Nuclear weapons were never the best way to keep the peace

By Bruce Kent, vice-president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (THE GUARDIAN, 14/03/07):

Roy Hattersley is a welcome addition to the anti-Trident majority now in this country (My unilateral conversion, March 5). I fear, however, that he still lacks the humility required from a real convert.He will, I hope, come to accept his share of responsibility for the ignorance and British hubris which has so contributed to the current dangerous global crisis. But he is also positively abusive about those who did not share his previous opinions. They constituted, he says, “the forces of unreason”. Edward Thompson, eminent historian; Dorothy Hodgkin, distinguished scientist and Nobel prize winner; Martin Ryle, astronomer royal; Archbishop Thomas Roberts, courageous church reformer; Lord Fenner Brockway, active until his last days – are all these to be counted as “the forces of unreason”? Does he think that such people and thousands like them did nothing more than march up and down shouting “ban the bomb”?

We should now acknowledge, Hattersley tells us, that nuclear deterrence “kept the peace”. In my opinion there were more intelligent ways of building and keeping real peace, and less dangerous ways of removing tyrannies. All the nuclear-weapon standoff of cold-war times achieved, at massive cost and risk, was the shifting of possible “hot war” from Europe to faraway places where surrogate wars such as Vietnam and Korea took casualties in their millions.

He mocks “old CND campaigners” who claimed (did we?) that the world was at risk from some US general who might go “off his head”, and that we were “sleepwalking to Armageddon”. Well, perhaps he has forgotten that there was once a US general in Korea who very much wanted permission to be able to use nuclear weapons but was thankfully stopped by a wiser president.

Accidents and miscalculation are often forgotten when assessing the terrible dangers of those cold-war times, which Gorbachev, more than anyone else, brought to an end. Only last year Robert McNamara, of Cuban crisis fame, told an audience that it was only good luck that saved us then from global nuclear war.

Throughout those years Hattersley was a chip off the Ernest Bevin block. Bevin, despite Clement Attlee’s misgivings, started Britain on the road to “independent” nuclear weapons. Furious with the Americans, he came to a secret cabinet meeting saying he wanted them over here, whatever the cost: “We’ve got to have the bloody union jack on top of it.”

But we can all be active members of the new broad anti-Trident church, whatever our past differences. As a minimum, any Trident decision should wait until the 2010 review conference of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. And every effort should be made to start global nuclear-weapon abolition negotiations.

Such, said the International Court of Justice in 1996, is our legal obligation. There are other significant converts pushing today in the same direction. Even Henry Kissinger now wants a world free of all nuclear weapons.

A utopian notion? Every change for the better is called utopian until someone makes it happen.