This week, two little pamphlets which tell the story of a unique newspaper: Peace News. The history of Peace News is that of the peace movement in Britain. Written, edited and read by activists, it reflected and shaped campaigns and debates.
The Peace News Story was written by Harry Mister. This particular issue dates from around 1951 or 1952, just after Allen Skinner became editor. It begins with a potted and very positive account of the early years of the paper.
The paper’s first editor, Humphrey S. Moore, a young Quaker journalist, believed that existing peace publications did not reach out to ordinary people. A popular newspaper-style weekly could explain and promote pacifism more effectively. On 6 June 1936, with the support of the Wood Green Study Group (who became the Peace News Group), the first issue was published.
The Peace Pledge Union quickly saw the potential of this new publication to share pacifist ideas. The PPU was born in 1934 from the mass response to a letter by clergyman Dick Sheppard. In this famous letter, Sheppard renounced war and called on others who felt the same to join him. The Union had recently taken a more organised form. Peace News became the official newspaper of the PPU.
From the first print run of 1,500 copies, the paper grew quickly as it tapped into concern about the threat of war. Peak circulation of 35-40,000 was reached during the late 1930s.
The Second World War saw circulation drop considerably, for several reasons, including the varying responses of pacifists to the war and the refusal of printers and newsagents to handle the paper. Peace News survived (and actually made a profit) thanks to dedicated street sellers and other volunteers. Given these difficulties and restrictions on the use of newsprint, the paper concentrated on supporting conscientious objectors rather than reporting on general peace issues.
A similar yet intriguingly different version of the pamphlet appeared in 1962. Much of the history section in the 1952 version came from a PPU source. The version in the 1962 pamphlet was based on another Peace News Story by Margaret Tims* and has a different, more candid tone.
Tims shows how from the explosion of the first atomic bombs in 1945, Peace News helped to create “a new movement against nuclear war based on the idea of unarmed resistance to tyranny”.
From about 1948 we see (and the newspaper reports on) pacifists studying Gandhian ideas of nonviolent resistance and considering how these might be used to campaign against the Bomb. Hugh Brock, who became editor of Peace News in 1955, played a key role in these groups. Although very small, these organisations were exploring ideas and methods which came into their own from 1957, when (as we have seen) the testing of Britain’s H-Bomb led to mass protest and the founding of CND. There was great overlap between Peace News people and the Direct Action Committee (who organised the first major Aldermaston march in 1958).
Alongside campaigning against nuclear weapons and exposing the dangers of nuclear tests, Peace News encouraged struggles for colonial freedom and campaigned against apartheid in South Africa. Gene Sharp, the American campaigner, joined the staff in 1955 and began to cover the black civil rights movement. Increasingly the paper, like the peace movement of which it was part, sought to address the causes of conflict by calling for changes in society.
These developments worried some absolutist pacifists such as the PPU’s Sybil Morrison. She complained in I Renounce War (1962) of the paper’s “all-out support and advocacy of the CND” and that Peace News “appeared to be the organ of the Movement for Colonial Freedom”. The paper became independent of the PPU in 1961.
However, this split, like those amongst CND’s leaders, was perhaps less relevant to activists. There were not really two sides: traditionalist PPU versus the new campaigns. Individuals involved in the latter were active in the PPU too; indeed the first studies of Gandhi’s ideas in Britain were PPU initiatives.
This continuity at the grassroots can be seen in the “practical guide for propagandists” in the pamphlets. The text changes little between the two editions, offering advice to activists on getting Peace News read: ask your local librarian to take it, advertise at the railway station, write to the press, leave old copies where they will be seen … The main differences between 1951 and 1962 are technological (in 1962 you can get colourful green and yellow posters and a Peace News sticker for your car).
*A small mystery: I have never encountered a copy of this work or seen it on a library catalogue.
Sources and credits. Quotations are from the pamphlets, unless otherwise noted.
Peace News created a huge published and archival presence which can be seen in Special Collections and Commonweal Library. Two key books from 1986, the paper’s anniversary year: the short history Against All War and the more reflective discussions in Articles of Peace. In Special Collections, most of our peace archives, but in particular Peace News Archive, the papers of Hugh Brock, our pamphlet and ephemera collections and the artworks of Peggy Smith who sold the newspaper on the street for most of her life. Commonweal has a complete run of Peace News.
Recent editions of Peace News are freely available online on the paper’s website and a welcome initiative to digitise historic issues is under way.
And finally, thank you to our PaxCat Project archivist, Helen Roberts, who catalogued the Peace News and Hugh Brock archives and to my colleague Martin Levy who has been cataloguing the pamphlet collection.