Up to 100,000 people gathered in London’s Trafalgar Square on March 18th, 1960, for a peace rally marking the end of the four-day Aldermaston “ban the bomb” march.
At the height of the ‘Cold War’ between the USA and the USSR, many people lived in fear of all-out nuclear warfare between the two heavily-armed superpowers. The very real prospect of a “nuclear holocaust” led many people to back movements like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), which had first organised the Easter weekend Aldermaston March the previous year.
Participants from across the UK and abroad walked the 52 miles from the UK’s Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston, in Berkshire, to a peace rally in the heart of London. They carried banners and placards, chanted peace slogans and sang protest songs as they went.
After the widely reported success of the 1959 march, thousands more marchers turned up for the one in 1960, joined by even more attending the rally in Trafalgar Square. Organisers estimated the number at 100,000, although police figures put it at a more conservative 60,000.
The banner carried at the head of the march read “Aldermaston to London”, while slogans on other banners showed the marchers came from communities and CND branches across the UK and represented all walks of life, from churches to trade unions and students. Quakers and Methodists, both strong proponents of peace, were well represented and there were also marchers from other nations including France, Malta, Pakistan, Cyprus, Greece, India, Sweden, Africa and Iraq.
In spite of the huge numbers, the march was overwhelmingly good natured, as was the rally at its end. Among the speakers was Canon John Collins, who had co-founded CND with philosopher and political activist Bertrand Russell. Another speaker was Bishop of Southwark Dr Mervyn Stockwood, who praised the Prime Minister Harold Macmillan for his efforts to bring about world peace: “I hope that just as he has spoken for all that is best in Britain by condemning apartheid in South Africa, so he will set an example to the world by renouncing the hydrogen bomb,” said the Bishop.
Also speaking was prominent Labour MP (and future party leader) Michael Foot, who said that nuclear weapons threatened the very existence of democracies around the world. He described the Aldermaston March as a democratic protest against “military dictatorship”.
The Aldermaston Marches were repeated for the next few years until 1963, the same year that the international test ban treaty was signed, partially banning the testing of nuclear weapons. The 1963 march and rally were also marred by dispute and disorder after more hardline anarchists infiltrated the ranks of the marchers, set on causing trouble.
In 1964 there was only a one-day march and rally in London, partly because of the trouble the previous year, but also because of the logistics of organising the full four-day march, which had grown beyond all expectations and left its organisers exhausted. Support for CND also began to decline as the spectre of nuclear war gradually faded, with improving relations between the nuclear superpowers. But it re-emerged for a time in the 1980s after Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher allowed the USA to station some of its nuclear weapons on British soil.
When the Cold War finally thawed in 1990, CND went into decline once again and although it still campaigns for nuclear disarmament, it is far less prominent today than in its 1960s’ heyday.