Thinking the unthinkable

John Naughton: the myth of ‘Civil Defence’

The Western powers and the USSR started by producing and stockpiling nuclear weapons as a deterrent to general war. The idea seemed simple enough. Because of the enormous amount of destruction that could be wreaked by a single nuclear explosion, the idea was that both sides in what we still see as an East-West conflict would be deterred from taking any aggressive action which might endanger the vital interests of the other.

It was not long, however, before smaller nuclear weapons of various designs were produced and deployed for use in what was assumed to be a tactical or theatre war. The belief was that were hostilities ever to break out in Western Europe, such weapons could be used in field warfare without triggering an all-out nuclear exchange leading to the final holocaust.

I have never found this idea credible. I have never been able to accept the reasons for the belief that any class of nuclear weapons can be categorised in terms of their tactical or strategic purposes.

The author of these words was not, as you might expect, some disarmament freak, nor an aging member of CND, nor even an elderly academic whose corns have never quite recovered from the long slog to Aldermaston. He was, in fact, the late, and justifiably lamented, Earl Mountbatten, and the excerpt is taken from his last major speech, delivered to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) on 11 May 1979. The complete text has been reprinted by CND under the heading ‘The Speech We Ignored’. The question is: who is ‘we’?

Not the disarmament lobby, surely, for Mountbatten was only articulating what its members have been saying for generations – namely, that the idea of ‘winning’ a nuclear war is cruel and dangerous nonsense. The fact that Mountbatten agreed with this assessment is only further evidence of the sound sense and judgment which he displayed, par excellence, in the last war.

The people who have ignored Mountbatten’s speech belong, not to the disarmament lobby, but to the general community of intellectuals in this society who pride themselves on their knowledgeable awareness of contemporary issues: politicians, academics, journalists, commentators; contributors to literary and political journals; readers, indeed, of this. For one of the things that is most striking about the question of nuclear war is the intellectual paralysis which it evokes. In this respect, it is different from, say, the Jewish holocaust – a subject on which dozens of our brightest intellects have been deployed in recent years, and which has been treated, directly or obliquely, in novels like William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, films like The Night Porter, and in the writings of Hannah Arendt, George Steiner, Bruno Bettelheim and a host of others. But on the subject of the nuclear holocaust there is a deafening silence. It is as if, somehow, the entire topic had been declared out of bounds, as if it were ‘unthinkable’.

Such a state of affairs is profoundly dangerous both to our prospects of survival and our liberty.[1] The decisions about nuclear weapons which are currently on the agenda of the Thatcher Government have awesome implications for British society. Yet large sections of the intellectual establishment treat them with what Daniel Moynihan once described as ‘benign neglect’. In this respect, Britain is radically different from some of her European neighbours – particularly Holland, where a vociferous debate about the neutron bomb, proliferation, disarmament and cruise missiles has raged for years. Perhaps this is simply another manifestation of the disdain displayed by élites in this society towards ‘technical’ questions: they are seen as matters essentially for ‘boffins’, back-room boys and the like, rather than as grist for serious intellectual mills. Or perhaps it is a reflection of the bias towards the humanities, politics and economics inherent in the education of our opinion-formers.

But while accepting that British intellectuals have tended to shy away from their responsibilities in this area, we must also recognise that there are powerful reasons for their reluctance. For the whole issue of nuclear weapons and their consequence is indeed distressing in the extreme. Many people, for example, feel that even to engage in factual analyses of these matters somehow carries the connotation of moral approval. To discuss the (very considerable) differences between the effects of, say, a nuclear explosion at ground level and one detonated in the air smacks of fiddling while civilisation burns, of quibbling over degrees of incommensurable misery. This is precisely the kind of computation that the mathematical psychopaths in the Pentagon do (so the argument runs). So why should civilised people debase themselves by playing such macabre games?

There is something in this argument, but I fear it is misguided – for two reasons. In the first place, the absence of informed critical analysis of the rationale, costs and effects of nuclear weapons means that the military strategists and their political mouthpieces are given an unimpeded run in the mass media, Parliament and elsewhere. The ‘logic’ of their calculations goes unchallenged – except perhaps at the level of moral absolutes. The inconsistencies and illogicality of strategic plans remain unexposed – and the public debate is the poorer as a result. At this critical juncture in our affairs, such impoverishment is more than we can afford.

Secondly, by refusing to debate the calculus of savagery, intellectuals are allowing the military and their masters to obfuscate the nature of the horrors which are being planned. The callous technical vocabulary of holocaust remains unexposed, its dreadful euphemisms remain unexplicated: cant about ‘mutual assured destruction’ (which has the appropriate acronymn MAD), ‘pre-emptive strikes’, ‘second-strike capability’, ‘interdiction’, ‘ “clean” weapons’, ‘theatre warfare’, ‘posture’, ‘containment’, ‘overkill’ and so on finds its way slowly into the casual speech of citizens who have little conception of the degree of psychic sanitisation implicit in such terms. And other, equally dangerous illusions remain unchallenged: such as the widespread belief that death in a nuclear exchange always takes the form of instantaneous immolation, or, for that matter, the contrary notion that some sort of normality will be possible once the radioactive dust has settled.

But there may be a deeper reason why British intellectuals are reluctant to confront the nuclear question. It is the intuition that sustained consideration of the issues involved might lead to an arteriosclerotic narrowing of one’s interests and priorities – to a belief, in effect, that so long as there are nuclear weapons loose in the world, nothing else matters except their total abolition. The inevitable end-point of serious thought on this subject, in other words, may be commitment to a moral crusade. That, or suicide, is the price of thinking about the unthinkable.

In one sense, there is no shortage of people willing and eager to think about it. The ‘defence’ laboratories of Los Alamos and Aldermaston, the corridors of the Pentagon, the Kremlin and the Ministry of Defence, the seminar rooms of RAND and other think tanks, are crammed with the technocrats of destruction. These staff officers of Armageddon are the ones who have generated the vocabulary of nuclear ‘realism’ and defined the units of annihilation (megadeaths per megabuck), and they have for decades enjoyed funding and support at a level undreamed of by legislators.[2] They not only possess the sophisticated tools for the job, but are imbued with new heart as the geopolitical scene freezes over and the Western democracies shift rightwards. There is, I am told, a new atmosphere, a new esprit de corps, in research establishments, a feeling that their denizens are being appreciated again, that they are riding on the back of an idea whose time has come. For they know – even if we don’t – that, in Lord Zuckerman’s words, ‘the decisions which we make today in the fields of science and technology determine the tactics, then the strategy, and finally the politics of tomorrow.’

And of course in a sense they are right. The probability of a major nuclear exchange has been perceptibly increased by recent developments. On the political front, there is the collapse of US foreign policy brought about by the floundering of an ex-governor of Georgia out of his depth and obsessed with the need to conduct a ‘permanent campaign’ for reelection. Whether the USSR’s behaviour in Afghanistan can be interpreted as a response to this ineptitude is a moot point, but there can be no doubt that such military adventures, when combined with the upheavals in Iran, mean that the international scene is today more dangerous than it has been in any year since the Cuban missile crisis. Added to that, we have seen the frightening dissemination of the prerequisites for nuclear weapons technology to a range of politically unstable regimes, and the clamouring of other dictatorships for a stake in the nuclear game. On the home front, we have seen the rise to power of a strident Tory government, dominated by a prime minister of strong ideological bent, who approaches every issue with an open mouth, and who manifests a fascination for nuclear technology which seems dangerously naive. As the Times noted on 26 February, ‘senior officials have never known such close ministerial interest in their “doomsday” activities. Mrs Margaret Thatcher has already been through the steps she would have to take to launch a Polaris missile strike in response to a Russian nuclear attack on the United Kingdom.’ Such an interest can, of course, be construed as merely a conscientious concern for her responsibilities, but it also suggests that those in power are taking seriously the possibility that these responsibilities may have to be discharged sooner rather than later. From all of which one can only conclude that the nuclear ‘threshold’ has been ominously lowered.

It had been lowered in any case by technical development. The advent of the neutron bomb – a nuclear weapon which, it is alleged, does more damage to humans than to buildings or equipment – has provided proponents of tactical nuclear weapons with the answer to their prayers. New generations of Soviet missiles and launching-systems have caused predictions of Soviet superiority in certain classes of weapons extending over a so-called ‘window’ in time. In the US, these predictions have given rise to what can only be described as strategic hysteria – at least when seen against the continuing American superiority in strategic weapons. It has also given rise to the most fantastic speculations about what the Kremlin leaders might be tempted to do in the window of their superiority. From this has emerged, not only the plan for the deployment of Cruise missiles in Europe, but also the plan for the MX missile system, a design so monumentally crass (and expensive) as to beggar description.[3] This has been accompanied by an acceleration of US defence spending, which will, no doubt, in turn trigger another round of Soviet development. And so it goes on. Meanwhile the only available hope of interposing even a hiccup in the spiral – the SALT II treaty – has been consigned to the dustbin of history through a combination of President Carter’s political ineptitude and the intransigence of an enraged Congress.

The implications of such developments have, it seems, begun to dawn on citizens of these isles. Membership of CND is reported to be booming after languishing for decades, and its recent appeal for £30,000 was over-subscribed by £12,000.[4] A campaign against the location of Cruise missiles in East Anglia has begun to gather momentum, though it is still small in scale, ideologically naive, and, if it grows, will no doubt be subject to the usual fissiparous tendencies of protest groups. The recent Labour Party one-day conference adopted an uncomprising unilateralist resolution, and although it remains to be seen whether the party conference in the autumn will endorse this stance, it is now distinctly possible that Britain’s so-called independent so-called deterrent will be an issue in the next general election.

The general impression one gets is of people awakening from a long sleep and wondering where they have been all this time. Polly Toynbee, writing in the Guardian, put it well when she recounted how she walked into the CND offices to renew her long-lapsed subscription

with the kind of embarrassment one might feel returning to the church of one’s youth. There, in the cramped little room, were all these people who had kept things going through the dark years, addressing envelopes, moving into ever smaller offices, refusing to relinquish an apparently lost cause, and where were all of us, who had marched with such conviction and then forgotten all about it? Copies of the CND newspaper lay about in bundles – I didn’t know it still came out. In the old days I stood at enough street corners, rallies and demonstrations shouting ‘Sanity, sixpence’. Sanity now costs 15 p.

It is difficult to know what stimulus has produced this burgeoning response, but I suspect that the issue of the government’s booklet ‘Protect and Survive’ has played an important role. This little document purports to tell citizens ‘how to make your home and your family as safe as possible under nuclear attack’ – in 30 pages. Its main recommendations are well-known, and may be summarised thus:

1. Stay at home. If you choose (and are able) to move, ‘the authority in your new area will not help you with food or other essentials.’

2. Prepare a fall-out room and an inner shelter. The latter is a miserable hidey-hole under the stairs, a table, or a makeshift lean-to improvised from cannibalised bedroom doors.

3. Store food, batteries, toilet, medical and other supplies sufficient for 14 days.

4. Cover everything with as much earth and other dense material as you can find.

5. Sit tight and listen to the radio.

Now it may seem incredible that this is the sum total of the advice that HM Government can offer its citizens. But that, I am afraid, is the situation. Small wonder, then, that the publication of ‘Protect and Survive’ has had a salutary effect on these citizens. For if this is all that our masters can offer in the event of their expensive deterrents coming unstuck, might there not be something very rotten indeed in the entire state of nuclear strategy?

The deficiencies of ‘Protect and Survive’ fall into three main categories. Firstly, there is the unreality of the assumptions on which its proposals are based. It assumes, for example, that a significant proportion of ordinary residential dwellings in densely populated areas will survive the blast overpressure generated by a nuclear explosion. Yet it is well-known that an overpressure of 5 lb per square inch (psi) totally destroys such structures. A study by the Office of Technology Assessment of the US Congress estimated that a 25 megaton airburst would generate 5 psi overpressure over a circle 20 miles in diameter.[5] The effects on, say, London and its suburbs – and on those huddling under stairs and tables within that area – can be readily imagined.

The booklet is equally naive (or misleading) in its assumptions about fall-out. ‘The dangers will be so intense,’ it says, ‘that you may all need to stay inside your inner refuge in the fall-out room for at least 48 hours’ (emphasis added). Such advice is presumably based on assumptions about the decay rate of short-lived radioactive particles. On the surface, this seems to square with the OTA’s findings, which are that the intensity of such radiation falls by a factor of 100 in 49 hours. It is only when one realises that even this ‘reduced’ level is over 100 times the maximum permitted peacetime level that the duplicity of the booklet’s advice is properly appreciated.

A second area of deficiency is delineated by the factors which are played down in ‘Protect and Survive’. It assumes, for example, that the dwelling inhabited by the average ‘nuclear’ family is a brick-built semi lacking either basement or cellar. It does, however, acknowledge that a sizable proportion of the UK population lives in flats and bungalows, and that there are even those unfortunate enough to reside in caravans. To these citizens, HMG offers the following advice: flat-dwellers should ‘make alternative arrangements’ with their landlord, or with neighbours on lower floors, or with relatives or friends, for shelter accommodation. Occupants of bungalows are reminded that their homes offer no protection whatsoever and are advised to shelter with ‘people close by’. Caravan-dwellers, on the other hand, are recommended to throw themselves on the parish: ‘your local authority will be able to advise you on what to do.’

As far as ensuring the survival of citizens in its area is concerned, each local authority will have precious little advice to offer. But these authorities will have a great deal to say about the control of survivors and the maintenance of law and order – whatever that might mean in a post-nuclear situation. Which brings us to the third – and in many ways the most contemptible – deficiency of ‘Protect and Survive’: namely, the way it systematically avoids any explanation of the measures which the Government has planned for ‘managing’ the situation in the aftermath of an attack.

That such provisions are extensive and expanding is now beyond reasonable doubt. In a society like Britain which is obsessed by official secrecy, it is of course difficult to be absolutely sure. But the burrowings of a handful of journalists and activists like the so-called ‘spies for peace’ and Mr Duncan Campbell of the New Statesman, as well as leaks of various Home Office Memoranda, have shed some light on the size and scope of post-nuclear planning in Britain. The implications of such revelations are alarming.

While ‘Protect and Survive’ recommends that people should stay at home during a nuclear attack, it does not explain that HMG has plans for ensuring that this advice is obeyed. It does not explain that the entire motorway will be sealed off for military use, that petrol stations will be forcibly closed and that the security forces will have extensive powers to prevent the movement of people. Neither does it warn readers that all civil liberties will be suspended for the duration of the ‘emergency’, or that Regional Commissioners will have powers of life and death in their devastated bailiwicks. Anyone seeking information on these and related matters will have to look elsewhere for it,[6] even if only to ascertain the circumstances under which a British policeman may be authorised to shoot them on sight.

In the last analysis, however, it is not the duplicity of ‘Protect and Survive’ which matters most, but what its contents reveal about the authoritarian attitudes which are a logical concomitant of the possession of nuclear weapons. For the connection between the goals and tools of foreign policy, on the one hand, and the liberty of individual citizens, on the other, is as close as it is unappreciated.[7] It is this connection which interests the historian E. P. Thompson and which informs his best-selling polemic ‘Protest and Survive’.[8]

Like all good polemics, Mr Thompson’s takes the form of a sermon on a text – in this case, a letter published in the Times of 30 January 1980 from the Chichele Professor of the History of War at Oxford, Michael Howard. In his letter, Professor Howard criticised current government policy on civil defence, and argued that ‘Civil Defence on a scale sufficient to give protection to a substantial number of the population in the event of ... a “limited” nuclear strike is ... an indispensable element of deterrence’.

Mr Thompson identifies two main strands in Professor Howard’s argument. The first is a scenario about the basic sequence of events in a nuclear exchange. According to this, an ‘initially limited’ Soviet strike involving ‘only’ theatre weapons like the SS-20 missile might, in the absence of civil defence precautions, create conditions of ‘political turbulence’ which would prevent HMG from using Polaris (or Trident 1) missiles in retaliation. Mr Thompson infers that Professor Howard regards this as regrettable, since it would inhibit the escalation of the exchange from tactical to ‘second-strike’ nuclear war, thereby rewarding the Russians for their foresight and effrontery.

Mr Thompson takes Professor Howard’s thoughts on this matter as representative of the thinking of the military and political establishment (a not unreasonable assumption, since Howard seems to be highly regarded in such circles). This provides Mr Thompson with an insight into the real function of civil defence as perceived by our political masters. ‘The object of civil defence,’ he writes, ‘is not so much to save lives as to reduce the potential for “political turbulence” of those surviving the first strike, in order to enable “us” to pass over to a second and more fearsome stage of nuclear warfare.’

Mr Thompson has some harsh things to say about this scenario and the deductions which Professor Howard appears to draw from it. Some of his comments stem from a basic moral objection to the callousness implicit in the thinking behind the scenario and, as such, are predictable – though of course none the less laudable for all that. But he also attacks the logic of such an instrumental view of civil defence, and in so doing forcibly demonstrates the vital importance of persuading intellectuals to engage in the critical analysis of nuclear policy. He argues, for example, that – for logistical and economic reasons – the UK is unable to mount civil defence measures comprehensive enough to meet Professor Howard’s requirements.

The second strand which Mr Thompson perceives in Professor Howard’s argument requires some creative inference for its extraction. Reading behind the lines of the Times letter, be discerns another assumption – that a theatre nuclear war in Europe could conceivably be contained without escalating to a strategic exchange between the two superpowers (or indeed between them and Britain and/or France). He does not find this idea plausible in the least:

Once ‘theatre’ nuclear war commences, immense passions, indeed hysterias, will be aroused. After even the first strikes of such a war, communications and command posts will be so much snarled up that any notion of rational planning will give way to panic. Ideology will at once take over from self-interest. Above all, it will be manifest that the only one of the two great powers likely to come out of the contest as ‘Victor’ must be the one which hurls its ballistic weapons first, furthest and fastest – and preferably before the weapons of the other have had time to lift off.

Now it would be one thing, I suppose, if this were just the opinion of a socialist historian, however distinguished. Mr Thompson is, after all, no expert on nuclear weapons. I don’t suppose he could calculate the throw – weight of a delivery vehicle to save his life. Nor is he privy to the psychology of the people who would make such awesome decisions. Does that mean therefore that we can afford to relax and enjoy his formidable polemical skills, while discounting his conclusions? Unfortunately, I think not, for scrutiny of the above passage confirms that Mr Thompson has envisaged a social mechanism which produces the same result as Earl Mountbatten denounced in his SIPRI speech. And whatever else we may say about him, Mountbatten knew what he was talking about. After all, he once had a finger on the button.

[1] The Commons Debate of 24 January this year was the first to be held on the subject of nuclear weapons for 15 years, and it lasted only about five and a half hours.

[2] The news that the last Labour Administration managed to conceal the £1000 million cost of the upgrading of Polaris (the Chevaline project) in the Defence Estimates does not say much for the effectiveness of Parliamentary scrutiny in this area.

[3] See Herbert Scoville Jr, ‘America’s Greatest Construction: Can it work?’, New York Review of Books, 20 March 1980.

[4] Guardian, 23 June 1980.

[5] The Effects of Nuclear War, Croom Helm, £7.95, 0 7099 0364 4, 1980, p. 18. Anyone seeking a lucid briefing on the main aspects of nuclear weapons and their effects will find this little book invaluable.

[6] For example, in pamphlets like ‘How to survive the Nuclear Age’, the Ecology Party, 80 p; ‘Civil Defence: The Cruellest Confidence Trick’, CND, 40 p; or in Peter Laurie’s Beneath the City Streets, (Panther, 1979).

[7] Jonathan Schell’s In a Time of Torment (Knopf, 1975) provides a graphic account of the links between Nixon’s foreign policy and his strategy for domestic political repression which culminated in Watergate.

[8] Spokesman Pamphlet No 71, 45p, ‘prepared’, according to the title page, ‘for the people of England’ One wonders what Mr Thompson has against the Scots and the Welsh.