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Target Seattle and the city’s long history of anti-nuke activism

Oct 4, 2017, 6:31 AM | Updated: 8:15 am
LISTEN: Target Seattle and the city’s long history of anti-nuke activism

The old Kingdome really lived up to its “multipurpose” billing. Before it was demolished in 2000 to make way for what’s now CenturyLink Field, the structure provided homely-field advantage to the Mariners, Seahawks, Sounders and even the Sonics for awhile. And the giant concrete barn hosted its fair share of concerts, boat shows, scout jamborees, tractor pulls and paper airplane contests, too.

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It was also the site of a unique Cold War-era event called Target Seattle.

On Oct. 2, 1982, nearly 14,000 people gathered in the dome for the culminating night of a week of lectures and panel discussions that had taken place all around the city – with a focus on preventing nuclear war with the old Soviet Union.

When it was announced earlier in the summer, The Seattle Times quoted then-Mayor Charles Royer, reporting that he “called the project a ‘typically Seattle approach’ that would move the nuclear-arms debate out of the ‘sometimes demagogic forums of politics’ into living rooms.”

Mayor Royer couldn’t be reached for comment, but in retrospect, the “typically Seattle approach” likely meant that the project involved a broad and diverse coalition of business and grassroots community leaders, and featured a progressive agenda with lots of discussion and process.

More than three decades later, those involved in organizing Target Seattle still look back on it fondly, and weigh its hard-to-pin-down “typically Seattle” legacy.

“Oh my gosh, it was a great festival of hope and of citizen involvement,” said Betsy Bell. Her late husband, UW professor and dean Aldon Bell, was chairman of the event’s executive committee, and Betsy Bell was one of the organizers.

Bell says that Target Seattle fostered powerful feelings during some of the darkest days of the Cold War – against a backdrop of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, reciprocal Olympic Games boycotts of Moscow in 1980 and later Los Angeles, and the shooting down in 1983 of a Korean Airlines 747 by the Soviet military.

“When they went there, they felt [that] we [as] individuals could make a difference. We were not victims of the current situation [with the Cold War]. We actually had the collective power to change the world,” Bell said.

A night at the Kingdome

The Saturday evening program at the Kingdome was something of a star-studded grand finale. It featured local artists and performers, including Ernestine Anderson along with the Total Experience Choir, plus Hollywood celebrities, including Conrad Bain of the TV programs “Maude” and “Diff’rent Strokes”; Margot Kidder, who played Lois Lane to Christopher Reeve’s Superman; and Stuart Margolin, who was a regular on “The Rockford Files.”

Target Seattle also included former Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox, then president of the government reform group Common Cause, and other heavyweight orators of that era.

“The speeches were unbelievable,” Bell said. “Helen Caldicott, the head of Physicians for Social Responsibility, gave this impassioned speech and [UW history professor] Giovanni Costigan was there talking about empire, and a poet spoke a beautiful poem by Blake. The whole thing was incredible.”

According to The Seattle Times, Dr. Costigan said Target Seattle was “unprecedented in the history of Seattle and possibly in the history of the nation. You might say, in the words of Saint Paul, ‘We live in no mean city.’”

Bell also says letters destined to be shared with Seattle’s sister city of Tashkent – the capital of what’s now an independent country called Uzbekistan, which was in those days a part of the Soviet Union – played a key role that night at the Kingdome.

“The letters to our friends in Tashkent got passed up and down all the rows, and got signed by practically everybody there,” Bell said. “It was like a huge festival.”

Target Seattle

Target Seattle wasn’t the area’s first time at the anti-nuke rodeo (the Kingdome hosted rodeos, too by the way). In fact, groups promoting nuclear disarmament and a nuclear test ban were active here as early as the late 1950s.

“We did the first peace march in 1958,” said longtime local activist Anne Stadler, who later worked for KING TV for many years. “[We marched] downtown along with our children and various people, [and] called for an end to nuclear weapon testing.”

Stadler, who also helped organize Target Seattle, says that the groups she was involved with nearly 60 years ago took the same approach in the 1950s and 1960s as subsequent groups did in the 1970s and 1980s – creating opportunities for community education and discussion, and circulating petitions. Stadler says that Seattle businessmen Robert Block and David Sprague even took petitions to Moscow in 1961 to protest Soviet nuclear tests.

Anne Stadler describes the approach she and her fellow activists took to try to find common ground.

“We did not assume that there are bad guys and good guys,” Stadler said. “We assumed that [nuclear war] is a problem that everyone has got a piece of, and our job was to engage people around ‘What is the interest we might have in common in solving this problem?’ I think that’s a very important feature of how Target Seattle itself was operated.”

Betsy Bell says that Target Seattle came about from a series of informal discussions in the community in the 1970s about the likelihood of nuclear war and what, specifically, that might mean for Seattle. Then came a pivotal meeting of activists and civic leaders at the Capitol Hill home of Kay Bullitt, where many a civic movement has been launched over the decades.

“One of the things that stimulated [the discussions] was the arrival in Bremerton of the nuclear submarines, and then the positioning of Nike missiles around the area. That was all new at that time,” Bell said, also citing the presence of defense contractors like Boeing as well as military installations that made Seattle a likely first-strike target of the Soviet Union should they ever attack the U.S.

“So what they decided to do, this group of people meeting in Kay Bullitt’s living room, was to put on public teach-ins and educational events discussing all the different ways that we might avoid nuclear war, whether it was ‘Peace through Strength,’ which was the official government stance . . . [or] unilateral disarmament – what were all the possibilities.”

The end result of what became a formal organizing effort was a week of special events, with lunchtime lectures in downtown Seattle and evening lectures on the University of Washington campus.

But even when the big event at the Kingdome had come and gone 35 years ago this week, the work of Target Seattle had really only just begun.

“In the spring of 1983, 33 of us people who were involved in the anti-nuclear activities took the letter that people had signed during the first Target Seattle to our sister city Tashkent in Uzbekistan,” Betsy Bell said. “The idea was that we wanted to go and visit and make friends with our sister city people in Tashkent.”

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Not everyone in the Seattle area – a region known for those defense contractors and military installations, and proud of its longtime U.S. “Senator from Boeing” Henry M. Jackson – was necessarily supportive of the efforts of Target Seattle.

“We got some big pushback,” Bell said. “Herbert Ellison, who was head of the Jackson School [at the University of Washington] at the time, thought we would be interfering with the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty” that was being negotiated at the time.

Others thought the Target Seattle delegation members were simply naïve.

“They were afraid we’d be used by the media in [the Soviet Union] . . . [but] we did a good job of keeping on message and never allowing that to happen,” Bell said.

Bell says that Seattle was the first American city to create a sister city relationship with a community in the Soviet Union.

“It was very complicated, very hard to do, to establish sister city relationships [during] the Cold War,” Bell said. “We were the model for how to do that,” with exchanges between academics in the early 1960s, visits here in the early 1970s by the mayor and other officials from Tashkent during the Mayor Wes Uhlman administration, and creation of sister city peace parks in each community.

A relationship with Tashkent

Even with nearly two decades of goodwill between Seattle and Tashkent, Bell says the trip there in 1983 was not without challenges. But, she says, the group achieved what they set out to do.

“Our whole point of view was that we were ordinary citizens, we had come under our own steam, bought our own tickets, and we were there to visit with people in Tashkent and ask them to help us prevent nuclear war,” Bell said.

Can Bell point to any reasons why people in Seattle led this decades-long effort to connect with people in the old Soviet Union?

“I think there is something very special about Seattle,” Bell said. “For one thing, there’s a quite an active attitude that we don’t need to do what the government tells us to do, we can make our own decisions. The citizens have the power to actually organize and make a decision. I think we’ve just seen this recently in the unwillingness to cooperate with ICE” on the recent travel ban and moves to penalize so-called sanctuary cities.

“Seattle led the way,” Bell said.

And she says it wasn’t just around here where Target Seattle made an impact.

“Because of our success here, it spread all across the United States,” Bell said. “People were having ‘Target whatever’ [or] ‘Target whatever.’ They were having local meetings all over the United States.”

Even in the years after Target Seattle, the community’s connection to the Soviet Union continued to put the city at the forefront of Cold War citizen diplomacy.

KING TV’s “Citizens’ Summit” program in late 1985 paired, via satellite, a studio audience in Leningrad and a similar audience in Seattle for a national and international broadcast. Host for the Soviet side of the program was Vladimir Pozner; in Seattle for the United States, it was Phil Donahue, then at the height of his fame and ratings as an afternoon syndicated TV talk show host. These same connections helped Seattle land the second Goodwill Games here in 1990.

Nowadays, the Cold War is long since over and the Soviet Union is no more, but Seattle’s sister city relationship with Tashkent is still going strong. One need only speak with Lola Zakharova, the president of the Seattle Tashkent Sister City Association. She grew up in Tashkent and now lives in Seattle.

Zakharova credits Seattleites – and citizens of Tashkent – with helping end the Cold War.

“America is vast and the Soviet Union was even bigger, but I want to believe in the association’s mission – people to people diplomacy,” Zakharova said. “I do want to believe that it contributed to what eventually happened and the demise of the Cold War era . . . what we can do is establish these connections with our fellow Uzbeks, our fellow Americans, and hopefully pass the message to future generations that even ordinary citizens can make a difference in the world.”

Anne Stadler agrees, particularly given the strong ties that developed between the UW and Tashkent through the sister city relationship.

“There’s been a number of student exchanges and faculty exchanges,” between the University of Washington and Tashkent, Stadler says. “It’s one of the most active sister city organizations.”

Lessons learned from Target Seattle

Bell looks back at what Target Seattle and other local activist efforts accomplished, and she sees where lessons learned 35 years ago can be applied to today’s international challenges.

“[President Ronald] Reagan takes a lot of credit for having brought down that wall and all that stuff,” Bell said. “But I don’t think that would’ve ever happened if we hadn’t put the cracks in it.”

And what about the nuclear threat posed by North Korea?

“We need to get those borders open, we need to be taking peace choruses and students into North Korea,” Bell said. “We need to be visiting Iran and Pakistan, all these rogue states need to know what Americans are like.”

Bell sees social media as a pale comparison to what people accomplished face-to-face – sitting across from each other right here in Seattle – in earlier decades.

“I’m in despair because I think we’re all relying on social media to think we’re organizing and we’re not,” Bell said. “We need to sit down together in living rooms and talk, and then make a plan and go,” she said. “Get the visas and then go.”

Exhibit at Washington State History Museum in Tacoma
Glasnost & Goodwill: Citizen Diplomacy in the Northwest opens Saturday

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Target Seattle and the city’s long history of anti-nuke activism