Veteran peace campaigner Michael Randle reflects on his experience with the mass movement against nuclear weapons in the early 1960s and what lessons it holds for Extinction Rebellion and contemporary nonviolent protest movements.
The spectacle of thousands of predominantly young people taking to streets in nonviolent protest against the threat of climate catastrophe is reminiscent of the mass demonstrations and sit-downs of the anti-nuclear Committee of 100 (C100) in the 1960s. Like Extinction Rebellion (XR), the Committee – as indeed the broader anti- nuclear movement – was a response to an existential threat to civilisation, possibly even to human survival.
Like XR, the Committee was committed to using mass nonviolent direct action to achieve its objectives. In the case of the C100, the goals were the unconditional renunciation by Britain of nuclear weapons, and worldwide resistance to the threat of nuclear war.
The Committee was an attempt to put on a mass footing the methods of nonviolent sit-downs, occupations and other forms of disruption – in addition to more conventional rallies and marches – that had been explored by its predecessor, the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War (DAC).
Pledge to act
In July and August 1960 a small group from New Left, anti-nuclear and pacifist circles began meeting informally. They approached and secured the support of well-known writers and public figures including the philosopher Bertrand Russell, and the anti-apartheid campaigner Reverend Michael Scott.
The upshot was the formation in October 1960 of ‘The Committee of 100’, launched with a declaration by Russell and Scott, entitled Act or Perish, which called for a ‘movement of nonviolent resistance to nuclear war and weapons of mass destruction’.
A key element to the Committee’s strategy was that planned demonstrations would not go ahead unless at least 2,000 pledges to participate had been received in advance.
The first demonstration, on 18 February 1961, was a sit-down by several thousand demonstrators outside the War Office in Whitehall in central London.
Numbers were down by about half on the second demonstration on 29 April – an attempt to hold a ‘Public Assembly’ in Parliament Square – but the event was saved, at least in terms of the publicity it generated, by the arrest of 800 people who sat down in Whitehall when the police blocked the way to Parliament Square.
When the Committee announced another public assembly in Parliament Square to take place on 17 September 1961, to be preceded by a demonstration in Trafalgar Square, the authorities reacted forcefully. The Justices of the Peace Act of 1361 was invoked to summons 37 members of the Committee to appear before a magistrates court. 35 Committee members refused to be ‘bound-over to keep the peace’ and were sentenced variously to one or two months’ imprisonment. The 1936 Public Order Act was also invoked to impose a ban on the planned demonstration in Trafalgar Square, but this went ahead and 1,300 people were arrested and charged with obstruction. At a simultaneous sit-down demonstration at the Polaris nuclear missile submarine base at Holy Loch in Scotland, 351 protesters were arrested.
The Committee proceeded to plan for civil disobedience protests at a number of military bases and city centres for 9 December 1961, calling for 50,000 to participate. However, the day before the demonstrations, all six office staff of the Committee were arrested and charged with conspiracy to contravene the Official Secrets Act. Perhaps deterred by such intimidatory actions only 4,000 people turned up at different locations around the country, 800 of whom were arrested.
After 9 December, the Committee did organise further actions but the dynamism and optimism of the earlier actions was missing. A planned sit-down for 9 September 1962 outside the Air Ministry in London was called off when the numbers pledged to participate fell far short of the 7,000 minimum target set by the Committee.
Lessons for XR?
What experiences of the C100 might be relevant to XR and kindred movements today? I am reluctant to be too categorical on this issue as the context today is different in several respects.
First, nonviolent direct action, thanks to earlier campaigns, from DAC to Greenham Common, has become more widely accepted as a legitimate form of protest in the context of a parliamentary democracy. This probably makes it easier for people to consider engaging in it but also means it has to be more dramatic and sustained to have an equivalent impact.
Second, the nature of the climate threat is somewhat different from that of a nuclear war. For the latter to occur, a deliberate decision has to be taken by some government(s) to use nuclear weapons – and this is true even of a war that is initially sparked off by an accident. Today, with the climate/ecological crisis, inertia alone, and a consequent failure to take internationally-concerted action, is sufficient to lead to catastrophe.
Third, the fact that some of the consequences of climate change and wider environmental disasters are already with us, from forest fires to the melting of the ice caps, may justify actions which would be ruled out as misjudged and counterproductive in less extreme circumstances. It may also provide the incentive for XR and related movements to persevere.
The C100 moment
One question which arises is why the C100 folded after eight years whereas Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) remains in existence today.
One partial explanation may be the widely divergent views within the Committee about how the civil disobedience campaign would achieve the goal of nuclear disarmament. For Russell, it was essentially a means of publicising the gravity of the crisis – as well as putting pressure on the government. Others saw it as a quasi-revolutionary strategy leading through a succession of increasingly large demonstrations to a mass uprising and the emergence of some kind of anarcho-pacifist society.
But Britain was not on the brink of that kind of revolution, as indeed some in the Committee argued, and this became clear as the size of the demonstrations diminished.
Moreover, as noted earlier, the Committee set a new benchmark for what was considered legitimate in terms of radical protest in this country, and civil disobedience began to be taken up by other movements and campaigns on both nuclear and other issues.
Clear reasons for disruption
There is a final point I would make in connection with the Committee’s strategy and tactics, which I think is also relevant to XR. The Committee’s demonstrations were easier to explain and justify where there was a clear reason for the disruption being caused, whether this was blocking a military base, a nuclear weapons establishment, or an administrative facility like the Ministry of Defence.
Similarly, in the case of XR, demonstrations such as obstructing airport expansion, or disrupting fracking, seem to me to be more likely to be understood and to be effective than, for instance, simply bringing city centres to a standstill or disrupting a regular commuter train service, which can result in a loss of public sympathy and support.
Michael Randle is an English peace campaigner and researcher known for his involvement in nonviolent direct action and for his role in 1966 in helping, on compassionate grounds, the double-agent George Blake to escape from Wormwood Scrubs prison, where he was serving an unprecedented 42-year sentence. Michael was a member of the Aldermaston March Committee which organised the first Aldermaston March at Easter 1958. He was chairman of the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War (DAC) from 1958 to 1961, secretary of the Committee of 100 from 1960 to 1961, and a Council and Executive member of War Resisters International (WRI) from 1960 to 1988. In 1959-60 he participated in an attempt by a transnational team to drive from Ghana across the Sahara to prevent the French government from exploding an atomic bomb at Reggan in the Algerian Sahara. In 1968 he co-ordinated on behalf of WRI simultaneous direct action demonstrations in Moscow, Warsaw, Budapest and Sofia against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
NB. This is an edited version of a longer feature article published in Peace News in February 2020.
The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.
Image Credit: Peace News.