Peace campaigns during World War 2

During the Second World War, pacifist groups - Australian Peace Pledge Union (APPU), WILPF, Christian Pacifist Movement (CPM) and the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) - were the most coordinated and active in the peace movement. They formed a national body, the Federal Pacifist Council (FPC) in 1942.[6] They had courageously gone against popular feeling by calling for a negotiated peace, arguing against the Allied war strategy of obliteration bombing of cities until the enemy accepted unconditional surrender. The League of Nations Union (LNU) - later the United Nations Association of Australia (UNAA) - held a conference in 1941 to discuss ‘A New Order after the War’ and another in 1942, entitled ‘Australia’s Obligations under the Atlantic Charter.’ The Charter declared that all nations of the world for realistic as well as spiritual reasons must come to the abandonment of the use of force.[7] All these civil society efforts to prepare for a New World Order of peace and social justice were undermined by a secret decision by the Roosevelt government, on 6 December 1941, to proceed with the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb.

An atomic holocaust was the very antithesis of the dawning of the kind of peaceful world for which pacifists had worked and prayed. Nonetheless hearing the news of Hiroshima, pacifists, who were opposed to weapons of all kinds, were paradoxically buoyed, if only for a brief time, by the very destructiveness of the atom bomb into thinking that war had become unthinkable.

For a time, pacifists set great store on the idea that the tragedy of the war had left humanity no alternative but to move towards world government. However, world peace would be achieved through ‘World Government — not UNO. They saw the United Nations as constituted to accommodate two opposing military blocs. World government should be ‘a legislature composed of members elected by direct vote of all peoples, not a council representing national governments’.[8]

This ideal of everlasting peace in a disarmed world flew in the face of a contemporary world of sovereign states arming to the teeth to fight an even more devastating war. But like other ideals it could inspire individuals to take a first step and this for many peace activists has been a dedication to the cause of nuclear disarmament. However, most Australians supported the use of the bombs on Japan with only twelve per cent believing it was wrong. Over 80 per cent of Australians, including most of those who thought it wrong to have used the bomb, expressed the opinion that the United States and Britain should keep the knowledge of how to make the bomb secret and not share it with the United Nations.[9]

Within the peace movement, pacifists (feeling more poignantly than many others the unimaginable violence of the atomic bombings) were the ones who perceived a deeper meaning for humanity that the first use of atomic technology was in an act of war. Reverend Frank Coaldrake writes in his ‘Report of the Australian Pacifist Conference,’ held in January 1946, just months after the bombings, that ‘The release of atomic energy, long anticipated as the crowning glory of our scientific civilisation of the West has now occurred, but instead of coming with promise of happy leisure for all, it hangs over us as a menace not only of our civilised institutions but also of the mass of mankind’.[10]

What it would mean for Australians if atomic war broke out could not be entirely ignored by the mainstream media, especially after Soviet Russia exploded an A-bomb in 1949. The Sydney Sun described how ’Central Sydney would be obliterated with 50,000 deaths and 100,000 injuries’. But this was not to argue banning the bomb but rather to seek security under the deterrent power of the United States’ nuclear umbrella.

Mass killing of innocent civilians raised the theological question as to whether a ‘just war’ could ever be fought with atomic bombs. Dr. A.H. Wood, leading Methodist and school principal, was inspired to work for world peace with Australian church groups when he learned about the suffering of the people of Hiroshima. ‘I felt the whole world had changed - war with atomic bombs could never be just’.[11]

The first anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima was commemorated in the Assembly Hall in Melbourne. This early initiative for a public commemoration probably reflected a relatively strong pacifist presence in Melbourne. The meeting, called by the Combined Women’s Organisations Protest Committee, demanded ‘that all nations outlaw the atomic bomb’. Weapons of mass destruction should be outlawed and atomic energy should not be used ‘for destructive ends.’ High hopes were expressed for the benefits of atomic energy. But scientific research would have to be freed from the grip of ‘military, and political, control and scientists should not be hindered from making known to one another and to the public the results of their investigation’.[12]

As the war drew towards its end conservative political forces began playing on fears Australians held of invasion by the teeming millions of ‘Asiatics’ inhabiting countries to the North and, closer to home, communist subversion from within. Anyone suggesting sharing atomic ‘secrets’ between nations brought accusations of subversion down on their head. Even the ‘most reputable scientists and students of world order’ were met with accusations that their opposition to official atomic policies was being made at the behest of a ‘Foreign Power’ or at the direction of Moscow.[13] In the UNAA liberal internationalists found themselves under attack by members from ‘The Movement’, an anti-communist Catholic organisation, if they so much as questioned US nuclear policies. Mr B.A. Santamaria, who headed The Movement, advocated planning Australia’s civilian defence to meet the needs of atomic war. Addressing a Christian colloquium Santamaria described nuclear weapons as ‘no different from artillery, although their explosive force is much greater’.[14] They are suited to ‘the type of defence against overwhelming superiority of manpower on the part of potential aggressors’.[15]

The CPA, like The Movement, was concerned not so much about the morality as the politics of the use of nuclear weapons. In the years immediately after the war the CPA saw the problem not so much as the bomb itself but ‘the dangers of the bomb only in the hands of opponents’.[16]