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Long March of the Protesters Who Tried to Save the World
Critics often dismiss Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament supporters as a bunch of tub-thumping zealots. They remember the news footage of women chained to fences at Greenham Common during the mid 1980s, when the nuclear disarmament campaign was at its peak, arguing that such behaviour merely undermined national security.
But half a century ago when the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was launched in front of 5,000 people at Westminster's Central Hall, in February 1958, its leaders included respected writers and intellectuals such as Bertrand Russell, JB Priestley and AJP Taylor.
This was followed a few weeks later by an historic march to a little known Berkshire village called Aldermaston, home to an atomic weapons research centre. That march cemented the anti-nuclear movement in the public consciousness.
Michael Randle was a 24-year-old activist working for Peace News at the time and a member of the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War that organised the march.
"There was a real feeling that the CND launch was going to mobilise people, and we wanted to take things forward," he says.
Although there had been previous demonstrations at Aldermaston, they were tiny by comparison and Randle was among a four-man committee, which also included Hugh Brock, Labour MP Frank Allaun and Walter Wolfgang, charged with galvanising support. But although the Direct Action Committee would later join CND, not everyone was singing from the same hymn sheet.
"Some people on the CND executive were very doubtful about the march, most notably JB Priestley. He thought it wasn't the right time to take it out on to the streets," he says.
The Aldermaston march saw the now ubiquitous CND logo used for the first time, and Randle recalls artist Gerald Holtom arriving at their offices clutching the original designs.
"He produced these sketches of this strange new symbol and showed us how it combined the semaphore sign for N, for nuclear, and D for disarmament.
"Some people thought it was confusing, but we knew we were on to something when the cartoonists started using it in the newspapers."
The march itself also grabbed the headlines. "Although it was small by comparison with what came afterwards, it was large in comparison in terms of what had gone before, and it was the start of something important."
Randle was among 8,000 who made the 50-mile trek from London to Aldermaston. "It was Easter and the weather was terrible, it snowed on the second day and there was rain and sleet. But I think it worked to our advantage, because some of the journalists could not help but be impressed that ordinary men and women were so committed to the march."
He later became secretary of The Committee of 100, an anti-war group set up by Bertrand Russell, and remembers visiting the philosopher.
"He invited me to his home in Wales to talk over how things were going. It was a wonderful weekend, he talked about meeting Disraeli and Gladstone, and I naively asked him who was the first Prime Minister he'd met and he said, 'that would be my grandfather, Lord John Russell'".
The emergence of a nuclear disarmament movement followed the Suez Crisis and the failed Hungarian uprising, which showed to a watching world that Moscow wasn't going to loosen its grip on Eastern Europe without an almighty fight. Randle was at the forefront of this fledgling movement in Britain.
"Like many other people I was inspired by Gandhi's philosophy of non-violent resistance, and from the start there was a moral imperative about what we were doing.
"We all believed that using weapons which by their very nature killed people indiscriminately was morally wrong. We felt there was no moral justification for this and it's still a driving force behind the campaign."
Critics say peace was maintained during the Cold War because of the threat of mutual destruction, not because of pressure from CND. Not surprisingly Randle disagrees. "The first thing to say is it hasn't achieved nuclear disarmament; what has been achieved has been done with the help of CND putting pressure on governments."
He claims that both the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, signed five years later, were the result of growing pressure from people afraid about the threat of nuclear conflict following the Cuban missile crisis.
"That showed just how close we came to catastrophe and what's interesting is that, during the Cuban missile crisis, Bertrand Russell sent telegrams to both Kennedy and Khrushchev urging caution. Khrushchev responded and signalled his willingness to climb down via communications with Russell."
"I believe the nuclear disarmament campaign has acted as a break on the nuclear powers and we need to think what would have happened if there hadn't been this opposition.
"If there had been the same gung-ho attitude we saw before the First World War, we probably wouldn't even be here asking the question whether or not CND has been successful."
Another criticism aimed at the nuclear disarmament movement was that it contained communist sympathisers and was tantamount to an ideological fifth column. "Among the rank and file there were certainly some communists and they were quite open about it," says Randle. "But the leaders of CND were respectable people, and they had no time for any totalitarian system.
"When we started, the Communist Party was unhappy because of our emphasis on unilateral disarmament. I remember speaking to a communist sympathiser on the first Aldermaston march and him saying to me, 'you've split the peace movement'".
Randle, a part-time peace studies lecturer at Bradford University, who lives in Shipley, West Yorkshire, believes the argument that having a nuclear arsenal is an important deterrent against would-be aggressors is a flawed one.
"A sharp distinction is sometimes drawn between deterrent and use, but what that evades is that a deterrent can only work if you're prepared to use it."
By the late 1960s, attention had shifted from nuclear disarmament to the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, but a decade later the shadow of nuclear conflict returned, as the policy of detente between East and West was replaced by more confrontational rhetoric, leading to Nato deploying hundreds of medium range missiles across western Europe.
"At one point during this campaign there were 10 million people out on the streets in Europe, because there were real fears we could be heading towards a nuclear conflict," says Randle.
He believes that CND and other activists played a significant part in helping to end the Cold War. "We helped galvanise public opinion and what was also important were the links established between nuclear disarmament groups and the human rights movement in eastern Europe, this mobilisation of people power was crucial to bringing down the Iron Curtain."
At its peak in 1983, CND's national membership topped the 100,000 mark, while today it has dropped to 35,000. But Randle doesn't agree that CND has ceased to be relevant.
"We warned about the dangers of nuclear proliferation. It hasn't happened as quickly as some of us predicted, but it has happened. One of the big worries now is which other countries will get the bomb..."
Nuclear weapons can't be magically uninvented, but he believes the only solution is to work towards an international agreement to reduce the global stockpile of warheads.
"We're now faced with the possible spread of nuclear weapons to countries like Iran. But if Britain has them and other countries like India and Pakistan are allowed to have them why should Iran be treated differently?
"We're setting the worst possible example, and the danger is that we end up with further nuclear proliferation. And where will that lead?"
© 2008 Yorkshire Post