A Letter to the Apocalypse

Via Ross Douthat, I ran into this Slate article about the Letter of Last Resort:

At this very moment, miles beneath the surface of the ocean, there is a British nuclear submarine carrying powerful ICBMs (nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles). In the control room of the sub, the Daily Mail reports, “there is a safe attached to a control room floor. Inside that, there is an inner safe. And inside that sits a letter. It is addressed to the submarine commander and it is from the Prime Minister. In that letter, Gordon Brown conveys the most awesome decision of his political career … and none of us is ever likely to know what he decided.”

The decision? Whether or not to fire the sub’s missiles, capable of causing genocidal devastation in retaliation for an attack that would—should the safe and the letter need to be opened—have already visited nuclear destruction on Great Britain. The letter containing the prime minister’s posthumous decision (assuming he would have been vaporized by the initial attack on the homeland) is known as the Last Resort Letter….

According to the reporters for BBC Radio 4, the safe containing the safe containing the Letter of Last Resort is to be opened only in the event of a nuclear attack on Britain that kills both Prime Minister Gordon Brown and a second, not identified person—the person he’s designated as his alternate nuclear decision-maker in case of his death.

Slate author Ron Rosenbaum’s reaction to this situation is not positive:

With all due respect to our British cousins, this seems, well, insane. Or it highlights the fact that the insanity of Mutually Assured Destruction—insanity that was obtained during the Cold War and that we thought we’d left behind—still exists as real policy, however deeply problematic it remains in this and many other respects. (The fact that British defense officialdom allowed the reporters to know about the Last Resort Letter suggests that they’re proud of this system, evidence that a kind of group madness grips Her Majesty’s Royal Navy.)

The old-fashioned, pen-and-ink-on-paper quality of it all (quill pen, perhaps?) somehow makes the system seem like it emanated from a 19th-century madhouse out of Wilkie Collins. Which makes it even more profoundly shocking that the system is still in place.

Perhaps it all has to do with how one deals with the idea of worldly authority and with one’s approach towards human history, but I don’t at all share Rosenbaum’s hysterical reaction. That within the first weeks in office a PM is called on to set aside the jubilation of party dominance and plans for consolidating new-won power and sober himself to write by hand five copies of a letter to the end of the world (or at least, his world) strikes me has having a certain tragic grandeur, and providing a valuable reminder of the incredible temporal responsibilities that rest on our modern world leaders.

I suspect that the US approach to these things is less evocative, but frankly I’d be encouraged to know that our president elect would be pulled away from the cheering crowds for a few hours during his first weeks in office and told to think a little bit more soberly than the “Yes we can!” Bob-the-Builder slogan which swept him into office while penning a letter that would shape a world in which the US no longer existed.

3 Responses to A Letter to the Apocalypse

  1. Ryan Harkins says:

    The hysteria around the letter, of course, deals with whether MAD is morally licit or not. The question there has bothered me for some time. On the one hand, I’m a firm believer that MAD assures that nuclear weapons are never used, because no one wants an apocalypse from a nuclear holocaust. (Apocalypse due to the Second Coming and the end of time, maybe.) MAD, I’ve always felt, works as a great deterrent, a last ditch effort to forestall war. On the other hand, the sheer gravity of committing to the obliteration of an entire nation, or an entire continent, tells me that we’re walking on thin ice. MAD only works if there’s a guarantee that, if it comes to it, the nukes will be used. Thus implicitly we’re condoning the use of nukes. But if we cannot condone the use of nukes because of the indiscriminate destruction they cause, then MAD falls apart. So does that mean MAD itself cannot be condoned? I’m not so sure. The situation is so paradoxical that it is difficult to make heads or tails of it.

    What really compounds the problem of MAD is the escalation factor. The threat of annihilating an entire nation is not very palatable, but as long as it keeps the enemy quiescent, there’s seemingly no problem. But in terms of advantage, MAD still leaves a bitter taste, because it only guarantees mutual destruction. We can annihilate you if you choose to annihilate us. However, that still leaves us annihilated. So we try to develop defenses and weaponry that ensure that we can’t be annihilated, whereas we can still annihilate the enemy. They do the same. Worse, if we don’t keep developing, we’ll find ourselves in the exact opposite position. All this makes me wonder what happens if we ever develop a means of incinerating an entire nation so quickly (perhaps with weaponry traveling at a significant fraction of the speed of light) that they cannot react in time to retaliate. What happens then, or even if both sides attain such technology? Preemptive strike then becomes the only assurance of survival, but surely that cannot be morally licit. It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.

    If I were elected president and had to sit down and compose such a letter, I would not be able to pass the order to make a nuclear strike. My letter would read:

    If you are reading this, then the United States has been annihilated by a nuclear strike. Thus the cause is lost. There is no nation to defend. Do not retaliate; the whole world need not burn for that which cannot be recovered.

    Of course, one could argue that most the US would still persist in the aftermath of a nuclear strike, even if Washington D.C. and all our politicians were lost. That might change the dynamics of the situation. And of course, if anyone knew that I had told our submarine commanders not to strike, then we might be vulnerable to an attack. In a way, I’m grateful I’m not president. These questions are sufficient to drive one to madness.

    But yes, I’d certainly hope that our new president would be willing to interrupt the party to attend such a serious matter. Frankly, I think some people think that Obama’s presidency will be one endless celebration, an eight year jubilee.

  2. Phillip says:

    “Of course, one could argue that most the US would still persist in the aftermath of a nuclear strike, even if Washington D.C. and all our politicians were lost.”

    It might even be a better place. 😉

  3. crankycon says:

    It might even be a better place.

    Hey, I resent that!

    No, I actually don’t. Just give me a few minutes to evacuate.

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