What I miss most about being on the Left is getting something absolutely wrong and yet retaining the high moral ground. The resurfacing of the celebrated/notorious photograph of fashion designer-activist Katharine Hamnett posing with Margaret Thatcher brought it all back to me.
Last week several leftist media outlets were quick to post the 1984 shot of Hamnett sporting an over-sized T-shirt with “58% DON’T WANT PERSHING” emblazoned across the front. One correspondent, probably not born at the time, claims the Iron Lady “made a noise like a chicken” when she realised Hamnett was setting her up for the cameras. “Legend has it,” the trusty columnist continues, Thatcher immediately ordered a “bankrupting audit” of Hamnett’s business. If “legend has it”, how can it be otherwise?
What many forget – and Hamnett apparently never understood – is that the Soviet Union very nearly won the Cold War. Leonid Brezhnev’s decision in 1977 to deploy hundreds of SS-20s in East Germany and Czechoslovakia was a masterstroke that almost snatched victory out of the jaws of defeat for Moscow. The Soviet Union, during the Brezhnev era, is sometimes derided as “Bukino Faso with rockets”, and yet those rockets were a potential game changer.
Few doubted the Warsaw Pact’s advantage over NATO in the event of conventional-style hostilities. Only the threat of an American nuclear response emanating from the sovereign territory of the United States shielded West Germany from Soviet intimidation – in other words, Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). The failure of NATO to respond to Brezhnev’s deployment of SS-20s, mobile intermediate-range ballistic missiles, would have allowed Moscow a new kind of leverage, because Soviet SS-20 weaponry specifically targeted the Federal Republic of Germany. The elimination of intercontinental ballistic missiles from the equation meant that the West Germans, in the event of a Soviet attack, could no longer be certain of the White House’s response in a crisis. MAD would be subverted and with it the security of the Federal Republic of Germany.
In 1979, NATO command resolved to counteract Brezhnev’s ploy by commissioning Pershing II and cruise missiles for eventual deployment in Western Europe. This perfectly rational decision had the effect of resuscitating the formerly moribund Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) movement in the United Kingdom. In its earlier incarnation, between 1957 and 1965, the CND had been a largely tame affair. Every Easter thousands of demonstrators, waving their “Ban the Bomb” placards, would march the 80 kilometres between London and the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment in Aldmaston before returning to their homes. At the time, a breakaway wing of the movement, the Committee of 100, engaged in unlawful and unruly protests, and to some extent they set the tone for the resurgent CND movement in the 1980s. Katharine Hamnett’s one-woman undertaking to show up Prime Minister Thatcher was neither unlawful nor especially unruly, but certainly she employed a little more creativity than the Easter marchers.
One aspect of the CND that remained unchanged was its unilateralism: nuclear weapons were so abhorrent their use could not be justified, even as a deterrent. The Soviets, predictably, were eager to lend their support, both publicly and clandestinely, to a movement that sought to thwart NATO’s deployment of new-generation intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Western Europe. All over the Soviet Empire, in the early 1980s, citizens gathered – at officially sanctioned events – to express their solidarity with the anti-Pershing campaign pursued by the CND, and their equivalents in the Federal Republic of Germany and almost every other country on the planet.
It mattered not that the Stasi were assiduously crushing an illicit – that is to say, genuine – peace movement in the German Democratic Republic, one that denounced the deployment of Pershing II and cruise missiles and the SS-20s. The subsequent opening of the Stasi files shows that Vic Allen, a member of the CND council in the 1980s, was on the payroll of the GDR’s secret police at the very moment Katharine Hamnett was having her famous t-shirt photographed in the company of the Iron Lady. None of this, I fear, would have troubled Hamnett in the least – mere background noise at a time in history when the peace-loving peoples of the world, including 58% of her own compatriots, were making an heroic stand against "nuclear weapons madness".
Even in hindsight there is something miraculous about the triumph of the Reagan-Thatcher alliance. Helmut Kohl’s role should not be overlooked, either. He and his newly elected government supported the use of the new NATO weapons system and managed to have this decision successfully ratified by the Bundestag in 1983 (with the Greens and the SPD voting against), resulting in Pershing II and cruise missiles being deployed on the territory of the Federal Republic of Germany in January 1984. The action taken by Chancellor Kohl and the West German voters was not without risk: any future nuclear war in Europe would obliterate both West and East Germany, and the Kohl government might have no veto role in NATO’s decisions.
On the other hand, without a credible response to the massive deployment of SS-20s in the GDR and Czechoslovakia, it can be reasonably argued that thereafter the Federal Republic would have had a gun pointed at its head by Moscow. It was one of those Churchillian moments when compromise could have spelt disaster. For starters, a compliant West Germany would have provided the Soviet Union with the technology and investment it urgently required to exploit copious (but largely untapped) oil and petroleum resources.
The refusal of Thatcher and Kohl to cave in to Europe’s so-called Peace Movement had a devastating effect on the Soviet leadership. Combine that with Reagan’s (technological and logistical) support for armed insurrections against Soviet-backed governments in Afghanistan, Africa, and Central America, and Brezhnev’s two immediate successors, Yuri Andropov (1982-84) and Konstantin Chernenko (1984-85), were left reeling. Of course the shooting down by Russian MiGs of a South Korean passenger airliner in 1983 did not help. Still, the primary reason for the Politburo’s decision – by the slenderest of margins – to promote Mikhail Gorbachev to the post of General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on March 11, 1985, was the hope that he would come to some kind of arrangement with the West. Any repeat of costly Cold War misadventures, such as the failed SS-20 gambit, might cause the Soviet economy to collapse under them.
The most celebrated protest against Thatcher’s decision to allow cruise missiles to be stored in the United Kingdom — even more celebrated than Katharine Hamnett’s T-shirt — was the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. The original purpose of their endeavour, commenced in September, 1981, was to blockade, or at least focus media attention on, the RAF base at Greenham, which housed nuclear weapons.
In March, 1983, the Peace Camp made headlines when 70,000 like-hearted spirits joined them to form a human chain from Greenham to Aldermaston and the ordinance factory at Burghfield. In 1991, the last missile left the camp and the famous protestors, some of whom had been there the whole decade, congratulated themselves on a job well done. The only hitch in the narrative is that ten years of sitting around a campfire had not contributed anything to the removal of cruise missiles from Greenham.
It was the summit meetings between Gorbachev and Reagan in Geneva (1985), Reykjavik (1986), and Washington DC (1987) that led directly to the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The achievement of the INF was to see the removal of all land-based, intermediate-range missiles from Europe, SS-20s and cruise missiles alike. The Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, like Katharine Hamnett’s t-shirt, had no role in the Soviet Union’s preparedness to cut a deal, and that is indubitably, indisputably, and incontrovertibly a fact. On the contrary, the part played by the ill-advised and naive Peaceniks throughout this momentous moment in history proved to be not only unhelpful but a dangerous encumbrance to those who had to make the right call.
This year, Katharine Hamnett (1947- ) has produced two new oversized t-shirts for the CND: “EDUCATION NOT TRIDENT” and “NHS NOT TRIDENT”. I am not convinced Hamnett ever suffered for her CND convictions in the fashion world; quite the contrary, I would assume. Even now models such as Naomi Campbell appear in Hamnett shirts bearing the slogans “USE A CONDOM” and “PEACE”. More controversially – or perhaps not, given the topsy-turvy nature of our world – Hamnett has recently become something of an advocate for New Racism, describing Anglo-Saxon models as “white dogs” and declaring that “black girls are just so genuinely more beautiful than Caucasians”. In the 2011 New Year Honours Hamnett was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her services to the fashion industry.
Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013) made a significant contribution to the circumstances that saw the elevation of Mikhail Gorbachev to the position of General Secretary of the Soviet Union, which in turned resulted in the 1987 INF Treaty, the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Her steadfastness, in short, helped bring about the liberation of millions of people and the demise of what we can now happily refer to as Late Communism.
Daryl McCann is a frequent contributor to Quadrant and Quadrant Online