In the autumn of 1957 a number of groups came together to form the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War and plan a protest march during the following year’s Easter holiday.
To highlight the way that Britain was joining the nuclear arms race it was decided to march to the government’s nuclear weapons establishment in Aldermaston, near Reading.
Aged 28 I was asked to take on the job of organising the protest – despite never having done anything similar before. I had time on my hands after being sacked from my job as a nursing orderly for taking a petition against nuclear testing around my workmates.
A new movement was growing in opposition to Britain’s programme of nuclear tests.
Prior to the march there had been a series of sit-in protests at the War Office in London and some military bases.There was a thirst for action.
When the march came, it was a great success. We started with a rally in Trafalgar Square with 8,000 people – which was regarded as very large.
The left was well represented in the campaign, as were the Quakers. And, although most of the marchers were middle class, there were also a few delegations of workers.
The effect of the Aldermaston campaign and the surrounding publicity was to help the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) get off the ground and generate many new activists, despite the somewhat stuffy attitude the campaign initially had towards such protests.
In the months after the demonstration we went on to organise regular pickets and even an occupation of the Aldermaston plant.
We issued appeals to the workers not to participate in the building of nuclear weapons, and had some success in persuading lorry drivers to turn around without delivering their cargo.
Soon after, we moved on to protesting against Britain’s new nuclear missile system. I became the field secretary for the Direct Action Committee. I saw my job primarily as working in the labour movement.
I made contact with trade unionists in the towns near to the missile bases that were being constructed and sought their support.
In 1959 we started a campaign in the new town of Stevenage, which was nicknamed “Missileville” because of its relationship to the arms trade.
The high point of the push in Stevenage was a weekday march through the town that was mainly formed by trade unionists, including militant building workers who had stopped work to join in.
There was a similar campaign in Bristol in the early 1960s at the aircraft factories. I travelled on my scooter from London to help organise picketing of the plants.
On one occasion there was a factory gate meeting at Bristol Engines Company that the union prolonged into a stoppage against the arms trade.
Shop stewards at many of the engineering plants had devised plans for how production could be switched from armaments to civilian uses, and were very eloquent on the subject.
For a time I was employed by the slightly maverick CND group in Merseyside in order to campaign for direct action against the bomb. I met with the dockers, and together we formed a local industrial committee.
Dock workers told me that whenever they saw a consignment marked for the British military base at Fylingdales they sabotaged it.
It is important not to overstate how widespread these campaigns were, but the fact that we were able to win some workers to taking action is important.
By the mid-1960s the movement against British nuclear weapons had effectively melded into the campaigns against the war in Vietnam.
A great many people believed that the conflict there could “go nuclear” and that we should put most of our efforts into stopping it.
It was at that time that I started to get involved in the movement to get British troops out of Ireland. I thought, “It is all very well to campaign against war in far away places but what about the war on our doorsteps?”
Together with other activists I helped leaflet British troops, urging them not to fight in Ireland.
As a result I was prosecuted for sedition and received an 18-month prison sentence – the first of 11. I escaped from prison and was recaptured after attending an anti-fascist demonstration. I found myself in solitary confinement for a long time.
At the end of the Vietnam War, CND went through a bit of a low period, and did not revive again until the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan started to ramp up the Cold War.
Today I am still involved with CND, and even though I don’t think we are on the brink of annihilation, I think the dangers of nuclear proliferation are greater than ever. And of course we have the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Despite that, it is true that the various treaties that constrained the arms race in the last three decades have made the world safer.
They did not come out of nowhere, however, they were a result of public pressure – a pressure that peace activists over the last 50 years should take some of the credit for.
Pat Arrowsmith spoke to Yuri Prasad
This article's first publication led to an interesting letter....
Seeing myself in a picture above Pat Arrowsmith's article about the first Aldermaston anti-nuclear march brought back memories of how I became involved in politics.
I was at an Underground station one evening in 1958 when I was 23 and saw a group of people with buckets and paint talking about banning the bomb.
I went over and asked what they were doing. They said they were involved in a campaign for unilateral disarmament and were going out painting slogans on walls.
So I went with them. It was very exciting and led to me going on the Aldermaston march, the start of a whole new political life.
Mary Phillips, South London (Mary is pictured second from the left, with glasses, in the main picture above).