Back to the future of a Cold War arms race?

Apr 5, 2023
Black / white photograph of the Berlin Wall. A young woman walks carelessly along the wall. Behind the Berlin Wall can be seen, a former watchtower. Reminder of the division of Berlin. Former border fortification in Berlin.

While the AUKUS treaty has echoes of the tragic Iraq invasion of 2003, even closer comparisons can be found with the arms race of the 1980s.

The political polarities of 2003 are reversed in AUKUS. The Anglophone coalition leadership of Liberal (Howard), Labour (Blair) and Republican (Bush) have become Labor (Albanese), Conservative (Sunak) and Democrat (Biden). This multi-partisanship does not mean that what the leaders have contrived is correct, only that life and death decisions are made not in our parliaments but in the boardrooms of weapons companies.

Peace campaigners of 2023 can learn much from the generation of the 1980s who opposed the way in which the military-industrial complex threatened to destroy all life. In 1982 prime minister Malcolm Fraser noted that a wave of pacifist sentiment was sweeping the west. He singled out women, churches and unions as the main participants at Palm Sunday rallies.

While Bob Hawke led Labor to government in 1983, the decade in the US was dominated by Republican Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher was Conservative prime minister in the UK. The doctrine of mutual assured destruction or MAD expressed strategic thinking about intercontinental ballistic missiles, and Europe bristled with tactical or intermediate range nuclear weapons.

Cold war paranoia was expressed by Reagan’s apocalyptic visions and references to the USSR as an ‘evil empire’. The hands of the doomsday clock were close to midnight – just as they are today with the threat of climate change.

Atmospheric scientists warned that a nuclear winter would bring cold, dark and environmental catastrophe. A US civil defence official predicted that people would survive if they had enough shovels and doors to place over the holes. There were bunkers for people indispensable to rebuilding society while the rest were regarded as ‘collateral’.

Reagan called on scientists to produce a Strategic Defence Initiative – critics labelled it ‘star wars’. He implied that it was scientists rather than politicians driving the arms race. Military strategists argued that the only way to advance negotiations and achieve agreed reductions was to ensure the US led the arms race. In fact, most treaties depended on the US taking the initiative. Peace activists were abused as ‘unilateralists’. But activists embraced the idea as a means of superpower confidence building and easing tensions.

Governments suppressed dissent through fear and psychiatrists identified a ‘nuclear neurosis’. The superpowers fought proxy wars in Nicaragua, Afghanistan and Angola while ignoring ‘Third World’ humanitarian needs. Referring to Europe, a retired US admiral warned that ‘we fought world war one there. We fought world war two there and if you dummies let us we’ll fight world war three there’.

The greatest fear was escalation of a conventional war but there were instances of forces placed on alert mistakenly. President Reagan joked that bombing was about to begin. There were fears too that a dictator or ‘rogue state’ might acquire nuclear weapons. Little progress was made to control or eliminate weapons with lower degrees of lethal potential such as mines and chemical weapons.

It is true that there was talk of ‘detente’ and a freeze on nuclear weapons. The START (Strategic Arms Reduction) Talks led to some agreements, but Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau described negotiations as a ‘dialogue of the deaf’.

It was not until the end of the decade, Gorbachev’s ‘glasnost’, the break-up of the USSR and the fall of the Berlin Wall that the cold war thawed. Whether any credit for the apparent easing of nuclear tensions could be given to western initiatives is debatable. The conventional arms race accelerated and states other than the USA, Russia, France and Britain acquired nuclear capability. Peace movements had reason to remain active.

Peace groups in the USA and Europe worked to educate the public about the dangers posed by nuclear weapons and the ongoing ‘opportunity costs’ of the arms race. Books and documentary films proliferated, marches and symposia had increasing attendances and despite the remoteness of weapons sites and the security surrounding them, there were instances of direct action.

At Greenham Common in England, a women’s peace camp was established to prevent the stationing of Cruise missiles. Poet Adrian Mitchell wrote ditties based on Beatles’ songs including ‘Killer Submarine’: ‘And they live a life of fear/ In their murderous and mad machines/ Captain Lunacy’s in charge/ Of their killer submarines’. Australian activists travelled to Greenham and returned with ideas and inspiration.

Threat of nuclear catastrophe was more direct in the north but an Australian peace movement became strong and influential in the mid 1980s. Australia was locked into the nuclear cycle through export of uranium. The Victorian Left of the A.L.P. took a principled stance against mining and M.A.U.M. (Movement Against Uranium Mining) lobbied for a ban.

Numerous specialised groups were energised. Some remain active, including the Medical Association for the Prevention of War, Pax Christi and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. More general groups such as Friends of the Earth also played a role. Umbrella committees at state and federal levels such as the Nuclear Disarmament Co-ordinating Committees organised activities and maximised effectiveness of resources.

Educators introduced peace studies in schools to counter the implicit militarism in some history courses. They drew on books such as Des Ball’s A Suitable Piece of Real Estate and Jim Falk’s Taking Australia Off the Map and journals such as Peace Dossier and Peace Studies.

The French government defied bans and conducted tests at Moruroa Atoll. Australian activists sailed to ‘ground zero’ in protest. French security services sabotaged Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour. New Zealand Labor prime minister David Lange took the nuclear free Pacific movement seriously. When he demanded that visiting warships declare their nuclear status, the ANZUS pact effectively ended. Here, many local governments declared nuclear free zones.

While the Hawke government remained in the western alliance, it took worthwhile multilateral initiatives. It supported United Nations peace meetings and funded special activities in the 1986 International Year of Peace, appointing a secretariat and an IYP ambassador. These moves did not satisfy peace activists and a Nuclear Disarmament Party formed quickly to contest the 1984 federal election. Later Jo Vallentine was successful in Western Australia.

In response to AUKUS, the peace movement will mobilise again. Activists in dedicated peace and anti-nuclear groups, women’s groups, churches, environmentalists and trades unions will form the core. Some features of organising will be unique. Today, protests might be ad hoc, assembled through ‘social’ media unknown in the 1980s.

What remains the same is the need to oppose the militarists’ plans for a future of tension dominated by armaments and aggressive alliances.

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