Roses for Lidice – Weapons of Peace in a World of M.A.D – 1954

At the start of the 1950s, severe mutual distrust began to freeze East-West relations, and international communities feared the start of a fresh global conflict. A rise in tensions between the Super Powers, combined with a proliferation of atomic bombs on each side, meant the world lived in terror of what it could do to itself. The 1950s brought with them a new age of scientific and technological advancements, making it possible to kill far more people and devastate far more land masses with a single device. The era of mutually assured destruction, or MAD, had arrived. It was here to stay.

The Soviet Union had its RDS-6 – Reaktivnyi Dvigatel Specialnyi (Special Jet Engine), which exploded on August 12th, 1953, with a yield of 400 kilotons. This was a deliverable H-Bomb that threatened the USA. A heightened state of tension in the United States during the autumn and winter of 1953–1954 saw frenetic efforts by America’s scientists to catch up.

They did so on the 1st of March 1954, when they tested a deliverable H-Bomb on the tiny Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The test codenamed “Castle Bravo,” which was intended to send a message of deterrence to the Soviet Union, detonated with devastating effect, exploding with a force equivalent to a thousand Hiroshimas, creating a crater over 2km in diameter, and sending a radioactive mushroom cloud 40km tall, with a blast range of 100km, into the atmosphere.

The impact of “Castle Bravo” sent shivers down the backs of the nations’ leaders and ordinary people alike as fears for the future of humanity reached a higher state of alert. Internationalists like Dr Barnett Stross, MP, held deep-rooted ideological interests in creating a more peaceful world and felt the compulsion to act.

His first chance came at a House of Commons debate on the nuclear tests taking place. Stross seconded a motion from Ellis Smith, MP for Stoke-on-Trent South, demanding Parliament discuss Britain starting “immediate talks” between the Soviets and the Americans to end the nuclear tests. It transpired that the proposal, which had the support of 120 fellow MPs, was withdrawn for the sake of unity to ensure a similar motion by the now-leader of the Opposition, Clement Attlee MP, was carried.

The debate that took place on the afternoon of Monday the 5th of April 1954, was over a sincere request for the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Sir Winston Churchill, to be an intermediary and facilitate a meeting between US President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the new Soviet President Georgy Malenkov. But Churchill prevaricated over the need for talks, arguing instead that the British Government was powerless to intervene to stop hydrogen bomb tests and that it would be unwise to propose consultation. In fact, it was Churchill’s judgement that the world was a safer place for the nuclear tests taking place at Bikini Atoll:

“I believe that what is happening, what has happened, and what is going to happen in the Pacific increases the chances of world peace more than the chances of world war.” The Prime Minister also believed that “we had time, though not too much time, to consider the problems.”

Following a test that had detonated erroneously at 15 megatons instead of the intended six, seriously irradiating many thousands of people thought to have been safe, Churchill added:

“I shall not ask the United States Government to stop their series of experiments, which will go on throughout April. After full consultation with our technical experts, I can repeat the assurance that I gave, “that there is no foundation for the suggestion that these explosions are ‘incalculable,’ in the sense that those making the tests are unable to set limits…”—even if not exact limits— “to the explosive power of the bomb, or to calculate in advance what the main effects will be.

“If it were proved, for instance, that a very large number of hydrogen explosions could, in their cumulative effect, be detrimental to the health, or even the life, of the whole human race—without any need for a declaration of war upon itself—the effect would certainly afford a new common interest between all men, rising above military, political, or even ideological differences.

That aspect, the biological aspect, must certainly receive the constant study of scientists in every country. I am assured by our scientists, I may say, that the remainder of the series of experiments contemplated in the Pacific could not possibly affect appreciably such an issue, as some of these biologists have led us to suppose.”

Sir Winston’s response was received with a cocktail of bemusement, disappointment, and alarm by many, not least Dr Barnett Stross, who made a cutting observation about the weight of responsibility incumbent upon politicians during the nuclear age:

“I was influenced by hearing one part of the speech of my hon. Friend, the Member for Leek (Mr Harold Davies), who said that there might be a dearth of lamp-posts. He did not mean, I gather, that the lamp-posts would be atomised and there would not be enough light available for us. My hon. Friend thought that politicians, like ourselves, including Foreign Secretaries all the world over, would have to rest on lamp-posts and dangle from them.”

Then, in acknowledging the advancements in science and technology that had led them to the debate, he suggested a re-examining of human values and sensibilities in order that the awe-inspiring tools science had gifted man could be managed responsibly. He submitted:

“This is an atomic world, and an atomic world means that we are using cosmic power and that the dreams of the alchemists have come true. It means that matter is turned completely into energy. It is something that 30 or 40 years ago we were only beginning to dream about. Now, we are doing it. If we use cosmic force, we use the very power that keeps the sun alive and, through its energy, heat, and light, keeps everything as it is. If we have such powers, can our old morality and our old political forms match up to them?

We have had in the House tonight a definite attempt and an admission from all sides, except by the Prime Minister, to accept that we need a new morality and that there are different ways in which people have tried to approach it. But whatever that morality means, everybody has admitted that it means tolerance, patience, pity, and compassion.”

The motion put forward agreed to –

Resolved, That this House, recognising that the hydrogen bomb with its immense range and power as disclosed by recent experiments constitutes a grave threat to civilisation and that any recourse to war may lead to its use, would welcome an immediate initiative by Her Majesty’s Government to bring about a meeting between the Prime Minister and the heads of the Administrations of the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics –

  • for the purpose of considering anew the problem of the reduction and control of armaments and of devising positive policies and means for removing from all the peoples of the world the fear that now oppresses them and for the strengthening of collective peace through the United Nations Organisation.
Dr Barnett Stross Explaining His Ideas For The Commemorative Rose Garden To Civic Leaders In Lidice 1953.
Dr Stross explains his ideas to civic leaders in Lidice

But Churchill’s attitude had unnerved Stross. He may have been an asset for the nation in times of war, but it was against his lack of statesmanship in times of threatened peace that Dr Barnett Stross and the Lidice Shall Live committee decided they needed to act for the sake of international relations. In association with the national British-Czechoslovak Friendship League, they started an action designed to promote the idea of peaceful global co-existence. A matter of weeks after the Commons debate, Stross offered a proposal to create, in Lidice:

“… a Rose Garden of Friendship and Peace. Free from political, religious, or racial pressures, disputes, and preconceptions, the garden would grow from one root and thus satisfy the fundamental human desire for the peace and togetherness of all inhabitants of this planet.”

This was a serious attempt at fashioning a space that would unite ideologically people of all nationalities, political creeds, and faiths in their opposition to war and their resolve to prevent atrocities and genocides.

The intention of creating a rose garden was reported in the British press as early as the 10th of June 1954, as the Newcastle Journal’s Peter London wrote:

“I met a man yesterday who is trying to ensure that a corner of a certain foreign field shall be forever England. The field has an ominous, doom-laden name: Lidice; the formerly unknown Czech village that 12 years ago today became a symbol of the unrestricted ferocity and bestiality of the Nazi system. But Dr Barnett Stross, mild-mannered MP for Hanley, is planning to fly between 3,000 and 10,000 rose trees out there to create a typical British rose garden at the approach to the great open space where the Nazi victims lie buried.

‘The roses will remind the people of both lands of the friendship that cemented us together in common struggle.’

“… says Dr Stross, who is Chairman of the Lidice Shall Live Committee. He tells me that the Archbishop of York and the Archbishop of Wales are among those who have agreed to sponsor the appeal for the trees which the committee is launching. With the aid of £34,000 contribution from this country – mainly contributed by miners, Lidice has now been rebuilt.”

The Birmingham Post reported how on Thursday, July the 15th, 1954 from offices in Westminster, Dr Stross launched a public appeal for funds to purchase rose trees for a Lidice International Garden of Peace and Friendship. He emphasised only a modest sum of between £2,000 and £3,000 would be needed. This would pay for between 5,000 and 10,000 rose bushes and standards. The Czechoslovakian authorities would cover the bulk of the expense.

The garden would sit halfway between the new Lidice and the site of the old village. Stross announced he would be hoping to procure the services of Mr Harry Wheatcroft, a prominent authority on roses, whose nurseries in Ruddington, Nottinghamshire, grew millions of roses and propagated many new varieties across many acres each year. Some bushes and standards would be used by Czechoslovakian horticultural research workers to develop a new prize rose called the “Rose of Lidice.” Dr Stross explained his idea in the following manner:

Harry Wheatcroft, Expert Nottingham Based Rosarian And Chief Adviser On The Lidice Rose Garden
Harry Wheatcroft, Rosarian

“This village and its rose garden are in a way an example upon which our civilization can firmly rely for hope, love and peace are pillars strong enough to support the high sky above.”

Several Midland MPs had associated themselves with the appeal, including Mr George Wigg (Dudley); Mr John Baird (Wolverhampton N.E.); Mr Harold Davies (Leek); Mrs Harriet Slater (Stoke-on-Trent N.); Mr Ellis Smith (Stoke-on-Trent S.); and Mr Stephen Swingler (Newcastle-under-Lyme). Several trade unions agreed to support the campaign, and so did the Archbishop of York, Dr Garbett; and the Chief Rabbi, the Very Rev. Israel Brodie.

Dr Stross concluded the Westminster press conference by stating:

“It is difficult to talk of symbols of peace of this nature, but if I were asked the value of this garden, I would simply reply that every rose which is added to it may mean one atom bomb the fewer in the future.”

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