- ‘Peace’ of the Dead: The Truth behind the Nuclear Disarmers by Paul Mercer
Policy Research Publications, 465 pp, £9.95, November 1986, ISBN 0 9511436 0 3
Species come and go, but their coming and going remains, we rather think, unremarked by any species but our own. That is one thing which distinguishes us from all the others. Another is that we bother about what distinguishes us from all the others. Another again is that we bother about destiny and free will. Yet another is that we wear clothes.
And another is that we recently invented a way of getting rid of ourselves if we ever find ourselves unbearable, and that was nuclear weapons. We have to say ‘was’, because we have now invented a second way: we could perhaps now also do it by having an artificial winter caused by ‘conventional’ weapons dropped on the plant of the petro- and other chemical industries, and on forests. Obviously, like all the other species, we could do away with ourselves unintentionally; in our case, that might be by pollution or by not reacting to Aids.
The knowledge that we were the first auto-destructible species ever to walk the earth, since it can be grasped quite simply and is felt very deeply, led to a confused, passionate and continuing debate on what to do about it. The debate has concentrated on how to treat the invention itself: nuclear weapons. Part of it has gone back to various questions which were already debated long before the nuclear age: what is a just war; when is force justifiable; what to do with weapons in general; whether we can discontinue war; whether there can be world government; whether safety lies in individual or institutional improvement. All these debates are intrinsically enthralling, as everything must be which touches on the question of our survival, whether as homo economicus, politicus, moralis or, as in this case, simply ens. But only one of them has shown up at the political level, only one has caused people to vote and march: the debate about how to treat the invention itself. It has taken the form: ought a state to get rid of all its nuclear weapons, and if so should it do so by multilateral agreement or by one-sided and unconditional renunciation? To consider the validity of this debate we must proceed historically. Nuclear weapons appeared. We must start with the question: who did it, what did they do, and why did they do it?
Five sovereign states in the world publicly acquired nuclear weapons. Three or four more have done so clandestinely, but this does not affect the main argument. Each of the five states did so for fear of the nuclear weapons of some other state. The first nuclear weapons programme in the world, which was American-British-Canadian with Free French and German refugee help, was undertaken out of fear that Nazi Germany was acquiring nuclear weapons. The fear, though well grounded in possibility, turned out to be groundless in fact. This Allied programme became in 1945-6 a unilateral United States programme. The second state to acquire nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union, did so, first out of fear of possible Nazi German weapons, and later out of fear of the real American ones. The third state was Britain: we did so out of fear of the Russian ones, which by then naturally expressed itself as a fear that our allies the United States might not be prepared to risk their own existence to protect us against the Russian ones. France acquired nuclear weapons for the same reason. China acquired them because she had been expressly threatened with nuclear bombardment, first by the United States (when the Soviet Union did not come to the rescue), and then by the Soviet Union. A progression of sovereign states acquired weapons out of fear.
Vol. 9 No. 5 · 5 March 1987
From Mark Thompson
SIR: Many readers of Wayland Kennet’s review of Paul Mercer’s ‘Peace’ of the Dead (LRB, 8 January) must have wondered if the European Nuclear Disarmament (END) organisation to which he refers is the same one they have known about for the past six years, and possibly supported or joined. His description of END as a ‘semi-independent’ ‘sub-campaign’ of CND is (at best) simple ignorance. Although the two organisations fully support each other’s aims and have always worked closely together, END has since its inception been entirely independent of CND. As for his obscure claim that END ‘came to grief when it collided with the absence of human rights in Eastern Europe’, what can Lord Kennet mean? END has always recognised that there can be no peace without human rights, and that human rights will always be at risk in a militarised, bloc-divided Europe. We have always engaged in a dialogue with a very broad range of groups and individuals in Eastern Europe, from Charter 77 and Solidarnosc to the new independent Polish movement, ‘Freedom and Peace’.
Lord Kennet fails to mention that Mercer’s account of END ends in 1984. Perhaps they are both unaware of the unprecedented recent developments in co-operation between the non-aligned Western peace movements and, in Central and East Europe, civil rights and independent peace groups. If he had bothered to check his facts with us, we would gladly have corrected his mistakes and brought him up to date, as we could have suggested at least one likely source for the sponsorship – which Mercer would not divulge – behind Policy Research Publications, the publisher of ‘Peace’ of the Dead. PRP shares the address and telephone number of the Coalition for Peace through Security, a wealthy pro-nuclear-weapons pressure group which has conducted a smear campaign against the peace movement since 1981. Our request for a review copy of ‘Peace’ of the Dead was refused: nevertheless, END Journal will run a review in its next – April/May – issue.
Joint Deputy Editor, END Journal, London N4
Vol. 9 No. 6 · 19 March 1987
From Wayland Kennet
SIR: END, for which organisation Mark Thompson speaks in his letter (Letters, 5 March), hoped to find valid interlocutors in Eastern Europe, but the civil rights groups they naturally approached made it poignantly clear that unilateral nuclear disarmament (and END is a unilateralist organisation) in Western Europe would be against their interest. They believed that they were in some sense protected by a Western Europe armed to the same degree as the Soviet Union. Was this not ‘grief’?
Mr Thompson complains I fail ‘to mention that Mercer’s account of END ends in 1984’. So did his account of everything, as I did indeed mention.
Vol. 9 No. 7 · 2 April 1987
From Sheila Jones
SIR: Lord Kennet was incorrect in his statement that CND was not a unilateralist movement when it was first founded (LRB, 8 January). At its inaugural meeting in February 1958 at Central Hall, all the main speakers – Lord Russell, J.B. Priestley, A.J.P. Taylor, Michael Foot and Stephen King-Hall – called for unilateral nuclear disarmament. This policy was endorsed by the Executive Committee of CND on 27 February 1958 in a statement which called on the British people to ‘renounce unconditionally the use or production of nuclear weapons’.
CND Archivist, London Nl
Vol. 9 No. 8 · 23 April 1987
From Paul Mercer
SIR: In criticising Lord Kennet’s review of my book, ‘Peace’ of the Dead – The Truth behind the Nuclear Disarmers, Mark Thompson (Letters, 5 March) paints a rosy but misleading picture of END’s (European Nuclear Disarmament’s) relationship with the CND. When END was launched, it was strongly backed by the CND, with Sanity (June 1980) enthusiastically reporting on its formation. At the time E.P. Thompson outlined END’s role in its Bulletin (No 1, 1980) as being ‘to co-ordinate and bring into being a European-wide alliance; second, to provide the political perspective of this movement; third, to work out actual events, symbolic and effective, which will add a European dimension to the work of national movements’. Unlike the CND, however, END sought to precipitate popular resistance to nuclear weapons in both East and West. Many of those who supported END, such as Thompson and Ken Coates, were, in fact, former Communist Party members who had become disillusioned with the repressive nature of East European socialism.
In the West, END saw its components as being the existing ‘peace’ movements – such as the CND in Britain and VAKA in Belgium. It was the East which posed problems. In each country there was already a ‘national peace committee’ affiliated to the Soviet-controlled World Peace Council. Although the CND itself has been quite prepared to fraternise with these groups, END (to its credit) recognised them as propaganda outfits and tried to cultivate links with independent ‘peace’ groups, such as Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia and the Dialogue Group in Hungary. This strategy was, as Lord Kennet rightly notes, a failure. Thompson’s dream of independent anti-nuclear activities in the East was incompatible with the near-absolute control a totalitarian regime must exert over internal political activities. More worrying for END, however, was their condemnation of the ‘peace’ movement in the West. As the exiled leader of the Moscow Trust Group, Sergei Batovrin said in 1983: ‘The international disarmament movement is an important ally of the USSR, considerably, more dependable than the Western Communist Parties.’
According to Mark Thompson, END and CND ‘fully support each other’s aims’. Reporting on the 1986 CND Annual Conference in Tribune (21 November 1986), Paul Anderson, a member of his ‘editorial collective’, cited the deletion of the forthcoming END Convention as ‘a major focus for campaigning’ from the CND’s 1987 programme as evidence of the strength of the ‘pro-Soviet caucus’ in CND. This is hardly an endorsement of END’s stance.
Finally, it is ironic that Mark Thompson accuses the Coalition for Peace through Security (CPS) of engaging in a ‘smear campaign against the peace movement’, for this is precisely what he is doing against CPS. Moreover, since both CND and END have refused to answer my questions whilst I was writing my book, they can hardly complain when PRP Ltd now refuses to send them free copies.
Vol. 9 No. 9 · 7 May 1987
From E.P. Thompson
SIR: Why does Wayland Kennet (Letters, 19 March) continue to write about END and Eastern Europe, when he clearly hasn’t bothered to find out? END has had several years of close and continuing dialogue with Charter 77, Polish ‘Peace and Freedom’ and many other groups. Of course END is ‘unilateralist’ in the sense of CND’s founding policies (see Sheila Jones – Letters, 2 April); at the same time we have been advocating in great detail for years reciprocal strategies which will break down the Cold War structures on both sides. All this is easily confirmed.
Perhaps Lord Kennet was misled by an exceedingly partisan account of the Moscow Group for Establishing Trust in the book by Mercer which he had under review? Before offering public judgment he should read other accounts including my own Double Exposure (Merlin Press). In fact, END was the first Western peace group to publicise the Moscow Group’s existence and to defend its members from repression.
I could wish that Wayland Kennet did not have this polemical itch. He is an excellent influence on certain defence issues in the House of Lords, especially in probing the Government on the Strategic Defence Initiative. He must know that, after frozen decades, the whole character of the Cold War is now becoming more fluid. This is a time for listening to each other, rather than for testy uninformed point-scoring.
European Nuclear Disarmament, London N4
From Nicolas Walter
SIR: Sheila Jones’s correction of Lord Kennet’s claim (LRB, 8 January) that the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was not unilateralist when it ‘was first founded’, at the beginning of 1958, needs some amplification and clarification. He is wrong to say the CND became unilateralist ‘within a year or so’, and she is right to say that all the speakers at the inaugural public meeting on 17 February advocated unilateral nuclear disarmament, and that this policy was endorsed by the Executive Committee on 27 February: but some earlier developments should be taken into account.
CND was founded on 16 January 1958. The preliminary statement of policy which was agreed at the first Executive Committee meeting on 21 January was amended at the second Executive Committee meeting on 28 January precisely in order to avoid an unequivocal commitment to unilateralism and the consequent alienation of moderate sympathisers (especially in the United Nations Association). The result, which was issued at the inaugural press conference on 30 January, was subsequently described by the chairman, Canon John Collins, as ‘a compromise’ and by the secretary, Peggy Duff, as ‘certainly ambiguous’ and ‘not entirely unilateralist’. But this manoeuvre was not well received in the movement, the speakers and audience at the inaugural public meeting at Central Hall on 17 February ignored it, and a series of internal discussions (especially at a meeting of delegates of several groups at St Pancras Town Hall on 18 February) led to the replacement of the offending preamble with a clarificatory statement which was openly unilateralist, was endorsed at the Executive Committee meeting on 27 February, and was quietly adopted by the Campaign. The episode is described in the various memoirs and histories, and is recorded in the surviving contemporary documents (both Lord Kennet and Sheila Jones were actively involved at that time). So it is true to say that CND wasn’t definitely unilateralist for the first month of its existence, but that it has certainly been unilateralist ever since February 1958.