Power and Protest (social movements) in the 20th Century:
(4) The peace, anti-war and anti-nuclear movements:
Outline of this Section:
1. Atomic and Nuclear Weapons and Their Opponents:
2. Differences within the anti-nuclear movement
3. Achievements of the anti-nuclear movement?
Bookmarks (topics within this Section):
Links to other documents: Imagining Other Index Page "Power and Protest": Social Movements Contents Page
1. Atomic and Nuclear Weapons and Their Opponents:
[An atom bomb gets its explosive power from the splitting (fission) of a heavy atom – usually uranium. When an atom is split in this way (i.e. instantaneously) the amount of energy released is enormous, as matter is converted into energy. Einstein’s formula: e = mc2 shows that the amount of energy produced is found by multiplying the amount of mass by the square of the velocity of light!]
The highly controversial attack on
What seemed to surprise even those who made the bomb was the long-lasting effect of radiation: to this day, there are deaths from radiation sickness and abnormal foetuses as a result of the exposure of the population to radiation.
The number of casualties from these two bombs was such that
many in the west were appalled. In
A second bomb was dropped a few days later on Nagasaki, and 70,000 were dead by the end of the year (source: website cited above). It is argued that this did not give time for the Japanese to consider their reaction – it has also been said that they were showing signs of wanting to end the war.
There were protest marches and demonstrations against the new weapon, after the war; and when news emerged in the 1950s that an even more powerful explosion could be made using a fusion bomb, a mass movement against nuclear weapons began.
These notes are being written on the fiftieth anniversary of this march, and there have been several newspaper articles remembering those days.
Alongside this, a number of people who believed in more
radical direct action got together
in a Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War. The members of this organization
were prepared to break the law – if only by sitting down in the highway and
being arrested for obstruction – in order to draw attention to the immorality
of nuclear weapons. Eventually the Committee
of 100 was formed. Here the strategy was to use collective responsibility:
when an action was planned, 100 individuals put their name to the publicity
leaflet, so that no individual organizer could be arrested, but – in theory –
police would have to arrest all 100! The strategy got more support than many
(especially in CND, which was not too happy with breaking the law!) expected, and mass “sit-ins” were held. Again, these
attracted well-known figures (Vanessa Redgrave the
actress, Harold Pinter and John Osborne the playwrights, as well as Bertrand
Russell – who was himself arrested even though he was over 80 at the time).
Sit-ins were held in
There was always some public hostility to these
demonstrations, (even to peaceful marches), and often the opposition was highly
emotional, as I well remember! Perhaps it was as much the novelty of such highly
visible protest that shocked people, as well as the deep hostility there often
is to anti-war sentiment: demonstrators were frequently abused as being
anti-patriotic, or communist! As a participant then and on the more recent
marches against the
The most controversial aspect of CND policy was its call for “unilateral nuclear disarmament”: the argument was that to break the deadlock and bring about disarmament, someone had to start. Since such weapons were regarded as immoral, and possibly illegal (international law forbids the deliberate harming of civilians), it was felt that there was a strong case for persuading the British Government to give them up.
Of course, they were in no hurry to do this! Even when the Labour Party at its annual conference passed a resolution calling for unilateral nuclear disarmament, Hugh Gaitskell, the then leader, declared that such a policy would destroy the Labour Party and that he would “Fight and fight and fight again to save the party [he] loved.”
He called the unilateralists “pacifists and fellow travellers” (i.e. communists). Aneurin Bevan, too, having supported the campaign originally, decided when he became a Minister that calls for unilateral disarmament were “an emotional spasm”, and that to go to international disarmament talks having given up our own nuclear bomb would be to “go naked into the conference chamber”!
The anti-nuclear movement was split over the whole question of whether to go on trying to persuade government, or whether direct action was the only method that would put real pressure on the authorities. The split within the movement was also to some extent along political lines: Labour Party members and probably most Communist Party members followed the path of peaceful protest, petitions, resolutions at party and union conferences, etc. Anarchists, and some of those on the far left supported direct action. Communists (pro-Soviet in those days) were seen as soft on the Russian bomb – hardliners regarded it as a “workers’ bomb”…
One of the most striking actions that came out of the direct action part of the movement
involved the so-called “Spies for Peace”: in
It is not easy to build a network of underground bunkers in total secrecy, and, inevitably perhaps, the word got out. A short pamphlet was printed and handed out at the 1963 Aldermaston march. The day before, (April 11th) copies of the pamphlet were sent to “the national and regional press, top security men, assorted politicians, prominent members of the anti-war movement and others.” (Quote from: “Resistance Shall Grow. The story of the ‘Spies for Peace’ and why they are important for your future.” This pamphlet was jointly published by the Independent Labour Party (ILP), London Federation of Anarchists, Solidarity, Syndicalist Workers’ Federation and members and supporters of the London Committee of 100, typeset by Freedom Press, the information also appeared in Anarchy No 29).
On the march, police tried to confiscate copies of the pamphlet. When a group of marchers tried to take a diversion to visit RSG6, which happened to be close to the route, the march organisers were alarmed and did their best – in vain – to stop them.
The episode caused an amusing outcry – with ludicrous TV interviews in which the interviewers were embarrassed because the “Spies” supporters were talking about “Official Secrets” (one channel showed a foreign leaflet to avoid being accused of betraying British secrets!).
Nowadays the bunkers seem to be abandoned, they are the subject of weekend newspaper magazine articles, and you can even visit some of them!
Hatch bunker, in
hides the entrance to a labyrinth of rooms 100 feet underground, encased in 10 feet thick reinforced concrete. Up to 600 “key personnel” would have taken
refuge there in the event of nuclear war, in order to “organize” whatever was left of the British population! It has its own water supply, electricity generators, a
BBC studio, radar room etc.. It can be visited: Telephone 01277 364883, or write to the Underground Nuclear Command Centre, Kelvedon Hall lane, Kelvedon
Hatch, CM15 0LB, saying when you would like to visit!
Update, July 2007: (from Richard Norton-Taylor in the Guardian)
With the change-over of British Prime Minister, from Blair to Brown, it
is alarming to learn that one of the first things a new PM has to do is write a
letter which will be opened in the event of a
nuclear attack, if the PM is not able to issue instructions. The letter
(written after a briefing from the chief of the Defence staff) would be opened
by the commander of a British Trident submarine, and it contains one of several
instructions as to what the (by then maybe late?) PM believes should be done:
“retaliate”, or “put yourself under the command of the
Nice to know that every eventuality has been prepared for!
2. Differences within the anti-nuclear movement
As stated above, the anti-nuclear movement was supported by different people for a range of different reasons, some on principle, some religious and some political. However, broad differences in reasons for opposition such as the following would lead to different strategies being advocated:
- pacifists who would argue that all war and all preparation for war is wrong,
- non-pacifists who argued that the atom bomb is a different kind of weapon, immoral because of the inevitable effects on civilians, and intolerable because a nuclear war could destroy all life on earth (these were the majority)
- Christians were influential in the movement (e.g. Canon Collins, Donald Soper), and some were pacifist, others simply seeing nuclear weapons as indefensible
- communists and socialists who see nuclear weapons
as a by-product of the capitalist
system; some of these - a
“hard-line” minority - opposed the American bomb but not the Soviet bomb (the
There were further differences over strategy:
- unilateralism: the main argument of CND was that
- there were many in the movement who (I feel) were not that concerned about sophisticated argument about whether unilateralism was feasible or not: they were simply frightened by nuclear weapons (unsurprisingly!). The impression I got on marches and talking to people involved, was that quite a lot of the support came from this group. If pressed, however, some might say they were in favour of multilateralism – all nuclear powers working together to get rid of the weapons. The movement then was purely a protest movement as far as they were concerned – raising the issue and demonstrating strength of feeling in order to get government to work with others on disarmament. See also section (c) below on international treaties.
- the aim of the European Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (END) was to build on the move to unite Europe economically and eventually perhaps politically, and to create nuclear-free zone in Europe. This would surely be a step towards a nuclear-free world!
- socialists and communists obviously saw the main issue as changing the social and political order; many on the left support single-issue campaigns as part of their socialism: their aim would be to spread socialist ideas and gain support for their political outlook. This could cause bad feeling, either because anti-nuclear campaigners wanted to be non-political, or because they felt that the “lefties” were simply trying to “recruit” to their parties. (The same feeling persists when some lefties get involved in anti-racist or other issues…)
- anarchists’ overall strategy is to oppose whatever strengthens the state, and to work for the destruction of the state. Nuclear weapons serve a political function as well as a military one, by giving a state prestige (note the recent revelations about the true cause of the fire at Windscale: Prime Minister Macmillan wanted to have a close relationship with the United States, and to share their expertise on nuclear matters see "Polemic". To anarchists, “war is the health of the state” as Randolph Bourne said (see http://antiwar.com/bourne.php) i.e. it strengthens the hold that the ruling class has over ordinary people – and of course ordinary people are the main victims in war
- as noted, there was strong opposition to testing because of the environmental and health dangers it caused. (This probably helped to build up the green movement - see my forthcoming notes on The Environmental Movement). There is a paradox here, since once atmospheric testing was banned, it seems to me, the movement lost some of its “steam”
Finally, there differences over tactics:
- the majority, and those in the “establishment”, whether that was as members of the Church , or MPs, trade union leaders etc, believed the main aim of the movement was to put pressure on Parliament. This would be done by persuading public opinion to oppose nuclear weapons – and this had to be done in a reasoned, peaceful and law-abiding way.
- others believed that such methods were too slow, and Parliament could easily ignore such pressure. Civil disobedience (even though it might alienate the public) would put greater pressure on the state: for example by having large numbers of demonstrators arrested for minor offences (the most common was obstructing the highway, by sitting down and refusing to move on) – those arrested might refuse to pay any fines imposed and then be put in jail. If enough people did this, there would not be enough prisons to put them in! Civil disobedience was also practiced by the anti-war and pacifist part of the peace movement, and it has ties with Gandhi’s methods in the anti-colonial struggle (see forthcoming notes on The Anti-Colonial Movement). Civil disobedience also raised deep questions about the extent to which we as citizens are expected to obey laws we do not agree with (see Held 1972, and Zashin 1972 for example).
- alongside these it has to be stressed that discussion of deterrence and defense became a sophisticated field during the 20th century, and (as Carter suggests with the INF treaty discussed immediately below) peace researchers played a crucial part in persuading governments to consider modifications to their outlook.
3. Achievements of the anti-nuclear movement?
Perhaps the biggest controversy over the anti-nuclear movement is whether it has achieved anything at all.
There have been international treaties, several of which could be seen as resulting from the early anti-nuclear campaigns:
A Partial Test-Ban Treaty was signed in 1963 (but not by
The fact that there was an agreement to stop atmospheric testing was surely a positive step, and the anti-nuclear movement can claim at least some of the credit, I
believe. On the other hand, cynics
argue that it is still possible to test weapons not underground, or by means of
computer simulations, and the nuclear powers only
agreed to stop testing when they had other methods at their disposal… As noted,
In 1968 a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was
agreed, after “active diplomacy’ on the part of
It can be argued that the NPT is pretty ineffectual, since
there are many more nuclear powers now than in the early 1960s. Moreover, there
are clearly dual standards at work: whilst
Having said this, we now know that the early stages of
“peaceful research” into nuclear power in
As if the early cover-up at Calder Hall were not enough, the
amount of radiation that was released in the Windscale
accident may have been up to twice what was announced, and recent revelations
suggest that the drive for a British H-bomb led to alterations in the design of
the containers for the fuel in the reactor at Windscale,
which in turn led to the disastrous fire of 1957. This fire was the worst
incident there has been apart from
On the other hand, with regard to the NPT, since there are more countries now with nuclear weapons than there were when CND was at its height, then whether the movement can claim much in the way of achievements is debatable. In terms of the number of people who were involved in the movement, and the number who were prepared to go to the extent of going on protest marches and even getting arrested, the anti-nuclear movement was clearly significant.
Carter notes that in the First Wave, it was often the personality of leaders such as Khruschev and Kennedy, and later Gorbachev, that played an important part in getting agreements (op cit p 78). Third world governments pushed for an end to testing, as did a number of prominent scientists. She argues that the NPT was signed after the first wave of the campaign against nuclear weapons had begun to decline, but it did alter consciousness about testing and weapons, and made sure that concern was reflected in the media. The first wave also left behind organisations such as the International Peace Research Association which laid a foundation for a revival of the movement in the ‘80s. (Carter op cit p 79).
When the movement
revived in the ‘80s, it was largely as a result of the placing of missiles
(Cruise, Pershing) throughout
Achievements of this phase include:
- in what Carter calls the Second Wave in Europe, around
late 1981, there were literally millions of people on demonstrations world-wide
(this includes unofficial
demonstrations in the Soviet bloc – the Soviet Union always claimed that it was
opposed to nuclear weapons and organized official
protests, which we can hardly count as part of a social movement!). In
1981, marches comprising tens of thousands each, and in a few cities hundreds
of thousands each, took place in
- the abandonment of plans to build a “neutron bomb” in the late 1970s: this was a weapon that would destroy people by radiation without damaging buildings! However, I am not sure whether the outcry about such a weapon was what stopped it, or that it became not feasible to construct…
- in 1981 discussions began on
reducing intermediate-range nuclear forces, and the INF treaty was signed in 1987. This “provided for the removal of
all intermediate and shorter-range missiles from
- the demonstrations and protests
did eventually help to remove cruise missiles from
- Greenham Common. One of the most
dramatic movements connected with the anti-nuclear struggle was the Women’s
Peace camp at Greenham Common. Throughout the ‘80s there were women camped at
the base, despite the freezing cold and harassment by opponents together with
the attempts of the police to persuade them to go. Some climbed over the fence,
cut the wire or pulled it down in places. Sometimes they danced on the missile
silos! In December 1982, the women formed a human chain to embrace the base,
involving some 30,000 women. Other similar camps and protests have been set up,
e.g. at Comiso (
- there were therefore many peace groups world-wide, (some 1,400), and it has been called the fastest growing social movement in recent history. In late 1981 it was estimated that 2,500,000 people had taken part in demonstrations world-wide against nuclear weapons. In the early ‘80s it is likely that a majority of people were opposed to the NATO missiles. Up to 40% (according to opinion polls) at one point supported unilateral nuclear disarmament. However the figure most of the time has been nearer 30 – 30% (Carter op cit p 139). The British Labour Party voted for unilateral nuclear disarmament in 1982 – though this was dropped later on as it came to be seen as an electoral liability, especially as it was associated with the presence in the party of “far left” ideas… Other parties such as the German SDP were also heavily influenced by the anti-nuclear campaign.
- on the other hand, some governments have been so alarmed at the anti-nuclear demonstrators that they have resorted to desperate measures: thus the French government was behind the sinking of a ship belonging to Greenpeace (the Rainbow Warrior) in 1985, when it was about to set sail to protest against French nuclear testing.
- finally we must not forget that throughout the world there are native peoples whose land has been taken or used for nuclear testing, and these peoples have been involved in opposition too: in Nevada, Hawaii and Christmas Island (?).
Again, it seems likely that the main effect the movement has had has been to raise public awareness and to educate people about nuclear weapons. It may also, as carter suggests, have had the effect of “opening up” and democratising discussion of defence policy. To be realistic, any concrete steps taken by governments to reduce their nuclear arms have almost always been expedient in some way, and not done for reasons of principle, even though they may have been pressurised by public opinion to some degree.
In conclusion, an optimistic appraisal of the whole anti-war movement would argue that in part, the movement helped to push the US in deciding to retreat from Vietnam; contributed to Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon 1982; and the Czech resistance to the Soviet invasion in 1968 made things more difficult for the Russians, and prevented more drastic action being taken against the population.
For References etc see Section 5.