Dr Philip Webber, Scientists for Global Responsibility, considers the recent demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and recalls the dangerous decade before it was originally agreed.
Responsible Science blog, 29 August 2019
One of the heights of the Cold War was in the 1980s, when the US and Soviet Union confronted each other with about 70,000 nuclear warheads. Things were very dangerous. We thought that a nuclear holocaust was a real and possibly imminent threat.
We avoided nuclear disaster – more by luck than judgement – and, at the end of the decade, two key agreements led to dramatic reductions in warheads and nuclear tensions. The first was the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty which banned all land-based missiles with ranges between 500km and 5,500km. This led to the elimination of 2,700 missiles. The second treaty was Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (known as START-1) which led to the destruction of more than 35,000 nuclear warheads.
These reductions help us to understand just how serious is the loss of the INF treaty – as well as other nuclear treaties discarded in recent years.
But it is also important we understand the history of that dangerous decade to help us navigate a way forward today.
The tense 1980s
Tensions between NATO and the Soviet Russia-led bloc ramped up significantly in the early 1980s when the USA and the Soviet Union deployed nuclear missiles across Europe on either side of the so-called ‘Iron Curtain’. Cruise and Pershing II missiles were stationed in countries including the UK and West Germany, while SS-20 missiles were deployed in the western Soviet Union.
As nuclear holocaust seemed a real possibility, a huge ‘Protest and Survive’ European peace movement came into being, opposing these new nuclear missile deployments. As both sides already had thousands of nuclear weapons ready to fire at each other, the deployment of hundreds more missiles with very short flight times was very dangerous and destabilising. Huge demonstrations took place in London, around the women’s peace camps at Greenham Common and Burghfield, as well as across Europe.
The UK government led by Margaret Thatcher fed the feverish atmosphere by arguing that nuclear attack on the UK would be survivable as long as supposedly simple home-based civil defence measures were taken. These included makeshift nuclear shelters described in an official booklet entitled ‘Protect and Survive’. Government leaflets intended for schools portrayed the UK as a bulldog confronting a snarling Russian bear and included highly misleading missile graphics.
Many organisations of professionals were also formed to protest against nuclear weapons. One of these was Scientists Against Nuclear Arms (SANA), one of SGR’s forerunner organisations, which was founded in 1981 and set up several working groups to tackle the detailed technical issues. Other organisations involved those with expertise in engineering, electronics, medicine and health, psychology and architecture.
In the autumn of 1982, a group of SANA scientists including myself published the book, London After the Bomb, which became a best-selling paperback. We showed that casualties in a realistic nuclear attack would be huge and horrific, and that Home Office assumptions were grossly inaccurate. We gave talks – many inside nuclear bunkers – and gained a great deal of coverage in newspapers and on the radio and TV highlighting the folly of deploying more nuclear weapons. Further books were published in 1983 – including Crisis Over Cruise and Europe’s Folly – along with numerous leaflets.
These added to the intense political pressure, which focused politicians’ minds – ultimately resulting in the negotiation and signing of the INF Treaty by US President Reagan and Russian General Secretary Gorbachev in December 1987 and to agreement of START-I in 1991.
The lesson from the 1980s is surely that negotiation, agreement and adherence to legally-binding treaties is essential. Furthermore, to help bring politicians to the negotiating table, scientists and campaigners need to work together to help the public understand the enormous risks.
The nine nuclear-armed nations currently hold the world’s population and themselves hostage to the risk of annihilation – whether by accident, miscalculation or intention – with their 14,000 weapons. New weapons testing, most recently by the USA, Russia and North Korea, is inflaming the situation. Rather than spending huge budgets on nuclear ‘modernisation’ programmes and abandoning important treaties such as the INF Treaty, JCPOA (Iran nuclear deal), ABMT and, potentially, New START, they should join new UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), supported by over 120 nations. The TPNW is a practical and inclusive way forward towards the elimination of all nuclear weapons. Already gaining moral force, so far it has gained 25 of the 50 ratifications it requires to enter into legal force.
Dr Philip Webber is Chair of Scientists for Global Responsibility, and has written widely on nuclear issues since the 1980s.
Scientists for Global Responsibility: The Nuclear Weapons Threat
Federation of American Scientists: Status of World Nuclear Forces
International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (ICAN): The TPNW