Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and the Greenham Common Women

The involvement of women in anti-nuclear weapon protests in the United Kingdom. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), founded in January 1958, soon achieved fame as one of Britain’s largest extra-parliamentary protest movements. Women have played an important role in the CND since its earliest days. The organization went into decline in the mid-1960s, only to revive during the early 1980s as a result of renewed Cold War tensions. In 1981, a group of women organized the Greenham Common Peace Camp to protest against the introduction of cruise missiles to Britain.

Britain detonated its first hydrogen bomb in 1957. Both major political parties, the governing Conservatives and the opposition Labour party, agreed on the need for an independent British nuclear capability. Nonetheless, the intensification of the Cold War, the steady buildup of nuclear stockpiles, and the continuous testing of nuclear devices in the late 1950s alarmed many in Britain. The emergence of the CND in 1958 reflected the opposition in Britain to nuclear escalation. The CND attracted a number of prominent British intellectuals, including philosopher Bertrand Russell (who became the first president of the CND) and author Doris Lessing. Canon John Collins became the chairman, and Peggy Duff, who had been active in an earlier, smaller antinuclear organization, became the organizing secretary. The objective of the CND was to "ban the bomb" worldwide. The first step would be British unilateral nuclear disarmament and the declaration of a neutral foreign policy. The CND was mainly a middle-class movement that initially favored lobbying politicians of the two major parties. The CND had some success in 1960 when the Labour party membership adopted a unilateral disarmament resolution at its annual party conference. That decision was reversed one year later, however. The activity of the CND that gained the most public notice was an annual Easter weekend protest march from Trafalgar Square in London to Aldermaston in Berkshire, home of the British Atomic Energy Authority’s main research center. These marches, which covered a 50-mile route over 4 days, attracted between 50,000 to 150,000 supporters during the peak years of 1960 to 1963 (Byrne 1988, 45).

Some in the CND became impatient with the slow progress of the movement and left to join groups that advocated nonviolent civil disobedience. The rapid reduction of East-West hostility following the near miss of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 seemed to indicate that the great powers had learned a lesson. The CND declined in strength in the late 1960s as activists turned their attention to campaigning against the Vietnam War.

Cold War tensions escalated again in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the CND gained renewed support. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) December 1979 decision to station U.S. cruise missiles and Pershing II intermediate missiles in Britain prompted one of the most celebrated episodes of social protest in modern British history, the Greenham Commons women’s peace camp. Greenham Common was a U.S. air base slated to receive cruise missiles. In September 1981, "Women for Life on Earth," a group of thirty-six, marched from Cardiff and set up camp outside the main gate of the Greenham Common air base. Supporters soon joined in increasingly large numbers. In February 1982, camp members voted to become a women-only movement. The Greenham protestors endured harsh weather, police harassment, arrests, attempted evictions, and occasional outbreaks of violence. In December 1982, an estimated 30,000 women joined hands around the base perimeter in an "embrace the base" protest. The CND broke with its traditional lobbying tactics and extended support to the protestors. In April 1983, 70,000 CND supporters formed a human chain that linked Greenham with Aldermaston and Burghfield, site of another nuclear base. In December of that year, 50,000 women encircled the Greenham base holding mirrors. The women protestors maintained a continual presence at Greenham Common, with some staying for only a short time and others for many months. The international situation relaxed in the late 1980s as the Cold War wound down, and in August 1989, NATO started withdrawing the cruise missiles from Greenham Common following signature of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty two years earlier. The last missile left in 1991. The base was returned to civilian ownership in 1997. A small group of protestors stayed on until 2000, however, demonstrating against Britain’s nuclear arsenal.

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