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Peace Pledge Union history in context

AMID CHEERS at the Armistice in 1918, ‘Never again! No more war!’ were slogans heard across the Europe in which millions had been killed - civilians from famine and disease as well as soldiers in the bloody battlefields and muddy trenches. The slogans were hardly surprising: it had, after all, been billed as the ‘War to End Wars’.

People with different experiences of the Great War began to work together: those who had struggled against the war - conscientious objectors to military service, derided as cowards, and civilian campaigners, often branded as traitors; and those who had fought but were now convinced that avoiding another war meant personal commitment rather than pious hope. Such people organised ‘No More War’ demonstrations in London and other European cities. ‘No More War’ movements were founded across Europe, banded together in the War Resisters International.

By the early 1930s, however, some of the original enthusiasm was waning, and with the coming to power of Mussolini in Italy (1922) and Hitler in Germany (1933), the belief that war, even if not the ideal solution to international problems, was probably inevitable began to take hold again. An international “disarmament” conference in 1932 ended with increasing rearmament by the major states. And just as in recent years nuclear weapons have been a major focus of public alarm, in the 1930s the bombing aeroplane, with its capability of mass slaughter of civilian children, women and men, was the newest tool of the terrible war machine.

This was the context in which the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) began - with a letter published in the Guardian and other newspapers on 16 October 1934. The letter was from Dick Sheppard, a popular priest of the Church of England. He was popular because he had been the first to broadcast religious services on the radio, and some years previously, when Vicar of St Martin-in-the Fields, Trafalgar Square, he had opened the building to the friendless and homeless of London.

Dick Sheppard had volunteered as an Army Chaplain in the First World War, but 20 years later he now wrote of the ‘lunacy of the manner in which nations are pursuing peace’. Representing ‘no Church and no peace organisation, but merely the mentality to which the average man has recently arrived’, he invited men to send him a postcard giving their undertaking to ‘renounce war and never again to support another’. The invitation to ‘men’ meant just that, because ‘up to now the peace movement has received its main support from women, but it seems high time now that men should throw their weight into the scales against war’.

Within two days 2500 men responded, and in a few months the number grew to over 30,000. In July 1935 Dick Sheppard chaired a meeting of 7000 pledge signatories in the Albert Hall, from which was launched ‘Dr HRL Sheppard’s Peace Movement’; the name was changed to the Peace Pledge Union in May 1936.

In the meantime women asked to join, which in July 1936 was agreed. Although Sheppard always argued from deep Christian conviction, he insisted that all were welcome who signed the pledge, whether from a religious or humanist standpoint. The following year, as membership rose to 100,000, there were agreements to merge with the No More War Movement, founded in 1921 as a successor to the war-time No-Conscription Fellowship, and to affiliate to the War Resisters’ International.

In October 1937 Dick Sheppard suddenly died, but the movement soon developed its own momentum with the help of a number of other notables whom Sheppard had gathered around him, such as the novelists Vera Brittain and Aldous Huxley, the ex-leader of the Labour Party George Lansbury, the ex-WW1 army officer and poet Siegfried Sassoon, and the Methodist minister Donald Soper.

The first international crisis with which the new PPU had to grapple was the Spanish civil war stemming from the military uprising of General Franco in July 1936. Although sympathy often lay with the struggle of the Republican government, it was argued that war could no more solve this problem than any other: war itself was the problem. This did not mean doing nothing: the constructive aspect of pacifism was shown in the sponsorship of a house opened between 1937 and 1939 to Basque refugee children. As Nazi persecution of Jews increased over the same period, the PPU also encouraged members to sponsor individual refugees from Germany and Austria.

Meanwhile the PPU campaigned against war preparations such as air raid precautions, the issue of gas masks and the re-introduction of military conscription in May 1939. There were also demonstrations on occasions like RAF displays and war propaganda films in cinemas.

A thousand PPU groups throughout the land busied themselves with this work. One particular focus was an alternative view of Remembrance, the commemoration each November of the dead of the First World War. In 1933 the Women’s Co-operative Guild had devised the White Poppy as ‘a pledge to peace that war must not happen again’, in contrast to the red poppy too often seen in the context of military parades and gun salutes. The PPU joined in the promotion of the White Poppy and the laying of White Poppy wreaths on war memorials, calling to mind the dead of future wars if war could not be stopped.

Despite all these efforts, war could not be stopped in September 1939. The number of PPU signatories continued to rise until the end of the ‘phoney war’ period in April 1940, when a distinction became apparent between those who were pacifists in principle and those who had signed the pledge in a moment of fervour.

Soon pacifists incurred official displeasure. Six PPU officers were prosecuted in 1940 for inciting disaffection among the armed forces when the PPU published the poster, ‘War will cease when men refuse to fight. What are YOU going to do about it?’ They were bound over ‘to keep the peace’! Other members were harassed by officialdom in a variety of ways, such as being arrested when speaking in the open air or selling the PPU newspaper Peace News in the streets. After a Ministry of Information circular attacking the ‘pernicious propaganda’ of the PPU, questions were asked in Parliament, leading to the Home Secretary ‘having a close watch kept’.

Early in the war there was a Women’s Peace Campaign, which, in drawing attention to what women could do in influencing people in favour of humanity rather than barbarism, so enraged the authorities that they banned one of its marches. The women marched on.

A number of conscientious objectors were imprisoned during the war, some because they objected to compulsory service of any kind within the warfare state, others because their applications for alternative service were arbitrarily rejected by tribunals set up to adjudicate on conscience. Some women were also imprisoned in this way. The 60,000 conscientious objectors of WW2 included a new generation of notables, such as the composers Michael Tippett, who went to prison, and Benjamin Britten. Offsetting such waste of human potential was the establishment by the PPU of the Pacifist Service Bureau to help objectors and others to find socially useful paid or voluntary work, on the land, and in hospitals and welfare agencies. Another organisation which the PPU helped to set up, and also provided accommodation for, was the Central Board for Conscientious Objectors, which co-ordinated all work for COs and lobbied Parliament and government on their behalf.

As hostilities heightened in total war, the PPU joined in a campaign against the intensive bombing of German cities - 60,000 killed in one night in Dresden was the most terrible raid. Vera Brittain was vocal on this topic, as she also was in the Food Relief Campaign, begun in 1942 to lift the blockade on food being imported to the starving peoples of occupied Europe. Under the slogan Save Europe Now, this campaign continued after the war as the facts were revealed of millions dying all over the continent from lack of food, fuel and shelter in the aftermath of not only the war itself but also the expulsion from their homelands of people in central and eastern Europe. These efforts were the direct forerunners of Oxfam and War on Want.

The Second World War ended with bombing unimagined in 1939. The atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 led the PPU that autumn to publish the first leaflet against nuclear war, and in 1950, as the Cold War superseded the peace for which the world had supposedly fought, the PPU organised in Trafalgar Square the first mass rally against nuclear weapons.

The PPU also demonstrated against the founding of NATO in 1949 and its counterpart the Warsaw Pact in 1955. The campaign against conscription necessarily continued until its abolition in 1960. During the Korean war in the early l950s and in the Suez crisis of 1956 assistance was given both to new conscripts and to army reservists who had become conscientious objectors.

In this period also the PPU began to study nonviolent resistance as an alternative to war for resolving conflict and oppression. From that study a small group calling themselves Operation Gandhi made the first civil disobedience demonstration against the atom bomb (a sit-down outside the War Office in January 1952) and the first demonstration at Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Research Establishment in April 1952. The group developed into the Direct Action Committee against Nuclear War, who blockaded several missile bases in the late 1950s. The PPU, however, continued its witness to the renunciation of war as such rather than to any particular example of it by certain weapons or in certain circumstances.

There have been continual wars and violence in one part or another of the world ever since 1945 - more than 250 conflicts in which over 25 million have died, most of them civilians, many children. The PPU has campaigned against violence and oppression on all sides. During the Cold War the PPU opposed Soviet intervention in Eastern Europe and Afghanistan equally with US intervention in Vietnam and Central America.

In both the Falklands and the Gulf Wars, the PPU argued that to reject war as a response to unprovoked aggression was by no means to support brutal regimes like the Argentinian junta or Saddam Hussein in Iraq; and it was pointed out that until the Argentinians invaded the Falklands, and the Iraqis invaded Kuwait, Britain and other countries had supplied them with arms whilst they murdered their own citizens. The PPU has campaigned in particular against wars in which the UK government has been involved, from Suez to the present-day wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria.

Trade in arms - profiting from organised slaughter - has long been a PPU concern, and with the Campaign Against Arms Trade, which PPU helped to found in 1974, the PPU opposes the financial and political support given by the UK government to the sale of arms around the world, which fuel conflicts and deaths worldwide while millions suffer and die for insufficient food, water and medicine.

That relates to another PPU concern - the taxes that force even pacifists to pay for wars they do not wish to fight. In the 1930s some went to prison for refusing to pay, and this issue was revived in the early 1980s when the PPU helped to found the Peace Tax Campaign (Conscience) with the idea that the war element of taxes should be diverted to socially useful purposes. Individuals have again gone to prison, and for eleven years the PPU itself refused to pay war taxes until a court ordered some money to be seized from its bank account and the debt was settled to protect further PPU assets.

The PPU obviously has had a special concern for Northern Ireland, the war on our doorstep. Throughout the conflict, the PPU campaigned against internment, torture, the diminution of civil rights and the use of British troops, while at the same time calling for the disbandment of all paramilitary groups. The PPU condemns all terrorist tactics. The PPU kept in touch with peace groups in Northern Ireland and helped to promote their work to a wider public. In 1975 several PPU members faced a ten-week trial for distributing leaflets telling soldiers disillusioned with Northern Ireland duties how they might leave. The charges were thrown out by the jury.

In recent years the PPU has developed three distinctive areas of work: the White Poppy project, Peace Education, and Conscientious Objection. All are underpinned by our work against militrism.

White poppies
The White Poppy project developed in the early 1980s from the work of a local group, London Peace Action, as part of the PPU’s Campaign against Militarism. It drew on the PPU’s tradition of the promotion of white poppies in the 1930s, mentioned previously, and opposition from its early days to the militarisation of the official Remembrance ceremonies. White poppies have been promoted widely since then, with a growing distribution in the UK and overseas. For some years a silent walk from St. Martins to the Cenotaph in Whitehall took place after the official state ceremony on Remembrance Sunday, to lay a white poppy wreath. In 1986 an MP asked the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, at Prime Minister’s Question Time, her view on white poppies and she expressed her ‘deep distaste’. Naturally this increased the PPU’s sales and the media were instantly on the phone. Headlines, articles and cartoons appeared everywhere and radio and television interviews were eagerly offered. The Remembrance period continues to be an opportunity for public debate on the issue of war and peace. White poppies are a powerful symbol that stimulates discussion and enables the PPU to get across its opposition to war in a variety of outlets at home and abroad, from the media, to churches, schools and local remembrance ceremonies.

Peace education
As part of its campaign against militarism, the PPU has been concerned at the way in which children are caught up in war and violence, from being victims in real wars, being forced to be child soldiers, or recruited into the army under the age of adulthood, to playing with war toys and learning from a young age to believe that war is acceptable and inevitable.

From this concern has grown work in the promotion of peace education, for the last three decades. One of the first British peace groups to employ staff dedicated to the promotion of peace education, the PPU has developed and published a wide range of educational material for use in schools. A pioneer in the use of websites in the peace movement, the PPU has been able to reach out to a much wider audience with its material and its website is particularly comprehensive. A related charity, the Peace Research and Education Trust (PRET), was set up by PPU members to support this educational work.

Conscientious objection
In 1994 the PPU provided the focus for a permanent commemoration of men and women conscientious objectors all over the world and in every age. In Tavistock Square, London, near the former PPU offices in Dick Sheppard House, a rough-hewn rock represents quiet resistance amid the maelstrom of war. The inscription reminds us that the value of history is to learn for the future: ‘Their foresight and courage give us hope’. This memorial recognises the value of the stand the conscientious objectors made and are still making. The growing interest in family history has led to many people wanting to learn from the PPU about family members who were COs. The PPU has developed educational resources and launched a Conscientious Objection Resource Centre at its offices, jointly with the Peace Research and Education Trust. Interest in Conscientious Objectors is growing and the PPU uses their experience to inform and educate about the issues of war and peace today. Our Remembering the Men Who Said No website pays tribute to the men and women who resisted war in the dark days at the beginning of the last century.

The PPU’s pledge has been slightly updated but its basis remains the personal renunciation of war by individuals and their commitment to work together to bring war and violence to an end. The PPU’s work has grown and changed to meet new circumstances over 75 years of its history, and depends as always on the individual commitment of thousands of people to choose peace not war.


1937. PPU coach takes its campaign natiiowide.

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