The most influential article in the history of the New Statesman was written by J B Priestley and published on 2 November 1957. Goaded by Aneurin Bevan’s crushing of unilateralism at the recent Labour party conference (“And you call that statesmanship? I call it an emotional spasm”) and using the father-of-the-nation style that had served him so well in his 1940 Postscripts for the BBC Home Service, Priestley ended:
The British of these times, so frequently hiding their decent, kind faces behind masks of sullen apathy or sour, cheap cynicism, often seem to be waiting for something . . . great and noble . . . that would make them feel good again. And this might well be a declaration to the world that after a certain date one power able to engage in nuclear warfare will reject the evil thing for ever.
After this, the birth of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was just a matter of time.
Later that month, a meeting of opinion-shapers was held at the flat of the NS editor, Kingsley Martin. Bertrand Russell was there. So, too, were Priestley and his wife, Jacquetta Hawkes; the former US ambassador to the Soviet Union George Kennan, whose concurrent Reith Lecture series, “Russia, the Atom and the West”, had begun to stoke anxiety about nuclear warfare; and the Labour MP Denis Healey, a specialist in defence. The young NS leader writer Paul Johnson watched it get off to a bad start:
Someone spoke advocating a unilateralist line and Healey replied, “Yes, yes, that’s all very well, but what we’ve got to do
is to be responsible about this.” Priestley exploded: “Responsible. Responsible! How many times have I heard that dreadful word!? It has led to two world wars and the prospect of a third.” I noticed that Bertie Russell was cackling . . . because if anybody knew how to be irresponsible then he did! I knew then that this was going to be a lot of trouble.
Over the next few months the NS became a forum in which global leaders protested their commitment to world peace. Russell began the exchange on 23 November by publishing his “Open letter to Eisenhower and Khrushchev”. It came down to the exhortation “to agree to disagree” (this being the mantra first coined in the NS by Richard Crossman): “It is not necessary that either side should abandon belief in its own creed. It is only necessary that it should abandon the attempt to spread its own creed by force of arms.”
Nikita Khrushchev replied to Russell’s article a month later, in an article written in Russian and accompanied by a personal letter to the editor. When the package arrived from the Soviet embassy, Kingsley Martin suspected it was a hoax. The Soviet leader endorsed Russell’s hopes for a sunlit future for mankind and condemned “the criminal policy of militarism”. With that scoop, sales of the Statesman went up by 2,000 to well over 70,000, an all-time high.
The uplifting tone was distorted by the eventual reply of the implicit villain of the piece, John Foster Dulles, the US secretary of state, whose public aphorisms of cold war principles were adding to the state of anxiety – “neutrality is an immoral and short-sighted concept”, “brinkmanship is the ability to get to the verge without getting into the war”, and so on. Dulles pointed out in the NS of 8 February 1958 that the Soviet Union had never renounced the use of force to resolve international tensions, as its invasion of Hungary in 1956 had proved.hese “open letters” read somewhat platitudinously today, but at a time when the Gallup Poll was consistently finding that 65 per cent of adults were worried “a lot” and 25 per cent “a little” by “all this talk about H-bombs, rockets, satellites and guided missiles”, they must have had the effect of a good sermon without God in it.
It was left to Spike Milligan, appropriately, to poke fun at the Dr Strangelove concept of mutually assured destruction (Mad). He was one of hundreds who joined in the New Statesman debate:
Let me be the first to say it. Mr Khrushchev’s letter in reply to Bertrand Russell is all a fiendish plot. [It] is a deliberate attempt to rob us of the promised American rocket bases on our soil. We must arm, arm, arm, arm, arm. For the Russians must be taught that the only way to end war is to have it.
Kingsley Martin’s own attitude to nuclear weapons was surprisingly equivocal. Then again, he was notoriously indecisive. Indeed, when he finally left the editorship in December 1960, the historian A J P Taylor sent a message: “The end of an era! It is most distressing to think that the New Statesman may now follow a consistent line two weeks running.”
Martin’s dilemma was that although he was a pacifist at heart he did not want to put the NS in the hands of a pressure group; he was an enthusiastic member of the national executive of CND but a lukewarm supporter in the office of the NS. This infuriated Priestley. “He is always dodging in and out on this,” he said of Martin.
But according to Johnson, Martin’s hands were tied anyway: “Barbara [Castle], John Freeman [who succeeded Martin as editor] and I would not let him take what we considered a pacifist line. He referred to us as the ‘Red-Headed League’ [all three had red hair] and thought we were ganging up on him.”
In October 1962 the world came as close as it ever has done to nuclear war. The NS was once again an important forum for national debate; again it was showing its own confused thinking. And behind the scenes there was an emotional rift, which has not been exposed before. The occasion, of course, was the Cuban missile crisis.
US spy planes obtained photographs of Soviet nuclear missiles recently moved to Cuba in retaliation for similar missiles the Americans had placed in Turkey and Italy. The US considered attacking Cuba by sea and air but decided instead to blockade the island, imposing a military and legal “quarantine” to prevent the delivery of more offensive weapons and strengthen its demand for the removal of those already in place.
As the NS went to press on 25 October these facts were not clear and the Soviet response was unknown. It was a fearful time. The previous day, Premier Khrushchev had written a public letter to President John F Kennedy, accusing him of “an act of aggression propelling humankind into the abyss of a world nuclear-missile war”. Soviet ships attempted to run the blockade and two days later a Soviet missile crew shot down a US U-2 spy plane.
That week John Freeman was in Paris and the NS leading article was written by Paul Johnson. Contrary to readers’ expectations, particularly to those who remembered his anti-American leaders of the late 1950s, Johnson positioned the NS dogmatically behind the United States:
. . . the Russians stand accused of an act of provocation unprecedented since the onset of the Cold War [carried out] in haste, in secrecy and behind a curtain of falsehood . . . In the event, Kennedy chose what seemed to him the least of three
evils [the other two being diplomacy and invasion] . . . The initial Russian response suggests that Khrushchev will not allow the operation of the quarantine to degenerate into conflict . . . [and will accept] humiliation over Cuba . . .
His prediction proved correct. On 28 October the Russians withdrew from Cuba, taking their missiles with them, and subjected to UN verification. The NS leader had been courageous. Even the Daily Telegraph had hedged its bets by calling for the US to act through the United Nations.
At the NS office on Great Turnstile Street in London, however, there was dismay. Anti-American feelings over nuclear escalation could not be eradicated that easily. That early nickname of the New Statesman, “the Staggers and Naggers”, was proving all too accurate, in the sense of staggering from one view to another.
Norman MacKenzie, the assistant editor, had left the NS the previous week after nearly 20 years on the staff to return to academia. Now he wrote a long and anguished letter to Freeman blaming Johnson’s leaders for taking away “the conscience of the paper”:
Paul cannot bear those aspects of English radicalism for which the paper has traditionally stood – scepticism, uncertainty, the small battalions, even emotional responses if you like. The paper’s job is not to be bedevilled by taking sides, but to have the courage to stand alone, to rise above the sterilities of Cold War polemics and to offer a view that may not be “practicable” but is desirable as an alternative to cynicism and stupidity.
The significance of the Cuban missile crisis for CND was that it led to a decline from serious influence for the anti-nuclear movement. In May 1963 the Gallup Poll asked for the eighth time in six years, “Does all this talk about H-bombs, rockets, satellites and guided missiles worry you a lot, a little or not at all?” The answers showed that, for the first time, anxiety had fallen back below the level of May 1957: 12 per cent “a lot” and 31 per cent “a little”. Senior members of CND admitted that they had read the Cuban crisis wrongly, underestimating American restraint as well as the Russian rashness and subsequent willingness to accept a humiliating reverse.
As for the NS, its coverage of the nuclear bomb issue over these years showed that it was seminal enough to give birth to a leading disarmament pressure group, powerful enough to be a forum for debate by world leaders and human enough to wear its left-wing conscience on its sleeve.