The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

Greenham Common CND nukes

The Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp was an all-women permanent protest outside the RAF Greenham Common military base that continued for nearly two decades. Starting in 1981, the objective was to stop nuclear weapons being stationed at the base. This was at a time when the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was enjoying a big resurgence in popularity and the message from activists was simply – no nukes in the UK.

Greenham Common – a women’s protest against nukes in the UK

It all began with a Welsh women’s activist group arriving at the base and chaining themselves to the perimeter fence. The campaign group Women for Life on Earth marched from Cardiff to Greenham Common in Berkshire to stop 96 missiles being based there. On arrival, they delivered a letter to the base’s commander insisting he rethink the decision. Few people had heard of “cruise missiles” before Greenham Common but they certainly knew about them once the protest got underway. Predictably the letter was ignored and more women began to arrive establishing the peace camp.

The media was intrigued by this non-violent protest led exclusively by women. And not a protest specifically about women’s rights. But taking on the broader question of nuclear armament. About 70,000 women would engage directly with the Greenham Common Peace Camp and it was described at the time as being the largest campaign organised by women since the suffragettes in the early 20th century. It plugged directly into widespread anxiety about the threat of nuclear war – a level of fear that hadn’t really been seen since the 1960s. In social attitude surveys, young people stated that they believed there was a significant chance of a nuclear conflict ending life on the planet.

This was at a time when the United States, led by President Ronald Reagan, was upping the ante in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. His stance represented a big change in the political mood music from the era of nuclear arms limitation talks that had dragged on through the 1970s. From 1969, the US and USSR had been conducting the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks to limit the use of anti-ballistic missile systems. This diplomatic effort did slow the arms race between the two powers. Not long after the final SALT treaty was signed by US President Jimmy Carter and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in June 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and the US Senate refused to ratify the treaty.

Reagan and his policy on nukes

And then along came Ronald Reagan – newly elected US President from 1980. Reagan started out his presidency as an ultra-hawk on the issue of nuclear arms. He had long criticised the effort from both Republican (Nixon) and Democrat (Carter) presidents to curb the arms race:

“Throughout the 1970s, Reagan had argued that the United States was falling behind the Soviets in the nuclear competition and that U.S. long-range ballistic missiles were becoming increasingly vulnerable to Soviet attack. During his 1980 election campaign against President Jimmy Carter, Reagan contended that the unratified Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty II (SALT II) was “fatally flawed.” “

Reagan pushed to modernise America’s nuclear defences and implement the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). This massively raised tensions with the USSR. And it also provoked widespread fear in the west, that Reagan didn’t care about provoking a nuclear showdown. From 1981, Reagan pushed for thousands of new nuclear warheads; a big increase in bomber forces and new missile deployments in Europe. It was the latter demand from Reagan that created widespread anger among anti-nuclear activists. A sense that Europe was being placed by Reagan in the front line of a future nuclear conflict.

Politics is often about tone of voice and appearance as much as underlying reality. Reagan came across as a gun toting cowboy with a reckless attitude to European security – in the early part of his presidency. What he became later on was noticeably different. But first term Reagan was a gun slinging cowboy with a cruise missile in each pocket ready to draw. Reagan’s logic was that the Soviet Union could never out-gun the US if the Americans escalated the arms race. He stated this before becoming president in 1978. The American economy was far stronger and could absorb the huge increases in nuclear arms spending – which did indeed happen. Expenditure on nuclear arms research and development increased by 40% compared to the previous eight years.

CND expands over fears on nukes

What activists and journalists began to wonder was whether Reagan thought America could actually win a nuclear war. This seemed like insanity. And from 1980, CND experienced a massive spike in interest. Commentators often write about two waves of support for CND. The first being from 1957 to 1963 and the second from 1980 to 1983. I went on the 1981 CND demonstration in London when a quarter of a million people marched. Even more attended the 1983 London demo. The Tories and various right-wingers attempted to set up pressure groups in opposition to CND. But in all honesty, when I first saw a sticker for ‘Peace Through NATO’ – I thought it was a practical joke.

One memory I have of the 1981 demo was as the crowds dispersed, I was standing outside the McDonalds on the Strand when an older woman approached the teenage me and declared through gritted teeth that I’d have appeased Hitler back in the 1930s. She then foamed at the mouth about the Peace Pledge Union, a long standing pacifist organisation in the UK. Short of handing me a white feather and dubbing me a traitor to queen and country – I got the full works. But that often happened in those days!

There were various attempts to suggest that the Soviet Union was funding CND – one of which ended in legal action and a settlement in favour of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Essentially, dirty tactics were deployed when arguments weren’t resonating. That’s not to say Moscow didn’t take an interest in the ‘peace’ movement. And often the Kremlin tried to position itself as an advocate for peace on the world stage – which few of us took very seriously. I do recall a ‘Peace Congress’ being held in Moscow around 1985 that resulted in the Trotskyist group of which I was a member finding common cause with the Tories in opposing anybody attending. In fact, I think it was the 12th World Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow “for anti-imperialist solidarity, peace and friendship”.

Greenham Common protest over nukes as CND surges

While CND membership surged, the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp got right up the nose of the tabloid press. Much of the snarking from the tabloids sounds very similar to the sort of abuse levelled at millennials and zoomers today. Take this for example – basically accusing the women of being middle-class ‘snowflakes’.

In December 1983, twelve of the Greenham Common women teamed up with two Democrat politicians to stop the deployment of 96 cruise missiles in the UK through action in the US courts. This legal move against Reagan by women who had previously never been involved politically gripped sections of the US media. They were even invited to do speaking tours in the US. And American women crossed the Atlantic to join the Greenham Common protest. I have a newspaper report in front of me now from November 1984 about a San Bernardino, California women giving a talk to her local church after a support visit to the peace camp thousands of miles away.

By the end of 1983, seven more peace camps had sprouted up outside other US bases in the UK along with an estimated 98 temporary protests. Not everybody welcomed this outpouring of democratic protest. Aside from the Reagan and Thatcher governments, some local people near Greenham Common took the view that the peace camp was an eyesore. And there were many incidents of attacks against the women or their property to try and drive them away. I think it’s important to note that the female-only nature of the protest gave rise to some very hostile coverage at the time. Symptomatic of the misogyny that was commonplace but the sneering even extended to sections of the left.

In 1984, the Greenham Common Peace Camp was forcibly cleared in an action condemned as contravening civil liberties. However, the protests continued – albeit on a smaller scale – until the missiles were removed from Greenham Common in 1991. In April 2000, the military base was closed, the fences removed and the area reverted to being common land for public use. The legacy is a difficult one to assess. And in all honesty, I’d value your opinions on this.

Below is a poster from my archive of political paraphernalia.

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