Wednesday, 5 September 2018

The unsung nuclear disarmers....and the British chemical weapons bomber

John McCain and Peter Melchett’s commitment to disarmament

David Lowry on McCain’s – and Trump’s – surprising support for nuclear disarmament, and John Marston on Melchett’s participation in a peace protest in East Anglia


Guardian, Thursday 6 September  2018

John McCain with his wife Cindy in 2008, the year he lost the presidential election to Barack Obama.

John McCain with his wife Cindy in 2008, the year he lost the presidential election to Barack Obama. Photograph: Bill Sikes/AP

Former Washington correspondent Godfrey Hodgson’s appreciation of the life’s contribution of Senator John McCain (Obituaries, 27 August) rightly concentrated on his strong political concerns over national security and defence, in the context of his experience as a PoW in Vietnam.

But there is one intriguing and politically brave position taken by McCain overlooked in his obits: his support for nuclear disarmament, a highly unusual stance in US politics, especially for a Republican presidential candidate.

Speaking during the 2008 US presidential election campaign to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, McCain surprised many listeners when he said “the United States should lead a global effort at nuclear disarmament”.

Although McCain lost that election to Barack Obama, the latter subsequently won the Nobel peace prize (somewhat prematurely) for his major speech in Prague a year later pledging to move towards nuclear disarmament, a posture also surprisingly endorsed by Donald Trump in his pre-presidential writings (with thanks to Joseph Cirincione, the president of Ploughshares Fund and the author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons, Los Angeles Times, 4 June 2008).
Dr David Lowry
Senior international research fellow, Institute for Resource and Security Studies, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

• I was very sorry to read of the organic farmer Peter Melchett’s death (Obituary, 4 September). He has been an inspiration in his concern for the environment through Greenpeace, the Soil Association and allied organisations. Perhaps less well known was his support when East Anglia became a prime nuclear target following the arrival of first-strike US bombers at RAF Sculthorpe. Volunteers took part in a perimeter wire-cutting protest over a period. For most it was their first experience of lawbreaking but the court appearance was made a little easier by the presence of this quiet, unassuming peer among us. It was not difficult to imagine the criticism he received elsewhere. It is to be hoped that one day before too long reckless world leaders like Putin and Trump will have to give way to the Peter Melchetts of this world.
John Marston
King’s Lynn, Norfolk

letter sent to the Times, on 5 September

Both the prime minister and leader of the opposition rightly and unequivocally condemned what Mrs May called the “despicable chemical weapons attack on the streets of Salisbury” in her statement to Parliament. (

She insisted to MPs it was totally unacceptable for a foreign state to send military operatives to another country and deploy chemical agent against civilians.

In so saying, she repeated what she had stressed on a visit to Copenhagen  on 9 April, that: "The UK utterly condemns the use of chemical weapons in any circumstances." (

That may be today's policy, but it hasn't always been so. 99 years ago, Britain attacked civilians in Russian villages with chemical weapons, under orders of Minister for War, Winston Churchill.

An astonishing  50,000 top secret ‘M’ Devices - an exploding shell containing a highly toxic gas called diphenylaminechloroarsine, developed at Porton Down chemical weapons centre  in Wiltshire - were  covertly shipped to Russia, and  British aerial attacks using them began on 27 August 1919, targeting the village of Emtsa, 120 miles south of Archangel.

So, as the righteous outrage against Mr Putin and his Government predictably escalates, it should remembered that the UK got its retaliation in first.

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