Britain and the Cold War

It’s been a few months since my last actual posting for which I do apologize. Yesterday, I was attempting to post a delightful article (if I do say so myself) about the Iranian nuclear talks which just concluded in Switzerland over the weekend. However, in my folly, I foolishly assumed that blogger operated like Google docs and saved things as one progressed. It does not. Hence my ‘infuriated’ post. In light of that, I have switched to WordPress and decided to do a series on Cold War issues centered around British and American actions towards and in response to the Soviet Union. My motivation for these posts are multidimensional, not the least of which is that it provides a nice impetus for me to work on my dissertation. Second, I think the topic is exceptionally interesting; third, I believe that it has implications for today because many of the weapons systems used at the end of the Cold War are still in operation (cf. American ICBMs, etc), as well as the political events of the day.

Cold War Europe

In the years after the Second World War, British military spending as a percentage of GDP hovered around 7-8% and peaked at 9.8% in 1952 because of the Korean War inspired rearmament. However, by 1969, thanks to Prime Minister Harold Wilson, military spending fell below 5%. In short, between 1945 and the late 1960s, the British government slowly shifted its strategy away from military power towards other means of projecting its influence in global affairs. However, this did not happen on a whim; instead, the Wilson government’s near endless series of strategic reviews constantly shifted and reduced the UK’s reliance on its own military might towards more economically and politically palatable programs.

In regards to reacting to the Soviet Union, the British Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) conceded that “[we] must be speculative, as we have little evidence to show what view Russia herself takes on her strategic interests, or what policy she intends to pursue. We have practically no direct intelligence, of a detailed factual or substantial nature, on conditions in the different parts of the Soviet Union, and none at all on the intentions, immediate or ultimate, of the Russian leaders…”
In other words, the British government was in many ways ignorant of both the goals and tactics which the Soviet Union would employ towards internal and external affairs. The political atmosphere in Whitehall must have been strenuous to say the least; for all they knew, the senior leaders within the Soviet government could have been plotting a first strike on NATO forces and the British government would have been none the wiser. It’s easy to see why there was so much fear both within government and in society at large during this time (hence the constant strategic reviews).

Another way of bringing some perspective to the fear British decision makers experienced would be by looking at the expected consequences of an all out nuclear war with Warsaw Pact countries:
In one of the defence reviews the Wilson government commissioned, it was reported that “[O]n the outbreak of general nuclear war, it is expected that central government would cease to exist from the earliest stage, that a third of Britain’s population and the bulk of her industrial capacity would be destroyed.” It goes on to say, “the British people, dependent in war and peace on their overseas lifelines, would be faced with a destruction of their resources unknown in their history.”

London itself was obviously considered to be at the top of the Warsaw Pact target list. One top secret intelligence document estimated that London would be the target of multiple thermonuclear bombs. The process involves detonating at least three bombs about a mile from each at as close to the same time as possible.

The triangular nature of the power the nuclear weapons would release would be amplified in the center. Put another way, if one imagines a triangle with each of the three points of a triangle being a nuclear detonation, the centre of the triangle would be the epicentre where most of the destructive force would be focused.

At the same time, within a few seconds, the nuclear blasts would have spread to about an 11 mile radius, destroying most buildings in Greater London and its millions of inhabitants. Given the general nature of the weather patterns in and around southeastern England, any inhabitants who were able to flee the city would have had to escape westwards in order to avoid the massive amounts of radiation released from the destruction of London. That is not to say, however, that London was the only target. Most of the major cities in the UK were also targeted in addition to the British and American bomber and strategic forces bases around the country. With an estimated 8,300 nuclear weapons by the late 1960s (up from about 660 ten years earlier), the Soviet Union would have turned the UK into a smoking crater with just a few weapons.

Against this backdrop of complete destruction, Downing Street had to come up with some sort of preparations for what would happen after total war, even if the more likely outcome would have been the complete destruction of anything resembling a central government. Specifically, Downing Street noted that the primary responsibility for the immediate aftermath of war would be to provide for the base existence of its people. “The principle commodities needed would be meat, grain, dairy products, oil and fats, sugar and tea.” It was also expected that the members of the commonwealth would be the ones to have to supply these products due to the unusable radiation laced land covering the UK.


But the next question centred around how one could possibly pay for this. Whitehall admitted that “it is impossible to provide clear guidance to overseas posts on how their operations would be paid for, because it is impossible to say what any country’s money would be worth after a global nuclear conflagration.” Furthermore, it says,”it might be some time before anything like a recognised system of international exchange and payments could be reestablished.” But it did mention how the Treasury and the Bank of England were studying the problem and would deliver some instructions once they were decided.

When 1968 rolled around and the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia with incredible ease, Wilson’s government decided to freeze the number of Soviet diplomats in the country in retaliation. Instead of heightening tensions even more, however, Wilson took few further steps to inflame the sitation. However, he did continue to send Secretary Leonid Brezhnev his annual Christmas card.

It’s hard to imagine what any sort of “victory” would look like in the event of nuclear war. Our modern understanding of freedom and democracy would have to change substantially once the primary goal of all living inhabitants is simply to find the next bit of food amidst the backdrop of smoldering ruins. Entire countries would be uninhabitable for years depending on their size because of radiation. In many ways the inhabitants of both the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom would have been extremely similar post-nuclear war. Both would have been blown back into the Stone Age.



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