Looking back on the 1980s nuclear disarmament movement. Atom bombs really are paper tigers.

The nuclear disarmament movement went through different phases during the post-War decades and reached a peak in the 1980s when huge demonstrations involving millions of people took place internationally.

By the mid-1980s, there were more than 60,000 nuclear weapons in the world. The Soviet Union had 39,000 and the USA 21,000.

There was a lot of fear about the ‘inevitability’ or ‘imminence’ of nuclear war between the superpowers and some prominent campaigners believed that humanity would be wiped from the face of the planet in such a war. Saner people, on the left, argued against this hyperbole but, of course, supported the demand for nuclear disarmament.

One of my comrades was so freaked out by the inevitability of nuclear war in the late 1970s/early 1980s that they uprooted themselves from city life and moved to the furtherest country town from their city of residence. The CPA(ML) leaders warned not only that it was imminent but that fascism was just around the corner too. (It would have been a lot scarier had said leaders not been losing credibility at a rapid rate).

In light of the internationalist mass movement, united by a progressive demand, the good people at the journal ‘Bowyang’ decided to launch a special edition focusing on it. I happened to be ‘guest editor’ for that issue, as the real editor, Humphrey McQueen, was overseas.

That issue of Bowyang, published in 1983, is a period piece (the nuclear disarmament movement is rarely heard of today) but valuable as an expression of the different perspectives on the movement.

As guest editor, I invited Albert Langer (as he was known at that time) to contribute an article. It makes worthwhile reading today. Certainly, nuclear war never took place. Today, globally, there are about 15,000 weapons – which is better than the 62,000 of thirty years ago. The trend is for their continuing decline through treaties and agreements.

I’m republishing Arthur’s article out of historical interest but also for its valuable insights.

The author was wrong in 1983 about an economic crisis greater than the last Depression looming on the horizon – but weren’t we all? (It does seem the case now, though. No, really!)

I like this bit:

‘Old habits die hard… It is hardly surprising that every pathetic twitch the US makes to shore up its position in El Salvador or elsewhere is seen, no matter how ludicrously, as the beginnings of another Vietnam’.

That old habit is yet to die and has led to many who identify as leftists supporting the wrong side in regional conflicts, especially Iraq and Syria.

But one thing has been established: yes, Mao was right, nuclear weapons are paper tigers!
















(I have several spare copies in very good condition, if anyone would like a copy – contact me via this blog).


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10 thoughts on “Looking back on the 1980s nuclear disarmament movement. Atom bombs really are paper tigers.

  1. Thanks Barry! I must confess that I find the logic of the article irrefutable and enjoyed reading it 😉

    Wish I had as clear a picture for current situation.

    Please do bring a spare copy for me when next in Melbourne.


    • The article said (p59)

      “In fact the left and labour movement in Australia has always had an internationalist position on these issues. We demanded collective security against fascist aggression in the 1930s, we sent volunteers to fight in Spain, we supported we supported China’s resistance to Japan, we opposed the ‘phoney war’ and we demanded a real mobilization to fight German and Japanese fascism in the 1940s.”

      Relax Steve, there was no suggestion that Trotskyists did any of these things. I specifically said the “left and labor movement”.

      As you are well aware Trotskyists opposed each of these efforts and especially opposed the Soviet Union’s successful diplomacy to frustrate the appeaser’s plans to orient the war to one between Germany and Russia with the West able to stay out. When Germany turned East after the token resistance of the ‘phoney war’ the West had already been forced into war with Germany. The trotskyists of course then proceeded to denounce the alliance between Western imperialist powers and the Soviet Union as an imperialist war just as they had denounced collective security in the 1930s as preparation for imperialist war and just as they had denounced resistance to fascism in Spain as selling out the revolution.

      After that UN alliance won, mainly thanks to the Red Army, they wrote the histories you are fond of. Recently we had a memorial to D-day to remind everyone of the “official” history – that the war was won by the U.S.A. and Britain. Not sure how well the trot histories are selling these days but you will find overt statements from isolationists about what a tragedy it was that the West got forced to fight the Nazis in alliance with the Communists instead of just letting them fight it out between themselves (as the trots wanted along with the appeasers).

      PS I won’t have time to respond further. These issues were thoroughly discussed at lastsuperpower.net. Suggest you find links to whatever was said there and quote them here if you want something to talk to yourself about.


  2. I just cant see why you want to distort history. When the phony war was on the International Communist movement did not oppose it. In the USA the Communist party made common cause with the America First Movement. In England the government considered banning the Communist Party because they were fomenting industrial action in the essential defense supply industries. In France the government treated the Communist Party as the 5th column that they were. Jesus the French C.P. greeted the fall of France as a victory against imperialism. Whilst the USSR was organising joint military parades in Poland with the German army. Welcoming German delegations to Moscow with the Horst Wessel song and honored the recently signed Border and Friendship Treaty by supplying Germany with essential war materials. Its fine if you dont want to waste time discussing this I was only trying to make a point trust me I want no discourse with you.


  3. “When Germany turned East after the token resistance of the ‘phoney war’ the West had already been forced into war with Germany.” This is why I dont want to engage in argument with Arthur and am happy if he saves himself the time by not replying. He makes stuff up! If we are to believe that Germany turned East after the phony war then that puts the Battle of Britain into the phony war category. The phony war ended when German tanks burst through the forests of Ardennes not “When Germany turned east…”


    • All of us know when the Phony war ended and Arthur said ‘the West had already been forced into [real] war with Germany’ that the Germans launched! It was Hitler that ended the sitzkrieg after the western imperialist warmongers (and that is exactly what they were!) had declared war and then sat on their duffs. What a surprise; the western plotters of mass murder were content to do almost nothing and see how things developed! What a surprise that communists had to expose what they were up to and play a different hand to what they wanted us to have.

      You ought to know that Stalin’s prime responsibility was to avoid a war on 2 fronts and he was already in an undeclared war with Japan that was utterly unpredictable as the Japanese were internally divided almost 50/50 on what way to send their imperialist army of mass murder and enslavement. Even the Battle of Khalkhin Gol did not settle the issues in the East and Hitler still tried to drag in the Japanese when he finally got into the main event in June 1941. Thankfully the Japanese were having none of it by then and I am like Pollyanna very glad of that!


      • Thank you Patrick, I think we do need to expose myths. Myth one that the nasty English and French were maneuvering so that Germany would go East. If this was true then when Hitler went East into Poland the English and French would have expressed both their displeasure but also their helplessness and not declared war. England, Germany, France and the USSR did nothing during the “Phony war” because they were furiously rearming buying as much time as possible. If England and France had wanted Germany to go East they would have accepted Hitlers peace offer after Poland and then again after France fell but they didnt at least England and the Free French didnt. Japan went south and not west because those nasty Americans were stopping oil supplies to Japan. If the USSR was the real target the US would have turned a blind eye towards Japanese military conquests rather than moving the Pacific fleet to Pearl and trade restrictions on war materiel. Hitlers war planners told him that he could not go more than about 800 kl into the Soviet Union without running into supply problems that would halt any advance. Both Japan and Germany lacked the resources to wage war over any great distance Japan went south and Germany relied on its wartime quartermaster oops the Soviet Union. Without the materiel resources supplied by the Soviet Union Hitler would barely get half way through France let alone the USSR. Remember when your father was sheltering from Hitlers bombs in Coventry those planes were fueled on Soviet aviation fuel. Oil was the most important input and Germany had none other than what they could get from or via the USSR. After Munich the head of the Comintern stated that an invasion of the USSR would come autumn 1941 but he was wrong it came June 1941.


      • Lets go another myth. Delayed 2nd Front, the argument that the allies delayed the second front so that more Soviet soldiers would die is pure propaganda and here is why. Stalin publicly complained about the absence of a second front Nov 6th 1941 Yes prior to US entry hes complaining that the British dont launch a second front. The second front an invasion of France an amphibious landing the biggest in world history when it happened was touch and go for a while its a very hard thing to pull off, your armies on beaches while their army is in concrete reinforced positions. The Normandy landings would have been just stupid done before the allies achieved air superiority. This was achieved in 1944 remember Adolf wasnt an idiot enough to attempt operation Sealion without air superiority why would you expect Eisenhower to be a bigger idiot than Hitler?
        The second front stuff was just pure propaganda the reality was that the allies worked well together their leaders met different roles were handed out and all parties did their roles. Yes more Soviet soldiers were killed you cant fight a war of racial extermination without breaking a few eggs. As the old German joke in France went ‘ you see black planes in the sky thats the British. You see silver planes in the sky thats the Americans. You see thats the Luftwaffe.
        Now before Barry goes me for diminishing the Soviet role lets just acknowledge that the Soviet sacrifice was the most important single element I used to know the exact numbers but from memory about 70 to 80% of all German military deaths were deaths on the Eastern front. David Glanz (the US military historian does some good stuff his stuff is also well packaged by TIK and I like House https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zinPbUZUHDE


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