Tuesday 10 February 2015

Gone With The Nuclear Wind?

Tomorrow Might Not Be Another Day: The poster which swept the pre-Internet world in the anti-nuclear 80s. Those born in the post-Cold War period have little idea of how pervasive was the fear of nuclear annihilation. Those weapons have not gone away. Vladimir Putin's reassertion of his country's geopolitical interests may yet reacquaint the world with the fears of the 1980s. The Russian bear still has nuclear teeth.
IT WAS ONE of the most famous posters of the anti-nuclear 80s. Parodying the 1939 movie poster promoting Gone With The Wind, the 1980s version depicted Ronald Reagan in the role of Rhett Butler, and Margaret Thatcher as Scarlet O’Hara. Instead of rescuing his heroine from the wreckage of a burning Atlanta, Reagan carried Thatcher from the fallout of an ominous mushroom cloud. The anti-nuclear poster’s tag-line read: “She promised to follow him to the end of the earth. He promised to organise it.”
Black humour? Undoubtedly. But the worldwide popularity of the poster in those pre-Internet days speaks volumes about the existential fears of ordinary people everywhere that their leaders were impelling them towards a nuclear Armageddon.
These globally experienced fears were given specific expression in New Zealand by the nationwide movement to have the country declared nuclear-free. Distracted by the upheavals of the Springbok Tour for most of 1981, the Nuclear-Free New Zealand Movement only began gathering serious political momentum in 1982. By 1984, however, there were very few cities and towns in New Zealand that had not declared themselves nuclear-free. The incoming Labour Government, elected in July 1984, had little option but to go with the flow. Among its rank-and-file members (all 85,000 of them!) anti-nuclear sentiment was as intense as it was immovable.
It is difficult for New Zealanders who did not live through the early-1980s to appreciate just how tense the stand-off between the USA and the Soviet Union had become.
President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher were both implacable cold warriors. Indeed, when asked by a youthful aide to sum up his position on the Cold War, President Reagan breezily replied: “Well, I think we should win it.”
Soviet leaders, by contrast, came and went with almost comical speed. Between the death of Leonid Brezhnev in 1982 and the accession of the Soviet Union’s last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, in 1985, the world welcomed and farewelled in quick succession Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko.
Meanwhile, as the Soviets were casting about frantically for a leader capable of lasting longer than eighteen months in office, Nato forged ahead with its plans to install nuclear-tipped Cruise missiles – a first-strike weapon – along the length of the Iron Curtain. Not surprisingly, the vast nuclear arsenals of the opposing superpowers were on a hair-trigger.
To New Zealanders born after 1991, the year the Soviet Union quietly blipped-off History’s screen, the mutual and assured destruction (MAD!) strategies of the Cold War era are mostly experienced as the more-or-less harmless echoes from a far-off, but very-far-from-harmless, historical era.
Today’s 24-year-olds may be intellectually aware that substantial stockpiles of nuclear weapons still exist in the United States and the Russian Federation, but the oppressive sense of their parents’ generation, that the slightest political miscalculation (or even a flock of errant geese!) might trigger the utter destruction of human civilisation, has, mercifully, faded from memory.
Global Warming, the existential threat du jour, may prove to be equally devastating, but its effects will be experienced over decades – not in the micro-seconds of a nuclear detonation.
Meanwhile, as the Millennials battle to prevent runaway global warming, another, all-too-literal battle rages between the forces of the Nato-supported Ukrainian government and the Russian-backed militias of Ukraine’s breakaway eastern provinces. Reported only fitfully in the Western news media, this conflict now threatens to escalate into a general European war. As former Swedish Prime Minister, Carl Bildt, told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on Sunday.
“Unfortunately, war with Russia is conceivable. We are definitely living through one of the more dangerous historical phases, especially if you view the situation from a European perspective […] What makes the situation so explosive is that there is also great uncertainty about global power relations.”
The global uncertainty Mr Bildt speaks of is being fuelled by statements issuing from the United States Vice President, Joe Biden, reaffirming the Obama Administration’s determination to “allow Ukraine to defend herself”. By which the Americans mean – be given access to the heavy weapons necessary to drive back the pro-Russian separatists.
The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has reacted sharply to the Vice President’s statement, declaring that she could not “imagine any situation in which improved equipment for the Ukrainian army leads to President Putin being so impressed that he believes he will lose militarily.”
Only now is the European Union beginning to grasp its reckless folly in allowing anti-Russian extremists within Nato to connive in the fascist-supported overthrow of Ukraine’s democratically-elected President, Victor Yanukovych, in February 2014. Only now, having spent the last 12 months baiting the Russian bear, have the Europeans, the Americans, and the rest of us, belatedly remembered that the Russian bear has nuclear teeth.
The Nato powers promise to follow the fascist-backed Ukrainian regime to the end of the earth. Vladimir Putin offers to organise it.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 10 February 2015.


pat said...

the fact is any conflict with Russia is most likely to be conventional and with the additional advantages of shorter supply lines and political system the Russians would prevail...I cannot see the west escalating to a nuclear option short of the Russian tanks continuing on into western europe...something they would not need to do as they will have already achieved their goal of humiliating the west, securing their sphere and would consequently secure their hold on power at home and almost certainly remove the sanctions in negotiated settlement.The west, even the US dont have the stomach for further conflict , particularly one where the public dont have a clearly wronged party.

Wayne Mapp said...

An interesting reminder of the 1980's. The fear of being blown to bits in a nuclear war was felt much more strongly in New Zealand than in the UK. In the 1980's I was at Cambridge and while there was certainly apprehension about the Cold war, whenever I came back to New Zealand the fear was much more palpable than it was in Cambridge, which was ringed by nuclear bases. I was seconded to the British TA at the the time and one of our roles was key-point guard at nuclear installations, which largely consisted of standing about.

Incidentally you rather forgot the role of the Soviets deploying the SS20's as being the reason for Cruise and Pershing. The standoff resulted in the treaty banning intermediate range nuclear missiles. And this was an issue that Schmidt, Thatcher and Reagan were staunch on they would not unilaterally withdraw their missiles. The Soviets also had to do so. I have no doubt that was the correct strategy, and was an example of Thatcher being right on the big issues.

pat said...

think it would be fair to say that Chris' description of the "fear ' experienced about nuclear holocaust in NZ in the 80s is somewhat overstated....certainly in the circles I moved in it was seldom if ever mentioned and certainly not a source of any daily anxiety, though the topic of nuclear free NZ and ship visits was certainly popular.

Chris Trotter said...

My God, Wayne! You are an extraordinary person - and a living example of the distance conservatives are somehow able to keep between themselves and the world around them.

To say that the fear of nuclear war was greater in NZ than the UK in the 1980s (or the 50s, 60s, and 70s!) flies in the face of all historical evidence - not to mention the personal experience of thousands of Kiwis who visited that country during the last gasps of the Cold War.

The music, the novels, the movies and the television programmes on the theme of nuclear destruction that poured out of the UK at that time makes an absolute mockery of your observations.

The very poster with which this column begins was produced in the UK.

It's just amazing how blind you were. But it does tell us a great deal about the National Party personality-type.

In fact, it makes me wonder if John Key is actually telling the truth when he says he can't remember which side he was on during the Springbok Tour.

If your memory is anything to go by, the PM's statement has the ring of truth!

Wayne Mapp said...


Of course I was aware of the protests esp around the deployment of Cruise at Greenham in the UK, and I also recall the poster. And the protests were large, but they did not have the same impact as the anti-nuclear movement had in New Zealand.

In fact the anti-nuclear stance of UK Labour doomed the party electorally. They were widely seen as unelectable and the nuclear issue was a major reason. As I recall it took Blair to change the policy (though I imagine that would be another reason why you oppose him), though Kinnock was moving in that direction.

Thatcher won with big majorities in 1983 and 1984. In New Zealand we changed to Labour - with nuclear issues being one of the main factors in both 1984 and 1987 elections. You may recall some of the TV ads with the bomb.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand your position.

I have never understood the position of the 'peace movement'.
Nuclear weapons are perhaps the most terrible things to exist. No sane person can believe otherwise.
But exist they do. And any political and military system must take account of them. You can't just wish them away.

What precisely were (are?) the 'peace movement' proposing?
That the West get rid of all their nuclear weapons, on the trust that Russia or China will get rid of theirs, and not keep them and use them to achieve their political aims? That is what unilateral nuclear disarmament means.
What do you think Stalin would have done? Or Brezhnev ? Or Mao?
They would have taken over the West in short order, as they did where they could in the east with conventional armies.

The peace movement is wishful thinking, if we pretend nuclear weapons don't exist, then so will our opponents/enemies.

In any case, the West's strategy of containing the USSR and waiting DID work, as you'll recall.
The cold war didn't turn into a hot war, and communism crumbled under the weight of it's economic and social inefficiency. And the Americans invented a few myths about how it happened.

And what is objectionable about Regan's desire to win the cold war?
Would you have rather the USSR won?

The peace movement in NZ has always seemed to me to be impotence masquerading as celibacy. We don't have nuclear or (significant) military power, so we pretend we don't want it. All the while hiding behind the USN and RAAN.

And what does 'nuclear free zone mean, anyway? Check in your atomic nuclei at the door?
Disallow medical use of nuclear isotopes (usually obtained from reactor products) - I have seen this proposed!
Invoke unthinking hysteria every time nuclear power is proposed, even though it now may be the man replacement for fossil fuels?

Most houses in NZ now use smoke detectors, which use a tiny amount of (the deliciously named) radio isotope Americium. The decay of this produces ions which are used to detect the smoke. This Americium itself is a decay product from nuclear reactors.
I once considered pointing this out to the Green Party, to watch them have hysterics. But I decided they probably try to have them banned, or removed by their supporters, and end up costing lives.
There's a lesson there.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I agree Chris, it was the UK after all that produced that film "The Wargame"? Or something similar, which shocked me to the core when I saw it as a kid. I remember also being in the cadets at school and having to sit through interminable British military produced training films about what to do in the event of a nuclear war/explosion so you could survive long enough to kill the dreaded commies in the last few days of your life. They were interminable until we told the sergeant that if anyone did drop a nuclear bomb near us we were going off to get a quick shag before we died rather than kill communists. Never forget the look on his face :-). The military just took things so seriously.

Brewerstroupe said...

Listen to the man:
"Today, we already see a sharp increase in the likelihood of a whole set of violent conflicts with either direct or indirect participation by the world’s major powers. And the risk factors include not just traditional multinational conflicts, but also the internal instability in separate states, especially when we talk about nations located at the intersections of major states’ geopolitical interests, or on the border of cultural, historical, and economic civilizational continents.

Ukraine, which I’m sure was discussed at length and which we will discuss some more, is one of the example of such sorts of conflicts that affect international power balance, and I think it will certainly not be the last. From here emanates the next real threat of destroying the current system of arms control agreements. And this dangerous process was launched by the United States of America when it unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, and then set about and continues today to actively pursue the creation of its global missile defence system.

Colleagues, friends,

I want to point out that we did not start this. Once again, we are sliding into the times when, instead of the balance of interests and mutual guarantees, it is fear and the balance of mutual destruction that prevent nations from engaging in direct conflict. In absence of legal and political instruments, arms are once again becoming the focal point of the global agenda; they are used wherever and however, without any UN Security Council sanctions. And if the Security Council refuses to produce such decisions, then it is immediately declared to be an outdated and ineffective instrument."

The entire speech is a worthwhile read

J Bloggs said...

GS: I believe the movie you were thinking of is "Threads" - It was considerably grimmer than it's US counterpart "The Day After".

I was living in the UK during 1983-84, and was very aware of the threats - both of Nuclear attack and of terrorism (The IRA were waging a bombing campaign during my stay). When I returned to NZ, I found my peers to be woefully ignorant about international affairs and the dangers resulting from them. And to a large degree, that has not changed much. It's the result of living in an insignificant little country at the bottom of the world, a long way from anywhere important...

Jambo said...

The situation in the 80's was ense yes but not as close as it was in the early 0's as I recall.

The Yanks put missiles along the eastern border of Turkey aimed at Russia's heartland. Russia responded by putting missiles in Cuba and the world came within a gnat's breath of being fried! Home nuke bunkers became big business!

JFK and Kruschev had a talk by phone and both backed off. Shortly thereafter JFK was shot. Connection? Who knows! The sniper Lee Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby, so we'll never know.

The Yanks set this off by backing Svoboda and Right Sector in Ukraine who, in turn, usurped the protest about the Yanukovich corruption.

Putin is an ex-spook and not always truthful either. He IS supporting the eastern regions and fair enough. He doesn't want NATO on his border there.

Jambo said...

The first paragraph should read "The situation in the 80's was tense yes but not as close as it was in the early 80's as I recall."

Bloody stuffed keyboard!

markus said...

Chris "The very poster with which this column begins was produced in the UK."

Yep, up until seeing the shot illustrating the present post a few minutes ago, the only time I'd ever viewed the poster was on my first trip to the UK in 1983.

Woke up on my first morning in the Provincial City of Lincoln, took a stroll down beautiful, cobbled old 'Steep Hill' with its shops housed in 17th and 18th century buildings with late Winter snow on the roof and saw that very poster (displayed prominently) as I peered through a bookshop window.

A few weeks later, I spotted the same poster again in a shop window in another part of Lincoln. At the time, incidently, Lincoln had a Conservative majority of more than 10,000.

Never saw the poster in New Zealand.

Wayne Mapp "Thatcher won with big majorities in 1983 and 1984."

Eh ? I wasn't aware there was British election in 1984 !!! The Tories certainly won with a big majority of seats in 1983, but on a decided MINORITY of the vote (same in 87).

Having said that, I don't entirely disagree with you when you suggest UK Labour's anti-nuclear stance (as sound and sensible as it was) was relatively unpopular with the British public.

peteswriteplace said...

Worry about ISIS and a conventional war. Let Europe concern itself withe Russian bear and its neighbours.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Nope. The War Game. 1965.


Brewerstroupe said...

Robert Parry, best known for his role in covering the Iran-Contra affair for the Associated Press and Newsweek writes on the Ukraine crisis:

".....what might appear to an objective observer as a civil war between western Ukrainians, including the neo-Nazis who spearheaded last year’s coup against Yanukovych, and eastern Ukrainians, who refused to accept the anti-Yanukovych order that followed the coup, has been transformed by the U.S. news media into a confrontation between the forces of good (the western Ukrainians) and the forces of evil (the eastern Ukrainians) with an overlay of “Russian aggression” as Russian President Vladimir Putin is depicted as a new Hitler.

Though the horrific bloodshed – more than 5,000 dead – has been inflicted overwhelmingly on the ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine by the forces from western Ukraine, the killing is routinely blamed on either the eastern Ukrainian rebels or Putin for allegedly fomenting the trouble in the first place (though there is no evidence that he did, as even former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has acknowledged.)"


U.S. sponsored coup?


Anonymous said...

Hi Chirs,
How about a response to Anonymous on 10 February 2015 at 14:44 ?


Chris Trotter said...

To: Anonymous@14:44

The purpose of this article is not to judge the worth or otherwise of the NZ peace movement, but to draw attention to the fact that since the end of the Cold War we have all tended to assume the nuclear threat has receded to the point where it can be written-off as yesterday's threat du jour.

Events unfolding in Eastern Europe should long ago have disabused us off any such notion.

When Francois Hollande talks about a descent into "total war" in Ukraine, and the Americans discuss sending the Ukrainians "lethal" defensive weaponry, then the Russian Federation's possession of a nuclear strike capability once again becomes a decisively relevant factor.

In other words: "Be afraid - be very afraid."

Anonymous said...


Agree that the events in the Ukraine are frightening.
But this is precisely relevant to 'The Peace Movement'.
How do they respond to military aggression?


Wayne Mapp said...

Yes, I did mean 1987 for the third Thatcher election, it was a typo, not bad memory.

J Bloggs said...

GS: OK.That one's from before my time - the ones I saw at school were "Threads" and "The Day After"

Quentinf said...

Wayne’s comment that "… the anti-nuclear stance of UK Labour doomed the party electorally" is a big misreading of history. There were a number of reasons that Labour lost in the UK in 1983. Foremost amongst them was the open civil war which engulfed the party at that time over a myriad of issues of which unilateral disarmament was one. It needs to be remembered that Thatcher's popularity only increased due to the UK's intervention in the Falklands. Immediately prior to the Falklands, Conservative party support had slumped and they were in real danger of being defeated. Jingoism won the day.
Additionally, Thatcher won with a big majority in 1983 due to the peculiarities of the First Past the Post voting system not because the bulk of people supported her. They didn't. Which is very obvious when once looks at the percentages.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

If the US does send weaponry to the Ukraine, the essence of what they will send is in the words 'lethal' and 'defensive'. A cut above communications equipment and radar sets, but nothing that could be (in theory) used in an offensive manner. Antitank missiles, anti-aircraft missiles for instance. Their mistake is assuming that they are purely defensive. As the Egyptians showed in the Yom Kippur war, they can be used to defend territory once taken, and therefore offensively. But I doubt they'll send enough weapons to alter the balance of power. Still, you never know. That sort of thing did to some extent help the Afghans kick the Russians out. Too soon to say :-).

Brewerstroupe said...

The Fallujah Option for East Ukraine

"Washington needs a war in Ukraine to achieve its strategic objectives. This point cannot be overstated."


Anonymous said...

Ukraine hasn't gone "neo-nazi" nor have the Baptist preacher, Jew and chocolatier who have run the country since Yanukovich fled with the loot. Although existent there is little popular support for far-right politics in Ukraine which was reflected in the election results. While there are many Russian speakers in Ukraine, speaking Russian doesn't automatically make them all identify with Russia any more than speaking English makes someone in Ireland call themselves British. In no region was there majority support for Russian annexation.

In Russia on the other hand there is widespread support for actual fascist ideas albeit without the use of the word. Russia courts far-left and far-right parties across Europe and has close ties to many of them such as the the new governing parties in Greece. The propaganda about "fascist military junta in Kiev" works well on Russians much like talk of "communists" on Americans in the 1980s, and it's a way to outreach their propaganda to antiestablishment leftists internationally.

Putin had no intention of suffering the continued independence of Belarus and Ukraine which he considers to be "west Russia". The Eurasian Union was meant to bring integration peacefully but its rejection by Ukrainians made Russia fall back to plan B of "separatists" who are largely Russian nationals. After that didn't secure popular support an outright invasion was planned but was stymied when they got the MH17 by mistake.

The Americans risk miscalculation because they don't understand Putin and the powerful popular forces behind him. It is a grave situation.