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In Memoriam: Randall Caroline Forsberg (1943-2007)

Daryl G. Kimball

Many of us aspire to develop ideas that make a significant and positive difference to society and politics. Few succeed in the way that Randall Caroline Forsberg did over the course of her long and productive career as a peace and disarmament researcher and activist.

Randy, as she was known to many, died in New York on October 19 at the age of 64. She will be most widely remembered for her seminal role in drafting the “Call to Halt the Arms Race” in 1979, which gave hope and voice to millions of Americans at a time when anxiety about the U.S.-Soviet nuclear rivalry was at its height.

Randy’s career began quietly. After graduating from Barnard College in 1965, she married and moved to Stockholm where she secured a job as a typist for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). From this almost accidental beginning, her exposure to the statistics and geopolitics of world armaments and missed opportunities to control them inspired her to explore whether there was a better way. She soon became one of SIPRI’s editors and researchers, regularly contributing to SIPRI’s Yearbook series and other publications.

In 1974, Randy moved with her young daughter to Boston and began studying for a Ph.D. in arms control at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She became involved in a loose research collective, the Boston Study Group, and was speaking to audiences in the region about the dangers and solutions to the nuclear weapons dilemma.

Randy became frustrated that most thinkers focused on managing, instead of stopping or reversing, the nuclear arms race and concerned that the peace movement was dividing its energies. She sought to apply her research to help create a set of practical policy proposals that could unite disarmament organizations and reach a wider audience.

In a speech in Louisville in 1979, Randy argued that the way to stop the arms race “is to stop it. Enough is enough.” The response was overwhelmingly positive. Along with her colleagues back in Boston, Randy began developing the “Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race.” The four-page document made the case for why “[t]he United States and the Soviet Union should adopt a mutual freeze on the testing, production, and deployment of nuclear weapons.”

In 1980, Randy formed the Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies (IDDS) in Brookline, Massachusetts, to help back up the effort with fact-based policy research and analysis. IDDS published the “Call” in April 1980.

The freeze concept was not entirely new. In fact, in 1970 the Senate adopted a resolution endorsing a mutual freeze on further U.S. and Soviet deployments of offensive and defensive strategic weapons. In 1979, analyst Richard Barnett and others published articles along similar lines.

Still, Randy’s call for a nuclear weapons testing, production, and deployment freeze was a clear and empowering statement that caught fire at the local level. The “Call to Halt the Arms Race” also came at the right time, as the incoming Reagan administration made disparaging statements about arms control and proposed an arms buildup that it claimed was necessary to make arms control with Moscow possible.

At first, the freeze was overlooked by many mainstream peace groups and nuclear policy analysts. But grassroots organizers recognized that the freeze was just the concept needed to allow a broader number of citizens to feel more empowered and to mobilize widespread support. As David Cortright, former head of the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, said, “Suddenly, the problem of the arms race and the growing danger of nuclear war seemed resolvable.” Local and state freeze campaign organizations soon emerged.

Operating on a shoestring budget, Randy traveled across the country speaking on behalf of the newly formed National Freeze Clearinghouse. At dozens of local churches, schools, and private homes in towns across the country, including my hometown in Ohio, Randy’s message reached thousands of ordinary citizens concerned about the risk of nuclear war and inspired them to believe that they could join the debate and change nuclear arms policy.

By 1982 the freeze had been endorsed by 11 state legislatures, more than 200 city councils, 40 county governments, more than 150 national organizations, the 25 largest labor unions, one-half of all the U.S. Roman Catholic bishops, and others. In June, Randy was among the keynote speakers before at least 700,000 people gathered in Central Park in New York City for a rally to “End the Arms Race and Fund Human Needs” on the occasion of the opening of the UN Second Special Session on Disarmament. Large rallies were held in other cities as well.

The outpouring of support peaked in November 1982 when nuclear weapons freeze resolutions appeared on multiple ballots and won in eight out of nine states and in all of several major cities. All told, 18 million Americans voted on the freeze, and approximately 10.8 million (about 60 percent) voted in favor.

The White House and members of Congress finally took notice. At first, the Reagan administration did what it could to curb enthusiasm for the freeze. But as the political momentum for the concept grew, the administration began to adopt some of the rhetoric of the movement and to pursue nuclear arms negations with Moscow. Two days after a Senate resolution calling for a nuclear weapons freeze was introduced, the administration announced it would soon introduce a strategic arms reduction treaty proposal. Formal talks between Moscow and Washington began later that summer.

As The New York Times said in an editorial on June 12, 1982, the day of the Central Park freeze rally, “[I]n 17 days American and Soviet officials will at long last sit down in Geneva to renew negotiations.… It’s a stirring accomplishment and Americans at the grass roots deserve the credit.”

The following year, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded Randy one of its prestigious “genius” grants. Randy became president of Freeze Voter, which raised millions of dollars in support of pro-nuclear disarmament candidates in the 1984 election.

The re-election of Ronald Reagan took the wind out of the sails of the freeze movement itself, but the movement had already helped to alter Reagan’s own political and policy calculations. With strong popular support for restraining the nuclear arms race, those in the administration who supported pragmatic engagement with the Soviets and its dynamic new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, began to win out over anti-arms control elements.

Randy did not rest on the accomplishments of the nuclear weapons freeze campaign. At IDDS, she committed herself to working over the long haul to shift thinking through her research and analysis not only on nuclear arms, but also conventional arms. In a speech in Germany in 1984, she said, “[T]he industrialized northern nations will be reluctant to reduce nuclear arms until they can reduce the fear of conventional war.… But we cannot hope to lessen fear of conventional war while the two superpowers continue to use conventional forces for their own ends wherever they can get away with it.”

In response, Randy focused IDDS’s work on developing an alternative approach to national security that depends on strengthened multilateral peace-keeping and the gradual elimination of forces designed for offensive intervention. In 1987 she launched the institute’s East-West conventional force study to survey NATO and Warsaw Pact forces and analyze options for their reduction. In 1989 she was invited to be among several nongovernmental experts to brief President George H. W. Bush as Moscow and Washington were moving toward historic agreements cutting strategic nuclear weapons and conventional forces in Europe.

Over the next several years, Randy continued to engage policymakers, national security analysts, and reporters and to build the infrastructure of activist organizations and networks. In 1995, Randy was named to President Bill Clinton’s Arms Control Advisory Board. Through the decade, she served on advisory panels for the Congressional Research Service, the General Accounting Office, and the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment. She testified before Congress and joined the ACA Board of Directors.

Throughout her career and life, Randy demonstrated how the power of ideas and civil society can change long-held conceptions of weapons and war and how to achieve peace. Her pivotal and tireless work on behalf of the nuclear weapons freeze and her other similarly bold proposals helped awaken the American public and its political leaders to the possibility of a world beyond nuclear confrontation and war. For those contributions and more, Randy deserves our lasting thanks and appreciation.