By Julian Lewis
Encounter – July/August 1985
A few days after the clearance of anti-nuclear protestors from the site of Britain's second cruise missile base at Molesworth early in February 1985, a letter from a Communist member of the executive committee of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1960s was published in the Morning Star.
"It is necessary for Communists to acknowledge that the Western peace movements had four years to prevent cruise missiles coming to Europe and failed to do so,"
wrote Minnie Oberman, adding for good measure that this failure had
"left the Soviet Union no alternative but to counter this new danger."
That the self-styled "peace movement" is politically in decline is now obvious to all but the most partisan observers of the British scene. Yet few, if any, have drawn attention to the fact that CND, a movement founded 27 years ago, has achieved prominence for only two relatively short periods – from 1958 until about 1964 and from 1980 until the end of 1983.
The reason is that both these periods immediately preceded the times at which decisions taken, or soon to be taken, about nuclear weapons in this country had to be implemented. It was apparent in the late 1950s that Britain could no longer exclusively rely on her first-generation strategic nuclear delivery system, the manned bomber force. Would it be augmented ore superseded by land-based missile, sea-launched missiles, air-launched "stand-off" bombs, or by nothing at all? Once the choice of Polaris became a fait accompli, the anti-nuclear lobby went into a state of limbo from which it was to be rescued only NATO's "twin-track" decision of December 1979.
Why was this resurrection so unexpected? The decision to deploy cruise and Pershing II missiles in the absence of any arms-control agreement was, of course intended to reassure West European worried about the massive and continuing deployment, from 1977 onwards, of Soviet SS-20s. Though often referred to as a threat to West European cities, the main danger of these weapons was that their enhanced accuracy would enable NATO's military infrastructure to be crippled without causing sufficient civilian casualties to render credible a threat to retaliate against Soviet cities. Cruise and Pershing II, while not matching the SS-20s warhead-for-warhead in Europe, would nevertheless preclude a Soviet monopoly of the ability to mount such an attack.
Because the 1979 decision was not due to begin to be implemented until 1983, however, the "twin-track" announcement (Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's famous Doppelbeschluss) was tantamount to an open invitation to the anti-nuclear movement that it had four full years to try to frustrate deployment. One factor which probably lulled NATO into a belief that the reality of Soviet imperialism was sufficiently impressed upon the societies of the West was the invasion of Afghanistan, which also took place in December 1979. In fact, that aggression offered no such guarantee, as an article published within days of the invasion by the Los Angeles Times editorial writer Ernest Conine brilliantly predicted. Entitled "NEW SOVIET PEACE DRIVE A MATTER OF TIME?", it concluded that:
"The Soviet leaders must have known that their Afghan adventure would trigger counter-moves by Washington. You have to assume that they are counting on being able to stop the reaction before it goes far enough to do permanent damage to Soviet interests.
"The Russians probably figure, in short, that they need only let a few months go by, that the passions aroused by the invasion of Afghanistan will fade, and that American public opinion will be ripe for another Soviet peace offensive, complete with calls for cuts in military spending.
"Soviet troops would remain in Afghanistan. The Kremlin would still be in a position to take another bite when the time was right. The Soviet Union's own mostly secret defense budget would continue to go up and up. Meanwhile, though, the Soviets could again enjoy the fruits of detente. Or so they may figure."
In 1968, the invasion of Czechoslovakia had produced only a relatively short break in the general quest for detente:
"Less than four years after Soviet tanks rolled into Prague, Leonid Brezhnev was signing the SALT I treaty and exchanging hugs and kisses with none other than Richard Nixon, the old anti-Communist ... the Russians are obviously gambling ... that US determination will soon give way to wishful thinking about Soviet purposes in the world.
"If the Soviet leaders turn out to be wrong, their occupation of Afghanistan may indeed turn out to be a blunder of historic proportions. But if the past is really prologue, they probably aren't wrong."
What the NATO governments failed to appreciate was the invincible determination of most leaders of anti-nuclear agitation in the West to ignore inconvenient developments on the international or domestic stage. On 10 December 1979, the Guardian had published a letter drafted by Gordon Schaffer, a holder of the Lenin Peace Prize and Vice-President of the British arm of the Soviet-controlled propaganda front, the World Peace Council (WPC). It was headlined: "ACT NOW ON SOVIET INITIATIVE TO QUELL THE ARMS RACE". The letter stated that its signatories
"welcome the Soviet decision to withdraw 20,000 troops, 1,000 tanks and some other military material from the territory of the German Democratic Republic as a practical step which could greatly improve the prospects of success,"
and it demanded that the West should use the Soviet proposals
"as the basis for genuine progress towards disarmament".
As well as its author, this letter was signed by Lord (Gerald) Gardiner, Lord (Donald) Soper, Lord (Hugh) Scanlon, half-a-dozen Leftist Labour MPs or MEPs, including the future deputy leader of the Labour Group in the European Parliament, two bishops, several prominent trade-unionists, and Bruce Kent, the future General Secretary of CND. Just over a fortnight later, Soviet troops and tanks – possibly including some of those very forces so considerately withdrawn from East Germany – were engaged in the subjugation of Afghanistan. Leaving aside those pro-Soviet signatories of the Guardian letter who actively approved of the invasions, there was not the least evidence of contrition from the remainder that their assessment of Soviet intentions had been so grotesquely inaccurate. That none should have been expected is what I now wish to explain.
Western democratic politicians are always under the temptation to gravitate towards what they conceive to be the "Centre" of the spectrum of views on any contentious issue. Thus, Conservatives often tend to assume that voters to their Right will have to back them anyway, so the best policy is to try to wean away as many of their opponents' supporters as they can by shifting as far as possible in their direction. This is to overlook the need to motivate and rally the people already inclined towards one's own position, rather than to demoralise them by making concessions to the contrary view. More significantly, in the nuclear arena it assumes some sort of steady gradation from "multilateralism" to "unilateralism", and the existence in between of a sizeable pool of floating voters in which to fish for electoral support.
To those of us who were critical of CND, it soon became apparent that this is a misconception. There are two fundamentally incompatible ways of viewing the workings of international politics. One is to regard the actors on the international stage as primarily motivated by groundless mutual fear and suspicion. If one side can convince another of its sincerity so as to break this vicious circle, the argument runs, then mutual fear will subside and the danger of war will recede. The opposing view is that it is precisely such fear of the consequences which is the essential safety-device to deter ideologically adventurist states from aggressive behaviour. These two views respectively underpin the division between the unilateralist and multilateralist camps. They are psychologically poles apart, and there is little scope for halfway-houses between them.
One famous inter-War Chairman of the League of Nations Disarmament Commission – Salvador de Madariaga – articulated this distinction, with hindsight, in 1973:
"The trouble with disarmament was (and still is) that the problem of war is tackled upside-down and at the wrong end ... Nations don't distrust each other because they are armed; they are armed because they distrust each other. And therefore to want disarmament before a minimum of common agreement on fundamentals is as absurd as to want people to go undressed in winter."
Between 1980 and 1982, many opponents of unilateralism found themselves unwarily accepting false positions into which they had let themselves be manoeuvred by the vocabulary of the disarmament lobby. They failed clearly to perceive unilateralism as an article of faith which can be disproved only by suffering attack after disarming, rather than by reasoned argument – since, if deterrence succeeds in preventing a war, it can always be claimed that no conflict would have occurred anyway. Above all, the politicians among them failed to comprehend that massive annual demonstrations and skilfully orchestrated media-coverage did not mean that the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was the tip of an electoral iceberg which could overwhelm any party which strongly opposed it.
In helping to dispel these illusions, it may be that the "Falklands factor" helped Mrs Thatcher to victory in a more indirect way than has generally been supposed. After the fall of the Galtieri regime in Argentina, declassified intelligence assessments showed that a British military response had been deemed to be highly unlikely. Possibly the Argentinians too had overestimated the influence and representativeness of the "peace" movement in Britain. Certainly there was a striking congruence between the anti-nuclear agitation and the anti-Falklands Task Force campaign. CND, for example, seconded one of its full-time employees – Ron McIlroy (who subsequently joined the Communist Party) – to work for the so-called "Ad Hoc Committee for Peace in the Falklands".
Throughout the Falklands crisis, it was always apparent that public opinion was overwhelmingly in favour of the despatch of the British Task Force, whereas CND was overwhelmingly against it. Theoretically, one can postulate a large number of nuclear unilateralists who nevertheless rejected CND's opposition to the Falklands campaign; but, in reality, this combination of views was seldom if ever to be found. When, at the height of the Falklands crisis, the CND annual anti-nuclear rally in Hyde Park achieved a turnout comparable with those of previous years, the lesson was plain: most of the people who had been successfully intimidating public opinion and the Government with their strident campaigning for nuclear disarmament actually belonged to the same minority sectors of society opposed to the manifestly popular Falklands campaign.
This realisation may well have been crucial in the Cabinet's decision to attack the disarmament lobby uncompromisingly, rather than continuing to try to appease its proponents. Vigorous initiatives, timed to coincide with unilateralist media stunts, replaced the previous inclination to adopt a low profile in the run-up to the 1983 General Election. Predictably, the Government received its reward at the hands of an electorate greatly relieved at being given a lead on the need for deterrence and strong defences. Just as predictably, the proof – by careful political monitoring – that CND was controlled by individuals of almost exclusively Left-wing credentials was met with outraged protests about "smear" tactics, in the best traditions of "Reverse McCarthyism" (which holds that no matter how openly committed someone is to the causes of Marxism-Leninism, Trotskyism or the Soviet Union, he must never be described as a Communist).
Most predictable of all – a lesson yet to be fully appreciated in Belgium and The Netherlands – was the fact that, with the arrival on schedule of cruise missiles at Greenham Common in November 1983, the unilateralist lobby began losing momentum with every month that passed without the outbreak of the much-predicted "holocaust", its devastating "Day After", and the onset of a "nuclear winter".
The lessons of the December 1979 "twin-track" decision and its aftermath are, therefore, that moves to strengthen NATO defences will always cause an outcry from certain sections of Western opinion; that such opposition cannot be bought off, but must be confronted and countered; and that democratic governments which have the courage of their convictions and are willing to put the overall defence issues squarely to their own peoples, will not suffer electorally as a result.