Rumours Of A Peace Epidemic

Click here to subscribe to the print edition. [image, unknown] new internationalist 121[image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] March 1983[image, unknown] Click here to search the mega index.

MAKING PEACE [image, unknown] Opening the public mind

[image, unknown]

Rumours of a peace epidemic
Peace movements have changed the climate of political discourse between East and West. But they have not yet prevented production of a single bullet, let alone a nuclear weapon. British peace campaigner Edward Thompson reviews the past three hectic years and offers a formula for success in 1983.

Edward Thompson: orator, writer, peacemaker.
Photo: Philip Wolmuth

HAVING dominated world politics for over 30 years, the Cold War has now acquired its own inertia, pressing onward relentlessly from powerful bases in the economic and ideological life of both power blocs. Can the peace movement really check and divert these forces? Do the rulers of the armed blocs really take any notice of public opinion? And does it matter what we. as individuals, do?

Of course it matters. Peace movements have already had some effect— though those effects are certainly not due to the efforts of a highly developed peace machine. Recent media treatment would have us believe there was a single, well-disciplined organisation, with a European high command, vast offices and a unified strategy. But anyone who has worked in the movement knows this is very far from the truth. Instead, the past three years have witnessed a sudden outbreak of a multitude of spontaneous movements, some large, some small, some national or even international in their linkages, others confined to particular localities, churches or parties all of them groping. in wholly undisciplined ways, towards an alliance and common actions.

So there is no unified peace organisation. It is more like the political manifestation of a mood, among people who are suspicious of Cold War propaganda and stereotypes handed down from the past and who wish to get new kinds of East-West dialogue going. It is also an argument a growing public debate, not only about weaponry but about the East-West bloc system itself, about the relations between peace and freedom and about the links between ‘North’ and ‘South’.

It is within this mood and this argument that peace organisations have grown up. And the event that started the great revival of peace movements in Western Europe was the NATO ‘modernisation’ decision of 12 December 1979, which designated five nations (Belgium, Holland, West Germany, Italy and the UK) as recipients for US-owned and operated Cruise missiles and (in West Germany) Pershing Ils. Norway would have become the sixth but for a swift, impromptu telephone campaign to lobby parliamentary members there.

These movements were the first rash of a benign peace epidemic with its first outbreak on the West European mainland. By the spring of 1980 it had crossed the Channel to infect Britain. Here we saw an extraordinary extension of the movement with the revival of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the birth of the World Disarmament Campaign and a host of local and regional initiatives. In April 1980 I was associated with another initiative: END, or the European Nuclear Disarmament Appeal, which was signed by thousands across Europe. The Appeal called for a nuclear-free Europe, for improved communication between citizens of East and West, leading to a breakdown of the bloc system.

In 1981 the peace epidemic spread rapidly to West Germany, Greece and Italy. And it was not only a negative movement dedicated to resisting missiles. It began to create peace in a positive way by building real international friendships and common actions. The Comiso campaign in Italy is a good example. Along with Greenham Common in the UK, Comiso is intended to be one of the first Cruise missile bases in operation. In autumn 1981 there were massive demonstrations throughout Italy’s major cities. Comiso is an especially sensitive base, since it will link, in a single arc of war, parts of Eastern Europe and Western Russia. Turkey, the Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Egypt and all of North Africa. Once the missiles are in position the United States could launch them at Libya or— in a Middle-Eastern oil dispute— at Syria, and involve the Third, Second and First Worlds in a single nuclear conflagration.

More than one million Sicilians have signed a petition against the base. In November last year there was a hunger strike to demand that Italian TV give adequate coverage to the case against Comiso and to insist that the Italian President receive a deputation on the matter. Led by the former mayor of Comiso. the fast was internationally supported, with representatives from the United States, Canada, Britain. West Germany, the Netherlands and France. And on the twelfth day the hunger strike ended— with all major demands met Now it seems increasingly unlikely that any Italian government will be able to go ahead with the Comiso base.

The peace infection’ reaches the Superpowers
Last year the peace infection was carried westwards across the Atlantic and eastwards into the Warsaw Pact countries to catch hold there too. In the US it was manifested in the nuclear ‘freeze’ movement, which mustered a million people fonts great demonstration in Manhattan last June and has fired public opinion in a quite new way to debate on weaponry and on the Cold War itself And similar changes are taking place in Canada (see box).

In Eastern Europe matters are more complex. Peace committees and councils there tend to be quasi-official bodies which normally confine themselves simply to criticising Western militarism. At worst they are captives to Soviet strategies, taking the view that Soviet weapons are just ‘defensive’ and an inevitable ‘response’ to Western threats. While some people think these official bodies are a useful channel for getting Western peace opinions through to Soviet official opinion. I am myself dubious about this. Supporters of END, and of other nonaligned movements in Europe. take the view that we must insist that the East allows the necessary open communication between West and East that would lead to ’ideological disarmament’.

Ideological disarmament can only come about by getting to know about the ‘other side’, discovering there is no unified consensus ‘over there’ but a plural discourse with many views. We have to break through the official facade, with its wooden ideological conformity, and find ways of direct dialogue between citizens. And this is already being done— with increasing success by specialist groups like physicians. churches, twinning arrangements between cities (see box) and even individual holiday-makers.

On the ‘other side’ too, there is evidence of outbreaks of these new forms of the peace infection in the non-official East German ‘Swords into Ploughshares’ movement, in the Berlin Appeal of Dr Robert Havemann and Pastor Eppelmano, in a new mood of peace and dialogue among young people in Hungary and in initiatives like that of the independent peace group in Moscow and its supporting groups in other Soviet cities.

We should not expect the proposals from the East to be the same as those of Western peace movements. They may be less pre3ccupied with nuclear weapons, more concerned with conventional weapons and with breaking down the bloc system. But they must be concerned with ideological disarmament with breaking open a space in which they can organise and communicate, develop their own initiatives and find direct routes to establish trust between citizens of East and West.

Then we may all be able to look forward to larger objectives: the dissolution of both the Warsaw Pact and NATO, to the withdrawal of United States and Soviet forces, first from Central Europe, and then from all the rest of the continent, East and West. I consider it to be of first importance that we, in Western peace movements, support the right of independent peace movements in the East to exist and communicate with us. Indeed, this together with the refusal in the West of Cruise missiles seems to me the critical issue of 1983.

The peace movement can be effective. In the last few years the epidemic has even reached into the White House, changing the whole climate of political discourse: President Reagan himself is now talking in a very different tone from the first months after his election. It has created real international links, the positive framework of peace, It has moved and converted major political forces. It has made nuclear disarmament the issue which will dominate elections in 1983 in Britain, West Germany and Italy. It has prevented the Dutch and Belgian government from reaching a decision on Cruise missiles. And it has opened the public mind— throughout Western Europe, in North America and in East European countries too.

All this has been achieved, not by some huge organisation with a central command centre, but through a multitude of initiatives by small movements, groups and individuals the raindrops which add up to a torrent But we have not yet stopped a single missile. The prescription in 1983 must be: the same, only more!

Refusing to Cruise
Canada has pledged not to develop nuclear weapons, but the Canadian Air Force is still equipped with US-made nuclear missiles. And, as Wayne Ellwood reports, Canada is helping the US with the production and testing of the Cruise missile.

Litton Systems Canada Ltd sits inconspicuously in the midst of a sprawling industrial estate in one of Toronto’s bleak and treeless suburbs. Until the spring of 1980 the plant was just another faceless corporate citizen: 2,400 workers filed in and out of the factory daily, picking up their weekly pay cheques and patiently negotiating their way through morning and evening rush hours. Normal in every way.

But on Good Friday that year Litton Plant was suddenly plucked out of anonymity. On that quiet April morning 300 people stood outside the plant gate, a handful of placards bobbing above their heads as they crowded together for an ecumenical Good Friday service. The small demonstration was a show of concern at the revelation that Litton was manufacturing the heart of the Cruise missile — an inertial guidance system that enables the 18 ft long nuclear-tipped device to hug the earth’s contours at low altitudes and escape radar detection.

From that first Easter vigil a core of people soon emerged to spearhead the Cruise Missile Conversion Project The group’s goals were two-fold: to raise public concern about nuclear disarmament and ‘to change military production to production which meets human needs.’

Over the past two years the group has assembled weekly in the early dawn to hand out leaflets to workers filing into the factory, pointing out the perils of the arms race, the wastefulness of military production, the benefits of unionizing and the rights of workers to make proposals for the conversion of military production to peaceful purposes.

‘It’s been a slow process but there has been a change,’ says Joe Mihevc, one of the founders of the group. ‘Some workers still get angry and call us Communists

Others seem pleased to take our literature and support us by beeping their car horn or smiling.’

But the biggest change has been increased Canadian support for the peace movement as a result of work by groups like the Cruise Conversion Group. And there is steadily- mounting outrage at Prime Minister Trudeau’s decision to allow the US Air Force to test the Cruise missile system at the Canadian Forces Base in Cold Lake, Alberta, where the rough terrain and climate approximate to conditions in the northern regions of the Soviet Union.

Techniques of peaceful civil disobedience used by the Cruise Conversion Group have captured nationwide media attention. On Remembrance Day in November last year 1,000 protestors outside the Litton gates were met by over 400 police, many on horseback, truncheons at the ready. By the day’s end 72 demonstrators had been arrested.

But the group are undeterred. And their tireless campaigning means there is now a slim chance Litton may actually drop the Cruise contract Says Mihevc: ‘This thing is now a national issue. At first we really weren’t sure we could stop this horrendous machine, we lust wanted to count ourselves among those who opposed. Now, it is within the realm of possibility’

Previous page.
Choose another issue of NI.
Go to the contents page.
Go to the NI home page.
Next page.

New Internationalist issue 121 magazine cover This article is from the March 1983 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Get a free trial »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop