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!]
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.
of casualties from these two bombs was such that many in the west were
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.
Update, Dec 2018:
The development and testing of the H-bomb merits a separate part of the story. A letter from Sue Rabbitt Roff in the Guardian 18th Dec 2018 relates how testing was carried out in Australia – and there was a nuclear physicist Sir Mark Oliphant – who she describes as ‘Australia and Britain’s Robert Oppenheimer – who ‘never spoke about the contamination’ of south Australia shortly before the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Oliphant was a prime mover in Tube Alloys. The documents Roff used are in the UK National Archives, but other documents are being withdrawn…See www.rabbittreview.com
These notes are being written on the fiftieth anniversary of this march, and there have been several newspaper articles remembering those days.
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
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!
Kelvedon 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
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
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
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
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
this, we now know that the early stages of “peaceful research” into nuclear
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
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 (
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
- 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.
Anti-nuclear Movement extra notes:
6. Total estimated nuclear stockpile: (bombs ready to be used, whether in planes, submarines or missiles): [Source: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, (cited with article by Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer prize-winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, in Guardian, 06.08.02]
US: 8,000 (or 12,070 according to New Internationalist, August 1999)
addition, NATO planes carrying nuclear weapons are to be found in:
7. Deterrence and war:
More importantly, although we have not had a nuclear war, we have had plenty of war:
since 1945 (the end of World War II) and by the 1980:
- there were 237 wars
- ‘proxy’ wars rather than direct conflict between super-powers
- in the 1980s 38 wars were going on, and 200 others had been fought since 1945.
- at least 20 million people have been killed, in over 100 conflicts
- 95% of the casualties in modern warfare are civilians (source: Institute for Law and Peace).
- a new war starts every three months, but since 1945 no war has actually been declared!!
- on a typical day 12 wars are being fought and not a single day has passed when no war has been going on
- 90 states have been involved in war, on the territory of 80 states
- major wars ( = more than 1,000 deaths per year) – of which there have been 120 – have killed 20 million…
- only two nations have no armies (
- over 2 million soldiers are deployed overseas
- since the second world war, the main victims of war and armed conflict have been in the less developed world.
8. The quantity of arms in the world: The Gaia Peace Atlas, ed. By F. Barnaby (Pan 1988)
- there are enough nuclear weapons (some 12,000 in the NATO and Warsaw Pact countries) to kill everyone on earth 12 times.
- we now have drones, more sophisticated weapons
- at the end of the cold war NATO had some 1.9 million troops; the Warsaw Pact had 2.7 million.
- together the military budgets of NATO (which requires a
massive budget deficit in the
- total world spending on the military is $1,204 billion per annum (2006 figure) according to the World Disarmament Campaign. The UK contributes $52.9 billion (£30 billion), which is nearly five times as much as is spent (by all countries) on overseas aid. It is 50 times what is being spent tackling climate change. Oxfam and UNICEF estimate that to provide education for every child in the world would cost $8 billion a year – a fraction (four days’ worth) of what is spent on arms. Vastly more is spent on currency speculation…
- the arms industry is the second largest industry in the world, after oil…
- every year governments spend over $1 trillion on “defence” (the figure was $1.035 trillion in 2004) and only 60 billion on aid. (Peace Matters, PPU, Summer 2005).
- from 1998 to 2001 the US,
George Monbiot (2009):
- MoD budget is £38 bn, more than any other department except health and education, and equivalent of 12% of state spending
- service charges on the MoD’s private finance initiative funding: £1.3 bn – more than the entire budget of the department of energy and climate change
- MoD’s budget for capital charges and depreciation: £9.6 bn – twice the budget of the department for international development
9. The arms trade – and some consequences of it:
Total arms sales/exports in 2003 ($ billion) (Leo Hickman, Guardian 12.09.05):
British arms sales:
- go to 19 of the 20 countries the government has identified as “countries of concern”, according to its own weapons sales report (July 2007). These countries include Saudi Arabia, Israel, Colombia, China and Russia. (2007)
The Al Yamamah deal with
10. Liberal interventionism:
- “The new interventionism may differ from the old imperialism in not seeking to settle or rule countries. But it is the same in believing that western values can (and should) be imposed on often reluctant states through military occupation.” (Quote?)
- moreover, it is clear that in Iraq, for example, western interests intend staying for a long time – till all the oil has been extracted at least!
- the Editor of the Lancet, Dr Richard Horton, points out
(letters, G 140208) that “liberty” is “a fundamental value that transcends the
type of political system we put in place.” Amartya Sen has pointed this out, he
says, along with J.S. Mill and Isaiah
11. Recent moves for more Treaties:
Arms Trade Treaty: 2013, in force from Dec 2014.
- 89 states ratified and 44 have signed but not ratified
Treaty to Ban nuclear Weapons:
- 123 nations agreed (Oct 2016) to start negotiations on a
treaty to ban nuclear weapons. - - the nuclear-armed states opposed the
proposal (along with
- to hold a conference March 2017 to negotiate a ‘legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.’
- for two decades there has been paralysis in multilateral disarmament negotiations. Other destructive weapons (cluster bombs, landmines... chemical weapons) are banned – nuclear must be also.
- 122 nations have signed (as at 2019)
Overall achievements of the peace movement:
- public opinion and government accountability (governments have to listen to popular view before going to war)
- treaties and international law (see (*) below)
- declining Violence in the world (and at home):
Steven Pinker: The Better Angels of Our nature (Allen Lane 2011) shows a steady decline in violence in the world
James Sharpe: A Fiery and Furious People Random House 2016)
shows that there has been a decline in violence in the
The International Court of Justice – set up 1945 on the basis of the UN Charter, Is the primary judicial branch of the UN.
193 states parties
Settles legal disputes submitted to it by states and
Security Council can be authorized to enforce Court rulings. But the permanent
powers have a veto... When US was declared to have violated international law
with covert war in
Covers ‘contentious’ cases (between states) and ‘advisory’ (dealing with UN bodies etc)
The court also ruled that
[To inject a degree of controversy!]: John Laughland, (conservative, Euro-sceptic, who believes the International War Crimes Tribunal to be illegitimate, and opposed the western opposition to Milosevic) author of “Travesty: the Trial of Slobodan Milosevic and the Corruption of International Justice (Guardian 28.02.08). After 2 years and 300 witnesses, the prosecution never managed to produce conclusive evidence against its star defendant” – NATO charges of genocide turned out to be war propaganda… However, as the court has now ruled that Yugoslavia was not responsible for the Srebrenica massacre, “the main plank of the case for intervention has gone…”
The International Criminal Court:
124 member states, (Rome Statute of the International
Criminal Court 1998. 120 voted for, 7 against including China, Iraq, Israel,
Libya, Qatar, US, Yemen. A state that ratifies the3 statute becomes a member,
organisation and tribunal – governed by Assembly of States Parties. US,
It complements existing national judicial systems and can therefore only exercise its jurisdiction when certain conditions are met .e.g. national courts not willing to prosecute, or when UN Security Council or individual states refer investigations to it.
1919 Paris Peace Conference first suggestions – again in 1939 – ad hoc tribunals after WW II – need for permanent institution à International Law Commission drafted statutes, but cold war stopped agreement – 1994 ILC presents draft statute for International Criminal Court – many discussions (NGOs involved)
Prior to 2002, ad hoc tribunals had been set up for former
To date, 39 individuals have been referred – all Africans...
First case: Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony...
2009 Thomas Lubanga tried (G 260109, Chris McGreal). Congolese militia leader, charged with conscripting child soldiers.
Human rights groups have criticised prosecutors in the
Based on the doctrine of (liberal) interventionism. ICC is
not investigating western bombing of
For References etc see Section 5.