The Road to Reykjavik

T Wallis, “The Road to Reykjavik: The Impact of European and American Peace Movements on the Decision to Remove Land-Based Missiles from Europe,” a paper for Peace Movements in the Cold War and Beyond, international conference, LSE, London, Jan 2008.



European peace movements brought millions onto the streets and caused major disruption to the building of bases to house nuclear cruise missiles in the 1980s, but were unable to mobilise sufficient pressure on their own governments to cancel the NATO decision to deploy these missiles on European soil. Yet these same movements had a major impact on public opinion in the US and it was political, and especially economic, pressures from inside the US which eventually led to an about-face on the part of President Reagan to negotiate with the ‘evil empire’ and remove the missiles when he finally met with President Gorbachev in Reykjavik in 1986.



The NATO decision of December 1979 to deploy a new generation of American nuclear missiles in Europe was deeply unpopular from the outset. Even within NATO itself, the consensus was shaky. Denmark refused to take any Cruise. Belgium and Holland refused to take any without further deliberations in their own parliaments. West Germany refused to be the only non-nuclear power to take them, so it was Italy that saved the day for NATO by agreeing to take significantly more than its share and thus guaranteeing deployment would go ahead[1]. Even then the NATO consensus was conditional on the US ratifying the SALT II arms treaty, initiating a SALT III process and negotiating with the Soviets to try to make the deployments unnecessary by removing the equivalent Soviet missiles instead – the so-called ‘twin-track’ approach.

When it became clear after Reagan’s election in November 1980 that the US would not be ratifying SALT II, that SALT III was a very remote possibility and that no INF negotiations with the Soviets were imminent, the ‘twin-track’ decision started to fall apart. The Danish government rescinded its agreement even to help pay a share of the NATO construction costs for the Cruise bases. Belgium and Holland continued to postpone any decision about actual deployment on their soil. The Norwegian parliament agreed by only one vote to pay its share of the Cruise costs. And the new socialist governments in Greece and Spain backed out of the NATO decision altogether.

Public opposition across Europe was swift and overwhelming. In 1979, CND’s national membership stood at just over 4,000. During 1980 CND membership more than doubled to 9,000. By 1981, membership had risen dramatically to 20,000 and by 1984 it was well over 100,000. The size of CND’s national demonstrations rose even more dramatically from 3,000 in 1980 to 30,000 in 1981 to over 100,000 in October 1981, 200,000 in June 1982[2] and to somewhere between 300,000 and half a million in October 1983[3].

Elsewhere in Europe the situation was similar. The demonstration against Cruise and Pershing deployments in October 1981 that brought over 100,000 onto the streets in London was repeated in every capital city across Europe, with an estimated 2 million on the streets in total. By 1983, demonstrations in Rome, Amsterdam and Bonn were also attracting as many as half a million people each.

The first UK opinion polls to ask people specifically about Cruise Missiles were conducted by Marplan in September 1980 and found 47% opposed to the NATO twin-track decision. A similar poll conducted only 2 months later found 56% of all adult voters in the UK opposed to Cruise. Dozens more polls were conducted over the following five years and although slightly different questions were asked and slightly different methods used, at no time did the polls show opposition to Cruise going significantly outside of this range[4]. In fact, compared to other key indicators of public opinion, such as fear of nuclear war – which rose and then fell sharply during this period[5] – public opposition in the UK to Cruise Missiles remained remarkably stable at around 50%, give or take a few percentage points.

By 1983, the main opposition parties in every NATO country involved – including the United States – were pledged to cancel the Cruise deployment decision. And yet in election after election throughout the 1980s, the Conservative and Christian Democratic parties across Europe continued to be re-elected and the Cruise issue failed to register as a decisive influence on voting patterns[6]. The ruling coalitions in both Belgium and the Netherlands came perilously close to falling over the Cruise issue, but they managed to stay in power firstly by prevaricating over the issue and refusing to make a final decision over deployment on the territory of either state, and when that was no longer possible, by presenting the deployments as a fait accompli which could not be overturned at the national level.


The Lure of Direct Action

Already by the end of 1981 this high level of public opposition coupled with an inability to translate that into political results left many activists in the European peace movement considering direct action as the only recourse open to them if they wanted to stop the deployments. There were some rather half-hearted attempts to boycott or blacklist firms involved in the Cruise programme, including a European-wide boycott of Mann-VW, which was given the contract to produce the Cruise launchers that were meant to ‘melt into the countryside’ to prevent detection prior to launch. But this came to nothing and even as construction got underway at the various military bases there were only sporadic attempts to picket the contractors involved[7].

When a group of women chained themselves to the main gate of Greenham Common at the end of a peace march from Wales in September 1981, they spawned the peace camp movement and sparked a whole new approach to demonstrating against the missiles deployments. In December 1982, 30,000 women surrounded the Greenham base in a hugely symbolic action, “Embrace the Base”, that captured imaginations around the world. By this time there were over 20 peace camps up and down the country, including a mixed peace camp of men and women at the other UK site for Cruise missiles at Molesworth in Cambridgeshire (and one at the Faslane nuclear submarine base in Scotland, which continues to this day). Peace camps spread to the Italian cruise missile site on Sicily and to the cruise sites in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany.

By 1983 various forms of nonviolent direct action on or outside nuclear bases across Europe were becoming commonplace, including human blockades of traffic going in and out of these bases, climbing over fences to get onto the missile sites themselves, despite the threat of being shot as a spy or terrorist and, and with greater and greater frequency, cutting of fences and causing other physical damage to military facilities.

In April 1983 CND organised its own human chain between Greenham and Upper Heyford, another nuclear base, and in October 1984 the annual CND demonstration took place at Barrow-in-Furness, where the new Trident nuclear missile submarines were being built, rather than in London as in previous years. In April 1985 CND brought over 20,000 to demonstrate at the Molesworth missile site and in February 1986 CND organised its largest ever illegal sit-down, also at Molesworth, involving over 5,000 people blockading the gates of the base for 12 hours.

Many more peace movement activities took place during this period all across Europe and also in the US. Not all of this was directed explicitly at the deployment of Cruise Missiles, but that was undoubtedly the catalyst for much of it. The question to be addressed is whether any of this frenzy of social movement activity, involving millions of people marching in the streets and tens of thousands being arrested to stop this deployment, actually had any direct bearing on the eventual decision to scrap the missiles as part of the INF Treaty agreed by Reagan and Gorbachev in Reykjavik and eventually signed in December 1987?


The Impact of Action at the Bases

As I have already indicated, the effect of the peace movement on public opinion, at least in the UK, was negligible. Before CND held even its first demonstration against Cruise Missiles, opposition to these missiles was already running at about 50% and it remained more or less at that level throughout the entire period, rising at times to 60% and at no point falling below 40%. In the UK, as in other European countries, opposition parties opposed the deployments were not able to win a single election during this period and parliamentary majorities prevented any serious challenge to the deployments despite the precariousness of the situation I have described in, particularly, Holland and Belgium.

The total financial and political costs of protecting Cruise missiles from peace protesters are impossible to calculate, but they were undoubtedly high. The original agreement was for Britain to provide a total of 220 security personnel for Greenham Common[8], mainly to guard the Cruise convoys when they travelled off base. In fact Greenham ended up with 417 permanently stationed MOD police, over 1,000 British soldiers from three Army battalions and units of an RAF regiment[9] and up to 800 US Air Force personnel assigned to security and general back-up. That means that inside the fence there were approximately 2,200 people whose primary role was to guard the base and its contents from the peace movement!

Outside the fence there was a daily presence of up to 300 civil police from the Thames Valley force plus reinforcements to cover major demonstrations. A peak of 1,163 officers from 11 counties were deployed for the women’s Reclaim the Base demonstration on December 1, 1983[10]. Once regular off-base exercises began in 1984, as many as 600 civil police were needed to ‘protect’ the Cruise convoys from the peace movement during the five days each month they ventured out of the base.

Aiding the security forces during much of 1983 were two helicopters on 24-hour patrol, floodlights, watch towers, electronic alarms, two layers of chain-link fence with three to five coils of barbed wire and razor-wire in between, police dogs, and automatic M-16 rifles carried by American soldiers authorised to use ‘deadly force’. The cost of repairing the perimeter fence had by 1984 exceeded half a million pounds, but a replacement with ‘protest-proof’ fencing as recommended by the Commons Defence Committee would have cost between £3.5 and £4 million.[11] Policing costs recorded by Thames Valley police for the period December 1982 to November 1983 totalled over £3 million and estimates for the entire period September 1981 to September 1984 range from £5 – £7 million[12]. Costs incurred by Newbury District Council for evictions and extra court proceedings are miniscule by comparison – £90,000 for the whole period – and yet they represent a substantial strain on the council’s available resources.[13]

Adding up all the known and estimated security costs over the three year period from 1981 to 1984, one can get a rough idea of what the Greenham women were costing the British government – over £10 million in total. Considering that is only slightly less than the £11.4 million it cost to build the cruise missile silos inside, the price of protest was considerable. On the other hand, in comparison to other costs the Thatcher government proved willing to incur to carry out its policies in face of opposition, Greenham was a cheap victory. The miner’s strike cost the government £71 million a week[14] and the Falklands War cost well over £4,000 million by the time all the lost equipment was replaced and the ‘fortress’ secured.

The number of arrests at Greenham also put tremendous strain on Newbury Magistrates Court. The 40 lay magistrates had to cope with nearly 200 extra court hours in 1983 to hear cases from Greenham. Two stipendiary magistrates had to be appointed by the government to handle the backlog of cases and at one point 78 cases were heard in a single day[15]. Total arrests from September 1981 to August 1984 have been estimated at 1,866[16] and between 1 April 1983 and 22 November 1983 alone, police recorded 745 arrests at Greenham for failure to pay fines accruing from previous arrests[17]!

The decision by a large number of those arrested to go to a prison rather than pay the court-imposed fine added to an already serious problem of prison over-crowding. The peak prison population for England and Wales in 1982 was already 6,000 over the limit of ‘certified normal accommodation’. Additional strains on top of this required temporary prisons to be opened. Because women’s prisons account for only 1,456 out of 38,653 places, the impact of the Greenham women on the penal system was greatly multiplied[18]. Over 6,000 peace protesters and an equal number of miners had been arrested throughout the country by the end of 1984.

The nature of the security problem at Greenham was not confined to the base itself. The whole ‘operational concept’ of Ground-Launched Cruise Missiles was that they must be deployed “some distance away from the bases where they are normally stored.[19]” The convoys which continued to leave Greenham every month on exercise were all successfully tracked to their ‘secret’ launch sites by peace movement activists and several were blockaded and stopped for many hours at a time. Because the first flight of Cruise at Greenham were supposedly on ‘Quick Reaction Alert’ and were not meant to leave the base, the exercises that took place during 1984 cannot have been proper ‘operational’ exercises:

“New technical information reveals that far from being a success in outwitting the Greenham Common women, the exercises have not tested the missiles. Rather they appear to have been public relations manoeuvres aimed at denting the morale of CND and peace campaigners, by getting vehicles past the peace camp’s cordon.”[20]

The Peace Threat at Molesworth

By the time of CND National Conference in November 1984, it must have been clear to the authorities that Molesworth was rapidly moving to the top of the peace movement’s agenda, despite the fact that, unlike at Greenham, there were as yet no signs of any construction, no perimeter fence nor even any military personnel stationed there. Nevertheless CND’s ‘Molesworth Pledge’ posed the threat that large numbers of mainstream CND members from around the country would come to obstruct construction work even at the risk of arrest. With over 100,000 members nation-wide and a record of pulling upwards of half a million to demonstrations in London, this was potentially a far greater threat than that posed by the considerable but increasingly marginalised presence of the women at Greenham.

The threat posed by the Molesworth Pledge itself was increased by the existence of over one hundred people[21] already camping on the base, building semi-permanent structures and looking to be settling in for the long haul. The possibility of hundreds or even thousands of protesters camping out on the actual base and backed up by hundreds of thousands of supporters around the country could not have failed to represent a significant threat to the building of the base, as Heseltine himself admitted:

“We had to move millions of pounds worth of equipment onto a site in Cambridgeshire without those who were stationed on the site and watching every move even knowing we were doing it…because we were very frightened and we knew exactly what would happen if a whisper of what we were doing got out. The protest groups would have called all their people out to block the road and to lie down to cause absolute mayhem. We’d never have got the fence up and then when we’d tried to build it they would have caused terrible chaos and inconvenience.”[22]

Policing the Base

The midnight operation to fence off Molesworth in February 1985 was set into motion by the defence Secretary Michael Heseltine himself, who arrived by helicopter later that morning to inspect the success of ten weeks’ careful planning. He toured the site donning a military flakjacket and then returned to the Houses of Parliament to be accused of

“heavy-handed…jack- boot methods…(in an)Eastern European-type of operation… (involving) more British troops…than were used against the Argentines at Goose Green.”

A total of 1,500 Royal Engineers from seven squadrons worked through the night to put up a razor-wire fence along the entire seven and a half mile perimeter of the base. About 250 armed soldiers from the Regular Infantry stood by in case of trouble. Over six hundred MOD police officers (out of a total force of 4000) were drafted from virtually every Ministry of Defence establishment in England, Scotland and Wales for the operation – 300 were on hand for the eviction of the peace camp and another 300 took over on the morning shift. 900 civilian police from several forces, including the Metropolitan Police from London, were involved in the operation. The policing costs for Cambridgeshire Constabulary alone came to £360,000 for the period 5-10 February 1985[23]. The whole midnight operation cost over £1 million.

The authorities were well prepared for an onslaught of protestors, who indeed began arriving in the early hours of the morning from as far away as Wales. Road blocks remained in force for the next two weeks, forcing all demonstrators to walk up to a mile from designated car parks to the base. Approximately 350 MOD police with dogs were guarding the seven and a half miles of fresh barbed wire. At least one helicopter was in service at all times to track groups of protestors around the perimeter.

By the end of February, Cambridgeshire County Council were told that there had been a total of 211 arrests at Molesworth.[24] By April 1985, local MP John Major reported to the local newspaper that there had been a total of 356 arrests at Molesworth since the start of surveying in November: 185 for criminal damage, 39 for obstructing a police officer, 51 for obstructing the highway, 11 for assaulting a police officer, 20 for going equipped to commit criminal damage, 10 for theft, 23 for breach of the peace, 5 for breach of bail, 11 for trespass, and 1 for assault occasioning actual bodily harm. “So much for peaceful protest,” quipped Major[25].

The total costs of policing the base throughout this period came to over £1.6 million[26]. This included £809,000 for policing the Easter demonstration with over 2,000 police officers, or roughly double the number deployed at the largest demonstration at Greenham. According to Chief Constable Ian Kane, the policing of the Easter demonstration meant that the rest of Cambridgeshire was “50 per cent under policed for 24 hours. That is the price,” he said, “of policing demonstrations.[27]

That price, it seems, was well within the capabilities of the County Council and the government (which agreed to pay 90 per cent of policing costs up to a certain figure) to pay. In total, the civil policing costs at Molesworth came to only a fraction of the £5 – £7 million estimated for Greenham. In fact the pattern of policing at Molesworth throughout this period suggests that the police had prepared for a much higher level of protest than they actually found.

This does not mean that the total costs of security at Molesworth were insignificant. Most of those costs were incurred by the Ministry of Defence and remained largely hidden from the account books. Nevertheless we know that the cost of the midnight fencing operation came to around £1 million. Erecting the 12-foot security fence around the base cost another £3 million. A second inner fence of the same type was later erected to separate the MOD’s terrain from the American inner sanctum. This came to another £3 million. Construction of a special MOD access road to the base, which was necessitated at least in part by the desire to avoid the cordon of protesters which greeted every departure of the Cruise convoy at Greenham, cost another £1.5 million. Although the full costs of paying and maintaining a MOD police force of up to 700 per day during the winter of 1985 have not been revealed, we can estimate on the basis of known figures that this must have cost the MOD in the region of £8 million. Thus we may estimate that security for Molesworth cost the government approximately £16.5 million on top of the £80 million it cost to build the base itself.[28]

Cracks in the European Timetable

Any slow-up in the deployment timetable was consistently denied, but evidence for such continued to mount. The original NATO decision called for the deployment to take place over a five-year period, to be completed by December 1988. This relatively slow pace was required for at least four reasons. Firstly, the manufacturer could not produce the missiles any faster. Secondly, the 4000 missile technicians required were to be trained at a single school at the rate of 800 per year[29]. Thirdly, the schedule was meant to allow plenty of time for arms negotiations to take place before full deployment[30]. Finally, it was no doubt hoped that public opposition would gradually die down if the programme was drawn out long enough.

By the middle of 1984, the timetable had run into serious delays, public pressures were increasing, and, as is the very nature of the arms race, the missiles that had so far been deployed had already become obsolete and would soon need replacing[31].

The first Cruise missile flights were deployed on schedule at Greenham and at Comiso in Italy (in November 1983). The second flight at Greenham was however not made operational until November 1984, already 1 year behind schedule[32]. At the Comiso base, the missiles had to be stored in temporary make-shift buildings because the first missile silos were not complete until Autumn 1985. (And there was no housing for over 1,000 USAF personnel already stationed there until mid-1986!)

Design plans for the Florennes base in Belgium were started in January 1982, and a ‘memorandum of understanding’ was signed later that year to allow preliminary work to begin at the site even though deployment had not yet been agreed to. Some 225 US personnel were stationed there in May 1984, and the first flight of 16 missiles along with 200 more technicians were due by the end of that year[33]. In fact the first missiles arrived in March 1985, just days after the Belgian prime minister finally agreed to take them. Work on Cruise facilities at the base did not however begin until after the first missiles had arrived!

There was no problem in West Germany about a signed agreement because none was required[34]. Twenty-seven Pershing II missiles had already been deployed there by 1984 at existing Pershing 1A bases, but no construction work had yet begun for Cruise, and the location itself remained classified until August 1985. Only $600,000 was approved for the German GLCM programme in the fiscal year 1985, hardly enough to do more than design studies. But by the end of 1985, the first Cruise missiles were rushed into place at the US base of Wueschheim.

Woensdrecht in Holland was due for its first flight of GLCM in early 1986, but the issue nearly brought down the ruling coalition government more than once. The United States was by 1984 putting considerable pressure on the Dutch to deploy Cruise on schedule, but the latest postponement decision in May 1984 had meant another delay of eighteen months. As it was commonly pointed out in the Netherlands at the time:

“It is a very important political fact – as NATO is aware – that this postponement policy can go on for ever and that one can safely assume that the Dutch share of 48 Cruise missiles will never enter Holland[35].”

In fact, the Dutch finally made a decision in November 1985 to go ahead with Cruise deployment, after more than five years of deferring the issue. The agreement was reached by conceding to the opposition the removal of almost all other nuclear-weapons related installations and military ‘assignments’ from the Dutch armed forces – a considerable blow to NATO despite the overriding concern to get agreement on Cruise.

In August 1984, it was reported that funds for construction to start at Molesworth had been frozen by a Congressional sub-committee pending assurances that the base could be made secure. It appears that the original plan was for construction to be restricted to a small 46-acre site within the Molesworth base, corresponding to a small area in the centre of the base already occupied by the US Army Disposal Office. The remaining 700 acres of the base, belonging to the British government, had been due to be sold off. But the presence of over 100 people camping on the site, and the continuing activities of the peace movement there posed a problem for military planners. No local farmer or other potential buyer would be prepared to take on the responsibility for land surrounding a controversial Cruise missile base.

The US and British governments were still haggling throughout the first half of 1984 over how to secure Molesworth from the sort of activities that plagued them at Greenham and who would pay for the ‘solution’. This confusion provided the window of opportunity which became evident at Molesworth during this period, as even the MOD police did not know how they were supposed to handle the situation developing there. By October an agreement had been reached, which would require a massive operation on the part of the British government to fence in and guard the whole 740 acre base for a full year before any construction could begin.

Despite widespread opposition to the Cruise programme across Europe and the huge costs of going ahead with it, all six Cruise missile bases were eventually built and the missiles deployed.

The Gorbachev Factor

How, then, can we ‘explain’ the INF treaty, 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.[36]

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.

The Reagan turn-around, from being a life-long campaigner against Communism to the ‘man of peace’ can only be explained by reference to pressures in America itself. For although Gorbachev did make significant concessions on INF, he was not speaking a new language from the Soviet point of view nor deviating in any significant way from Soviet disarmament policy as laid down at the start of the nuclear age. The Soviets had consistently favoured the total elimination of all nuclear weapons. This is hardly surprising, since they maintain large conventional forces and had always been ‘behind’ in the nuclear arms race[37]. When Gorbachev spoke at the Reykjavik summit of eliminating all nuclear weapons by the year 2000, he was merely reiterating a long-standing Soviet policy objective. What had changed was not the Soviet position, but the reception of that position among American voters and members of the US Congress.


The American Freeze Movement

In November 1980, as Ronald Reagan was winning his landslide victory at the American 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 very different to the peace movements in Europe, both in terms of its scope and its methods. Although it too had its moment of being a mass movement when over 1 million marched in New York in June 1982, the Freeze 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[38].

Although New England is traditionally the most ‘liberal’ region 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[39].

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’[40], 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%. 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 (and 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[41].

At the start of 1984, the Freeze movement had reached about as far as it could go into the American 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. 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[42]. Mondale was resoundingly defeated and only five new pro-Freeze Senators were elected – not enough to secure victory in the Senate.

By the summer of 1984, however, as momentum was gathering for the general elections, an opinion poll taken of delegates to the Republican party convention showed 62% in favour of the Freeze[43]. That means 62% of Republican party activists – the very people about to campaign across the country for the re-election of Ronald Reagan! Less than one month later Reagan was making the first speech of his presidency (at the opening of the UN) which showed signs of a new reconciliatory mood toward the Soviet Union. He was playing the ‘peace card’ for his re-election campaign – undeniable evidence that this is what the American people wanted to hear!


The Nuclear-Free Zone Movement in America Begins to Bite

As the Freeze movement was receding, 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’. In May, seven more joined from Massachusetts. The first major American city (and one of the most radical) – Madison, Wisconsin – joined the ranks of the growing movement in November 1983. By the end of 1983 there were 37 nuclear-free zones in the US, covering a total population of just over half a million Americans[44].

By election day 1984, there were 67 nuclear-free zones in the US with one and a half million people under their jurisdiction. Fifteen more towns and cities – including New York City, the second largest city in the country (population: 8 million) – 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 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 American nuclear-free zone movement does not lie simply in the fact that we are talking about America, though that is surprising enough in itself.[45] The American political system provides the individual states and municipalities a large degree of autonomy to enact legally-binding and enforceable legislation. Each of the 150 nuclear-free zones in the US had their own definition and interpretation of the meaning of that status. Nonetheless, half 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.[46]

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 to date 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%.

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.[47] Twelve months later, Morton claimed the boycott was having no effect on their business and they remained ‘proud to be part of the defence industry’.[48] 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.[49]

There is no direct evidence of the impact which these policies had on the nuclear industry. Nevertheless, the nuclear-free zone movement was affecting 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 the results everyone in the American movement wanted, which was an end to the arms race – but results that would defuse and destabilise the 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 the status quo ante. The INF Treaty was signed by President Reagan 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 missile 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.[50]

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 lorry 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[51]. 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[52].

To the military then, Cruise was a foregone conclusion. To European politicians it was not so simple. 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[53]. 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)[54].

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.

If the missiles were never intended to be deployed in Belgium or Holland, they were never intended to be deployed at Molesworth either. Molesworth was due to become fully operational in December 1988, at the very end of the timetable for deployment, even after Belgium and Holland (and Germany’s share of Cruise as opposed to Pershing). Since Britain had agreed to take the largest share of Cruise[55] it seems likely that Britain would have been the first to make reductions should these be forthcoming as a result of the negotiations.

The idea that the missiles were never intended for Belgium, Holland or Molesworth fits surprisingly well with Reagan’s negotiating position at the INF talks from November 1983 onwards, after the first Cruise were deployed at Greenham and the Zero Option seemed therefore to be off the agenda. Reagan proposed a ceiling of 420 missiles each, which was roughly the number of Cruise and Pershing planned for Greenham, Germany and Italy, minus those for Belgium, Holland and Molesworth.

The suggestion that Molesworth was never seriously intended to take its allocation of 64 Cruise missiles also fits the situation ‘on the ground’ throughout this period. That is to say, there was absolutely nothing going on at Molesworth between June 1980 and November 1984 which could in any way be construed as preparations for Cruise deployment.[56]



The pressures which the peace movements of Western Europe were able to put on their governments were indeed enormous. I have described some of the financial and political costs which accrued to those governments as a result of the Cruise issue. 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. For although Reagan was easily re-elected as President in 1984 (and Bush in 1988), the political balance of forces had shifted decidedly against support for the nuclear arms build-up – that is, within the US Congress, and state and local legislatures throughout the country. The Nuclear Freeze movement was located where the votes were, not for president, but for all other public offices at these various levels of the American political system.

It was political pressure from below which 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[57]. 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. But despite the pressures I have already described, these caused no more than a ‘scare’ among European politicians. Why?

Firstly, the militant activities of those movements prevented further inroads into the minds of the constituencies most ‘needed’ by those governments – ie. the conservative voters, who in America were converted in large numbers by the Freeze movement. Secondly, the militant activities were directed almost exclusively at the military bases where the deployments were due, thus pitting the ‘might’ of the peace movement against the only forces in society against which a social movement can have no hope of ‘beating’ – the police and the military. Certainly there were some pressures also coming from trade unions and nuclear-free zone councils which affected companies contracted to build the bases, but the ‘force’ of the movement as a whole was not directed towards targets against which it could have an effect, either in political or economic terms. Finally, the paradox of the Cruise issue was that while it was the European governments who appeared most eager to have Cruise, it was not those governments nor their economies who were the direct beneficiaries of the Cruise programme.

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 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. Construction of Cruise missile silos cost NATO governments around £11 million at each of five sites. The total cost of building a Cruise base from scratch at Molesworth came to around £80 million. These are large sums of money, to be sure, but not in terms of modern industrial economies or even in terms of the individual contracting companies involved. Simultaneous to the start of construction at Molesworth, for instance, the same contractors were competing for £500 million worth of contracts to develop the submarine port at Faslane to house Trident. £1.5 billion worth of contracts were given out by the Ministry of Defence in just two years (1986-87).

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 peace movement ‘threat’. 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.



[1] Chadwick (1984), pg.39-43

[2] This was to greet an official visit to London by Ronald Reagan.

[3] All figures relating to crowd numbers are contested. Police estimates were regularly less than half the estimates coming from the organisers. Some attempts were made to literally count heads from aerial photographs taken during the 1983 mass demonstration in London, but even these were no more than gross estimates because by the time the end of the march had arrived in Hyde Park on that occasion the speeches had long finished and most people had already dispersed from the park.

[4] Figures from Marplan, Gallup and MORI polls, 1980-1985, taken from CND archives.

[5] Belief in the probability of nuclear war rose from 10% during the 1970s to 40% in 1980 and then was back down to 10% again by 1984. (Rochon, 1988, p47).

[6] Everts (1986). The Cruise issue was not sufficiently salient to British voters who were concerned primarily with the question of which party would leave them and their families better off economically.

[7] Peterborough City Council, for instance, voted to blacklist any local construction firms involved in construction at RAF Molesworth, but there is no evidence of any contracts actually being lost as a result.

[8] House of Commons Defence Committee (1984), pg.207

[9] Mather and Davenport (1983), pg. 9

[10] House of Commons Defence Committee (1984), pg.212

[11] House of Commons (1984), pg.125. This was the fence that was put up at Molesworth instead.

[12] House of Commons (1984), p.125.

[13] Daily Telegraph, 4 April, 1983.

[14] New Statesman, 11 September 1984

[15] New Statesman, 2 March 1984, pg. 11)

[16] see Janey Hulme, “Peace Protesters Roll Call” in New Statesman, 1983-85 (in occasional issues).

[17] House of Commons (1984), pg. 270

[18] Home Office (1982), pg. 11

[19] House of Commons (1984) pg. xvi

[20] New Statesman, 27 July 1984, pg. 5.

[21] A motley collection of New Age travellers, peace activists and environmentalists living in buses, caravans, teepees and tents.

[22] Michael Heseltine to BBC reporter (‘not for quotation’), 8/1/86.

[23] Hansard, “Written Answers to Questions,” 18 March 1985, p.355.

[24] these included 48 arrests by Cambridgeshire police, 30 arrests by MOD police, and 133 arrests involving subsequent release without charge. (Hunts Post, 7 March 1985, p.1)

[25] Hunts Post, 16 May 1985.

[26] These are only the costs incurred by Cambridgeshire Constabulary. MOD policing costs have not been disclosed.

[27] Hunts Post, 6 August 1985, p.1

[28] Most of this cost was met by the Americans.

[29] Bulban (1983), pg. 62.

[30] NATO (1983), pg.41.

[31] Chadwick (1984), pg.6.

[32] A second flight was also made operational at Comiso, and there were by this time 45 Pershing II missiles deployed in West Germany.

[33] Subcommittee of the Committee of Appropriations (1985), pg.112.

[34] Subcommittee (1984), pg. 105.

[35] IKV (1981), pg.1.

[36] 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.

[37] See annual SIPRI Yearbooks and IISS Strategic Balance for detailed breakdowns of both nuclear and non-nuclear weaponry of East and West during the Cold War. At no time during that period did the Soviet Union have a numerical advantage, let alone a qualitative advantage, over the US and its allies in nuclear weaponry.

[38] 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.

[39] 30 of the 33 towns in Western Massachusetts that voted for Reagan in 1980 also voted in favour of the nuclear freeze.

[40] Waller (1987), pg.163

[41]Waller (1987), pg.291

[42] Waller (1987), pg.284

[43] Waller (1987), pg.298

[44] These figures and those below are from Bennett (1987), pp 6-10.

[45] 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)

[46] Bennett (1987), pg.259

[47] The campaign tried to make a symbolic link with Gandhi’s salt campaign of 1930-31.

[48] Quoted in New Abolitionist, February 1987, pg 12.

[49] Nuclear Free America, Memorandum, 21 March 1988.

[50] Chadwick (1984), pg.25.

[51] Greene (1983), pg. 46.

[52] LaRoque (1982), pg.4.

[53] Brzesinski (1982), pg.308

[54] 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.

[55] Numbers of Cruise to be deployed in each country:
UK   – 160
Italy – 112
Germ- 96
Belg. – 48
Neth. – 48
total – 464

[56] There was not even a perimeter fence surrounding this disused World War II airfield, let alone any sign of military activity.

[57] See Randle (1991)





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