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On The North Korean Conundrum

26 Sep

Like two petulant six-year-old boys lobbing insults at each other about who has the most complete football sticker album or the best Transformer, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un continue to have at it. If a kindergarten class was dosed up on Sunny Delight and extreme political positions, and given access to nuclear weapons, this is what it would look like. Were it not so serious, it would be laughable.

There’s been millions of words written and spoken about the situation in an effort to inform and understand. There have also been millions of words written and spoken in an effort to take us (meaning humankind) to war. I’m sure everyone will agree that the former position is preferrable.

This is, then, a short, annotated rundown of some of the more useful, sane output on the situation. One issue that the vast majority of us (and I include the president of the United States in this) do no understanding of North Korean history and politics. However, Gregg Brazinsky does, and these remarks are essential listening for those who want to get to grips with North Korean motivations.

It’s also vital that we understand the long legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War and the way in which the United States (as the lead actor on the United Nations side) prosecuted that war. While I don’t always agree with Bruce Cumings, this piece in the Guardian is a useful rundown of the massive aerial bombing campaign that levelled much of the north during the war.

Gaining perspectives from inside he DPRK is tough, but not impossible. Evan Osnos’s lengthy essay in The New Yorker is definitely worth your time, given the author’s very recent experiences on the ground in Pyongyang.

How, therefore, do we approach the situation and what can history tell us? Jayita Sarkar are thoughtful, exceptionally well-informed analysts of nuclear issues, they present the case for diplomacy and export controls in this great Washington Post op-ed.

Also in the Washington Post, I argued a couple of weeks back that diplomacy is the only route forward. I still stand by that position, although there has been some respectful disagreement.

And what are the challenges for diplomacy? The chances of persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear capability is practically zero. As Uri Friedman notes, South Africa is the only nation to have developed and given up nuclear weapons. His article in The Atlantic offers a useful rundown of the similarities and differences. It’s also worth reflecting on the toxic effects of Trump’s recent speech to the United Nations.

Yes, all of this stuff is from what some would describe as ‘the liberal media’. You can find plenty of warmongering for yourself, and I have no intention of providing links to calls for the destruction of North Korea and its people.

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The Heights of the Cold War

3 Dec
Above: The height of Cold War satire.

Above: The height of Cold War satire. Slim Pickens as USAF Major ‘King’ Kong rides the bomb in Dr Strangelove.

A recent article in the Daily Mail, plus a subsequent Twitter conversation, has provoked me to address this blog posts to journalists everywhere. This is not some academic lecturing from his lofty ivory tower (it’s actually made of brick, and my office is only on the first floor), rather a plea for a little bit of historical thinking.

Daily Mail journalist Matt Hunter examines on a tense standoff between the air forces of the United States and the Soviet Union in October, 1986. Hunter notes that “The incident above the Barents Sea, near Soviet waters, took place between a US Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird and a MiG-31, the premier Soviet interceptor aircraft, at the height of the Cold War 30 years ago.”

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Trident, Cold War History, and the ‘Myth’ of Deterrence

5 Apr

Trident nuclear submarine HMS Victorious pictured near Faslane, Scotland.

This piece was originally written for the excellent Retrospect, a student-led history journal created and produced by undergraduate students from Edinburgh University’s School of History, Classics, and Archaeology. I am grateful to Kerry, Enzo, and the rest of the team for their permission to reproduce the article here.

Since April 1969 – the same month that British troops arrived in Northern Ireland at the start of ‘The Troubles’ – the Royal Navy began Operation Relentless. Since that time, not a day has passed without there being a British nuclear missile submarine on patrol somewhere in the North Atlantic or the Arctic Ocean. This is Continuous At-Sea Deterrence (CASD), the ability to strike back without warning – and with terrible force – should the UK or its strategic interests be attacked.

‘Deterrence’ is the cornerstone of debates about Britain’s nuclear future, a word used by politicians, military officers, think-tanks, and campaigners. If we fail to replace our current Vanguard-class submarines and their Trident nuclear missiles – so the pro-replacement argument goes – we will be exposed to attack from enemies known and unknown. In 2013 the then Secretary of State for Defence Philip Hammond stated that Trident was a “tried and tested deterrent” and that there was no alternative that “provides the same level of protection.” A recently published Ministry of Defence factsheet on the Trident Successor Programme noted that “the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent remains essential to our security” and that it could “deter any aggressor”. To discuss who our nuclear weapons might be used against is to enter a Rumsfeldian world of known and unknown unknowns.

But – and this is the heart of this article – what do we mean when we talk about deterrence? And do those arguing for renewal or disarmament understand what the term involves and the ways in which history complicates and confuses the concept? As political scientist Nick Ritchie argues, talking about “the deterrent” assigns an implicit, infallible ability to deter, an ability which stands counter to actual historical evidence. Speaking generally (always bad for an historian), the level of historical understanding when it comes to the nuclear debate is very poor. Thus, this article offers some historical context for the debates that are happening right now and demonstrate that an understanding of Britain’s nuclear history and the complicated, multifaceted ways in which nuclear weapons affected the Cold War can add to our contemporary discussions.

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Lecture: Governments and the post-apocalypse world

25 Sep

v0_masterOn Monday October 5 at 7pm, I’ll be giving the first lecture of the year to the University of Edinburgh’s History Society. HistSoc are an extremely vibrant, active society, and I’m delighted to be part of this excellent series of student-organised academic lectures.

The lecture is entitled Staring into the Abyss: Governments and the post-apocalypse world. As my lecture blurb states:

During the Cold War, post-apocalyptic fiction became a staple of cinema, literature, and television. But what did governments think the post-nuclear attack world was going to be like? Did the politicians and officials with their fingers on triggers envisage post-attack societies in the same way as filmmakers, artists, and writers? This lecture explores the post-apocalyptic visions of the American and British governments and how they imagined life carrying on after the horror of global thermonuclear war. Delving into the the dark – and sometimes darkly comical – world of ‘breakdown’, ‘the machinery of control’, and ‘continuity of government’, this will be a whistle-stop tour through official visions of a nuclear holocaust that thankfully never happened.

If you’re in Edinburgh and want to come along, the lecture starts at 7pm on October 5 in Lecture Theatre 183, Old College, University of Edinburgh.

The United States and Nuclear Proliferation: An Undergraduate Course

10 Sep
Above: Donald Trump, noted non-proliferation theorist and proponent of sane of foreign policy positions.

Above: Donald Trump, noted non-proliferation theorist and proponent of sane foreign policy positions.

With debate about the Iranian nuclear deal still raging and everyone and their dog expressing an opinion (no matter how ill-informed, reactionary, or just plain stupid it might be), my new undergraduate course is alarmingly well-timed.

This year, I’m offering a new 4MA (fourth year honours, full year) course entitled The United States and the Problem of Nuclear Proliferation, 1945-2015 (hereafter USPNP). An outgrowth of my research interests and doctoral work, USPNP is my first attempt at a year-long course for the undergraduates in their final year. The class is relatively small (12-15 students) and there will have an intense focus on discussing and debating primary, secondary, and theoretical materials.

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The Misrepresentation of Nuclear Things

31 Jan
Front cover of Metro, Wednesday, January 28, 2015.

Front cover of Metro, Wednesday, January 28, 2015.

This post was inspired the coincidence of two things, one good, one depressingly bad. Firstly, I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading Gabrielle Hecht’s excellent article ‘The Power of Nuclear Things‘ (the article kindly and conveniently made available to all on Prof. Hecht’s personal website).[1] Secondly, I most certainly did not enjoy the sight of free newsheet Metro’s front page on Wednesday January 28 (see image to the right).

It’s not often you get to bring together the work of an esteemed scholar and the comment-baiting scare quotes of a – let’s not mince words here – paper that is down-market of the Daily Mail (if such a thing is possible).[2] That being said, I would suggest that Hecht’s analysis (more on that below) offers us a useful critical framework for understanding this faintly ridiculous front page.

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Teaching the Nuclear Cold War: Conclusions

13 Jan

NCWIt’s well over a month now since the conclusion of my first foray into teaching honours-level history (and only a couple of days until I start teaching my second course). Time to take stock, to assess, and to examine the good and the bad. In this post, I aim to summarise the course, look at how things ended up when compared to how I imagined they would, and think about ways to improve the course for future offerings. Hopefully, this reflection and analysis will make me a better teacher and make the course better in future.

The Good

I was delighted to see students responding to my enthusiasm for nuclear history, engaging with subjects they had never studied before, and coming to their own considered conclusions. Furthermore, I was very pleased to see from the feedback that the course had encouraged many students to think more about contemporary nuclear issues and how they relate to the Cold War.

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