Nukes, Irony and Catholics

I'm a college student in the early 1980s. Despite lacking the activist gene, I attend several meetings on the subject of the Nuclear Freeze. I purchase ill-fitting t-shirts and hang a (rather dramatic black) poster endorsing the nuclear freeze in my bedroom. I oppose in my feeble way the placement of Pershing Missiles in Europe. I even edge toward the left wing of the already left-wing freeze movement by endorsing a "unilateral" freeze in the production of nuclear weapons by the United States.

Meanwhile, a national conservative movement is in the ascendancy and Ronald Reagan, scornful of the nuclear freeze in all its variants is elected president. Reagan ramps up defense spending, pours billions into a failed "Star Wars" initiative, endorses all sorts of dirty tricks by the CIA in Latin America and other places and proclaims the Soviet Union the "evil empire." I can't stand Reagan.

So who will history remember as the most important figure in the deceleration of the cold war arms race? Ronald Reagan (along with Mikhail Gorbachev.) Reagan and Gorbachev managed to end the nuclear freeze movement, effectively, by negotiating the first actual reduction in nuclear weapons in 1987 at a memorable summit meeting in Iceland. Reagan's dreamy vision of eliminating nuclear weapons was in fact more bold, more effective, than dickering about a freeze.

Now I read that Sam Nunn, George Schultz and Henry Kissinger, of all people, are urging the elimination of all nuclear weapons since nuclear proliferation means the risk of a catastrophic explosion is far greater than any cold-war era deterrent value.

Presumably the American bishops assaulted for their naivete for urging a reduction in nuclear weapons during the 1980s will appreciate the irony. (As will the ghosts of Catholic activists -- ranging from "arch-conservative" Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani to Dorothy Day -- who worked on this issue in the immediate postwar era.) It's yet another marker of how the line between realism and naivete is never as solid as it appears.

John T. McGreevy is the Charles and Jill Fischer Provost at the University of Notre Dame.

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