John Ellis: The international celebrities that descended on Melbourne for CICD launch

  • Posted on: 1 August 2016
  • By: Staff Writers

The week-long conference that launched CICD in 1959 was a major celebrity event, which included appearances from a star of Hollywood and the West End, a Nobel Prize winner, an Olympic coach, a retired Air Marshall and a famous playwright. Veteran photographer and CICD foundation member John Ellis recalls the proceedings.

On the 7th November 1959 I attended an international peace congress, the Australian and New Zealand Congress for International Co-operation and Disarmament and the Festival of Arts. The Congress was opened in what was then the Melbourne Olympic Swimming Stadium in Batman Avenue (now the Collingwood FC headquarters), then moved to the South Melbourne Town Hall for a week-long conference.

The conference was headlined by Prof Linus Pauling, the American physicist who helped pioneer quantum chemistry and molecular biology, winning him the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1954. Also in attendance was his wife, the American human rights activist Ava Pauling, whose campaigning around nuclear disarmament led to the Limited Test Ban Treaty between the US and the Soviet Union, and would help her husband win the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize.

Jacquetta Hawkes, English archaeologist and writer, and her husband J. B. Priestley, English writer and playwright, made a contribution. Also attending was the Very Reverend Dean Chandler from New Zealand. These were just some of the overseas personalities featured.

Australia had its own share of celebrities too: Air Marshall Sir George Jones KBE (ret.), former Chief of the Air Staff during the final years of WWII; Myra Roper, ABC broadcaster, human rights activist and educationalist; Lady Jessie Street, Indian-Australian suffragette and Aboriginal rights activist; Prof Sir Walter Murdoch KCMG, Chancellor of the University of Western Australia; and Olympic coach Percy Cerutty, whose understudies included the world bantamweight boxing champion Jimmy Carruthers and several Olympic gold medallists. Many churchmen and politicians also attended.

American actor Paul Robeson, a major Hollywood and Broadway star and former All-American footballer, was scheduled to speak at the congress, but was unable to come to Australia in 1959 due to his passport being cancelled during McCarthy's Red Scare. However, he addressed the congress via an audio recording, and was able to hold meetings and concerts in Australia the following year.

The peace congress was a necessary outcome from a very turbulent period. The uneasy alliance between capitalism and socialism, needed to fight fascism, had ended at the ended of World War Two in 1945, and the chill of the Cold War was well underway. The terrible McCarthyite witch-hunts of the 1950s were in full swing – warning of the Red Menace and Yellow Peril.

Australia had its own McCarthyite era. Prime Minister Menzies had introduced the Communist Dissolution Bill – people were being dismissed from jobs and maligned, groups were infiltrated, houses were being searched, and trade unionists threatened. Meeting halls were denied and street meetings broken up by the police.