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How it nearly went wrong for CND

On CND's 60th anniversary, PN recalls the origins of the campaign's commitment to unilateralism

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament nearly put itself out of business right at the beginning of its life.

CND started near St Paul’s cathedral, London, on 16 January 1958 at a meeting of the National Council for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapon Tests (NCANWT) and an invited group of national figures. NCANWT willingly handed over its office, its funds, its files, its paid organiser, and a public meeting it had organised for 17 February, to the new ‘Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’ (the name chosen at the 16 January meeting).

We now remember 17 February as the starting point of CND because it was the huge attendance at the public meeting at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, that really turned CND into not just a campaign but a movement.

The mood of the vast audiences in Central Hall, and in the four nearby halls that also had to be hired, radicalised the speakers.

Before the public meeting, the policy document agreed on 16 January had been very timid. It called for negotiations on nuclear disarmament, and said that Britain, ‘pending negotiations’, should: suspend patrol flights by nuclear bombers; end hydrogen bomb tests; end steps to set up nuclear missile bases on UK territory; and refuse to ‘provide nuclear weapons for any country’.

These were CND’s ‘four points’.

At the 17 February meeting, egged on by the crowds, CND speakers were much bolder, calling for simple unilateral nuclear disarmament. Peggy Duff, CND’s first general secretary, wrote later: ‘AJP Taylor got the wildest applause when he said that MPs supporting nuclear weapons should be hailed as “murderers” wherever they appeared in public.’

“MPs supporting nuclear weapons should be hailed as ‘murderers’”

After the Central Hall meeting, CND’s executive committee resisted calls to write unilateral nuclear disarmament into their policy statement.

At this point, Peace News wrote an editorial on 28 February 1958, ‘Courage – or Calculations?’, urging CND to abandon its cautiousness:

‘The great assemblages of people who gathered last week in Westminster to protest against the manufacture of nuclear weapons were not greatly concerned that there should be a precise definition of the limits to unilateral action to be undertaken by Britain or that these limits should be confined within the four points set out in the policy statement of the Committee....

‘[M]ost of the speeches were directed to the unconditional abandonment by Britain of the manufacture and stockpiling of nuclear weapons. Not only this, but it was this aspect of the addresses, and particularly expressions of moral abhorrence at the very use of such things that produced the most emphatic indications of approval.

‘When Mr AJP Taylor, having described the consequences of the launching of an H-bomb, asked who among those present would be willing to press the button that would bring such results and was answered by complete silence, the feeling of the audience was obvious. It was not that this or that should be done “pending negotiations”. It was simply that this was a matter that must be taken right out of the field of negotiations altogether by an act of unqualified renunciation by Britain on moral grounds.

‘It is not because of this apparent lack of harmony between what was said from the platform and what is said in the statement that we make these comments, but because of the threat that lies in what has happened since.

‘If the speakers last week had devoted themselves to a carefully calculated estimate of the limits and consequences of the four points that were to be urged “pending negotiations” they would have killed the campaign at the outset.

‘We understand that the discrepancy between the statement and the speeches has since been raised in the controlling Council of the campaign and it has been urged that the speakers in future should confine themselves within the limits of the policy statement. If this should happen we are convinced that the campaign will be destroyed.’

Instead, the executive committee of the great and the good bowed to the will of the people, and CND became a unilateralist campaign, laying the basis for its long and valuable life as the backbone of the British peace movement.