The Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War (DAC) has its origins in the opposition to the first British hydrogen bomb test at Christmas Island in November 1957. Whilst Labour’s H-Bomb Campaign Committee and the National Council for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons Tests favoured public meetings, petitions and education work, those in favour of direct action against the test set up an emergency committee to organise and finance a voyage to the test zone by pacifist Harold Steele.
The Emergency Committee for Direct Action Against Nuclear War was launched with a letter in the Manchester Guardian on 12 April 1957. The Peace News offices were used as a base for the committee, which originally comprised Hugh Brock (editor of Peace News from 1955), J Allen Skinner (former editor of Peace News) and Arlo Tatum (War Resisters’ International). Although it did not prove possible for Harold Steele to reach the test zone, the attempt gained sympathy and support for the cause and drew together a group of activists who went on to form the DAC.
The same group formed the Aldermaston March Committee on 23 November 1957 to organise the first mass march to Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Easter 1958. Hugh Brock, Michael Randle and Pat Arrowsmith were joined on the March Committee by Labour representatives Frank Allaun MP and Walter Wolfgang. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament emerged during the same period, following JB Priestley’s article in the New Statesman on 2 November, ‘Britain and the nuclear bomb’. CND supported and co-operated with the plans for the March, as did the Universities and Left Review group and the H-Bomb Campaign Committee.
Relations between CND and the Direct Action Committee were fluid until after the March, when the DAC decided to continue its work as an independent organisation. Its aim (from the policy statement adopted on 10 April 1958) was ‘to assist the conducting of non-violent direct action to obtain the total renunciation of nuclear war and its weapons by Britain and all other countries as a first step in disarmament’. Michael Randle became chair, with April Carter as secretary and Pat Arrowsmith as field secretary. Other members of the committee included Hugh Brock, Michael Scott and Will Warren.
Direct actions were carried out with two main aims: to demonstrate at personal cost opposition to nuclear weapons and to focus public attention on the issues involved. Methods included marches and vigils, pickets and trade union campaigns, action on votes and taxes, and civil disobedience. The Committee was prepared for its members to be arrested and imprisoned and set up ad hoc committees to continue the work while key members were jailed.
The Aldermaston March was a success for the Committee, with between 5000 and 10,000 marchers and widespread publicity. In subsequent years, the organisation of the March was undertaken by CND and the route reversed to begin at Aldermaston and end in London. The DAC followed up the March with a 9-week picket at Aldermaston during the summer of 1958, culminating in a sit-down protest on 22 September.
In late 1958, the DAC began a prolonged campaign against the construction of Thor rocket bases in Britain, targeting sites in Norfolk, Suffolk, Rutland, Northamptonshire, Lincolnshire and Leicestershire. The most significant of these protests were at North Pickenham, near Swaffham, on 6 and 20 December 1958, and at Harrington, near Rothwell, on 2 January 1960. Both involved field work in the local area to build up support in advance of direct action at the bases. Following the action at North Pickenham, the death of the sitting MP in the South West Norfolk constituency gave the DAC the opportunity to launch a ‘voters’ veto’ campaign during the subsequent by-election. Under the banner ‘No votes for the H-bomb’, this was marked by a rejection of the CND strategy of influencing Labour Party policy.
In 1960 there were two successful examples of actions undertaken on the initiative of local activists, rather than the national committee. Operation Finningley, which targeted the RAF V-bomber base, was organised jointly by the Northern Direct Action Committee and Doncaster CND. A vigil at the base was followed on 30 July by a march from Doncaster to Finningley where a demonstration was held. Operation Foulness was a considerably longer campaign led by Will Warren against the AWRE on Foulness Island, near Southend. The Operation Foulness Committee was organised along Quaker lines and held two civil disobedience demonstrations on 25 April and 2 May. Plans for a ‘rivercade’ to Foulness and attempted landing on the island were abandoned.
As well as direct action at military bases and research establishments, the DAC also undertook a campaign to influence those who worked in the nuclear weapons industry. This began in Stevenage in April 1959, in a town which manufactured Blue Streak and Thunderbird missiles. A token strike was held by members of the Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers and momentum gathered to organise a wide scale industrial campaign in summer 1960. This focussed on the production of Vulcan 2 H-bomber aircraft and the development of TSR-2 aircraft, at plants in Manchester, Surrey, Bristol and Slough. The DAC met its most positive response amongst the workers at Bristol Siddeley Engines, but failed to initiate further industrial action.
The Committee developed strong links internationally, as shown in its action against French nuclear testing in the Sahara in early 1960. This was led by an international protest team including Michael Randle, Michael Scott, Bayard Rustin and Bill Sutherland. The team were based in Ghana for several months and built up considerable support amongst the local population and the government of Kwame Nkrumah. The DAC also became involved in a project led by the New York based Committee for Non Violent Action. Originally known as the San Francisco to Moscow Peace Walk, this march arrived in Britain in June 1961. In collaboration with Bayard Rustin, April Carter acted as European Organiser for the march, a role she continued after the DAC disbanded.
The formation in October 1960 of the Committee of 100 was seen by many as taking over the role of the DAC, with its aim of creating a mass civil disobedience movement against nuclear weapons. The DAC continued as an active campaign group until well into 1961, with its last project a major march from London to Holy Loch, culminating in direct action at the Polaris submarine base. However the cost of organising the march contributed to the DAC’s financial difficulties and led to the decision to disband the Committee in June 1961. Many of its leading activists went on to join the Committee of 100.