History and beyond: the world's first pacifist newspaper

IssueMarch 2005
Feature by Harry Mister

In 1936 I had the remarkable good fortune to be a youthful member of a local pacifist group which dreamt up and published the first Peace News. A modest trial printing of 2,000 copies based on #6 of funds, it was the brain child of a Quaker member of the No More War Movement, Humphrey Moore, a journalist who had worked for the National Peace Council.

Two pence a copy on the streets, my first stint was to sell 100 copies of the founding issue. Peace groups all over the country responded enthusiastically to Humphrey's appeal to support their own weekly newspaper. In a few months it was selling on street corners all over the country. With half of the nation reckoned to be against a build-up to war, peace people had at last got a public voice.

Never again?

Early supporters often had shattered fathers who had returned scarred for life by the appalling brutality; the murder of millions of conscripts, ruthlessly contrived by the rulers of rival imperialisms, in WW1. Many were veteran conscientious objectors, sometimes maimed by their experiences, who united for “never again” with many ex-soldiers. Pacifism got organised, and Peace News played a significant part.

But Nazism, born in the German peoples' resentment of the Allies' harsh post-war settlement, was welcomed by many in the west as a bulwark against communism. The immutable law of “cause and effect” took over and once again rival powers were locked in a war for ascendancy, with the appalling mutual horrors of genocide, carpet bombing and Hiroshima.

Can't kill the spirit

Pacifists and others waged a determined “stop the war” campaign, with a peak print run of 40,000 Peace News in 1940, then to be banned by its wholesale newsagent distributors and its printer.

Pacifists, Quaker groups and others took over the paper's countrywide distribution, friendly printers “stuck their necks out” for us, and the paper did not miss an issue, holding some 50,000 regular readers.

Through the war years a voluntary distribution of near 20,000 copies each week meant that Peace News effectively kept the antiwar movement alive during those dark years.

For safekeeping, throughout that time I carried the distribution records around in my cycle bag and my wife and I set up each week's dispatches for the never-failing volunteers to post, rail and hand-deliver country-wide.

In spite of parliamentary demands to ban us, it was a tribute to the people's limited war-time democracy that, despite air-raids and conscription, an anti-war newspaper always got through.

Fuelling movements

Come the post-war years it was tough for PN, with everyone preoccupied with rebuilding their own lives. But the unbelievable horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki found the peace movement determined to work for a saner and more humane world.

In the 1950s and 60s Peace News played a central role in the rise of the anti-bomb movement. It helped launch the first Aldermaston march, and its campaigning for nonviolent direct action fuelled the mass resistance of the Committee of 100 and the growing acceptance of nonviolence as the most effective way of influencing public opinion.

The paper's role was recognised in the unfailing generosity of its readers. The 1950s were marked by a remarkable gift - providing our present headquarters at Caledonian Road in London, followed by the funds to set up our own typesetting works, which is now the home of the Campaign Against Arms Trade.

We should also acknowledge the unfailing enthusiasm of those who have done such great and often historic work as staff and the many generations of invaluable volunteers.

We are again united in determination to carry on and further extend the declaration heading the paper's first issue: “serving all those who work for peace”. Maybe it can even become a weekly again!

Your paper needs you!

We are now so much better able to expand our work with the much improved facilities of our regenerated “Peace House”, a committed Housmans Bookshop successfully emerging to stronger activities in support of our cause, the long experience of Peace News Trustees backing the paper all the way, and much more.

But your new tabloid newspaper will be counting on every reader's participation in the work. There are thousands of activists in the many causes we support, that will receive promotion and encouragement via our columns. Help us bring them in. There are millions of people thoroughly disenchanted with current politics and ashamed of this country's war record. We need them too and believe we have much of value to offer them.

Now is the time to start harnessing the widespread longing for peace, justice and honesty. With your help Peace News will be in the forefront of that campaign.