New Internationalist

Fanning the Flames

September 1980

N.I. Issue No 55: May 1977

In the Pope’s New Year message this January, he pointed out that just 200 of the 50,000 nuclear weapons now estimated to be in existence would destroy all the world’s major cities. Since then the spiral of missile expenditure and deployment has accelerated - nowhere more so than in Britain. News of a $12 billion deal to buy US Trident missiles was rushed through Cabinet and Parliament with scarcely any discussion this summer. Trident was hailed as the bright new successor to old-fashioned Polaris - itself recently modernised at the cost of $2,200 million. Armed with Trident missiles, British submarines could launch three times as many nuclear warheads as previously, every missile having eight independent nuclear bombs each capable of incinerating a separate Soviet city. The Trident deal followed soon after the Polaris modernisation announcement - itself hot on the heels of the Cruise missile debate in January when, without consulting the British Parliament, Nato Supreme Command and British senior ministers decided to base 160 US Cruise missiles in England from 1982. The presence of the missiles obviously brings the risk of a pre-emptive Soviet strike; a small price it appears for the British government to stay in Washington’s good books.

As the nuclear debate hotted up, Time magazine waded in with a July cover story - ‘Washington’s perceived weakness in the face of swelling Soviet power’ - explaining the need for Europe to lavish vast sums on missile technology. The argument seems to have convinced the ministers at Whitehall. For the opposition Labour party, however, the issue is not so cut and dried. A vigorous campaign is being mounted to commit any future Labour government to unilateral disarmament.

The debate has been sharpened by E.P. Thompson’s powerful pamphlet: ‘Protest and Survive’. Mistrustful of Time magazine-style scare-mongering, he points out how difficult it is to discover the truth about the kill and overkill potential of nuclear weapons, or exactly which side of the Iron Curtain packs the bigger punch. Why is the supposed weakness of Western allies trumpeted so loudly that even the dimmest KGB agent will hear about it? Thompson suggests the answer is that each military bloc is determined to mislead the other - not by publicising weaknesses but by deliberately concealing areas of greatest military strength. And the intelligence services are by no means above deliberately manufacturing alarmist reports. ‘Every official statement,’ according to Thompson, `is either an official lie or a statement with direct propagandist intent which conceals as much as it reveals.’

Fudged and inflated statistics on Soviet power are also used by politicians and the military to terrify voters with sensational accounts of the enemy’s war preparations. Thus justifying gross defence expenditure at a time when there are so many other calls on the national exchequer.

Any comparison of military strength that shows the West a poor second to the Soviets should be judged in this light. Facts on the nuclear balance provided by the objective Stockholm International Peace Research Institute are far more complex than those shown by Time magazine (see illustration). Although one total of bombers and missiles shows that the USSR is indeed a little ahead of the US, if you count actual warheads (the Poseidon missile carries ten independently targetting warheads) the US has twice as many weapons as Russia - 8870 to 3810. And this was before the 1980 expansion of weaponry by NATO allies.

If the alarm sirens ever sound in earnest, and the red buttons are pushed, neither side could ever `win’ a nuclear conflict. Whichever power is obliterated first, it would be impossible for the victors to wipe out every patrolling enemy submarine or bomber. And these would inevitably take retaliatory action.

Just in case the big bangs do come, people in the UK are to be informed of a daunting list of civil defence measures they might have time to take - which might reduce casualties from 30 million to a mere 15 or 20 million.

In the last analysis, supporters of nuclear deterance believe that the stockpile policy will stop war. But as the `Protest and Survive’ pamphlet points out, such supporters must face the logical alternative. The expensive bluff might be called - and the rockets let loose. Four serious questions have to be answered:

Is nuclear war preferable to being overcome by the enemy: is the death of nearly half the country’s population and its utter destruction, even if we `win’, preferable to occupation - with the possibilities of resurgence and recuperation?

Are we prepared to permit our weapons to be used against the innocent, the children and the aged of the enemy?

Is it right that with virtually no open debate, the UK should provide Cruise missile bases which will endanger the survival of the nation.

How long can we maintain such expensive and belligerent habits in the name of ‘defence’?

This column was published in the September 1980 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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