Walter Wolfgang: 'We saved the world'

He was there at CND's birth 50 years ago. As Russia warns of a new arms race, the world needs him more than ever

Interview,Cole Moreton
Sunday 10 February 2008 01:00

Walter Wolfgang is an awkward customer – so awkward he should get an awkwardly shaped gold watch from the Awkward Squad for half a century's loyal service. You may remember him as the old boy thrown – forcibly – out of the Labour conference two years ago for responding to a Jack Straw speech with the shout, "Nonsense!".

The sight of party goons hauling an obviously frail man out on to the street for daring to dissent said a great deal about the dying days of the Blair administration. "I didn't want to protest at all," says the 84-year-old gruffly. "I was just sitting there listening. But Straw talked a lot of complete rubbish, then he went on to Iraq and said, 'Well, we are only there for one reason, and that is to bring democracy to the country.' So I burst out."

The awkwardness of Walter Julius Wolfgang goes back a lot further than that, though – all the way back to bothering Hugh Gaitskell in the Fifties and being a founder member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which held its first ever public event 50 years ago this week. A conference in London on Saturday will mark the occasion, with a reception for surviving originals. "We wanted the speedy removal of British nuclear weapons," recalls Mr Wolfgang. "It is taking a bit longer than we thought, eh?"

Quite. The little black-and-white badge on his lapel carries an iconic image, also taken up as a symbol of resistance to wars from Vietnam to the Gulf. At times the badge has been compulsory for the young and the dissident, with mass CND protests in the Sixties and Eighties expressing the national mood. But Polaris and Cruise missiles arrived anyway. The invasion of Iraq happened despite more than a million people taking part in an anti-war march jointly organised by CND. Now the Government plans to replace the Trident missile system. "There is no reason to give up," insists Mr Wolfgang, despite this evidence. "We have helped to change the world for the better, in our way."

This weekend, British CND will host a "global summit for a nuclear weapon-free world" at City Hall in London, but that goal is further away now than in 1958. "Some members were a little bit naive at the beginning," says Mr Wolfgang. "They thought they could win the argument on technical grounds. Not so."

He has returned for the day to the perimeter of the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston in Berkshire, destination of the first CND protest march. The origins of the movement lay in a magazine piece written by J B Priestley, criticising Gaitskell for abandoning nuclear disarmament. Later, sympathisers met the author in the rooms of Canon John Collins at St Paul's Cathedral. He was chosen as chairman, with the philosopher Bertrand Russell as president (although he would resign two years later, to lead more forceful direct action). CND's other high-profile early supporters included the writer E M Forster, the artists Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore and the composer Benjamin Britten.

There were 5,000 people at the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster for the first big meeting on 17 February 1958, and Walter Wolfgang was one of them. Born in Germany, he had been sent ahead to this country by his Jewish parents as a 14-year-old in 1937. They followed on two years later, and the family settled in Richmond, Surrey. Eventually he became an accountant – and joined Labour in 1948, the year the National Health Service was founded. "The turning point in public opinion came in 1956," he says. "Through Suez people became aware that there was something wrong with the trend of British foreign policy. This was entirely new." The Soviets threatened to launch "weapons of destruction"; the Americans promised "massive retaliation". The British were considering the hydrogen bomb. The prospect of all-out nuclear war seemed terrifyingly real.

"I'd rather let the Communists take over," said a woman on the first Aldermaston march, at Easter, 1958. The future Labour leader Michael Foot spoke before it left Trafalgar Square, telling the 4,000 people present: "This can be the greatest march in English history." The banners read: "Which is to be banned, the H-bomb or the human race?" There were mothers and prams, wrote the Manchester Guardian's London staff with some surprise, while the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, "cigarette authoritatively held at the ready, towered above his neighbours". Cars and coaches followed the march.

"We've got 500 mattresses behind there," said Miss Pat Arrowsmith, as the paper described her, "a pretty, large-eyed girl in a white pea jacket and carrying a rucksack, the organiser of the whole well-mannered outing". (The same Pat Arrowsmith, 74, campaigner on peace issues, lesbian equality and other human rights, who was arrested yet again outside Aldermaston last year.)

In 1958 there were trendy duffel coats, pipes, beards, skiffle and jazz, although the march was silent all morning, "so as not to break in on religious thoughts". According to the report, Miss Arrowsmith had to explain this to "a gay band of young people from Bermondsey, the boys in bowlers and camouflaged jackets and jeans, the girls in pony-tails and high heels and men's bright shirts hanging over their skirts".

"Some of the reception was hostile," says Walter Wolfgang. "On later marches it wasn't: they were curious and quite a few cheered us on. But that first time, there were people shouting out, 'Go back home, go back to Moscow'." The walk to Aldermaston took four days. "We were staying in schools or town halls, sleeping on the floor." There were 800 left at the end "on a field near here. That was considered to be a large number. The impact on people who hadn't known about the march was considerable, however, so the second one was enormous. We had 8,000." In subsequent years there would be 10 times as many.

The march was the first to use the logo drawn by a pacifist designer called Gerald Holtom from the semaphore signals for N and D (standing, of course, for nuclear and disarmament). "I drew myself the representative of an individual in despair," he said, "with hands palm outstretched outwards and downwards in the manner of Goya's peasant before the firing squad." The symbol was never copyrighted. It will be seen at Aldermaston again on Easter Monday. CND protests at each gate will be linked by costumes and banners to a different decade, in an attempt to "highlight and oppose the continued use of Aldermaston as a bomb factory".

The perimeter is guarded with a barbed wire fence that slopes outwards, a road along which vehicles patrol and a second, taller fence that may be electrified. Behind these a huge, wave-shaped hangar is being built: inside, lasers will generate the extreme heat and pressure needed to simulate nuclear explosions by computer.

The Government is spending at least £2bn on refurbishing Aldermaston, with the workforce rising to 5,000 people. Last week, the Secretary of State for Defence, Des Browne, offered it as a testing ground ahead of the review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2010. But this is where Trident was born, and the refurbishment would allow a successor to be developed here.

"The decision has been taken to order submarines," says Mr Wolfgang, who is on Labour's ruling National Executive Committee as well as being vice-president for life of CND. "In theory, no decision has been taken about warheads yet – although warheads are being upgraded here and spending has been expanded, so the facts may not match with the statements."

We have come to Aldermaston with Dr Kate Hudson, current chair of CND. Under her, the movement has attempted to claw back its place at the forefront of protest, lost to climate change campaigns among others. It has been criticised for sharing platforms with the Iranian ambassador or supporters of Hezbollah, but Dr Hudson wants to "work with as broad a range of people as possible". Trident saw membership rise "by several thousand" to 35,000, she says.

Dr Hudson joined CND during its second great wave of popularity. "Me and my friends were among the 30,000 women at Greenham Common in 1982, and the 400,000 in London in '83. I think we did contribute to the prevention of nuclear war."

That's a bold statement. How? "The existence of a mass movement, putting pressure on governments, contributed to the change in political climate which led to the INF Treaty." That'll be the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed in 1987. The one that President Putin says no longer serves Russian interests. He believes the Americans will break it anyway, when they put missiles into Poland. On Friday he told Russia's State Council that "a new arms race has been unleashed in the world" as a result of the US plan.

CND is campaigning against the British base at Menwith Hill in Yorkshire being used for the new US defence system. "I think there is everything to play for," says Mr Wolfgang. "Public opinion is with us. Now that nuclear weapons have got smaller, the risk of proliferation has increased. We are in a more dangerous situation now than we have ever been." Other people may get nostalgic about the duffel coat days – and they will, this week – but to Walter Wolfgang the anniversary is a campaign opportunity. He's not quitting now, however unstoppable nukes may seem. "No. Progress has been good, considering the size of the task. Why would I give up?"

He's awkward like that.

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