Rick Poynor

Posters Against Nuclear Weapons

In the early 1980s, David King designed a quartet of posters protesting about the latest phase in the nuclear arms race. King’s graphic images employ the bludgeoning argumentative force seen in many of his political posters from those years. Their demands for an immediate cessation of nuclear hostilities are set out in commanding red capitals, using Franklin Gothic Bold, the typeface he favoured. The posters’ style is heavy, threatening and packed with urgency. The colours and mood are unremittingly dark. 

Compared to King’s work for the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the Anti-Nazi League, the posters are largely unknown today. Encountered now, detached from their original context, the visual rhetoric might appear overstated and even alarmist, despite the cogency of their design. Was it reasonable to visualise the US president Ronald Reagan as a death-dealing “warmonger” comparable to the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler? Were the flesh-stripped skulls and bones – taken from a harrowing photograph of Hiroshima victims – entirely necessary to make the point? 

To appreciate the urgency of these images, it’s necessary to know that even before Reagan assumed the presidency in January 1981, nuclear weapons were once again a burning issue for the British Left. Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was committed to spending £5,000 million (equivalent to £2.2 billion today) on the Trident submarine system and NATO would be allowed to site missiles controlled by America at bases on British soil. “In recent years people have felt inclined to be complacent about the threat of nuclear war, but the actions of this Tory government, coupled with the massive programme of nuclear rearmament in the United States, have decisively shaken this attitude,” writes Redmond O’Neill in the pamphlet Don’t Die for Thatcher, published in 1980 by Socialist Challenge

Poster for news vendors, 1980. Staple holes are visible. 590 × 409 mm (image)

On 22 June 1980, demonstrators assembled on the Embankment in London before marching to Hyde Park for a rally. To mark this moment on the cover of the weekly newspaper Socialist Worker, King designed his first version of the photomontage that later appeared on the “Masters of War” poster; the image was also used on a street poster to sell copies of the paper. Thatcher gloats like a malevolent guiding spirit over a barrage of Boeing AGM-86 air-launched cruise missiles equipped with noses reminiscent of predatory sharks. The image of the plunging missile also appears on a badge (not by King) produced by another paper, Socialist Challenge, for the Hyde Park protest: “I won’t die for Thatcher,” it proclaims. “STOP CRUISE MISSILES.” “Thousands march against mega-death,” Socialist Challenge reported a few days after the event. 

Public protests continued into 1981 and the subject received continuous attention in the pages of Socialist Challenge, which was published by Cardinal Enterprises. The paper ran regular “Stop the missiles” features and “Jobs not bombs” – a reference to political priorities and funding – became a constant refrain. The CND “March for the Future” national demonstration on 6/7 June 1981 demanded a nuclear-free Europe, government support for employment rather than nuclear weapons, an end to the Trident programme, and the rejection of cruise missiles. 

Paths of Glory, 1981. Painting: Vasily Vereshchagin

Cultural agitators reinforced the “no nukes” message. The Marxist historian E.P. Thompson’s Protest and Survive pamphlet flipped the title of the government’s notoriously complacent Protect and Survive public information campaign about civil defence. “No Nuclear Weapons”, an exhibition with scathing anti-bomb photomontages by Peter Kennard, ran at the Half Moon Photography Workshop in London in October and November 1980. Kennard’s montages appeared regularly in Socialist Challenge and, in 1981, his book No Nuclear Weapons (with text by Ric Sissons) was co-published by CND and Pluto Press – the cover deploys the same graphically urgent red and black palette as King’s four posters. 

Stop the Arms Race, 1981. Main photo: Mikhail Trakhman

Against this background of righteous anger and vigorous resistance, King’s bombastic visual protests look perfectly fitting. But how the posters were distributed and used remains unclear. Cardinal Enterprises, which also published International magazine, is credited as publisher, but no other partner in the venture is listed and there appears to be no link to Socialist Challenge, although King had been an occasional early collaborator with the paper. The posters were printed by Blackrose Press in Clerkenwell, which began as a radical printshop founded by a group of anarchists. By 1980, Blackrose had acquired a bigger press and was producing larger-scale jobs for charities and other clients.* The designs are printed by offset litho to a higher standard than many of the quick and dirty political posters King designed for rapid dissemination in these years. They look like items intended for sale. 

War’s End, End Wars!, 1981. Photo: Yevgeny Khaldei. Montage: King

The most likely date of publication is some time in 1981 because King used his montage of descending missiles again on the cover of City Limits no. 3 in October as a backdrop to a grinning Reagan and his wife Nancy. The cover indirectly signals an interview in the issue with the US Defence Secretary Caspar Weinberger, where a portrait of the pro-nuclear politician is held to account by a full-page crop of the Hiroshima skulls photograph. 

City Limits no. 3, 23-29 October 1981. Design: King

On the four posters, in addition to their consistent visual construction, the image of the cruise missile acts as the unifying motif. Having shown us the threat – the weapons in flight – King rips the projectiles to shreds and consigns them to a junk pile. While the posters can be seen and understood singly or in any combination, they suggest a sequence that begins with “Masters of War”, moves to “Paths of Glory Lead But to the Grave” – the phrase comes from Thomas Gray’s 18th-century poem “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” – followed by “Stop the Arms Race”, and culminating in “War’s End, End Wars!”, where the helmets of the dead and the disabled missiles become a stark confrontation of alternative outcomes. 

Vasily Vereshchagin, The Apotheosis of War, oil on canvas, 1871. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

King would sometimes recycle images he liked in his designs and the photographs of both the helmets (by Yevgeni Khaldei) and the grieving woman (by Mikhail Trakhman) appeared in The Russian War 1941–1945 (with a text by A.J.P. Taylor), which King designed in 1978. The unforgettable pyramid of skulls also has a Russian connection: this is The Apotheosis of War (1871), an oil painting by the Russian war artist Vasily Vereshchagin. King’s treatment of this unnerving scene as a duotone transforms it into a poisoned landscape where even the light is dying. Taken together, the Hiroshima skulls, the “Apotheosis” skulls and the repeated empty helmets amount to an insistent moral proposition that the use of nuclear weapons can only result in lethal destruction on a vast scale, therefore they must be abolished. King’s question marks on two of the posters suggest this moment of awakening might even arrive in the 1980s. This proved to be over-optimistic. 

*Jessica Baines, “Democratising Print? The Field and Practices of Radical and Community Printshops in Britain 1968–98”, PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science, 2016. 

King’s posters are courtesy of the Estate of David King.