Peace movement

New article with Labour History Review on the CPGB and ‘peace’ in the 1950s

This is just a quick post to let you all know that Labour History Review have published an article by myself and Nicholas Barnett titled ‘”Peace with a Captial P: The Spectre of Communism and Competing Notions of “Peace” in Britain, 1949-1960’. It is available for free via open access here.

Here is the abstract:

This article is concerned with different factions within the British peace movement during the 1950s and early 1960s, each of which gave the word ‘peace’ a different meaning. We argue that the movement was made up of several, often contradictory sections, and despite attempts by groups like the Peace Pledge Union to distance themselves from the communist controlled British Peace Committee, popular perceptions were tainted by association with communism until the mid-1950s. Following the onset of the H-bomb era, this taint lessened as people began to fear the destructiveness of hydrogen weapons. When the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament formed in 1958 it became the predominant British organization opposed to nuclear weapons and achieved popularity because it limited its objective to nuclear disarmament whereas the Peace Pledge Union demanded the condemnation of all war.


Forthcoming volume: The Far Left in Australia since 1945


I am happy to announce that Jon Piccini, Matthew Worley and I have recently signed a contact for an edited volume tentatively titled The Far Left in Australia since 1945 as part of Routledge’s Studies in Radical History and Politics. While there is no publication date yet, here is an outline of the forthcoming book as a preview…

The far left in Australia – as has been revealed by edited collections on its equivalents in the UK, USA and elsewhere – had significant effects on post-war politics, culture and society. The Communist Party of Australia (CPA) ended World War II with some 20,000 members, and despite the harsh and vitriolic Cold War climate of the 1950s, seeded or provided impetus for the re-emergence of other movements. Radicals subscribing to ideologies beyond the Soviet orbit – Maoists, Trotskyists, anarchists and others – also created parties and organisations and led movements. All of these different far left parties and movements changed and shifted during time, responding to one political crisis or another, but they remained steadfastly devoted to a better world.

Equally, members and fellow travellers of the CPA and other far left groups instigated or became centrally involved in struggles for indigenous rights, gender equality, ending immigration restrictions, stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and fostering peace—alongside continuing work in trade unions. In starting these groups, providing personnel, funding and guidance, far left activists contributed in no small way to the reforms that have changed Australian from the racist, sexist and parochial society of 1945 to one which is now multicultural, champions gender equality and is open to the world. The far left’s contribution to culture also cannot be ignored, with the CPA in particular providing a home for writers, poets, film makers and others who found their experimentation unwelcomed in an Australia in the grips of the cultural cringe.

Lastly, the Australian far left has also had a fascinating – if troubled and convoluted – career of ‘mainstreaming’ itself, whether through aforementioned cultural organisations, or through working with the social democratic Australian Labor Party, forming their own electoral alliances, or reaching out with mass market books. As such, while the far left might have never led a revolution in Australia, it has inarguably played a central role in revolutionising it.

The study of protest movements is exploding around the world. Major research and publishing projects charting the far left – particularly set around that halcyon year of 1968 – have appeared in most western nations in recent years. Yet, no such comparable body of work exists for Australia’s vibrant and exciting far left movements in the post-war era – from the Communist Party of Australia to smaller ideological groups, their intersections with broader movements for women’s, indigenous and gay liberation and broader effects on culture and society. By analysing far left movements in Australia from 1945 to the 1980s, these interconnections are explored in depth, and a light can be shone on the current state of Australia’s left and progressive movements.

As such, this book’s key strengths lie in its broad range of topics – from the politics of Australian communism in its various forms to the far left’s interactions with the women’s, gay, anti-nuclear, anti-war and indigenous groups, as well as attempts to mainstream its appeal via electoral politics, government compromises and mass media.

This work exists at the intersection of academia and activism, offering politically and theoretically informed chapters which provide both valuable scholarly interventions into key local and global debates, as well as casting light on contemporary struggles around the world. As such, its readership will be broad, encompassing activists of all ages and across a variety of causes, as well as the growing body of academics and postgraduate students studying and teaching global radicalism, as well as scholars engaged in 20th century history in general.

This collection, bringing together 14 chapters from leading and emerging figures in the Australian and international historical profession, for the first time charts some of these significant moments and interventions, revealing the Australian far left’s often forgotten contribution to the nation’s history.

Stay tuned to this blog for further information about the volume in the near future!




Communism and the peace movement in the early Cold War era, 1949-1953

This week, the economist Paul Mason argued a ‘left-wing’ case for nuclear weapons for The Guardian, which was rebutted by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s Kate Hudson and Stop the War’s Lindsey German. Since the advent of nuclear weapons, the left in Britain has generally opposed nuclear weapons – although the Labour Party has fluctuated on this issue since the 1950s. One common misconception is that the Communist Party opposed nuclear disarmament until the emergence of the CND in the late 1960s, but research by myself and Nick Barnett demonstrates that the CPGB was committed to a multilateral peace since the late 1940s. This post, based on our forthcoming article in Labour History Review, argues that the opposite of this misconception seems to be the case, that the peace movement was so closely linked in the mainstream press and by anti-communist politicians to communism, it was difficult to mobilise around the issue of peace in Britain in the early Cold War era.


Scholars looking at the British left have long contended that the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was hostile towards the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) because it threatened the dominance of the British Peace Committee (BPC) over the peace movement in Britain.[1] As Willie Thompson explained:

In the first place it had seen the new movement as a distraction from what was really important, namely disarmament negotiations between the Great Powers… The second reason for the party’s suspicion was that the Campaign was seen as a potential rival to its own front peace organisation, the British Peace Committee…[2]

On the other hand, some scholars have argued that the attitude of the Communist Party towards the CND (and the peace movement more generally) was more ambivalent. As Roger Seifert and Tom Sibley point out in their biography of CPGB Industrial Organiser Bert Ramelson, the ‘main efforts [of the Party] were directed toward the peace campaign’ in the 1950s, but always on the multilateral platform of banning all nuclear weapons.[3] Richard Taylor has also stated, ‘Contrary to popular opinion both inside and outside CND, the Daily Worker had given considerable coverage to Peace Movement activities prior to the formation of CND.’[4]

The Communist Party of Great Britain, although initially supportive of the limited use of the atomic bomb in 1945,[5] had, since the Cold War began, been pushing for ‘peace’ amongst the Soviet and Western blocs. However peace had a particularly meaning for the CPGB and was tied to the prospects of multilateral disarmament, the dismantling of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the continued disarmament of West Germany, as well as non-interference by the West in places such as Greece, Malaya, China and Korea. Bob Darke, an ex-CPGB member who wrote an expose of the Party in 1952, described the Party’s position on peace in the new Cold War era:

the call for Peace, which had been more or less dormant on the Party’s cluttered platform, suddenly bounded into life… It began to appear more and more in Party propaganda. The Daily Worker began to print it with a capital P. It was top priority in all propaganda.[6]

The British Peace Committee was formed in 1949, with its chairman being Ivor Montagu, who was also a member of the Communist Party. An article in the Party’s weekly journal World News and Views on the foundation of the BPC alleged that ‘active propaganda for a Third World War is being carried out by a handful of powerful privileged interests in America and Western Europe’ and that ‘[m]alice, fear and hatred are being roused against the Soviet Union’.[7] While calling for ‘[f]riendship between peoples of all countries and particularly of Britain, China, France, the U.S.A., and the U.S.S.R.’ and that the BPC ‘treat[ed] none as enemies except the instigators of war’,[8] the BPC had an underlying pro-Soviet outloo

The Peace Pledge Union, on the other hand, had been established by ‘progressive’ sections of the Church of England in the mid-1930s after war in Europe seemed more likely after the accession of Nazi Germany. While a pacifist organisation, the PPU also pursued a line of appeasement towards Germany and although historians have debated whether this crossed the line from appeasement to some more active form of support, the CPGB in the 1930s saw the PPU as pro-fascist. In 1938, a Central Committee report at the Party’s 15th National Congress announced, ‘we have found it necessary to carry on a sharp ideological struggle against those tendencies in the Peace Movement who oppose collective security and seek reconciliation with Fascist countries, specially shown in the leadership of the Peace Pledge Union’.[9] This animosity between the CPGB and the PPU lasted into the Cold War era, where the PPU zealously indulged in anti-communism.

During the early years of the Cold War, the BPC and PPU dominated the small peace movement that existed in Britain. While the mainstream media and politicians were wary about the PPU because the Union’s stance in the lead up to the Second World War, they were more concerned about those who campaigned for peace or disarmament being covert communist agents and shared the anti-communism of the PPU. The BPC, as the British representative of the World Peace Council, established principally by the Soviet Union, allowed the media to portray the peace movement as communist and because of the WPC’s association with Soviet communism, Gunter Wernicke has written, a number of other peace groups across Western Europe refused to co-operate with the WPC,[10] which was the case in Britain.

For many politicians and those in the mainstream media, there was the assumption that peace was analogous with communism and throughout this period, the word ‘peace’ was regularly placed by many media outlets in inverted commas, suggesting a change in its meaning in the Cold War era. One of the key promoters of this idea was Christopher Mayhew, Labour Cabinet minister and founder of Labour’s Information Research Department (IRD), who stated in a Sheffield Telegraph article that ‘“peace”… meant a communist victory’.[11] Reiterating Mayhew’s suspicion of the term ‘peace’, Prime Minister Clement Atlee referred to the BPC in Parliament in November 1950 as the ‘so-called British Peace Committee’.[12] Tony Shaw has argued that Britain’s popular mainstream press followed this concept and was staunchly anti-communist throughout the early 1950s,[13] finding much to criticise the peace movement about.

In 1950, the BPC was involved in two initiatives that saw the mainstream media and politicians from both the Labour Party and the Conservatives claim that the BPC was not working for ‘peace’, but for Soviet-styled communism. Firstly, the BPC campaigned on behalf of the Stockholm Appeal, a call made by the World Peace Council for an end to all nuclear weapons. Launched in March 1950, the BPC was involved in collecting signatures from the British public in support of this appeal. The text of the appeal was brief, yet very broad, but was taken by many anti-communists in Britain as a pledge for support of communism. The conservative historian Max Beloff stated in The Listener:

The Stockholm appeal was not simply an appeal for peace; it was an appeal for peace on the Soviet terms; it was an appeal to accept the Soviet pattern of life for ourselves; because if we resist its imposition, force will be used, as it is being used elsewhere.[14]

Secondly, the WPC announced that it would hold its annual congress in Sheffield, which agitated many anti-communists in Britain. This caused considerable anxiety for the Labour government and sections of the mainstream press. The Atlee government attempted to disrupt the planning of the Sheffield Congress by denying entry into the country of many foreign delegates.[15] Whilst some in the press thought that banning the entry of these foreign delegates was anti-democratic and moved into the realm of authoritarianism, some of the tabloid newspapers, such as Daily Mail, criticised the government for not going far enough. The newspaper continued its long-held narrative that Labour was ‘too soft’ on communism or was a crypto-communist government and that its usual ‘controlling’ nature was reserved in circumstances when dealing with supposed communist fellow travellers. The newspaper rhetorically asked, ‘odd is it not that a government who propose to control the British people hand and foot cannot stop a lot of subversive aliens coming in’.[16] The editorial continued:

No one wants to see our liberties infringed, but it may be necessary to take something from them to preserve them. That happened in the last war – and we are at war again, though they call it a Cold War now.[17]

The criticism of the non-communist peace organisations being naïve and misled by the communists in the BPC/WPC became widespread. The PPU, as the longest established peace group, was particularly concerned about this and was aware that association with the communist-led peace organisations could inflict damage upon their cause. Douglas Hyde, a Catholic journalist who defected from the CPGB, criticised the pacifist movement in the Catholic Herald, stating that the campaign of the BPC, led by the British Communist Party, had ‘puzzled, and in some cases deceived, many genuine peace lovers’, but warned that it was actually ‘timed and designed to aid the USSR, which stands to benefit so much by the disarmament of the West.’[18]

The PPU tried to engage with the mainstream to undo this association with the communist slant of the BPC. In late 1951, Peace News, with the broad support of the PPU’s leadership, launched ‘Operation Ghandi’ and called for direct action against nuclear weapons and Britain’s Civil Defence programme.[19] In January 1952, they organised a sit-in protest at the War Office in Westminster, which resulted in 11 arrests. The leaflet distributed to by the protestors at this demonstration emphasised the non-communist stance of the PPU, stating:

We owe you an explanation. We are not crackpots and we are not communists.

We know we look silly. We are doing it to appeal to your intelligence and your conscience, although it may lead to arrest and imprisonment…

We who give you this leaflet refuse to take part in war or violent struggle for either West or East.[20]

Against a mainstream media and a bipartisan government commitment to anti-communism, the PPU and other non-communist peace campaigners found it difficult to put forward their own narrative of peace and successfully disassociate themselves from the Communists. The result was that a number of non-communists dropped out of the movement in frustration over the communist involvement in the BPC. J.B. Priestley, who later became central to the organisation of CND, declined offers to join the World Peace Council because of its connections with communism.[21] Andrew Bone suggests that Bertrand Russell refused to back disarmament, during the early 1950s, on the grounds that nuclear weapons would still be manufactured during any war (Instead he advocated a world government which maintained a monopoly of weapons).[22] This refusal by many, who eventually were key proponents of disarmament, reveals the fragmentary nature of the peace movement during the early 1950s. The popularity of the movement achieved under the stewardship of well-known figures such as Russell and Priestley suggests that the communist taint was a chief reason why the movement was unable to make much headway in the early 1950s.


[1] See: David Widgery, The Left in Britain (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976) p. 106; Nigel Young, An Infantile Disorder? The Crisis and Decline of the New Left (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977) p. 154; Callaghan, Cold War, Crisis and Conflict, p. 147; Geoff Andrews, Endgames and New Times: The Final Years of British Communism 1964-1991 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2004) p. 30.

[2] Willie Thompson, The Good Old Cause: British Communism 1920-1991 (London: Pluto Press, 1992)  p. 116.

[3] Roger Seifert & Tom Sibley, Revolutionary Communist at Work: A Political Biography of Bert Ramelson (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2012) p. 47; p. 56.

[4] Richard Taylor, ‘The Marxist Left and the Peace Movement in Britain since 1945’, in Richard Taylor & Nigel Young (eds), Campaigns for Peace: British Peace Movements in the Twentieth Century (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987) p.163.

[5] See: Malcolm MacEwen, The Greening of a Red (London: Pluto Press, 1991) pp. 133-138.

[6] Bob Darke, The Communist Technique in Britain (London: Penguin Books, 1952) p. 143.

[7] ‘Resolution of the British Peace Congress’, World News and Views, 5 Nov., 1959, p. 532.

[8] ‘Resolution of the British Peace Congress’, p. 532.

[9] CPGB Central Committee, Report of the Central Committee to the 15th Party Congress, September 16-19, 1938, (accessed 23 January, 2014).

[10] Gunter Wernicke, ‘The Communist Led World Peace Council and the Western Peace Movements: The Fetters of Bipolarity and Some Attempts to Break in the Fifties and Early Sixties’ Peace and Change 23, 3 (1998), p. 270.

[11] Cited in Christopher Mayhew, A War of Words: A Cold War Witness (London: I.B. Taurus, 1998), p. 81.

[12] HC Deb. 9 Nov. 1950, vol 480, col. 1099.

[13] Tony Shaw, ‘The Popular Press and The Early Cold War’, History, 83 (1998), pp. 80-85.

[14] Max Beloff, ‘The Soviet Approach to History’, The Listener, 1134, 23 Nov. 1950, p. 580.

[15] Phillip Deery, ‘The Dove Flies East: Whitehall, Warsaw and the 1950 World Peace Congress’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, 48/4 (2002)

[16] ‘Comment: The Red Carpet’, Daily Mail, 10 November, 1950, p. 1.

[17] ‘Comment’, p. 1.

[18] Douglas Hyde, ‘“Peace-War” Chiefs Meet In London’, Catholic Herald, 8 June, 1950, p. 8.

[19] Sean Scalmer, Gandhi in the West: The Mahatma and the Rise of Radical Protest (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 135.

[20] Leaflet reproduced in ‘Operation Gandhi: A Call to YOU’, Peace News, 18 Jan 1952, p. 3.

[21] ‘Open Letter to a Russian Colleague’, cited in Wittner One World or None, p. 200.

[22] Andrew G. Bone ‘Russell and the Communist-Aligned Peace Movement in the Mid-1950s’ Russell: The Journal of Bertrand Russell Studies, 21 (2001) pp. 34-6.

Doris Lessing’s letter to The Reasoner (November 1956)

The author Doris Lessing died yesterday at the age of 94. Raised in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Lessing was a member of the short-lived Southern Rhodesian Communist Party, a proxy member of the Communist Party of South Africa and then a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. She joined the rebellion in the Party in 1956 after Krushchev’s revelations of the crimes of the Stalin era and the inability of the CPGB leadership to acknowledge the uncritical support that they gave the Soviet Union during these years. I thought people might be interested in a letter that she wrote for the third issue of the mimeographed journal The Reasoner, published by E.P. Thompson and John Saville as an attempt to foster discussion within the CPGB. Thompson and Saville resigned from the Party in November 1956 after being threatened with expulsion and developed The New Reasoner in 1957. The letter, dated 19 October, 1956, is as follows:

Lessing in 1961, with John Osborne, Vanessa Redgrave and Shelagh Delaney.

Lessing in 1961, with John Osborne, Vanessa Redgrave, John Berger and Shelagh Delaney.

The Cult of the Individual

The reaction to the 20th Congress has been expressed in party circles throughout the world in the phrase ‘the cult of the individual’. That these words should have been chosen as the banner under which we should fight what is wrong with the party seems to me as a sign of the corruption in our thinking.

For they suggest that what caused the breakdown of inner-party democracy was an excess of individualism. But the opposite is the truth. What was bad is not that one man was a tyrant, but that hundreds and thousands of party members, inside and outside the Soviet Union, let go their individual consciences and allowed him to become a tyrant.

Now we are discussing what sort of rules we should have in the party to prevent the emergence of bureaucracy and dictatorship. A lot of worried and uneasy people are pinning their faith in some kind of constitution which will ensure against tyranny. But rules and constitutions are what people make them. The publication of the Constitution of the Soviet Union, an admirable document, coincided with the worst period of the terror. The party rules in the various communist parties are (I believe) more or less the same; but the development of the different communist parties has been very dissimilar.

I think that this talk about changing the rules is a symptom of the desire in all of us to let go individual responsibility on to something outside ourselves, something on to which we can put the blame if things go wrong. It is pleasant to have implicit trust in a beloved leader. it is pleasant and comfortable to believe that the communist party must be right simply because ‘it is the vanguard of the working class’. It is pleasant to pass resolutions at a conference and think that now everything will be all right.

But there is no simple decision we can make, once and for all, that will ensure that we are doing right. There is no set of rules that can set us free from the necessity of making fresh decisions, every day, of just how much of our individual responsibility we are prepared to delegate to a central body – whether it is the communist party, or the government of the country we live in, be it a communist or a capitalist government.

It seems to me that what the last thirty years have shown us is that unless a communist party is a body of individuals each jealously guarding his or her independence of judgement, it must degenrate into a body of yes-men.

The safeguard against tyranny, now, as it always has been, is to sharpen individuality, to strengthen individual responsibility, and not to delegate it.


Lessing resigned from the CPGB shortly after this letter was published, but was still involved in progressive politics, such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Anti-Apartheid Movement, in the 1960s.

EDITED TO ADD: The New Statesman has republished a short article by Lessing on being a communist in South Africa and Britain in the late 1940s and 1950s here.

The CPGB and the CND: A reply from Tom Sibley

I have received a short reply to the posts by myself and Nick Barnett on the relationship between the CPGB and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament from Tom Sibley, one of the authors of the biography of Bert Ramelson (see here for a review). While I still don’t agree with some of the assertions made by Sibley and would like to see some references to some of the arguments made (such as Bruce Kent’s quote and the assertion made in point 2), I am posting it in the interest of furthering academic debate. The piece is slightly edited to remove some minor rhetorical flourishes, because y’know, my gaff, my rules, but it is essentially the original piece emailed to me. So below is the piece from Sibley…


After Evan’s latest admirable research efforts it is clear that many previous assessments of the CP’s position on nuclear disarmament and the Party’s relationship with CND are badly flawed (on this more later). I think it would be helpful to future academic  research and to those studying these questions if it was made it clear that the notion of a “people’s bomb” is totally alien to the CP’s position and approach during this period or at any time at all.  It is probably based on an anecdote from Jack Straw’s autobiography – a totally unreliable source.  It would also help to explore how the various commentators (as quoted by Evan) got it wrong. For example:

  1. Nigel Young’s statements that “Communists have played little part in sustaining the first anti-nuclear protests “and that the Daily Worker attacked CND are utterly wrong.  As was Willie Thompson when he stated that the CP originally opposed CND.  Similarly Thompson’s assessment that the Party had been “griping” about the CND is wide of the mark.
  2.  John Callaghan is also wrong to say that it was not until 1960 that the Party backed the Aldermaston march.  It was well represented at the very first march in 1958 and on every subsequent demonstration.
  3. Andrews’ history is wide of the mark when suggesting that the CP’s initial opposition to unilateralism was prompted by loyalty to the Soviet Union.  The CP, as did the majority of labour movement activists at the time believed that the only real protection against the Bomb was its total worldwide abolition and that this could only be achieved through international agreement.  There were high hopes that such agreement could be attained in the late 1950s but these were scuppered by the Pentagon in 1960.
  4. As for Widgery it is risible to suggest that the CP, in the late 1950s, controlled the majority of union block votes at the Labour Party Conference.  Remember CP members were not allowed to represent their unions at Labour Party Conferences and that less than a handful of mainly small unions could be said to be communist led in 1957/58.  And Widgery neglects to tell his readers that before 1959 not one union conference supported the unilateralist position.  And it is incorrect to claim that this was a left-right issue – the real division was between those who wanted to keep the bomb as a deterrent  and a symbol of British power (the right wing) and those who wanted to ban it a divided left consisting of both multilateralist and unilateralist.

By 1960 it was clear that international agreement on banning the Bomb was no longer a feasible short term objective and that the best protection for the British people was the development of a mass peace movement campaigning for a wide range of unilateralist and multilateralist initiatives, a position shared by both the CP and CND.  The relationship between the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the CPGB had no bearing on this.  Understandably the Soviets wanted Britain to use its influence in support of international agreement to ban the Bomb and felt that unilateralism weakened these prospects.  But the British Party’s first concern was the security of the British people and there is no documented or other reliable evidence to suggest that Moscow attempted to influence CPGB policy.

Nick Barnett rightly points out that several individuals and a few unnamed organisations (they came and went) campaigned on the issue during the 1950s prior to CND’s formation.  Although these efforts were important they do not bear comparison to consistent mass work undertaken by the British Peace Council and the Communist Party.

Bruce Kent, when General Secretary of CND, was very clear about the vital role played by the CP when publicly  thanking the Party for its work in sustaining the broad peace movement over several decades.  It was the CP-led British Peace Council which collected over 1 million signatures to a ‘Ban the Bomb’ petition in 1950 and which campaigned throughout the post war period (from 1945 onwards) for all nuclear weapons to be outlawed.  And it was Communist led unions such as the ETU and the FBU which during this period championed nuclear disarmament at TUC Congresses.

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.