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.

Royal Navy nuclear submarine. Click image to expand.
Royal Navy nuclear submarine

The secret in the safe deposit box. That recurring image: I've found it fascinating and somewhat mysterious that, again and again, the mythic, apocryphal keys to some of the great mysteries of our time are said to be locked away in long-lost, deeply buried, or well-hidden safe deposit boxes. Or in locked safes with combinations or locations unknown.

When I was researching Explaining Hitler, I would often find that some crucial document—the 1931 Munich prosecutor's investigation of the death of Hitler's half-niece (and rumored sexual obsession) Geli Raubal, for instance, or the memoir of Hitler's hypnotherapist at a World War I military sanitarium; both documents said to offer hidden truths about Hitler's psyche had purportedly been secreted away, and subsequently lost, in Swiss safe deposit boxes.

Then, more recently, the manuscript of The Original of Laura, Vladimir Nabokov's final, unfinished novel, the one he wanted burned, was, we were told by his son Dmitri, locked away in ... a Swiss safe deposit box.

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And now, in the course of researching a book on the new face of nuclear warfare, I came upon an astonishing reference to a "Last Resort Letter," a literally apocalyptic missive secreted in a safe within a safe, deep beneath the surface of the ocean, a Letter of Last Resort containing the orders for—or against—Armageddon.

Why the recurrence of the image of some valuable truth hidden in an inaccessible safe? My theory is that it allows us to believe that certain truths do exist: They're just forever locked away from our grasp. A thought both comforting and disturbing.

In the case of the Letter of Last Resort, the reference turns out to be factual: At this very moment, miles beneath the surface of the ocean, there is a British nuclear submarine carrying powerful ICBMs (nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles). In the control room of the sub, the Daily Mailreports, "there is a safe attached to a control room floor. Inside that, there is an inner safe. And inside that sits a letter. It is addressed to the submarine commander and it is from the Prime Minister. In that letter, Gordon Brown conveys the most awesome decision of his political career ... and none of us is ever likely to know what he decided."

The decision? Whether or not to fire the sub's missiles, capable of causing genocidal devastation in retaliation for an attack that would—should the safe and the letter need to be opened—have already visited nuclear destruction on Great Britain. The letter containing the prime minister's posthumous decision (assuming he would have been vaporized by the initial attack on the homeland) is known as the Last Resort Letter.

Its existence was highlighted a little more than a month ago by two reporters for the United Kingdom's respected BBC Radio 4 in a report called "The Human Button," an investigation of the nuclear-launch decision-making process. * Their report first appeared in print in the Nov. 30 issue of the Daily Mail; the documentary was broadcast two days later.

You didn't know about the Letter of Last Resort? Neither did I. I've never encountered anything like it when looking into the mechanics and morals of nuclear retaliation in this and other nuclear nations. As far as I know, no other nation has configured the nuclear retaliation decision in a manner so intimate, so personal. (Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising: England was, after all, the birthplace of the epistolary novel; should not its last expiring act be sealed in a handwritten letter?)

Indeed the Letter of Last Resort foregrounds, personalizes—endows with novelistic suspense—the apocalyptic decision that is rarely, especially in recent years, thought of. And yet which may, once again, in this new nuclear age, have to be rethought.