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The Greater Moscow Redevelopment Corporation

On nuclear deterrence. 

With a large, soft plop, a significant part of Britain’s supposed nuclear deterrent recently fell into the deep waters off Florida, not far from Cocoa Beach. Embarrassingly, the U.S. Navy looked on, as these tests take place pretty much under the supervision of the American fleet. The Russians probably knew too. One Royal Navy submarine captain once told me how, after a successful missile launch, the international frequency of his radio crackled to life as a Russian-accented voice said, “Congratulations, Captain, on your successful test!”

But lately there have not been many such successes. In 2016, another of the American Trident missiles, which His Britannic Majesty leases from the United States, had whizzed off in the wrong direction (towards the U.S.A., alas) and had to be destroyed while still in the air. Of course both were without their appalling nuclear warheads. But even unarmed, these things are expensive and you cannot just keep testing them. If I were whoever is supposed to be deterred by this elderly assembly of gadgets, tangled wiring, steam, salt, and rust, I might not be as nervous or as cautious as I was intended to be. Though in any case, who is all this aimed at? I cannot work out which nation cares enough about us. And could we use it? I shouldn’t think so; in fact I am sure that we would not. Who would take such a responsibility for killing so many people so horribly, when the whole point of the thing had already disappeared?

I was for a long period of the Cold War a keen supporter of nuclear deterrence, though in my teens I had joined demonstrations against it and once got into trouble at school for trying to break into a British government bunker, from which the east of England would have been ruled with an iron hand had the bomb fallen. When I was a Trotskyist Revolutionary of a very skeptical sort we used to sing a mocking song about the orthodox Communists and their defense of the Soviet Bomb, the last line of which ran “And though our comrades all shout b***s, we’ll stand beneath it when it falls.” In the end, around the late 1970s, I applied my Leninist thinking process properly to the issue and concluded that the Cuban crisis of 1961 had made the case for nuclear weapons, precisely because they could not in fact be used. The old sentimental leftist position, that the bomb had to be banned, was an absurdity, inherited from the lost imperial age when Britain’s voice counted for something in the world. For if Britain abandoned its nuclear weapons, nobody would say “Let us follow the noble example of the majestic British and scrap our atomic warheads too.” They would just laugh behind their hands at our vainglory, and take advantage in whatever way suited them.

Why not keep a few anyway? It was evident that H-Bombs, as long as they remained unused, changed human behavior for the better. The crude proposition that we would burn millions of people to death if we were threatened with defeat was obviously intolerable. No moral person could ever actually use them again. Their effects were grisly almost beyond bearing. Careful examination of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki showed that it had not, as is so widely and comfortingly believed, ended the Second World War. Japan’s leaders at the time cared little or nothing for civilian casualties among their people, and had tolerated many such casualties from conventional bombs, without faltering. Tokyo surrendered because of its fear of a Soviet invasion. Conventional wisdom just melts away in this debate, and it is such a pity that the boring and pretentious film Oppenheimer missed an overdue opportunity to re-examine it.

By contrast, deterrence really works. The demonstrable fact that British and American nuclear bombs neutralized the enormous Soviet armies in Europe (and they were enormous) was absolutely not intolerable. The Soviets knew that if ever they moved those great tank regiments westwards, they would risk creating a madness in which nobody would win. And so the tanks never moved. I do not think they much wanted to move them, and whenever Moscow tried to increase its influence over Western Europe it did so through diplomatic cunning and the manipulation of western public opinion, not by force. This was not a moral decision, but a tactical one. The Soviets were quite ready to use the most crude repression and violence to keep hold of the countries they had already seized, but they were not prepared to do the same to territories covered by a nuclear guarantee.

I grew fascinated with the things themselves, and petitioned to be allowed to visit HMS Repulse, one of the four Polaris submarines which in those days (1983, I think) provided the nuclear deterrent for my country. As I had once been a Trotskyist, my visit had to be personally approved by the Secretary for Defense, an open-minded gentleman of the old school (and Korean War veteran), George Younger. Given the hostility between Trotskyists and Soviet Communists, this struck me (and, I suspect, George Younger) as a futile and misguided procedure. But security men are unimaginative by their nature.

After a secret rendezvous in Glasgow I was hurried out of the city and then taken in a launch into the choppy seas off the Isle of Skye. I had no idea what was going to happen or which way to look when suddenly the monstrous black thing, covered in acoustic tiles, appeared behind us, and I had to nerve myself to scramble up its steep side (with the strong impression that I would get very little sympathy if I fell in). Inside, HMS Repulse was enormous, four hundred twenty-five feet long, thirty-three feet broad. I have many times been asked if I felt claustrophobic or worried by the great weight of water above me, but in truth I never did. In fact I felt rather pleased when someone announced over the public address “submarine going to 300 feet.” I saw it all, the wooden club with which anyone who went berserk in the control room would be knocked unconscious, the trigger with which the missiles would actually be launched, the frankly alarming zone around the nuclear reactor, known as “steam drain alley,” the red wine at dinner in the wardroom (all persons connected with nuclear weapons have a belief in the magical effect of red wine in protecting them from radiation. I found exactly the same among Russian nuclear weapons scientists in Kazakhstan, many years later, though their wine was Georgian rather than French). 

On Sunday morning, I attended Divine Service in some clanging loading bay, during which we sang “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, Forgive Our Foolish Ways” (which I suspect—but do not know—was a pointed anti-nuclear gesture by the chaplain). I examined the great launch-tubes in the twilit chamber in which the missiles sat, and then walked on the steel hatches on the forward deck which would fly open at the moment of launch, after which the missiles would be hurled into the air by great belches of “gas and steam,” before igniting (or perhaps not igniting) and heading off on their fifteen-minute journey to Moscow. The whole time we were being shadowed by a Soviet spy ship unconvincingly disguised as a trawler. This surveillance caused the captain to try to avoid its radars by taking us into the perilous seas near the Isle of Jura (where George Orwell completed Nineteen Eighty-Four). We surfaced for one particular maneuver, passing the notorious Gulf of Corryvreckan with its giant whirlpool, and I was allowed to watch the great ship’s struggle with the ocean from the top of the high conning tower. Fortunately for me, I believed without question in naval competence, or I should have been in a state of quivering terror. The captain must have smoked half a packet of cigarettes in about ten minutes as he negotiated these terrifying seas, where the tidal rip is said to be powerful enough to swing round a thirty thousand-ton World War One battlecruiser. He knew that if he damaged his submarine, the British nuclear strike force would be reduced to an unreliable shoestring remnant. It is the only time I have actually felt the sheer force of nuclear power, as the boat trembled and the reactor strained to push us through the churning tide. 

That night I was decanted into another launch and taken ashore, feeling as if I had been cut off forever from a warm, fascinating secret world to which I would never return. I have not since stopped thinking about the experience, and never will. I have clear pictures in my mind of what would actually take place in the half-hour before the end of the world, and no discussion of the subject leaves me cold or uninterested. When I went to live in Moscow, I remembered that the ship’s company of HMS Repulse had laughingly called themselves “The Greater Moscow Redevelopment Corporation.” And some Muscovite friends, appalled by a hideous and apparently indestructible giant concrete hotel at the heart of that great city expressed their disdain for it by joking, “We have no idea how to get rid of it. That is a job for your Polaris.” There are no such jokes now. I am no longer anything like as sure about anything as I was then, and I wish I was.