The Freeze Down South
By Margaret Roach and Allen Tullos
Vol. 5, No. 4, 1983, pp. 11-14
In the fall of 1982, the Nuclear Freeze Campaign mobilized the largest referendum drive in United States history. Over eleven million Americans voted for the freeze. It won in nine of ten states and in all but three of thirty-seven local referendums that were held in towns, cities and counties across the country.
Even if Southern state and city election laws made it easy to hold popular initiatives–which they didn’t–disarmament organizers would still have the South’s strong pro-military climate to contend with. Congressional delegations from the South are among the Pentagon’s strongest supporters. Military employees and contractors abound (see “Shaping the South’s Pre-War Economy” in Southern Changes, August September 1982). Nonetheless, citizens and church groups in Dixie are fashioning a nuclear disarmament movement tied to the large stirrings in the rest of the U.S. and in Europe. The movement here, as elsewhere, continues to grow. Excitement and expectation mingle with an awareness of the realities of the South’s web of military dependencies.
Organizers for the Freeze Campaign (only one of several groups active in the present peace movement) have much to report both inside and around the South’s border during the past several months. In Miami-Dade County, one place where the resolution did get on the ballot, voters approved the freeze by a fifty-eight percent margin. In Atlanta, where a right wing group took legal action to block a Nuclear Freeze/Jobs With Peace referendum, an exit poll conducted on election day revealed that sixty-one percent of the voters supported the freeze. In Austin, Texas, fourteen thousand of seventeen thousand participants in a “people’s election” voted approval. The West Virginia house and senate have passed the freeze resolution. In North Carolina, the resolution passed the house but was defeated in the senate by a tie-breaking vote by Lieutenant Governor Jimmy Green.
On March 7 and 8, some seven thousand citizens from around the country (including more than six hundred Southerners) made the trip to Washington to participate
in the Citizens’ Lobby for a U.S./Soviet Nuclear Freeze. Among the Dixie delegations were 150 supporters from Virginia, 120 from Kentucky, a hundred from Georgia, eighty from Florida, sixty from North Carolina and fifty from Arkansas. These activists were quite aware of the strong relationship between the amount of military dollars a Southern state receives and the voting habits of that state’s members of congress.
On the South’s border, in Arkansas and West Virginia, where there is an insignificant proportion of Pentagon money, congressional delegations have outshown Deep South states in their votes for the freeze and against building particular weapons systems.
“We’ve been dumped on by the Pentagon. Arkansas is considered to be expendable,” says Bob Bland of Little Rock’s SANE chapter, offering as examples the Titan missile field where an explosion in 1980 killed one airman and injured twenty-one others and the nerve gas production facility at Pine Bluff. Neither represents much in terms of employment. Dividing along party lines, Arkansas’ two Democrats have often voted on the side of nuclear disarmament while the state’s two Republicans have followed the Reagan lead. “We’ll remove the arch-hawks in ’84,” Bland says.
Arkansas is the only Southern state whose senators are both sponsors of the freeze resolution. Both David Pryor and Dale Bumpers also oppose the MX missile. Pryor is presently waging a war with the Pentagon as he seeks to prevent $130.6 million in chemical warfare money from entering his state. “Nerve gas,” he argues, “doesn’t kill-soldiers, it kills civilians.”
Like Arkansas, West Virginia receives few military contracting dollars. There are no major military facilities in the state and only two thousand Department of Defense employees, three-fourths of whom are civilian. As in Arkansas, the only thing the Reagan-Weinberger military build-up means for the people of West Virginia is a loss of social programs and increased economic pressure for the unemployed young to “be all you can be” in the armed forces. West Virginia sends a greater per capita percentage of its young people to the military than any other state.
Both houses of the West Virginia legislature endorsed the freeze in January: the senate by a vote of twenty-eight to five and the house by voice vote. These victories contributed to other ones. “It was our organizing around congressional districts and winning the endorsement of the state legislature that made our influence felt in the congressional delegation,” explains coordinator Susan Walter of Charleston.
And felt it was. Only one out of its four representatives voted for the freeze in 1982. In a skillful statewide campaign to “make peace an issue in West Virginia’s congressional races,” West Virginians for a Bilateral Nuclear Freeze (with chapters in twelve towns) worked hard to replace their state’s pro-military representatives. With three new congressmen elected in November of 1982, the freeze stance moved to one hundred percent.
Certainly the issue of nuclear war was a key in the state’s third congressional district where incumbent Mick Staton said, “I believe the earth would be destroyed when the good Lord in heaven decides it should happen.” Staton was replaced by freeze supporter Robert Wise.
West Virginia is also the home of Senator Jennings Randolph (D) who, since 1945, has been proposing the establishment of either a U.S. Department of Peace, or a U.S. Peace Academy to study the causes of war and teach techniques for resolving conflicts. Although Randolph’s proposal has fifty-three cosponsors, it is currently bottled up in a senate committee by its chief enemies, Alabama’s Jeremiah Denton (R) and New Hampshire’s Gordon J. Humphrey (R). “I have been gently told,” says Randolph, “that even though my reasons for establishing a peace academy are sincere and well-intended, I am naive if I believe such an academy will serve as anything but a commie front.”
As one moves toward the heart of Dixie, congressional supporters for disarmament grow scarcer. In July of 1982, when the U.S. House of Representatives considered the freeze and defeated it by a 204 to 202 vote, only twenty-two of 107 congressmen in the eleven states of the old Confederacy voted in favor. The South remains the bastion for die-hard militarists. Yet, even here, freeze activists have helped engineer a few surprises. Consider North Carolina.
In contrast with Arkansas and West Virginia, North Carolina ranks fifth in the nation in the size of its military payroll and third in the number of military personnel within the state. Fort Bragg and Camp LeJune are two of the largest bases in the U.S. The state also has Jesse Helms and John East.
During the past year, several groups formed the North Carolinians for a U.S./Soviet Nuclear Freeze. They mounted a statewide campaign, gathering more than forty thousand signatures on the freeze petition. Seven of the state’s cities voted to approve the freeze proposal. “We started with the cities and moved out to the rural areas where we found terrific support,” says Dale Everts, coordinator of the campaign. Before losing by a twenty-five to twenty-four vote in the NC senate, the freeze resolution passed the lower house by a sixty-five to forty-eight tally in March.
During the North Carolina house debate, J.P. Huskins, from Statesville, a conservative on most issues, explained his opposition to Reagan’s military build-up: “It’s like those cowboys who try to outdraw themselves in front of a mirror. Those cowboys out on the plains can’t do
it and the cowboy in the White House can’t do it either.”
By the time the freeze resolution appeared again in the U.S. House of Representatives this year, newly elected members as well as returned incumbents from the mid-term election were aware of the freeze movement’s strength among the American mainstream. Nonetheless, thanks to the tolerance of proponents and the dogged persistence of opponents in offering a succession of weakening amendments, nearly forty-two hours of debate were required before a version of the resolution passed. A final touch, facilitated by Georgia’s Elliott Levitas (D), made the proposition palatable to all but Reaganites and irascible hawks.
Levitas’ modifications produced a resolution that requires the suspension of any freeze agreement which is not followed by mutual arms reductions within a specified period of time. Despite the addition of the Levitas’-inspired convoluted language, the principle of “freeze then reduce” remains intact and in contrast with the Reagan Administration’s attempts to build-up first-strike weapons. The freeze resolution, however, remains both non-binding and largely symbolic. The final House vote, taken on May 25, was 278 to 149 in support of the amended resolution. Still, only forty-six of 116 Southern members of Congress voted favorably.
The Southern delegation is doing more than opposing non-binding resolutions; they are at the front of the Reagan-Weinberger re-armament campaign with its proposed five year expenditure of $1.8 trillion. Certainly there are the old line war hawks–the likes of Alabama’s Edwards and Denton, Mississippi’s Stennis, Texas’ Tower and North Carolina’s two senators. These men make no apologies for their militarism.
Other Southerners, as illustrated by Levitas and by Georgia’s Senator Sam Nunn (D) and Tennessee Representative Albert Gore (D), have begun to give the appearance of concern for eventual disarmament while in fact encouraging the pursuit of nuclear weapons modernization.
Consider the current proposals of Nunn and Gore. Influential in recent congressional voting and in the formation of legislative consensus on military matters, these two men have become sophisticated in their militarism–or, as folks used to say, wiser in their wickedness. Nunn and Gore resort to the language of Orwellian newspeak in which lip service supportive of a longed-for goal (the dismantling of nuclear weaponry) is accompanied by actions which seek an opposite end (a “superiority” of arms). Under Nunn’s “build-down” proposal (which calls for the dismantling of two older warheads for each new one produced) or Gore’s suggestion (known as “de-MIRVing”) that the U.S. shift from multiple to single warhead missiles, aging nuclear weapons will be replaced by more modern ones and numerical reductions in nuclear warheads and missiles will result in an actual increase in the speed, accuracy and destructive power of the missiles which are deployed.
Whether they are promoted as a compromise between the Reagan Administration’s approach to arms control (“Reagan does not like to spend money on anything that does not explode,” notes Arkansas Senator Dale Bumpers) and a genuine nuclear freeze, or whether they are promoted as bi-partisan agreements by Presidential panels such as the Scroweroft Commission, the build-down and kindred schemes are frauds. With a simple phrase, suggestive of disarmament, build-down proponents seek to siphon off the broad and growing support that exists for a serious movement to abolish nuclear weapons. “As in the case with the nuclear freeze proposal,” build-down co-sponsor Charles Percy (R-IL) has admitted, “it benefits from an underlying concept that can be readily grasped and embraced by the general public.” Unlike the freeze, which stops the arms race in its tracks, the build-down offers an escalation in the production of weapons with ever-greater first-strike potential. Ground, air and sea-launched cruise missiles would be deployed. Trident II submarine-launched missiles could replace Poseidon and Trident I missiles. New MX missiles and the mobile Midgetman (favored by Gore) would replace Minuteman. Comparable systems could be developed by the Soviets. There would be fewer missiles, but these would be more dangerous–and move us closer to a hair-trigger response during a national crisis or to the contemplation of first strike: “Use them or lose them.”
“Remember that all political life is compromise,” suggested Leslie Dunbar of the Fund for Peace during a May gathering in Atlanta of Southern disarmament activists. “But be clear what compromise is. When Senator Nunn proposes a ‘build-down’ and Mr. Reagan shows an interest in it, that’s not our compromise. That’s a compromise between them and them. When men we have relied on in the past, like Albert Gore, Jr., begin to allow how they’ll support a few MXs in order to get Midgetmen, don’t even act interested. That’s not a compromise between them and us. The woods will be full in the next months with so-called compromises like these.”
Thanks in large part to the compromises of Nunn and Gore, the U.S. Senate and House, within a month of the successful freeze vote in the House, approved $625 million in start-up costs for flight testing and for development of basing plans for the MX missile. On the horizon lay the shape of tens of billions to come. Ninety-eight of 116 Southern representatives gave their approval as did all but three Southern senators (Bumpers and Pryor from
Arkansas and Sasser of Tennessee were the exceptions). “No strategic weapons system that has ever passed this stage of funding.”-warned Representative Les AuCoin(DOR), “has been permanently canceled.”
In July both Nunn and Gore were still promising “to hold Reagan’s feet to the fire” and insist that he show some flexibility in his arms control positions in exchange for their willingness to support the MX as a bargaining chip with the Russians. “Those of us from the prairies,” counters Representative Byron Dorgan (D-ND), “know the difference between a bargaining chip and a cow chip. Those who spend twenty billion dollars for this kind of chip ought not to be trusted with the taxpayer’s money.”
As the $200 billion military authorization bill for 1984 steamed its way through this summer’s Congress, freeze activists pondered the prospects and tactics for the coming months. The national Freeze Campaign deems organizing in the South so important that it has designated its field organizing project for this region. Training workshops have already been held in Fort Worth and Atlanta. The American Friends Service Committee’s regional disarmament project is looking at Southern congressional districts to determine where pro-military representatives may be vulnerable for challenge by pro-freeze candidates.
At the June strategy session in Fort Worth, organizers debated the question of whether to shift the focus from the freeze to specific nuclear weapons systems. The Campaign re-affirmed its position that no additional nuclear weapons “can be justified on grounds of morality, economics or national security.” The decision to oppose specific weapons has been left up to local activists with the offer of national assistance. The National Campaign has issued a call to participate in local demonstrations on October 21-24 to oppose the deployment of Pershing and Cruise missiles in Europe in December.
The Freeze Campaign is also setting up a national political action committee for the 1984 elections. The Campaign will target a half-dozen senatorial races, fifty to seventy-five congressional races as well as presidential candidate selection. With its seven primaries and caucuses during one week in March, the South is considered a key area.
Some activists feel that the freeze strategy doesn’t go far enough and are calling for a “no freeze, no funds’) approach: the targeting of every new nuclear weapons system for opposition until a freeze is achieved. In considering this position, Randy Kehler of the National Freeze Campaign cautions, “even if we approach specific weapons systems in a bilateral way–and we have formulated some proposals for doing that–we will begin to lose the focus on the comprehensive freeze on all weapons systems in a way that will lose us the popular appeal the freeze has had.” Kehler notes that efforts to combat specific weapons systems have existed in the U.S. for years: “Even when they are temporarily successful, as with the B-1 bomber, the weapon comes back at us or it is replaced by another more dangerous one. The proponents of these weapons systems know that even if we win one battle, eventually they can tire us out on the weapon-by-weapon approach.”
William Reynolds, southeastern representative at the Fort Worth session, suggested that in the South, with organizers facing congressional delegations who are still overwhelmingly in the Pentagon’s camp, “we still need to establish the freeze position with its clear bilateral language. Southern senators and representatives have spent decades working to bring military money into the South. It’s going to take a lot of work and time to reverse that.”
Margaret Roach is on the staff of the Atlanta Nuclear Freeze/Jobs With Peace Campaign. Allen Tullos is the editor of Southern Changes.