During the last two weeks of October 1962 the world held its breath as it came closer to nuclear war than any time before. The Cuban Missile Crisis could have ended with either the US or the Soviet Union being first to order a nuclear strike on the other. Whoever fired first would be faced with a retaliatory response of at least equal magnitude.
Prime among the Soviet targets was the American nuclear submarine base on the Holy Loch, on the River Clyde in Scotland. When the UK had agreed to the US base being sited in Scotland the Soviet foreign minister is reported to have said, “We will make Glasgow glow in the night.”
In October 1962, I was ten years old and living in the Clydeside dormitory town of Gourock. My morning ritual saw me pull back the curtains to see what the weather was doing. On this October morning, the day was clear and bright. The north bank of the river and the Highland hills beyond were visible in all their glory.
America sends its submarine support ship to sea
Visible too was the USS Proteus, the depot ship that serviced America’s Scotland-based fleet of nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed submarines. What was different was that the ship was moving. Normally she was firmly anchored alongside a floating drydock used by the Polaris submarines when they returned to base. This time the Proteus was underway and heading out of the loch into the Firth of Clyde, on her way to the open sea.
Proteus’ departure from the Clyde was a military necessity. She carried everything needed by the submarines, from food to nuclear missiles. Her ability to keep the nuclear boats battle-ready while at sea was part of the strategy of deterrence and kept alive the possibility of a second strike of missiles if America determined a first strike inadequate. Had Proteus remained at anchor in the Holy Loch she would have been an easy target for a Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile.
Each US submarine based on the Clyde had 16 missiles that could hit targets up to 1,200 miles from wherever at sea a boat was deployed. It was thought that on average four submarines were stationed at Holy Loch, with one always at sea. Polaris missiles carried a nuclear warhead of 600 kilotons of explosive power. Four Polaris submarines had the destructive power of some 38,000 kilotons. The bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 were around 14 kilotons.
Wiped out in the event of a nuclear strike
If you’re a stranger to the geography of West Central Scotland, look at a map. You’ll see that the Holy Loch lies about 25 miles downriver of Glasgow, which in 1962 was a city of a million people. Another 1.5mn people lived in the greater Glasgow region. While Glasgow itself now has around 600,000 people, there’s about the same overall number in the region today.
Before the deindustrialisation of the Thatcher years, Scotland’s central belt was an industrial and commercial powerhouse. Had the Soviet Union stood by its threat to destroy Glasgow, there was the almost certainty of much of Scotland’s human population being wiped out, along with its great shipyards and factories, its commerce, ancient universities, schools, hospitals, road, rail, air and communications infrastructure, its churches, sports grounds, theatres, galleries, shops and parks. The destruction would have been many times that of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Glasgow’s ubiquitous motto – Let Glasgow flourish – would have been little more than archaeology on long-gone buildings to be unearthed in a distant future when the city was fit again for human habitation.
Watching the first successful test firing of a nuclear weapon in New Mexico in 1945, the physicist, Robert Oppenheimer, quoted lines from Hindu scripture, that have since become famous. “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” The bombs that fell over Japan killed 200,000 people. Bombs over Scotland would kill many more.
Nuclear war: protecting the family
In that October in 1962 I recall my parents talking to each other in low voices. I imagine they discussed how best to protect the family. Would we stock up from my father’s grocery and live in the cellar below the house? Would we pile into the family car to make for the Highlands or go south to England? Would we simply wait for the bomb blasts that would blow down the town and take us and all we knew with it?
My father had been in the Navy in WW2 and witnessed the surrender of the Japanese at Singapore that followed the dropping of the atomic bombs on the Japanese mainland. On convoys to Murmansk and Archangel he’d seen men go to their death as cargo ships became top-heavy with ice and simply rolled over into the black unforgiving sea. In the Atlantic he’d watched men and ships torpedoed by U-boats sink beneath the waves. My mother had vivid memories of May 1941 when Nazi bombers killed thousands of people in the Clyde’s shipbuilding towns. To my parent’s generation, war, destruction, and great loss of life were recent events.
At my school the mood was solemn. My teachers loved their charges and most had children of their own. They knew, as did every adult in the locality, that seeking shelter was likely to be a pointless effort. I imagine few of my schoolmates were aware the world stood on a precipice of mass death on an unimaginable scale. Few though will have failed to register that all was not right in our little world, even if they knew nothing of the big world’s agonies.
Nuclear powers pull humanity back from the brink
Those two weeks in October 1962 culminated in President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev reaching a deal that pulled humanity back from a nuclear exchange. The world returned to an uneasy peace that lasted until the fall of Soviet Communism in 1991, which brought an end to the Cold War.
No longer would East and West have to spend great sums maintaining enormous armies and vast nuclear arsenals. Money could go to more productive uses. The US and the UK scaled back, keeping just enough lethal nuclear capability to, theoretically, deter the reckless deployment of the most powerful nuclear arms. In response to the new world order (and because of technological advances that greatly increased the range of submarine-launched missiles) the Americans closed the Holy Loch base in 1992.
Trident comes to the Clyde
Little though changed for Glasgow and the Clyde. Ever since Britain developed its own nuclear armed submarine force in the 1960s, Britain’s boats have been based at Faslane on Loch Long, another sea loch on the Clyde that is closer to Glasgow than Holy Loch*. The UK’s four nuclear-armed submarines now carry Trident missiles. Each boat is capable of being armed with up to 40 independently targetable warheads, each having a yield of between 80 and 100 kilotons.
In 2015, the pressure group Scientists for Global Responsibility published a report arguing against the renewal of the British Trident nuclear force. It estimated that if all the weapons were used from just one British Trident submarine some 10 million human casualties would result and that the climatic effect would risk global food supplies. The renewal programme was approved by the government, following a 355-majority vote in parliament.
The question is the same today as it was in 1962. Is the possession of weapons of mass destruction and their ability to reach any part of the planet a deterrent to war and nuclear war in particular? To date, they have not deterred conventional war by nuclear and non-nuclear powers. Since the Cuba crisis, escalation from conventional to nuclear war had not arisen as a strong possibility. But it has now.
After Cuba, it was widely accepted by East and West and by most defence and foreign policy academics that carrying a big stick had worked, that both sides saw the complete folly of nuclear war. The argument goes that presence of nuclear weapons tempered the instinct of one nuclear armed power to dominate another, that rational actors will behave rationally, the alternative being, literally, MAD – Mutually Assured Destruction. Fortunately for the world, Kennedy and Khrushchev were rational actors.
For most of the 60 years since the missile crisis, the great powers have been led by broadly rational leaders. The Cold War established the USA and the Soviet Union as superpowers without rival. They ruled the world and the world paid heed. Today’s world is more fractured and fractious, far less predictable, and therefore potentially less rational. This is not good for the theory of nuclear deterrence, which depends on political actors behaving rationally for fear of devastating consequences.
We all wait to see if Putin is a rational actor. If he is not, Glasgow may yet glow in the night. Nor do we know how the other leaders with nuclear arsenals might behave when tested: Biden, the British PM, Macron, Modi, Shehbaz Sharif, Kim Jong-Un, Naftali Bennett, Xi Jinping.
There are very few in that list who give me confidence that they learned much from studying the Cuban Missile Crisis, if indeed they bothered at all.
A new Cold War
When he was prime minister, Boris Johnson approved a 40 percent increase in the UK’s stock of nuclear warheads. Was that rational? Will it do anything to deter Putin or improve the security of the UK or of the world? If the destructive power of what we already had was enough to deter an aggressor, as the advocates for nuclear arms claim, why do we need more? Is the UK’s nuclear weaponry increase likely to make Putin think twice? If Putin blinks, the champions of deterrence will cry victory. If the West blinks and allows Russia to annexe most or all of Ukraine, the idea that the West’s possession of nuclear arms deters aggression and sustains the peace will be in tatters. The Russian Bear will have bested the West. A new Cold War will be born and with it the sort of paranoid instability that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Has the fear of the consequences of nuclear conflict paralysed the West? Apart from arming Ukraine, what else can it do? Taking NATO troops into Ukraine with the intention of stopping Putin must present a very high risk of Russia going nuclear. The closer Putin comes to defeat, the more likely it may create the very circumstances that see him unleash a nuclear strike. What follows may be Mutually Assured Destruction. MAD is madness of the highest order.
How do we step back from the brink without throwing Ukraine to the wolves and appeasing its attacker? The prospect for fruitful talks is limited. Who in the world has the status and authority to persuade Russia to the table? In seeking talks, are we asking Ukraine to accept the loss of territory, people and economic assets? Have we reached an impasse where the policy of nuclear deterrence limits our options to the extent that we have less ability to protect our security and interests than we had before nuclear arsenals arrived in the world?
One more Gourock sunset
As my mind stretches back over the 60 years since Cuba, my recollection is that a calm had descended on my little town. Gourock is famous for its staggeringly beautiful summer sunsets. The sun takes its time setting. First sending golden shafts of light across the waters of the broad, glass-like Firth, then catching the Spinnakers of racing yachts seeking the very last breath of air to see them safely to their moorings.
As the great orb sinks deeper behind the Highland hills of Argyll, fingers of deep red, orange, purple and ochre appear like ethereal dancers across the darkening sky. The town stops to watch this wonder of nature. Cars stop to catch the show. Calm descends.
If nuclear holocaust is to happen, please let me see one more Gourock sunset.
*Britain’s Trident missiles are stored, serviced, and loaded on and off the country’s Vanguard submarines at Coulport, also on Loch Long. This enormous complex took 13 years to build and was exceeded in cost only by the Channel Tunnel.