Stick it on a 50ft poster, stick it on a penny-sized badge, it's as simple and instantly recognisable as the crucifix of Christianity, or the swastika of the Nazis; and once more, it is about to come into its own. For two long periods in the past, the logo of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, that unmistakable cross with drooping arms inside a circle, has seemed to be everywhere, standing for the powerful pacifist streak in British politics; yet twice it has faded out of the public consciousness like a withering flower. Whatever happened to CND? you could justifiably have asked in 1972, say, or 1995.
Now, however, the CND emblem is sprouting once again on lapels and in car windows, and when CND's annual conference opens at the University of Westminster in central London this morning, it will bring together several hundred delegates once more assured of the relevance of their group at the heart of the political process.
Twice before in its history CND has represented powerful tides in public opinion, and swelled to prominence for several years, before falling back into semi-obscurity; now it is on the rise once more. The invasion of Iraq, with the running sore of the conflict ever since, is of course the background for its renewed relevance; but two other forthcoming issues will soon bring its founding concern, the use of nuclear energy, to the forefront of Britain politics.
The first is the replacement of Trident, Britain's submarine- based nuclear missile system; the second is the possibility of another generation of civil nuclear power stations being authorised by the Government as part of its strategy for countering climate change. Both of these issues, under consideration at the heart of Whitehall, will arouse ferocious opposition, and CND will be at the forefront of it. Appropriately, its activists will feel, a new history of the movement written by the current chair, politics lecturer Kate Hudson, is entitled CND: Now More Than Ever.
This opposition will be opposition of principle. But the movement's founding impetus, it would be fair to say, was a very basic one " terror. Organised anti-nuclear protest dates from a period when the unlocking by human beings of the greatest power on earth seemed merely a prelude to their imminent extinction. By the mid-1950s the United States and the Soviet Union faced each other across the world, two systems implacably hostile to each other and each possessing the first modern Weapons of Mass Destruction, hydrogen bombs on the end of intercontinental ballistic missiles.
To anyone under 50 it is hard to convey the very real fear prevalent, in the late Fifties and early Sixties, that thermonuclear war was coming, and that it would destroy the world. It dominated life and thought like a great dark cloud, and you need to go back to the literature of the period to be reminded of how overarching it was. You can get a vivid sense of it in Bob Dylan's 'Hard Rain', one of his earliest and lengthiest songs, a seemingly unending litany of nightmarish images about a nuclear attack, or in a poem like Robert Lowell's 'Fall 1961', which is far cooler and more controlled but still captures the ubiquitous obsession with Armageddon:
'All autumn. the chafe and jar
Of nuclear war...'
This terror came to a height during the Cuban crisis of October 1962 when the Soviet deployment of nuclear missiles in the Caribbean produced a confrontation with the US which for about a week " until the Russian leader Nikita Kruschev backed down " really did look as if it would lead to atomic war. Had it done so, hundreds of millions of people would have died horribly in Britain, the United States, Russia and elsewhere, in the greatest catastrophe in human history " and people were under no illusions about that.
The world held its breath. We forget now. But at the time this dread was so …