Britain and the Nuclear Bombs

How an article in the New Statesman written by JB Priestley led to the creation of CND

New Statesman 2 November 1957

In 1940, as Britain and its empire stood alone, J B Priestley became a symbol of national resistance to Nazism. Seventeen years later, the patriotic novelist called on the same spirit of Britain to set a moral example to the world by throwing away its nuclear bombs. His article led to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. His arguments remain relevant today, as parliament debates renewing our "independent" nuclear deterrent.

Selected by Robert Taylor

Two events of this autumn should compel us to reconsider the question of Britain and the nuclear bombs. The first of these events was Mr Anuerin Bevan's speech at the Labour Party conference, which seemed to many of us to slam a door in our faces. It was not dishonest but it was very much a party conference speech, and its use of terms like 'unilateral' and 'polarisation' lent it a suggestion of the 'Foreign Office spokesman'. Delegates asked not to confuse 'an emotional spasm' with 'statesmanship' might have retorted that the statesmanship of the last 10 years has produced little else but emotional spasms. And though it is true, as Mr Bevan argued, that independent action by this country, to ban nuclear bombs, would involve our foreign minister in many difficulties, most of us would rather have a bewildered and overworked Foreign Office than a country about to be turned into a radioactive cemetery. Getting out of the water may be difficult, but it's better than drowning.

The second event was the successful launching of the Soviet satellite, followed by an immediate outbreak of what may fairly be called satellitis, producing a rise in temperature and delirium. In the poker gain, where Britain still sits, nervously fingering a few remaining chips, like a Treasury official playing with two drunk oil millionaires, the stakes have been doubled again. Disarmament talks must now take place in an atmosphere properly belonging to boys' papers and science fiction., though already charged with far more hysterical competitiveness. If statesmanship is to see us through, it will have to break the familiar and dubious pattern of the last few years. Perhaps what we need now, before it is too late, is not statesmanship but lifesmanship.

One 'ultimate weapon', the final deterrent, succeeds another. After the bombs, the intercontinental rockets; and after the rockets, according to the First Lord of the Admiralty, the guided-missile submarine, which will 'carry a guided missile with a nuclear warhead and appear off the coasts of any country in the world with a capability of penetrating to the centre of any continent.' The prospect now is not one of countries without navies but navies without countries. And we have arrived at an insane regress of ultimate weapons that are not ultimate.

But all this is to the good; and we cannot have too much of it, we are told, because no men in their right minds would let loose such powers of destruction. Here is the realistic view. Any criticism of it is presumed to be based on wild idealism. But surely it is the wildest idealism, at the furthest remove from a sober realism, to assume that men will always behave reasonably and in line with their best interests? Yet this is precisely what we are asked to believe, and to stake our all on it.

For that matter, why should be assumed that the men, who create and control such monstrous devices are in their right minds? They live in an unhealthy mental climate, an atmosphere dangerous to sanity. They are responsible to no large body of ordinary sensible men and women, who pay for these weapons without ever having ordered them., who have never been asked anywhere yet if they wanted them. When and where have these preparations for public warfare ever been put to the test of public opinions. We cannot even follow the example of the young man in the limerick and ask who does what and with which and to whom? The whole proceedings take place in the stifling secrecy of an expensive lunatic asylum. And as one ultimate weapon after another is added to the pile, the mental climate deteriorates, the atmosphere thickens, and the tension is such that soon something may snap.

The more elaborately involved and hair-triggered the machinery of destruction, the more likely it is that this machinery will be set in motion, if only by accident. Three glasses to many of vodka or bourbon-on-the-rocks, and the wrong button may be pushed. Combine this stock-piling of nuclear weapons with a crazy competitiveness, boastful confidence in public and a mounting fear in private, and what was unthinkable a few years ago now at the best only seems unlikely and very soon maybe inevitable. Then western impatience cries 'Let's get the damned thing over!' and eastern fatalism mutters 'If this has to be, then we must accept it'. And people in general are now in a worse position every year, further away from intervention; they have less and less freedom of action; they are deafened and blinded by propaganda and giant headlines; they are robbed of decisions by fear or apathy.

It is possible, as some thinkers hold, that our civilisation is bent on self destruction, hurriedly planning its own doomsday. This may explain, better than any wearisome recital of plot and counter plot in terms of world powers. The curious and sinister air of somnambulism there is about our major international affairs, the steady drift from bad to worse, the speeches that begin to sound meaningless, the conferences that achieve nothing, all the persons of great consequence who somehow feel like puppets. We have all seen people in who was sown the final seed of self-destruction, people who would sit with us making sensible plans and then go off and quietly bring them to nothing, never really looking for anything but death. Our individual civilisation, behaving in a similar fashion, may be under the same kind of spell, hell-bent on murdering itself. But it is possible that the spell can be broken. If it can then it only will be by an immensely decisive gesture, a clear act of will. Instead of endless bargaining for a little of this in exchange for a little of that, while all the time the bargainers are hurried down a road that gets steeper and narrower, somebody will have to say 'I'm through with all of this'.

In plain words: now that Britain has told the world she has the H-bomb she should announce as early as possible that she has done with it, that she proposes to reject, in all circumstances, nuclear warfare. This is not pacifism. There is no suggestion here of abandoning the immediate defence of the island. Indeed, it might be considerably strengthened, reducing the threat of actual invasion, which the root fear in people's minds, a fear often artfully manipulated for purposes far removed from any defence of hearth and home. (This is of course the exact opposite of the views expressed at the Tory conference by Mr Sandys, who appears to believe that bigger and bigger bombs and rockets in more and more places, if necessary, thousands of miles away, will bring us peace and prosperity.) No, what should be abandoned is t6he idea of deterrence by the threat of retaliation. There is no real security in it, no faith, hope, nor charity in it.

But let us take a look at our present policy entirely on its own level. There is no standing still, no stalemates, in this idiot game; one 'ultimate weapon' succeeds another. To stay in the race at all, except in an ignominious position, we risk bankruptcy, the disappearance of the Welfare State, a standard of living that might begin to make communist propaganda sound more attractive than it does at present. We could in fact be so busy, inspired by the indefatigable Mr Sandys, defending ourselves against communism somewhere else, a long way off, that we would wake up one morning to hear it knocking on the back door. Indeed this is Moscow's old head-I-win-tails-you-lose policy.

Here we might do well to consider western well strategy, first grandiloquently proclaimed by Sir Winston in those speeches he made in America just after the war. The Soviet Union was to be held in leash by nuclear power. We had the bomb and they hadn't. The race would be on but the West had a flying start. But Russia was not without physicists, and some German scientists and highly trained technicians had disappeared somewhere in eastern Europe. For the immediate defence of West Germany, the atom bomb threat no doubt served its turn. But was this really sound long-term strategy? It created the unhealthy climate, the poisonous atmosphere of our present time. It set the Russians galloping in the nuclear race. It freed them from the immense logistic options that must be solved if large armies are to be moved everywhere, and from some very tricky problems of morale that would soon appear once the red Army was a long way from home. It encouraged the support of so-called peoples' and nationalistic and anti-colonial wars, not big enough to be settled by nuclear weapons. In spite of America's ring of advanced air bases, the race had only to be run a little longer to offer Russia at least an equally good set-up, and, in comparison with Britain alone, clearly an enormously better set-up.

We are like a man in a poker game who never dare cry 'I'll see you'. The Soviet Union came through the last war because it had vast spaces and a large population and a ruthless disregard of losses, human and material. It still has them. Matched against this overcrowded island with its intricate urban organisation, at the last dreadful pinch – and party dictators to feel unsure of their power can pinch quicker than most democratic leaders – the other side posses all the advantages. If there is one country that should never have gambled in this game, it is Britain. Once the table stakes were being raised, the chips piling up, we were out. And though we may have been fooling ourselves, we have not been fooling anyone else.

This answers any gobbling cries about losing our national prestige. We have none in terms of power. (The world has still respect and admiration for our culture, and we are busy reducing that respect and admiration but starving it. The cost of a few bombs might well have made all the difference.) We ended the war high in the world's regard. We could have taken over its moral leadership, spoken and acted for what remained of its conscience; but we chose to act otherwise – with obvious and melancholy consequences both abroad, where in power politics we cut a shabby figure, and at home, where we shrug it all away or go to the theatre to applaud the latest jeers and sneers at Britannia. It has been said we cannot send our ministers naked to the conference table. But the sight of a naked minister might bring to the conference some sense of human situation. What we do is something much worse: we send them there half-dressed, half-smart, half-tough, half-apologetic, figures inviting contempt. That is why we are so excited and happy when we can send abroad a good looking young woman in a pretty new dress to represent us, playing the only card we feel that can take a trick – the queen.

It is argued, as it was most vehemently by Mr Bevan of Brighton, that if we walked out of the nuclear arms race then the world will be 'polarised' between America and the Soviet Union, without any hope of mediation between the fixed and bristling camps. 'Just consider for a moment' he cried, 'all the little nations running, one here and one there, one running to Russia, one to the US, all once more clustering under the castle war...' But surely this is one of those 'realistic' arguments that are not based on reality. The idea of the Third Force was rejected by the very party Mr Bevan was addressing. The world was polarised when, without a single protest from all the guardians of our national pride, parts of East Anglia ceased to be under control and became an American airbase. We cannot at one and the same time be an independent power, bargaining on equal terms, and a minor ally or satellite. If there are little nations that do not run for shelter to the walls of the White House or the Kremlin because they are happy to accept Britain as their nuclear umbrella, we hear very little about them. If it is a question of brute power, this argument is unreal.

It is not entirely stupid, however, because something more than brute power is involved. There is nothing unreal in the idea of a third nation, especially one like ours, old and experienced in world affairs, possessing great political traditions, to which other and smaller nations could look while the two new giants mutter and glare at each other. But it all depends what the nation is doing. If it is still in the nuclear gamble, without being able to control or put an end to the game, then that nation is useless to others, is frittering away its historical prestige, and the polarisation, which Mr Bevan sees as the worst result of our rejection of nuclear warfare, is already an accomplished fact. And if it is, then we must ask ourselves what we can do to break this polarity, what course of action on our part might have some sort of changing the world situation. To continue doing what we are doing will not change it. Even during the few weeks since Mr Bevan made his speech the world is becoming more rigidly and dangerously polarised than ever, just because the Russians have sent a metal football circling the globe. What then can Britain do to de-polarise the world?

The only move left that can mean anything is to go into reverse, decisively rejecting nuclear warfare. This gives the world something quite different from the polarised powers: there is no a country that can make H-bombs but decides against them. Had Britain taken this decision years ago the world would be a safer and saner place than it is today. But it is still not too late. And such a move will have to be 'unilateral'; Domesday may arrive before the nuclear powers reach any agreement; and it is only a decisive 'unilateral' move that can achieve the moral force it needs to be effective.

It will be a hard decision to take because all habit is against it. Many persons of consequence and their entourages of experts would have to think fresh thoughts. They would have to risk losing friends and not influencing people. For example, so far as they involve nuclear warfare, our commitments to Nato, Seato and the rest, and our obligations to the Commonwealth, would have to be sharply adjusted. Anywhere from Brussels to Brisbane, reproaches would be hurled, backs would be turned. But what else have these countries to suggest, what way out, what hope for man? And is, to save our souls and this planet, we are willing to remain here and take certain risks, why should we falter because we might have complaints from Rhodesia and reproaches from Christchurch, N.Z.? And it might not be a bad idea if the Nato peoples armed themselves to defend themselves, taking their rifles to the ranges at the weekend, like the Swiss.

American official and service opinion would be dead against us, naturally. The unsinkable (but expendable) aircraft carrier would have gone. Certain Soviet bases allotted to British nuclear attack would have to be included among the targets of the American Strategic Air Service. Ans so on and so forth. But though service chiefs and their staff go on examining and marketing their maps and planning their logistics, having no alternative but resignation, they are as fantastic and unreal in their way as their political and diplomatic colleagues are in theirs. What is fantastic and unreal is their assumption that they are traditionally occupied with their professional duties, attending in advance to the next war, Number Three in the world series. But what will happen – and one wrong report by a sleepy observer maty start if off – will not be anything recognisable as war, and affair of victories and defeats, something that one side can win or that you can all call off when you have had enough. It will be universal catastrophe and apocalypse, the crack of doom into which Communism, western democracy, their way of life and our way of life, may disappear for ever. And it is not hard to believe that this is what some of our contemporaries really desire, that behind the photogenic smiles and cheerful patter nothing exists but the death wish.

We live in the thought of this prospect as if we existed in a permanent smog. All sensible men and women – and this excludes most who are in the V.I.P – Highest-Security-Top-Secret-Top-People Class, men now so conditioned by this atmosphere of power politics, intrigue, secrecy, insane invention, that they are more than half-barmy – have no illusions about what is happening to us, and know that those responsible have made two bad miscalculation. First, they have prostituted so much science in their preparations for war and they have completely changed the character of what they are doing, without any equivalent change in the politics of and relations between states. Foreign affairs till conducted as if the mobilisation of a few divisions might settle something, are no backed with push-button arrangements to let loose earthquakes and pestilences and pronounce the death sentences of continents. This leaves us all in the worse dilemma than the sorcerer's apprentice. The second miscalculation assumed that if the odds were multiplied fast enough, your side would break through because the other side would break down. And because this has not happened, a third illusion is being welcomed, namely, that now, with everything piling up, poker chips flung on the table by the handful, the tension obviously increasing, now at last we are arriving at an acknowledged drawn game, a not-too-state stalemate, a cosy old balance of power. This could well be the last of our illusions.

The risk of our rejecting nuclear warfare, totally and in all circumstances, is quite clear, all to easy to understand. We lose such bargaining power as we now possess. We have no deterrent to a nuclear threat. We deliberately exchange 'security' for insecurity. (And the fact that some such exchange is recommended by the major religions, in their earlier and non-establishment phases, needs not detain us here.) But the risk is clear and the arguments against running it irrefutable, only if we refuse, as from the first too many of us here have refused, to take anything but short-term conventional views, only if we will not follow any thoughts to its conclusion. Our 'hard-headed realism' is neither hard-headed nor realistic just because it insists on our behaving in a new world as if we were living in an old world, the one that has been replaced.

Britain runs the greatest risk just by mumbling and muddling along, never speaking out, avoiding any decisive creative act. For a world in which our deliberate 'insecurity' would prove to be our undoing is not a world in which real security could be found. As the game gets faster, the competition keener, the unthinkable will turn into the inevitable, the weapons will take command, and the deterrents will not deter. Our bargaining power is slight; the force of our example might be great. The catastrophic antics of our time have behind them men hag-ridden by fear, which explains the irrationality of it all, the crazy disproportion between means and ends. If we openly challenge this fear, then we might break this wicked spell that all but a few uncertified lunatics desperately wish to see broken, we could begin to restore the world to sanity and lift this nation from its recent ignominy to its former grandeur. Alone, we defied Hitler; and alone we can defy this nuclear madness into which the spirit of Hitler seems to have passed, to poison the world. There may be other chain-reactions besides those leading to destruction; and we might start one. The British of these times, so frequently hiding their decent, kind faces behind masks of sullen apathy or sour, cheap cynicism, often seem to be waiting for something better than party squabbles and appeals to the narrowest self-interest, something great and noble in its intention that would make them feel good again. And this might well be a declaration to the world that after a certain date one power able to engage in nuclear warfare will reject the evil thing forever.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni v Shia