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The iconic logo for Peace as used by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmanent

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The first atomic bomb was dropped by the United States on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. Three days later the second was dropped on Nagasaki. Japan surrendered, ending the Second World War but the Atomic Age had begun.


During the late 1940s and 50s, first the US, then Russia and Britain developed and tested new atomic weapons with ever increasing frequency. Not only were there growing fears of nuclear war breaking out but there was growing concern and protest around the world at the environmental damage caused by these atmospheric tests. By the late 1950s, these fears had become acute.


In the beginning


In the 1950s Europe was gripped by a very real fear of nuclear conflict and, building on the work of earlier anti-war movements, CND was launched with a massive public meeting in London in February 1958. Shortly afterwards at Easter the first Aldermaston March attracted a good deal of attention and the CND symbol appeared everywhere. From the outset people from all sections of society got involved. There were scientists, more aware than anyone else of the full extent of the dangers which nuclear weapons represented, along with religious leaders such as Canon John Collins of St Paul’s Cathedral, concerned to resist the moral evil which nuclear weapons represented. The Society of Friends (Quakers) was very supportive, as well as a wide range of academics, journalists, writers, actors and musicians. Labour Party members and trade unionists were overwhelmingly sympathetic as were people who had been involved in earlier anti-bomb campaigns organised by the British Peace Committee or the Direct Action committee.


In the early years membership increased rapidly. CND’s advocacy of unilateral nuclear disarmament – the proposal that Britain should take the initiative and get rid of its own nuclear weapons – caught the imagination of many. The alternative of multilateral disarmament – by negotiations between countries – was clearly not working. The US, Russia and Britain, (and later France and China), were building ever more nuclear weapons. All attempts to control, let alone reverse the process broke down repeatedly. (As an example, negotiations for a treaty to halt the spread of nuclear weapons began in 1958 but the final agreement was not reached until 1968).


The Cuban Missile Crisis and after


In 1962 the Soviet Union was discovered to be installing nuclear missiles in Cuba, only 90 miles from the Florida coast. This very nearly provoked a nuclear war and although the Soviet Union pulled back at the last moment, both sides had been severely frightened.


The first telephone hot-line was set up between Washington and Moscow so the leaders could talk directly to each other. The Soviet missiles were taken out of Cuba and shortly afterwards American missiles already based in Turkey were quietly removed.


The next year a ban on nuclear testing in the atmosphere was agreed between the US, Soviet Union and Britain. For the first time the multilateral approach seemed to be working. International tension relaxed as the immediate threat of nuclear war faded away and CND numbers began to dwindle.


A smaller CND

From the mid-1960s, nuclear issues were increasingly replaced as the subject of mass popular protest by anger over the United States’ part in the Vietnam War. CND survived but as a much smaller movement. Some protests continued, particularly in Scotland where both British and US nuclear missile submarines were now based.


Problems and solutions


During these years, CND had problems to face. Many CND supporters were Labour Party members and when CND’s unilateral line gained majority backing within the Party, it provoked a violent reaction from the leadership. When Harold Wilson won the 1964 Election, the new Labour Government simply ignored anti-nuclear feeling and continued with the previous Conservative Government’s nuclear policy.


There had also been internal arguments about whether it was ever legitimate to break the law. Supporters of Non-Violent Direct Action (NVDA) wanted the campaign to include mass civil disobedience actions such as sit-ins and blockades.


In 1960 the Committee of 100 was set up to organise NVDA actions. In February 1961 4,000 protesters sat down outside the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall. In September, 1,300 were arrested in Trafalgar Square and 350 at Holy Loch in Scotland where the US Poseidon nuclear missile submarines were based. The authorities began to arrest and imprison the organisers (including the 89-year-old philosopher Bertrand Russell).


There was strong support for the Committee of 100 among CND members but some of the leadership refused to accept any illegal activities.


The whole Legal versus Illegal debate is not a simple matter of the authorities (legal) against the demonstrators (illegal). The police, local authorities and even the state can act illegally or at least stretch the law in ways never intended. Many people also argue that it may be necessary to commit a lesser crime in order to prevent the greater one of nuclear war.


The principles and practice of NVDA were worked out in detail during this time so that when direct action came to the fore again in the 1980s, it was generally accepted by the peace movement as a legitimate form of protest.




Cruise and Pershing missiles

In 1979 the decision was made to deploy American Cruise and Pershing missiles in Britain and several other Western European countries. At the same time the Soviet Union was deploying its new SS-20 missiles in Eastern Europe.


Suddenly the nuclear threat was back and talk of nuclear war commonplace. As more and more missiles were crowding ever closer to the East/West border, US President Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher seemed to have embarked on an anti-Soviet, anti-Communist crusade. Their speeches were full of fundamentalist rhetoric: of Us and Them, of Good versus Evil. People became frightened and many were angry that this new generation of American nuclear weapons were all to be based in Europe.


Huge protest marches were held throughout Western Europe, and in Britain, CND blossomed. Thousands of new members were joining every month.


Cruise Watch

Cruise missiles were mounted on road vehicles and had to leave their base on regular exercises. Cruise Watch, a network of protesters, was formed to track and harass the Cruise convoys wherever they went. Because of the scale and the determination of the protests, the convoys soon had to have large police escorts and only left the camp under cover of darkness.


With huge demonstrations in London and elsewhere, opposition to Cruise and to other aspects of the government’s nuclear policy such as the very close links with the US, had become a major issue in British politics.


Civil Defence

Renewed ridicule was heaped on the Government’s civil defence plans. These included do-it-yourself instructions on how to survive a nuclear attack in your own home. Meanwhile a network of underground bunkers had been built, not as mass air-raid shelters but as safe refuges for selected politicians and civil servants in case of nuclear war.


Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp


Among the many marches and demonstrations, one new element emerged: all-women’s activities.


In September 1981 a mainly women’s march from Cardiff arrived at Greenham Common US Air Force base in Berkshire, where the first Cruise missiles were to be based. What was at first a temporary camp soon became both a permanent peace camp and a women-only camp.


It quickly became a focus and a symbol of women’s resistance to the male-dominated world of nuclear weapons. The Greenham Women, as they became known, were independent of CND, although many individual CND women members supported or joined the camp.


There was some opposition within CND and the wider peace movement to the fact that men were barred from the camp, but this largely melted away as the determination, imagination and energy of the Greenham Women became clear. In spite of press hostility and physical abuse including repeated, often quite brutal evictions, they stayed at the base, sometimes in their thousands, sometimes a few dozen only, but never giving up.


The Thatcher years


The Conservative government became alarmed. Michael Heseltine was made Minister of Defence in January 1983. A very important part of his brief was to counter CND’s influence. Not only was a well-funded anti-CND propaganda unit set up by the Government but the Intelligence Service (MI5) began to spy on CND activists: bugging their telephones and even infiltrating an agent into the London office.


At the same time several organisations opposed to CND and its policies became very active. Some played a legitimate part – for instance by providing speakers to debate in schools against Youth CND and publishing reasoned arguments in opposition to CND. Others had a less reputable role: disrupting meetings and publishing personal attacks. The connections between these organisations and the government and the exact sources of their funding were never quite clear.


Once again CND won majority support in the Labour Party but the leadership fought back. The row between pro- and anti-CND factions in the Labour Party probably played a part in its losing the 1983 General Election but CND membership continued to grow.


Then the whole temper of international relations changed. A new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, took the initiative in calming the situation. Negotiations to remove the new missiles which had broken down in 1983 were resumed and a treaty signed in 1987.


Gorbachev’s reforms led over the next few years to the end of the Cold War, the reunification of East and West Germany, the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Eastern Europe and finally the collapse of the Soviet Union.


Again, as people felt safer, CND’s membership began to decline.


CND today


In recent years, treaties covering nuclear proliferation and nuclear testing have reinforced the belief that the immediate danger of nuclear war has faded away. However during this time there have been two peaks of renewed popular protest.


The first was in 1991 during the Gulf War when there were considerable fears that Iraq would use chemical or biological weapons on Israel, which might then retaliate with nuclear weapons.


The second was in 1995 when the French resumed nuclear testing at Moruroa in the Pacific. This produced a wave of anger and protest around the world and served as an unwelcome reminder that the world is still full of nuclear weapons and that the development of new ones continues.


Now there are widespread fears that nuclear explosives such as plutonium might be stolen or sold, especially since Russia has huge quantities of such materials and is in a state of considerable chaos. These could fall into the hands either of terrorists or the leadership of a country or one side in a civil war that was prepared to use at least the threat of nuclear weapons against its enemies.


Other issues include environmental worries about the whole cycle of nuclear production, transport and waste storage as well as the secrecy that still surrounds such things as radioactive leaks and other accidents.


In spite of the end of the Cold War and the recent change of government, Britain seems determined to cling on to its nuclear weapons. Indeed the new Trident system actually increases Britain’s nuclear capacity.There are regular protests and direct actions at nuclear installations across the country, in particular at the Trident submarine base at Faslane in Scotland. However many of the current issues, such as reprocessing or computer simulation of tests, are technical. They demand a different sort of protest from the mass demonstrations of the past. The emphasis is more on the lobbying of MPs and at international conferences, on tracking and publicising road and rail shipments of nuclear materials as well as the continuous work of talking to people and groups.


Membership figures have now stabilised. There are huge resources of experience and determination in a campaign which will continue until the aim of a world free of all weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, chemical and biological, is achieved.

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Weight 0.005000 kg