People Power: Fighting for Peace at the Imperial War Museum

On the 23rd of March I decided to head to the Imperial War Museum and see their new exhibition, ‘People Power: Fighting for Peace‘. I had never been to this museum, but I knew enough about it to be very surprised that such an exhibit had been created in the first place. The staff member who sold me my ticket echoed my confusion when I asked him if (as it was the first day of opening) he had seen the exhibit yet. He replied that he had, but that he did not understand why it was there.

The exhibition, I was pleased to see, was full of objects and documents related to the exact movements and groups we had encountered at university – pacifism and pacificism during the first and second world wars, the anti-Vietnam war movement, anti-nuclear movements (particularly the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Committee of 100), and groups such as the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. I even saw footage from Threads, Protect and Survive, and other public information released in preparation for nuclear war.

Although the letters and pamphlets from the first half of the 20th century were very interesting, the highlight of the exhibition was the nuclear disarmament section.

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The above image showcases some of my favourite posters in the exhibit. These were produced by the CND in the 1950s/1960s, during the first wave of anti-nuclear campaigns in Britain. They all reference the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, intending to provoke horror at those attacks so that people would understand the necessity to prevent such things ever happening again. They use bold images and text over black backgrounds to catch the eye and hammer their message in, relying on simplicity and distinctiveness rather than overcomplicating their posters. To a degree these posters echo the pop art style which was popular in this period, which is an example of the movement taking aspects of the dominant culture to make their message more palatable and recognisable to their audience.

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The CND famously held annual marches between London and the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston (the first march being from London to Aldermaston, and all the following marches being the other way around). These marches were great examples of Charles Tilly’s W.U.N.C. – their worthiness demonstrated by the solemnity of the marchers and the presence of many older members, their unity presented by their large banners and the repetition of the ‘peace symbol’ (as it is now known) which had been designed specifically for their movement, while the power of their numbers was enhanced by the commitment of the activists, because even though there weren’t always as many people marching as were seen in other movement events, the fact that a reasonably large number of people were marching in inclement weather for 52 miles was incredibly impressive.

It would appear that the CND was made up of ad hoc and communitarian activists, rather than professional. This is because the movement waned between the 1960s and the 1980s when a large number of its supporters became focused on the Vietnam War instead of nuclear disarmament. Therefore, some of their former members may have just disappeared when the Vietnam War took precedence as their focus was specifically anti-nuclear war (the ad hoc activists), whilst the others (communitarian) changed movements in this period, before returning to the CND in the 1980s.

 

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But back to the exhibition. The above images show posters and fliers from the Committee of 100, the group that broke away from CND as they preferred active non-violent protest and civil disobedience to achieve their ends. The repertoire of the Committee of 100 was made up entirely of non-violent protests, which were episodic. They held a number of sit-downs and marches to cause disruptive damage rather than violent damage, by obstructing important areas and causing traffic (an example being their demonstration on September 17th 1961, when they blocked approaches to Trafalgar Square by sitting in the road). In breaking away from the majority of the CND and forming the Committee, these activists specifically sought to take their threshold of participation in their movement from direct action to more illegal non-violent activities, making sure never to proceed to violence on principle. By doing so they were changing the nature of the spaces which they occupied, as their protests were taking place in social spaces intended as sites of collective belonging (such as Trafalgar Square) or informal encounter (the streets) which were then unable to be used in their traditional ways. Occupying these spaces was symbolic (as Trafalgar was the emblem of British nationalism), performative, and disruptive.

One particularly recognisable face in images from the Committee of 100 protests is that of philosopher/mathematician/writer Bertrand Russell. Bertrand Russell had been prominent in pacifist and anti-war movements since the First World War, during which time he was charged under the Defence of the Realm Act 1914 in 1916, dismissed from Trinity College, Cambridge the same year, attended the famous Leeds Convention in 1917 (a gathering of ‘anti-war socialists’) and was even imprisoned in 1918. He is perhaps an example of something in between a professional and a communitarian activist, as he was consistently involved in anti-war movements for upwards of 50 years (and would likely have been active during the second wave of the CND had he not died in 1970) but did not remain with the same specific groups throughout that time.

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This final image shows my favourite poster from the exhibition, ‘Protect and Survive’ (1980) by Peter Kennard. This piece took the government pamphlet sent to the public in the event of nuclear attack and exposed it as the fallacy it was. This pamphlet was essentially useless, as none of the suggested actions would actually be of much protection at all, and people who tried them would be left as dead as the skeleton in the artwork. Kennard took a popular image from the dominant culture and exploited it for the sake of the movement.

References:

  • Hudson, Kate, CND – now more than ever: the story of a peace movement (London: Vision Paperbacks, 2005)

  • Lefebvre, Henri, Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, The Production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell, 1974)
  • Reiss, Matthias, ed., The street as stage: protest marches and public rallies since the nineteenth century (Oxford, 2007)

  • Taylor, Richard & Pritchard, Colin, The protest makers: the British nuclear disarmament movement of 1958-1965 twenty years on (Oxford, 1980)
  • Tilly, Charles, ‘Social movements as historically specific clusters of political performances’, Berkeley Journal of Sociology (1993), 1–30
  • Tonkiss, Fran, ‘The Politics of Space: Social Movements and Public Space’ in Space, the City and Social Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005)

     

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