Women encircling the cruise missile base in Greenham Common in 1982
The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament is marking its golden jubilee this year. Other great campaigns on issues of global political morality have worked themselves into happier redundancies, from the campaigns for the abolition of the slave trade and slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries, to the more recent Anti-Apartheid Movement. CND has been at the forefront of the peace movement in both Ireland and Britain, and remains Europe’s largest single-issue peace campaign. But its founding figures could not have imagined in 1958 that it would still be campaigning in 2008.
Growing up in the 1950s and the 1960s, I was part of a generation that had its fears confirmed by the Cuban missile crisis, for which CND’s logo was an indispensible accessory, and for whom the slogan “Ban the Bomb” was a mantra on every protest march and demonstration.
Public fears about nuclear weapons emerged in Britain in the mid-1950s when the government revealed plans to build its own hydrogen bomb. When JB Priestley wrote an article in the New Statesman on 2 November 1957, “Britain and the Nuclear Bombs,” attacking Aneurin Bevan for abandoning his policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament, the New Statesman received an avalanche of supporting letters.
Later that month, the editor of the New Statesman, Kingsley Martin, chaired a meeting in the Amen Court rooms of Canon John Collins of Saint Paul’s Cathedral. The meeting agreed to launch CND, with the philosopher Bertrand Russell as president, Canon Collins as chairman, and Peggy Duff as secretary. The first executive included Michael Foot and the Nobel laureate Professor Joseph Rotblat, and the first sponsors included John Arlott, Peggy Ashcroft, Benjamin Britten, Edith Evans, Victor Gollancz, EM Forster, Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, Julian Huxley, Doris Lessing, Compton Mackenzie, George McLeod, Henry Moore, Flora Robson, Michael Tippett, the cartoonist Vicky, Barbara Wootton and the bishops of Birmingham and Llandaff.
About 5,000 people attended the inaugural meeting of CND at Central Hall, Westminster, on February 17th 1958, and hundreds marched afterwards to Downing Street. The first supporters included Fenner Brockway, EP Thompson, and AJP Taylor, as well as scientists aware of the dangers posed by nuclear weapons and Church leaders concerned to resist the moral evil represented by nuclear weapons. The support base included academics, journalists, writers, actors, musicians, Quakers, Labour Party members and trade unionists.
The one early activity most vividly associated with CND was the four-day Aldermaston March each Easter weekend, with tens of thousands of people marching from Trafalgar Square to the Atomic Weapons Establishment near Aldermaston. CND’s first high point came in 1960, when the British Labour conference voted for unilateral nuclear disarmament. But Hugh Gaitskell responded with a threat to “fight, fight, and fight again” against the decision. It was overturned at the 1961 conference, and that year the Foreign Secretary, Alec Douglas-Home, declared: “The British people are prepared to be blown to atomic dust if necessary.”
Meanwhile, in reaction to the tameness of CND leaders who refused to engage in any illegal activities, Bertrand Russell formed the Committee of 100. In effect, the Committee of 100 became the direct-action wing of CND, and during protests in 1961, 4,000 people sat down outside the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall and 1,300 demonstrators were arrested in Trafalgar Square, including Bertrand Russell, by then 89.
The 1962 Cuban missile crisis raised public fears that nuclear war was imminent. But when the telephone hot-line between Washington and Moscow was set up, the Soviet missiles were removed from Cuba, US missiles were quietly removed from Turkey, and the Partial Test Ban Treaty was signed in 1963, the threat of nuclear war appeared to fade and CND numbers began to dwindle. From the mid-1960s, protests against the Vietnam War eclipsed concerns about nuclear weapons.
After a decade of little activity, there were only six remaining CND members in Ireland in 1979 when I convened and chaired a meeting in Dublin to revive Irish CND. The nuclear threat returned that year with decisions to deploy US Cruise and Pershing missiles in Britain and Western Europe and Soviet SS-20 missiles in Eastern Europe, and talk of nuclear war was commonplace once again.
There were major demonstrations in London, Dublin, and other cities in 1981, with similar marches throughout Europe. I addressed the biggest of these rallies in London, when 250,000 people marched to Hyde Park. In a major revival, thousands of new members were joining CND each month and local councils were declaring nuclear-free zones. Liberty Hall in Dublin overflowed for a screening of The War Game, once banned on the BBC. Scorn was heaped on British civil defence plans in Protect and Survive, a booklet offering DIY instructions on how to survive a nuclear attack in the home. In September 1981, the first women’s march arrived at the US base in Greenham Common, where the cruise missiles were being deployed. The new women’s-only peace camp became a focus and symbol of women’s resistance to nuclear weapons.
The international climate changed when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and a treaty to remove the new missiles was signed in 1987. With the end of the Cold War, the world seemed safer and CND membership declined once again. Yet CND is still on the march, protesting against the US “Star Wars” plans, the wars in Iraq, French nuclear tests and British plans to replace Trident and build new nuclear power stations. But has this single-issue campaign had any successes over the past five decades?
Despite Bertrand Russell’s misgivings about a tame CND, the tactics of the Committee of 100 found widespread acceptance and were imitated from the 1960s on by anti-war and civil rights campaigns across the world. The women’s camp at Greenham Common inspired and motivated many new forms of protest. The last missiles left Greenham Common in 1991, the land has been restored to the public, and the SS-20s are gone from Eastern Europe, proving the nuclear arms race can be reversed at any stage. But the ever-growing stockpile of nuclear weapons, the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Pakistan, India and Israel, the potential for nuclear explosives and materials being sold or stolen, the threat of nuclear material falling into the hands of corrupt regimes and terrorists, and environmental fears about the nuclear industry constantly call on CND to renew and reinvent itself.
Canon Patrick Comerford was chairman of Irish CND when it was refounded in 1979. He becomes President of Irish CND at its annual general meeting on Saturday March 1st in the Mansion House, Dublin. This ‘World View’ column was published in The Irish Times on Saturday 23 February 2008.