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Tribune vs. the Nuclear Bomb

From the moment the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Tribune was at the forefront of the campaign against nuclear weapons. It was a cause that shaped the magazine for decades.

‘A city of 300,000 people covering an area of twelve square miles has been blown to oblivion.’

The revelation of atomic war power by the US destruction of Hiroshima in August 1945 stunned the world. Never before had such singular devastation been unleashed in warfare. For Tribune, it was already clear that these weapons would define the decades to come. In the days afterward, it lamented the ‘portentous frightfulness’ of the ‘arrival of the Atomic Bomb.’ The editors of the magazine stood, alongside ‘men of all races and nations,’ ‘aghast at the measureless capacities for destruction’ that the bomb represented.

In an article titled ‘Race With Catastrophe’, Tribune’s editors argued for the necessity of ‘a new initiative’ to control the ‘new weapons’, as part of ‘the progress towards an international society’. For catastrophe to be overcome, they continued, ‘a pre-eminent role must be played by the new government and by the new Britain’. These were principles which many Tribunites, and in particular the young Michael Foot, were to develop in the years to come, as Tribune became one of the most prominent vehicles for the anti-nuclear cause in Britain. Indeed, the magazine and its writers were deeply involved with the formation and development of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament from 1958.

Tribune’s leader the following week, ‘Shadow over the Peace’, marked the end of the war. Its celebration was marred by the deep apprehension that followed the ‘shock of the atom bomb’, the ‘blinding revelation’ of whose ‘power and potentialities left us like a rabbit under the hypnosis of a snake’. Observing the immense danger of a weapon which ‘upsets what … were universally held to be the decisive factors in modern military power’, the article asserted that ‘the world cannot be protected from the threat of the atom bomb … unless it is put under international control.’

Throughout the first months of the post-war world, the countervailing obstacles to such international cooperation over atomic weapons became apparent. In ‘You and the Atom Bomb’, George Orwell observed the likelihood that ‘we all are to be blown to pieces’ by the new weapons, but also hypothesised that, should the Soviet Union soon too acquire atomic technology, the world would face ‘the prospect of two … monstrous super-states, each possessed of a weapon by which millions of people can be wiped out in a few seconds, dividing the world between them. Orwell imagined that the development of nuclear arsenals by both the US and USSR might produce, rather than another world war, a dangerous and unstable stasis, a ‘peace that is not peace’ — coining the usage of the term ‘cold war’ to describe the emerging bipolar geopolitical order. Towards the end of 1945, Tribune admitted ‘a rapid and unchecked growth of the deadly feeling that we are aimlessly drifting into some dark future which can only bring new and unprecedented disaster.

Cold War Fears

Tensions increased across the next decade, with conflict over Berlin, revolution in China, and war in Korea heightening the sense of potential disaster that direct hostilities between the two atomic world powers would bring. Responding to Soviet claims to have acquired a hydrogen bomb in 1953, to meet the American detonation of their own ‘H-bomb’ the previous year, Tribune decried the ‘tit-for-tat’ of the atomic arms race, which ‘could continue until the planet was plunged into atomic catastrophe.’

Warning that Britain and Western Europe would be considered an ‘expendable glacis’ during a US–Soviet thermonuclear exchange, Maurice Edelman wrote in Tribune that ‘two hydrogen bombs, one dropped on Birmingham, the other on London … would change the smiling face of Britain into a reeking skull.’ The spectre of the H-Bomb prompted mobilisations for international regulation, in which Tribune and many of its writers were active. 1954 saw the establishment by regular Tribune contributors Anthony Greenwood, Donald Soper, and Fenner Brockway, among others including the young Tony Benn, of the Hydrogen Bomb National Committee, which collected a million signatures for a disarmament petition by the year’s end.

Responding to the radiation poisoning of Marshall Islanders and faraway Japanese fishermen by the US H-Bomb test at Bikini Atoll, a call also emerged for the banning of further nuclear weapons tests by the atomic powers, which from 1952 included Britain. Barbara Castle became another prominent figure to write for Tribune about the H-Bombs: outlining the danger of radiation resulting from the tests, and posing the ultimatum to Britain of ‘Disarm or Perish’ because of the destructive power of, and impossibility of defence against, such weapons.

Aneurin Bevan also lamented the continued tests: ‘Having reached the stage where the use of these weapons in a major war would result in universal destruction there seems little sense in going on from there to the production of yet more powerful bombs. It is not possible to be deader than dead’. The Labour Party manifesto of that year opened with the claim that ‘the Hydrogen Bomb looms over all mankind’, calling for ‘the immediate cessation of H-Bomb tests.’

Unilateralism, Bevan, and Foot

1957 was a pivotal year for the development of the nuclear dis-armament movement in Britain. Responding to the announcement of upcoming British H-Bomb tests, support grew among the Labour left for a ‘unilateralist’ approach to disarmament — calling for a future Labour government to independently halt the production and testing of atomic weapons as a statement to the world against the arms race.

Tribune figures including Greenwood, Castle, and Ian Mikardo addressed a 5,000-strong ‘Labour H-Bomb Campaign Committee’ rally in Trafalgar Square opposing a British H-Bomb that September, while the magazine featured articles and letters from throughout the labour movement in support of the unilateralist position. Labour Party Conference in Brighton the following month was at the eye of this storm, receiving 120 resolutions on nuclear weapons, almost all of which favoured unilateralism.

Deeply associated with the magazine since its foundation, Aneurin Bevan shocked many of his Tribune colleagues with his speech against this position. In his remarks, he criticised this approach as an ‘emotional spasm’ which would sever Britain’s international diplomatic agreements and send a future socialist foreign secretary ‘naked into the [United Nations] Conference Chamber’, disempowered to ‘interpose’ between the US and USSR.

It was a tactical disagreement. Bevan remained a committed opponent of nuclear weapons, having penned an article that May entitled ‘Destroy The Bombs Before They Destroy Us’. But he had come to a different conclusion than the unilateralists on how to best pursue disarmament. His combative speech undoubtedly caused a rupture between Bevan and much of the erstwhile ‘Bevanite’ left, including the editors of Tribune, and in many ways marked the beginning of a new era for the magazine’s political tradition.

Michael Foot, then the magazine’s editor, published a response to Bevan’s speech in the next issue, later recalling that he had felt ‘convinced, apart from other evidence, by the huge anti-H-bomb deluge pouring in from readers that a failure to state our case against Bevan’s Brighton line would destroy the paper altogether.’ Foot’s piece defended his long-time comrade and Tribune colleague, while rejecting Bevan’s assertions that unilateral disarmament would be detrimental to Britain or to the goal of international disarmament:

‘Nothing I have heard persuades me that the possession of a few bombs which can never be used except as an act of national suicide … will assist in making Britain’s voice more powerful in the world. Indeed I still believe — as I am convinced a growing number of people throughout the country will believe, that Britain’s readiness to renounce the weapon which we all regard as an invention of the devil could capture the imagination of millions of people in many lands — including those living behind the Iron Curtain and in the United States.’

Bevan stayed involved with Tribune for the rest of his life, passing away in 1960, but Foot later recalled that ‘our friendship remained prickly and painful and requiring much circumspection to avoid renewed outbreaks.’ Bevan firmly disagreed with the emphasis that Foot’s Tribune placed upon the unilateralist Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) after its establishment at the end of 1957 — in response to the successful test of a British Hydrogen Bomb.

The Campaign

After defeat in Brighton, many anti-nuclear weapons activists began to lose faith in the Labour Party as an avenue for their unilateralist line. This, combined with alarm at the announcement of Britain’s H-Bomb the next month, spurred the development of an independent campaign. A meeting convened by New Statesman editor Kingsley Martin of prominent anti-nuclear personalities, including Michael Foot, Canon John Collins, Bertrand Russell, and activist Peggy Duff (formerly Tribune’s business manager), agreed upon the formation of the CND in November 1957.

The Campaign was placed at the forefront of Tribune’s political coverage from its foundation. Reporting on the London launch of CND at a meeting of 5,000 at Central Hall, where Foot spoke alongside Russell, Collins, the author J. B. Priestley, and the historian A. J. P. Taylor, Tribune wrote: ‘Not … since the protest against mass unemployment and the movement to halt fascism in Spain — has a campaign expressed demands so widely and so deeply felt. Never has a campaign had such support at its very outset.’

The paper announced the beginning of the ‘great campaign’ against the British government’s nuclear strategy. This strategy included an agreement to the installation of American missile bases on British soil — ‘a suicide pact, to which each of us and our children are unwilling parties.’ From the following month, the front page of each issue of Tribune was emblazoned with the banner: ‘The Paper That Leads The Anti-H Bomb Campaign’.

Central among the organising calendar of the CND were the annual Aldermaston Marches, where thousands trooped between London and Aldermaston at Easter each year to the site of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment. Tribune’s readership was invited to join the first march by Donald Soper, a socialist Methodist minister who wrote that ‘there was never a better time at which to demonstrate for peace than at Easter which is the anniversary of the triumph of the Prince of Peace.’ Featuring reports from the marches and interviews with activists, Tribune’s pages offered in-depth coverage of the movement that rallied under the banner ‘Ban the Bomb.’

The following years saw CND expand dramatically, with the numbers at Aldermaston marches growing by tens of thousands each year. Increasing support across the labour movement was demonstrated by the success of a unilateralist resolution, advanced by the Transport and General Workers’ Union, at Labour Conference in 1960 — though this was reversed the following year after a concerted effort by the Gaitskell leadership. Despite this reversal, unilateralism retained a solid base among the labour movement and party members, with Tribune among its most prominent proponents.

The Brink

This growth of CND came against the backdrop of a serious deterioration internationally. After the collapse of a brief detente effected by a moratorium on nuclear tests in 1958, the resumption of tests and recrudescence of geopolitical animosity put the world, Tribune feared, ‘Back On The Road To Suicide.’ In September 1961, following the recommencement of Soviet tests during the Berlin Crisis, Tribune revised its banner to: ‘The paper that condemns ALL H-Bomb tests.’

Alarm over the prospect of nuclear war was growing and reached its historic height during the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year. Responding to the crisis in Tribune, Foot wrote that, though Kennedy and Khrushchev had ultimately retreated from the brink, had war broken out, the ‘nuclear weapons’ on British soil would have ‘offered no protection’ from the destruction, but instead ‘invited unimaginable disaster’. In the coming years, Britain’s likely centrality within any nuclear conflict was increasingly emphasised by the magazine.

Following the 1960 abandonment of the ‘Blue Streak’ missile project, signalling the end of British efforts towards a meaningfully independent deterrent, Britain’s nuclear apparatus had become even more reliant upon, and tied to, that of the US. Anthony Greenwood saw the widespread alarm in Britain that the Cuban crisis had brought as a vindication of the position of ‘Tribune and CND’ that ‘NATO was a threat to us, and that American bases here meant that we could be annihilated in a struggle in which we had no interest, and about which we might not even be consulted.’

At this point, a potentially positive dimension to the Crisis was imagined by Raymond Fletcher, who felt that the shock of a situation where ‘the brink was suddenly, and largely accidentally, narrowed to the distance between two sets of ships’ might shock the two powers into taking measures to avoid another such situation: ‘After Cuba, thinking can begin again.’

To some extent, this proved correct. The world has never again seen a moment like the Cuban Missile Crisis, although neither has the potential for such a disaster been definitively ended. The beginnings of renewed negotiations over an international test ban treaty offered ‘grounds for hope’. The magazine celebrated the prospect as a ‘gift horse’ in support of which ‘a crescendo of demands’ should be raised.

Ahead of the 1963 Aldermaston demonstration, Greenwood characterised the British CND as a path-breaker for the international anti-nuclear movement, which looked to Britain with ‘hope’ and so placed ‘a tremendous responsibility on our shoulders’ to make that year’s demonstration — marching against tests, and in support of the talks — ‘the greatest yet’. On the day, a crowd of a hundred thousand poured into Trafalgar Square.

As the Moscow talks for the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty approached their conclusion in the summer of 1963, Tribune applauded the prospect of ‘the first major agreement of the nuclear age’: ‘No paper will welcome a test-ban treaty with greater enthusiasm than Tribune. It will be a joy indeed for us to take down the banner we’ve flown for so long at the top of this page’.

Writing that year, Fletcher contended that the ‘Aldermaston marchers have won’, pointing to the tremendous impact upon British public opinion, and upon Labour policy, that CND had achieved since its establishment. The most pressing issue for the British anti-nuclear movement now, Fletcher argued, was the pursuit of an ‘independent foreign policy’ for Britain. With the Wilson government’s commitment to Atlanticism throughout the 1960s, the generation of young radicals whose prominence within CND Tribune had celebrated embraced such a cause, as the campaign for nuclear disarmament gave way to the movement against British support for US imperialism in Vietnam — beginning a new chapter for the magazine and the broader left.

But sixty-four years after the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was founded, its central goal — the abolition of nuclear weapons — remains to be achieved. That task falls to a new generation of radicals in a new century.