The 1980s. More than the Reagan Revolution

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Bradford Martin’s ‘The Other Eighties: A Secret History of America in the Age of Reagan
(Hill & Wang: New York, 2011)’ challenges the dominance of the ‘rise of conservatism’ theme in our understanding of the 1980s.

‘More than 40 percent of American voters demurred from sanctioning this movement, not to mention the roughly 50 percent of voting-age Americans who declined to exercise their right altogether.’ [p. x]

He seeks to demonstrate that there are additional movements that developed in the decade, including the Nuclear Freeze Campaign, environmentalism, the opposition to America’s wars, Feminism; all representing the ‘other’ 1980s.

I was particularly interested in Martin’s chapter on the Nuclear Freeze Campaign. The opposition to nuclear arms control in the 1970s, and in particular the Committee on the Present Danger, clearly oversold the threat of the Soviet Union and while a successful tactic in the short term, inciting such fear was to the detriment of their longer term goals.

The fear of Communism was balanced with a fear of nuclear war, which served not to create lasting support for high defense spending – as was hoped – but instead created a broad constituency for just the reverse; a nuclear freeze and, for many, outright abolition.

The importance of the movement, Martin points out, was that ‘the freeze debate successfully eroded the nuclear priesthood’s aura of expertise and opened up national discourse on disarmament and national security policy.’ [p. 23]

When Ronald Reagan surprised many of his conservative allies by taking seriously his dream of abolishing nuclear weapons while negotiating with Gorbachev in the mid-1980s, it was this movement that had demonstrated (quite literally, on June 12, 1982, with a 750,000 crowd) that he could expect public support.

Martin’s book shows that we should move beyond a characterisation of the 1980s as a simple narrative of the rise of conservatism. Its increase in popularity is true, but it also sparked opposition in a variety of issues, by a variety people, in a variety of locales. And this is an important legacy of the 1980s just as much as the ‘Reagan Revolution’ itself.

See: The Other Eighties: A Secret History of America in the Age of Reagan