Interview – Kehler

“Delegitimizing the Arms Race”

Interview with Randall Kehler
Conducted by Lawrence Wittner (State University of New York at Albany) Albany, NY, August 20, 1999
> View as PDF


Randall Kehler is a long time peace activist and served as the first Executive Director of the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign (“Freeze”) for a decade from 1979 on.

In this 1999 interview Kehler details the early history of the Freeze Campaign from a small anti-nuclear organization in 1979 to a movement of national prominence a few years later. He assesses the methods Freeze employed to effectuate change and describes its most useful partners in the anti-nuclear movement.

He critically recalls his impression that Freeze was corrupted by political considerations grounded in Washington’s partisan politics and expresses his frustrations over politically calculated decisions replacing idealistic convictions.  In hindsight he asserts, that, “if I had it to do all over again, I would be much more skeptical, more cautious, and [try] to put the brakes on it.”

In addition to this political engagement, he sees the extensive media attention as a main contributor to the ultimate decline of the movement and believes that “we were set up in a way to fail not only by them pulling us into the political arena in Washington prematurely but the media hype around us was certainly part of the undoing.”

For Kehler the real significance of the Freeze lies in the fact that it led a lot of people to be politically active and  “for a time at least, it made a tremendous contribution to delegitimizing the arms race […]”

Interview Transcript

Background to his ND activism:  “It really goes back to a lecture that was given at Philip Exeter Academy, where I did two years — my eleventh and twelfth — by Hanson Baldwin, the military editor of the New York Times [probably 1960-61]. . . .  Baldwin . . . said, among other things, that, statistically, mathematically, the probability of a nuclear war at the rate things were going . . . happening by 1980 . . . was 100 percent.  And I didn’t have a nervous breakdown, but I had a breakdown of some kind.  I was like paralyzed psychologically; I did not go to classes for the next couple of days.  I wandered by myself up and down the Exeter River . . . and I remember at one point just crying, on the bank of the river, all by myself.  I was not aware that anybody else shared this feeling at all, and I think I ended up talking to my advisor, who was a very wonderful, wise man, and got me through and back.  And, after a while, I put it out of mind and resumed life pretty much as before.  But the seed was planted then. . . .  That was the shadow that hung over my life from then on, and still does, very much so.  

My activism?  Was there a Special Session on Disarmament in `78?  I think I was arrested there.  In fact, I think Dan Berrigan and I sat together on the bus, taken downtown, given our traffic ticket.  And I think that might have been my first anti-nuclear weapons demonstration.  I’d been involved in nuclear power and a lot of Vietnam stuff. . . and had been arrested at Seabrook and involved in a lot of organizing around this huge planned project in Montague, Massachusetts, where Sam Lovejoy knocked over the tower. . . .  In `78, sometime around that demonstration, I had been working at an alternative school in Deerfield, Mass. called the Woolman Hill School — a quasi-Quaker . . . hippie free school, Summerhill model — and the school ended in `78.  And the Quaker board wanted a new thing to happen there.  And Beverly Woodward . . . who I had known for years from the War Resisters League, wanted to start an international center for study of nonviolence there, and asked if I would help her do it.  She was in Boston, I was right there.  And . . . we . . . somewhat hijacked her idea.  She wanted it to be a center for nonviolence, focused on nonviolence in the broadest possible way, and we thought that was too all over the map and we wanted to focus more specifically.  We wanted nonviolence to be our philosophic orientation, but we wanted to focus on the nuclear arms race.  And this was . . . three or four of us. . . .  So we set up the Traprock Peace Center, and we decided the focus was nuclear arms.  And then we weren’t sure quite how to approach it.  What were we going to do? . . .  What was the program?

I hadn’t heard of Randy Forsberg or any of her work.  But a friend of mine was friends with Jim Wallis at Sojourners.  And they had been talking to Hatfield about this moratorium idea as an alternative to the SALT treaty and something that people could understand and be more incisive and more meaningful and more dramatic, dadadada.  And Jim and his buddies . . . weren’t really working with Randy.  It was almost like two parallel tracks.  So Jim came to Traprock Peace Center with this other fellow [ ? ], and they told us about this new idea of a moratorium and their meetings with Hatfield, and how they’d got to know Hatfield from the prayer breakfasts . . . since Hatfield is a Christian and went to these prayer breakfasts.  And we on our part were experienced at putting things on the local ballot.  In Massachusetts, you can put a non-binding question on the ballot with relatively few signatures in one Representative district for which you need 200 signatures only, or a State Senate district where you may need 1,200. . . .  And we were experienced at doing that for nuclear power issues, and other issues.  We had found it to be the most effective way we knew of of really getting out there talking to people, getting their attention, getting some press attention — after all, it’s going to be on the ballot, it going to be voted on. . . .  So right there, while Jim was there, we concocted the idea of putting this moratorium idea on the ballot in western Massachusetts. . . .

That was December of `79.  We had started the Traprock Peace Center and opened the doors in September. . . .  And then some time — maybe the next summer [1980] — somebody put me in touch with Randy Forsberg.  And I realized she was convening this big meeting down by the UN, at 777 UN Plaza, . . . and it was a meeting to talk about how to advance this idea of the moratorium.  I’ve forgotten at what point it became the Freeze. . . .  I went to the meeting, and there were representatives from all the usual peace and disarmament groups and some others — a lot of religious groups.  It was mostly peace groups. . . .  I would say there were at least 50 people there.  And we realized –Frances Crowe and I went from Western Mass.; she was head of the western Mass. AFSC for many years — that while they were all talking about this idea, we were the only ones organizing around it, anywhere!  And, furthermore, that it was going to be on the ballot, and we sort of came back feeling:  `Holy shit.  We better win that ballot question!’  I mean, if there’s going to be a whole thing, which all these people are talking about launching, whether they like it or not we are now locked into a ballot initiative campaign, and we want to show that this idea is popular and not give it a black mark from Jump Street [?].  So that really set us on fire.  And we then went into really high gear and won the ballot initiative.”

Asked about anything done by the Reagan administration to influence, infiltrate, or disrupt the NWFC, RK replied:  “Well, they certainly tried to disrupt, but not necessarily on the spot, by this whole business about the KGB.  Maybe disrupt is the wrong word; discredit is the more [ ? ] word.  And . . . there were certainly strong suggestions, if not evidence, that they did have people attending our conferences.  So the KGB thing was the only thing that I’m really aware of. . . .  The Reader’s Digest stuff. . . .  And . . . they had their own internal investigation conducted by the FBI, in fact, as well as a Congressional investigation, and neither turned up a shred of evidence to support this claim.  And the results of these investigations, as I recall, were made public.  And, of course, Reagan continued to say the same thing.  It didn’t matter to him!  The facts be damned!”

Asked about the alliance between the Freeze and leaders of the Democratic Party, RK replied:  “There was certainly no official alliance” and there was, RK thinks, some sort of “escape clause” in the Freeze statement in the Democratic platform of 1984.  “What I remember is just the general nervousness that many of us felt that this thing had been essentially boarded, if not taken over, by those Democrats.  Kennedy’s office was just always leaning, leaning, leaning very hard on us about when was the right time to do this, or that, trying to get us to adapt to their sense of political reality in Washington, and political timing.  And say this, but don’t say that, go for this, don’t go for that.  It was not a comfortable feeling.  Although, at the same time, initially, of course, we were guardedly but still . . . elated that these big name politicians were jumping on it.  If I had it to do all over again, I would be much more skeptical, more cautious, and tried to put the brakes on it.  In fact, I don’t know if that would have been possible.  We had this whole initial strategy about not going to Washington in a serious way until we had built a grassroots base.  We were set up in a way to fail not only by them pulling us into the political arena in Washington prematurely but the media hype around us was certainly part of the undoing, I think.  In early `82, the Freeze was on the cover of Time and Newsweek — it was this big deal — and we were just built up bigger than life.  We knew that this was thin on the ground; it was widespread, but a mile wide and an inch deep!  And what always bothered me was — especially as someone who had come out of the War Resisters League, nonviolent direct action, Gandhian part of the peace movement and spent time in prison myself during the Vietnam War — I was really aware that most of the people who were signed on to this were working and coming to meetings and whatnot were comfortable, middle class people who probably, when push came to shove, it wasn’t clear whether they were going to go back home and do something else.  

And Randy Forsberg and I had one very, very eerie interview with a State Department guy. . . .  She and I were doing some things in Washington together . . . it could have been late `81, it was just after the first big Euromissile demonstrations in Europe . . . and this guy, who was very bright and obviously perceived of himself as a scholar of sorts — his office was lined with books, he smoked a pipe, and he was sort of one of those academy types almost.  We asked him, in so many words, what he thought of all these demonstrations in Europe. . . .  And we didn’t divulge our hand [i.e. didn’t discuss their Freeze campaign plans]. . . .  And he leaned back in his chair and said:  `It’s not a concern to us.  We’ve seen these things come and go.  These are middle class people.  They’re comfortable.  They’ll make a big protest when they go home.  But, when push comes to shove, they’re not ready to put their bodies on the line.’  He said:  `History shows that, if governments have the patience to wait these things out, the protesters never follow through.’  And Randy and I both looked at each other with this cold, steely look, like:  `You son of a bitch.  Wait a year or two.  See what we’re cooking up!’  But, I don’t know about Randy, but inside of me there was also a feeling that there was truth to what this guy had said — not absolute truth, but some truth — and that that was part of what we were up against.”  [RK doesn’t think that was Richard Burt.  Randy F. would probably remember who it was.]

Returning to the issue of support by Mondale and the Democrats:  “I think for sure I had mixed feelings.  I remember a meeting with Mondale. . . .  There was a whole group of leaders of the peace and disarmament movement; David Cortright was there.  Cortright and I did a fair amount of the talking, because we were perceived as the heads of the two largest groups.  And I remember walking out of there feeling like Mondale was not going to make a thing out of it.  He was going to hedge and, if he mentioned it, it would be in watered-down fashion.  And I can’t remember what he really did, but he was certainly a disappointment.  And that’s where we got excited for a while that Cranston was interested in being the Freeze banner-holder. . . .  As long as it became the Democratic thing, we couldn’t see much possibility in the near future of it being bipartisan.  And, if it’s not going to be bipartisan, and you don’t have a Democratic President, where is it going to go politically?  And, so, it may be that my feelings weren’t as mixed as I said at first, but that I and all of us felt:  `Oh my God, now they’ve really coopted it.  The Republicans by definition will never go near it, and we’re going to be stuck not only with a one-party backing but weak one-party backing!  

We also realized early on that a lot of these people that Kennedy brought into the initial announcement, when the Freeze really went big and he introduced his resolution and he had all these luminaries signed on.  I, at least, and I think most of us in our naiveté felt that, if they signed on publicly, they believed it. . . .  And, only later, when we tried to get these guys to do something, and so few of them besides Warnke and Colby, our two staples, they would say:  `We didn’t really believe in that!’  They were absolutely frank, some of them.  That was just a way to beat Reagan over the head.  That’s politics.  You don’t have to really think it’s a good idea to sign on to something.  You just have to make sure it’s not what the other people want. . . .  I’m thinking . . . about . . . the George Balls, . . . the former ambassador to this and that, ex-State Department, ex-Pentagon type of people that he had clout with.  And, no doubt, a lot of the members of the Senate that signed on to that initial resolution didn’t really. . . .  And the same in the House.  The irony of having us having the Freeze defended by Les Aspin.  He told me straight out.  We once had this long, almost really one-on-one debate and argument that went, it seemed, for a couple of hours late one night somewhere in the Capitol building.  And I was just horrified that he was our floor leader and he was saying that he didn’t really support it.  But he was appointed floor leader and he was going to do his best to get some form of it passed.  So this is like these body blows to these true believers like us.  `Oh, God, you’re our allies!’ . . .  On one occasion . . . I said:  `Can’t you see that we pursuing this nuclear arms race are in a race to the edge of the cliff, and we’re going to go over?’  And he said:  `No, that’s not how I see it.  I see it as a race parallel to the cliff.  We’re on the edge, but we’re running parallel to it, not toward the edge.’ . . .  He really felt we did need to retain a nuclear advantage.”

Asked about impact upon government officials, RK said:  “Many of us assumed that Star Wars came out of their discussions about how to counter the Freeze.  I’m not saying it wouldn’t have come in some form at some point anyway.  But it certainly seemed to us — and it certainly had the effect — I don’t think anything blunted our forward momentum as much as Star Wars.  It didn’t totally stop us, but it certainly was a huge thing that was hard to deal with.  I personally always felt, also, or suspected . . . .  There was the KAL 007, and one of the first things I did when I left the Freeze campaign at the end of `84, early `85, was I hooked up with a guy named John Keppel [?] . . . a former State Department official who was in Moscow when the U-2 incident happened.  And he knew about the lying that went on.  And he was part of the lying, in fact. . . .  And he never felt good about it.  So when the KAL 007 happened, this extraordinarily bright guy . . . smelled a rat at the beginning and then devoted the next ten or fifteen years of his life to proving that the KAL 007 was not what they said it was.  His theory was not so much that it was used to discredit the Freeze, but it certainly had that effect, to some extent.  `How could you trust the Russians?’  That was one possible motivation for cooking up the KAL 007.  And the other thing was . . . what Keppel was more focused on, which was that they felt they needed to turn on Soviet radar systems.  They had this new, huge radar complex in Krasnoyarsk, and they had already had these other incidents where civilian planes had triggered stuff. . . .  And so they thought, if worse comes to worse, if this plane doesn’t get back out of the air space in time, OK so they bring it down, and search the plane. . . .  They didn’t bank on the fact that they had these Korean pilots who were almost out of the air space and determined not to have to go down.  And so they got shot down.  So I worked on that with Keppel and tried to organize agitation in the districts of the members of Congress who could have investigated it.”

Asked how seriously at that time he thought Reagan was about arms control, RK replied:  “In those years, in the early `80s, I never thought he was serious in the slightest.  There wasn’t any evidence.  His loose language and his funding of more nuclear weapons [were signs?] that he didn’t want to do anything else except to win the nuclear arms race.  Later on, as he was getting into the Reykjavik era,” there was “softening a bit.  It occurred to me that maybe he had learned a thing or two, maybe he was sincere . . . in his own way, going as far as he felt he could, for a mixture of motives.  But in the early years, no.”

Asked if he viewed Reagan as sincere when he said SDI would be an alternative to MAD, RK said:  “I viewed him as so gullible that he may well have believed it.  But I didn’t know, and I didn’t care much whether he believed it or not.  I think Teller did a snow job on him, and Teller is a very bright, persuasive guy.  So it wouldn’t have been hard to convince him.  And I think Teller believed it.”

Asked about the influence of the ND campaign on Gorbachev, RK responded:  “I have no idea. . . . .   The closest I came [to meeting him] . . . was meeting with the part of the Soviet delegation to the U.N. one time. . . .  We met with these guys who were very welcoming, very forthcoming — almost eerily so.  If I squint a little bit, I could say these guys are part of the Freeze campaign.  And then we went from there over to try to talk to U.S. people. . . .  We were delivering our 2.3 million signatures. . . .  We got the warmest kind of welcome in one place and got completely snubbed in the U.S. place.  All our indications were that they were willing — and even on record somewhere, somehow . . . that they would agree to a freeze if one were proposed.”

Asked which ND and peace groups the Freeze campaign found most helpful in the U.S., RK replied:  “Early on, I don’t think any group did as much to advance the Freeze as the American Friends Service Committee.  They really got on board early and every single one of their offices around the country helped birth a municipal or potentially statewide Freeze campaign — that they then set free and became its own entity, separate from AFSC. . . .  I think FOR probably was” — forgets!  Clergy and Laity was “very supportive — maybe they come in near the top.  And also the Coalition for a New Foreign and Military Policy, which was mostly Washington-based but had lots of religious groups as part of that. . . .  We had a somewhat [summit?] battle with them because, while they were very supportive, they didn’t understand why the Freeze just didn’t become housed in their office, under their umbrella.  And we thought about it a lot. . . .  But it just became clear as this thing grew by leaps and bounds that we couldn’t fit under anybody else’s roof. . . .  The WRL was not [supportive].  Not only was it not pacifism, but he [McReynolds] bristled at the fact that three of the early leaders of it — namely myself, Mike Jendreczek, and Steve Ladd (out on the West Coast) — were all WRLers, damnit!  Which showed we weren’t really very good WRLers!  In fact, he wrote a fundraising letter — at least one — trying to raise money by saying they were the only peace group that hadn’t caved to the liberal Freeze approach to disarmament. . . .  The irony is that local WRL chapters. . . .  [Side 1 of tape ends here].

Mobilization for Survival was “very supportive. . . .  But they, I think, were never happy with our focus exclusively on the Freeze. . . .  They thought the Freeze was all right, but as long as we also made clear it was only a first step toward total nuclear disarmament.  I think eventually we did make that clear.  But then they also wanted us to be constantly linking it to anti-intervention, economic stuff, and essentially take up their platform.  I don’t think they gave us a huge, hard time, but . . . I think they saw themselves, like the League [WRL], as more radical, and they were.”

Asked if he ever met with Reagan or other high-level US government officials, RK responded:  “I certainly never met with anyone.  There was a point at which we assembled what we thought was a delegation that Reagan couldn’t not meet with.  It must have been in `82 [though `it could have been early `83′].  The big demonstration had happened, we had had all those referenda all across the country in the fall of `82 — one third of the entire population of the United States all voting in the largest de facto national referendum ever held — and all these cities and states passing it.  So we assembled the most prestigious delegation we could and sent a letter and tried to get. . . .  And they totally rebuffed it.  They really wouldn’t even answer.  It was so rude and crude.  They ignored us completely. . . .  They didn’t even acknowledge the request.  I don’t think so.  It just fell on deaf ears. . . .  Why we didn’t exploit their lack of response in the press I can’t remember. . . .  Maybe we tried to and it wasn’t picked up. . . .

The Wall Street Journal kept referring to the Freeze as `the unilateral Freeze.’  And then we filed a grievance with . . . the ethics commission within the journalism profession. . . .  They did an investigation, and they really were quite thorough.  They asked us for documents. . . .  And we were saying:  `Every time we used the word Freeze we always referred to a bilateral Freeze.’ . . .  And they came out with an absolutely clear condemnation of the Wall Street Journal.  And so we were really happy and we took the summary of their final report and did a press release. . . .  Nobody carried it.  It went nowhere.”

Asked about the Freeze’s relationship with the WPC and the USPC, RK responded:  “There was always a division within the leadership of the Freeze around how to deal with the Soviet Union in general.  There was one faction that was pretty much led by Pam Solo and Mike Jendreczek that felt very strongly that we should be on the side of dissidents and human rights people and not be cozying up to oppressors. . . .  Then there was another faction that came out of the more hardcore Left and even some remaining members of the Old Left that [felt] that these were almost our allies and that we should resist at all costs any kind of capitulation to Red-baiting or fears that we would be Red-baiting and for us to stay clear of this U.S. Peace Council would be a capitulation and all that.  One of the strongest advocates of that position who was just very strident about it was Jesse Prosten, who was the former vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers. . . .  He’s died now since.  He was a genuine Old Leftist and probably a Communist earlier — maybe still a Communist, I don’t know.  But he adopted me at one point, in a very fatherly way.  He was very active on our committees.  And then he just went berserk when the likes of Pam Solo and Mike Jendreczek were trying to get the Freeze representatives, for example, to visit dissidents when they went over to the Soviet Union or speak out on their behalf. . . .

I remember meeting with people from the Peace Council.  And I just felt we needed to be open to everybody, but they didn’t have much to offer, they didn’t have many ground troops.  So I didn’t want to shun them, but I didn’t want to spend much time on them.  And I was aware that they could be a political liability.  We were going through the whole KGB-Reader’s Digest monkey business. . . .  We didn’t stay clear [of them], but there was nothing to cooperate on.  There may have been things they wished we would do with them that we didn’t.  But it’s not like they were some big golden opportunity that we passed down because we were afraid.  What did they have to offer?  They came to a lot of our meetings.  They sent a representative. . . .  And then there was an African-American guy, Acie Byrd, who everybody said was really essentially undercover for those folks. . . .  He stayed with the whole thing for a long time. . . .  He was a funny guy.  I could never figure out where Acie was coming from.  But I didn’t spend time worrying about things like that.”

In fact, there were Freeze contacts with Soviet dissidents.  But “not extensively, if only because . . . we didn’t do much traveling.  Mike and Pam did more. . . .  So this was like their personal agenda, and they did that.  To what extent they did that in the name of the Freeze, I don’t know.  But it wasn’t extensive, and I don’t think it was a big deal one way or another.”

Asked about Freeze contacts with European and Asian ND campaigns, RK responded:  “Almost none with Asian, which would have been Japan. . . .  Very little” with New Zealand and Australia, but doesn’t really remember.  “And, with the Europeans, we had good relations with END.”  E.P. Thompson “was very much in our corner, as was Mary Kaldor.  On the continent the Freeze was heavily criticized by people for not making getting rid of the Euromissiles a higher priority.  Their notion was:  `Look, in terms of the American peace movement, you’re it.  There’s nothing to compare to you.  And, if not you, who?’  I remember Pam and Mike wanted us very much to just launch full-scale into stopping those missiles.  I remember I resisted that.  We eventually worked out a position that included calling for a halt to them.  But it was in a larger context.  And we tried to keep on a bilateral disarmament track for the most part and not become just another unilateral U.S. peace group.  We thought our whole base of support, our whole credibility, was based on something else.  And I remember having lots of arguments with Pam and Mike about this.  

I went over and spoke at — Cora and Mike and Pam and I were all over at a meeting outside of Paris one time, in `82 or `83.  And I spoke on another occasion at this big, huge rally in the Hague, with half a million people.  I was the one American peace movement speaker.  I always felt that we were only partially embraced by our colleagues.  Mient Jan [Faber] and I had lots of verbal sparring, in a friendly way.  As far as he was concerned, that was the only battle there was. . . .  It was all very friendly, and on personal terms we liked each other.  But it was a little chilly in other ways.  In some ways, Mary Kaldor was the bridge, because she was very close to Mient Jan.  But she was also, I think, very supportive of us.”

The British Freeze campaign:  “I was working closely with the guy who was consulting me weekly to get the British Freeze started.  I’ve forgotten his name. . . .  He came over to the U.S., and I liked the guy, and I really tried to help him out.  I liked a lot of the early stuff they did — very innovative and creative stuff that we ourselves could have learned from.  But it didn’t really take” in Britain.

“If someone had said to me:  `What can you say that the Freeze accomplished?’  I’ve often asked that.  And I’d certainly say:  `Well, there’s no question that the Freeze did not bring about a Freeze.  We did not stop the nuclear arms race and, in fact, the danger today is still very great. . . .  But, for a time at least, it made a tremendous contribution to delegitimizing the arms race.  And, linked to that, delegitimizing the notion of the nuclear priesthood — that there’s only certain people, who have a right to. . . .  It brought a lot of people into the debate. . . .  And . . . the Freeze brought a lot of people into political action that had never been into it before — thousands, all over the country, and I run into them all the time, everywhere I go.  For the last eleven years, I’ve been working on campaign finance.  And it’s amazing how many parallels there are with the Freeze movement.  And a number of us from the Freeze movement are very involved in it. . . .  We’re working with groups in 40 states to essentially abolish privately financed elections. . . .  David Keppel, the son of the guy who was the KAL 007 guy who was one of our key . . . national strategists in the Freeze, always used to say:  `If nothing else, the Freeze is a tremendously important and exciting exercise in grassroots democracy.’  So that side of it leaves me with sort of a warm glow, even though on the policy side I haven’t been aware of having made much dent.”