In 1945, the new atomic bomb signalled to pacifists, trade unions, communists and other concerned Australians that the victorious Allies intended to use the bomb to shape the postwar world in a dangerous manner. This threat of nuclear war and the insecurities of the looming Cold War, coupled with concerns about the effect of the postwar economic boom on living standards, prices and jobs for ordinary Australians, were key features of the peace movement’s program in the immediate postwar years. A Communist Party election leaflet from 1946, for example, objected to the Allies’ ‘atomic diplomacy’ and the ‘dollar imperialism’ of foreign policy. Communists linked the pursuit of Cold War policy by Australia and its allies with cuts in social spending, and advocated for an Australia committed to democracy at home and abroad.
The formation in 1949 of a national body — the Australian Peace Council (APC) — marked the beginnings of a postwar tradition of formal peace organisation that continues today. The records of People for Nuclear Disarmament (PND), held at the Mitchell Library, offer a unique insight into this organisational history, and highlight the ongoing concern with the persistent danger posed by nuclear weapons, their testing and the threat of their potential use.
The APC and its state bodies were at the forefront of peace activism in Australia in the 1950s. Alongside the Communist Party, many left wing trade unions and factions of the ALP, the APC mounted various campaigns against the wave of atomic testing that enveloped Australia and the Pacific Ocean from the late 1940s.
It also organised large peace congresses, many of which featured prominent overseas speakers. In April 1950, for example, the Australia Peace Congress held in Melbourne was host to the Dean of Canterbury, Hewlett Johnson. Johnson’s outspoken support for communism — he was often referred to as the ‘Red Dean’ — marked the Congress as a target for many conservatives eager to denounce the peace movement as a puppet of Soviet propaganda. Such ‘Red-baiting’ would continue to harass those opposed to nuclear weapons for the remainder of the Cold War.
The PND records also reflect a steadily increasing anxiety regarding nuclear testing. Although the United States had been testing nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands since 1948, the announcement of British plans for a series of tests to be held in 1952 off the coast of remote north-west Australia aroused further opposition. At the same time, the peace movement in Australia was involved in the Stockholm Appeal, an international campaign to gather signatures appealing for a peace pact between the five major powers and calling for the prohibition of nuclear weapons. Petition literature — many examples of which are held in the Mitchell Library’s pamphlet and ephemera collections — avowed that ‘the key to world peace is your signature’ and that ‘a five power peace pact will bring prices down’.
Britain’s nuclear testing program moved to South Australia in 1953, and tests of varying magnitude would continue there until 1963. Peace activists argued that British testing in Australia and on several atolls in the Pacific (currently part of the Republic of Kiribati), and joint British–American data-sharing arrangements placed Australia in a perilous position at the mercy of the Allied powers’ imperial ambitions. Annual demonstrations grew in visibility, often taking place at Easter, on the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima (6 August), and on the traditional labour holiday of May Day.
Demonstrations also grew more dramatic — in 1962 a ‘Radial March’ involved contingents of protestors walking from Sydney’s outer suburbs into the city. Symbolising the outer reaches of destruction should Sydney be attacked in a nuclear war, contingents marched from Blacktown, Cowan, Cronulla, La Perouse, Liverpool, Newport, Sutherland and Watsons Bay. Later that year, a cavalcade descended on Canberra from points as far away as Cairns to present the government with petitions calling for a nuclear-free Southern Hemisphere.