Nuclear Disarmament Campaigns in Australia in the 1960s

The Australian anti-nuclear movement emerged in the 1960s in opposition to the global nuclear arms race and Australia’s own role in that arms race.

Already, in the 1950s, public concern about nuclear testing had shifted from an earlier enthusiasm for nuclear weapons to concern and alarm as radioactive fallout was increasingly detected across the world and seen to have adverse health effects. In 1954, following a US hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll, the Japanese Lucky Dragon fishing boat was affected by the fallout, leading to death and sickness amongst its crew. In the late 1950s evidence also came to light of radioactive fallout in Australia associated with British nuclear tests at Maralinga from 1952-58 and fallout across the wider Pacific region from US testing in Micronesia beginning in 1946. By 1956, there was a shift from earlier Australian majority support for nuclear testing to a majority (58%) now opposed to such testing.

This concern grew during the 1960s. One key event that particularly concentrated global and Australian attention on the threat of nuclear war was the 13-day October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, in which Russia deployed nuclear weapons in Cuba and the US responded by setting up a naval blockade around Cuba and forcing up Soviet submarines with depth charges.

It was in the context of the increasing public concerns and worries about nuclear testing and the risks of nuclear war in the Cold War arms race that the Congress for International Cooperation and Disarmament (CICD), Australian Congress for International Cooperation and Disarmament (AICD), and newly established Australian CND groups began organizing annual Hiroshima Day radial marches in the early 1960s to symbolize the radius of nuclear destruction in a nuclear attack. In Melbourne, these took the form of two-day radial marches from Frankston to Melbourne.

Antinuclear campaigning during 1960-65 at the time focused on a number of related issues: the need for general nuclear disarmament, and opposition to nuclear testing in Australia and the Pacific and newly established US nuclear-related bases in Australia. These campaigns did make some headway in Labor Party circles at that time, including with Arthur Calwell as Leader, Jim Cairns, and Tom Uren. However the ALP did, with misgiving, assent to the US submarine communication base at Northwest Cape, Western Australia in 1963.

The CICD, AICD and Australian CND groups also cooperated in a 1962 national petition that attracted 200,000 signatures that called on the Australian Government to support a Southern Hemisphere Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NWFZ).[4] The idea was ridiculed by PM Robert Menzies at the time as “the ecstasy of suicide”[6] Ending the war and conscription was to become the overriding priority within the Australian peace movement. While CICD did continue to hold Hiroshima Day marches, they were as much focused on the Vietnam War as on nuclear issues.

For the next seven years in Australian, the peace and anti-war movement focused primarily on campaigns aimed at ending Australian participation in the Vietnam and the associated conscription scheme.