One of the more interesting bits of UK government propaganda came in the form of a film called “The Peace Game” from 1982. I think it’s worth setting out a proper historical context for this film; by 1982 the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was very active with anything up to 100,000 members1 and the opposition to Cruise and Pershing missiles being based on Europe had gained significant momentum. Arguments over disarmament and unilateralism had also gained traction.
This became a major headache to the government of the day and was well documented in Duncan Campbell’s Secret Society in 1987 in the episode “The Secret Constitution: Secret Cabinet Committees” and how the government sought to advance its own arguments over the value of deterrence.
From my own point of view this film is an attempt to startle the viewer into accepting deterrence, and all the baggage that goes with it, by portraying the USSR as a vast military-industrial complex which was numerically superior to in nearly every respect to the West. Reinforcing this, is the portrayal of the USSR as an expansionist power, swallowing up numerous Balkan and Central European satellite states. It never presented an alternative view that the USSRs motivation could have been seen as defensive; with no natural border between itself and Europe the USSR had reason to create buffers between itself and the West. It had been invaded numerous times, spanning the time from Napoleon to Hitler and had suffered catastrophically at every occasion.
The none-too-subtle subtext of The Peace Game is of suggested defeatism by selective interviews of the public concerning neutrality, unilateral disarmament and our NATO membership. They never actually confront the core counter-argument that Britain’s nuclear weapons and her decision to allow the United States to base them on her soil directly imperiled Britain to a far greater degree than any political movement. The USSR had warned repeatedly they would treat an attack on their territory by a US weapon as coming from the continental United States regardless of the geographical origin of the weapon.
The film can be seen in short form on both the UK National Archives site and YouTube and in long form on JISC Media Hub for those with an appropriate login as part of the Imperial War Museum archives.
A valuable addition to the study of the Cold War and Britain’s place in it is in the 1980 book “Britain and the bomb the New Statesman papers on defence and disarmament” edited by EP Thompson.
This collection of articles from The New Statesman was written at fascinating and tense period of the Cold War; the USSR had invaded Afghanistan, NATO had decided to base Cruise and Pershing Missiles in Europe and Britain had committed itself to developing the Trident ballistic missile carrying submarine system.
This backdrop of events provided the source for numerous articles by many writers including EP Thompson, Christopher Hitchens, Duncan Campbell and Robin Cook. Hitchens looks at the British government’s nuclear war “survival guide” “Protect and Survive” and neatly fillets the whole notion of surviving nuclear attack. Duncan Campbell exposes Britain’s plans for governing during a nuclear war, how it would control internal dissent, the numbers of bases that would become targets and the culture of secrecy around home defence (that both he and John Pilger would later examine in Secret Society and The Truth Game respectfully).
Now long out of print this little book is an invaluable addition to Cold War studies, particular from Britain’s point of view. This was a very turbulent time in bringing medium range nuclear weapons to Europe and public concern and opposition to it. Highly recommended.
This 1980 film is an introduction to the MX (Missile Experimental) Missile/Peacekeeper for Air Force staff following its authorisation by the President. It’s important to note that the film is at a very early stage of MX development when many of the developments were proposed or suggested rather than being at a working stage.
The MX missile was fundamentally a system to keep the Air Force in the ICBM business after Soviet advances in targeting and accuracy made static missile silos increasingly vulnerable to attack – in fact the worry was a surprise attack from submarine launched ballistic missiles could potentially neutralised the greater part of this force.
MX was meant to solve that by being a survivable system where the enemy would never know which silo an MX missile was in and by constantly moving them around in mobile launchers to escape detection. At least in 1980 that was the theory and was later abandoned/supplemented by moving MX on a special railroad launcher to an underground railroad system of multiple silos and as a final irony they were actually stationed in former Minuteman silos, static and vulnerable to the very thing they were meant to avoid.
Like the Strategic Defence initiative, MX became too complex and too expensive to fully realise. In fact the more survivable MX became the more it began to resemble a nuclear war-fighting weapon rather than a deterrent. If MX represented an unacceptable level of damage to a potential aggressor then they were probably better off using all their weapons at once rather than risking them all in a reprisal by MX – the MX/Peacekeeper missile did carry 10 MIRV-ed warheads.
The entire MX programme was mired in difficulties, political, financial and practical and the last MX missile was deactivated in 2005. It is difficult to say should a nuclear crisis between East and West have ever come about with MX would have been a benefit or liability.
This documentary is part of a larger series, “War” by Gwynne Dyer. This particular episode is an excellent snapshot of how nuclear weapons were developing by 1983 and the policy and politics surrounding them.
I find the tone of the documentary pleasantly realistic and the breadth of sources excellent; Dyer speaks to people on both sides of the then Iron Curtain and discusses the self-serving nature of “deterrent” policy, whether the military industrial complex of the West or the “metal eaters alliance” of the Soviet Union.
As a war historian Gwynne Dyer adds chronological perspective reminding us that there is nothing unique about NATO and the Warsaw Pact; that they were just today’s terms for two opposing ideologies. He also makes it absolutely clear the nature of the double-think going on with policy makers; that Mutual Assured Destruction had been abandoned in the 1960s but they never made an effort to correct the popular myth in public this was still policy. That nuclear war-fighting was the plan and the policy.
As he reveals in the documentary if all you want to do is blow the world up all you need is enough ICBMs in enough silos or in enough submarines. If that’s all that was required the military had more than enough material to do this since the mid 1960s. To go on developing weapons the theory of deterrence needed more than just massive retaliation. Modernised weapons gave us medium and short range weapons; cruise, Pershing, SS-20, etc. It led us to MIRV-ed weapons to strike at multiple targets. It ultimately led us to the worst doublethink weapon of all time, the MX or “Peacekeeper” missile – a survivable system to provide was eventually called prompt-counterforce deterrence. The irony was the MX missile, for all the talk of its mobility and survivable base system was eventually stuck down old Minuteman silos rather compromising the entire system. Perhaps there was tacit admission that any massive attack on missile silos would result in general retaliation and “limited” nuclear war was every bit as absurd as most sensible people know it is.
This documentary is an important film in capturing our thinking at the height of the Cold War and is a rational examination of our relationship with nuclear weapons and how we justify them:
The BBC’s online magazine has recently run a features called “How did we forget about mutually assured destruction?” The Beeb generally does a good job of fact checking and rarely do I have much serious complaint. The problem with How did we forget about mutually assured destruction? is that it repeats many of the same fallacies around Mutually Assured Destruction that have been around for years.
For decades its never been imagined that any nuclear war would be an all-or-nothing offensive over in a few hours (to quote John Pilger in his “The Truth Game” documentary from 1983). Since the 1960s there has been ongoing development of sub-strategic, tactical and battlefield nuclear weapons that in one sense lowered the possibility of a nuclear strike being strategic but also had the perilous side-effect of lowering the bar at which nuclear weapons might be used.
Medium and intermediate range nuclear weapons were part of the main sign that mutual assured destruction was less the objective and that political and military bodies believed that could engage in nuclear war-fighting on a limited scale. Whether this was ever a safe or sensible policy is unlikely as once the nuclear threshold was crossed it seems pretty unlikely a nuclear conflict would stay limited. However as Pilger noted in his documentary, the British Army Land Battle Tactics Manual from the early 1960s noted that “nuclear weapons would be used in large but not unlimited numbers.”
In other words, almost no sooner had Robert McNamara suggested assured destruction following the Cuban Missile Crisis than we already were planning for nuclear war-fighting on a smaller scale. The theory was that assured destruction would work because no victory was possible and thus deterrence would be achieved. This policy was ultimately undermined by newer and and more surgical weapons.
Assured destruction was first dealt a serious blow with advent of MIRV‘ed nuclear missiles, which the US began to deploy in the 1960s in the form of the Minuteman missiles. Missiles with multiple warheads, all independently targetable ultimately upset the very notion of assured destruction. The reason for this is they could be used in a decapitation strike upsetting the nuclear balance as it became tempting to believe you could destroy your adversaries political and military leadership as well as their missile silos weakening or destroying their ability to strike back.
From their on more modernised weapons also lowered the possibility of assured destruction leading to a climax with the USSRs SS-20 and the United States’ cruise (Tomahawk) missiles. Both missiles were highly mobile, very difficult to target and almost impossible to intercept in flight. They were only intermediate missiles that fundamentally were to fight a European nuclear war without nuclear weapons falling on either Russian or American soil.
The combination of MIRVed missiles and highly accurate, intermediate ranged nuclear missiles had effectively ended the era of assured destruction. Both sides of the Cold War had, by no later than the 1970s, had decided that you could fight and win a nuclear war, possibly a development more dangerous than the era of assured destruction had ever been.
Postscript (19 Feb 2012)
I have recently found a John Pilger documentary called “Mr. Nixon’s Secret Legacy” in which John Pilger looks at the abandonment of assured destruction in favour of “Counterforce” i.e. nuclear war fighting. This documentary is nearly 40 years old.