Australia, the Bomb and Peace Campaigns of the 1940s

Within months of the tragic news of the atomic obliteration of Hiroshima, Prime Minister Chifley and Foreign Affairs Minister Evatt had secretly committed Australia to making its open spaces available to test British missiles. Evatt was convinced of the necessity for the United States, and presumably Britain, to have the bomb. Oliphant recalls how, during UN negotiations with Soviet Russia, Evatt, in private consultation with him and the Australian Ambassador, Paul Hasluck, rejected any idea that the US should dismantle its bombs (two at the time).[17]

David Stead, conservationist, pacifist and socialist, had thrown himself into ‘movements for world peace and understanding’ and served as president of the LNU. Stead expressed the concerns of many when he wrote to Prime Minister Chifley saying ‘This letter is prompted by the statement in today’s papers about an “Empire” project for Rocket Experiments in Central Australia. Undoubtedly this also means “atomic” investigations since the two are now intimately connected’.[18] He told the Prime Minister: ‘You are of the Common People of Australia. I am also of those Common People. I feel sure that you are just as interested in the present and future welfare of those Common People as I am...none can be kept out of the running [to make the bomb] for long…Security will be for all nations or none. Here is an opportunity to insist ‘that all these experiments must be done by the United Nations Organisation independent of every separate government and protected by a UNO force of World Police’.[19]

Australians were first to learn of the location of the range at Woomera, not from the government, but from Dr Charles Duguid, President of the South Australian Aboriginal Advancement League. He believed people had a right to know what was going on behind their backs. In a letter to the press he asked whether having driven Aborigines ‘from all the good country are we now to sit back and see them treated as human guinea pigs in atomic tests...Without delay we citizens of Australia must raise ourselves to stop this crime’.[20] The government, fearing public debate getting out of their control, had deliberately restricted, as long as possible, the availability of information. Concerned individuals and community groups had then to set about researching and disseminating information, which is essential, if there is to be an informed public debate. This has never been more so than for nuclear undertakings either civil or military.

In February 1947, a Rocket Range Protest Committee was brought together by the Presbyterian Board of Missions and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union for the prime purpose of demanding the range be relocated to a site where it would do no harm to Aborigines.

Pacifist and other peace groups, among the 47 groups represented on the committee, pressed for widening the objection to oppose the range being anywhere on Australian soil. Troubled though it was by conflicting aims, the committee worked up to a public meeting of 1300 people in Melbourne Town Hall. To make their point, at the public meeting, pacifists handed out a leaflet contending that while Aboriginal interests were good reason to oppose the rocket range ‘it is not the only one, or the most important’. The rocket range should be abandoned for the wider reason that ‘It is a danger to peace and Australia’.[21] Doris Blackburn, member of Federal Parliament, told the meeting the scheme had not come before parliament until she had moved a motion, opposing the project. Her motion had received no support from either side of the house. Reflecting on Evatt’s passionate espousal of peaceful coexistence she told the meeting ‘Australia spoke with one voice abroad and another voice at home. This is not the way to world peace’. The meeting resolved to protest to the government against the setting up of the rocket range ‘as being inimical to the welfare of the aborigines’ and because ‘the project represents a great disservice.

Evatt went ahead with his Defence Projects Protection Act, which made it an offence so much as to speak, or write, against anything the Minister for Defence chose to declare ‘prohibited’. In a government booklet Hands off the Nation’s Defences Evatt warned Australians not to be misled by communists, working in the interests of the Soviet Russia, even though the defence of Australia may be imperilled.[22] Observed The Peacemaker, ‘when Evatt put his foot down with a bang...the Communists were not beneath it’. Only the pacifists ‘remained steadfast in their protest...We must make it clear that we oppose all preparations for matter against whom they are directed’.[23]

With the Menzies’ Coalition government in office from 1948, campaigning to ‘ban the bomb’ became immersed in the stultifying politics of the Cold War. Peace activity like any activity supporting social or political reform was labelled the work of communists. In 1951 Prime Minister Menzies justified a Defence Preparations Bill on the grounds that Australia must prepare for a major war within three years and this meant Australians giving up many civil liberties.[24]

In 1949, as international tensions were being exacerbated by the race for nuclear superiority, peace activists from almost every country around the world, including Australia, gathered in Paris to attend a World Peace Congress. The World Peace Council (WPC) was launched. WPC campaigns were directed towards mobilising world opinion in support of the United Nations, banning the bomb, peaceful coexistence between different social systems, and discouragement of racial hatreds.

The Australian Peace Council (APC) also had local origins. On a homeward-bound ship from the war in New Guinea, Padre Frank Hartley was disturbed to hear the view expressed in the officers’ mess ‘that the Soviet Union would be our next enemy’.[25] Vanquished foes, Germany and Japan were to be forgiven. To Hartley it all sounded as though he was coming home to a country preparing for another war. ‘The struggle against the assumptions of the Cold War led me’ wrote Hartley, ‘into the struggle for democratic rights in Australia and into participation in the movement for peace’.[26] When Melbourne Town Hall was refused for a communist, John Rodgers, to speak about his stay in Soviet Union, Hartley felt the need to act. He canvassed other clergy about the restrictions being put on free speech. He and about forty others formed a Democratic Rights Council to campaign against this stifling of dissent and open debate. In February, 1949, the council called a one-day meeting in the Assembly Hall to discuss ‘Peace and how to achieve it’. After six months campaigning on free speech, and with the crucial help of a union black ban on the building of a city bridge, the town hall doors were reopened to peace groups for their meetings. [27]

A grassroots struggle can help a community movement prosper by bringing together like minds sharing a common social concern. So it was that during the struggle for free speech Methodist Frank Hartley joined with Presbyterian Alf Dickie and Unitarian Victor James in their ecumenical work for peace that would span whole decades. In July 1949 these three ‘peace parsons’ met with a small number of other people including Jim Cairns, Doris Blackburn, and John Rodgers in the manse of the Unitarian Church to start moves for the formation of the APC. In September 1949, the APC was launched at a meeting, chaired by Jim Cairns, of 2000 people in the Melbourne Town Hall. The APC committee elected was representative of church communities, unions, intellectuals, Christian youth and women’s groups.[28]

The APC, at times, was influenced unduly by the CPA. Ian Turner, APC secretary, at the behest of his party, the CPA, took it on himself to publicly condemn the United States as the aggressor in the Korean War. The three ‘peace parsons’ wanted the APC to adopt a neutral stand. When the CPA pressured the APC to refrain from condemning the Soviet Russia for intervention in Hungary in 1956 it was the last straw for many communist peace activists. Many, including Ian Turner, resigned from the CPA but remained active in the peace movement.