Friday, 8 November 2019

The Cold War legacy and Atomic Doomtown

Tomorrow is the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, leading to the reunification of Germany 11 months later, ( and with it, the beginning of the end of the Cold War stand-off between east and Western Europe, and the Warsaw Pact and NATO.

To mark this important anniversary, the BBC interviewed the former Soviet Communist party General Secretary and USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who was president of the Soviet Union at the time of these momentous political and diplomatic events. Now nearly 90, he made news warning that that current tension between Russia and the West is putting the world in "colossal danger" due to the threat from nuclear weapons. "All nations should declare—all nations—that nuclear weapons must destroyed. This is to save ourselves and our planet." (“Mikhail Gorbachev tells the BBC: World in ‘colossal danger’, ”BBC 4 November 2019; . But the other British media totally ignored his concerns, being obsessed by Brexit and the upcoming General Election. (To Avoid World War III, Gorbachev Says All 'Nuclear Weapons Must Be Destroyed'”; Common Dreams, 4 November 2019;

A very good insight into how the Cold War stand-off began was to be found at six-month long exhibition at the UK National Archives ( in Kew, west London, under the theme: “Protect and Survive: Britain’s cold war revealed”, which also ends tomorrow.

Here are some extracts I recorded during personal visit this week.

Displayed was a diplomatic cable from Frank (later Sir) Roberts, then a British diplomat at the embassy in Moscow, who wrote to UK Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin on 28 March 1946: “[Russia] has grown around a small principality in Moscow, with no  natural frontiers and always surrounded by  unfriendly neighbours - Tartars, Poles, Turks, Teutonic Knights and Swedes. At the very birth of the new Soviet State the whole world seemed united against her, and the fears aroused by foreign intervention after 1917 cannot yet have been eradicated from the minds of the rulers  of Russia, any more than the fears of Communism ha sbeen eradicated from that of Western leaders.”

Bevin’s boss, Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee had set out his concerns over the militarization  - with nuclear weapons of mass destruction (WMD) - of the post-World War Two relations with the Soviet Union, a British ally during the war. He wrote in a Cabinet office memorandum,  dated 28 August 1945 – barely three weeks since the United States dropped its second atomic bomb, on Nagasaki, in Japan – that: “This sort of thing has  in the past been considered a Utopian dream.It has become today the essential condition of the survival of civilization and possibly life on the planet. No Government  has ever  been placed  in such a position as ours today. The Governments of the UK and the USA are responsible as never befor efo rth efutur eof the human race.”

Attlee proposed that he, US President Truman, and Soviet President Stalin “should forthwith take counsel together…time is short.”

But instead of a post WW2detante, a Cold War was promulgated. Another memo dated 1951 shows  the Paymaster General, Lord Cherwell, who had been a close confident of Churchill through  WW2, informing  Winston  Churchill - Attlee’s successor as Prime minister- that he had kept the spending on atomic weapons concealed in the “Estimates” to Parliament. A few years after, Churchill informed the young Queen Elizabeth in a letter dated 16 July 1954 ( by chance 9 years to the day that the US first tested an atomic bomb ‘Trinity’ at Socorro in New Mexico) that the British Cabinet  was considering  developing a hydrogen ‘H’-bomb. [The UK had tested its first atom bomb the previous year.] The Cabinet subsequently gave the go ahead on 26 July 1954.

A television documentary broadcast on BBC4 on 4 November, chillingly entitled “A British Guide to the End of the  World” -  as part of the Arena series – contained extraordinary footage and reminiscences  of servicemen who attended the first test of the British H-bomb on Christmas Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in 1957.

Here are some recollected observations made former soldiers interviewed.

 “Nobody knew why we were there [on Christmas Island]”

“We were never given any information on the size ( ie explosive power) of the [H-] bombs.”

“It [ the bomb] was an angry , evil looking thing.”

“The bomb [detonation] emptied an entire a lagoon.”

“What goes up, must come down—the rain was black.”

“With a weapons like that you wouldn’t fear anybody… you could destroy nations.” “We really did believe we were that close to nuclear war-  Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).”

Defensive systems were built in the UK to protect the nation from atomic attack. One such was constructed by RCA -  originally the Radio Corporation of America, which later made musical records and other electrical goods -  in the north Yorkshire moors, at Fylingdales. One worker at Fylingdales’ memorable white domes commented:”You are constantly training for war all the time.”  

A decade later, in 1979, the UK Government began a series of so-called Civil Defence exercises under the title of ‘Wintex-Cimex’. The National Archives exhibition showed a film made by a young reporter, Jeremy Paxman, for a BBC Panorama programme   titled “If the Bomb drops.” (The BBC itself would become the Wartime Broadcasting Service)

The text of a [fictional] speech written as if to be delivered by the Queen on 4 March 1983 - at the height of a ‘Wintex-Cimex’ exercise, when the military planners  envisaged conflict had escalated to nuclear war - stated chillingly:

“We all know that the dangers facing us today are greater by far than at any time in our long history. The enemy is not the soldier with his rifle, nor even the airman  prowling the skies above our cities and towns, but the deadly power of abused technology.” (emphasis added)

It is interesting to note that even MOD war gamers regarded nuclear weapons as  “abused technology “ at the height of the Cold War!

Yet we have seen again this week how the political power of nuclear weapons dangerously seduces otherwise sane politicians during an election

Asked on Morning Television on 5 November  this week why she could never support a Corbyn government, Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson's instant response was because he would not be prepared to order submarine commanders to fire British nuclear missiles.(“ 'Jeremy Corbyn is not fit for job of PM,' Jo Swinson says, as Lib Dems launch campaign,” Daily Telegraph, 5 November 2019;

Meantime, it is salutary to note from a Pathe News film shown at the National Archive exhibition, that the name given to the small community constructed in the Nevada desert, to see what would be the destructive effect of blast on building of different construction, from British atomic bombs of different explosive capacity detonated nearby: ‘Doomtown’.

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