INTRODUCTION: THE REASON FOR THIS WEBSITE SECTION
By Julian Lewis
Why include a special section on Cheshire VC and the nuclear deterrent?
From October 1981 until July 1991, when the Labour Party abandoned its policy of unilateral British nuclear disarmament, I worked professionally to counter the propaganda campaigns of the CND. The final 18 months of these efforts overlapped with my role as a Deputy Director of the Conservative Research Department, when Party Chairmen Kenneth Baker and Chris Patten successively – and successfully – put pressure on the Labour Opposition to renounce its adherence to the CND cause.
During that decade, therefore, I had every reason to know who backed unilateralism and who, by contrast, supported NATO’s policy of maintaining peace in Europe via stable nuclear deterrence.
One of the most thoughtful advocates of peace through nuclear deterrence was the United Kingdom’s most highly decorated bomber pilot of the Second World War, Group Captain Leonard Cheshire VC DSO** DFC, one of two British observers of the atomic bombing of Japan. As a result of his outstanding post-war work for the sick and disabled, Leonard Cheshire, by then a devout Catholic, became a member of the Order of Merit as well as the House of Lords.
In 1983, I had been in contact with him while working with the Coalition for Peace Through Security, a leading anti-CND pressure group. The CPS was publishing a collection of talks given by prominent figures, in support of defence-related issues, at the Church of St Lawrence Jewry in the City of London, and I needed to obtain his permission to publish his own 1979 lecture on ‘The Error of Pacifism’ as part of that compilation. The resultant publication, entitled Peace and the Bomb was circulated to the members of the Church of England General Synod and played a part in its vote not to adopt the unilateralist stance recommended by the report of a ‘working party’ of its Board of Social Responsibility.
Then, in February 1985, I was present at the debate in Friends Meeting House, London, to see Leonard Cheshire in action against the General Secretary of the CND, his fellow Catholic Bruce Kent. Having witnessed Monsignor Kent debate against many opponents previously, I was struck by his reluctance to stray from his pre-prepared line and engage with Leonard Cheshire's respectful but firm arguments in favour of the nuclear deterrent.
Lord Cheshire died in July 1992. His last interview, with Anne De Courcy in the Evening Standard, was so inspirational that I had two copies of it specially printed and framed: one to hang in my own study and the other to send, with my condolences, to his wife, Sue Ryder. To the very end, this highly moral, deeply devout and courageous humanitarian maintained his belief in the rightness of using atomic weapons to force Japan to surrender and in the power of nuclear deterrence to prevent war between the superpowers.
“THEIR PAST, YOUR FUTURE”
According to the archive website of the Imperial War Museum, Their Past Your Future, Phase 1 (TPYF1) ran from February 2004 until July 2006. It was an educational programme led by the Museum, and supported by the Big Lottery Fund, as part of the official commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. A major aspect of this programme was an
“innovative touring exhibition ... exploring the lasting impact of this conflict on people and places across the UK. The exhibition visited 70 venues throughout the country between February 2005 and February 2006, ranging from shopping centres to museums, and military barracks to libraries. Offering a range of learning activities to inspire everyone, from children to veterans, to find out more, the exhibition attracted over 2 million visitors.”
As an MP and a Shadow Defence Minister, I was invited to inspect the exhibition which was initially on display in Whitehall at the Ministry of Defence. Yet, despite the style and ingenuity of the presentation, its depiction of the post-war career of Leonard Cheshire was astonishing: according to the IWM, one of the most committed supporters of nuclear deterrence and penetrating critics of nuclear unilateralism had backed CND during the Cold War.
I duly took up the matter with the Museum who corrected the exhibit, omitting any reference to Lord Cheshire’s nonexistent CND affiliation. When pressed, the IWM also revealed the source of the misinformation: it was a page on a website called "SPARTACUS EDUCATIONAL" an online encyclopaedia run by John Simkin. This stated:
“After the war Cheshire dedicated his life to maintaining world peace and was a member of CND.”
Although I was unsuccessful in contacting Mr Simkin at the time, we have subsequently been in touch (August 2013) and the error has now been rectified. I have no reason to believe that it was anything other than an honest mistake, but some damage has nevertheless been done. Thus, on this very slender basis, the misinformation slowly percolated around the internet and at least one bestselling book, Bomber Boys: Fighting Back, 1940–45, by Patrick Bishop originally gave it the ‘authority’ of the printed page, by asserting that:
“Leonard Cheshire supported CND. But ... when he was awarded a peerage he chose to remember Woodhall, the home of 617 Squadron, in his title.”
Mr Bishop advises me that this was corrected in later editions, after he was informed by Sir Michael Quinlan of Lord Cheshire's actual views.
In reality, Leonard Cheshire was rightly convinced that nuclear deterrence has a vital role to play in maintaining international security and peace. Not only did he profoundly disagree with the CND in the 1980s and beyond, his views remain highly relevant today. That is why it is valuable as well as valid to put on record the consistent stance of a remarkable man on such a vitally important issue.
[For a characteristic speech by Lord Cheshire, though not on the subject of nuclear deterrence, click here; for British Pathé newsreel clips featuring Leonard Cheshire, click here; and for my tribute to him, on the centenary of his birth, click here.]