"[Arms Control Today] has become indispensable! I think it is the combination of the critical period we are in and the quality of the product. I found myself reading the May issue from cover to cover."

– Frank von Hippel
Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
June 1, 2018
In Memoriam: Edward M. Kennedy (1932-2009)

Christopher Paine

With the recent passing of Edward Moore Kennedy, the arms control community has lost its longest-serving and most stalwart champion in the U.S. Senate. Although he sponsored and supported numerous arms control efforts, including the nuclear freeze resolution, that influenced U.S. policy, the Massachusetts Democrat never fancied himself a nuclear arms control “expert.” The dehumanizing arms control lexicon of force exchange ratios, throw weights, and strategic stability held no appeal for him. He left mastery of this arcane discipline to others, recognizing it for what it was—at best a temporary mechanism for containing the frightening risks and soaring costs of the nuclear arms race, at worst a lulling deception that ignored the mounting dangers of the world’s nuclear predicament. Kennedy knew full well that the nuclear strategists and weapons scientists did not have the answers and that it was the task of political leaders to find a way to bridge the Cold War divide and set the world on a saner path toward nuclear disarmament.

His basic approach to arms control was political, not technical, and grounded in his fundamental conceptions of morality, our common humanity, and common sense. The touchstone of his abiding commitment to nuclear arms control, a treaty outlawing all nuclear tests, was itself an unfinished inheritance from his older brother, President John F. Kennedy. President Kennedy’s pivotal speech at American University in June 1963, announcing that he was turning away from confrontation with the U.S.S.R. and sending Averell Harriman, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, to Moscow to negotiate a test ban, was a canonical text in the senator’s office and encapsulates the younger Kennedy’s own approach to controlling nuclear arms:

[W]e are both devoting massive sums of money to weapons that could be better devoted to combat ignorance, poverty, and disease. We are both caught up in a vicious and dangerous cycle, with suspicion on one side breeding suspicion on the other, and new weapons begetting counter-weapons. In short, both the United States and its allies, and the Soviet Union and its allies, have a mutually deep interest in a just and genuine peace and in halting the arms race. Agreements to this end are in the interests of the Soviet Union as well as ours. And even the most hostile nations can be relied upon to accept and keep those treaty obligations, and only those treaty obligations, which are in their own interest. So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.

Early Days

Drawing on the same Harvard-Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) brain trust that had influenced President Kennedy’s turn toward arms control after the near-apocalyptic confrontation of the Cuban missile crisis, as a young senator in the 1960s and early 1970s, Senator Kennedy supported ratification of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT); opposed deployment of the Sentinel and Safeguard anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems; supported the amendment by his Republican colleague from Massachusetts, Senator Edward Brooke, to bar flight testing of multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs); and supported the ABM Treaty and the Interim Agreement on Strategic Arms (SALT I).

In 1974, he sought to advance a test ban treaty by traveling to Moscow. He sat down with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and presented point by point the elements of a draft agreement banning all nuclear tests.

In the late 1970s, Kennedy opposed development and procurement of the B-1 bomber and supported the Carter administration’s efforts to negotiate a SALT II agreement and a test ban treaty, but it was a dispiriting time. The quest for a test ban was being undermined by senior members of President Jimmy Carter’s own national security team, and a leading Democrat, Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson (Wash.), was spearheading the attack on SALT II.

Although Kennedy was, as always, a supporter of the pro-arms control position in these debates, he did not lead them. One possible reason is that SALT II, attacked from the right for its failure to reduce the Soviet Union’s “destabilizing” heavy ICBMs, had failed to rouse much enthusiasm among progressives on the left. The treaty was carefully wrapped around the continuing nuclear weapons modernization programs of both sides. Even some arms controllers were asking themselves whether the desire to gain leverage in the talks had become a perverse rationale for ever more dangerous and costly weapons “modernization,” which now threatened to overwhelm whatever slender benefits for world peace could still be eked out of the process. Carter’s nuclear war-fighting Presidential Directive 59 and his administration’s approval of a delusional, absurdly costly, and environmentally disastrous racetrack basing mode for the MX missile further alienated Kennedy from a president he was already leaning toward challenging on other grounds.

Although his quest for the presidential nomination failed, Kennedy’s style of political arms control leadership came into its own in the early 1980s, when the establishment arms control consensus, severely strained by the battle over SALT II, fell apart following the election of Ronald Reagan as president. Reagan had opposed negotiation and ratification of every nuclear arms control agreement ever entered into by the United States, including even the NPT. Reagan’s election seemed to suggest that a majority of Americans wanted a more muscular foreign policy. They got more than they voted for: loose talk from administration officials of “nuclear warning shots” and “prevailing with pride” in a “protracted” nuclear war; inane assurances that “with enough shovels, everyone’s going to make it”; large budget increases for nuclear weapons; and a prolonged 18-month stall in renewing any sort of arms control dialogue with the Soviet Union.

The Rise of the Nuclear Freeze

Traveling around their home states of Massachusetts and Oregon during the congressional winter break of 1981-1982, Kennedy and Republican colleague Senator Mark Hatfield were both struck by their constituents’ interest, in the midst of the hardships prompted by the Reagan budget cuts and an economic downturn, in talking about the threat of nuclear war and whether the senators would support a “nuclear freeze” with the Soviet Union on the testing, production, and deployment of nuclear warheads and delivery systems.

“We heard from people at every stop who knew about the nuclear freeze proposal and wanted us to support it. ‘Why not?’ they asked. We found that question difficult to answer,” Kennedy and Hatfield later wrote in their book promoting the freeze proposal. It was their first real encounter with a grassroots campaign that had been percolating for two years in town halls and churches across America but had actually begun before the November 1980 election in Kennedy’s own backyard with a successful ballot initiative in three western Massachusetts state senate districts. Ignored by the press at the time, 30 of the 33 towns in these districts that voted for Reagan had also passed the freeze, suggesting that something more was at work than normal moral-witness politics practiced by ban-the-bomb activists. Exemplifying the complex and unpredictable interplay between leaders and led in a genuine democracy, the western Massachusetts referendum had actually been inspired by an obscure “strategic weapons freeze” amendment that Hatfield offered in 1979 during debate over SALT II.

A genuinely heightened concern about the threat of nuclear war was spreading in the United States, and it seemed to be transcending the political and party divisions that marked other issues. Kennedy and Hatfield noted later in their book about the freeze that by the time the Senate reconvened at the end of January 1982, they were convinced that “a new arms control initiative was needed to offer leadership in Congress and respond to the growing public concern.”

Representative Edward Markey (D-Mass.), then a four-term congressman from a working-class suburban district north of Boston, had come independently to similar conclusions and had already introduced a “sense of Congress” resolution in the House based directly on a widely disseminated document, “Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race.” This was the handiwork of another Massachusetts resident, Randall Forsberg, an MIT defense policy graduate student who had been crisscrossing the country for the past year speaking passionately about the need for citizens to step up and demand a halt to the arms race. Markey only had 28 co-sponsors, however, all of them liberals, and he readily agreed to join forces with Kennedy by introducing S. J. Res. 163, the “Kennedy-Hatfield Freeze Resolution,” in the House, with Rep. Silvio Conte, a western Massachusetts Republican, as the lead co-sponsor (H. J. Res. 434, the “Conte-Markey-Bingham Resolution”).[1]

The National Freeze Campaign had pressed Kennedy to follow the simple wording of its “Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race.” Although he was sympathetic to this view, Kennedy wanted a resolution that would go beyond merely echoing the campaign’s demands. He wanted to expand the base of support for the freeze concept to include professional arms controllers and former national security officials, people who could lend the proposal the stature and flexibility it would need to survive the shooting gallery of Washington political debate and national media scrutiny.

The quick move into the national legislative arena was not universally welcomed by grassroots freeze activists, who wanted to build a more extensive base among the grassroots before mounting an assault on Washington. Kennedy, however, knew some things that many of the younger activists did not: Because the political arena is inherently unpredictable and the opportunities for progress are fleeting, you have to go with the political tide when it is running in your direction. You have to go as far as you can before it ebbs, which it inevitably will. Kennedy crafted a freeze resolution that preserved all the basic aims of the “Call to Halt” but cast them in a way that official Washington could understand and accept.

Kennedy’s bold and wholehearted adoption of the freeze, his refinement of the concept in consultation with sympathetic experts, his unmatched network of contacts, and the organizational capabilities of his staff quickly catapulted the freeze concept to a new level of national prominence. Douglas Waller, a Markey aide who played a key role in the battle for the freeze resolution in the House, records in his 1987 book Congress and the Nuclear Freeze that, by March 10, 1982, the day the freeze resolution was introduced in the Senate, “the list of Kennedy-Hatfield freeze backers read like a who’s who from every walk of American life—from Clark Clifford to General James Gavin to George Kennan to Coretta Scott King to Paul Newman to Carl Sagan to Lester Thurow to Billy Graham.… The resolution was not merely introduced in Congress; it was launched as a national political issue.”

On the stage to speak on behalf of the freeze at AmericanUniversity, picked for its symbolic connection to President Kennedy’s path-breaking speech 19 years earlier, were the presidents of the National Council of Churches and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Harriman, and the former director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Paul Warnke. Less than two weeks after the introduction of the resolution, the Kennedy juggernaut had organized, in Waller’s words, a “media-rich” forum in which “Hiroshima survivors and religious leaders were called in to testify to the horrors of nuclear war and the immorality of the nuclear arms race” and “a panel of defense and foreign policy experts pronounced the freeze sound arms control policy.”

By mid-April, Bantam Books had released a 267-page Kennedy-Hatfield mass market paperback, Freeze! How You Can Help Prevent Nuclear War, that conveyed the essential facts about global nuclear arsenals, the devastating consequences of nuclear attacks, the Reagan administration’s dangerous nuclear doctrine and costly buildup, the case for a nuclear freeze, and how to become a citizen freeze activist. An appendix listing prominent endorsers of the resolution as of late March 1982 already ran 25 pages of small type. One measure of what we have lost with Kennedy’s passing is that nothing like this astonishing effort on behalf of nuclear disarmament has ever been attempted, much less achieved, by another U.S. politician before or since.

After 14 months and three extended debates on the House floor—the longest debate over a nuclear arms issue in U.S. history—a much-amended freeze resolution finally passed the House in May 1983. Although he knew it would go down in the Republican-controlled Senate, Kennedy offered his freeze resolution in late October 1983 as a rider to a Senate bill to increase the federal debt ceiling. It failed by a vote of 40 to 58, but he wanted the vote anyway to put senators on record going in to the November 1984 election. This was the final act of the freeze movement on the national political stage. Thousands of “freeze voter” campaign volunteers were credited with providing the margin of victory in about a dozen close House and Senate contests in which nuclear freeze proponents won the election.

The real impacts of the freeze were more diffuse and longer lasting. Its wide public appeal and support in Congress stood as a decisive rebuke of Reagan’s initial quest for nuclear superiority, and the protracted debate it provoked in the House mobilized and educated a core of activist members who went on to battle the Reagan and Bush administrations through the 1980s on other arms control issues, such as the “Star Wars” missile defense plan, procurement of MX missiles and B-2 bombers, testing of anti-satellite weapons, and ending underground nuclear tests.

In response to the shift in public mood and expectations, Reagan was compelled to tone down his calls for nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union, and he even dropped hints during his re-election campaign that his second term would not be as bereft of nuclear arms control accomplishments as the first. In March 1985, arms control talks resumed; and soon, Reagan was off to Geneva for his first summit with a Soviet leader, who fortuitously happened to be Mikhail Gorbachev, someone quite different from his Soviet predecessors. Although Kennedy’s policy disagreements with Reagan were varied and vast, they had a friendly personal relationship; and in 1986, with Reagan’s blessing, Kennedy traveled to Moscow, meeting with Gorbachev and serving as a go-between on arms control issues.

The political struggle to restore, deepen, and extend arms control beyond mere efforts to stabilize the nuclear balance did not end with the demise of the freeze movement after the 1984 election. Kennedy continued throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s to push the envelope of nuclear arms control, assisting U.S.-Soviet citizen-scientist arms control initiatives that helped bring an end to the Cold War, successfully fighting a costly government project to resume production of weapon-grade plutonium using laser isotope separation, pressing for an immediate bilateral agreement ending U.S. and Soviet fissile material production for weapons, and laying the political and technical groundwork for a legislated moratorium on U.S. nuclear test explosions. In the fall of 1992, Congress finally adopted that moratorium, which continues to this day.

His work on the nuclear freeze, however, most vividly showed Kennedy’s ability to apply his political gifts to arms control. Among his Senate peers, Kennedy was unique in perceiving the necessity of a Washington insider-grassroots alliance that would work together to blunt the dangerous lurch toward nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. Only now, with access to previously secret Soviet archives, are we fully able to appreciate how acutely fearful the aging, insular Soviet leadership had become of a pre-emptive U.S. nuclear attack during Reagan’s first term, and thus how close the world came to inadvertent nuclear war. Kennedy sensed how dangerous this situation was, and he had the connections, resources, energy, and commitment to act swiftly on this insight. In so doing, he boosted the budding national freeze movement far ahead of its own timetable, to a level it probably would never have attained on its own, and made it immediately relevant, when it was most needed, to abate the Reagan administration’s  mounting nuclear confrontation with the “Evil Empire.”

A final testament to what the freeze movement, with Kennedy’s help, accomplished is that a younger generation of potential leaders and opinion-makers, including a politically aware undergraduate at Columbia University named Barack Obama, was touched by it and became sensitized to the dangers of nuclear weapons and the compelling logic of arms control agreements to reduce and eventually eliminate this terrible risk to human survival.

Kennedy’s last major battle for nuclear arms control came in 2004, near the end of  President George W. Bush’s first term, when he joined with Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to oppose proposed programs to develop new low-yield nuclear weapons and a “Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator” warhead. Some Bush partisans had come to believe these concepts foretold nuclear weapons that could destroy Saddam Hussein in his bunker or incinerate buried stocks of bio-weapons without taking out the settlement or city next door. Just as he had 23 years before, when Reagan’s nuclear warfighters swept into the Pentagon, Kennedy went after those who had fallen prey to the tactical nuclear illusion:

“Is the Senator…truly suggesting we should have used a nuclear weapon to hit Saddam Hussein’s bunkers last May? Baghdad is a city of over 5 million Iraqis. We would have killed hundreds of thousands of people, including American aid workers and journalists. We would have turned the entire area into a radioactive wasteland…. It would have poisoned our relations with the rest of the world and turned us into an international pariah for generations to come…. By building new nuclear weapons, the President would be rekindling the nuclear arms race that should have ended with the end of the Cold War.”[2]

The world survived the Cold War nuclear arms race that is now finally sputtering to a close, thanks, in no small measure, to the efforts of Edward Moore Kennedy. We will have to continue the passage to a nuclear-weapon-free world without him. He was our true compass. He will be missed.

Christopher Paine is nuclear program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. He worked with Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) on nuclear arms control initiatives from 1981 to 1991 and was a member of his staff from 1987 to 1991.


1. A facsimile of the original S. J. Res 163 can be found in Douglas C. Waller, Congress and the Nuclear Freeze: An Inside Look at the Politics of a Mass Movement, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press,1987), p. 309.

2.  Congressional Record, June 15, 2004, p. S6752.


Corrected online November 5, 2009. See explanation.