0 N THE MIGHT of 17 February, 1958, Westminster Cathedral Hall was packed with people, so packed that there were overflow meetings in several local halls. The time for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament had come.
It wouldn't be unfair to say that it was late in coming. Already the two superpowers were well down the road to a nuclear arms race, and the British bomb programme was well advanced. Sheer national pride made Britain follow the major powers. In 1946, in a secret cabinet meeting, Ernest Bevin, the then Foreign Secretary, said: "We've got to have this thing over here whatever it costs. We've got to have a bloody Union Jack on top of it."
The Catholic Herald can take the credit for the earliest and most perceptive Christian comment about the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August: "We believe the bomb to be an immoral and illegitimate instrument of warfare. Therefore we conclude that both its use and the threat to resort to it cannot be in the interests of mankind."
It was this view that drew together the thousands who came to the Westminster Central Hall in February, and which led many of them to take part in the first Aldermaston march at Easter 1958. So started the early CND tradition of Easter marches.
But marches were not the only activity of the rapidly growing CND. It began to engage in political lobbying of all kinds, producing petitions, leaflets and badges, and provoking debate in the press and in public.
This first phase of CND was brought to a close due to outside circumstances. The peaceful resolution of the Cuban crisis in 1962 made people think that such crises could be safely managed. Only decades later have we learned how close humanity came then to nuclear disaster.
The Partial 'rest Ban Treaty of 1963 seemed to suggest that negotiation, not agitation, was the best way forward, but in 1964 Harold Wilson reversed his election commitments and continued the Polaris nuclear submarine programme.
Activists became deeply discouraged and for 15 long years the nuclear issue was as good as dead as far as as the public and parliament were concerned. A dwindling CND remnant continued with Easter marches, visits to the Faslane submarine base and endless showings of Peter Watkins' stunning film, The War Game which had been suppressed by the government in case a TV showing undermined public belief in nuclear deterrence.
Christian CND continued its constant witness with the help of such brave champions as Archbishop Thomas Roberts, the Jesuit, and Fr Simon Blake, the Dominican. Such church figures were, however, exceptions. The official position of most of the Churches was that deterrence could be tolerated on a temporary basis while negotiations aimed at nuclear abolition continued. (In fact there never have been, and are still not, any such negotiations.) By the end of the 1970s the pot of British public concern began to boil once more as the result of a series of unexpected developments. In November 1979 we learned that mobile cruise missiles with warheads 10 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb were to be based at two sites in Britain. Then it was discovered that not only had the Labour government spent millions of pounds, in secret, on improving Polaris warheads, but there were already plans for a new generation of Trident submarines to replace them.
American military leaders began to talk about winning nuclear wars. '[he Home Office issued a civil defence pamphlet entitled Protect and Survive, which managed to be both ridiculous and shocking .
There is no need to repeat the history of the 1980s. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary people took part in protest activity (Hyde Park was filled at least three times) but the government reacted with hostility and suspicion. Phones were tapped, letters opened, and informers planted on CND. Efforts were made to suggest that protesters were either idiots or Soviet fellow travellers.
Christian CND, Pax Christi, and the Quakers were written off as "red agents". From Greenham Common and the women's camps a message came out that still goes around the world: "take the toys from the boys" is its best summary.
WiTH GORBAC HEV, in 1985, came a dose of common
sense and conscience. He announced a unilateral ban on Soviet underground nuclear testing which lasted for 18 months, and took a number of other independent initiatives. He also looked and sounded like a concerned and reasonable human being.
Now, nearly 10 years after Gorbachev, the Cold War is well behind us. For most people nuclear weapons have ceased to have a high priority. Today the dangers arc very different. Terrifying accidents, and the danger of terrorist groups acquiring nuclear weapons, are the new fears. Unpaid Russian scientists have taken their skills elsewhere and maintenance of existing stockpiles of warheads is poor. Despite current illusions to the contrary, even if all US/Russian agreements were ratified and effective, there would still be over 20,000 nuclear warheads in the world. CND is not yet out of a job.
In Britain we can see two diverging trends. Whilst the Labour government, terrified of seeming "weak" on defence, voted against even starting nuclear abolition negotiations in the UN General Assembly last year, many senior people (military as well as civilian) express strong views about the uselessness let alone the cost of nuclear weapons.
Sir Michael Atiyah, former President of the Royal Society, is quoted as saying: "1 believe history will show that the insistence on a UK nuclear capability was fundamentally misguided, a total waste of resources, and a significant factor in our relative economic decline over the last 50 years."
The International Court of Justice at The Hague advised in 1996 that in all conceivable circumstances, except that of the actual survival of a state, use of nuclear weapons would be illegal. The Vatican has now said unequivocally that it believes nuclear deterrence is an obstacle to peace.
Amongst disarmers there is a new perception. Picking off individual weapons systems nuclear, chemical or bacteriological or particular weapons like like lasers or landmines, is not enough. It is war itself that must now be the target.
John Paul II in the middle of the Falklands crisis, asserted that "war should belong to the tragic past, to history. It should find no place on humanity's agenda for the future."
That sounds like a utopian agenda. So once was the call for the abolition of the British slave trade, but no one would defend that trade now.
CND has come a long way since the Easter march of 1958. It has made some mistakes, lost some opportunities and created some unnecessary enemies. But in partnership with all movements for peace based on justice it has helped bring the vision of Micah a little closer. Swords can be turned into ploughshares.