Thursday, February 14, 2008

50 years of the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament

From Tribune, 14 th February

As a young, politically interested science-fiction reading schoolboy, I went on successive Aldermaston marches, singing about the “H Bombs’ thunder” that “echoed like the crack of doom.” I read, and still have a first edition of John Hershey’s Hiroshima, which, in those days of Cuban crises, gave gruesome details of what a nuclear holocaust could be like. It is clear that both in scale of devastation and in their lingering after-effects nuclear weapons were immoral and uniquely evil, not least because of the blow back effect – the fallout came back on the users as well the victims.

But somehow people aren't as scared anymore. Six decades and not a mushroom cloud in anger, and no Cuban style standoffs to raise the anxiety quotient.

It is difficult to be rational about such weaponry, and certainly few governments have succeeded. The USA exploded almost 200 in Nevada where trippers to Las Vegas could watch the fireworks on the horizon. The British stood servicemen in shorts on the decks of ships, and told them to cover their eyes against the flash. The Soviets gave conscripts a glass of vodka and marched them into the mushroom cloud. The French went ahead with a test for de Gaulle, even though the wind was blowing towards nearby islands. Clearly one of the first effects of such weapons was on the sanity of their possessors.

One of things we did at Aldermaston was to distribute the Spies for Peace leaflets that exposed the government's secret plans to run post-nuclear Britain with neo-feudal baronies run from bunkers.

But then, it was not just governments that were a few kilos short of critical mass in the brain department, sometimes even opponents had a whiff of irrationality about them. In the sixties, the Committee of 100 had a demonstration in Moscow, and I remembered some of the Communist CND members were upset. Unilateral disarmament for Britain was one thing, but leave the "Workers' Bomb" alone.

Looking back in sobriety, over Berlin, Korea, Hungary, Berlin and Czechoslovakia, it does indeed take an act of considerable faith to consider Moscow as "peace-loving," even if it were not as much of a threat as the Americans believed. Traumatized by the cost of standing alone in Europe during the war, the post-war British Labour government saw an independent nuclear weapon as an essential survival tool.

Relying on American support had been very costly for Britain: it had been a very risky strategy then and was likely to be even more so in the future, hence the fervour with which Nye Bevan had defended the independent nuclear deterrent, arguing that unilateralism was "an emotional spasm," "sending a British foreign secretary naked into the council chamber."

Perhaps the one good thing about the Polaris deal that turned into Trident is that it disarmed the concept of the "independent nuclear deterrent." Harold McMillan's deal with JFK actually gave up Britain's independence. The country can neither make, nor deliver nuclear weapons without Washington's say-so, and in return it has to snap to attention when the White House calls. The UK is as naked as an Athenian slave in the arena with a Roman sword at his testicles.

More to the point, it puts Britain on the frontline of American unilateralism of a totally different kind to that which we espoused at Aldermaston. Apart from Iraq, it makes us complicit in breathtaking hypocrisy, which says that some countries can have nuclear weapons and others cannot. It ties us to a nation, the USA, which is hedging about the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and reinterprets the Non Proliferation Treaty to exclude Israel and India, while resisting its strengthening. Washington also sends very dangerous signals about the convention on peaceful uses of outer spaces and has unilaterally scrapped arms limitation treaties with Moscow.

The constant hedging about first use and the hints of nuclear bunker-busters show that the collective insanity of the early days is still rampant around the Pentagon and the White House.

In doing so, both they and the British government are in clear violation of their own commitments under the Non Proliferation Treaty that commits them to good faith disarmament. It also pits them against the International Court of Justice ruling in 1996, which found the threat and use of nuclear weapons to be illegal under international law, except in the case of an existential threat to the state possessing them. But even then, the ruling stressed that the NPT commitment "is an obligation to achieve a precise result -- nuclear disarmament in all its aspects -- by adopting a particular course of conduct, namely, the pursuit of negotiations on the matter in good faith."

Under the circumstances, the non-proliferation regime has been relatively successful. South Africa disarmed because the Afrikaaners did not want an African bomb, but it could restart the process – yet it so far has not. Countries like Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and Germany, that could with some seriousness argue their need, have also declined to take up the nuclear option.

Britain apparently now has the second biggest arms budget in the world, to defend one offshore island that is not threatened with invasion from anywhere. Trident never had a "useful" life, but now it is obsolescent, perhaps it could become useful – as a bargaining chip with Iran, India and Pakistan, not to mention North Korea and Israel, to show that a country can remain potent on the world stage even without a nuclear phallus to brandish.

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