An hour south of Moscow there once was, and may still be, a very strange park. When I saw it in 1992, it was full of huge black steam locomotives, most of them decorated with bright red stars on their boilers, and all of them in working order. One was named after Felix Dzerzhinsky, the iron-souled founder of the Soviet secret police. During the brief, chaotic period of utter post-Communist collapse when almost everything was open, visitors were welcome. These monstrous steel dinosaurs were there for one very simple reason. Some sober civil servant somewhere in the Kremlin was planning for an actual nuclear war, and making arrangements for the continued operation of Russia’s state and economy after this had happened. In such a war, electro-magnetic pulses from atomic explosions would wipe out all modern transport, by frying its electronics. Steam trains would be the only fast, heavy transport that would still function. And so the Soviet state, which thought carefully about all possibilities, had made sure it was prepared. Marxist-Leninists are like this. After Communism crumbled in East Germany in 1989, a vast underground store was found, full of wads of occupation money for a conquered and impoverished West to spend on the stark rations and inferior goods that would henceforth be their lot. Racks of new street signs were ready for the detailed ideological renaming of roads throughout the capitalist Federal Republic. For example, Düsseldorf’s Königsallee, the luxury shopping street selling furs and jewellery, was to be renamed, rather wittily, after Karl Marx. These discoveries and revelations made me wonder if I had not been too complacent, during the Cold War, about the danger of a nuclear exchange. The Communists had intended to win, if it happened, and were ready to enjoy the fruits of victory.

Britain’s nuclear weapons have steadily grown dependent on the USA

We tend to think of nuclear war as the End of the World – the Terminator films brilliantly portray nuclear annihilation as an instant, wholly unexpected apocalypse. But the Russians seem to have thought it was survivable. Soviet propaganda posters, displayed widely in workplaces and hotels, showed the Motherland in flames as people hurried to safety, but implied that the Soviet people would live on. Moscow, uniquely among the great cities of the world, was and is protected from our rockets by an elaborate missile shield (picnics in the woods around the city could be awkward if you stumbled on its installations by accident).

By contrast, Britain’s rather shamefaced “Protect and Survive” advice for a nuclear war was kept secret for years, presumably because it was so embarrassingly bad. When it was finally revealed, it was obviously a token gesture, with its refuges made out of old doors, pathetic instructions to store torch batteries, and dreary illustrations of cheap canned food and Woolworths crockery, which would supposedly help us to wait for a rescue that would never come.

Even so, I never fretted much about this in the era of supposed nuclear terror. I was interested in it, for sure, and once got into great trouble at school in Cambridge, for trying, with a group of friends, to break into the large government fallout shelter there (RSG-4, just off Brooklands Avenue). But I did not have nightmares about H-Bomb doom. Whenever I looked at this sort of stuff, or watched the original and best scare film about a nuclear war, The War Game, I was always struck by the deep weakness of the plot. How would such a war begin? Nobody could think of a credible scenario. Peter Watkins’ pseudo-documentary, banned from TV for years, was potent and full of menace. His portrayal of the intensifying panic as war approached was persuasive and convincing. The transformation of the police from friendly constabulary into grim-jawed armed militia (which has eventually come about in real life) was especially disturbing. The blast night indeed sound like “a door slamming in hell”. There would be martial law and hunger, listlessness and filth, after the Bomb. But who would actually use it in the first place? There was no realistic circumstance in which anyone would see any justification for doing so. The truth was that the Bomb functioned by being unusable, by freezing the balance of power in Europe. If the Soviet tank armies ever moved, it would end in Armageddon. So they never moved. Thus, those plans to bring Karl Marx and Occupation Marks to Düsseldorf were just idle fantasies, never to be fulfilled. So was the return of steam to the USSR. The two sides in the Cold War might fight quite savagely in Vietnam, and they did. But they could do so precisely because neither side dared to impose a nuclear balance there.

As we had all learned in the Cuban crisis, even the Russians were not crazy enough to go nuclear, though they owned a territory so vast they could rebuild some sort of nation even after a nuclear attack. Even the Americans were not mad enough to press the Big Red Button, though people such as the Air Force general Curtis LeMay, apparently an escaper from the set of Dr Strangelove, were prominent in their military. LeMay was not typical. There was no fighting in the War Room. Most of the politicians and diplomats involved in such things had some experience of real war and did not want to experience it again.

We can’t decide if the Russian army is a collection of scrap metal manned by podgy boozers or an oiled menace

But how about now? The genius of NATO, in its first incarnation between 1949 and 1989, was that it recognised Soviet domination of much of Europe. The alliance did not even cover East Berlin, let alone Hungary, Czechoslovakia or Poland. So when Moscow sent in the tanks or forced its local supporters to crush any rebellion, NATO could go out for lunch and relax. In its new expanded form, NATO (in theory at least) extends the American nuclear umbrella right up to the Estonian border city of Narva, 99 miles from St Petersburg. But does it really? This is what we cannot know. The French had asked back in the 1950s if Eisenhower would be willing to sacrifice Chicago for Lyon in a nuclear exchange. The answer was pretty obvious, which is why France then spent billions of francs on developing its own nuclear strike force. Britain made similar calculations, though our deterrent is at bottom an even more anti-American weapon. It was born in October 1946 after a seething quarrel between Ernest Bevin and US Secretary of State James Byrnes, in which Byrnes, a gentleman lawyer from Dixieland, unwisely tried to pull rank on the Somerset-born former general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. After this, Bevin vowed that no British foreign secretary should ever have to put up with being pushed around by his American equivalent again. He famously growled: “We’ve got to have this thing whatever it costs. We’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it.”

For good or ill, those days have gone. “Whatever it costs” was the difficult bit. Britain’s nuclear weapons have steadily grown so dependent on the USA, and our sense of independence has become so shrivelled, that only political cowardice prevents our leaders from reducing them to a token force. This may well have happened in practice anyway. The recent failure of an expensive British Trident missile to fire (on top of another misfire a few years ago) must cast doubt on whether the vast, decaying and salt-streaked contraption would work in reality. Such tests (of American missiles in British service) take place just off the Florida coast and are supervised and guarded by the US Navy. I hate to think what would happen to our submarines and our wonky missiles if we wanted to fire them, and the Americans did not want us to.

But then why would we want to use them anyway? Our leaders cannot make up their minds whether the Russian army is a collection of strategic scrap metal, manned by podgy boozers and released prisoners, and incapable of a serious advance – or an oiled menace waiting to sweep westwards, destroying democracy. Having lived in the USSR, I tend towards the scrap metal version, but I suspect the nuclear bits still work just about well enough to be worrying. Either way, what actual good has it done us or anyone else to get into the current Ukraine brawl, in which even honest Russia Hawks in Washington admit Moscow was provoked. How is it helping Ukraine? And yet here we are, with Ukraine lobbying hard to be given German cruise missiles which could reach Moscow. That does make me shudder a bit. Is the risk of a Europe-wide war, in which those great black steam locomotives might actually be used, worth any gain we are likely to make? These days there are far too many callow middle-aged men in high politics who have never seen what war does to soft human bodies and comfortable suburban homes. If I were not now well into my seventies, I might finally begin to have nightmares about a nuclear war.

Peter Hitchens is an author, journalist and broadcaster who has reported from 57 countries including North Korea, Iran and Bhutan. His books include “The Abolition of Britain”, “The Rage Against God” and “Short Breaks in Mordor”

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April 2024, Main Features

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