by Hans Tuch
The decision by the Trump administration to suspend one of the last major nuclear arms control treaties, the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, known as INF, recalls the emotional grip of the nuclear weapons issue on the German citizenry in the 1970s and ‘80s.
Concern over the prospect of U.S. and Soviet missiles being placed within range of European capitals was epitomized in early 1982 by the grassroots activities of a tiny group of politically committed women in Filderstadt, a bedroom community near Stuttgart. The “Mothers of Filderstadt,” as they called themselves, addressed appeals to President Reagan and Chairman Brezhnev expressing their fears about nuclear weapons on German soil and the attendant dangers.
Deftly exploiting Moscow’s quick and sympathetic reply, the Soviet ambassador invited the women to Bonn to receive Moscow’s response in front of television cameras. When the women complained that they had received no response from Washington, the American embassy’s public affairs section realized we had missed an opportunity to explain U.S. policy to a grassroots group of German voters and launched a friendly and sometimes intense dialogue with the group, including visits back and forth in Bonn and Filderstadt.
On the occasion of President Reagan’s first visit to the Federal Republic on June 9, 1982, U.S. Embassy Bonn suggested that he include in his speech before the German Bundestag a reference to the concerns of the Filderstadt mothers and thereby accomplish two objectives at once: to make up for the previous lapse in communication and to give, as President Reagan so often did, a humanizing spin to U.S. policy. Our suggestion was initially ignored by the President’s speech writers. In a last-minute appeal to White House communications director David Gergen, however, Ambassador Arthur Burns effectively conveyed his sense of the value of “let Reagan be Reagan” vis-a-vis the German public, and the Filderstadt reference was included.
It turned out to be the right touch: The American president had considered a group of German women from a little-known hamlet important enough to address them personally in a major speech before the federal parliament on an issue of global importance about which he felt deeply. Fascinated, no doubt, by the President’s addressing German women living in a place hardly any of them had ever heard of, the German newspaper, TV and radio reporters pounced upon this human interest element, which thereby added immediacy, increased relevance, and the all-important personal touch to the President’s significant statement of U.S. policy.
The speech remained on the front pages for days, aided in part by journalists who searched out and interviewed the surprised but pleased Filderstadt women. Subsequently, the “mothers of Filderstadt” became the German equivalent of Reagan’s “lady from Dubuque.”
Some analysts have argued that the missiles helped spur negotiations with the Soviets on the 1987 INF treaty, considered a landmark in Cold War de-escalation. Three decades later, with both sides leaving the arms control pact and Russia saying it plans to develop new missile systems, Europeans are again anxious over the prospect of a new arms race.
Hans Tuch joined the State Department’s U.S. Foreign Service in 1949. He is a Career Minister. Mr. Tuch’s long diplomatic career included assignments in Germany, the Soviet Union, Brazil and Bulgaria. He also worked as a Voice of America correspondent in Munich in the 1950s and returned to VOA in 1976, serving as acting director and deputy director until 1981. He is the author of “Atoms At Your Service” (with Henry Dunlap) 1957; “Communicating With The World: U.S. Public Diplomacy Overseas” 1990; and “Arias, Cabalettas and Foreign Affairs: A Public Diplomat’s Quasi-Musical Memoir” 2008. He retired in 1985 and taught “Public Diplomacy” and “Intercultural Communication” at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Georgetown University, and the University of Missouri-Kansas City.