Disarming Britain before CND: A Guest Post by Nick Barnett

This post is by Nick Barnett, a PhD student at Liverpool John Moores University, and is a response to my post on the CPGB and the CND. Nick’s thesis looks at reactions in British culture to changes within the Soviet Union during the Cold War, with particular emphasis placed upon the Khrushchev era. This is the first guest post on this blog. I am not opposed to hosting more guest posts in the future, but I think they will need to be linked to previous discussions had on this blog. So here goes…


I was prompted to write this blog entry in response to Evan’s account of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Communist Party of Great Britain. Roger Seifert and Tom Sibley have suggested that before the establishment of the CND in 1958, British disarmament movements were limited to the Soviet front organisation, the World Peace Council and several Quaker groups. However, nuclear disarmament was a more popular position than Seifert and Sibley allow. Whilst there was no unified protest movement, there were many disparate voices, at numerous levels of society, who wanted either a unilateral disarmament policy or worldwide agreements for the reduction of arms. Early disarmers were generally centre left groups affiliated to the Labour Party, as well as scientists and various intellectuals (many of whom would eventually form the CND).

The CND was post-war Britain’s first truly mass movement and this point should be considered when examining anxieties around the emergence of nuclear arms. The movement was unprecedented. Nevertheless, opposition to nuclear arms and anxieties emerging from coverage of the bomb, were clearly visible in Britain. Adrian Bingham’s recent article on the British Press and Nuclear arms has challenged previous assumptions that newspapers were reliant on official sources and generally supportive of nuclear weapons (Bingham 2012: 609-24). Instead Bingham argues that the press often challenged the perceptions of nuclear weaponry, especially following the mass coverage that America’s Castle Bravo test in March 1954. Presentations of the bomb are vital to this period as mass movements, which in the 21st century can mobilise upwards of 1,000,000 and are readily dismissed by governments, who praise themselves for facilitating protest, had yet to manifest themselves. When the CND mobilised at least 60,000 for the 1960 march, the Daily Mirror described it as the largest mobilisation since V.E. day (19 April 1960: 6).

The CND emerged from a set of historic developments, which cumulatively worried many British people. One of these key events was the mass publication of America’s official photographs of an earlier thermonuclear test in spring 1954. Several newspapers reverted to religious language to describe the bomb. The Daily Mirror’s star columnist, William Connor, adopted an apocalyptic tone in his ‘Cassandra’ column. He wrote:

WELCOME, Dear Bomb. Welcome and bless you.

Bless those who made you. Bless those who set you roaring and flaming and vaporising the face of the earth.

Bless the hellish heat of you. Bless the bursting heart of you (29 March 1954: 7).

Many more British people reverted to a traditional Christian trope of apocalypticism. Several wrote letters which expressed their fear that the world could end. One of these was Pauline Dawson who wrote to the Daily Herald:

I have read in the paper about the horror bomb. I am 12 years old and I have three brothers and two sisters younger than me, and I love the children of the world.

I have seen on the television about the people who are suffering from the bomb.  Please don’t let us have war (13 April 1954:4).

Apocalyptic thinking was exacerbated by the invention of the Hydrogen bomb and became widespread in British society, causing a tragedy, which Jonathan Hogg has recently uncovered. Two parents committed suicide, along with their children, because they feared ‘new wars which will mean the extermination of masses of people.’ (Hogg 2012: 535)

Following increasing apocalyptic unease Coventry City’s Labour Council made an announcement which became a national concern – they refused to fulfil their Civil Defence requirement. The announcement was made on 5 April 1954 and became an international issue. Coventry Council’s leader, Sidney Stringer, received letters from as far away as New Zealand and from an American Congressman. Domestically the council were both supported and derided. Much of the support maintained a patriotic approach and I intend to analyse this aspect of the incident in a future journal article. Stringer received supportive letters from people who declared their patriotism. Much of the ensuing debate, which emerged in the press, focussed on the city’s wartime myth as a blitzed city and supporters suggested that Coventry’s experience of destruction placed it in a key position to take a sensible approach. Moreover, Civil Defence recruiters had often encountered resistance from people, who Matthew Grant identifies, as declaring they ‘had enough in the last war (Grant 2011: 52-78). War precautions and nuclear weapons, therefore, were not entirely popular with the British population during the 1950s.

In a forthcoming article in Media History I have argued that the USSR launch of Sputnik in October 1957 caused some anxiety of nuclear war. The launch and the almost simultaneous fire at the Calder Hall nuclear plant prompted the disarmers, who Jodi Burkett describes as emerging from a radical liberal tradition, to act (Burkett 2010: 184-205). They included several figures who were long-term critics of both nuclear weapons and communism: Bertrand Russell, the Daily Mirror cartoonist Vicky, and a former wartime MP and media commentator, Sir Stephen King-Hall. These three, amongst others, had long records of speaking out about nuclear armaments and also criticised communism, reaching large audiences with their arguments. They helped to inform the anti-nuclear debate long before the CND formed and produced an ideological hegemony that was both non-communist and anti-nuclear.


Media coverage of the CND’s early marches is interesting. Whilst no newspapers supported unilateralism, both the Daily Mirror and Daily Herald praised the CND marchers for doing something (Mirror 8 April 1958: 2; Herald 7 April 1958: 2). The Daily Mail described mass mobilisations as ‘un-english’, but they also depicted the first march as a kind of middle England fight-back against fear (7 April 1958: 4). The liberal News Chronicle initially suggested the disarmers were largely Communist. They were forced to backpeddle, however, when they received a barrage of complaints from their readership (7 April 1958: 1, 5, 9 April 1958: 4). Having initially mocked and opposed the marchers, within three years, even the Tory Daily Sketch declared, ‘Though some may scorn the marchers’ methods, few of us in our hearts deny the common sense of their minds’ (19 April 1960: 20). The word ‘peace’ had been seemingly besmirched by the World Peace Council’s Communist dominance. Nevertheless, the press were not universally hostile to the early  CND. Their readerships would not have tolerated absolute opposition to universal disarmament.

Whilst I don’t accept that unilateralism was massively popular, many in Britain feared nuclear weapons and wanted bilateral disarmament. Before the organisation of CND by socialists and radical liberals, organised opposition to nuclear weapons was patchy but it was far from limited to the CPGB, despite many peoples’ tainting of the movement with the communist tag. Disarmament was a popular position within the Labour Party’s rank and file and amongst Britain’s broader ‘apolitical’ society.


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