IN the early 1980s, as fear of nuclear holocaust rose and President Reagan described the Soviet Union as an ``evil empire,'' the American peace movement peaked. Its supporters numbered in the millions. The ``doomsday clock'' of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, symbolically indicating the proximity of the world to nuclear war, stood at three minutes to midnight. The Beyond War organization could count on 15,000 people willing to give at least an evening a week to working for peace.
Now, with the Berlin Wall down and the cold war ended, the peace movement itself has fallen on hard times:
The mailing list for Beyond War has dropped from 22,000 to 14,000 in the last several years, says its president, Richard Rathbun.
Contributions to SANE/FREEZE: Campaign for Global Security are ``off by 15 to 20 percent'' since the fall of the Berlin Wall, says Nick Carter, the group's executive director.
``The challenge that we face right now is to overcome a relative sense of complacency - even among those people who are strong supporters,'' says Peter Zheutlin, spokesman for International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War based in Cambridge, Mass.
``We have a terrific recruitment problem,'' Elise Boulding says from her vantage point in the International Peace Research Association, adding that ``people can't get as excited'' about today's range of smaller problems as they could about a single Soviet enemy.
When did the decline begin? The movement grew steadily, Mr. Rathbun says, until the 1987 Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Washington. ``That event,'' he recalls, ``signaled something profoundly changing. We had a little brainstorming session the week after that, and everybody said, `It's over - let's go find what we're going to do next.''
Even before that event, however, the ``doomsday clock'' had been reset to 10 minutes to midnight following the December 1987 superpower agreement limiting intermediate-range nuclear forces (the INF treaty).
Where does the peace movement turn next? Most observers point to the environment. The fact that last April's Earth Day celebration drew some 200 million people in 150 countries, Rathbun says, indicates both a ``falling away of the preoccupation'' with superpower conflict and an upsurge in environmental concern. Like many peace groups, Beyond War is rethinking its role and appears to be moving much more strongly into environmental issues.
The Institute for Soviet-American Relations has already shifted its emphasis from peace-seeking citizen exchanges to exchanges centering on agriculture, health, and environmental issues. In 1988, says executive director Eliza Klose, ``We turned ourselves to the environmental front as a rather major part of our coverage.''
``I can't think of a peace group that's expanding right now,'' Mr. Carter says - except, he notes, Greenpeace, which has long been deeply identified with environmental issues.