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when two tribes go to war
June 23, 2009 5:24 AM   Subscribe

By 17 October, the day of the Soviet Moon landing, tension had risen. Czechoslovakian and Hungarian troops were said to be massing on the border with Austria. Soviet fighters had been harassing civil aircraft in the Berlin corridors, causing an American airliner to crash.

What was once the most secret British government document is released to the public on Tuesday. The Government War Book, used during the Cold War, set out in great detail exactly what would happen in the days before nuclear weapons were fired.

Prof Peter Hennessy describes the War Book
posted by the_very_hungry_caterpillar (30 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
MIDNIGHT SUN
posted by obiwanwasabi at 5:29 AM on June 23, 2009


I enjoyed the revelation that they'd round up all subversives straight away. The thing that makes me curious is to what extent this means left-wingers only - I'm assuming that as usual right wing activists would be employed as state enforcers.

Odd, from successive Labour Governments. I'm also curious to know what the plans for Ulster were, and if the Government planned to use the Protestant paramilitaries. Though that might be blacked out, I suppose.
posted by jaduncan at 6:18 AM on June 23, 2009 [3 favorites]


Flash-based, and therefore inaccessible on iPhone.

Sounds interesting, though.
posted by ixohoxi at 6:23 AM on June 23, 2009


I think it might be a stretch to think the British gov was nuanced enough to see a difference between left and right wing 'subversives'. In a total war footing, I would imagine the only ideas that count are those that accord with the government.
posted by bystander at 6:25 AM on June 23, 2009


jaduncan: "I enjoyed the revelation that they'd round up all subversives straight away."

What ever happened to those DHS detention camps that Halliburton was hired to build?

Still sitting around, you think?
posted by Joe Beese at 6:39 AM on June 23, 2009


More details

Not sure why this doesn't seem to be actually available to the public though. All I can find are references to this Hennessy chap having a copy.
posted by smackfu at 6:46 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


It mentions that a copy will be available on Tuesday — presumably referring to today, but no mention of it on the Cabinet Office's website. I've e-mailed the author of the Guardian's article on this, so we'll see if he knows anything about this.
posted by jaffacakerhubarb at 7:13 AM on June 23, 2009


I think the perfersser, in spite of himself, is pleased he can finally share his little schoolboy Latin pun:

"I participated in one R hour in the early hours of the morning and I remember reporting on it afterwards through the newly installed closed circuit TV. And foolishly saying because of the day of the week - 'There we are, R hour, sic transit gloria Thursday'.

The exercise was taken very seriously - and jokes were frowned on, even if they were elegant puns on Latin phrases - "sic transit gloria mundi" is, of course, "so passes the world's glory".

Mr Young said: "I subsequently learned the Foreign Secretary Alec Douglas Home said, 'Who is that very foolish young man?'"

posted by KokuRyu at 7:16 AM on June 23, 2009 [2 favorites]



An excellent docu-drama on the subject of an imagined nuclear war and the aftermath in Britain (NSFW/gruesome/the only piece of film that has ever really scared me): Threads


The file has mock daily briefings from the Joint Intelligence Committee on international events - the Home Front is covered by bulletins from civil defence officials in the Home Office. Every day the "cabinet" of civil servants would meet and decide which parts of the War Book to implement.

Kind of reminds me of model UN crisis committees.....those usually end with nuclear war as well actually.
posted by Erberus at 7:20 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


"I think it might be a stretch to think the British gov was nuanced enough to see a difference between left and right wing 'subversives'. In a total war footing, I would imagine the only ideas that count are those that accord with the government."

I don't know, it seems those who define themselves by a nationalist relationship to the state and who are prepared to use violence is pretty useful. When I was in the British Army the exercises for CI all featured animal rights activists and leftists and such (c. 1999 or so). No BNP/NF there, one would notice.

As previously mentioned, our orders for post-strike (I did post strike ionosphere bouncing comms, fun for a geek) included not slowing down below 50mph during travel for any reason, even if we had to run people over. We were required to deny all food for a few weeks, not give out water, and shoot anyone who approached the comms masts.

Theads was quite social compared to our plan, really. At least they came out. We'd stay inside and wait for people to die. So I'm not sure the civilian and Army War Books were that similar, and our comms role certainly included no provision of assistance at all. On the other hand, I can't imagine that the long range comms masts would last that long once they started up. So we were just as screwed, really.
posted by jaduncan at 7:32 AM on June 23, 2009 [5 favorites]


What is most striking to me is the belief that there would be days and weeks to respond to Soviet aggression. I guess 1970 was too early to begin contemplating the hair trigger nuclear warfare of the 80s, but it really struck me that they believe they'd have time to evacuate cities and hospitals in the even of nuclear warfare. War and Peace in the Nuclear Age is, and I know I've mentioned this before, an amazing documentary. Nuclear planning really went from pragmatic all out warfare to abstract game theory really quickly. When your wars are waged on the probability a missle appeared in a given silo (moving on underground rail carts) and monitored by spy sattelites in space, I think you need to rethink your concept of warfare.
posted by geoff. at 7:33 AM on June 23, 2009


To put it simply, I think ours was different because we were actually intended to survive.
posted by jaduncan at 7:33 AM on June 23, 2009


Do not watch Threads.
posted by mayhap at 7:41 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


They rounded up and interned various Moselyites and fascists during WWII, whereas IIRC some communists had trouble joining up but usually could serve (after the end of the Ribbentrop pact when they'd done their about-turn on the war) so I presume the state was able to spot the difference between various stripes of malcontent.
posted by Abiezer at 7:46 AM on June 23, 2009


I'm at work so I can't watch the video, but, to be honest, rounding up everyone even a little bit radical-left would not have been totally unjustified. Remember the Cambridge Five? KGB penetration of radical groups (even those nominally not aligned with the Soviets) was very extensive. Not saying it would have been the right thing to do, but there's definitely some reason of state there.
posted by nasreddin at 7:56 AM on June 23, 2009


The War Game was also produced (and suppressed) by the BBC about the time this document was first created.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:58 AM on June 23, 2009


Do not watch Threads.

This is good advice.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:10 AM on June 23, 2009



Do not watch Threads.

I didn't realise how many times it had been posted before. Search before you link I guess..

This is good advice.

It is very good, just be warned. Still at least no nations have massive stockpiles of ready to use nuclear weapons any more. Right?

Also that thread contains this absolute gem:

I like to randomly throw links to Threads into things, sort of my version of rick-rolling only with more of a theme of depressing inevitable death.
posted by Erberus at 8:28 AM on June 23, 2009


Ugh, things like this make me want to grab the people planning it (and politicians, and military personnel, and scientists and engineers involved in developing and building nuclear weapons) by the collar and shake them violently screaming "WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?!".
posted by Reverend John at 8:39 AM on June 23, 2009


jaffacakerhubarb: do let us know if you get anything. Can't see anything at the National Archives.
posted by fightorflight at 9:51 AM on June 23, 2009


I'd like to know more about the Soviet moon-landing scenario to which they allude. They say it's already been released somewhere?
posted by johngoren at 9:59 AM on June 23, 2009


...set out in great detail exactly what would happen in the days before nuclear weapons were fired.

What the hell doe that mean, exactly? So "The War Book" isn't full of contingency plans, but is just a bunch of stoner-ish prognostications about events that might lead to nuclear war?

I mean, the fact is--as is so ably demonstrated in Peter Watkins' "The War Game"--there really wasn't a very coherent contingency plan for the citizenry of the UK (at least up through the mid-70's); no plans to coordinate emergency response teams at the municipal, regional, and national levels, no alternative command structures. Nothing, really, except a note from the PM, tucked away in a nuclear submarine.

Despite all the fear-mongering the US and British governments inflicted upon their own populations, they were doing precious little to really create any infrastructure to help the populace survive the aftermath of a nuclear attack. Instead, most resources were put into creating the means for mass catastrophe, and terrifying the population with news of the potential consequences (a playbook that Bush and Blair followed to the letter after 9/11). Same shit, different bogeyman.
posted by Lee Marvin at 10:19 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


fightorflight: The author of the article said that he didn't have a copy himself, but that "the full volume is available for study at the National Archives in Kew, West London". I've been wanting to go to Kew Gardens for a while (for those who haven't been, it really is beautiful there and pretty straightforward to reach on the tube), so I'll have a look there.

I've never been, so I'm not sure if they provide copies of the documents there. If it's allowed, I might digitise a copy and put it online. If I can (or can't but they do have it), I'll post a link to it here.
posted by jaffacakerhubarb at 10:19 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


What the hell doe that mean, exactly? So "The War Book" isn't full of contingency plans, but is just a bunch of stoner-ish prognostications about events that might lead to nuclear war?

The thinking was that a nuclear attack wasn't likely to come out of the clear blue sky: there would be some sort of Cuba-esque political escalation beforehand. When nuclear war looked increasingly likely -- and they gamed a lot of scenarios that they thought would lead to one -- they would then do X, Y and Z to try and prepare for it. Including setting up an alternative command structure. So:

there really wasn't a very coherent contingency plan for the citizenry of the UK
there actually was one, it was just highly classified. Until yesterday.

jaffacakerhubarb: thanks! I should make a trek to Kew next time I'm in London as well.
posted by fightorflight at 10:31 AM on June 23, 2009


Tom Clancy did it so much better. Who knew Iceland could be so filled with drama?
posted by mark242 at 10:47 AM on June 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


fightorflight: The point I was trying to make is that the government was only interested in its own self-perpetuation, and not particularly interested in the post-bombing welfare of its citizenry (as jaduncan's personal experience above ably demonstrates). Additionally, from what I can gather, The War Book didn't even come into existence until the early 1970's, which would mean that there was still nearly 20 years during which the UK didn't even have a coherent continuation-of-governance plan, especially compared with the US, and its installations at the Greenbrier, among other places (maybe this has something to do with a nostalgic belief in the divine right of kings?).
posted by Lee Marvin at 11:47 AM on June 23, 2009


Lee Marvin: The point I was trying to make is that the government was only interested in its own self-perpetuation, and not particularly interested in the post-bombing welfare of its citizenry

In fairness to bloodless civil planners everywhere, what could they really have done? All I've ever heard about Threads and The Day After and whatnot was that they were considered optimistic scenarios. A serious effort to provide for the citizenry in the wake of a full-scale nuclear war would be ruinously (and intolerably) expensive--bomb shelters for a significant portion of the population, massive food stocks, nuke-proof communications network, etc. On top of that, planning for such would be (and was) viewed as warlike in itself, arousing domestic opposition.

Put another way, military planners expected to lose significant portions of their own population and capabilities. If the group most expected to be immediately needed in the event the balloon goes up didn't even prepare to survive mostly whole, what hope would there be for the civilian planner looking to pry loose some emergency preparedness for Mrs. McCarthy at the end of the lane?
posted by fatbird at 12:35 PM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


Once again let me recommend Peter Hennessy's The Secret State, which gives a very detailed picture of British war planning and helps to correct some misunderstandings in this thread.

the government was only interested in its own self-perpetuation, and not particularly interested in the post-bombing welfare of its citizenry

This is flat-out wrong. Hennessy makes it quite clear that there were detailed contingency plans in place for a post-nuclear scenario, focusing on four main priorities: (1) pre-attack evacuation, (2) stockpiling of food, oil and essential medical supplies, (3) supply of basic public utilities (gas, electricity, water, etc), and (4) post-attack government with regional command centres. The planners did their work very thoroughly and devoted a lot of attention to the post-war conditions of existence.

The War Book didn't even come into existence until the early 1970s, which would mean that there was still nearly 20 years during which the UK didn't even have a coherent continuation-of-governance plan

Again, this is flat-out wrong. War planning began in earnest with the Strath Report in 1955. But the War Book of 1970, which has just been declassified, was the first time that all the government war planning was pulled together into one centralised document setting out the key decisions that the Cabinet would need to take in the event of a nuclear war.

So what was the point of it all? It would be easy to write it off as completely futile, since at the end of a nuclear war there would probably have been nothing left -- no society, no infrastructure, no country left to govern. But arguably the War Book served a hugely important purpose in setting out, in unsparing detail, just how appalling the consequences of a nuclear war would be, and how many millions of people would die as a result. Hennessy's book makes it clear that the civil servants involved in planning a post-nuclear scenario were, one and all, scared shitless by the possibility that it might one day happen for real. That can only have been a good thing.
posted by verstegan at 3:19 PM on June 23, 2009 [4 favorites]


Lee Marvin, that "note from the PM" link just sounds like a riff on Schroedinger's Cat.
posted by carping demon at 4:41 PM on June 23, 2009


carping demon: The note's definitely real (not sure if you knew that). They actually revealed what was in a past note recently — can't remember the PM involved, but the letter essentially gave these choices to the officer in charge of the nuclear submarine:
  1. Place yourself under U.S. command (if it still exists)
  2. Go to Australia (if it is still there)
  3. Retaliate by launching against the attacking state(s)
  4. 'Exercise your own judgement'
    1. Even reading about it spooks the hell out of me. I can barely imagine what it must have been like for the civil servants working on this kind of thing during the cold war, let alone what it must be like for those aboard a nuclear submarine today. Nuclear war is hardly likely to manifest itself in the form of all-out war, but the thought of it must cross their minds from time to time.
posted by jaffacakerhubarb at 5:15 PM on June 23, 2009


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