Dr Christoph Laucht’s research explores the ways in which medical professionals organised to protest against nuclear war in Cold War Britain. We invited him to share some of his findings from the archives.
Britain experienced a revival of fears of nuclear war during the early 1980s in the face of rising tensions between the superpowers. These anxieties led to increased public awareness of the potentially devastating consequences of nuclear war. Yet, the Thatcher Government responded to this angst through the release of the ‘Protect and Survive‘ civil defence campaign. ‘Protect and Survive’ subsequently became the target of much criticism, especially from anti-nuclear-weapons activists, and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) launched its ‘Protest and Survive’ booklet.
British medical professionals who had become quite concerned about the medical effects of possible nuclear war responded in a less politicized manner: their chief organization, the Medical Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons (MCANW), adopted the slogan ‘Prevent and Survive’, applying approaches from preventive medicine to the nuclear arms race. For example, in their publication ‘The Medical Consequences of Nuclear War’ (1982), published jointly with the Medical Association for the Prevention of War (MAPW), they urged readers:
“If for none other than purely medical reasons, nuclear warfare must never be allowed to happen [orig. emphasis]; it is not an option that can be contemplated by any Government, however dire the circumstances.” (p. 37)
So far, historians have paid only little attention to the role that British medical and other professionals played in these protests. Instead, they have commonly focused on groups such as CND or the women’s peace camp outside the Greenham Common air base where American nuclear missiles were stationed. This lack of attention is somewhat surprising, given that the number of anti-nuclear-weapons groups of professionals delineated along occupational lines increased significantly during this period. MCANW thus offers an excellent window onto professional activism in Cold War Britain.
My research explores the work of MCANW and MAPW as a form of transnational professional activism, that is, the ways in which medical professionals in Britain in the Cold War, driven by professional ethos and etiquette as well as based on expertise, organized themselves into national interest groups to take action against the threat that nuclear war posed to human society. Through their affiliation with International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), these groups then acted within larger transnational networks of medical activists against nuclear weapons.
Alongside previous visits to the MAPW archive and the Kevin Craig papers at the University of Bradford, I recently conducted extensive research in the newly opened Medact archive, deposited in the Wellcome Library with the generous assistance of a Wellcome Trust Small Research Grant. Medact was formed in 1992 as the result of a merger between MCANW and MAPW.
The Medact archive contains a wealth of information on MCANW that is relevant to my project. This includes governance records, files on its links with IPPNW and MAPW as well as other national groups within this transnational network, publications, press and publicity materials, information on lobbying MPs and records of working groups on specific aspects of MCANW’s remit such as civil defence. In addition, the archive holds crucially important documents pertaining to key MCANW campaigns such as ‘Treatment, Not Trident’ and ‘Beds, Not Bombs’, and even images of a computer game that the group used to promote their cause.
My current research has greatly benefited from the materials found in the Medact archive, allowing me to complete the data collection for my work on transnational medical activism against nuclear weapons in Britain. These documents shed light on the crucial, yet often not adequately recognized, roles that medical professionals assumed in the anti-nuclear weapons movement of the 1980s.
At the same time, campaigns such as ‘Treatment, Not Trident’ or ‘Beds, Not Bombs’ with their call for increased funding for the NHS at the expense of defence expenditure serve as a reminder that we should not over privilege fears of nuclear war. For these medical professionals always showed great concern over the state of healthcare in Britain beyond the nuclear threat. And this is a topic of great importance in the 1980s as much as in 2015.
Author: Dr Christoph Laucht is a Lecturer in Modern History at Swansea University.