The "Peace Parsons" and Campaigns of the 1950s
Menzies thundered about ‘pink parsons’ and ‘communist dupes’ and warned them ‘to abandon their treasonable opinions while there was still time’. ‘These were the days’, Victor James reflected some years later, ‘of the beginning of the ”Cold War,” the days when America believed that she, and only she, possessed the atom bomb and could therefore hold it as a threat to other nations of the world. These were the days of the Korean War, of the Peking Peace Conference, of the banning of passports, the banning of halls, days when those who spoke for peace were regarded, and accused, as traitors of their country’.
The peace parsons, Dickie as president, Hartley and James as joint secretaries, were at the centre of APC campaigning. Contrary to accusations of ‘communist dupes’ the three ministers needed no tutelage about the nature of war or the social and economic injustices of the capitalist system.
Dickie saw in the creation of the bomb and other weapons of mass destruction how science had given ‘the power to shake the foundations of the earth’. Continuing to use this power ‘would bring doom on God’s creation.’ People could choose not to go down this path and Dickie felt the need to organise ordinary people to oppose governments having this power of mass destruction. In the end his calm persistence and integrity in pursuit of his mission for peace won him the respect of fellow Christians. He was elected to act as Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, 1965-6.
As in war, so in peace, Hartley was a person of action. Unlike Dickie who pondered over each problem, Hartley took everything at a gallop. Though he believed ‘peace movements should deal with moral principles, not [be] party political’, he was adamant that they ‘must carry out action for peace which is political’. Hartley firmly believed that only by working with ordinary people could the peace movement achieve its goals of nuclear disarmament and universal peace with justice for all people. After first questioning his work for peace, his church demonstrated its trust in him by appointing him Superintendent of the Prahran Methodist Mission. Under his guidance the mission came to have a central place in the social life of the city.
James, like Hartley, had seen war service. He served as an officer in the Royal Air Force. Deeply impressed on his memory was hearing the news of the dropping of the atomic bomb. Like the pacifists, James thought the overwhelming tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki could lead us to embrace higher ideals. If we could overcome our immediate selfish aims, we might ‘mark the beginning of that assent which will ultimately, perhaps in our time, lead us to an era in which the fruits of the earth will be gathered in abundance everywhere by men in peace’. In the years that the three ‘swam against the cold war current’ James performed as the ‘cool, sophisticated and wily politician who examined the likely consequences before he made up his mind’. He did not hide that ‘in politics I am a socialist...I would like to be convinced capitalist society is disintegrating’. For listeners to his regular Sunday broadcast for the Unitarian Church over 3XY, he was one of the few independent voices coming over the airwaves to be heard during the height of the Cold War.
The fledgling APC took its chance and booked the Melbourne Exhibition Building for an Australian Peace Congress. ‘This was in April 1950...It was a total venture in faith and its fulfilment was exhilarating in the extreme’. Reverend Hewlett Johnson, the Dean of Canterbury, was one of the guest speakers. The ‘Red’ Dean had published The Socialist Sixth of the World, in 1939, in praise of socialist society in the Soviet Union and faced hostile questioning by the media. In those days the building had seating over its tremendous length as well as its balconies and it was filled to capacity for the opening meeting.
During the Australian Peace Congress, the Dean of Canterbury launched the Stockholm Appeal, which called for the total banning of the atomic weapon and international control to ensure the implementation of the ban and for any country using the bomb to be dealt with as a war criminal. Applied retrospectively this would mean that those responsible for the decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima should be tried as war criminals. The appeal was finally signed by 200,000 Australians and 500 million people worldwide.
Through the fifties peace congresses were held every three years. After the Stockholm Appeal two other WPC peace appeals were canvassed across the country by the APC. One was for a Five-Power Peace Pact. The other was the Appeal Against Preparations for Atomic War, launched in Vienna in 1955, which demanded ‘the destruction of all stocks of atomic weapons wherever they may be and the immediate stopping of their manufacture’. On Hiroshima Day, it was announced that 656 million signatures had been collected, including 276,000 in Australia.
The success of the ban-the-bomb petitions and surveys in those difficult times must go to the credit of those peace workers who were prepared to ‘knock on any door’, distribute leaflets and demonstrate in the streets with their placards or, when these were banned, wearing aprons carrying their slogans. Barbara Curthoys recalls how, among this coterie of peace workers, there were members of the Union of Australian Women in each state, who took petitions and surveys ‘to neighbours, to their friends and to women in their homes’.
Oppositional community groups only ever have limited resources to canvass workplaces and households and to maintain a presence at tables set up in shopping centres. This was at a time when Australians were being harangued by Menzies to give unquestioning support to the United States, if necessary all the way to a nuclear Armageddon. Any association with the APC could lead to victimisation.
A meeting of the leaders of the US and Soviet Union in the mid-fifties led to a lull in the cold war. An Atoms for Peace Conference called by the UN was attended by representatives of the East and West blocs. In Australia, the splitting off of the far right faction from the ALP led to a renewal of relations with the peace movement. In 1956, Evatt sent a message of goodwill to the World Peace Congress held in Stockholm.
Scientists from East and West met in 1957, to discuss nuclear disarmament. They had been inspired by the Einstein-Russell Manifesto, issued in 1955. The manifesto began: ‘In the tragic situation which confronts humanity, we feel scientists should assemble in conference to appraise the perils that have arisen’. The first meeting was held Pugwash, Nova Scotia. ‘Pugwash’ meetings became an annual event. Professor Mark Oliphant represented Australia at the second meeting. Branches were formed in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.
The APC metamorphosed in the late 1950s - a process not infrequent in community movements. There had some rapprochement among peace groups opening the way for launching a broader movement’ not connected directly to the APC, nor to other existing peace bodies.
In 1959 a Congress for International Cooperation and Disarmament was held in Melbourne. Dorothy Gibson records in her diary how the congress ‘brought in new streams of support from trade unions, the Labour Party, intellectual and church circles. Professor Linus Pauling and his wife Ava, expressing a great release of the human spirit after the defeat of McCarthyism, brought a fresh wind of inspiration to our country, similar to that brought by the Dean [of Canterbury] nine years earlier’.
The Peace Congress called for the ending of nuclear weapons tests, the banning of all nuclear weapons and total disarmament of all countries. It was a declaration with something to please everyone present, from those leaning towards the policies of Soviet Russia to the adherents of absolute pacifism. It avoided what one peace activist recorded in a memo to colleagues as the ‘unnecessary discord at the last session of the Peace Assembly in Sydney, in 1956’. Then pacifists had insisted on including in the final declaration of the assembly an objection ‘to the employment of armed forces in any circumstance’. Relations with pacifists ‘can cause some difficulty, as when the SU [Soviet Union] [was] compelled to carry on atomic tests because the other powers would not agree to stop them. But we should be generally able to agree with pacifists in present world circumstances’.
The partial thawing of Cold War politics meant that the 1959 Congress was given a wider public airing than any previous congress. Still Prime Minister Menzies criticised those ‘eminently respectable people’ who had allowed their names to be associated with promoting the Congress. Victor James in one of his regular Sunday afternoon broadcasts commented on how ‘even the word ‘peace’ has now become more respectable and abandoned its inverted commas’. He observed that peace activists ,who had called to ban the bomb, had circulated the Stockholm Appeal and sent delegates to overseas peace conferences ‘can now see those who refused to have anything to do with us and our policies, repeating them word for word as their own policies and opinions’.