Reflections on the 40th Anniversary of the June 12, 1982 Anti-Nuclear Weapons March and Rally: “Freeze the Arms Race—Shift the Budget to Human Needs.” New York City
On Saturday June 12th, 1982, I laid my one-year-old son Andrew down right in the middle of Fifth Avenue, the most famous street in New York City and one of its busiest—to change his diaper! Rest assured, I was not putting my young son in any danger. No angry drivers had to swerve to avoid us in the middle of the road. That’s because there were no cars on New York City’s main artery and most expensive shopping street that day. Fifth Avenue (along with other major streets) was closed to vehicular traffic on this Saturday to allow hundreds of thousands of people to march through mid-town Manhattan from the Dag Hammarskjold Plaza near the United Nations up to the Great Lawn in Central Park to protest the nuclear arms policies of the hawkish Reagan administration and demand a “freeze” on nuclear weapons. My wife (Jane), son, and I were there to join in the demonstration against the arms race and lend our support to the world-wide nuclear freeze movement.
I have to confess that after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis of my youth, I didn’t think too much about missile launch sites or nuclear weapons as I grew up. As a young adult in the 1970s, I had a dim awareness of the nuclear threat and the efforts to negotiate arms control agreements with the Soviet Union, but I was much more focused on protesting the war on Vietnam and studying sociology in graduate school. As a young parent in the early 1980s, however, Ronald Reagan’s nuclear saber rattling made me intensely aware of the threat of nuclear war and determined to resist that danger. One of the first anti-nuclear actions I took was to go to New York for the Central Park rally.
Years later, Andrew started his personal statement for law school applications with the Fifth Avenue diaper story, pointing out that since a very young age he had been going to protests on critical issues and now wanted to become an attorney (which he now is) to help bring about social change through the legal system, as the demonstrators had demanded that day in 1982. And for me, the New York City rally and march sparked an interest in not only protesting the arms race, but also in developing a sociological and criminological analysis of nuclear weapons.
The Central Park protest that my family and I attended on June 12, 1982 drew over one million people. According to activist and writer Jonathan Schell, “It was not only the largest antinuclear demonstration but the largest political demonstration of any description in American history.” The march and rally were sponsored by a large coalition of peace and social justice groups and the organizing group, the June 12th Rally Committee, selected the theme “Freeze the Arms Race—Shift the Budget to Human Needs.” As historian Vincent J. Intondi notes, “This link between defense spending and cuts in social programs caused many minority groups to join the rally.” Speaking in front of the UN that morning, civil rights activist Coretta Scott King made the link between abolishing nuclear weapons and social justice issues explicit: “All of our hopes for equality, for justice, economic security, for a healthy environment,” she noted, “depend on nuclear disarmament.”
The June 12th event was organized to coincide with the UN Second Special Session on Disarmament which had started earlier that week, and it represented a revival of the global nuclear disarmament movement that first arose in the early post-World War II era. The revival of the movement began in the 1970s with resistance to nuclear power. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the announcement of the Carter Doctrine—“threatening the use of nuclear arms if the Soviet Union should attempt to move beyond Afghanistan to dominate the Persian Gulf and its oil reserves”—and the Reagan administration’s rekindling of the Cold War, all contributed to a resurgence of public concern with the nuclear threat in the early 1980s. One major response to the increase of the nuclear danger came from the nuclear weapons freeze campaign. Written by anti-nuclear activist Randall Forsberg, the “Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race” demanded an immediate bilateral Soviet-American “freeze on testing, production, and further deployment of nuclear weapons.” The Central Park rally in New York City that day was largely inspired by Forsberg’s call.
Despite the serious nature of the threat that was being confronted, the June 12th march and rally had a festive feel. People were there to peacefully celebrate life by protesting and resisting the threat of nuclear apocalypse. Those who were able to make it all the way on to the Great Lawn in Central Park that day heard powerful speeches from the architect of the freeze proposal, Randy Forsberg, the famous anti-nuclear activist from Australia, Dr. Helen Caldicott, legendary peace activist Reverend William Sloan Coffin, Jr., comedian and activist Dick Gregory, famed author Toni Morrison, former New York congresswoman Bella Abzug, singer and activist Harry Belafonte, and many others. Music was provided by an all-star cast that included Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez, Chaka Kahn, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Peter, Paul and Mary, Richie Havens, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, and James Taylor. It was an intergenerational, interracial, gender inclusive crowd with strong union participation. It looked like the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s famous “Rainbow Coalition” of that time.
The peaceful and joyous rally of June 12th and the nuclear weapons freeze movement it boosted had a serious political impact in 1982 and beyond. That fall, freeze resolutions passed in eight out of nine states where they had been introduced and (in watered down versions) in both the U.S. House and Senate. By November 1983, “the freeze had been endorsed by more than 370 city councils, 71 county councils, and by one or both houses of 23 state legislatures.” As Schell points out, “It is a matter of public record that the movement powerfully undercut support for Reagan’s nuclear buildup.” The revived disarmament movement strongly influenced President Reagan to resume nuclear arms negotiations with the Soviet Union. Looking back over thirty years later, Intondi observed that, “Perhaps the true legacy of the June 12th rally is the recent success of ICAN [the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons] and the passage of the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty at the United Nations.”
The Central Park Rally in New York City and the Nuclear Freeze Campaign demonstrated the power of mass protest and organized social movements. The revived global disarmament movement in the early 1980s not only forced the United States and the Soviet Union back to the arms control bargaining table, it also played a significant role in ending the Cold War and reducing the nuclear danger at that time. But the opportunity for nuclear disarmament provided by the end of the Cold War was wasted, and although arsenals would be reduced, the major powers would continue to possess nuclear weapons and continue to threaten to use them in some conflict situations and for general “deterrence.” The failure to disarm at the end of the twentieth century, new technological developments and modernization efforts in the early decades of the twenty-first century, the enduring power of the unequal geopolitical system, the looming threat of the climate crisis, and the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine have combined to leave the world only 100 seconds from midnight (according to the famous “Doomsday Clock” of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists). New and much stronger international efforts to bolster the global political and juridical systems will be needed to avoid the twin apocalyptic threats of nuclear warfare and the climate crisis. We have to find a way to again organize a powerful integrated social movement to create a new form of internationalism that can save the human prospect from extinction.
Professor of Sociology
Western Michigan University
Kramer's books include: Crimes of the American Nuclear State (Northeastern University Press, 1998) and Carbon Criminals, Climate Crimes (Rutgers University Press, 2020). He is currently working on a new book titled: Apocalyptic Crimes: A Criminology of Nuclear Weapons.
 Schell, Jonathan. 2007. “The Spirit of June 12.” The Nation 285. July 2. (p. 4).  Intondi, Vincent J. 2015. African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement. Stanford: Stanford University Press (p. 99).  Intondi, 2015 (p.103)  Schell, 2007 (p. 4)  Wittner, Lawrence S. 2009. Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement. Stanford: Stanford University Press (p. 154).  Schell, 2007 (p. 4).  Intondi, Vincent J. 2018. “The Fight Continues: Reflections on the June 12, 1982 Rally for Nuclear Disarmament.” Arms Control Now. Arms Control Association (June 10). [https://www.armscontrol.org/blog/2018-06-10/fight-continues-reflections-june-12-1982-rally-nuclear-disarmament].