old Chris Corless, member of UBC’s Student’s for Mutual Peace and Disarmament speaking on youth focus;

Corless: “This is at UBC—I just happened to be walking through the student union building and they had a display setup. And I guess  the issue had been in the back of my mind, that a-lot of these headlines had been in the papers and I was a little concerned and I just started walking through the display.  I guess the thing that moved  me the most was one quote I believe it was by General Graham, who happened to pass through Vancouver quite recently promoting the Star Wars proposal. There was a quote attributed to him where he was saying people had nothing to worry about if a nuclear bomb was launched. All they had to do was just take 5 minutes to walk to the nearest lilac bush and they could hide behind it to be protected from a nuclear bomb. I thought that was just so ludicrous and yet that scared me because here was a man that was a very strong influence in policy-making and so on. And it made me realize I guess, that a-lot of these people who are in the decision making process and who are making the decisions affecting our present time and also our future lives; here was a man who really didn’t understand the issue. I knew the effects of the nuclear bombs were just so incredible that millions of lilac bushes couldn’t protect you. The young people must come to understand that you cannot just trust in experts and unfortunately you cannot trust in our representatives the politicians. Many of the politicians are not very well informed on the issues. I don’t mean to really strongly criticize them and say they’re a bunch of bumbling idiots and that sort of thing. But I understand that their viewpoint  in that a politician becomes elected and is elected on a number of issues and yet concern themselves with a number of issues. And there is so much information that many politicians don’t have the time or energy or effort to inform themselves on issues and they have to rely on other experts. But often they  make the decisions  based  on being misinformed. So I think it’s very important for youth to become involved and gradually become informed of the issues and make the decisions for themselves and start becoming involved in the democratic process. No one else is going to do that for them, they have to do it themselves.”

Someone who had wholeheartedly agreed with Chris’ views is Australian peace activist Helen Caldicott. She is the one who spoke at UBC during the World Council of Churches 6th general assembly and said this;

Caldicott: “What I’m going to do now is drop a bomb on this tent here and it will come here over treetop level you wont even see it coming.”

And this;

Caldicott: “Britian’s got nuclear weapons—why on earth Britain has them I don’t know, I think she still wants to be a great empire.”

Also, this;

Caldicott: “I spent an hour and a quarter with President Regan, alone with his daughter. He’s not very bright. I say that because clinically as a physician it worries me immensely. Because the two people in America who have the authority to press the button are called the national command authority, the NCA. They are the president and the secretary of defense. I think the secretary of defense’s IQ a little higher than Regan’s but he doesn’t know very much about defense. In fact, a reporter from the LA times went to Betchel, where Weinberger used to work, you know Bechtel builds nuclear reactors. And he interviewed George Shultz and Chester Weinberger and both of them independently said you could ask me anything you like, but don’t ask me about foreign affairs or about defense because I don’t know anything about those subjects. So we’re in the hands of incompetent people who don’t know anything. I repeat, who don’t know anything. Practically everything president Regan told me was inaccurate. And when I tried to correct him he didn’t really hear and when I tried to debate with him he had no background knowledge to support any statement he made. And he is the person who, if there’s a nuclear war, is going to run to the helicopter, fly to Andrews air force base and then go up in the airborne command and fly in an airplane above the nuclear war as the explosions are taking place underneath and direct the nuclear war by computers. He said the other day he doesn’t understand anything about computers. He doesn’t. He’s never done any science. Can you imagine? That man has four and a half billion people in the palm of his hand.  I was there on the day the MX was defeated last year and in the halls of the Congress the Pentagon had 1500 lobbyists. They were for Raytheon, Rockwell international, GT, all making parts of the weapons and lots of subcontractors for the weapons who make screws for the MX and all sorts of things. The halls were filled with these characters they were like ants. I felt like bopping them on the head because they were medically conjure indicated. Where were the people? Where were the people and their children? They weren’t there! Why weren’t they there? Because they’re very comfortable; all they care about is driving their cars and getting their air conditioning going and I’m not talking about you, but the majority of the people in the United States are like that. They don’t give a damn they don’t even vote! Now, you don’t have a democracy unless you vote. You don’t have a democracy unless you accept responsibility. And there is not a working democracy. People in other countries are dying to have a democracy. In Afghanistan, right, South Africa, el Salvador, all over the world, and we’ve got one and we violate it. All of us.”

Helen Caldicott was arguably the most outspoken and internationally recognized and peace activist within the peace movement in the 1980s. She featured in an Oscar winning short film called “If you love this planet.” She’s been awarded 21 honorary doctoral degrees and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985. I had the honor of speaking with Helen Caldicott over Skype this past November;

Caldicott: “Here we are”

Kim: “Hi I apologize I do not actually have a webcam on me. Would it be alright if we—”

Caldicott: “Absolutely, I’ll turn the picture off because we’ll get a better reception. Okay lets go”

Our conversation progressed more smoothly after that slight technical difficulty and I started off by asking her about what initially got her involved in the peace movement;

Caldicott: “I was practicing global preventative medicine. I went to Russia in 1979 with a group of Americans, Quakers, and I learned that America was going to deploy cruise missiles in Europe which are undetectable and would end arms control by satellite verification and the Americans were going to, purging 2 missiles in Germany that hit Moscow in 3 minutes and I thought my god. And I went back to Harvard where I was on the faculty and thought I just can’t keep practicing individual medicine, keeping these children with cystic fibrosis alive when all of the worlds children are at risk of nuclear war. That’s when I was impelled to leave Harvard and to work full time on this political work to practice global preventative medicine to save all the children on the planet.”

Kim: “It was that realization—”

Caldicott: “Yes it was, that was the turning point for me. During the 80s I led the peace movement really with the help of a publicist in Hollywood who put me on lots of television for free and worked for me for free and in Vogue and Life and Time. If you educate the public, that’s political power. When I started in 1978 most Americans said it was better to be dead than red, in other words they’d rather be dead in nuclear war than be communists and I thought “these people must be psychotic.” So we started describing what nuclear war meant for the health, dropping bombs on the cities and they said, “oh my god nuclear war is bad for our health.” So from that time on, they became involved and they learned so. And to get 80% of people behind you is enormous political power and I would always quote president Jefferson in America to say: “an informed democracy will behave in responsible fashion” so I would postulate or state that your democracy is totally uniformed about its enormous danger to the end of creation, as is America and every other country in the world.”

The danger Helen is talking about here is the persistent threat of nuclear annihilation that Helen believes has not diminished in urgency in the least.

Caldicott: “The risk of nuclear war now is more pertinent than it ever was during the cold war because of two things. A: nobody knows that the weapons are still on hair trigger alert, ready to be launched with a three minute decision time by Putin or Obama. And B: because no one knows and C: because of the first time since the cold war, America and Russia are confronting each other militarily both in the Ukraine and in Syria and they’re practicing nuclear war games and they probably put their nuclear weapons on a higher than normal state of alert. Things are really, really serious and no ones talking about it, including your politicians, including Trudeau.”

Kim: “Does almost seem as though deterrence has been working in—“

Caldicott: “No it hasn’t. If we have a nuclear war there’s going to be no one around to write and say that deterrence doesn’t work. we’ve just been bloody lucky.  Bloody lucky to have  to gotten  to this stage and if you read the literature Christine and you should do that, you’ll be amazed at the number of close calls we’ve had, you know within minutes of pressing a button. Honestly, you know I’ve done the history and I’ve written it in my book, ohh I can’t remember what its called, The New Nuclear Danger, yes. I mean if you look at the history I mean I really don’t understand how we’re still here. I don’t, I don’t understand how we’re still here.”

Kim: “Right so, its not an improvement until all nuclear weapons have been—disarmed—”

Caldicott: “Yeah”

Kim: “Right its total nuclear disarmament.”

I was surprised to hear Helen speak so strongly about the need for a commitment to total nuclear disarmament then, and more significantly, now.  If the peace movement died away, even though the issues that propelled it to be still remained, did that mean Helen thought of the peace movement as a failure?

Kim: “Do you think that the peace movement has failed? Seeing as—” Caldicott: “Yes”

Part 4: Why the Peace Movement Failed

Caldicott: “Yes, why? Um because there’s no peace movement now, Christine. The peace movement died in 1989 when the cold war ended and everyone dropped their bundle because we thought, obviously, that the major nuclear powers would get rid of the weapons and they haven’t. We thought, I mean we really did think, all of a sudden and the people in America were talking about a peace dividend; instead of spending all this money on weapons we’ll spend it on peace. But you know we had gutless leaders and they didn’t do that and take up the cajole of peace. And so here we are now, that’s what the problem is, because nobody knows that the situation is more dangerous now than ever before. Yes the peace movement died; there is virtually no peace movement, now in the world.”

For Helen Caldicott, the peace movement that she heralded with vigor and passion was a failure. It was a failure because it died away prematurely in her view and without having achieved its goals.

Professor Allan Sens echoes the fact that with the cold war having ended by the early 1990s, nuclear arms control was a topic simply not on the minds of the public as pervasively any longer.

Sens: “It’s just not as prominent an issue. We can argue that it should be. But it’s just not. Um, so right away I think a key difference is that you don’t have the same amount of focus on nuclear weapons today as you did back in the 1980s, the fear, the threat of nuclear war is lower now, dramatically lower at least in a North American context than it was during the Cold War. So I think that’s a big initial piece. I think there’s also been a great deal of neglect on the subject of nuclear weapons. Um, and as a result I think the dialogue on nuclear weapons today is much more basic than it was in the 1980s because during the 1980s even if you know weren’t interested in nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons were interested in you. Right? It was just everyone had some basic idea about what deterrence was and how nuclear war, what it would mean and so on. And now there’s just, there’s just less of that background and level of knowledge so you’re starting I think at a lower baseline of basic knowledge for the most part and amongst today’s population, it’s not just students, that’s broadly speaking. I think that’s the case. So I think that, in that way, the dialogue has changed. I think also with a decline of the immediacy of the threat of nuclear war, I think what we’ve seen as a bit of diffusion of the dialogue on arms control so the big arms control discussions over the last 10–20 years after the cold war has been proliferation.”

The topic of discussion around nuclear weapons today has changed, like Professor Sens said. To Professor Arjun Chowdhury, the discussion has changed quite significantly. Before explaining his perspective on exactly what the topics of discussion are surrounding nuclear weapons today, Professor Chowdhury first elaborates on two major differences between now and the 1980s. One of these differences, contrary to Helen Caldicott’s beliefs, asserts the efficacy of deterrence;

Caldicott: “You can think of two broad differences between now and the 1980s. The first is that we’ve had another 30 years of nuclear non-use. And there’s some reason to believe that or some evidence for the proposition that nuclear deterrence stops people fighting. The link between nuclear weapons and war is much less direct than people assumed in the late 70s early 80s and  at the time people thought  the cold war won’t end unless it ends in an actual shooting war. But it turned out the Soviet Union folded for quite different reasons and deterrence was not breached. Deterrence worked. So that would be be one reason—the argument that nuclear deterrence works. The second is the idea that the people you want to give up nuclear weapons are very unlikely to give them up. So disarmament, unilateral disarmament, is really not going to help much. Because now the concern is that regimes of that like Kim Jong Un in North Korea, and even if the United States gives up nuclear weapons, it is very unlikely that Kim Jong Un would reciprocate. The idea of disarmament in the cold war was to get both sides to disarm. It is quite clear that even if the United States and China and Russia disarms, North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons. It is quite clear that if India disarms, Pakistan is very unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons. So disarmament is not a solution, for the problem of nuclear war that it was seen to be in the 1980s and secondly, going back to my first point it is not clear that disarmament in the abstract is a solution for war. Deterrence can quite easily work to prevent war.”

To add to these two points, Professor Chowdhury elaborates on the biggest fears surrounding nuclear weapons today and how none of these current fears can be currently dealt with through a policy of nuclear disarmament.

Chowdhury: “There are two issues there that people are worried about. One is the fear of the escalation of existing regional conflicts. The Korean peninsula—if you get into a shooting war it will escalate. South Asia—India and Pakistan might escalate to a nuclear war. So that’s fear one: regional conflicts going nuclear. Fear two is proliferation and nuclear weapons winding up in the hands of non-state actors. So that would be something like a nuclear weapon goes missing or is sold to Al Qaeda, ISIS, somebody like that and then that is used, it could be a small weapon but that is used by terrorists in a major urban center which would obviously inflate tens of thousands of fatalities. So those are the two major nuclear fears. And again you can see disarmament is unlikely to bring the odds of either of those down. Because disarmament, that is getting people who are likely to use or proliferate nuclear weapons to give up the nuclear weapons that they have, that is your Kim Jong Un or the government of Pakistan, is very low. Even if everyone else says they will give up our nuclear weapons, those regimes are unlikely to and those regimes are seen as the most likely sources of proliferation. The current concerns of regional war going nuclear and nuclear proliferation are unlikely to be addressed by disarmament.”

Thus, part of the reason why the Peace Movement dissipated is firstly because interest by state leaders and the general public declined dramatically with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Additionally however, the actual issues surrounding nuclear weapons today has shifted away from nuclear disarmament as a credible solution. That being said, simply because the Peace Movement subsided, does not mean the value of the impact the peace movement had then cannot be recognized and felt now. The peace movement in Vancouver contributed to the larger international peace movement of the 1980s and this larger international peace movement was a major source of pressure for the Regan administration in trying to find peaceful diplomatic ways to solve the cold war. Take a listen to this clip from Youth Focus:

“Is the peace movement making a difference? Those involved see the movement as a way to increase a level of public consciousness concerning the nuclear threat. And in turn, this public awareness has been effective in educating, pressuring, and changing the policies of government representatives.”

Chris Korles: “There have been government officials who have credited the peace movement as pressuring; well for example, the superpowers back to the bargaining table. For pressuring, for example, the Regan administration to initially to go to the bargaining table in Geneva in 1981 I believe it was or

  1. When he first came in, he was very against arms control. Actually many people in the administration are still against arms control, they didn’t even want to talk, but the peace movement put pressure on the Regan administration and he realized a lot of people were concerned about it. And now he’s begun to address these issues and he developed himself in that he’s changed in a way in realizing a lot of people are very concerned and I think it has been pretty effective.”

Along the same lines, Alexia Gollebev reflects upon the integral context the global peace movement gave to negotiations between the Regan and Gorbachev governments during the 1980s;

Gollebev: “I think that was an important context of decision making in the United States. In the case of protest movements we saw the ability of western societies to organize themselves in the ways that were not entirely predicted or initiated by the government. So the protest movement as a sign of social self or galvinization and as a form of social self organization it pursued very different aims from those who that weren’t on the political agenda, at least for conservative politicians. In this sense, and since we are dealing with participatory politics, those political opinions and those political sentiments had to be taken into account so I am not sure if Thatcher or Regan would refer to these peace movements like openly. But I would say that as democratic leaders, that wasn’t their electors, but that was their populations and they had to look for compromises. In the sense, the reason why president Regan was so eager to meet Gorbachev was, it wouldn’t be the core, protest movements but they were the conscious to that. In this sense we can speculate that if it hand been for these sorts of marches protests and demonstrations, the negotiation process would probably have been much more complicated and or at least more reluctant.”

Of course, with the disillusion of the USSR in 1991 the need for constant pressure on the U.S. government to make peace with the USSR was no longer there. However there is something to be said to the impact the peace movement had in pressuring great powers like the U.S. toward peaceful negotiation in the first palace. Such an impact, only seen when considering the historical context that the peace movement gave in the 1980s, is a testament to what self-mobilized grassroots movements can achieve. Often times, as citizens of a representative government, we can undervalue the democratic freedoms we have to protest by underestimating the impact our protests can make. This idea is perhaps no more appreciated than when you consider the alternative of inaction. Professor Chowdhury;

Chowdhury: “I’m from India and I was in India when the nuclear testing occurred but in 1998 and overall there was not anything like that kind of peace movement. There were some objections but they were marginal, and this, despite the fact that nuclear weapons in India, do not add to Indians security in any way it just led to Pakistan nuclearizing faster and nuclear weapons in Pakistan are very dangerous for India. If something goes wrong, it’s right on India’s border.”

Kim: “So that was a bad choice by the state too.”

Chowdhury: “It was a tremendously bad choice by the Indian government. They gained nothing; they already had a conventional advantage. What they achieved was to just to raise the odds that some kind of horrible accident is going to get visited on India.”

Kim: “So the protests should have been greater?”

Chowdhury: “There should have been, there should have been more. But you had very marginal protests and if you look back, 17 years all that they have achieved they have not gained anything in terms of Pakistan policy by getting nuclear weapons. If anything they just emboldened Pakistan to support these non-state actors they have frequently been supporting and there’s nothing the Indian government can do about it. It can build as many nuclear weapons as it wants, it has about 100 give or take, but they’re useless. So this was a really bad decision and it did not see anything like the popular opposition that it should have. So I’m not seeing the kind of popular opposition to nuclearization that the 80s might have led to. It’s almost like the sentiment of the 1980s ended there. Certainly in a place like India—India doesn’t need nuclear weapons but you know, there was no opposition there were few protests in the street but one of the protestors Arundhati Roy who’s a wonderful writer, she’s the author of the god of small things she was shouted down in a public meeting where she was saying this is a bad idea. And she made a very valid point where she said; India has all kinds of development issues: poverty, farming, debt, etc. and this is a complete waste of resources for the government of India which is a valid point but its not a point that a lot of people supported. Which in my view is unfortunate but that’s where it was. There was nothing like the peace movement. I mean that’s where it was. I wish there was more scrutiny of people in the street trying to get things spent properly and the nuclear weapons were apart of that and that’s my reason. I think the peace movement is not directly relevant for India but something—

Kim: “Kind of the spirit behind the peace movement.”

Therein lies the need for movements just like the peace movement. Movements to wake and galvanize the people of a democratic nation toward action. It is these movements that will pant the backdrop to nations decisions in the short and long run. It is these movements that are the defining markers of a democratic people and state. The success in the peace movement of the 1980s here in Vancouver lies in the very fact that regardless of outcome it was and remains to this day an emblem of self-mobilized political activism. The only true failure there could’ve been for is if it had not been at all.

Thank you for listening to “The Peace Movement: The beginning and end of nuclear disarmament campaigning in Vancouver.” A documentary produced for CiTR’s An Audio Evolution of UBC.

The AudioVersion of the Podcast can be listened to here:

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