Saturday, July 10, 2010

How I learnt to love the bomb

Now here is a book I am keen to read. Was there anything as cool yet shit-scary as the Cold War, with its perpetual threat of mutually assured destruction and spies defecting and counter-defecting all over the place?

I say that with the casualness of youth, of course, having not lived with the fear of the bomb. I was 13 when the Berlin Wall came down, but my mother alarmed me last Christmas by describing how scared they all felt in the late 1970s and that if Armageddon had come, her plan was to walk slowly towards the mushroom cloud with me under one arm and my brother under the other. She can be a little Hollywood sometimes.

The Secret State, by Peter Hennessy, originally published in 2002 but now with lots of new declassified information, has the subtitle "Preparing for the Worst", a very British way of describing half a million tons of TNT being dumped on Trafalgar Square

Studying British implacability is something that Hennesy, who once taught my wife for a masters in politics, does very well. He is well connected with the Civil Service, basing much of his research on anonymous private briefings, and is also superb at weeding out fascinating titbits from previously archives.

Such as this one, which I read in Sam Leith's review of the book in this week's Spectator: "In the Macmillan era, senior civil servants fretted about whether to join the AA so that if the PM was in his care when the four-minute warning was sounded, he could use one of their phone boxes to authorise nuclear retaliation."

And then there is the "Spot the Bomb" competition that the Home Office included in an in-house journal showing fallout plumes from two bombs and you had to guess where they landed.

Or the conversation between Khruschev and the British Ambassador to Moscow in the early 1960s, when the Soviet president asked Her Majesty's diplomat how many H-bombs it would take to wipe out the UK. The diplomat estimated six, to which Khruschev told him not to be pessimistic and that it would take many more, before reassuring him that more than enough had been put aside for the job.

Or the revelation of who had a place in the nuclear bunker in the event of Britain being attacked. Apparently, a surprising number of typists had been marked to survive the apocalypse, there only being so much that a wartime PM could be expected to do himself when sheltering underground.

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