International Women’s Day, 1964, and French
Nuclear Testing

Ross Edmonds

Recent protests concerning the resumption of French Nuclear testing in the Pacific have gained the suppo,rt of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Australians. What many of them do not realise is that these protests have been going on, in one form or another, for over 30 years.

Early in 1964 the French Government announced plans to hold atmospheric tests in the Pacific beginning in 1965. Prior to International Women’s Day (IWD) in 1964 the Newcastle branch of the Union of Australian Women (UAW) and the Miners W”men’s Auxiliary issued a leaflet titled ‘Women Act to Prevent Atomic Tests in the Pacific”, The leaflet carried the following message:

Deeply concerned over the intention of the French Government to test Hydrogen Bombs in the Pacific next year, over 50 prominent Australian women from various callings and professions have joined in an appeal to the French Government to stop the/tests.

The proposed site of the tests is only 2000 miles North West of the Australian coast. Scientists have declared that any such tests would contaminate large areas of the Southern Hemisphere with Radio-Active Fall-Out affecting vegetables, fruit and milk so necessary for the building of healthy bodies in our children. The area affected would include a belt across Australia between Sydney and Brisbane.

Young children and babies, including those as yet unborn, are most affected by this deadly fall-out. You are cordially invited to a Public Meeting to be held in Birdwood Park on March 6th at 12.30pm.

The Newcastle Morning Herald reported on the meeting on 10 March 1964 and said, in part:

More than 80 men and women and a number of children stood in heavy rain to hear addresses by Rev. W. Childs (Cessnock), Mr Bert James M.H.R. and Mrs Lillian Kirkby (Vice President of the UAW)

In the same issue, the paper carried a related news item, which read:

Mrs Henrietta Katz, a member of the French Union of Women, will visit Newcastle on Thursday to be guest of honour at the Newcastle IWO luncheon. She will talk about the attitude of the French people to the proposed nuclear tests by France in the Pacific, and the activities of French women in the Republic. Mrs Katz will be entertained by the Newcastle Trades Hall Council and later address the council meeting…

The Peace Movement at this time was led mainly by members of the Communist Party and a few radical clergymen. It took courage to be associated with it and, sadly, the opposition to nuclear testing gained little mass support in Australia until a decade later. By then the French, along with other members of the ‘Nuclear Club’: had ceased to carry out atmospheric tests and had switched to underground testing. for many it was too late. Huge areas of land and thousands of people had received massive doses of radiation.

The Menzies Government and the succeeding Holt, Gorton and McMahon Governments did nothing to support the call for an end to nuclear testing. Indeed, the Menzies Government in the 1950’s was so blinded by its own Cold War hysteria that it allowed the British Government to carry out atmospheric testing at Maralinga in South Australia. Hundreds of Australian servicemen and local Aborigines received large doses of radiation. Many have since died from radiation induced cancers and large areas of tribal land remains badly contaminated.

The role played by the Federal Opposition was not much better, with the notable exception of some Left ALP members such as Bert James. Of course now that public opinion has changed, politicians from all parties want to be on Greenpeace’s ship when it sails from Australia into the Pacific. No doubt they will receive some good media exposure – and I am pleased that they are going. My thoughts, however will be with those brave people who stood in Birdwood Park, in the rain, in opposition to French Nuclear testing more than 30 years ago.