Under the Staircase

Robert Neild

  • War Plan UK: The Truth about Civil Defence in Britain by Duncan Campbell
    Burnett, 488 pp, £12.95, November 1982, ISBN 0 09 150670 0
  • With Enough Shovels: Reagan, Bush and Nuclear War by Robert Scheer
    Secker, 279 pp, £8.95, February 1983, ISBN 0 436 44355 4

Most people in Britain, I am sure, dismiss the notion of civil defence against nuclear attack as absurd. Twenty years ago or more, Peter Cook in Beyond the Fringe made a delicious mockery of the notion that you should get into a paper bag in order to protect yourself against nuclear fall-out, and the Government’s recent pamphlet, ‘Protect and Survive’, caused both protest and satire. But to dismiss civil defence as absurd without thinking further is not enough. Proposals for expenditure on civil defence keep reappearing. We need to ask ourselves why the subject recurs like this? What is the actual policy in Britain? And what could be done?

The civil defence cycle is principally an American phenomenon. It is part and parcel of the struggle between those who are moderate and those who are extremist over the conduct of nuclear deterrence and the arms race. The extremist position is that for nuclear deterrence to be convincing the United States must put itself in a position where it could engage in an all-out nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union and be able in some sense to survive – or at least to survive better than the Soviet Union. This argument was made more than twenty years ago by Herman Kahn in his book On Thermo-Nuclear War. Since then, it has surfaced from time to time, linked to wild assertions about the extent to which the Soviet Union has organised civil defence. Its latest and wildest airing came, as one might expect, from the Reaganites during their campaign for power and their early heady days in office.

It was in an interview with one of them, Thomas K. Jones, whom President Reagan appointed Deputy Under-Secretary of Defence for Research and Engineering, Strategic and Theatre Nuclear Forces, that Robert Scheer heard the phrase from which he took the title of his book: ‘if there are enough shovels to go around, everybody’s going to make it.’ The shovels, Mr Jones explained, were for digging holes in the ground. These would be covered somehow or other with a couple of doors and with three feet of dirt thrown on top, thereby providing adequate fall-out shelters for the millions who had been evacuated from America’s cities to the countryside. It is as helpful as the idea of getting into a paper bag, or hiding under the stairs, in order to escape nuclear weapons.

The naive advocacy of civil defence is just one aspect of the nuclear belligerence of President Reagan and his associates which Mr Scheer records in his book. Using tape-recorded interviews as well as published material, he tells the story of how the extremists formed ‘the Committee on the Present Danger’, pushed through an alarming reassessment of Soviet military strength, partly based on a dubious economic reappraisal of Soviet military spending, and then produced the notion of ‘the window of vulnerability’ according to which the United States was going to find itself so far outstripped by Soviet nuclear strength that, in the words of President Reagan when a candidate, ‘the Russians could just take us with a phone call.’

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