Popular TV personality Mike Higgins addressed a packed Brisbane City Hall gathering on a rainy November night in 1983. As chair of the meeting he was joined on the podium by later-to-be Governor General of Australia, Quentin Bryce, retired US Army colonel David Hackworth, Anglican Dean Butters, the president of the Qld Trades Hall council Harry Haunschild, famous Aboriginal writer Oodgeroo Noonuccul, and others. Convened by the newly formed People for Nuclear Disarmament, the meeting foreshadowed one of the largest and most active mass movements in Australian history – the nuclear disarmament movement of the 1980s and 90s.
As with Isaac Newton’s description of scientific discovery –“standing on the shoulders of giants” -social movements owe much to those who have gone before. The movement against nuclear weapons in the 1980s owed much to those who protested nuclear war preparations during the 1950s and 60s. In Brisbane young people from the Eureka Youth League, along with members and supports of the communist party, replicated the famous British Aldermaston anti-nuclear marches by holding their own marches from Ipswich to Brisbane in the early 1960s. Over the latest decade, the successful campaign for an international treaty to ban nuclear weapons built on the worldwide sentiment developed during those earlier campaigns
The 1980s campaign in Australia against nuclear weapons had at least one successful outcome. The outpouring of public sentiment ensured that Federal Governments of both political persuasions resisted the calls from the military hawks for nuclear weapons in Australia. In the context of the intense international hubris at that time, this was a victory of considerable proportions, even if not recognised as such in recent years.
The Australian campaign was of course part of a worldwide movement during those years. The movement successfully led to the agreements between the US and then USSR to reduce the number of nuclear warheads they maintained. Another of the successful outcomes of that worldwide movement during the 1980s was the continuance of the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty.
The ABM treaty had originally been signed in 1972 by the US and the USSR. They had agreed to limit almost totally the number of ballistic missile defence systems that each side deployed. The argument for the treaty was quite simple. Any system designed to shoot down incoming missiles will only encourage the other side to build larger and better missiles. So an ABM system is essentially destabilising – it leads only to proliferation of larger numbers and more destructive nuclear weapons.
This argument held sway until the nuclear confrontation of the Reagan years. US military planners pushed hard during this time for new ABM systems – laser weapons and research into “star wars”. These ABM systems were a central part of the nuclear war fighting plans of both superpowers – with massive first strikes of many nuclear warheads, and ABM systems to shoot down any retaliatory missiles. However the movement against nuclear weapons took this up as one of their main campaigns. It was an incredible success – the US (and the USSR) maintained the ABM treaty throughout all of those years of intense nuclear confrontation. Indeed it was only in 2002 that the US withdrew from the treaty as part of their so-called “endless war on terror”.
As a result of the collapse of the ABM treaty, we now see the establishment of a new refined ABM system – the so called THAAD system – by the US in South Korea, on the doorstep of China, and in the Middle East, on the doorstep of Russia. Just as the original arguments against ABM systems predicted, the latest announcement by President Putin included news of new Russian nuclear missiles which are able to defeat any ABM system. The nuclear chickens really have come home to roost.
What can we in Australia do about this? Well one obvious step is for our Government to sign and ratify the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons – which was supported by 122 nations in December 2017. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons worked for the past ten years for this result – and was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. The Australian government has refused to support this treaty – even though Australia has no nuclear weapons, no plans for acquiring them, and according to the latest Defence White Paper “no more than a remote prospect of a military attack by another country on Australian territory in the foreseeable future”. The only explanation for this intransigent attitude is the subservient relationship successive Australian governments have had with our large and aggressive ally – the United States.
Surely now it’s time for us to show some genuine independence, and support the international agreement to ban all nuclear weapons.
Ross Gwyther is retired research geophysicist and trade union organiser, having been active for many years in community peace and environmental politics, and currently on the national committee of the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network.