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Reflections on 30th Anniversary of June 12 Peace Rally

peace rally

Demonstrators at the 12 June 1982 rally in NYC. Source: Hilobrow

How things have changed! Thirty years ago, on June 12, 1982, one million people gathered in New York City’s Central Park to rally in favor of nuclear disarmament and an end to the Cold War. As the largest peace demonstration in U.S. history, it was the culmination of a movement that had gathered improbably around a somewhat wonky proposal to terminate globally the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons and end production and testing of new nuclear weapons. The Freeze Movement owed much to the efforts of a small coterie of dedicated organizers, among them Cora Weiss of Manhattan’s Riverside Church disarmament program, David Cortright of SANE, and Terry Provance, disarmament coordinator a the American Friends Service Committee in Washington, D.C.  The Central Park demonstration has been classed by the assembler of one slideshow as among “twenty demonstrations that moved America,” and rightly so.

Reflections on 30th Anniversary of June 12 Peace Rally

Acutely sensitive to grassroots trends, the master politician Ronald Reagan executed a fast and sharp course correction, proposing (over the objections of most of his advisers) that an East-West argument over new deployments of medium-range missiles in the European theater be resolved with what he called the “zero option”–no new nukes. Having replaced the notion of limiting nuclear weapons (as embodied in the SALT treaty negotiation process) with the idea of beginning a process of nuclear disarmament (START), he  went on to seriously propose the complete abolition of nuclear weapons to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavik, Iceland, in October 1986. Now, for the first time, the idea of eliminating nuclear weapons was not merely respectable but part of the world’s standing agenda.

Thus, as a direct result of the anti-nuclear weapons movements that swept the United States and western Europe in the early 1980s, the superpowers began (however belatedly) to sharply reduce the size of their nuclear arsenals, as required by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1970. In reciprocal unilateral actions taken by George H.W. Bush and the USSR, in what turned out to be the very last days of the Soviet Union, short-range “tactical” nuclear weapons were radically cut, by roughly 90 percent.

Those were no mean achievements, but there also were limits. In embracing the cause of nuclear disarmament, Reagan neatly took the wind out of the sails of the peace movement. Sight was lost of the movement’s narrow goal–or was it the wider one?–of freezing the production of nuclear weapons materials and the weapons themselves. Had a global freeze actually been achieved, there might be no nuclear India or Pakistan today, and negotiations with Iran might be going better. The goal of nuclear disarmament would not be subject to the mere whims of the moment.

With the end of the Cold War, organizations that had worked tirelessly for the abolition of nuclear weapons adopted new priorities, and their leaders tended to move on to other things or retire. Those like peace scholar David Cortright who have continued to devote themselves to nuclear disarmament are the exception. Provance (photo, above), who arguably did more than any other individual to reorganize elements of the anti-Vietnam War coalition into what became the Freeze Movement, now is CEO of a micro-finance organization–a very worthy cause, but not the one we concern ourselves with here.



William Sweet

Bill Sweet has been writing about nuclear arms control and peace politics since interning at the IAEA in Vienna during summer 1974, right after India's test of a "peaceful nuclear device." As an editor and writer for Congressional Quarterly, Physics Today and IEEE Spectrum magazine he wrote about the freeze and European peace movements, space weaponry and Star Wars, Iraq, North Korea and Iran. His work has appeared in magazines like the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and The New Republic, as well as in The New York Times, the LA Times, Newsday and the Baltimore Sun. The author of two books--The Nuclear Age: Energy, Proliferation and the Arms Race, and Kicking the Carbon Habit: The Case for Renewable and Nuclear Energy--he recently published "Situating Putin," a group of essays about contemporary Russia, as an e-book. He teaches European history as an adjunct at CUNY's Borough of Manhattan Community College.