The dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the first glimpse of the nuclear age for all but a few scientists and policymakers. Almost immediately journalists flocked to the issue, clergy examined the moral implications of the bomb, scientists and policymakers struggled to develop new regimes--or reinforce old systems--to deal with the new world. A movement against nuclear weapons, led by atomic scientists, pacifists, and political internationalists, developed overnight, only to disappear two years later. Concern about nuclear weapons and antinuclear peace movements have reemerged periodically in the following decades, growing with considerable speed, and diminishing even more quickly. The tremendous fluctuations in public mobilization against United States nuclear weapons policy, a relatively stable policy over four decades, present a difficult riddle to social scientists.
Since the dawn of the nuclear age small groups of activists have consistently protested both the content of the United States national security policy, and the process by which it is made. Only occasionally, however, has this protest spread beyond a handful of relatively marginal groups, generated substantial public support, and reached mainstream political institutions. Historians and analysts of specific campaigns have been able to identify the proximate causes of the rise and decline of particular movements, noting aspects of both political context and the decisions activists make, but have been loathe to generalize. More recently, a few analysts have addressed the cyclic nature of peace movement challenges (Boyer, 1985; Kleidman, 1991; Wittner, 1988), but have been more concerned with avoiding the recurrence of activist mistakes than with explaining the cycles themselves. In this article, I build on the histories of peace protest and analyses of the inside of these social movements to examine the political cycles of the engagement and quiescence of the movement, and its relation to external political context, particularly public policy.
I begin with a brief review of the relevant literature on the origins of movements, noting parallels in the study of interest groups. Building on recent literature on political opportunity structure, I suggest a theoretical framework which emphasizes the interaction between activist choices and political context. I then described the cycles of peace movement activism and quiescence on nuclear weapons issues in the United States, using mass media sources to delineate periods of mobilization. I outline a number of policy variables which may help explain protest mobilization. My conclusions address the importance of policy and political context in explaining movement cycles and the potential influence of protest on national security policy.
Political Context and the Emergence of Protest Movements
The question of why movements emerge has rightly occupied much scholarly attention in both political science and sociology. The first wave of "collective behavior" analysis (Smelser, 1963), along with a spate of less explicit but complementary "break-down" approaches (e.g., Arendt, 1951; Hoffer, 1951; Kornhauser, 1959), viewed movements as the product of societal dysfunction, specifically the incapacity of society to integrate its citizenry. In this view, movements were a failure of social or political institutions. Scholars seeking to explain, and often vindicate, the social movements of the 1960s developed a "resource mobilization" perspective (Lipsky, 1970; McCarthy & Zald, 1977; Oberschall, 1973) which emphasized not structural failure but activist success. Within this paradigm movements represent the purposive application of resources to a social problem, or simply, protest as politics by other means. Initially resource mobilization analysts were less concerned with the political environment in which movements emerged than with the tactics and strategies organizers devised to overcome the "free rider" problem, that is, the tendency of a "rational actor" not to participate in the struggle for collective goods (Olson, 1965).
Within political science, analysis of interest group origins developed in a similar manner, albeit with important normative differences. Truman (1951) argued that interest groups simply reflected political circumstances, arising from "disturbances" produced by new constituencies or problems. In contrast to the collective behavior school, however, Truman and other pluralist analysts (e.g., Dahl, 1963) viewed the development of groups as a social good, reflecting a healthy democratic polity. Critics were quick to point out, however, that all disturbances were not equally likely to create interest groups, that the political system advantaged certain constituencies and problems (Bachrach & Baratz, 1970; Schattschneider, 1960), that elite support was critical to a group's emergence (Walker, 1983), and that organizers' choices in developing "exchange relationships" with supporters played a critical role in a group's success (Salisbury, 1969). As with the resource mobilization paradigm in sociology, focus on the "free rider" dominated research agendas.
The resource mobilization view was important in drawing analytic attention to the process of staging a social movement, but in its earliest expressions under-emphasized the critical role of the political environment. The "free rider" problem is less a human absolute than an elastic tendency which responds to changing circumstances. Thus activists against nuclear power drew larger crowds at demonstrations shortly after the reactor accident at Three Mile Island, environmental activists found it easier to raise money when the Secretary of Interior spoke about opening national parks for development, and abortion rights activists won greater media attention as the Supreme Court seemed less likely to protect these rights. In contrast to the collective behavior approach, resource mobilization emphasized the rationality of protest, yet initially overlooked how changing circumstances altered any rational calculus of participation.
Most recently, students of both interest groups and social movements have recognized the essentially political character of dissent, and its relationship to policy and institutional politics. Gamson's (1990) study of challenging groups across issues found that United States political institutions advantaged certain strategies of influence and specific groups. Jenkins and Perrow (1977) identified the critical role elite supporters played in aiding and amplifying recurrent farm worker campaigns. Freeman (1975) examined the important role that public policy played in the tactics women's rights activists chose, and Hansen (1985) similarly addressed the importance of policy in influencing farmers' success and failure in mobilizing challenging movements. McAdam (1982) advanced a "political process" perspective on social mobilization in his studies of the civil rights movement, which integrated close analysis of activist choices with a larger view of both public policy and the political system. Meyer (1990) emphasized the critical role that policy reform, political rhetoric, and partisan alignment played in mobilizing peace protest in the early 1980s. All of this work begins with the assumptions of resource mobilization, but adds one essential point: the opportunities for protest vary over time in response to changing political circumstances.
Political Opportunity: Structure and Space
The most productive way to think about integrating the process of political action and social …