On June 12, 1982, 30 years ago today, perhaps as many as one million people gathered in New York City's Central Park. They demanded the removal of the "nuclear sword of Damocles," that President John F. Kennedy two decades earlier had seen poised, "hanging by the slenderest of threads," over the heads of every human being alive (and uncountable multitudes not yet born). Dr. Randall Caroline Forsberg, one of the leading organizers of the rally and the movement which became known as the "Nuclear Freeze," later received a MacArthur "genius award" for her efforts. When she died too young on October 19, 2007 -- with exquisite irony, just a couple of weeks before the death of Colonel Paul Tibbets, commander of the U.S.A.A.F. B-29 Enola Gay that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima -- the New York Times said in her obituary that more people assembled at that place, on that day, than at any other political demonstration in American history.
Had they not done so, it is quite possible that not one of us might be here to remember, 30 years later today.
The June 12 gathering was the apogee of a citizen action campaign known as the "Nuclear Freeze," which took flight immediately after the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. It was a passionate, intense, and indeed terrified response to accelerating nuclear weapons programs, an across-the-board military buildup, and infinitely irresponsible bombast from high Administration officials -- even Vice President George H.W. Bush! -- about our nation's willingness to "wage and win" something they called a "protracted nuclear war."
A bit more than a year later, the human race was brought closer to the brink of bringing about our own extinction by our own hands than perhaps even during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. In the fall of 1983, NATO conducted a "war game" in Western Europe called "Able Archer," as it did pretty much every autumn. However, probably because of a combination of both high East-West tensions and flawed intelligence, the leaders in the Kremlin concluded that Able Archer was not a game. For about 72 hours, the Soviet Politburo genuinely believed that the United States was about to roll the dice, in a one-shot cosmic gamble, by endeavoring to... well... "wage and win" a "protracted nuclear war."
Wonder where they might have gotten that idea.
So the leaders in the Kremlin, for three desperate days, apparently considered launching a nuclear first strike first. And for all we know they would have done just that, but for a British spy who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Somehow he discerned just what the men of the Politburo were contemplating, and immediately sent a frantic missive back to London. NATO got the message, and immediately brought the war game to a halt. And consequently, we are all still here.
President Reagan vilified the nuclear freeze movement at first. He questioned the patriotism of the demonstrators, and even suggested that some of the organizers might be not just communist sympathizers, but "foreign agents." But during Reagan's second term, his Administration actually went far beyond what the freeze campaign had advocated. He launched arms control negotiations directed, for the first time, not just at "freezing" but at reducing the absolute size of nuclear arsenals. He agreed with Moscow to eliminate all medium-range nuclear weapons from both Eastern and Western Europe. He and new Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev proclaimed together, "A nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought." And then at Reykjavik, Iceland they contemplated, and almost completed, a grand bargain to abolish nuclear weapons by the year 2000 -- before they might abolish us.
One might postulate that the pressure of the freeze movement and the shock of Able Archer were equally responsible for the change in direction of Ronald Reagan and his nuclear consigliori. As far as we know, the Able Archer misperception occurred only once. But the possibility of such miscalculations, with limitless risk, was inherent in the nuclear tensions of the hour and indeed of the nuclear age itself. (That remains true today, of course, with still more than 20,000 nuclear weapons remaining on the planet -- many of them vulnerable to theft or purchase by terrorists, and many more poised to be launched within minutes of a single computer error, a single conscious decision, a single misunderstanding.)
But it is hard to imagine that Ronald Reagan would have stepped back from the nuclear precipice without the unprecedented gathering in Central Park on June 12, 1982 of ordinary people -- who, when it came to avoiding the apocalypse, were way ahead of the politicians. So it is hardly hyperbole to say that 30 years ago today, we, peaceful demonstrators, citizen agitators, members of the human race, played an incalculably important role in saving ourselves from ourselves.
Tad Daley is the author of Apocalypse Never: Forging the Path to a Nuclear Weapon-Free World (Rutgers University Press), released in paperback in Spring 2012. www.apocalypsenever.org. He directs the Project on Abolishing War at the Center for War/Peace Studies in New York.