We take a look at the anti-war movement in Britain across the decades, which was the subject of a fascinating exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, London.
‘War – what is it good for?’ demanded Edwin Starr in his 1970 chart-topping single. The song was a protest against the conflict in Vietnam, but it would have served very well as the soundtrack to the Imperial War Museum’s 2017 exhibition of People Power: Fighting for Peace. It’s a compelling, instructive and frequently moving tour of anti-war protest from the Great War of 1914-18 to the present day and our ongoing entanglements in the Middle East. If it may seem ironic that the Imperial War Museum should be promoting pacifism, curator Matt Brosnan points out that from its inception in 1917, the Museum ‘was looking at the totality of war and civilian participation.’
The message of People Power – accompanied by Lyn Smith’s book of the same name, which amplifies and illustrates the exhibition’s themes – is that war is never the only answer. Indeed, many of the featured protestors would argue that it’s never the answer at all, although the Second World War and its stand against the horrors of Nazism did cause even committed peace-warriors to question their stance. A prominent example was the author AA Milne, whose letter from December 1939 is one of many rare and revealing documents brought together for the exhibition. Declaring himself ‘a practical pacifist’, Milne writes that ‘I believe that war is a lesser evil than Hitlerism. I believe that Hitlerism must be killed before war can be killed.’
It was the First World War that brought about the appearance of a new phenomenon, the Conscientious Objector (or CO). It took bravery to stand in opposition to the atmosphere of intense patriotic support for Empire, King and country that prevailed in 1914 – included in the exhibition is a ‘White Feather letter’ sent to the Manchester Guardian’s art critic Bernard Taylor, expressing contempt for his anti-war stance – and the trials and imprisonment endured by the COs are documented in detail. The work of war artists excruciatingly evokes the Armageddon-like nightmare of the Western Front, notably Paul Nash’s Wire, 1918, and C.R.W. Nevinson’s Paths of Glory, 1917.
Between the wars, there was strong public support for protests against militarism and rearmament, and the exhibition has unearthed fascinating amateur film of the 1936 May Day Parade in Hull, where trades unions and working people marched against war and the capitalists who supported it. They couldn’t stop the outbreak of World War Two, but at least the 1939-45 conflict brought a more reasonable attitude to the treatment of COs, with cases assessed by tribunals which were often sympathetic to genuinely-held moral scruples. An example was actor Paul Eddington, later TV’s fictional Prime Minister, Jim Hacker. He was a Quaker who was exempted from military service in 1945.
As World War Two ended the atomic age began, prompting a new, broad-based form of protest. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and the Aldermaston Marches of the Late 1950s and 1960s were mass demonstrations against the terror of nuclear annihilation which gripped the planet. Anti-nuclear sentiment inspired an array of artistic expression, not least Gerard Holtom’s famous tripod-in-a-circle emblem. Film clips at the exhibition include the government’s hair-raising ‘advice to householders’ (from 1964) about how to build a fallout shelter in your home, and a snippet of Peter Watkins’s The War Game, 1965, a depiction of a nuclear attack on Britain so horrific that the BBC didn’t dare broadcast it for 20 years. CND became part of a widespread movement that also embraced anti-Vietnam activism and found echoes in the Sixties counterculture. The exhibition includes a letter from folk music doyenne Joan Baez, in which she writes that ‘we must all oppose the Vietnam war, but also we must oppose all violence everywhere under whatever guise that it appears.’
In the 1980s, the spirit of CND gained a second wind in the protests against American cruise missiles stationed at Greenham Common in Berkshire. While women had always been prominent in the anti-war movement, women wholly dominated the Greenham protests, ejecting male volunteers to emphasise their determination to pursue a non-violent strategy. In the ‘Embrace the Base’ initiative in 1982, women from around the world joined hands and surrounded the entire perimeter of the Greenham site.
The exhibition’s final section, The Modern Era, reached from the Gulf War and Balkan wars of the early Nineties through wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. David Gentleman’s blood-splatter posters for the Stop the War Coalition are classics of their kind, while perhaps the most show-stopping image of the whole exhibition is Peter Kennard and Cat Phillipps’s Photo-Op, 2007, a montage of a grinning Tony Blair taking a selfie in front of an enormous explosion. In 2016, the anti-Trident missile demonstration in London was said to be the biggest event of its kind in a generation, with the Labour party’s stoutly unilateralist leader Jeremy Corbyn delivering the keynote speech. Yet despite the huge turnout, the UK parliament voted to renew Trident anyway. The long protest march will doubtless continue.