Seconds Away

Wayland Kennet

  • ‘Peace’ of the Dead: The Truth behind the Nuclear Disarmers by Paul Mercer
    Policy Research Publications, 465 pp, £9.95, November 1986, ISBN 0 9511436 0 3

Species come and go, but their coming and going remains, we rather think, unremarked by any species but our own. That is one thing which distinguishes us from all the others. Another is that we bother about what distinguishes us from all the others. Another again is that we bother about destiny and free will. Yet another is that we wear clothes.

And another is that we recently invented a way of getting rid of ourselves if we ever find ourselves unbearable, and that was nuclear weapons. We have to say ‘was’, because we have now invented a second way: we could perhaps now also do it by having an artificial winter caused by ‘conventional’ weapons dropped on the plant of the petro- and other chemical industries, and on forests. Obviously, like all the other species, we could do away with ourselves unintentionally; in our case, that might be by pollution or by not reacting to Aids.

The knowledge that we were the first auto-destructible species ever to walk the earth, since it can be grasped quite simply and is felt very deeply, led to a confused, passionate and continuing debate on what to do about it. The debate has concentrated on how to treat the invention itself: nuclear weapons. Part of it has gone back to various questions which were already debated long before the nuclear age: what is a just war; when is force justifiable; what to do with weapons in general; whether we can discontinue war; whether there can be world government; whether safety lies in individual or institutional improvement. All these debates are intrinsically enthralling, as everything must be which touches on the question of our survival, whether as homo economicus, politicus, moralis or, as in this case, simply ens. But only one of them has shown up at the political level, only one has caused people to vote and march: the debate about how to treat the invention itself. It has taken the form: ought a state to get rid of all its nuclear weapons, and if so should it do so by multilateral agreement or by one-sided and unconditional renunciation? To consider the validity of this debate we must proceed historically. Nuclear weapons appeared. We must start with the question: who did it, what did they do, and why did they do it?

Five sovereign states in the world publicly acquired nuclear weapons. Three or four more have done so clandestinely, but this does not affect the main argument. Each of the five states did so for fear of the nuclear weapons of some other state. The first nuclear weapons programme in the world, which was American-British-Canadian with Free French and German refugee help, was undertaken out of fear that Nazi Germany was acquiring nuclear weapons. The fear, though well grounded in possibility, turned out to be groundless in fact. This Allied programme became in 1945-6 a unilateral United States programme. The second state to acquire nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union, did so, first out of fear of possible Nazi German weapons, and later out of fear of the real American ones. The third state was Britain: we did so out of fear of the Russian ones, which by then naturally expressed itself as a fear that our allies the United States might not be prepared to risk their own existence to protect us against the Russian ones. France acquired nuclear weapons for the same reason. China acquired them because she had been expressly threatened with nuclear bombardment, first by the United States (when the Soviet Union did not come to the rescue), and then by the Soviet Union. A progression of sovereign states acquired weapons out of fear.

Which should we tackle: states, weapons or fear? To have tackled states would have meant a universal dash for a world federation, or at least for a disciplined and democratic society of sovereign states – which is very different from a society of democratic states. World federalism had been around for a century or two as an idea, most neatly set out in a story by Anatole France, where the frock-coated president of the world republic, which it has proved possible to create out of fear of an invasion from Mars, fires a great cannon at Mars – and at the very same moment Mars fires back. A disciplined and democratic society of states was first proposed in a thought-out form by the Parisian monk Eméric Crucé in 1623. The League of Nations began to approach it, the United Nations took another step: but it remains in practice about where the idea of a disciplined and democratic Britain was in the 15th century. No doubt the sentiment that the world is one is now stronger than ever before, and getting stronger. But the universal dash has not taken place: we have not tackled the state.

To have tackled the fear would have meant a renewal of the achievements of Socrates, Jesus Christ or St Francis on a world scale. It is true that perfect love casteth out fear: it happens again and again at the individual level. Most people, even if they have never felt anything like that themselves, have probably glimpsed somebody else feeling something like that. (Or is this too optimistic?) After World War Two there were voices calling for freedom to cross frontiers (which is very different from a single world state), for vast educational exchanges, and so on. That hope was ended by the decision of the Soviet Union to give up the pretence of moral equality with the West, a decision expressed by the Berlin Wall, which is a frozen gesture of fear. Permafear.

We did not try hard to transform the human organisms which had acquired nuclear weapons: we did not try to supersede the sovereign state. We did not try to remove the motive for the acquisition by overcoming fear among us. We turned our minds instead to abolishing the things acquired.

It is, however, a commonplace that you can’t uninvent that which has been invented. ‘You can’t put the genie back into the bottle’ is one of the many parrot-cries of those who, whether from laziness or from partiality and interest, do not want nuclear disarmament. It is an Aunt Sally. If it were possible to destroy all the nuclear weapons in existence, two things would have been gained. One is time. At the moment the world is only a few seconds from nuclear war: if the head of government of any nuclear power were to go mad, he or she could, in theory, launch a thermonuclear strike within seconds. If the weapons were no longer there, it would take, say, a year to build them again from drawings and from memory. If the production plants had also been destroyed, perhaps longer. Nobody stays quite mad and in sole power for two years. The second gain would be the saving of hundreds of billions of the world’s taxpayers’ money each year, and of scientific talent, and of manufacturing capacity. Good causes are not lacking to take up those savings.

The aim of nuclear disarmament, if it goes with a balance at lower levels in conventional arms, is a sensible one. The problem is not whether to do it: it is how to do it safely. Whether or not a ‘balance’ obtains at present between East and West at various levels is not what matters. If it does, then it should be easy to reduce the level at which it obtains to a lower one where it will still obtain. If it does not, then the world would be a safer place if it did, and the sensible way to bring it about is not by increasing arms, but by reducing them. Reductions would provide a welcome opportunity to reach the desired condition: balance.

The discussion now enters the area of practical politics. Some people do not want disarmament at all, and this for two incompatible reasons. Some do not want it because, perceiving their country to be weak, and being full of fear, they think safety can lie only in pulling even with the strong. Others, perceiving their country to be already strong, wish to get yet stronger and so, by a clear military superiority, force their adversary to comply with their will. Some of the latter are now advising President Reagan, and some of them would like an agreement to abolish nuclear weapons so they can concentrate on becoming superior in new kinds of non-nuclear weapons. The same kind of argument appeared to hold sway in the Soviet Union in the late Seventies, when the United States, after its defeat in Vietnam and the Watergate scandals, appeared much weaker: President Carter’s 1977 proposals for ‘deep cuts ... even to 50 per cent’ in strategic weapons were contemptuously rejected. These anti-disarmament groups may well be prepared to engage in negotiations, but with the purpose of securing military benefits for their country.

All those who think disarmament is desirable think it would be good if multilateral reductions could be negotiated, agreed, implemented and verified: reductions, and if possible abolitions too. All agree also that there has been some activity by the governments of the world over the last forty years directed, at least ostensibly, to this end, and all agree that it has failed. Only then does disagreement arise. Some hold that it has failed because the governments, when they were trying, have not been going about it the right way, and therefore that they should try again, in a better way. Others, and this includes most of the governments most of the time, hold it has failed because other governments have not negotiated sincerely, and therefore they should all keep on trying in the same way until sincerity breaks out: ‘keep soldiering on step by step.’ Others again say that forty years is enough and that, if multilateral disarmament cannot be obtained by negotiation, it may be brought nearer by unconditional one-sided disarmament by single countries. In Britain, the CND has since the late Fifties spoken for this third group. It has also spoken for people who think several other things: for instance, that world socialism will be advanced by one-sided disarmament in the West or that, since nuclear weapons are terrible, it is terrible for any country to possess them and that therefore their one-sided abandonment by one country alone (our country) is an end in itself, whether it makes nuclear war, or our being hurt in a nuclear war, more or less likely.

I am among those, the first swathe of opinion, who hold that governments have (when they were trying) failed to get multilateral disarmament because they have not been going about it the right way. They have been trying to get reductions of this or that particular category of weapon: for instance, nuclear, or of a certain range, or in a certain place, or conventional, or chemical, or space-based, and so on. They have never succeeded in getting such reductions because before it came to agreement they, or at any rate enough of them, saw that the reduction in question would make more important, or more salient, or more threatening, something about another category of weapons which was not under negotiation.

Governments have also been trying to get reductions of weapons by certain countries only, or in this or that area of the world only, and they have never succeeded because before it comes to agreement some other countries or areas of the world begin to appear important, or salient, or threatening. Disarmament negotiations will only achieve progress when they are undertaken with an eye on all categories of weapon, and when they involve all the countries which are relevant to the reductions being planned. This does not mean that everything must be negotiated at once, still less that everything must be negotiated to zero in one fell swoop: only that it is impossible to start reducing until one has an agreed plan of the whole process which is desired. One may of course be upset by unforeseen events before one gets to the end of it, but the present policy of the Western governments, which is to do things by bits and pieces, is doomed to fail before it starts. It has always broken down and will always break down on the revealed imbalance, the threat which emerges, the systems one thought one could tackle later, the countries one has left out because they are awkward. Disarmament plans must be general – all types of weapon – and comprehensive: all relevant countries. The second swathe of opinion, the soldierers-on, stand no more chance of success than they have stood in the past. It is necessary to note here that the Soviet Government, in January, March and June last year, produced the first general and comprehensive disarmament proposals to be produced by any nuclear power since 1962.

The third swathe of opinion, the unilateralist, puts forward a programme which is neither general nor comprehensive: it is interested only in Britain’s – or sometimes ‘Europe’s’ – nuclear weapons. When CND was first founded this was not so; it was simply what its name said it was, a campaign for nuclear disarmament, by everybody, and I felt justified in editing a couple of issues of its bulletin. But within a year or so a unilateralist motion from its London region was passed at a national conference, and it became the organisation it has been ever since. Many people parted company with it then, as I did, and many more parted company with the Labour Party twenty years later, when it finally adopted the CND programme.

By its original decision, CND forfeited any role it might have played in bringing about negotiated multilateral disarmament. Perhaps it could not do otherwise: the unconditional makes a formidable appeal. But in making this choice it limited itself to protest, and by that limitation it limited itself also to protesting about what was nearest at hand: namely, nuclear weapons (whether British or American, though in practice essentially American) on British soil and in British ports. This in turn meant that it condemned itself to opposing all British governments and all British parties worthily aspiring to government, and condemned itself to the 25 to 35 per cent it has had in the opinion polls ever since. And all this because it never looked at the origin of the nuclear weapons phenomenon in the first place.

Paul Mercer correctly notes the way CND has waxed and waned as new generations of nuclear weaponry, especially American, have appeared in Britain. He does not draw the interesting comparison between this country and France, where there is no ‘peace movement’ because the nuclear weapons are all French-made and French-controlled. His book is more of a compilation than a smooth read: it consists mainly of things CND people have from time to time said, laid out so as to damage that body. So far as it has its own standpoint, it is that of right-wing American Republicanism and its corresponding European perceptions: the Partial Test Ban, the Ostpolitik Agreements, SALT I, SALT II and the Helsinki Final Act figure as landmarks in the advance of world Communism. Its purpose is ‘to ensure that when the next phase of the cycle comes round’ – CND, he writes, has twice risen and twice died out – ‘those who have to tackle the third incarnation of CND will be well-equipped to do so, through the existence of a documented record of its nature and role in the history of Western disarmament agitation.’ The book begins with a chapter on ‘The Soviet Peace Offensive, 1917-1968’. From internal evidence one can see it was finished by the end of 1984; footnotes and an addendum are from 1985.

Mr Mercer carefully traces the appearance of CND’s numerous sub-campaigns: in particular, the semi-independent attempt at an East-West movement, END, started by E.P. Thompson in 1980, which came to grief when it collided with the absence of human rights in Eastern Europe. There is also a section listing CND officers at various times which shows, hardly surprisingly, that most of them have been Labour Party people, a few Communists and none Conservative.

There is a disgraceful attempt to liken CND’s appeal to Nazi propaganda, and also a lackadaisical effort to raise suspicions about where CND’s money comes from. The author says 40 per cent of it is covered by the description ‘donations’, about which it is unwilling to be specific. I asked him about the financial backing of his own publisher, Policy Research Publications, of 35 Westminster Bridge Road. He told me it was a limited company for which he had himself found sponsors, and that this was its first book. He would not say who they were because if he did ‘they might be intimidated’, and thus not be willing to sponsor further publications. When I pointed out to him that he had blamed CND for not being specific about its donations, he said that no doubt the same arguments applied in their case. So there we presumably are.

Lord Chalfont, who was Minister for Disarmament in Harold Wilson’s first government, contributes a one-page preface rich in his now well-known Moscophobic acerbity: ‘When it is pointed out to the unilateralists that they are doing the work of the Kremlin, the cries of outrage are positively heartrending,’ and so on. Neither Mr Mercer in his plodding and unresonant way, nor Lord Chalfont in his dramatic and supercilious one, allows for the fact that nuclear weapons are indeed monstrous, that they have changed our relationship with each other and with our world, that governments have a duty to remove the monstrous when it threatens their peoples, and that they have not yet done so. But then there is nothing in this book to suggest that either of them is anything but quite happy with the present situation.