Advocates of unilateral nuclear disarmament labour under two contradictory but complementary disadvantages—what they want is almost unattainable, and what they fear is almost unimaginable.

The hopes of idealistic unilateralists and multilateralists are that the balance of terror will be lightened either by one side after the other or by both sides at once. But every realistic unilateralist or multilateralist knows the far more probable future—that the balance will become heavier and heavier until the scales break under the strain, and the present nuclear stalemate will suddenly become mutual checkmate. On the other hand, even the most bitterly realistic unilateralist cannot accept the approaching death of mankind as a fact to live with—like the corpse in Ionesco’s play, it would grow until there was no room for anything else. We talk glibly enough about the risk of a nuclear holocaust, but we get up each morning without expecting to find the mushroom cloud at the bottom of the garden. Perhaps we don’t really see how we can get rid of the Bomb, but we don’t really see how they could drop it either. So we try to avert the unimaginable by pursuing the unattainable.

This helps to explain the curious unreality of the whole business. ‘No Taxation without Representation!’, ‘Home Rule for Ireland!’, ‘Votes for Women!’, ‘Not a Penny off the Pay: not a Second on the Day!’, even ‘Workers of the World Unite!’—these are slogans with definite meanings. Ban the Bomb! is a very different matter. The demands of most protest movements would bring immediate benefits to specific groups of people. Again, nuclear disarmament is very different matter. No one who thinks thinks ‘Ban the Bomb!’ is enough; but no two people seem to agree on anything more. The only thing we can all see is unilateral nuclear disarmament, somewhere on the horizon. This is our utopia, like the Kingdom of Heaven, or the Rule of the Saints, or the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. We will work out everything else when we get there. The odd thing is that there are so many of us. The unilateralist movement is unique in the history of political dissent outside the class-struggle: it is a utopian movement with mass support.

One of the most interesting results is that attention has been drawn away from the movement’s actual proposals towards its methods. Its history will be told—if there is time to tell it—not in terms of the shift from Little Englander isolationism to positive neutralism or of the particular disarmament plans that have been put forward, but in terms of the deepening conflict between persuasion and resistance, between the techniques of orthodox demonstration and agitation and of unorthodox direct action and civil disobedience. This history is indeed already being laid down in an acceptable fossilised form, as vague memories harden into convenient myths. Ask anyone when the unilateralist movement began, and who began it. Ask for the dates of the first examples of civil disobedience and direct action against the Bomb, of the first Aldermaston demonstration and the first London sit-down. In almost every case the reply will be connected to some big name or other, to the adherence of a reputable person or body to an otherwise disreputable movement. For although unilateralism is a utopian cause, there is a sort of conspiracy to avoid admitting this openly, to pretend it is in some way practicable within the present environment and is therefore ‘respectable’—and in particular to suck it into the official Labour Movement, pouring it into the mould of traditional ‘Labourism’, or (more plausibly) to suck it into the unofficial Labour Movement, pouring it this time into the mould of the traditional class-struggle. The tendency is always to assimilate it or to explain it in conventional terms.

But the fact is that the unilateralist movement is essentially pacifist and anarchist, and was begun by people normally regarded as cranks. This isn’t just a tit-bit of useless information—it is a point of fundamental significance. The full flower of British unilateralism has only been visible for four or five years; its roots, which go back half a century, lie in the underground world of personal and political extremism. It will be known by its fruits, but it can only be understood by its roots. After Catholic Emancipation 130 years ago, Lord Melbourne is said to have remarked: ‘What all the wise men promised has not happened, and what all the damned fools said would happen has come to pass.’

It would be hard to think of a better comment on the story of unilateralism in this country.

Take the genealogy of the Committee of 100, for example. Its dominant parent—which it absorbed last July—was the Direct Action Committee against Nuclear War, which derived from the Non-Violent Resistance Group, which was formed under the name ‘Operation Gandhi’ by some members of the Non-Violent Commission of the Peace Pledge Union, which soon after its formation absorbed the No More War Movement, which derived from the No Conscription Fellowship, which was the organisation of extremist conscientious objectors during the First World War. Even the almost painfully respectable Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which was the other parent of the Committee of 100, derives from the National Council for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapon Tests, which was formed by some pacifists in the offices of the National Peace Council. Or take the activities of the Committee of 100. During 1961 it was responsible for six major sit-downs in the Metropolitan Police District, each involving between 500 and 5,000 people. Then was the first London sit-down the one led by Bertrand Russell and Michael Scott on 18 February 1961? No, you may say if you know a thing or two, it was the one that followed the launching meeting of CND on 17 February 1958; and you may add that this was the beginning of the real unilateralist movement. But you will be wrong. The first London sit-down was more than ten years ago, on 11 January 1952, when 11 pacifists in Operation Gandhi sat down outside the War Office and were fined 30s. apiece; the unilateralist movement had been going for years when CND stepped in to take it over, and it was always a crank movement.