Dont You Hear the H-Bombs thunder: World War Three in 1956
The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis is often thought of as the time after 1945 when the world came nearest to nuclear war. The nature of the crisis suggests that it was not a one-off event. Essentially it revolved around America being unhappy that another nuclear power it didn’t like, in this case Russia, had placed some nuclear weapons in a location which it also didn’t like The situation has been replayed since with North Korea and Iran and while few will have much time for either the idea that its only someone else other than America who might start a nuclear war seems doubtful perhaps particularly in the age of Trump and Clinton.
In reality however it was not in the early 1960s that the first fear of imminent nuclear war and annilihation by H-Bombs was an issue but 60 years ago again in the late October to mid-November period.
The historical details of the twin crisis of Hungary and Suez are well known enough. Russian troops invaded Hungary as it attempted to move to a different model of socialism to that then in power in Moscow. Meanwhile in Suez an alliance of France, Israel and Britain seized control of the key Suez canal on the pretext that Egyptian leader Nasser would restrict access and disrupt the oil trade.
Protests in the UK focused on Suez as Britain was directly involved. Right-wing Labour leader Gaitskell came out against the adventure on the basis of ‘law not war’ but what is less well known is that there were some workplace walk-outs to underline opposition as well.
It was then, a time of political and industrial turmoil perhaps rather different to the idea of the 1950s as primarily a stable and peaceful period.
The impact of this on left-wing activists is interesting and can be tracked in part in Tony Benn’s Diary for late October and early November 1956.
Benn noted on 31st October 1956 that he had pressed the Movement for Colonial Freedom to call a Sunday afternoon rally in Trafalgar Square which became a Labour Party event. He reports that the ‘Manchester Guardian provides the intellectual leadership in the country’ (against intervention in Suez).
On Sunday 4th November Benn records ‘Russia is crushing Hungary’ and meets Gaitskell, the Labour leader at his house to agree a speech he was to make on TV that night.
By Tuesday 6th November Benn writes ‘This morning’s news of a Russian near-ultimatum has made the situation far more grave and we could be within a few hours of a third world war complete with the hydrogen bomb. Very, very, very depressed as a result’.
What Benn probably did not know fully at the time was that the threat of Russian intervention in Suez had caused President Eisenhower to put US forces on nuclear alert.
Almost at that very moment there was a ceasefire as US opposition to the Allied action eventually had its impact.
There followed a massive political crisis in the Tory Party and the departure of Eden as Prime Minister.
The fear though of nuclear war 60 years ago had, briefly, been a very real one.