Margot Light

Apocalypse Averted

Armageddon and Paranoia: The Nuclear Confrontation


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During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Rodric Braithwaite was working in the Foreign Office in London. Later he was British ambassador in Moscow during the collapse of the USSR and then first ambassador to the newly independent Russian Federation. Subsequently he served as the prime minister’s foreign policy adviser and chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee. He was, therefore, a participant in or front-row observer at many of the events he writes about in Armageddon and Paranoia. He describes the scientific and political developments that led to the invention and deployment of nuclear weapons in the United States, the Soviet Union and Britain, the strategic debates about their use and the tortuous path to agreement on measures to control them.

Although many of the events and facts recounted by Braithwaite are well known, his account has a compelling immediacy. Moreover, his deep knowledge of the USSR and Russia, his fluency in the Russian language and his exceptional ability to put himself in the minds of both American and Soviet politicians and strategists makes Armageddon and Paranoia an even-handed, nuanced and often chilling account of the nuclear confrontation between the USA and the USSR that dominated the international system during the Cold War. The nuclear threat no longer preoccupies the popular imagination in the way that it did in the 1950s and 1960s, but the recent stand-off between President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un should cause politicians and the public to give it a great deal more serious thought, since, as Braithwaite points out,  ‘war might break out by accident or miscalculation, or by the unintended escalation of a dispute in a peripheral part of the world’.

Braithwaite argues that there is nothing irrational about mutually assured destruction (commonly known by its acronym, MAD), the strategy adopted on both sides of the Iron Curtain to manage the nuclear  confrontation. Perhaps not, but the rationality underlying MAD was rather mad. First, it required both sides to be able to launch a second strike, and both had to leave themselves vulnerable to attack, so that the other side was reassured that its deterrent would work. Second, each side was in fact uncertain whether or not the other side would retaliate after suffering a nuclear strike (there still is, for example, a ‘letter of last resort’ which the British prime minister leaves to be opened if he or she doesn’t survive a nuclear attack and which tells whoever is in command of UK ballistic missiles whether or not to launch them). Third, it assumed that each power would follow the same logic, irrespective of ideological differences. Rogue leaders, by way of comparison, were presumed to be unlikely to understand these sophisticated rules and were, therefore, to be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons. But if deterrence really deters – the reason that leaders of nuclear states give to explain why they have to keep their nuclear weapons – this surely explains why leaders of non-nuclear states who feel under threat from nuclear states believe they too need to acquire nuclear weapons.

It is usually assumed in the West that Soviet scientists managed to break the American nuclear monopoly so quickly (they exploded their first nuclear device in 1949) because of successful espionage, which gave them the scientific and technical knowledge necessary to catch up. But Braithwaite points out that espionage would not have been enough had the USSR not also had first-rate scientists and engineers, vast labour resources and a leader who had the will and authority to launch a hugely expensive nuclear weapons programme, despite the perilous state of the Soviet economy after the devastation of the war. But while the USSR did by the 1970s achieve rough parity with the USA in the number of missiles it possessed, it became clear in the 1980s that it never really acquired the sophisticated technology the USA could boast. The fierce Soviet opposition to Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative in 1983 was driven not only by the belief that it would reduce the mutual vulnerability that effective deterrence requires, but also by the fear that it would increase the already vast technological gap between the USSR and the USA.

Stalin’s determination to acquire nuclear weapons was driven by the conviction, widely shared by the Soviet elite  and by ordinary people, that the Americans intended to attack the Soviet Union. Western governments and populations were equally convinced that Stalin, not content with a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, planned to advance into Western Europe and would reach the Channel if he could. Braithwaite argues that each side collected vast amounts of information about the other’s military capacity, but this revealed nothing about their intentions and often led to an information overload. In short, ‘on all sides of the Cold War judgement was distorted by ideological prejudice, interdepartmental rivalry, group thinking, and a desire (often unconscious) to say what your bosses expected’.

Mutual paranoia made arms control negotiations enormously difficult. It is easy to diminish the achievement of the ceilings set by the SALT I and SALT II arms-control treaties concluded in 1972 and 1979. Indeed, even after the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (which abolished a whole class of weapons) and the reductions in strategic missile and warhead numbers agreed in START I, START II and SORT during the 1990s and 2000s, both Russia and the USA were left with the capacity to devastate each other several times over. Full-scale nuclear disarmament, frequently invoked on both sides, was and is an unlikely prospect. On the other hand, there are at present only nine nuclear weapon states (Russia, the USA, France, China, Great Britain, Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea), far fewer than the number once anticipated.

Braithwaite’s account of the Cuban Missile Crisis reminds us how very near we came to catastrophe in 1962. There were other close calls later, such as when President Nixon decided that deterrence would work better if his adversaries believed that he was rash and unpredictable. There were a number of extremely dangerous moments during the 1980s caused by misjudgement, risk taking or technical glitches on both sides. And for all the assurances that only the leaders could take nuclear decisions, it is clear that it was the discipline of the servicemen directly in charge of the weapons and the common sense of everyone in the chain of command that prevented the many false alarms and accidents from having catastrophic consequences.

Given how much mutual misperception there was, and how often communications were faulty and intelligence failed, the miracle is that nuclear Armageddon did not occur. Braithwaite offers several possible explanations. Many people believe that the absence of nuclear catastrophe proves that deterrence works. Others suggest that the horrors of the two world wars made everyone determined to keep the peace. One optimistic view holds that human violence is progressively declining. Braithwaite is inclined to think that we have just been very lucky. But he warns that the sword of Damocles that President Kennedy said was suspended over the world in 1961 is still there. And although Braithwaite believes that the thread from which it hangs is stouter now than it was when Kennedy made his speech, the threats exchanged by the American president and the Korean supreme leader must surely be putting it under considerable strain.

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