Marching against calamity

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A calendar in the Village Voice, titled ''Making Peace Happen; A Calendar for Survival,'' lists in a four-week period 49 events around New York City, dealing in one way or another with the prospect of nuclear holocaust. The announcements describing the meetings pretty much say it all:

''Nuclear War: What's in It for You?''

''Effects of Nuclear War on Children''

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''Nuclear Arms Negotiation: Where Do We Go From Here?''

The famous quote by Admiral Hyman Rickover is centered among the listings: ''I think we'll probably destroy ourselves, so what difference will it make? Some new species will come up that might be wiser.''

Nobody can open up a newspaper or magazine or snap on a television set without, sooner or later, encountering the newly obsessive subject.

At a Harvard conference on ''The International Style in Architecture,'' Lewis Mumford, the brilliant cultural historian, abandoned his assigned theme to declare: ''I believe we are in the deepest crisis mankind has ever faced. We don't know whether we can survive the immense forces we have created . . . so let us pray.''

Even the Boston Marathon could not divert attention from the motif of ''Ground Zero'' - that precise spot where a nuclear bomb would land and spread out its flowering destruction. Broadsides were passed out along the 26-mile route, detailing the fire effect at specified points if a nuclear bomb were to be dropped on the finish line.

Dread of a nuclear war is taking over all our other apprehensions for the time being. Bulletins from Concerned Scientists -- and concerned physicians and concerned businessmen -- stuff one's mailbox. Every day, it seems, another town meeting or another state legislature endorses a policy of nuclear freeze, and nobody says, ''It's none of your business.''

People who don't read books are reading Jonathan Schell's ''The Fate of the Earth'' -- a little volume that promises to have as great an influence as John Hersey's ''Hiroshima'' three and a half decades ago.

People who don't go to movies are watching on screens in churches and town halls and elsewhere nuclear-holocaust films like ''War Without Winners,'' ''The Last Epidemic,'' and ''War at Home.''

About three out of four Americans approve a nuclear freeze, or so the polls report. They are marching, bicycling, and even swimming to signal their support. As many as 10 million Americans may be bearing public witness in one way or another.

Suddenly the '80s have found the clear-cut moral issue - the cause - that the '70s yearned after. But it's all happening so fast that the alarm-sounders cannot quite believe it. Some of them are not used to being in the majority. With money pouring in beyond expectations and Political Action Committees starting to form, the nuclear freeze is becoming a very big deal, and success is producing its own kind of uneasiness.

''Will the Freeze Movement Be More Than a Fad?'' one headline asks anxiously.

Is all this just another media blitz -- the moral equivalent of the fiber diet or video games?

Can any movement be trusted that finds Barry Goldwater and Jane Fonda on the same side, not to mention Roman Catholic bishops and Marxist intellectuals and Billy Graham and who knows who else?

We are not easily convinced by our own convictions. Some smirking little demon haunts us with nasty whispers:

''You're not really serious about this, you know. You never are. It's just your latest chic form of moral indignation, making you feel tingly all over.

''All you're doing is setting up another Hot Topic for authors and lecturers to rip off. Every politician is going to hitch onto the bandwagon for a quick tow.

''Admit it! You'll never be able to go the route. You're only good for signing a petition or two, coughing up the $25 donation, making it to a rally -- once. Perhaps you'll ride the wave to June 12, the day selected for an international demonstration. But after that, the first time it rains on your parade you'll be back to your old games of self-awareness.''

Smirking little demons have been put in their place before. Interruptions of day-to-day cynicism have been known to occur. The routine exercises of me-first have, for the moment, been suspended. Extraordinary deeds are done. It happens again and again during war and gets called heroism.

Will we have the stamina in behalf of peace to make the long march -- to persist until gesture and rhetoric turn into something more? As Mumford said, ''Let us pray.''

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