Defined as autonomous, nongovernmental, generally nonpartisan, and nonviolent organizations, peace movements range from strict opposition to all wars (pacifism), to opposition against a specific type of weapon (such as nuclear bombs), to opposition against a particular conflict. The late nineteenth century saw the growth of worldwide peace activities leading to the 1907 Hague Convention. World War I also generated a rising peace sentiment. During the interwar years, pacifist activism was most prominent in Britain yet proved difficult to uphold as Germany, Italy, and Japan pursued increasingly more aggressive policies. After World War II, peace movements were overwhelmingly concerned with the banning of the production, testing, deployment, and use of nuclear weapons.
In the United States, uneasiness over the use of nuclear weapons was voiced only days after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Church groups were joined by scientists and politicians in promoting international controls over nuclear energy. As the Cold War intensified during the late 1940s, antinuclear activists—including prominent scientists Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard—were clearly fighting an uphill battle. At the time, the antinuclear movement found little support among an American public focused on combating the communist threat. During the early 1950s, McCarthyism further pushed peace activists onto the defensive.
On 1 March 1954, the U.S. testing of the most powerful hydrogen bomb to date on the Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific led to rising public concern over the long-term health effects of nuclear fallout. When 28 Americans, 236 Marshall Islanders, and 23 crew members of a Japanese fishing boat were contaminated by nuclear fallout from the blast, the Bikini tests made international headlines. This led to renewed demands for nuclear disarmament by international peace organizations such as the War Resisters' International (WRI), the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFR), and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). Mainstream publications as well as period novels and films greatly alarmed the American public, while scientific studies on radioactivity further stirred pacifist sentiment.
By no means were these concerns limited to the United States, however. Japanese reaction to the Bikini tests had been furious, whereas in Britain scientists had already urged their government not to develop the hydrogen bomb as early as 1950. In the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany) the stationing of the first U.S. nuclear weapons in 1953 as well as the news of NATO military exercises that simulated the dropping of 335 atomic bombs gave overwhelming appeal to banning the bomb. There was rising concern in Scandinavia, Italy, and France as well. In the mid-1950s, polls all over Western Europe showed that between 80 and 90 percent of the population supported a test-ban treaty as well as a ban on nuclear weapons altogether.
Early on, scientists themselves played a prominent role in the struggle against the bomb. A key figure was British mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell, whose 23 December 1953 BBC radio address attracted considerable international attention and led to the creation of the Pugwash Movement, supported by a number of leading physicists on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Influenced by their Western colleagues, some Soviet physicists, most notably Andrei Sakharov, warned their government of the dangers of nuclear weapons.
When nuclear testing programs accelerated during the late 1950s, a first wave of mass protests to ban the bomb erupted. Britain took the lead with the formation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). The first march from London to Aldermaston on Easter 1958 adopted the symbol that has become the emblem of peace movements ever since: a circle encompassing a broken cross. In West Germany, the CND was copied by the Easter March Movement that originally grew out of opposition to NATO's decision to equip West German forces with nuclear weapons. Other countries such as Sweden and Switzerland followed suit, although French leftists were more concerned with the Algerian War than anti-nuclear issues.
In the United States, the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) came into existence in 1957. Like the CND, it began by demanding a halt to nuclear testing but evolved into a broader nuclear disarmament movement. Unlike its European counterparts, however, SANE was unable to achieve the same kind of mass mobilization. At about the same time, European peace activists began to coordinate their efforts. In 1959, for example, British, Dutch, Swedish, Swiss, and West German nuclear disarmament organizations set up the European Federation Against Nuclear Arms.
Although the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) fell short of peace activists' demands, protesters could claim that they had helped pressure the Americans and Soviets to achieve a breakthrough at the negotiating table. Reaching its zenith in 1964 with the tally of Easter Marchers numbering 500,000 in twenty nations, the antinuclear campaign waned during the late 1960s as Cold War tensions eased. By politicizing a generation of young people, cooperating across national borders, and developing new forms of political action, however, it had set the stage for the coming protests against the Vietnam War.
By the mid-1960s, the Vietnam War had already replaced the antinuclear movement as the main focus of peace-related activities. In the United States, worries over the Vietnam War mounted even before President Lyndon Johnson began to dispatch large numbers of combat troops in 1965. In Britain, the CND staged large demonstrations against the war in 1966 and 1967. At its antiwar rally in February 1966, groups from West Germany, Austria, France, Sweden, Norway, Italy, and the Netherlands declared their solidarity with American student protesters. In October 1967, the march on the Pentagon was echoed by closely coordinated solidarity demonstrations against American military installations in West Berlin and by antiwar rallies in Amsterdam, London, Oslo, Paris, Rome, and Tokyo.
Throughout the world, Vietnam War protests stimulated the growth and expansion of student movements, which saw their culmination in 1968. In Britain and West Germany, student protests that had originally organized over issues of college discipline and curriculum were transformed into mass demonstrations with more than 100,000 participants in 1968. In France, student protests snowballed into mass demonstrations involving organized labor and other groups, nearly toppling the government of Charles de Gaulle. The greatest mobilization was in Japan, where Vietnam War protests rallied almost 800,000 people in 1970. There is much evidence from many other Western as well as developing countries that opposition to the American engagement in Vietnam led to the radicalization of students worldwide.
As with the antinuclear protests that preceded it, the Vietnam War protests witnessed the emergence of global networks of rebellion. The close ties among American and West German and other European protesters formed a striking parallel with their governments' Cold War cooperation. Important figures of the German New Left had become acquainted with their American counterparts as exchange students during the early 1960s. After their return to Germany, they helped organize protests against the American war in Vietnam using methods that they copied from the U.S. civil rights movements, such as mass sit-ins.
Whereas the nuclear disarmament activists of the 1950s had by and large accepted the established institutional framework, Vietnam War protests developed into a more systematic anti-imperialist and anticapitalist ideological critique of Western democracy. European and American activists identified with developing-world revolutionaries such as Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh, and Mao Zedong. However, their revolutionary rhetoric and violent methods often alienated even those middle-class voters who had been broadly sympathetic to the antinuclear cause.
Because of significant steps made toward nuclear arms control and superpower détente during the late 1960s and early 1970s and the focus on Vietnam, the antinuclear campaign had largely disintegrated. It returned, however, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when NATO's 1979 double-track decision to deploy land-based cruise missiles and Pershing II missiles in Western Europe led to new fears of nuclear Armageddon. This second-wave antinuclear movement achieved an even larger protest mobilization than the first. Like its predecessor, it was transnational and was often built on the experiences of earlier protest efforts.
The antinuclear campaign of the early 1980s took place within the framework of renewed Cold War tensions and hostilities. Soviet efforts to achieve military superiority in Europe and the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan as well as Ronald Reagan's election as president in 1980 ended the long phase of détente between the superpowers. Yet despite the Soviet military buildup, a majority of West Europeans did not fear an impending invasion. Because of growing public dissent to nuclear armaments in Eastern Europe as well, West European activists perceived themselves as part of a Pan-European movement battling against the dangers of the nuclear arms race.
President Jimmy Carter's Neutron Bomb Campaign had already raised antinuclear fears in Western Europe during 1977–1978. It was not until December 1979, however, when a NATO summit decided to deploy IRBMs if the Soviet Union did not withdraw its forward-basing of SS-20 missiles, that large-scale protests in several countries emerged. Campaigns achieved the most domestic support in Belgium and the Netherlands, where the peace movement was successful in coaxing the governments to delay the NATO deployment schedule. In Britain, where the CND was rejuvenated, nuclear weapons became an important political issue as well. In October 1980, 80,000 people marched to Trafalgar Square. In West Germany, protest demonstrations involved upwards of 100,000 people in the same year. The high point occurred in December 1983, just before the deployment of the IRBMs began. As many as a million demonstrators protested throughout West Germany, in addition to 600,000 in Rome and 400,000 in London.
The transnational protest networks of the 1980s had their roots in the ecological and feminist movements that had sprung up during the 1970s. They also enjoyed the backing of a substantial number of churches and labor unions. Despite considerable support in Western Europe and among the media, the peace movement of the early 1980s was unable to build upon the same kind of nuclear anxiety that lent the 1950s' movement such resonance. Because of its association with leftist and liberal causes, the 1980s' antinuclear campaign came to enjoy only limited support among mainstream political parties. This led to the founding of new political groups such as the West German Green Party.
The 1980s' peace movement did not originate in the United States. Despite considerable support from American peace groups (such as the National Freeze Campaign), the European peace movement developed independently from American influences. The stationing of Pershing II and cruise missiles affected the balance of power in Europe. In addition, it had been European governments, above all West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's government, that had taken the lead in pushing NATO toward the double-track decision. Finally, there was a strong sense of a European solidarity vis-à-vis the superpowers because East European antinuclear activists shared many concerns with their West European counterparts.
The Cold War–era peace movements did not produce immediate results in terms of disarmament or the lessening of tensions between East and West. Yet they had palpable effects on Western public opinion and to a lesser degree on East European governments. Beginning in the 1950s, they forced governments to address widespread fears of the destructive force of nuclear weapons. In addition, the Cold War, with its strong elite cooperation across national borders, provided a unique international framework for the unprecedented growth of transnational peace activity. Thus, antiwar activism during the 1945–1990 period paved the way for more recent peace, environmental, and antiglobalization movements.
Kaltefleiter, Werner, and Robert L. Pfaltzgraff, eds. The Peace Movements in Europe & the United States. New York: St. Martin's, 1985.; Katz, Milton S. Ban the Bomb: A History of SANE, the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, 1957–1985. New York: Greenwood, 1986.; Taylor, Richard. Against the Bomb: The British Peace Movement, 1958–1965. Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1985.; Wittner, Lawrence S. Rebels against War: The American Peace Movement, 1933–1983. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984.; Wittner, Lawrence S. Resisting the Bomb: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997.