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Remembering Greenham Common

Kate Hudson, General Secretary of CND, recalls her first trip to Greenham Common.

New Statesman
Dexter Dalwood's "Greenham Common", shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2010. Photo: Getty.

Twenty five years ago this week, on 12th December 1982, I got up very early, and went by coach with other bleary-eyed women, from Islington to Greenham Common. Our intention was to surround the nine mile perimeter fence of the US air force base, where 96 US cruise missiles were to be delivered a year later.

Thirty thousand of us made it there that morning, and we did link arms and embrace the base. I remember it as a chaotic day, much of it seemed spent in darkness, not knowing where I was, or what I was supposed to be doing. Above all I remember that enormous fence, decorated with all manner of things – often symbols of life, children’s toys and pictures.

But we all knew why we were there. The US was planning to put a new generation of missiles in Europe. These would be a massive escalation of the arms race, because they would greatly reduce the time it took to hit Soviet cities such as Moscow from bases in western Europe, without also putting state-of-the-art missiles closer to the population centres of the US.

The siting of Soviet SS-20s was used as a justification for introducing the new missiles, but the SS-20s did not have the capacity to strike the US. This raised the spectre of a "limited nuclear war" in Europe, with western and eastern Europe, and the European parts of the Soviet Union in the battleground. US territory would not be involved. This produced a reaction of extreme alarm, not only from the inhabitants of the countries where the war was likely to take place, but also where the missiles were to be deployed. They would be obvious targets.

Outrage at these plans led to the largest mass protests since the second world war, anti-missiles groups grew up all over the country, and CND, which grew exponentially, organised massive demonstrations.

Other forms of protest developed too. In August 1981, a group of 36 women, called Women for Life on Earth, together with a few men, walked from Cardiff to the base at Greenham Common. When they arrived, they demanded a discussion about nuclear weapons with the government. But it wasn’t forthcoming, so they decided to set up a peace camp at the base.

In 1982, the camp became women only, with a strong feminist emphasis. In the following months and years, thousands of women settled at Greenham at various times, blocked the gates, pulled down parts of the fence, danced on the missile silos, and creatively expressed our opposition to the missiles.

That creativity often left the authorities nonplussed. In February 1983, the first major trial of the women took place at Newbury, and Sarah Benton reported it in the New Statesman at the time:

The magistrates had left the court to consider their decision. Inside, 44 women were on trial; at the back of the room sat a score of women supporters. As the magistrates walked out, 30 police officers unexpectedly filed in and, standing shoulder to shoulder, lined up in front of the supporters, preventing them from seeing the defendants and, presumably, from engaging in one of those wilful and anarchic gestures against authority which have been the women’s hallmark so far. Reacting in unspoken accord, defendants and supporters rose, stood on their chairs and, leaning over the police officers’ heads, held hands. Then they began to sing, and continued to sing after the magistrates had returned, banged their gavels and cried in exasperation "Ladies, please".

Such was the spirit of the Greenham women, which continues to inspire peace activists around the world. The missiles were finally removed in 1991, under the terms of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a major disarmament treaty signed in 1987, by Reagan and Gorbachev.

There can be little doubt that the extent of popular opposition to the new missiles helped shape their decision to take steps towards nuclear disarmament. As we remember those struggles and celebrate them, now is the time to make that popular opposition overwhelming once again.

10 December 2007.