Nuclear apocalypse and the Letter of Last Resort.

Scrutinizing culture.
Jan. 9 2009 5:12 PM

The Letter of Last Resort

The decision about nuclear apocalypse lying in a safe at the bottom of the sea.

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With all due respect to our British cousins, this seems, well, insane. Or it highlights the fact that the insanity of Mutually Assured Destruction—insanity that was obtained during the Cold War and that we thought we'd left behind—still exists as real policy, however deeply problematic it remains in this and many other respects. (The fact that British defense officialdom allowed the reporters to know about the Last Resort Letter suggests that they're proud of this system, evidence that a kind of group madness grips Her Majesty's Royal Navy.)

The old-fashioned, pen-and-ink-on-paper quality of it all (quill pen, perhaps?) somehow makes the system seem like it emanated from a 19th-century madhouse out of Wilkie Collins. Which makes it even more profoundly shocking that the system is still in place.

How would they know some hacker hadn't decided to play One Final Trick upon the world above? In 1997, the U.S. Navy discovered that there was a "backdoor" electronic entrance to the nuclear missile submarine launch control system, according to Bruce Blair, head of the World Security Institute, a Washington think tank. Blair told me the "backdoor" entrance would have allowed a diabolically ingenious hacker to insert a launch order into the system.

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And it seems stunningly foolish, counterproductive, indeed self-destructive for the Royal Navy to reveal that the United Kingdom's last line of deterrence, its ultimate safeguard against nuclear attack—the certainty of retaliation—is not certain at all. In fact, any fanatical enemy could figure it had a 50-50 chance that Gordon Brown did not order retaliation. In all likelihood, it's probably 90-10 against; what prime minister, what human being would want to put in his own handwriting the order to kill tens or hundreds of millions of innocent civilians—especially at the point when the threat to do so had failed to deter the attack it was meant to deter?

The Letter of Last Resort serves at least one purpose: It reawakens us to the awful unresolved paradox of nuclear deterrence. We must make any potential nuclear attackers believe that they would be vaporized—suffer national nuclear holocaust—if they hit us first with nuclear weapons. And yet if they went ahead and did it, if the genocidal threat failed to deter them, there would be no point in carrying out retaliation; it would be useless mass murder, genocide pure if not simple.

On the other hand, if the potential foe thought that we might not retaliate once the threat served no purpose—that retaliatory "deterrence" would, in essence, turn out to be a bluff—it would encourage those disposed to strike first to cause a nuclear holocaust without fear of reprisal. We had to threaten genocide—and convince people we meant to carry out our threat—in order to prevent genocide.

This was always the problem with MAD, and it was spotlighted again by the Radio 4 documentary, which disclosed that at least one person in a position similar to that of Gordon Brown says he would have refused to give a Last Resort order to retaliate. That would be Denis Healey, former defense secretary to Labor PM Harold Wilson. Healey told the documentary makers, "I realized I would find it very, very difficult indeed to agree to use a nuclear weapon—and I think most people would."

Even if Britain were already lost, Healey told the BBC, "I think I would still have said that that, I'm afraid, is no reason for doing something like that. Because most of the people you kill would be innocent civilians."

Of course, innocent civilians, millions of them, might have been killed in the United Kingdom if the Soviets had known this was Healey's attitude at the time.

In 1996, Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, an adviser to Margaret Thatcher, wrote a remarkable essay for the London Spectator in which he reflected precisely on this paradox. He says that from conversations with Thatcher and Reagan, he was convinced both of them would have carried out the threatened nuclear retaliation at the heart of deterrence. They would have pushed the button no matter what. But he also said that upon further reflection of a religious nature, he realized that to do so would have been obscenely immoral. I've been obsessed with this question my entire life. The high point, though, may have been my frank discussion of it with the spear carriers of nuclear Armageddon, the Minuteman missile crewmen I met on a magazine assignment at the height of the Cold War. These were the men who, deep beneath the Great Plains in the "launch control centers," held the keys to the missile launch consoles. It was they who would perform the physical Last Resort act of twisting those keys in their slots and sending salvos of nuclear holocaust missiles halfway round the world.