During the past 15 months, an unlikely human tableau has emerged here as the symbol of British public resistance to deployment of U.S. cruise missiles later this year. It is a battered, charred tea kettle over a small campfire, with scores of mud-splattered women gathered around, insulated from the damp cold, they say, by antinuclear fervor.
No opposition politician's speech or clergyman's cry of alarm--of which there have been many--can match the growing impact of the Greenham Common women's peace camp.
Nor is the visit of Vice President Bush to Britain and other Western European countries, announced by President Reagan this weekend as a move to consult with U.S. allies on the arms issues, likely to diminish the women's conviction.
Theirs is an unequivocal challenge to the Reagan and Thatcher governments' plans to place 96 of the subsonic, unmanned medium-range nuclear weapons in bunkers on the sprawling air base just across the high-chain link fence from where the women live.
Little-used for almost 20 years, the base, on a plain about 60 miles west of London, is the officially commissioned home of the 501st Tactical Missile Wing of the U.S. 3rd Air Force. In 11 months, when preparations are complete, cruise deployments will begin, the first in Europe--unless stopped by an arms control agreement or a dramatic policy reversal.
In location and spirit therefore, Greenham Common--the peace camp and the base beyond--is a focal point for one of the great political questions of 1983: Will a new generation of U.S. nuclear weapons, a new round in the arms race, ultimately go ahead?
The decisive superpower negotiations where any bargain can be struck are far away in Geneva. In fact, few of the women seem to know much of the technical details of Soviet leader Yuri Andropov's recent offers or Ronald Reagan's ripostes. The attitude expressed here is more a contagious emotionalism--a sentiment that seems to be spreading widely in British society.
Greenham Common is becoming so unique a symbol, said Wendy Chivers, 28, a cook, "because it is women joining together to stop the weapons of war. In the past, we were just there when it was over to pick up the pieces."
The presence in the country of strong feelings is undeniable. A December survey by the respected pollster MORI (Market and Opinion Research International) found that 58 percent of those questioned were now opposed to letting the cruise missiles be deployed in Britain. Among women, the total was 64 percent against.
The subject is one of international significance, but it is an intensely domestic debate also. With a national election expected in the next year, the nuclear, defense and disarmament issue is looming increasingly as a major concern in voters' minds, ranking behind only the main economic problems as a concern measured by the polls.
The lines are sharply drawn in British politics. While Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher remains the United States' staunchest European supporter of nuclear deployment, the country's opposition parties--Labor and the Social Democratic-Liberal Alliance--are critical of her policy by different degrees. Labor leader Michael Foot is committed to complete unilateral nuclear disarmament. During the Christmas holiday Foot visited the peace camp without benefit of a media blitz and reaffirmed his personal determination to keep the cruise missiles out.
That is the only acceptable outcome for the peace camp protesters.
"We will remain here until we are certain that there will be no cruise," said Bee Burgess, 21, an art student and a four-month resident of the camp who was echoing the resolve of others ranging in age from 17 to 70 who have come to stay.
They say they are unfazed by appalling winter conditions of squalid discomfort. Many sleep protected only by plastic covers. There is no running water or sanitation. Yet undeterred by repeated arrests for civil disobedience, threats of eviction by unfriendly local authorities and separation from their loved ones, new recruits keep coming.
The most spectacular demonstration was on Dec. 12 when despite a driving, cold rain about 30,000 women--just women because they believe it is more effective that way--joined hands in a massive ring around the nine-mile perimeter of the base. On New Year's Day, 44 women scaled the fence before dawn and many spent more than an hour singing and dancing atop one of the future silos before they were all arrested.
Security at the base has been significantly enhanced and there is no doubt that British officials, in particular, are jittery. According to American officers at 3rd Air Force, the Ministry of Defense last week took the unusual step of overruling U.S. officers who had invited two American journalists to look around. While virtually the entire complement of military at Greenham Common are Americans--eventually there will be 1,600--the base remains technically in command of the Royal Air Force.
The peace camp at Greenham Common was established in September 1981 by 50 women who had marched 120 miles in 10 days from Cardiff, Wales. A few chained themselves to a front gate of the base but were ignored, so when the protest ended, a camp was pitched and soon became self-sustaining.
One of those early protesters, Helen John, 45, was sued for divorce recently by her husband, who said she had forgotten him and their five children. Her response, from Brussels where she is attending an international women's peace demonstration, was, "Sometimes one's own children must take second place."
Last March before the war over the Falkland Islands temporarily distracted the country, the Greenham Common women staged a "festival" and claimed that thousands of supporters were able to blockade all entries to the base. The authorities cut a hole in the fence and when efforts were made to block it 34 protesters were arrested. The skirmishes were renewed in the summer, and 23 women spent two weeks in jail in November for occupying a sentry's post.
With each episode, attention to the camp among the public has increased and others have been started. There are now at least eight peace camps around the country--six outside U.S. installations, one at an RAF base and one outside a factory that produces warheads for the Trident nuclear submarine program. People come and go from all of them and several include men also.
The country's largest antinuclear group, the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament, obviously supports the aims of the campers. But the Greenham Common woman are proud of their independent status and the fact that many are new to political action, supported in part, they say, by contributions that are efficiently delivered daily by the Royal Mail.
The life at Greenham Common peace camp is no picnic and winter has at least three months to run. But the women say they are buoyed by a sense that they are succeeding in getting their message across. A British television team arrived early Friday morning to film interviews with campers on their reaction to the appointment the day before of one of the Conservative Party's brightest stars, Michael Heseltine, as minister of defense.
One of his main tasks from Thatcher, according to British press accounts, is to counter the influence of the antinuclear protesters.
"We think the choice of Heseltine is wonderful," one of the women said proudly to the television camera. "It shows how frightened we've got them."