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April 16, 2012

Nuclear weapon debates were plentiful in April 1982

Plan for a nuclear war -- or seek a nuclear weapons freeze. That was a frequent debate going on in our region during the month of April 1982.

There had been a recent revival of the nuclear arms race between the U.S. and what was then the Soviet Union. A speedy freeze in nuclear arms was rejected by President Reagan April 1 because of what he called Moscow's "definite margin of superiority" over Washington in the weapons. But Mr. Reagan, at a news conference, said he remained committed to seeking an agreement with the Kremlin for reducing nuclear weapons "dramatically."

Nevertheless, our area was preparing for the worst.

"If the situation, God forbid, breaks down and there is a nuclear war, we at least have a plan," said Donald DeVito, of the state Office of Disaster Preparedness. DeVito hinted that if there was a war, Otsego County and Oneonta would become a crowded place. "We have to put together plans that will help the maximum number of people survive. Some kind of a plan is better than nothing," he told The Daily Star.

"If a nuclear holocaust were to come, we'd probably become a host area," John Fink, Otsego County deputy disaster coordinator said Monday, April 5. "People from target areas or bigger cities would be moved here."

Meanwhile, a group of Oneonta residents presented then Congressman George Wortley with a petition signed by more than 2,200 people calling for a nuclear weapons freeze. A delegation of eight people, including Otsego County Board of Representatives Chairman David Brenner, presented the petition to Wortley at the First United Methodist Church of Oneonta on Wednesday, April 7. A group in Chenango County presented petitions to Wortley later that day.

"Our goal was 1,000 signatures," said Alice Siegfried, a member of the Oneonta delegation. "We did very well."

Wortley faced plenty of questions from those favoring a nuclear arms freeze at the church that day.

"I know you'd like me to go back and tell the president that I want a freeze on nuclear weapons right now," Wortley said. "But I can't do that because I believe in my heart that it would take away any useful bargaining tools we need to deal with the Soviets."

"We put you in office to voice the concerns of the people of this district," freeze advocate Molly Swain said. "We want you to know that there are a large number of people in this district that support a freeze."

Not a week later, a group of Delaware County residents had collected more than 500 signatures calling for a nuclear arms freeze, after starting an informal group in recent weeks.

"It's an idea whose time has come," group member Carla Castro of Treadwell said.

Eight members of the Oneonta Nuclear Freeze Campaign joined others from across the state at the beginning of Ground Zero Week on Sunday, April 18, for a two-hour vigil at Rome's Griffiss Air Force Base.

To end Ground Zero Week, members of the All-People's Congress in Oneonta were seen carrying a banner as they marched down West Street to Main Street in Oneonta on Saturday, April 24.

Former U.S. Congresswoman Bella Abzug was at the State University College at Oneonta on Monday, April 27, urging about 300 students to become "activists" in a battle against "alleged economic injustices and a costly nuclear buildup created by the Reagan administration." Abzug said that while the arms race continued, the American economy was plagued by nine percent unemployment and a $180 billion deficit.

Donald DeVito was back in Oneonta for meetings on April 28, and said he was feeling "the brunt of the attack" from groups protesting the nuclear arms race. He said those groups argue that to plan to survive a nuclear war is to invite one.

"That's illogical," DeVito said. "If the other guy knows we can survive an attack, maybe he'll be a little less likely to hit."

"We don't have to apologize for what we do," DeVito added. "We're in the business of saving lives, and that's nothing to apologize for."

This weekend: Notable local reforestation efforts were made in 1927.

City Historian Mark Simonson's column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at His website is His columns can be found at

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