New Internationalist

Laugh? This’ll kill you

December 1980

This month’s reviews look at two books arguing the case against nuclear arms, and at a sceptical assessment of the impact of Appropriate Technology. Review Editor: Anuradha Vittachi.

Protest and Survive
edited by E. P. Thompson and Dan Smith
Penguin (paperback)
UK:£1.50 / Aus:$3.95 / Canada:$3.95

From Hiroshima to Harrisburg
by Jim Garrison
SCM Press (paperback)
UK: £5.50

Twenty-five years ago, when I was at school in New York, we had air raid drills: when the bell rang we filed out of our classrooms and lined up in the corridors, our eyes covered and head to the wall. I hadn’t the foggiest idea what we were supposed to be protecting ourselves against, or how, or why.

I have the same feeling now when I look at the UK government’s civil defence pamphlet, (Protect and Survive) and the spate of `how to survive the nuclear holocaust’ handbooks that followed. Sandbags? In central London? Against something far greater than even that which destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Nonsense. Just look at the photographs of Hiroshima, or read the medical reports on people still dying of radiation effects thirty-five years later, and you know it’s nonsense.

But such an intuitive response is not enough. To challenge the government’s nuclear weapons and civil defence policies one needs facts and analysis of the sort provided by E.P. Thompson’s Protest and Survive, the lead essay in the Penguin of the same title (and updated reprint of his now famous pamphlet).

Even back in the days of my childhood, Thompson reports, the experts knew civil defence was a sham. Even if every American had an air raid shelter, the US civil defence administrator said in 1957, half the population would die in a surprise enemy attack. `There is no such thing,’ he wrote, `as a nation being pre­pared for a thermonuclear war.’

So civil defence is a pointless exercise i designed for political control over those few survivors there might be after a nuclear attack, rather than for saving lives. And the government’s growing emphasis on civil defence is intended to prepare us for the `inevitability’ of nuclear war, and to make us accept that we need nuclear weapons to `deter’ that inevitability.

The book provides hard information to refute the assumptions of civil defence and deterrence. The central essays, by Alva Myrdal, Mary Kaldor, Dan Smith and others, concentrate on the economic, social and political consequences of the military policies of Britain, the US and the USSR - leading to a final section which contains an appeal for European Nuclear Disarmament and some ideas for grassroots action by the general secre­tary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Protest and Survive provides essential background on the international policies of nuclear weaponry, but it pays less attention to conventional weaponry (which has, after all, done all the damage of the past thirty-five years and is the major factor in the militarisation of the Third World), and it does not deal at all with the relationship between nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. This relationship cannot be ignored; as Jim Garrison argues in From Hiroshima to Harrisburg, `Integral to the proliferation of nuclear weapons is the presence and proliferation of nuclear reactors.’

Garrison tries to analyse the `human dimension of nuclear history’ rather than the economic or technical aspects. His chapter on the decision-making process leading to Hiroshima is fascinating, and his later sections on low-level radiation and the nuclear fuel cycle are excellent introductions for a non-specialist. But I found his semi-mystical approach cloying (`Hiroshima began a permanent encounter with death immersion…’).

Garrison’s book is expensive, and the money would probably be better spent on Protest and Survive, Helen Caldicott’s new book Nuclear Madness, and a clutch of pamphlets from CND and other peace or anti-nuclear groups.

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

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This article was originally published in issue 094

New Internationalist Magazine issue 094
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