Europeans Demonstrate Against Nuclear Weapons

With the impending arrival in Western Europe of hundreds of new NATO nuclear missiles, millions of Europeans joined together to protest the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Summary of Event

During the third week of October, 1983, millions of Western Europeans gathered in enormous demonstrations to protest the impending arrival of hundreds of new North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) nuclear missiles. The huge rallies and blockades were the pinnacle of four years of intense peace movement mobilization against the arms race and the possibility of nuclear war, the ultimate environmental catastrophe. Although the missiles arrived on schedule in Great Britain, West Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands starting the following month, the European anti-nuclear weapons movement of the early 1980’s was not a complete failure. On the contrary, the movement’s legacy was a worldwide concern for nuclear disarmament that helped bring the Cold War Cold War;conclusion to a close. Antinuclear activism
Nuclear weapons;opposition
North Atlantic Treaty Organization;nuclear weapons
Peace activism
[kw]Europeans Demonstrate Against Nuclear Weapons (Oct., 1983)
[kw]Nuclear Weapons, Europeans Demonstrate Against (Oct., 1983)
[kw]Weapons, Europeans Demonstrate Against Nuclear (Oct., 1983)
Antinuclear activism
Nuclear weapons;opposition
North Atlantic Treaty Organization;nuclear weapons
Peace activism
[g]Europe;Oct., 1983: Europeans Demonstrate Against Nuclear Weapons[05260]
[g]Germany;Oct., 1983: Europeans Demonstrate Against Nuclear Weapons[05260]
[g]United Kingdom;Oct., 1983: Europeans Demonstrate Against Nuclear Weapons[05260]
[g]England;Oct., 1983: Europeans Demonstrate Against Nuclear Weapons[05260]
[g]Italy;Oct., 1983: Europeans Demonstrate Against Nuclear Weapons[05260]
[g]Netherlands;Oct., 1983: Europeans Demonstrate Against Nuclear Weapons[05260]
[c]Environmental issues;Oct., 1983: Europeans Demonstrate Against Nuclear Weapons[05260]
[c]Social issues and reform;Oct., 1983: Europeans Demonstrate Against Nuclear Weapons[05260]
Kelly, Petra
Thompson, E. P.
Caldicott, Helen

Western European peace movement activists were members of organizations that could be characterized as Christian, independent-anarchist, communist, social democratic-socialist, or green. Groups organized along occupational lines also played a significant and visible role in the movement. Numerous peace researchers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and other professionals could be found in the front ranks of the campaign. Many of the professionals were prototypical new social movement members: young, highly educated, libertarian, and affluent. Others were older veterans of previous peace, civil rights, environmentalist, and student campaigns.

An especially important overlap existed between peace movement membership of the 1980’s and membership in the antinuclear power and environmental movements of the 1970’s. This overlap occurred for three reasons. First, the values underlying collective action to conserve natural resources, defend unspoiled wilderness, and prevent pollution are by and large the same values that underlie action on behalf of peace and against war. The political cultures of Western democracies had undergone a silent revolution in the 1960’s and 1970’s. This incomplete revolution, marked by demographic, value, and lifestyle changes, affected primarily college-educated baby boomers and culminated in a new value system, postmaterialism. Postmaterialist priorities include intellectual and social freedom and a deep concern for aesthetics and the quality of life. The 1980’s peace movement participants were, and many environmentalists are, postmaterialists.

Second, the activists detected clear connections among war, preparations for war, and environmental degradation. Environmental awareness The U.S. Department of Defense is both the largest user of natural resources in the world (gobbling vast quantities of everything from paper to platinum to plutonium) and the planet’s largest polluter. The polluting tendencies of militaries became especially clear in the wake of the Cold War, as citizens awoke to find thousands of unmarked toxic-waste dumps scattered across the globe, nuclear bomb factories leaking radioactivity into rivers, poison gas canisters buried at sea, decommissioned nuclear warheads with no final resting place, and countless other environmental by-products from decades of unbridled militarism. Activists also noted the direct links between civilian nuclear power and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The countries that developed nuclear weapons after the United States and the Soviet Union did so after building civilian nuclear power programs, in effect drawing on technology developed for military purposes in what were claimed to be “atoms for peace” programs.

Third, the ecological effects that would result from a nuclear war blast, shock wave, fire, radioactive fallout, and ultimately nuclear winter were enough to turn many environmentalists’ attention to questions of war and peace during the first half of the 1980’s.

Other factors that contributed to the rise of the 1980’s peace movements included party failure, widespread fear of war, and the work of political entrepreneurs and preexisting organizations. “Party failure” refers to the inability of political parties to mediate pacifists’ interests, provide genuine electoral and policy alternatives, and shield the populace from the fallout of superpower conflict. Anxiety over the increased likelihood of war was sparked by the deterioration of U.S.-Soviet relations, as reflected in the loose talk and belligerent rhetoric of those nations’ leaders, and by the accelerating nuclear arms race. Several long-lived organizations and dozens of professional political organizers in Western European countries helped to bring the peace movement into being.

The movement’s mobilization was sparked by the December, 1979, NATO decision to deploy 572 intermediate-range nuclear missiles (464 ground-launched cruise missiles and 108 Pershing II missiles) in several European NATO member states. NATO saw the deployment as necessary to balance a buildup of Soviet SS-20 missiles aimed at Western European capitals. The initial surges of protest were also a result of the stirrings of renewed cold war (the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iranian revolution, superpower intervention in Africa) and the readiness of the professional peace lobby in Western Europe to expand its activities. Two more contributing factors included the mobilization potential stimulated by the late-1970’s citizen opposition to the neutron bomb (a tactical nuclear weapon the development of which was canceled by President Jimmy Carter Carter, Jimmy but later resuscitated by the Ronald Reagan Reagan, Ronald administration) and the organizing surrounding early petition drives against the missiles. After forming central decision-making bodies to coordinate their activities, national movements held nonviolent demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of peace and ecology activists across Western Europe during the summer and autumn of 1981.

Ronald Reagan’s October, 1981, statement that a winnable nuclear war limited to Europe was conceivable pushed the movement to a higher level of mobilization. Additional environmentalist, political, and professional groups began to ally themselves publicly with the peace cause; their efforts spawned the June, 1982, anti-Reagan demonstrations in Bonn and Berlin during the annual NATO summit. Missile-friendly politicians were in power throughout Western Europe at the time, and the politics of deployment roiled a number of election campaigns, especially the German parliamentary elections of March, 1983. The movement climaxed with a Continent-wide Action Week, October 15 to 22, 1983, that rallied five million to seven million direct participants.

Most of the national movements began to experience splits along traditional lines following the onset of deployment of the missiles in November, 1983. Church groups backed away from hard-core communists and violence-prone autonomous groups, and environmentalist groups feared co-optation by social democratic elements. Local and regional mobilization continued, nevertheless, on both religious and environmentalist fronts; indeed, the movement’s agenda grew in 1983 to include opposition to Reagan’s ballistic-missile defense program known as the Strategic Defense Initiative Strategic Defense Initiative (the so-called Star Wars program) and to the U.S. invasion of Grenada. Many peace groups had disbanded or returned to their premobilization sizes by the end of 1985.


The Western European peace movement forced political elites to move the peace issue closer to the top of national and international political agendas. One clear result of the movement was that the threat of nuclear destruction, lurking since the 1950’s in Europe, was brought to worldwide attention, with the consequence that something would be done to resolve it.

The 1980’s peace movements provided the impetus for legislative pressure on executives. Reagan admitted that pressure from Congress and the freeze movement for progress in arms negotiations and against an unfettered arms race caused him to give serious consideration to disarmament. U.S. arms control policy regarding intermediate-range nuclear weapons changed in response to peace movement pressure, and the movement emboldened parliamentarians to oppose the arms programs of even popular leaders. The movement also encouraged European executives, especially German chancellors Helmut Schmidt Schmidt, Helmut and Helmut Kohl, Kohl, Helmut to counsel U.S. negotiating concessions in Geneva. Progress in arms control negotiations became an imperative for all NATO governments as a result of the influence of the antimissile movement.

The movement was an effective vehicle for citizen input into national security policy making through public opinion. Poll data showed that the activities of the movement reduced respondents’ fear of the Soviet Union while reducing trust in, or reliance on, the United States. Many observers noted that one consequence of the movement was the democratization of the defense policy debate. Activists concentrated on an area traditionally off-limits to citizen participation. The peace movement extended the political arena for Western European citizens, bringing many into the extraparliamentary sphere for the first time and giving them a voice and the means to make that voice heard.

The peace movement contributed to the breakdown of the Western European nuclear defense consensus and of faith in nuclear deterrence. It also contributed to the downfall of the Schmidt government in Germany in 1982 and helped bring about new power relations and new policy stances in a number of Western European political parties.

Both the German Social Democrats and the British Labour Party altered their security policies to capture the peace vote. The movement redefined the interests of these parties. With the rise of the Greens and other small protest parties that rode to prominence as part of the movement, peace voters had alternatives. Socialist parties could not patronize voters. The new parties hurt the traditional leftist parties at the polling booth, as evidenced by election results throughout Western Europe (with the exception of France) during the early 1980’s.

The peace movement and peace researchers initiated a host of new ideas for defense strategies. Nuclear-free zones (NFZs), nuclear freezes, nonoffensive defense, economic conversion, and other alternative security policy ideas issued from the peace movement throughout the struggle over the missiles. Many of these ideas, which began their life on the policy-making margins and were once considered wildly utopian by those in power, were later endorsed by both NATO and the former Warsaw Pact countries.

The peace movement’s general preference for calculated steps toward unilateral disarmament as a means of de-escalating and reversing the arms race was vindicated by the actual end of the Cold War. The extraordinary unilateral measures and proposals for lopsided concessions made by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev Gorbachev, Mikhail were precisely what the movement envisioned for the West. As it turned out, it was the Soviet Union under the new regime that made concessions after considerable suspicion and resistance from the West (especially the United States) that finally led to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (1987)[Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty] in 1987. These regional moves toward limited weapons development were later overtaken by the collapse of the entire Communist system and rapid progress toward real disarmament under Reagan’s Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) initiative, first proposed early in his first term as president and completed under his successor, President George H. W. Bush, Bush, George H. W.
[p]Bush, George H. W.;U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations] in 1991. START I (1991)[Start 01]

Although the peace movement failed to halt deployment of the NATO missiles in Europe, future nuclear arms modernizations, including the short-range nuclear forces episode of 1987 and 1989, became problematic partly as a result of the influence of the movement. Even after its peak mobilization, the movement cast a shadow over future government policy. This is best exemplified by the wary responses of Western European governments to the Persian Gulf War in 1991. The peace movement remobilized in reaction to the war very quickly, and no European leaders wanted to wage war and face huge protests. As a result of the campaigns of the 1980’s, peace movements and their supporters became common aspects of popular expression in the policy-making process across Europe. Antinuclear activism
Nuclear weapons;opposition
North Atlantic Treaty Organization;nuclear weapons
Peace activism

Further Reading

  • Boggs, Carl. Social Movements and Political Power: Emerging Forms of Radicalism in the West. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986. A lucid and theoretically informed consideration of the rise of new social movements in Western Europe and the United States.
  • Breyman, Steve. Why Movements Matter: The West German Peace Movement and U.S. Arms Control Policy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001. Argues that the European peace movements deserve credit for the close of the Cold War. Their recommendations for denuclearization, disarmament, and disengagement during the early 1980’s became NATO and Soviet policy by the early 1990’s.
  • Carter, April. Peace Movements: International Protest and World Politics Since 1945. New York: Longman, 1992. Brief volume presents a readable survey of the world’s peace movements. Addresses many questions about peace movements.
  • Chatfield, Charles, and Peter van den Dungen, eds. Peace Movements and Political Cultures. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1988. Interesting collection of essays is devoted to assessing whether distinctive political cultures give rise to distinctive peace movements.
  • Dougherty, James E., and Robert L. Pfaltzgraff, Jr. Shattering Europe’s Defense Consensus: The Antinuclear Protest Movement and the Future of NATO. Washington, D.C.: Pergamon-Brassey’s International Defense Publishers, 1985. Highly critical of the European peace movement, the authors defend NATO’s policy during the missile controversy.
  • Gress, David. Peace and Survival: West Germany, the Peace Movement, and European Security. Stanford, Calif.: Institution Press, 1985. Presents a conservative account of the role of the movement in the politics of European security.
  • Inglehart, Ronald. Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Society. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990. The “father of postmaterialism” presents a wealth of data cataloging value change among Western publics since the early 1970’s.
  • Lawson, Kay, and Peter H. Merkl, eds. When Parties Fail: Emerging Alternative Organizations. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988. Fascinating collection of essays discusses the groups that form when people are dissatisfied with political parties.
  • Peterson, Christian. Ronald Reagan and Antinuclear Movements in the United States and Western Europe, 1981-1987. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2003. Focuses on Reagan’s role in nuclear arms control talks and his reaction to the pressure applied by European antinuclear activists.
  • Thompson, E. P. Zero Option. London: Merlin, 1982. Collection of topical essays by one of the most erudite of peace movement thinkers. Skewers official defense thinking and poses genuine alternatives.

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