A Frostbitten Referendum


A NUCLEAR WAR would kill millions of Americans and ravage the country for those who survived it. It would stall industrial production and it would destroy jobs. Consequently, few politicians support it.

That, ironically, is the greatest weakness of the nuclear freeze movement: it is always possible to reconcile any opposition from outside or internal dissent within that one vast, undisputed goal. As a result, substantive programs are all too easily diluted into platitudes.

The recent conclusion of the drive in Massachusetts to place a referendum on the November ballot is a case in point. Earlier this year, proponents of an immediate moratorium on the production of nuclear weapons introduced a resolution in the state Senate to ask the voters if they thought "the president of the United States [should] propose to the Soviet Union that the United States and the Soviet Union adopt a mutual freeze on the testing, production and deployment of nuclear weapons...with verification safeguards satisfactory to both countries."

That strongly worded statement drew little opposition. Though it took several weeks, the Senate passed it near the end of the spring session by a 36 to 1 vote.

Hoping to have the matter settled before the legislators took off for the summer to campaign for re-election, proponents quickly brought the question to the House floor. But there, they found unexpectedly strong opposition. Not only did the discussion in the lower chamber drag on, but a majority of the members approved a pair of amendments that effectively reversed the original meaning of the statement--to insist that a freeze take place only when the Russians cleaned up their act in Poland, and saw the error of 35 years of foreign policy, and withdrew from Eastern Europe.


From these divergent views this week came the compromise wording which will appear on the Massachusetts ballot: the United States government should "work vigorously to negotiate a mutual nuclear weapons moratorium and reduction with appropriate verification with the Soviet Union and other nations" (emphasis added).

WISCONSIN VOTERS approved similar wording by 3 to 1 on September 14, and Bay State voters will very likely do the same on November 2nd. It is unclear, however, what exactly that will mean.

"Immediate freeze" advocates say that is what the referendum stiff calls for. In the final deliberations on the floor Rep. Michael J. Barrett argued that "the spirit of the resolution is vastly more significant than the letter." He said that by approving the referendum, Massachusetts voters would be "telling the President he is going too far." Another freeze-supporter, a member of the Council for Nuclear Weapons Freeze, explained this week, "I talked to the woman who wrote the language for the Wisconsin vote and she said that [a freeze] is what she meant."

Yet, if an immediate, bilateral moratorium is what the Wisconsin resolution's author supported, she very shrewdly kept it a secret. In approving this statement, the majority of the Massachusetts representatives were surely not repudiating the beliefs they so strongly held 11 weeks before. It is a statement general enough for the bellicose Rep. Royall H. Switzler--who accused freeze supporters of "carrying Russian Baggage"--to say he would support it because it would tell Reagan "he's doing a good job."

In fact, when the issue first came up, the Massachusetts Council for a Nuclear Weapon Freeze, made the same argument, distributing literature saying "the Wisconsin [language] comes too close to the Reagan version of an arms limitation resolution passed by Congress.

Massachusetts citizens will have the opportunity to vote on several significant issues this fall, such as the death penalty, and a bill imposing a deposit on bottles. Though filled with subtle implications and important side considerations, they are at heart, issues with yes or no answers. They are questions of morals and ethics: is it right to execute someone convicted of murder? Is it worth it to increase price for decreased litter?

But on a subject as technical and globally dangerous as nuclear war, it borders on demagoguery to offer, in referendum form, one simple solution to the problem. To argue, as one supporter did, that a freeze "is easily verifiable, because you can always detect zero," reflects an ignorance or a confidence inappropriate for the matter. Such arguments take advantage of gut-level fears and channel them towards superficially appealing solutions.

So, as the Massachusetts legislature has demonstrated, the only way to handle the issue in a referendum is to reduce it to its simplest form. In approving the referendum citizens of the Commonwealth will tell the President, they oppose nuclear war. Period.