Putin, Shute and nukes

How much should we fear nuclear war?

Artillery Row

It is the lot of most novelists to sink into obscurity. Even if they are bestsellers in their lifetimes, reading habits soon change. Current discussions over the merits of Roald Dahl’s style and language are a stark reminder of the yardsticks by which different generations measure the same texts. 

My parents despaired of ever getting me to read until Arthur Ransome (Swallows and Amazons) and Captain W.E. Johns (Biggles) came to rescue my immature brain. Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel and Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword were the first volumes I remember having to study. Before I knew it, in “O” and “A” level English Literature, I was walking through Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen and assorted Brontës, with side helpings of Virginia Woolfe, D.H. Lawrence, Graham Greene and Harper Lee. Outside school hours, the gore and smut of Ian Fleming, Frederick Forsyth and Alastair Maclean ruled supreme.

In 1974, I recall my new headmaster escorting us new boys, aged 13, around the school site and pretty Shropshire town straddling the River Severn, where we would study for the next five years. His purpose was to imbue in us a sense of the history of an establishment that dated back to 1552. We walked past a boarding house. “It was here,” he intoned, “that Nevil Shute boarded during the First World War. Blank looks all round. 

A famous old boy, his name turns even fewer heads today. Yet from 1924 to 1960, Nevil Shute penned 24 novels, all of which went into the best-seller charts, often for months, on both sides of the Atlantic. Several of his books became feature films. I never met him, for he died in the year I was born, but I have always felt an affinity because we attended the same boy’s boarding school. Unlike mine, his life was overshadowed by the dark clouds of two world wars and, latterly, nuclear Armageddon.

In July 1915, his older brother Fred was killed as a young officer on the Western Front, a few months after leaving school. “For the remainder of my time at Shrewsbury,” wrote Nevil in his autobiography, “I don’t think I had the slightest interest in a career or any adult life; I was born to one end, which was to go into the army and do the best I could before being killed. The time at school was a contemplation of the realities that were coming and for spiritual preparation for death.”

Fifteen novels later, Shute again predicted future war

Shute continued, “In this atmosphere, masculine, restrained services in the school chapel played an enormous part. The list of school casualties grew every day. Older boys, whom we knew, appeared once or twice resplendent in new uniforms, and were dead. We remembered them as we had known them less than a year before, as we knelt praying for their souls in chapel, knowing as we did so, that in a year or so, the little boys in our own house would be praying for us.” These powerful words have resonated through the years to me, who at an identical age, also knelt and prayed in the very same pews, as had my father during a second world war. 

In the 1920s, Nevil Shute Norway became a distinguished airship and aircraft designer, at the same time churning out popular fiction under his two Christian names. By 1938, as a supplier of machines to the Air Ministry and student of international affairs, he foresaw what might happen in a surprise aerial attack on Britain. Hastened by the Munich Crisis, Shute published his fifth volume, What Happened to the Corbetts, in February 1939. It chronicled the life of solicitor Peter Corbett and his family, when their neighbourhood in Southampton was suddenly blitzed by bomber fleets belonging to an unnamed power (obviously Germany). Cities across southern England were reduced to helplessness under the bombs, typhoid and cholera broke out as the inhabitants fled, but after many trials, the Corbetts managed to reach safety in their small yacht.

The tome was descended from the “war scare” fiction which had preceded the First World War, of which the best known were H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1897) and The War in the Air of 1908. Such works are often written as a political warning, using current affairs and modern weaponry to predict the course of conflict in the near future. Sometimes, as with Wells, they border on science fiction and futurology. The genre has come down to our own times with works like Sir John Hackett’s 1982 novel The Third World War, Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising (1986) and General Richard Shirreff’s 2017: War with Russia (2016).

Shute’s What Happened to the Corbetts hit the bookshops at just the right moment to become a best-seller in a Britain suddenly panicked by the threat of aerial destruction by Germany. In particular, it put the wind up the nation’s ill-prepared Air Raid Precautions (ARP) service, to whom free copies were presented by the publisher. Yet, the author’s predictions failed to materialise. Perhaps affected by the sense of impending doom he had felt at school, Shute misread the tea leaves, and the ruination he predicted on Britain never came to pass. He later observed that he overstressed the effects of blast and poison gas but severely underestimated the potential of fire in aerial bombing. I am sure the inhabitants of Berlin, Cologne and Dresden would not disagree.

Fifteen novels and an autobiography later, in 1957, Shute again predicted future war. This time his vision was the aftermath of a nuclear exchange that had destroyed the northern hemisphere. On the Beach remains a harrowing read. It is perhaps better known for the feature film, starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner, which hit cinema screens in 1959. This time, Shute set his story in the Melbourne, Australia of 1963, the last major city in the world to survive an earlier nuclear war. As radiation sickness slowly moves south to engulf the rest of the planet, Shute explores the impact of impending death on the lives of five intertwined characters, as all hopes for mankind’s survival are gradually extinguished over the course of a couple of months.

The context this time was that Shute, who had spent 1940–45 designing aerial bombs, had moved to Australia. He was aware of Britain’s testing of nuclear weapons in a remote part of the country, along with wider controlled explosions by the USSR and USA elsewhere. As with the Corbetts, Shute was not writing as a campaigning politician but as an informed story teller, using his expertise to explore an issue of contemporary concern. Although he wasn’t exploiting public anxiety but reflecting it, the work became Shute’s best-known and most influential book. 

Again, his timing was perfect, because it was to Shute’s fiction that readers turned. Worried by the prospect of nuclear extermination in a NATO-Warsaw Pact war, they looked to Shute’s novel just as they had done when concerned about aerial annihilation two decades earlier. When I encountered it in the 1970s, the print run of On the Beach had already reached four million copies in English. Again, its pages reflect the sense of impending catastrophe, first felt by Shute in the school chapel during the First World War.

Public concern coalesced into the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament

The “war scare” genre also entered cinema, most notably in 1965 with The War Game. This spoof documentary by Peter Watkins portrayed the effect of a nuclear war on England and its aftermath. Made for BBC television, its graphic portrayal of destruction and casualties and gritty voiceover caused such dismay within government circles that it was withdrawn before its first screening. It only appeared on TV two decades later. Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 satirical black comedy Dr Strangelove, starring Peter Sellers, also reflected the contemporary world-wide obsession with nuclear issues, as have many more movies and novels since. The US and UK governments only added to concerns with official media, including the American public safety film Duck and Cover of 1951 and Protect and Survive, a British information booklet, delivered to every household in 1980. Both were part of wider civil defence campaigns, and both contained advice on what to do to survive a nuclear strike.

As Shute picked up his pen to write of the end of days, public concern had started to coalesce into what would become the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). The movement (and its various worldwide equivalents) has had a rollercoaster existence, with membership peaking twice when nuclear unease dominated the headlines. With its “Ban the Bomb” slogan, CND was the most influential of all pressure groups in 1957–63, incorporating many wider pacifist, Communist and anti-war sympathisers. It returned to public view in 1980–83, in reaction to the strong Thatcher-Reagan response to Soviet nuclear rearmament. The degree to which CND was penetrated and funded by the Communist bloc is still under scrutiny. Its ranks nonetheless included a huge swathe of Middle England: people who rarely protested about anything, but were motivated enough to join peace camps outside US air bases in Britain. Unsurprisingly, with Vladimir Putin’s continued references to potential nuclear deployments because of the Ukraine war, CND’s membership is again on the rise.

Eventually, Shute’s concerns (spurred on by Soviet repressions in Hungary in 1956, the building of the Berlin Wall in 1z961 and most notably, the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 — would be reflected in the 1968 Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT). 191 nations signed it, including the five self-declared nuclear weapons states of Russia, China, the USA, Britain and France — but not India, Israel, Pakistan or South Sudan. North Korea withdrew in 2003. Effective from 1970, the NPT remains focussed on preventing non-nuclear states from acquiring such weapons, whilst sharing the benefits of peaceful nuclear power. It is verified by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Other checks and balances have included the 1972–79 Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) and the current series of Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START), the most recent of which came into force in 2011. The latter is a Russo-American framework which aims to slash the number of strategic nuclear missile launchers (vehicles, submarines and aircraft) possessed by both sides. Inspection and verification of these craft and their numbers can be mounted by either. It is the START programme from which Putin announced he was withdrawing Russian participation on 23 February this year. Although widely misreported, Russia has not withdrawn from the treaty, or its agreed numerical limits, but rather it is the inspections that will “temporarily cease”. 

This is an important consideration in the context of today’s fears of nuclear escalation over Ukraine. Born in 1952, Vladimir Putin was too young to appreciate the initial period of nuclear anxiety. He caught the tail-end of the second period, when serving in Dresden as a colonel of the KGB in 1985–90, where he certainly interacted with the German anti-nuclear movements of the era. The third and current period of nuclear foreboding he has initiated himself. 

Their aim is to panic other nations into withdrawing support from Kyiv

In times of international nuclear tension, Western media doomsters claim that annihilation is just around the corner. They are doing so now, understanding that fear sells. Online news and social media are rife with discussions of an impending World War III. This is misleading nonsense. The mood created is also part of Russia’s disinformation campaign, however. Maskirovka, incorporating deception, denial and concealment, has been Moscow’s cornerstone doctrine for over a century. Its lies have military and civilian applications. We see it in use every day in statements from Moscow and Minsk, parroted (often in good faith) by others who should know better, in the West. 

From Putin’s announcement on 24 February 2022 that he was putting his nuclear forces on “higher alert” (he didn’t) to his recent statement of leaving the START Treaty (with no practical implications, as explained above), Moscow has set out to terrorise Ukraine’s allies with the word “nuclear”. Nowhere is this more evident than on Russia’s nightly news and talk shows, where a range of rabid presenters have threatened the obliteration of everything from Warsaw and Berlin to New York and (illogically) Stonehenge. A year later, they’re still at it. 

Be aware that nothing goes out on Kremlin-sponsored TV that has not been approved by Putin’s media team. Apart from shoring up morale at home, their aim is to panic other nations into withdrawing support from Kyiv. They tap into the fears of the West’s pre-existing anti-American intelligentsia, pacifist and peace movements, some churches and the usual assortment of Marxists, Greens and anti-Capitalists. None of these are in my crosshairs, some are friends of mine, and all I’m sure are decent, motivated folk. Yet it remains the case that the moment the conjurer in the Kremlin utters the word “nuclear”, they are blinded with an irrational fear. 

We saw it in the peace movements of the early 1980s. Those well-meaning folk forgot or overlooked the achievements of the various arms control treaties which have kept nuclear peace for over 50 years. They also forget that, despite the rhetoric, the Kremlin still plays by the rules. Russia remaining within the START framework (though suspending participation) is one instance of this. Another example was President Biden’s recent visit to Kyiv. The fact that his National Security Advisor could phone Moscow beforehand, warn them of the visit and secure an agreement not to attack whilst Biden was in Ukraine, was a remarkable illustration that at the Kremlin-White House level, it is still business as usual.

There is other evidence to suggest the rules-based interactions of the world have not broken down, and our collective extermination is not just around the corner. Recently, the United Nations General Assembly again condemned Russia over its treatment of Ukraine. On 24 February, 141 countries backed the resolution calling for a “comprehensive, just and lasting peace” in Ukraine. Amongst them were nations whose approach to Russia has at times been ambiguous, including Austria, France, Germany, Hungary, Qatar, Serbia, Switzerland, Turkey and the UAE. The exhaustive efforts of Foreign Minister Lavrov did not succeed here. Those voting against included six of the usual suspects: Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, Mali, Nicaragua and Syria. 

Concern focuses on the countries which abstained, where historic ties and intensive lobbying induced 32 to refuse to condemn Moscow. They include all four nations of the Indian sub-continent and 15 African countries. Altogether, 17 out of 54, or one in three, African states voted against or abstained. The reasons include decades-old arms purchasing arrangements with Russia and a very public display of independence from the colonial era. More significantly, during their struggles for independence in the 1970s, the Soviet bloc (especially Russia and Cuba) supported various Third World liberation movements. Today’s hostility to Western backing for Ukraine finds its origins in the 1980s Thatcher-Reagan axis, which viewed all of the African liberation movements through the prism of encroaching Communism. 

The main cause of Western anxiety today is a member of BRICS nations: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, a mnemonic for the five states that were once assumed to have the potential to dominate the world’s economy by 2050. Now out-of-date, with Brazil and South Africa struggling and Russia descending to basket-case status, it is South Africa’s policy towards Russia that has turned heads. Its navy has just conducted tri-national manoeuvres with Russia and China. Given the state’s globally strategic location, this is a dangerous development. It has rebounded on the UK and USA because of their support of successive Apartheid regimes until the coming to power of Nelson Mandela and his ANC in 1990. 

However, all these nations continue to vote and operate within the international framework of the UN. The failure of the earlier League of Nations was crucial to preparing the way for the Second World War. Today, we see none of this, with most participants — excepting North Korea and Iran — still playing by the rules. This is where we return to Nevil Shute. Twice, using his technical expertise, Shute attempted to predict future war in a novel, and twice he got it wrong. With On the Beach, the author wrote of a 37-day war that “had flared all around the northern hemisphere”. Albania had dropped a “cobalt bomb” on Naples, which escalated into wider conflicts and eventually a Russo-Chinese exchange. 

The Kremlin shows no sign of escalating to a nuclear level

As one of Shute’s characters, a scientist, explained, “The trouble is, the damn things got too cheap. The original uranium bomb cost about fifty thousand quid towards the end. Every little pipsqueak country like Albania had a stockpile of them, and every little country that had that, thought it could defeat the major countries in a surprise attack”. Significantly, Shute’s future war, set in 1963, wasn’t triggered by the usual NATO-Warsaw Pact arsenals of nuclear weapons, but the proliferation of them elsewhere. Then, as now, it is not Russian or Chinese aggression that should worry those with nightmares of nuclear cataclysm, but that of other countries. Thanks to the NPT, IAEA and the UN, these possibilities are contained. Today, the world’s weapons of mass destruction stand at one tenth of their number during the Cold War.

Indeed, the very origins of the current Ukraine crisis illustrate how the international order has managed to contain potential proliferation. When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, Ukraine possessed the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal, greater than those of Britain, France and China combined. Kyiv soon realised it couldn’t afford to maintain the warheads and remain a credible nuclear military power. A solution was found, whereby the weapons would be destroyed, but only in exchange for security assurances that the United States and Russia would respect Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.

What Ukraine signed on 5 December 1994 was the Budapest Memorandum of Security Assurances, in which Bill Clinton for the United States, Boris Yeltsin for Russia and John Major for Great Britain promised to protect Ukraine and its territorial integrity in recognition of Kyiv surrendering the protection of its nuclear arsenal. There was no mention of military guarantees, which Ukraine assumed were implied. Additionally, Kyiv promised to adhere to the Non-Proliferation of Treaty (NPT).

After the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, the G7 nations complained that Russia had breached the Budapest Memorandum. Vladimir Putin replied evasively that since, in his view, a new regime had seized power from Ukraine’s previously pro-Moscow premier Viktor Yanukovych, “Russia has not signed any obligatory documents with this new state”. Since then, Russia has lied and prevaricated over its betrayal of Budapest. In 2016, Sergey Lavrov went so far as to claim, “Russia never violated Budapest memorandum. It contained only one obligation, not to attack Ukraine with nukes” — a gross distortion of the Memorandum’s many obligations. 

However, the West responded in 2014 only with mild economic sanctions. Arguably, the apathy of the anti-interventionist Barack Obama and David Cameron, influenced by a London awash with Russian money, emboldened Vladimir Putin. Few experts disagree that had the West responded in 2014 as they did in 2022, Russia’s expansionist ambitions into Ukraine would have ended long ago. Yet, there is plenty of room for optimism. The Russo-Ukraine conflict has not spread because of the international order and its treaties. Apart from North Korea and Iran, neither of whom have quite perfected their devilish devices, nuclear proliferation of third parties has been held in check.

The Kremlin shows no sign of taking steps to escalate to a nuclear level. It is not in its interests, or those of its allies, to do so. None of the 32 nations who recently abstained from condemning Russia in the 24 February UN vote would welcome Vladimir Putin and his cronies flinging nukes around. The qualified support of major powers like China, India and Pakistan is attached to the cheap oil and arms procurements they have negotiated with Moscow. Any hint of Tsar Vladimir “going nuclear” would see their abstentions morph into support for the West. Putin, for all his rhetoric, cannot afford to go it alone with just the six who voted with him at the UN. In military terms, they offer nothing. 

The world’s various international arms treaties provide plenty of optimism that this will remain a regional war. So far, Putin’s threats have melted away as the morning mist. The scenario he implies, akin that in On the Beach and other nuclear-war-scare novels and films, is so unlikely as to be discounted. They and all the rest of the post-apocalyptic genre are written as nail-biting entertainment, not history or current affairs. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover