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.’

The Reaganites were, of course, doing nothing new. In a nation engaged in an arms race, both the left and right face the temptation to compete in the fervour with which they sound alarms and promise to strengthen the nation. President Mitterrand is an example. And it can fairly be said that President Reagan was following in the footsteps of President Kennedy, who in his 1960 campaign, played upon the accusation that President Eisenhower had been neglecting the nation’s defences and had allowed a missile gap to develop, an accusation which proved to be totally bogus. What is extraordinary about the Reaganites, and is very well conveyed by Mr Scheer, is the crudity of their belligerence.

The interviews with Messrs Reagan, Bush, Rostow and others, reported verbatim in the back of the book, are fascinating. The level of argument and literacy improves as one goes from President Reagan to his associates, but common qualities glare through: the dogmatism, the moral rectitude, and the proclaimed belief that differences in the relative size of the mountains of nuclear weapons possessed by Russia and America make a decisive difference to their power in the world and their ability to dominate one another. Here is the flavour of Holy War with the dogmatic extremists grabbing the flag and proclaiming that the road to success is via nuclear superiority and a greater capacity to survive nuclear war and re-emerge. As Mr Scheer puts it, the trouble with President Reagan and his advisers is that ‘they have become hostages to their own rhetoric, to their compulsive polemical approach to events and to their obsession with the Soviet threat.’

Duncan Campbell’s purpose is to expose and document the evolution of the British Government’s plans for civil defence. He has been at work for years taking the lid off those aspects of defence and intelligence where the Government uses secrecy to keep us ignorant of what it is up to – mostly things the Russians must know perfectly well from normal methods of intelligence. The book runs to nearly 500 pages. It is, as the author says, something of a jigsaw puzzle. There is a certain amount of overlap between sections on such closely related subjects as the machinery of government, martial law, communications and warning, and essential services. But it is full of fascinating material. There are maps of communications systems and emergency road routes. There are photographs of bunkers, radio antennae of different types and entrances to government hide-outs. There are organisation charts for many different aspects of emergency government. There are plans and pictures of the underground tunnels that connect up government buildings within Whitehall. There are lists of regional military and police commanders who would have prime responsibility for enforcing ‘law and order’ in the event of nuclear war.

What emerges from Campbell’s analysis is that the authorities, understandably, see no hope of protecting the population against nuclear war. Their prime concern, he contends, has been to ensure that, during a crisis leading to nuclear war, nothing should happen which would prevent Britain from fulfilling its role as a staging post and offshore citadel of Nato: ‘the highest priority military task is to keep Britain going as an “unsinkable aircraft-carrier” ’ for Nato and the US. There are plans to arrest subversives. Instead of evacuation, the policy is that people should be made to stay put so that they do not block the roads. There are bunkers for top ministers and civil servants and for those who are to head the emergency regional systems of government – though the bunkers are said not to be strong enough to survive close hits. There are elaborate communications networks – the efficiency of which is questioned too.

There seems no reason to doubt Duncan Campbell’s story. His evidence, gained with the aid of many helpers whom he lists, is impressive. It is consistent with the measly half-truths uttered by ministers and officials on these subjects. It is consistent with the ridiculous recommendation in the pamphlet ‘Protect and Survive’ that we should stay at home and sit under the staircase. And his conclusion is consistent with that scathingly drawn by David Owen: ‘the Royal Family, central government and local government politicians, the admirals, generals and air marshals and senior administrators all survive. But millions of others lose their lives. Money is to be spent on Sub-Regional Headquarters; the governors will go underground, the governed will stay on top.’

The two points that stand out from this book are, first, how totally defenceless and helpless we would be in the face of a nuclear attack; and, second, how infuriating it is that our bureaucratic rulers should have cooked up these plans for their self-preservation without opening the subject to the public and proper Parliamentary debate. Part of the trouble stems from the British disease of rule by a permanent establishment of regular civil servants, military officers and intelligence officers who embrace top ministers of any party in a web of secrecy and self-importance that is not powerfully challenged by Parliament. How differently they do these things in the United States, where members of Congress, unlike their British counterparts, do not so often have their eyes on office for themselves and are not subject to party discipline.

But there is a deeper problem: the introduction of nuclear weapons onto your territory, whether your own or those of an ally, is a strong inducement to humbug on the part of your government. Consider the contrast between the policies of Switzerland and Sweden, which have no nuclear weapons, and Britain and France, both of which possess them. In both Switzerland and Sweden there is no strong expectation that they will be directly attacked by nuclear weapons. Since they possess no nuclear weapons, no country will be tempted to attack and disarm them in a pre-emptive strike. The greater probability is that they will suffer from fall-out drifting from a European nuclear exchange or from accidental shots which go astray and land at random on their territory. Civil defence to deal with threats of that kind is not futile, though it is costly. Both countries have gone for very extensive civil defence programmes with shelters for almost everyone. They have been helped by the fact that they have not spent anything on the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Their policies are extremely open and involve the participation of a very large part of the population in military and civil defence measures.

On the other hand, Britain and France, by possessing nuclear weapons – and in Britain’s case having American ones thick on their territory too – have made themselves into likely targets in the event of nuclear war. Since civil defence can do little to diminish the casualties from a sustained nuclear attack, both countries have given up the notion of defending their populations. The cost of acquiring their own nuclear weapons system has been a further factor weighing in the balance. In Britain’s case – I cannot speak for France – the bureaucrats have felt that in order to make deterrence credible they must work out how they would fight a nuclear war. Their conclusion is that they must keep the population in place and move the rulers to various bunkers. From this, they have been carried away into conjuring up the notion that those same rulers – lords-lieutenant, under-secretaries from Whitehall and odd politicians – would rule the regions after the holocaust. It seems far more probable to me that those who will take over will be those who are best-equipped to live off the land and keep others at bay – tough farmers, poachers, DIY men and the like. Our Whitehall warriors may not look very impressive when – or if – they emerge from their bunkers. The American scenario in which the President and the top brass take to the air in special command aeroplanes seems more plausible. But it is a story that seems to end when the fuel runs out. In both countries, discussions of civil defence reveal something of the trapped and troubled minds of those who advocate nuclear deterrence and advocate preparations for its failure.

To the question ‘What should be done?’ clearly the best answer would be to get rid of nuclear weapons. So long as they existed in other countries we might need a civil defence programme, though Britain, being on the western edge of Europe from which the prevailing winds blow, will be less vulnerable to fall-out in the event of war in Europe than countries further east. So long as there are British and American nuclear weapons here the argument that civil defence is futile seems to me to stand. When I think of what the consequences of nuclear war would be, I realise I would like to be equipped with some pills with which I and any members of my family could painlessly bring our lives to an end if, instead of being killed outright, we were faced by suffering from burns, wounds, radiation, blindness, infections, thirst, hunger and the sounds of the suffering of others. I am squeamish. I would not like to be left looking for bits of broken glass with which to cut my wrists. But Duncan Campbell tells us that there is no provision for the stockpiling of pain-killing drugs, let alone suicide pills. The notion that suicide pills should be issued to the people would surely be greeted with horror. It is easy to imagine the Whitehall minutes pointing to the dangers and difficulties and arguing that a policy of providing pills would so frighten people that their support for nuclear deterrence would diminish. But suicide pills to hand are what you want after reading these two books.