“Creating a Popular Upswell”
Interview with Robert Musil
Conducted by Lawrence Wittner (State University of New York at Albany) Washington, DC, July 20, 1998
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Robert Musil is a long time leader of the peace, nuclear disarmament, and environmental movement. For a decade from 1978 on Musil worked for the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy’s (SANE) Education Fund and served as the Executive Producer and host of “Consider the Alternatives,” a half-hour weekly radio program syndicated to over 150 stations. In addition, he has produced numerous groundbreaking independent video documentaries and award-winning public radio documentary series. In 1988 he became the Director of the Professionals Coalition for Nuclear Arms Control, which did lobbying for PSR, UCS, and the Lawyers Alliance, and has served as the Executive Director of Physicians for Social Responsibility until 2006. Today, Robert Musil is Scholar in Residence and Adjunct Professor in the School of International Studies at American University, where he teaches in the Nuclear Studies Institute and the Program on Global Environmental Politics.
This 1999 interview is based on Professor Larry Wittner’s notes paraphrasing his conversation with Dr. Musil. Musil details the creation of the “Consider the Alternatives” radio show in 1978, which he sees as a seminal program indicative of the peace movement’s adoption of a “more sophisticated” media strategy. He recalls his experience with various peace movement initiatives and emphasizes the media-based approach’s importance in rallying people around questions of nuclear disarmament. Musil remembers the success of radio and TV programs as well as publicity campaigns in support of anti-nuclear movies like “The Day After,” judging that “a tremendous amount was going on culturally re: the Bomb, creating a popular upswell.”
[The interview was not taped, and this transcript is based upon LW’s notes.]
During the early 1970s, the Vietnam War preoccupied the antiwar and anti-draft movement. As a campus activist, Musil was aware of articles about nuclear issues by I.F. Stone, the ABM fight, etc. Overall, though, the immediacy of the threat of nuclear war was less than that of the Vietnam War.
Musil sensed “renewed interest in the Bomb and disarmament” during his time working for the Center for National Security Studies, when Sidney Lens came in (1975) and asked Musil and [David] Cortright (also working there) what disarmament work was being done by the group. Lens soon afterward wrote about the growing capabilities for a first strike. Ron Young (of the AFSC Peace Education Division) also began to talk about the Bomb in 1975: “The next big thing is disarmament. There is going to be a U.N. Special Session on Disarmament in New York in 1978.”
Cortright became head of SANE in 1977 (after Gottlieb had just left), when it was down to a somewhat moribund mailing list of 7,000. By the end of the Carter years, it was up to about 29,000, with a staff and budget. His first major initiative was working with labor, esp. the Machinists. The focus was on economic conversion, which dealt with the peace dividend (again linked to the war more than to the Bomb). Cortright also formed an early alliance with Jesse Jackson, and helped sponsor a march — with Jackson — in 1980 for Jobs, Peace & Freedom (20,000 participants in Washington, DC). Helped form an alliance with Operation Push and Jackson.
When Cortright met with Jimmy Carter in spring 1980, he reported back that things were worse than we had thought, for Carter was under Brzezinski’s sway.
In 1977 or so, Helen Caldicott came over from Australia — where she’d been organizing protests against uranium mining and French atmospheric nuclear testing — and took a job in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. She initially focused (1978-79) on Seabrook, but moved from that to ND, and thus thought a physicians’ group was needed. At this point, working with Boston med students and doctors, she became aware of PSR’s existence, although she recognized that (in 1979) it was pretty moribund. So PSR was reborn (“revitalized”) and that took the form of pushing for a “nuclear moratorium”. In 1979, she went to the USSR with Everett Mendelsohn (Harvard historian and on AFSC board), and Terry Provance (AFSC disarmament coordinator, formerly B-1 bomber coordinator) to talk about a moratorium. Terry went to a WPC meeting, and his name ended up on a letterhead, and from that his name went to U.S. intelligence and, ultimately, to Reader’s Digest and Ronald Reagan (who denounced the Freeze accordingly). Sen. Hatfield had talked about a moratorium, too. Forsberg’s Call was important in outlining the strategy, but the Freeze came out of a conference in March of 1981 by CALC, AFSC, etc.
Bob Musil worked with Steve Schick on a SANE national radio program for Philadelphia radio stations (started on one local station in 1972), and it grew gradually. They put together the Shadows of the Nuclear Age grant proposal for the NEH and developed a 13-part series (a half hour each), broadcast on 825 stations in the US, plus stations in Canada and Australia. The grant was awarded in the late Carter administration and, then, not renewed subsequently. The rightwing attacked two grants by the NEH, and this was one of them! Meanwhile, SANE’s weekly Consider the Alternatives went from 60 radio stations broadcasting it (in 1978) to some 500 (weekly). In 1981, the Reagan administration succeeded in deregulating radio, and this led to a substantial falling-off of stations that would broadcast CTA. (No longer a need to maintain balanced programming!) Even so, CTA set a precedent for public radio as to ND. It also attracted numerous supporters to the movement, using an “800” phone number and distributing free nuclear disarmament packets to the thousands of persons who requested them. Stewart Mott funded this. A “more sophisticated” media strategy than in the past.
Mott also funded the June 1982 NYC demonstration, which had a consciously “media-driven” strategy, with rock stars, etc. This helped build the event to its unprecedented size. CTA then broadcast the proceedings, the speeches, etc. SANE played an important role in organizing it. Horrible NY coalition meetings, with all sorts of divisions.
There were particularly close links between the US and the British movements. Bruce Kent came to the June 1982 demo to speak. British actresses Julie Christie and Susannah York (active in the British movement) did events for the U.S. movement, as well as interviews in the early 1980s. Greenham Common women also were brought over and toured the US. Musil spent the summer of 1981 interviewing the Greenham Common women, which helped stimulate the Women’s Pentagon Action. CTA reported faithfully on this stuff, in the hopes of sparking more action.
Put all of the Plowshares people on the radio, too. At demos, the Plowshares activists used a discarded missile nosecone as a visual prop.
Aware of “the power of the media,” SANE put 100,000 doorhangers around, publicizing the showing of The Day After (1983). SANE put someone in the audience, wearing a SANE T-shirt, who asked tough questions — helping to break through the stacked panel wall of Kissinger, Shultz, etc.
SANE “initiated and led the MX missile campaign” (organizers: Mike Mawby and Marilyn McNabb) and, ultimately, drew in non-traditional constituencies: Mormons from Utah, ranchers from Wyoming, etc. Eventually an independent campaign, but SANE initiated it.
Growing coalition work in early 1980s: The Monday lobby group brought in new groups (e.g. Common Cause, League of Women Voters, and church groups), who helped to “professionalize” the movement. (The first significant peace movement lobbying was done, toward the end of the Vietnam War, by the beginnings of the group that became the Coalition for a New Foreign and Military Policy, then by the B-1 bomber campaign.) Church denominational groups began to kick in in an institutional way — egged on by Bill Coffin and the Riverside Church disarmament program. The Reformed Hebrew Congregations (Rabbi David Saperstein) also played an important role. All became part of the Monday Lobby Group, which worked on MX, the Freeze, and the CTBT. Thus, even during the Reagan Presidency (“a period when there appeared to be no hope”) there was considerable mobilization.
Working with Rep. Markey, there were large legislative-oriented gatherings around the Freeze. In 1984 (?), there were 5,000 people lobbying for it at one time in Washington. Movement begins to use amendments, floor votes that may not win during the Reagan administration, etc., and enables people to organize around real issues. SANE held ad hoc hearings on N-weapons, N-testing, and N-radiation, in 1984-85 (?) with Markey as the official host and testimony by Navajo uranium miners, downwinders, and people from N-facilities (Hanford, etc.). Recognizing that there were American hibakusha, SANE also invited people who were victims of the nuclear complex attend its award dinners. Meanwhile, Kennedy and Hatch got a bill passed by Congress in 1982 or 1983 to study the health effects of fallout. The peace movement was developing a new strategy around the health effects of N-facilities.
Beginning in 1978, FOR and AFSC commenced a project at the Rocky Flats N-facility (Mike Jendrezyck), working with downwinders, etc. The Paul Jacobs film (Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang), articles in Ramparts, etc. also highlighted the issue of downwinders, who were themselves organizing. The Hanford and Savannah River victims began to talk and to testify. Legislation was introduced to obtain compensation for downwinders and study health effects of fallout. The concerns of “the Three Mile Islands of the world” are now being transferred to the N-weapons complex. So, “if we can’t do arms control and treaties, we can start looking and organizing around the nuclear complex itself.”
The MX missile issue had helped bring in environmental groups, but this accelerated in the late 1980s. By 1988, the Professionals Coalition, PSR, and other groups set up the Plutonium Challenge, a coalition of the Professionals Coalition, PSR, Sierra Club, & NRDC, to shut down the nuclear weapons complex on health and environmental grounds. This strategy — involving publicity, civil disobedience, and lawsuits between 1988 and 1992 — was one of the most important and effective things the movement ever did, for — de facto — it ended the production of N-weapons (by 1992)!
On the culture front, in the 1980s: Through SANE and PSR, developed a film project (the Filmmakers Exchange), bringing 11 “brat pack” young film stars to the Soviet Union in 1986, and did radio and video documentaries (“Hollywood for SANE Redux”). SANE and the Freeze put on 14 simultaneous productions of the anti-N play Handy Dandy. In 1982, preparing for the June 1982 demo, formed PAND (Performers and Artists for Nuclear Disarmament). Worked closely with Colleen Dewhurst, who put on a benefit for SANE and did an original a one-act play on N-issues, organized other actresses and actors. Ed Asner did a series for us on Star Wars that won awards and did radio spots for SANE, as did Colleen Dewhurst. Meryl Streep and others recorded N-Freeze spots. And there were significant fundraisers and other cultural events. Thus, “a tremendous amount was going on culturally re: the Bomb, creating a popular upswell,” even as the Freeze was stalemated in Congress. Not only did Jane Alexander do Testament, “but we put her on the radio, she would come to SANE events, and talk more broadly about disarmament.” In the 1980s, for the first time there were things on TV that made the movement’s case and thus reached popular audiences, and this was an important new development!
From the Reagan administration on, even as the demonstrations declined, there were important developments, perhaps the most important ones. In 1988 approx., the B-2 bomber was secretly developed. The UCS, the Professionals Coalition, and Council for a Livable World succeeded in killing the B-2 bomber program — exposing the plane’s weaknesses, doing radio and TV ads, conducting a lobbying campaign, etc. — cutting it from 132 to 20 bombers. A weapons campaign that kept people involved and won! FAS, UCS, Professionals Coalition, and PSR “stymied Star Wars.” They (and especially SANE) also stopped the MX missile. Thus, even after the movement peaked as a mass phenomenon, it was surprisingly effective.
The CTBT: A Democratic House passed a CTBT resolution in the early 1980s, but it was not taken up elsewhere, “so it essentially died” so the movement turned to N-weapons facilities and the B-2 bomber campaign In 1992, PSR found a freshman Congressman, Mike Kopetsky of Oregon, willing to work with PSR (one of whose leaders was his opthamologist, but which also assisted his election campaign) and willing to introduce a House resolution for a moratorium on N-testing. Worked with him and with Gephardt, where it passed, much to the surprise of many people. A watered-down moratorium resolution (permitting safety testing) then passed the Senate (the Exxon-Mitchell-Hatfield amendment), by a close vote. Thus, the movement succeeded in stopping N-testing (with the loophole for safety testing) even before the Clinton-Gore victory. And after that victory, the movement managed to cut off safety testing and to get the Clinton administration to push for a CTBT by 1996. By 1995, with “a friendly administration,” ND groups were meeting for the first time regularly with the administration, in this case the Clinton administration via the ACDA director, John Holum, “a friend of Bill’s” (i.e. Clinton). The Clinton administration wanted an indefinite extension of the NPT, “we wanted a NPT” and 17 national Washington groups got together and formed a Campaign for the NPT, bringing in centrist think-tanks (Brookings, Stimson Center). Some peace groups didn’t want indefinite extension, for — taking a purist stand — they felt it ratified the N-monopoly. The largest groups worked to get the NPT and developed good working relationships with parts of the Clinton administration — although, of course, there were other parts of the administration (“the Pentagon, the labs”) “who were dead set against all of this”!
Feminism was less divisive than Central America. “Women’s actions were seen as important and good.” SANE was determined to link disarmament with military spending and broader peace issues. Thus, it was determined to act on Central America issues, and did. Staffers added on Central America issues. Participated in coalitions on Central America issues. Jesse Jackson was also a major source of division, for some feared that SANE would become a vehicle to further his Presidential ambitions. And he did receive the SANE peace award at the 1984 SANE national meeting (attended by 800-1,000 people), speak to its national meeting, appear on CTA, etc. And Jackson, serious about a rainbow approach, saw SANE as a group he should work with. As the SANE/Freeze merger neared, there were fears that SANE might be too close to him. The Freeze took a more mainstream approach.
SANE developed a strategy of working on the summits. In 1985, it brought 1.2 million signatures on a CTBT petition (the vast majority generated by SANE) and 200 state resolutions to the Geneva summit. Jackson was invited along as one of the spokespeople, as well as Women for a Meaningful Summit, formed for the occasion. The kickoff was at the Freeze congress — not surprisingly, because Cortright was then working closely with the executive director of the Freeze. Jackson drew most of the coverage, including some bad press. Some people feel he has upstaged and undermined the summit. And that’s where some of this suspicion of Jesse Jackson comes from.
Communism was not as divisive an issue, especially thanks to the New Left past and views of many in the movement. Communists were “minor players, and not terribly important.” At SANE, the leaders thought being called a KGB plot was “a joke,” and they never gave it a moment’s thought. (The KGB plot charge by the administration was based on the fact that pacifist organizers had traveled to the USSR. Pam Solo, in her book, spent a lot of time on this, but Musil didn’t take it seriously.)
SANE — as one of the peace movement NGOs — also went to the Reykjavik summit (e.g. Bob M. was there, handling the international press), and its leaders were interviewed by TV anchorpeople, etc. Sophisticated movement stuff, in 1986, new on the scene. They also made use of the next summit, in Washington, where we brought in children to meet with world leaders. They were given cocoa and chocolates by the Russians, while their roses were dumped in the trash at the White House gate by the Americans, who thereupon drew some chastening remarks in the mass media by the children (one of whom was Bob’s daughter).
The SANE-Freeze merger: These summit conferences, where SANE and the Freeze worked closely together, furthered interest in a merger. But SANE was tightly structured (definite membership, radio programs, 800 numbers for information, etc.), and Cortright was trying to build a strong organization that would “outlive the Reagan outrage.” And the Freeze was very loose, “more anarchistic,” no formal membership, town meetings, large national congresses in which everyone had a say, etc. Therefore, although people went into the merger with “the best of intentions,” it produced a good deal of disorganization, with no one having any real authority. There was also a loss in funding, for funders didn’t want to give to the merged group as much as they gave to both in the past. Thus, the merger brought lack of structure and a significant debt to the new organization, and didn’t live up to expectations. Some of the Freeze people also didn’t trust Cortright, and thought he was too manipulative. Consequently, Cortright, Musil, Mawby and others left. Cortright and Cottam were squeezed out (blamed, in part, and unfairly, for the tailspin of the merged group), though Cortright continued for a time as a development director. Some key staffers moved to the Professionals Coalition; there was turmoil and turnover on the staff. SANE-Freeze rapidly went into decline. Now on the upswing.
Freeze Voter (headed by Chip Reynolds, with a Freeze-PAC developed in 1984) was pragmatic (engaged in “real politics” — real money, real candidates, real victories and defeats at the polls) and, at the time of the merger, thought Cortright and Jesse Jackson “too far out.” Many of the Freeze people were for Paul Simon for President. As a result, they stayed independent through the 1988 election cycle, and then — unable to carry on independently — were absorbed into the Professionals Coalition for Nuclear Arms Control.
Mainstream political allies? Kennedy (“though we had disagreements off and on”), Ed Markey, Pat Schroeder, and Ron Dellums (“always”). Peace people were “disappointed” in Mondale’s limited support for the Freeze and in his campaign. “Felt sold out” by Mondale. Not comparable to enthusiasm for McGovern in 1972.
Can’t think of much US government subversion or attack upon the movement. The major item he knows of is the KGB charge by the Reagan administration — “the intelligence agencies had tracked and then leaked” the early pacifist trip to the Soviet Union. “Less effective in the 1980s,” though, for there were no Senate hearings, etc. “I don’t know how much they were doing to disrupt the movement.”
Musil agrees with Cortright that the administration changed its rhetoric and policy due to the ND movement. And, in fact, in debates before campus audiences, the administration’s rhetorical shift toward “build-down,” missile defense (via Star Wars), and ostensible distaste for N-war did “put a dent” into the strategy of the movement, for it was calling for no more than a Freeze!
Gorbachev met personally with U.S. peace groups at summit conferences. Indeed, at each summit conference, SANE managed to meet with Gorby. At the Moscow summit, “he had a little love fest with Bill Coffin that drove the Washington Post right up the wall.” At Moscow he met with a forum of disarmament people, and Coffin then praised Gorbachev for his unilateral N-testing moratorium. The Washington Post went ballistic over this, claiming that he had undermined U.S. policy. Overall, “Gorbachev seemed to take this stuff seriously . . . and we had other meetings with lesser beings.” The receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize by the IPPNW (in 1985) helped convince Gorbachev that this movement was real and that there were solid, credible people he could deal with.