Foreign Policy Leslie Cagan Ukraine

Why the Spirit of June 12, 1982, Matters

Time for a new movement to stop the nuclear arms race.
Anti-Nuclear Rally in Central Park on June 12, 1982, in New York City. (PL Gould / Getty Images)

By Leslie Cagan / The Nation

Forty years, and the memory is as vivid as ever. It was a beautiful spring day. The United Nations Second Special Session on Disarmament was about to get underway, and we were determined to be heard. The arms race had to stop, we said; nuclear weapons had to be abolished—and instead of endlessly pouring extravagant amounts of money into military budgets, it was time to put our national treasury to use meeting the needs of our communities.

Ronald Reagan was president. His administration was planning to place new short-range nuclear missiles in Europe, just minutes from the Soviet Union. Massive marches opposing these plans had already been held in capital cities throughout the continent. It was time for the US peace movement to step up.

For 18 months, the June 12 Rally Committee (the national coalition leading this effort) worked to put together the strongest possible demonstration of opposition to nuclear weapons. There were serious struggles within the coalition: Should we address militarism—including US intervention—more directly? How do we include more people of color in the leadership of the coalition? Could we build a structure that was not top-down but instead encouraged and nourished new initiatives? These represented real differences within the coalition, and in my opinion, the best decisions were not always made.

The work kept expanding. Throughout the country, local groups—some long-standing and others created for this demonstration—took up the call and became the backbone of the mobilization. Some 600 groups spread the word and organized bus, train, and car caravans to get people to the march. Some 5,000 people donated their energies to help ensure that the experience of the 1 million people who marched—and those who barely moved, because every inch of midtown Manhattan was packed with people—was powerful, and that our message would be heard.

Over the years, I have organized and been at more demonstrations than I can count. Many of these played important roles in the social movements of their time. And yet June 12, 1982, stands out not only for its size but also for the collective energy and strength of the message, for the power we exerted that day—and the impetus it gave to the work for years to come.

To be clear: We did not abolish nuclear weapons, and we did not move the money out of militarism and into our communities. But we helped move the needle on nuclear disarmament by nurturing this movement.

It would be three more years before Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met and laid the groundwork for what would become the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. This was the first time the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to reduce their nuclear stockpiles, abolish a whole category of nuclear weapons, and allow on-site inspections. Many factors led to that agreement, but without a doubt the June 12 mobilization was one of them.

The longer-lasting value came from the organizing over the months leading up to June 12. Not just selling bus tickets: Educational work, local media work, helping people understand the threat and the urgent need for action—all were central to the organizing. People need to believe that what they do makes a difference, that their participation is central to securing change.

Today, there are some 13,000 nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the United States, Russia, China, France, India, Pakistan, the United Kingdom, North Korea, and Israel. The US and Russia have about 90 percent of them. These more modern weapons are exponentially deadlier than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 77 years ago.

The dangers of nuclear war remain all too real. Russia’s war against Ukraine has reawakened public awareness of how close we are to a nuclear catastrophe. Just one bomb dropped—whether deliberately or by accident—could lead to indescribable horror.

No one demonstration or series of actions can make the needed changes, but when our communities are in motion together, we can alter the public discourse and change policy. Equally important, we are stronger, more effective, and more anchored in the realities of people’s lives when we articulate and act on the connections between struggles.

Abolishing nuclear weapons will require ending militarism in its many forms: from global wars to militarized policing here at home; from bloated military budgets to a culture of militarism to the easy access to the guns that are killing people every day. All of this must be anchored in the struggles for racial and economic justice and in urgent action to stop the devastation of climate change. The good news is that so many younger organizers are grounded in that comprehensive perspective.

It is a big agenda, but abandoning any of it will weaken our work. Let us use the memory of June 12, 1982, to strengthen the ongoing movement for nuclear disarmament and to bring more energy to the other movements of today. As we honor what we’ve achieved, let us look back for insights into how we can more powerfully create the change so desperately needed.

Leslie Cagan

Leslie Cagan is an American activist, writer, and socialist organizer involved with the peace and social justice movements. She is the former national coordinator of United for Peace and Justice, the former cochair of Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, and the former chair of Pacifica Radio.


  1. Lots of anniversaries forgotten: USS Liberty!!!

    The Liberty was first launched at the end of WW2 in Oregon and named then “Simmons Victor.” It belonged to a fleet of cargo carriers quickly built (one every 10 weeks), to replace the losses to submarine attacks during WW2.

    Reconverted into a spy ship in 1964, she was renamed “Liberty”. On May 24, 1967, she was dispatched from the Ivory Coast to the Eastern Mediterranean, to monitor radio signals from both Egyptians and Israeli sources, as tensions grew between Israel and the Arab world.

    On Jun 8, 1967, reconnaissance flights over the Liberty, sailing about 15 miles off the Egyptian coast, began at 5.15 AM, the next round at 8.50 AM and several other Israeli planes and jets circled the ship until 12.45 PM.

    At 1.30 PM three Israeli Mirage jets began the attack. Completely taken by surprise, Liberty’s skipper William McGonagle ordered the only two 0.50 mm guns manned and fired – they were quickly taken out by the jets and the gunners pulverized before they could fire the first shots, however ineffective could the shots be anyway.

    The attacks continued, one every 45 seconds, as the jets strafed the ship and circled back for another round. They hit with cannon and rockets. Then they aimed at the engine room below the smoke stack. Next came Napalm bombs that turned the deck into an inferno.

    Six minutes into the attack, the Liberty, with whatever communication resources were left, radioed for help to the Sixth fleet located further west. “Any station, any station, this is Rockstar, we are under attack.” The operator on the aircraft carrier Saratoga could not understand the message. On the Liberty they changed transmitter. After some interminable minutes Saratoga replied “Roger” and Liberty screamed, “We are under attack and need immediate assistance.”

    But now the Saratoga operator asked for the identification code. The Liberty’s operator, with cannon from three jets strafing the ship, had to retrieve the code from a book, and finally Saratoga replied reassuringly, “Authentication is correct. I am standing by for further traffic.”

    Meanwhile, before the air attack began, the Liberty’s radar operator had spotted three unidentified ships approaching fast, and alerted the captain. In the confusion and carnage that followed, as the dead and wounded piled on deck, no one thought of the approaching ships. Now Captain McGonagle saw through his binoculars that the three boats, maneuvering in attack formation, were Israelis. Up to that moment he and everybody else thought that the attackers were Egyptians.

    In the meantime the original mast with the US flag had been hit – and the Liberty sailors raised a new larger American flag.

    The forward torpedo boat opened fire on the defenseless ship. This would provide cover for the attacking boats to get close and launch their torpedoes. Though crippled himself and with a crippled ship operating with one engine, McGonagle attempted evasive maneuvers. Of the 5 torpedoes launched by the Israelis, one hit – creating a gash 24 ft high and 39 ft wide. The Liberty listed by 8 degrees; the entire intelligence section was instantly flooded trapping and killing 20 people.

    Now the torpedo boats halted fire while remaining at less than 800 yards from the Liberty. Still shocked, amazed and in disbelief, the Liberty signaled repeatedly with a hand-held Aldis lamp, “US Naval Ship.” “

    Do you need any help?” signaled the Israelis. A response that, in the circumstances, was almost adding insult to injury. “No” signaled back the Liberty.

    The torpedo boats had not yet departed when two oncoming Israeli helicopters circled the ship. Fearful of more attacks, McGonagle had the international flag hoisted signaling “Not Under Command.”

    At 6.40 PM another Israeli helicopter arrived and dropped a bag containing a business card from the US Naval Attaché at the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, Ernest Castle. On the back of the card there was a hand-written question, “Have you any casualties?” Which seemed another insult added to injury. The Liberty’s deck was a wreck, still strewn with blood and some dead sailors… impossible to miss.

    How about the call for help from the Sixth Fleet? After the signal was authenticated, the Saratoga launched some fighter jets but, moments later they were unexpectedly and inexplicably recalled, waiting for the arrival of another aircraft carrier, the America.

    Eventually, the planes from the America took off and the squadron leader, while reassuring the Liberty radio operator, asked a logical question, “We are on the way, who is the enemy?” Good question. For the sailors on the Liberty, as well as Captain McGonagle could not as yet believe their eyes that the enemies were the Israelis.


    Thanks, Jimmie Moglia, for remembering: A Forgotten Anniversary

  2. Abolishing nuclear weapons will require carrying out the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty that call for nuclear disarmament.
    Nuclear Armageddon could result in survivors being limited to cockroaches, Democrats, and Republicans.

  3. Activism is critical if we are to effect change. However, unless there is radical election finance reform, which makes our representatives accountable to the people, not to their corporate owners, the common good will never be a priority. Our politicians and the media have created culture wars and “wokeism,” to divide and conquer. Hating one another distracts us from their horrific policies and wasteful allocation of tax dollars for aggressive, destructive militarism around the world. It is naive to think that we have representation for the people, by the people.

  4. Hi,
    I tried to log in to request that You do not send me ‘So many’ e-mails ! I get too many from you every single day and they are getting to be too much! So please cant you limit these e-mails or I will have to stop/delete you e-mail !

  5. Yes, the ‘Anti-War’ movement is essential — but even more so, the ‘Anti-Empire’ movement must be added because of its broader danger to us all with regard to all the other; political, economic, social, cultural, legal, educational, and democratic socialism factors beyond the “disease of Republics” — which our founders fully understood from their ‘deep reading’ of Roman history — which is EMPIRE itself.

    All experts on what is called ‘Political Economics’, which should truthfully address the two key factors of “we the American people’s Political and Economic interests” with respect to anything deserving the name of ’small-d’ democracy.

    The cancerous problem of Emperors, since 1944, is simply that the first non-violent coup d’état in America occurred at the DNC Convention when the OSS, and DNC, conspired to physically ‘block’ FDR’s brilliant socialist VP, Henry Wallace, from taking the podium when Wallace had a favorability of over 60% from the Convention Floor.

    This was the first strike in turning America into a global EMPIRE, which the inept vacuous haberdasher and pawn of the Empire, Harry Truman, allowed to happen. While Republican President, Ike Eisenhower, reported the existence of the MIC in 1961, the next usurpation by Empire in 1963 was the first violent coup d’état in America by the National Security State, which un-Truman’s deceit enabled.

    The following actions by Nixon, and then Reagan’s inane claim to have collapsed the Soviet “Evil Empire” (weren’t they all, Ronnie?) and cemented all subsequent acts of an entrenched cancerous EMPIRE over the past eleven ‘least worst voting cycles’ to “Bye Bye Byeden”, the “Empire’s Got You Now”.

    How the hell could this “Quiet American” Empire be anything but an EMPIRE when America has the highest GINI Coefficient of Wealth Inequality in the World, and it’s kids are dying?

    1. by gini-coeffecient a few African nations, 2 south amerikan nations worse per Allianz and recent Swiss study

  6. Media-driven propaganda is a powerful thing. Nevertheless, this is not “Russia’s war against Ukraine.” Formerly a part of the USSR, Ukraine has been an independent country for some years. This (obviously) wouldn’t be the case if Russia opposed their independence. Ukraine’s conflict had been between those who want to align with the West/NATO and those who want to maintain their alliance with Russia. (More akin to a civil war.) Ukraine’s President Zelensky (multi-millionaire, took office in 2019) wants to align with NATO. We’ve watched as the 1990 NATO Treaty was utterly disregarded, with a surge of US/NATO bases established throughout Eastern Europe, along Ukraine’s border, and now along a segment of Russia’s border. (In the real world, this is recognized as a war provocation.) We’ve seen Zelensky6’s troops brutalize Ukrainian ethnic Russians in the eastern region. Ultimately, Russia pushed back — and western media screeched, “Russia’s invading Ukraine!”

  7. Watch How to Start a Revolution DVD documentary and read From Dictatorship to Democracy, the book by Dr Gene Sharp.

  8. Nuclear power plants cannot be separated from the production of nuclear weapons.

    1. delusional—many nations are investing in advanced nuclear energy and they lack any nuclear weapons

  9. until the USA collapses and withdraws its military from the 800-1000 bases in other nations nuclear disarmament is impossible…the example of DPRK is instructive. Had Libya, Iraq had nukes, USA never would have invaded

  10. As Leslie said and concluded:

    “Let us use the memory of June 12, 1982, to strengthen the ongoing movement for nuclear disarmament and to bring more energy to the other movements of today. As we honor what we’ve achieved, let us look back for insights into how we can more powerfully create the change so desperately needed.”

    But at that date I was consumed and committed to developing an advanced architecture UNIX 68020 distributed intelligence Office Automation project, similar, but more advanced than IBM’s 925 project (code named for the film “Nine To Five”). Neither of these Revolutionary projects were formerly announced or produced, although Steve Jobs had tried to recruit the talent to do so.

    The moral and lesson that I and other young 30’s workers were too consumed to turn our visionary efforts toward, was that our efforts were not sufficiently focused on making our world better.

    Some of us had very innovative ideas — even like Mark Zuckerberg — but the deceitful thinking of how much money could be made through selfishly distorting efforts toward dumping ‘Negative Externality Costs’ on others just to make vast faux-profits, which were swept into Wealth “Accumulation by Dispossession” [David Harvey].

    Fortunately, I have found — in dealing with many brilliant thinkers — that thankfully, the most brilliant also tend to be the most moral.

    We, the older folks, have to recruit, support, and honor the young visionaries before the poison of greed distracts their dreams of creating a world of democratic socialism — as Einstein wrote in 1949.

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