Posted: April 18, 2000
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Article SummaryIn 1983–84, I took a sabbatical from my professorship at Rutgers University and worked on communication for the nuclear freeze movement. This interview was published in the Rutgers alumni magazine during my sabbatical. It talks about people’s fear of nuclear war and their reluctance to get involved in the peace movement. I have to say that both the world and my political values have changed some – though I do like the young man who gave this interview. What hasn’t changed much is my analysis of nuclear denial, which resonates today for current issues like the fear of terrorism. (The book I said I was writing, by the way, never got written; I still have a hundred or so pages of draft somewhere.)

Nukes, the Freeze, and Public Opinion

An interview by Mary Jones, Matrix (Rutgers University), Spring 1984, pp. 9–12

Nuclear war: for nearly forty years, most people have found that prospect too frightening to think about. Experts have largely been left to decide nuclear strategy without interruption from the general public.

Today, that seems to be changing. An unusual grass-roots movement – variously called the peace movement, the antinuclear weapons movement, the freeze – has been taking shape, and its partisans have brought the issue of nuclear war and peace into the limelight of American politics.

How peace people and the public at large feel about nuclear weapons is being studied in preparation for a book on the subject by a journalism professor on sabbatical this year. He is Dr. Peter Sandman, of Rutgers University’s Cook College, and is himself an activist in the movement. In this article, excerpted from a taped interview with Matrix editor Mary Jones, Dr. Sandman discusses the messages and the mainsprings of this political phenomenon.

Editor: What makes the nuclear arms issue a subject that you, as a communications expert, are particularly interested in exploring?

Sandman: I believe the nuclear arms issue, at its base, is a communications problem. I’m interested in figuring out what the public opinion data of the last twenty years are telling us about American attitudes to nuclear war – what it means, for example, that a majority of the American public now expects to die in a nuclear war.

Editor: A majority expects to die in a nuclear war?

Sandman: If you ask people whether they think a nuclear war is likely in their lifetime, a very high percentage says yes; if you ask whether they expect to survive a nuclear war, a very high percentage says no. When you analyze those results together, you’ve got half or more – it depends on how the questions are asked – expecting to die. Yet people are not behaving that way.

Editor: How do you mean?

Sandman: Well, it’s not that I necessarily expect people to be rational. But there are in principle three rational responses to the perception that a nuclear war is a likely threat to our survival. One is to drop everything and work against nuclear war. Another is to finagle somehow to escape – move to New Zealand if you think that’ll help or work very hard on space technology so we can get to Mars. And the third is to say, well, we’re all going to die, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it, so I’m just going to enjoy myself for the time I’ve got left. All those things are rational. But for the most part, people aren’t doing any of those things.

Editor: What about people who believe the best chance of avoiding a war is to have such strong armaments that the Soviets won’t dare attack us?

Sandman: OK, that’s a different diagnosis. But then one ought to be working very hard to build up more nuclear weapons. And there are very few people doing that either.

What is not rational is to believe a nuclear war is likely to kill you and, nevertheless, to continue to save for your children’s college education or to continue to work to save the whales. To continue to plan as if that threat were not there, without coming up with any agenda for coping with that threat, is not reasonable behavior. It’s normal behavior – it’s not rational to expect people to behave rationally – but there isn’t any coherent relation between what people think and feel, on the one hand, and what they’re doing on the other hand.

That’s always the core issue in communications – the relationships among what you think, what you believe, and what you do. I think that’s the key question in the nuclear weapons issue; it’s not the key in most political issues.

Editor: Political issues are usually more rational?

Sandman: Many political battles are explicitly battles of self-interest. Welfare rights, for example – if you’re poor, you want a different set of policies than if you’re rich, and there’s nothing weird about that. Or, if you look at some of the basic issues that divide Americans – capitalism versus socialism, for instance – you can see there are fundamental values at the core of the division.

Nuclear weapons are not that way. There’s no constituency for nuclear war. There isn’t anybody saying, golly, I hope there’s a nuclear war.

Editor: Of course not. But there are a lot of people who strongly disagree with the peace movement.

Sandman: Yes, but only on means, not on goals. Even the people who most fervently believe a nuclear freeze now would be a mistake would presumably endorse a freeze at some time they like better – ten years ago or ten years hence or whatever date they want to pick. Their position – which is the position that President Reagan says he takes – is that someday we need to reverse the arms race. Over the short haul, Reagan says, the only way to prevent a Russian victory is increased armament, but over the long haul, the only way to prevent Armageddon is disarmament. Nobody, as far as I can tell, says we have to keep building up more and more arms forever.

I think we have a country that really is united in believing that we have to turn the arms race around. And the important dynamic, I think, is between the people who are actively working to stop the arms race and those who aren’t actively doing anything.

Editor: What kinds of people are actively involved?

Sandman: That’s another thing that is extraordinary about the antinuclear weapons movement. It’s demographically almost identical to those who are inactive. If you do a demographic profile of people who give money or attend meetings or say they are interested in arms control, it’s very hard to find any real differences between them and the folks who don’t do those things.

It cuts right across the mainstream. It’s not a movement of youth, and it’s not a movement of the left.

Editor: That’s surprising. I would have thought it was on the left – at least, it seems to be very much opposed to the Reagan administration.

Sandman: As we get closer to the election, that may force people to choose between conservatism and arms control. But if you go back to 1982, when 11 million people voted for the freeze referenda, there were an awful lot of conservatives voting for the freeze.

The theoretical politics of the antinuclear weapons movement are literally conservative. It says, what we have here is an innovation too dangerous to deal with; let us reject this innovation and return to an earlier, simpler, safer, healthier world.

Editor: Well, if it’s not political orientation or demographic differences, what does seem to separate out the people who are active on this issue?

Sandman: There was a study done at Three Mile Island, in the wake of the accident there, that I think gets to the heart of that question.

What this study found was that people who felt they couldn’t move out of the area – they had a mortgage or a job or kids in the school system – those people were much more inclined to support the plant and to believe that reopening would be safe than the people who felt they were able to get out if they wanted to.

The dynamic seems to be that if your behavior is constrained, if you are relatively powerless, then you try not to perceive yourself to be in danger. And that’s healthy. It’s not good psychic economy to focus on risks you can’t avoid.

Editor: It would be like thinking about death all the time.

Sandman: That’s right. It’s what Robert J. Lifton calls psychic numbing. You can see this kind of denial in the poll data I mentioned. I said that a very high percentage of the people regard a nuclear war as likely – if they’re asked for an objective, unemotional assessment. If they’re asked how worried they are personally, they are much more likely to say, oh, we’ll work it out – or, the most common answer, which is, I don’t think about nuclear war. They’re very directly saying, I am powerless, therefore it is stupid to think about it.

My hunch is that, at bottom, the difference between the people who are actively working against nuclear weapons and those who are inactive is not in their values – it’s in their sense of efficacy.

Editor: But I don’t quite see. It makes sense that activists must believe they can be effective, but doesn’t activism also imply a particular set of attitudes?

Sandman: Let me talk more academically for a moment. The common sense notion about decision making holds that one accumulates information; on that basis, one forms attitudes and opinions; and from that, one decides what to do.

The overwhelming evidence is that that’s not what happens at all. We’re constantly capable of knowing and thinking one set of things and doing something else.

One of the least effective, though one of the most common ways of trying to persuade people to behave differently is by accumulating information that indicates their behavior is in error: you’re doing X, but here I have facts A, B, C, and D, all of which prove you should be doing Y. And we imagine people will say, oh, thank heavens you told me! Now I’ll go and do Y. In fact, that doesn’t happen. People will dispute the facts if they can, they’ll ignore the facts if they can, they’ll misunderstand the facts if they can, they’ll forget the facts if they can, and if they absolutely have to master the facts, they’ll store them in one side of their heads and say, yeah, but I still think…

It turns out that the causal links, although they are complicated, tend more often to be in the opposite direction. A new behavior is more often a cause of information gathering and attitude development than it is a result of these things.

I think that’s what goes on in a lot of political activism. People become concerned because they’re involved. There’s a cycle: many people feel powerless and therefore don’t do anything; they don’t do anything and therefore feel powerless. The reverse is also true. If people do something – because it meets some need of their own or even at random – they feel less powerless, and that liberates energy for more action. But I don’t think you can interrupt the cycle with what people think; you have to interrupt the cycle with what they do. If you get people to try a new behavior, they’ll teach themselves why it was the right thing to do.

Editor: Coming back to the peace movement itself – it seems to include a great many different points of view. Can you give some sort of breakdown?

Sandman: I think there are two overarching ways of slicing the issue. One is to see it as a question of who is “one of us.” The people who call themselves peace people are basically trying to expand that definition. They look at all of world history as an ever-enlarging definition of who is one of us, from just my family, to just my tribe, and so on, and eventually it will include all people, and maybe it’ll include animals and maybe it’ll include fetuses. But whoever is under that umbrella is one of us, and we’ll try real hard not to kill each other. That’s behind the One World impetus.

The other way to cut the issue is to say, no, the Russians are not one of us – they’re the other side. We are involved in a genuine competition, even a genuine hatred, but we need to design rules for dealing across that barrier that won’t kill too many people. The groups that call themselves arms control groups usually take that position. Arms controllers tend to be pragmatic and to have five-year goals rather than lifetime visions. They tend not to believe that peace, in the sense of the lion lying down with the lamb, is possible, but they want more safety devices in the system to lessen the likelihood of nuclear disaster.

The arms control movement is nervous about the word “peace,” because it’s come to sound left wing. In general, the people who say peace tend to be more extreme than the people who say arms control. In arms control groups, the initials “C.D.” stand for congressional district; in many peace groups, they mean civil disobedience.

Religious organizations are the exception. They call themselves a peace movement, even though in many cases their goals are moderate. And they are the single most powerful constituency against nuclear weapons at the moment. God-loving, God-fearing people are enormously powerful. They’re less likely to get depressed and defeated and feel powerless, because they have access to prayer and other techniques that inspirit them – literally inspirit them.

The thing I want to stress is that the movement against nuclear weapons is very broad, and it should not be blamed for the differing views of its members. Some movement people are anticapitalist, and that makes capitalists angry; some movement people are antiabortion, and that makes pro-choice people angry. But there are a lot of different reasons for thinking the world shouldn’t be destroyed.

Editor: With such different philosophies, what about common goals? Where do you see this movement heading in the long run?

Sandman: For one thing, of course, you don’t have to have the whole map to see which road goes in the right direction. Nobody sees – or agrees – exactly where we should end up, but a path that starts with a freeze looks a whole lot safer than a path that starts with another decade of continuing weapons build up. Beyond that, though – there can be tidal shifts in public opinion, over time, as to what is acceptable or even thinkable behavior. And rulers in a democratic country, and even in a totalitarian country, have to pay heed to that kind of consensus.

Oftentimes people who present themselves as realists will say, listen, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Nuclear weapons have been invented, and they will always be with us.

But there are lots of things we know how to do that have become unthinkable and therefore aren’t done: cannibalism; slavery; the rack. These are behaviors that most of human society has rejected, in a way that may well be permanent. Certainly we’ve gone a lot of centuries now without a renaissance in cannibalism. We have absorbed a sense that this is such a horrifying act that even in extremis most people don’t do it.

Editor: Are you saying that war could become unthinkable?

Sandman: That I doubt very much. But nuclear war could. I don’t know enough about arms technology to know with certainty where we ought to be going technologically. But where we have to be going, in terms of public opinion and the sociosphere, is toward a consensus of the world’s people that using those weapons is unthinkable.

Editor: I just can’t envision a situation in which, in a full-scale war, the side that was losing would not decide to use nuclear weapons if it had them.

Sandman: I can’t really envision it either. That’s because we live in a world where “cannibalism” is still acceptable. But I can imagine creating a world in which my grandchildren could envision it.

Editor: I’d also like to hear more about the people who are inactive. Are you saying that’s only because they feel powerless?

Sandman: For some of them it’s only that. The other group of holdouts are people who are afraid of what I call the three “Cs” – that the antinuclear weapons movement is communist, or that it’s a cop-out, or that it’s a con.

The communist part is very clear. Most people’s perception is that there is a battle between the United States and the Soviet Union. And until they know which side you’re on – until you say, I don’t like the gulags, I don’t want commissars in Perth Amboy – people won’t even begin to hear anything you say on the issue. They’re quite right, it seems to me. No one trusts your advice on strategy in a football game until it’s first established that you’re rooting for the same team.

It’s also possible to take the position that the United States and the Soviet Union shouldn’t hate each other. I think people are prepared to hear that too, though the first position goes over a lot easier. But either is better than leaving open the possibility that you see it as a battle, but you’re on the other side.

Editor: What do you mean when you say people think it’s a con?

Sandman: At its broadest – Americans are very reluctant to be fools. They’d rather not be knaves either, but given a choice between knave and fool, they’re going to pick knave. There’s this global caveat emptor notion: everyone is trying to sell me something – the freeze looks good; but of course it’s designed to look good; there’s got to be something fishy.

Editor: And the suspicion that's it’s a cop-out? From what?

Sandman: I’m not sure. I think, from some presumed adult responsibility to pursue the arms race. This is the notion that “adults make hard choices,” and it’s a cop-out just to say “I’m for peace.” You see that in the rhetoric of the other side – they talk about the peace movement as though it were childlike. It’s called simpleminded or overemotional. That’s why peace speakers have to throw in statistics. It shows that they’re adults, that they can play hardball. And that’s why it’s so useful to have people like [former CIA director William] Colby and [former Secretary of Defense Robert] MacNamara supporting the freeze, because they’re certainly hardball players.

People want to be against nuclear weapons, but it’s almost as though they need to be given permission. They’re fearful that they might be making a mistake – the stakes are so high, and what if they’re wrong? So they need impersonal arguments from high-stature people, so they can support arms control without feeling that it’s communist, or a cop-out, or a con. A more personal approach from a peer gets people active, but the impersonal argument gives them permission.

We all need that. I wake up in a cold sweat roughly once a month – am I on the wrong side? Are they going to remember the freeze as the great sellout of the 1980s? You shouldn’t be working on these issues if you don’t take that seriously, as a charge, and worry about it.

Editor: What about the objection that arms control treaties aren’t realistic because we just can’t trust the Russians?

Sandman: My guess is that there are a couple of leitmotifs in there.

One is a misunderstanding of what treaties are about. Nobody signs a treaty where important violations will be undetectable. That’s not how countries work. The verification of these things is technical. It doesn’t require trust; it’s not on the honor system.

I think there’s something else going on too, though – some image of the Soviet Union as enigmatic and unpredictable. They’re not saying, “I don’t trust the Russians” as in, “I don’t trust my car dealer.”

This is a different kind of untrustworthiness. So when arms control advocates argue that, after all, the Soviets can be trusted to behave in their own self-interest, that’s precisely the point these people are disputing. They’re saying, I don’t trust them to behave in their own self-interest, because they don’t see their self-interest the same way I would if I were they. They aren’t like us. They’re “other.”

There’s some truth in that. There are meaningful cultural differences between us and the Soviet Union. But it’s mostly nonsense. This sense that they’re mysterious, that they’re alien – that’s always what people do in constructing an overblown image of an enemy.

Editor: And these are some of the main issues you’ll be analyzing in more detail in your book?

Sandman: Yes. But I don’t want the fact that I’m doing a book to mislead people. I have a professorial style that makes everything sound as if Moses wrote it on stone tablets and showed it to me, just last night. That doesn’t make it so.

To test these things properly, you have to come up with a disconfirmable hypothesis. You have to say, if my gut instinct is right, then when I do X, Y will happen; if I’m wrong, when I do X, Z will happen; so I’ll do X and see. I’m not really doing that.

I’ve been looking at activism for a decade, trying to understand what works and what doesn’t and why. And I’m coming up with speculations, informed by both communications theory and activist experience, that make sense out of what ’s happened. But they’re still only speculations.

Copyright © 1984 by Matrix (Rutgers University)

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