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How Vermonters Helped End The Cold War

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Message Randolph Holhut

DUMMERSTON, Vt. — Twenty-five years ago this month, something else was on the annual town meeting warrants in Vermont besides school budgets and highways — stopping the spread of nuclear weapons.

An article on the warrant in 192 towns called on Vermont's congressional delegation to urge President Reagan to propose to the Soviet Union a mutual freeze on the testing, production and deployment of new nuclear weapons. It passed in all but 32 of them.

It was a historic vote that many credit with energizing the anti-nuclear movement and helping to speed an end to the Cold War. It was a perfect example of how little towns in a little state can make a big difference in global affairs.

When Reagan took office in 1981, his administration embarked on a massive military buildup and took a more bellicose posture against the Soviets. Talk of "winnable" nuclear wars began to be heard in Washington, raising the level of fear worldwide. And the administration was openly hostile to arms control and disarmament agreements.

The idea of a nuclear freeze predated Reagan. Randall Forsberg came up with the idea in the spring of 1980. Her influential paper, "A Call to Halt The Nuclear Arms Race," and the think tank she founded, the Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies, stemmed from the breakdown of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) between the United States and the Soviet Union and the plans both nations had for developing new weapons.

Forsberg's call for a bilateral, verifiable freeze on new nuclear weapons was picked up later than year by Sen. Alan Cranston, D-Calif., who added her proposal as a amendment to the SALT treaty. In the midst of the Reagan landslide in the 1980 presidential election, three state senate districts in Western Massachusetts voted to endorse the freeze.

In 1981, 18 Vermont towns put a freeze article on their town meeting warrants. The American Friends Service Committee, the Quaker peace group, became one of the key backers of the freeze and launched a campaign to get as many Vermont towns as possible to vote on the measure. The hope was that a show of popular support against heating up the Cold War might convince the Americans and the Russians to back down.

The issue of nuclear war had a particular urgency in Vermont at the time. The Reagan administration had just come up with the Federal Crisis Relocation Plan, which called for Vermont to serve as a reception area for tens of thousands of residents from southern New England fleeing a nuclear attack. Almost no one in Vermont supported that idea.

Town Meeting Day 1982 saw global news coverage of Vermont's stand against nuclear war. About 70 percent of Vermont's towns had gone on record supporting the freeze and the rest of America took notice.

In June 1982, one million people participated in anti-nuclear demonstration in New York's Central Park, the largest peace and disarmament march in U.S. history. Leading religious denominations, unions, professional groups and the Democratic Party all backed the freeze, and public opinion polls showed the freeze had the approval of 70 percent of Americans. Nuclear freeze measures were endorsed by 12 state legislatures, including Vermont, and the voters of nine out 10 states where it was placed on the ballot in 1982.

In Europe, where the Reagan administration wanted to put new intermediate range nuclear missiles, massive demonstrations took place opposing the plan. The public outcry became too big to ignore and by 1984, Reagan began publicly talking about seeking peace with the Soviet Union and moving toward a nuclear-free world. Mikhail Gorbachev became the Soviet leader in 1985 and signaled a willingness to negotiate. Gorbachev and Reagan, pushed hard by global anti-nuclear sentiment, moved quickly toward disarmament and, eventually, a end to the Cold War.

A mass movement supported by a strong majority of Americans helped put the brakes on the Cold War. And the role of Vermont in that movement was considerable. The attention focused on our state and the institution of town meeting in 1982 inspired a resolution passed by more than 50 towns in 2005 calling for a study of the impact of the Iraq war on Vermont, and in 2006 when several towns passed resolutions calling for the impeachment of President Bush.

This year, both impeachment and ending the Iraq war were on town meeting warrants around Vermont, and nearly 40 towns voiced their support. There are those who believe that town meeting is not the place to discuss matters like this. But the matter of a potential nuclear holocaust was of such transcendent importance in 1982 that it deserved to be discussed at town meeting. The same logic applies to impeachment and Iraq.

What Vermont did at town meetings in 2005 and 2006 helped change the national debate over this nation's continued involvement in Iraq and whether the architect of that war should remain in office. It is the power of direct democracy. It is why town meeting remains such an important institution, even when voters are not discussing issues of war and peace. It is why other states look at us wistfully.

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Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 25 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at
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