Whatever happened to CND?

Its name was on everyone's lips, its symbol at every demo. Then obscurity... As the group meets in London, Michael McCarthy catches up with the 20th century's most potent protest movement
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Now, however, the CND emblem is sprouting once again on lapels and in car windows, and when CND's annual conference opens at the University of Westminster in central London this morning, it will bring together several hundred delegates once more assured of the relevance of their group at the heart of the political process.

Twice before in its history CND has represented powerful tides in public opinion, and swelled to prominence for several years, before falling back into semi-obscurity; now it is on the rise once more. The invasion of Iraq, with the running sore of the conflict ever since, is of course the background for its renewed relevance; but two other forthcoming issues will soon bring its founding concern, the use of nuclear energy, to the forefront of Britain politics.

The first is the replacement of Trident, Britain's submarine-based nuclear missile system; the second is the possibility of another generation of civil nuclear power stations being authorised by the Government as part of its strategy for countering climate change. Both of these issues, under consideration at the heart of Whitehall, will arouse ferocious opposition, and CND will be at the forefront of it. Appropriately, its activists will feel, a new history of the movement written by the current chair, politics lecturer Kate Hudson, is entitled CND: Now More Than Ever.

This opposition will be opposition of principle. But the movement's founding impetus, it would be fair to say, was a very basic one - terror. Organised anti-nuclear protest dates from a period when the unlocking by human beings of the greatest power on earth seemed merely a prelude to their imminent extinction. By the mid-1950s the United States and the Soviet Union faced each other across the world, two systems implacably hostile to each other and each possessing the first modern Weapons of Mass Destruction, hydrogen bombs on the end of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

To anyone under 50 it is hard to convey the very real fear prevalent, in the late Fifties and early Sixties, that thermonuclear war was coming, and that it would destroy the world. It dominated life and thought like a great dark cloud, and you need to go back to the literature of the period to be reminded of how overarching it was. You can get a vivid sense of it in Bob Dylan's "Hard Rain", one of his earliest and lengthiest songs, a seemingly unending litany of nightmarish images about a nuclear attack, or in a poem like Robert Lowell's "Fall 1961", which is far cooler and more controlled but still captures the ubiquitous obsession with Armageddon:

"All autumn, the chafe and jar
Of nuclear war..."

This terror came to a height during the Cuban crisis of October 1962 when the Soviet deployment of nuclear missiles in the Caribbean produced a confrontation with the US which for about a week - until the Russian leader Nikita Kruschev backed down - really did look as if it would lead to atomic war. Had it done so, hundreds of millions of people would have died horribly in Britain, the United States, Russia and elsewhere, in the greatest catastrophe in human history - and people were under no illusions about that.

The world held its breath. We forget now. But at the time this dread was so pervasive that when the first activists came together to form CND they tapped into a well of public concern that quickly transformed their group into a mass movement. One of the crucial early figures was Walter Wolfgang, the veteran activist who earlier this month provided what will surely become one of the defining images of the Blair administration when, at the age of 82, he was unceremoniously ejected by burly stewards from the Labour party conference in Brighton for having had the temerity to shout "Nonsense!" at the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, during the latter's platform speech about Iraq.

But he's been at it a long time, has Walter. In the summer of 1957, as concern grew that Britain would follow America in developing the hydrogen bomb, much more powerful than the original atomic weapons, Mr Wolfgang (now a life vice-president of CND) organised the Labour H-bomb Campaign Committee, made up of 30 anti-nuclear MPs. In September the group held its first public meeting in Trafalgar Square: 4,000 people attended.

Much good did it do them. Later that month, at the Labour party conference, the Shadow Foreign Secretary Aneurin Bevan brusquely threw out the idea of unilateral nuclear disarmament for Britain, famously saying he did not want to have to go "naked into the conference chamber". Yet such was the anger on the Left at Labour's rejection of unilateralism that voices clamoured for a new mass movement to oppose The Bomb. The key figures in its founding were Kingsley Martin, then editor of New Statesman magazine, the philosopher Bertrand Russell, the writer JB Priestley, and John Collins, radical Canon of St Paul's Cathedral. On 16 January 1958 Canon Collins hosted the meeting that set up CND; he chaired the organisation for its first eight years.

It was put firmly on the political map three months later by the first Aldermaston march: the four-day Easter walk by thousands of protesters from London to the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston in Berkshire, where Britain's nuclear warheads were manufactured. This was when the CND logo made its first appearance, and there is no doubt that having such a recognisable symbol added enormously to the movement's attraction.

CND became the natural outlet for people's atomic fears and concerns, and the protests, the Aldermaston marches in particular, became bigger and bigger: the 1960 march saw 40,000 people walk from Berkshire to London, and another 100,000 join the final rally in Trafalgar Square.

These were enormous crowds for radical causes, not really exceeded until the spectacular London anti-Iraq-war march of February 2003. In a political system where both the main parties accepted the need for nuclear weapons, CND successfully enfranchised those who did not, and brought home to both Tory Government and Labour opposition that they could by no means take nuclear acceptance for granted.

However, the first nuclear terror, the dread of MAD - mutually assured destruction - gradually passed, as the Russian Government turned away from Kruschev's aggressive adventures, and began the process of détente with the USA. Ten years after the Cuban crisis, nuclear war seemed a distant prospect; and CND, while retaining its core of committed activists, could not longer properly be called a mass movement.

Yet it became one again. In the late Seventies and early Eighties a new round in the nuclear arms race began as the Russians deployed a new generation of nuclear missiles, the SS20s, and Nato deployed its own American Cruise and Pershing missiles in Western Europe. Nuclear nightmares started once more, and CND, energetically directed by another cleric, Monsignor Bruce Kent, was back at the forefront of a long public protest, whose most visible symbol was the women's peace camp at the Greenham Common air base.

This second period of influence eventually passed in its turn, as the Soviet Union collapsed and the nuclear arsenals of the superpowers were substantially reduced. By the mid-Nineties CND was once again on the political fringe.

It is the changed world after 11 September that has brought it back for a third period of influence. CND has been at the heart of opposition to the war in Iraq; it is at the heart of what it sees as American militaristic expansionism under the guise of the "war on terror". In particular, it is paying close interest to the latest US doctrine on nuclear weapons, which, says chair Kate Hudson , now envisages their actual use, rather than as hitherto, their deterrent value.

"We're not arguing against them as just a specialist form of weaponry," said Dr Hudson. "CND's role is moving more into a global political sphere. Nuclear weapons have a very central role in global politics. They have been used as the reasons for illegal wars, and - in the case of Iran - may be again. And it is absolutely obvious that the Americans now see them as weapons to be used, for domination of the Middle East or wherever." Britain's replacement of Trident - a decision that will have to be taken in the lifetime of this Parliament - will be "absolutely opposed," by CND, she says, as will any new generation of nuclear power stations, another decision that is looming soon.

And as the quagmire in Iraq stretches on and on, it seems that distinctive little logo is back with a vengeance.

"CND: Now More Than Ever, The Story of a Peace Movement", by Kate Hudson, is published by Vision Paperbacks, price £10.99.

Peace in a sign

One of the most widely known symbols in the world (and often seen more broadly as a peace symbol), the CND logo was designed in 1958 by Gerald Holtom, a professional designer and artist and a graduate of the Royal College of Arts.

Holtom, a conscientious objector who worked on a Norfolk farm during the Second World War, said that the symbol incorporated the semaphore letters N(uclear) and D(isarmament). He showed his preliminary sketches to a group of people in the Peace News office in London and to the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War, one of several smaller organisations that came together to set up CND.

The symbol first appeared in public on the anti-nuclear march from London to Aldermaston in 1958 when it figured on 500 cardboard "lollipops on sticks". It has never been registered as a trademark and no one has to pay or seek permission to use it.

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