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The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was a voluntary organisation who worked towards the aim of ‘the unilateral abandonment by Britain of nuclear weapons and nuclear alliances.’ They were particularly active throughout the 1980s when they grew in popularity as the cold war took place and fears of a nuclear attack increased significantly. This essay will address some of the pressures of the Cold War which had directly impacted the CND and how this effected their actions and success, including the attitude of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government towards the anti-nuclear campaign, the Freeze campaign and the events which took place at Greenham Common.
One of the main pressures that the CND faced during the Cold War was backlash and lack of support from the press and political parties. At the end of the Second World War, the United States dropped two atomic bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which had devastating effects. Consequently, tensions were rising since the mid-1940s between Western countries like the USA and Britain, and Eastern countries including the USSR due to fears of communism spreading to the West. This eventually led to the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (known as NATO) which was made up of numerous powerful western countries including Belgium, Britain, France, Italy and the USA, with the intention that if one of the countries came under attack by any state outside of the organisation then they would treat it as an attack on the whole of NATO and act together to defeat the opposition. Other countries like West Germany joined the organisation later, during the 1950s. In retaliation to this, the USSR set up a practically identical pact with Eastern countries including Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary and Poland, which was named the ‘Warsaw Pact’. As a result, many countries became fearful of an attack from either side, and Britain entered what became known as the ‘Cold War’ where an arms race began to ensure that they would have the enough nuclear weapons that they would need to defend themselves in a potentially detrimental third world war.
Paul Byrne notes that ‘every government since 1945 has held fast to the idea that Britain should retain an independent nuclear deterrent’ which proves the concerns of the political leaders of a nuclear attack had continued for over four decades after World War Two and feared that another war could be on the agenda. However, despite the growing fears, many Britons were against the use and possession of nuclear weapons by the British government. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament had been active since the 1960s, however it was not until the decision was made in 1979 that the US would begin to move Cruise missiles to countries who were members of NATO, including Britain, that the debate resurfaced with even more discussion as the use of the weapons was seeming increasingly likely. Byrne noted in his works from 1987 that the CND had ‘revived since the late seventies to the position today, when it has a paid-up membership of just under 100,000 and has demonstrated the ability to mobilise well over a quarter of a million supporters for mass demonstrations’ . He also noted that ‘between 1982 and 1985 the membership had grown by almost 200%.’ This demonstrates that the CND’s message had become popular and their likelihood of their success increased. During the early 1980s, it appeared that the CND did not have any real opposition against them besides the conservative government who were evidently for the use of the weapons as they were part of NATO. However even if the government’s threat did not affect them, in the 1983 election, there was a ‘watershed in British public opinion about unilateralism and existing defence policy’ and studies proved that at least 50% of people were supportive of the CND’s objectives. One of the main reasons why CND was able to hold such influence was due to many Labour MPs being supporters of the group and even though they were not in power during this period, they still had a strong following due to Margaret Thatcher’s ruthless and controversial policies in all areas. Stewart states that ‘Delegates at the 1982 Labour Party conference had committed Labour to unilateral nuclear disarmament’ and even though this aspect of their manifesto may have not been popular amongst all voters, it could have been responsible for attracting more people towards the CND movement.
Upon realising the growing influence and popularity of the CND after the 1983 election, Thatcher appointed Michael Heseltine as the new defence secretary , which was likely a tactical decision where she believed that he would be able to control the growth of anti-nuclear protest and settle the debate so that she could continue her foreign policy plans. Heseltine was obviously unpopular amongst CND supporters, and although he tried to prevent the anti-nuclear message from spreading further than it already had, he was not particularly successful. He attempted to silence the campaign by visiting ‘university lecture halls while anti-nuclear protesters tried to prevent him from addressing Conservative students by jostling, throwing eggs, a brick, and even on one occasion, swinging a baby in front of his fast-moving police support car.’ This quote alone demonstrates how much the campaigners disproved of him and felt threatened by his position of authority. His actions also included attempts to publicise information about links between CND members and Marxist organisations, which could have been potentially extremely damaging to the movement due to Western fears of communism, and it could even be argued that public knowledge and even suspense of this may have been one of the reasons why the organisation achieved so little in political terms. He also got the MI5 to listen in to the phone calls on John Cox’s phone who was the Vice President of the CND. Although his actions were malicious and did not gain him popularity as such, he did achieve in trying to break down the popularity of the CND as he tried to expose and humiliate them which arguably worked as they were never taken seriously enough by the government for them to have decided against the use of nuclear weapons because of their influence alone.
The freeze campaign was another pressure of the cold war which affected the CND significantly. In 1983, the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign was proposed as a short-term solution to the anti-nuclear protest where they would halt the production of nuclear weaponry. However, as Cortright and Pagnucco point out, the CND did not approve of this solution as they had ‘worked hard within their movement to build support for unilateralism, they considered the freeze proposal a weakening of their position and a potential step backward. A British freeze campaign surfaced briefly during the 1983-84 period… but it was unable to compete with the substantial following enjoyed by CND and quickly dissolved.’ Although the freeze campaign seemed to initially be a threat to the movement, and may have deterred attention away from the CND, it was eventually dissolved and the CND retained its high numbers of membership through this period. Although it is worth recognising that the freeze campaign was likely to have been used to silence the CND just like Heseltine tried to as no official policies were made to abandon nuclear weapons permanently which was the CND’s main aim.
Another pressure of the cold war which affected the CND was the events which took place at Greenham Common. Stewart explains that a ‘peace camp’ had been set up by female campaigners from South Wales, who named themselves ‘Women for Life on Earth.’ The group arranged a march from Cardiff to the airbase ‘in August 1981 and on reaching the base ten days later, on 5 September, had chained themselves to the perimeter fence.’ Stewart explained that the decision to stay there had not been a part of their original plan however due to their clash with the commander they decided to try and prove their point by refusing to leave. The events that took place at Greenham over the years that they remained there had both positive and negative consequences for the CND. The actions of the women could be considered as positive publicity for the CND movement as they were also fighting against the storage of nuclear weapons; specifically, the cruise missiles in Britain and they received a huge amount of coverage in the national press, which drew a lot of attention to the idea of disarming nuclear weapons entirely. It could have also helped the CND to have gained more supporters for their own organisation as Stewart notes that ‘in that no matter how much people sympathised with parts of their message, they found no inclination to identify with the messengers’ as the media were portraying them to be radical feminist lesbians, and at this time, these concepts and identities were not yet fully excepted by the general public as a whole and therefore it was easier for people to relate to the CND who seemed to be much more like them, even if they were slightly dominated by the middle class over workers. However, the events at Greenham Common may have also had a negative effect on the movement and could arguably have been one of the contributing factors as to why the CND achieved so little in terms of policy as they drew lots of negative attention to the campaign with their behaviour, as they broke their non-violent message at times. However Byrne makes the point that the group ‘has always strongly maintained its independence from national CND’ and that the ‘CND does not have to assume full responsibility for devising detailed alternative policies.’ Therefore in reality, the peace camp may not have caused any real detriment to the CND as they distanced themselves from the action of the women and stayed true to their own vow to use only non-violent tactics to achieve their aims.
To conclude, it is evident that the British government’s actions in trying to maintain their foreign policy of participating in NATO and their choice to manufacture and store nuclear weapons had a strong and powerful influence over the actions and ability of the CND to achieve their aims. Thatcher ensured that her policies could not be undermined by the growing popularity of the CND through her use of Michael Heseltine as well as the support of the Freeze Campaign by many politicians, which showed that the government was somewhat threatened by the organisation however they did not allow the pressure from them influence decisions regarding nuclear weaponry. The events at Greenham Common could have also potentially overtook the CND in terms of the women stealing supporters and gaining more popularity however they were able to maintain their membership numbers and dissociate themselves from violence and negativity to keep their campaign strong and respected by the public.
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