The nuclear standoff with North Korea reminds KEITH FLETT of Britain’s resistance to the bomb

The recent crisis over North Korean nuclear weapons — which many feel is more of a crisis of having an unpredictable, hard-right politician called Donald Trump in the White House — will be the first time large numbers of people have felt that the world, and with it their own lives, could all end rather quickly in a nuclear war.

Those of us of advanced age remember that there have been many such episodes where the survival of all life on Earth hung in the balance since the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

In the early 1950s the US came close to using nuclear weapons in the Korean war, which ended with the division of the country into North and South.

In the early 1960s, the Cuban missile crisis sparked real fear of nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union. This time the hawk in the White House was a Democrat, John F Kennedy.

Not so long after, in 1969, Republican president Richard Nixon also came close to using nuclear weapons.

The story goes that Nixon, a heavy drinker, ordered a nuclear strike while drunk one evening after North Korea had shot down a US spy plane. The generals sat on it until the morning when a hungover Nixon decided not to proceed.

All this serves as a reminder that we are approaching the 60th anniversary of the foundation meeting of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in February 1958.

Its arrival as a mass campaigning force in British society — still very much with us — did not come from nowhere. The spark for the organisation that led to CND was a series of nuclear tests in 1957-8.

The recent furore has been around North Korea carrying out nuclear or nuclear-related tests when these are not permitted.

But in the late ’50s it was Britain that was testing nuclear bombs in the south Pacific, and likewise, these were not in any way officially sanctioned.

Part of the motivation after the debacle of the Suez crisis in 1956 — in which Israel, Britain and France invaded Egypt in order to regain control of the Suez canal but which ended in failure due to pressure from the US, the Soviet Union and the United Nations — was to put Britain back on a military footing with the US.

The impact of this on the left was significant. It was the 1945 Labour government that had sanctioned the development of British nuclear weapons in the first place, and around the nuclear tests a familiar discussion between multilateral and unilateral disarmers took place.

Nye Bevan, the de facto leader of the Labour left in the 1950s, was no fan of nuclear weapons. But he took the position that while others had them, Britain needed them too. Whether or not he would have backed a “first use” policy has never been clear.

Beyond that, however, there were large numbers of people who simply wanted to see an end to all nuclear weapons. And since they were in Britain, they decided to start with British ones.

The moves that led to CND started with letters from the philosopher and political activist Bertrand Russell in the Guardian and an article by the writer JB Priestley in the New Statesman. John Collins, an Anglican priest based at St Pauls, was also a key figure.

In other words the “great and the good” of the liberal left became attracted to the cause. But the foot soldiers were of course the wider left, including many constituency Labour Party members.

Peggy Duff, a Camden Labour councillor who had worked for the democratic socialist magazine Tribune and went on to become the first general secretary of CND, summed up in her autobiography what the original activists were like.

“They belonged to no political party. Many of them belonged to no church. They had no politics. Their interest in banning the bomb was mainly ethical. They thought it was wrong. Most of them were young.

“They believed that the bomb immediately threatened the future of civilisation, that it had to be banned very quickly or Armageddon would come.”

Perhaps the aberration that is Trump and his bellicose rhetoric may mean that a new generation of activists will join those who first opposed the bomb 60 years ago?

Originally published in the Morning Star