This week marked the 30th anniversary of the historic June 12, 1982 rally to freeze and reverse the arms race. One million people gathered that day in New York’s Central Park for the largest demonstration for peace in U.S. history. I was part of the June 12 rally committee with my friend and colleague Cora Weiss. Cora and I reminisced about the rally this past week in preparation for a speech she gave at a New York event commemorating the occasion.
The rally had an electrifying effect on public opinion, catalyzing the growing public opposition to the Reagan nuclear buildup and powerfully expressing the political demand for an end to nuclear insanity. Members of Congress I interviewed afterwards said that the specter of a million people in Central Park sent a strong message to Washington that the public wanted action to reduce the nuclear threat.
The rally coincided with the Second Special Session on Disarmament at the UN General Assembly. It was a rare but important example of synergy between civil society and the UN. The rally was an expression of public support for the Special Session and gave legitimacy to UN disarmament efforts.
The rally was a success because of the political climate of the time. Public fear of nuclear war was rising, and the nuclear freeze movement was spreading like a proverbial prairie fire. We knew the rally was going to be a success in the weeks before June 12 when local FM rock deejays began talking about it and vendors appeared on the streets selling buttons and t-shirts.
We received a huge boost from the support of James Taylor and other rock stars. They volunteered their talents for two big fundraising concerts in Nassau Coliseum a few days before the rally and then at the rally itself. Among the musicians participating with Taylor were Bruce Springsteen (at the rally), Billy Joel (at the Coliseum concerts), Linda Ronstadt and Rita Marley. Lots of stars gathered backstage, including Yoko Ono and Orson Wells.
The anniversary of the June 12 rally reminds us of the massive scale of the nuclear freeze movement during the 1980s. The Reagan and first Bush administrations tried to discredit the movement and denied its impact, but historian Larry Wittner has documented the movement’s significant influence. Public mobilization pressured the Reagan administration to negotiate with Moscow, helped to constrain the nuclear weapons buildup, and led Congress to cut off funding for nuclear testing. As I wrote in Peace Works, public opinion in the United States and Europe played a significant role in ending the Cold War. All good reasons to commemorate the Central Park rally.