The San Francisco to Moscow Walk for Peace (as it was first known) was an initiative of the Committee for Non Violent Action. The CNVA was an American direct action group based in New York whose leaders included AJ Muste and Bayard Rustin. The walk began on 1 December 1960 and its principal aim was to publicise the case for unilateral nuclear disarmament. The core team of American marchers was accompanied by two photographers and included CNVA secretary Bradford Lyttle. After walking 4000 miles across America, the team flew to London and were welcomed by a rally in Trafalgar Square on 4 June 1961.
April Carter, formerly secretary of the Direct Action Committee, acted as organiser of the march during its European phase. An office was set up at 87 Chancery Lane, London. Her work began several months before the team arrived in Europe and involved liaising with peace, nuclear disarmament and direct action groups in Europe in an effort to gather support for the march and recruit additional European members of the team. She was assisted by CNVA and civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who was based in London in the period leading up to the team’s arrival in England, and also by Helga Stolle in Hamburg and Inge Oskarsson in Stockholm. Oskarsson and fellow activist Jill Brealt had begun to plan a European March for Disarmament around the same time and it made sense to merge this with the San Francisco to Moscow Walk for Peace. This was then re-named the American-European March.
After marching through southern England via the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston, the team sailed from Southampton. They were refused permission to enter France, which was under a state of emergency following an attempted military coup in Algeria. They were turned back twice at Le Havre after engaging in direct action.
The march was then re-routed through Belgium. The main team was joined at Mouscron on the Belgian border on 2 July by additional marchers from France, and near Osnabruck on 29 July by a subsidiary march from Holland. During their progress through West Germany, some members were arrested for defying a ban on protests at military bases.
Negotiating the journey between a divided Germany and into Eastern Europe was difficult and involved working with the state-sponsored Peace Councils. The East German authorities allowed the march to pass into its territory on 7 August. The march was under constant surveillance by police, Peace Council officials and a group of ‘supporters’ (who were probably Stasi agents). These ‘supporters’ distributed their own leaflets and carried their own banners which hijacked the message of the march. The authorities also ensured that the march was routed away from large centres of population and military establishments. The team were unable to reach Berlin as planned. In mid August, in a rapidly deteriorating political climate caused by the construction of the Berlin Wall, the marchers were deported back to Helmstedt, near the border in West Germany.
In contrast the march was better received in Poland, which the team reached on 22 August at Frankfurt-an-der-Oder, and in the Soviet Union, which they reached on 15 September at Brest. Hospitality and public meetings were arranged by the Peace Councils. The marchers were allowed to hold a silent vigil outside the Ministry of Defence Building in Warsaw, and to distribute their leaflets freely. Spontaneous street meetings took place in both countries and the marchers experienced less surveillance in Poland than in any other country. After arriving in Moscow on 3 October, a silent picket was held in Red Square outside the Lenin-Stalin mausoleum. The team obtained an audience with the Secretary of the Praesidium of the Supreme Soviet, Mikhail Geogardsy, as well as with Nina Kruschchev. In defiance of the authorities, they also addressed a meeting of students at Moscow University. The marchers left the Soviet Union on 8 October.