Tag Archives: accessible history

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 Road to Trump

14 Jul

trump-GOP-575x323With the US Republican Party convention looming, and – barring some last minute apocalypse – with Donald Trump certain to be the party’s candidate for the presidential election, our latest American History Too! podcast focuses on the last fifty years of Republicanism in America.

Mark and I were delighted to be joined by the University of Oxford’s Paddy Andelic for this first of two special episodes on America’s political parties. Paddy will be back on our upcoming episode looking at the Democratic Party over the last fifty years.

In this episode, however, we consider the evolution of the modern Republican Party from the candidacy of Barry Goldwater in 1964, through the victories and humiliation of Richard Nixon, the new ‘morning in America’ under Ronald Reagan, ‘compassionate conservatism’ under George W Bush, to ‘making America great again’ with Donald Trump.

It’s a fascinating discussion, so please do listen and feel free to give us feedback.

Spy Scholarship

10 Apr

To help kick off the third annual Edinburgh Spy Week, I thought I’d offer some thoughts on great works of espionage, intelligence, and surveillance scholarship. Below are a half dozen books that I think are essential for the reader interested in the world of intelligence. This is a personal list, and as such focuses on the twentieth century UK, USA, and USSR. So, no Elizabethan skullduggery, Great Game goings on, on anything like that, I’m afraid.
classified
Classified: Secrecy and the State in Modern Britain
, Christopher Moran, 2012

For anyone interested in the history of intersections between the British state, the media, the public, Chris Moran‘s Classified is a must read. The book takes a thematic approach, covering topics like the political memoirs, official histories of intelligence, and the groundbreaking work of Chapman Pincher. All of the themes covered are cleverly combined to offer a dynamic, comprehensive study of the multifaceted nature of secrecy in twentieth-century Britain.

Christopher Moran will be appearing at Spy Week 2016 talking about James Bond in fact and fiction.

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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.

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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Reading the Cold War

9 Nov

Today – as almost everybody is doubtless aware – is the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a momentous event in modern history and one that I still vividly remember from my childhood. In the popular mind, that rush of people though gaps in the wall represented the end of the Cold War. Therefore, I thought I’d do a list of nine pieces of Cold War scholarship that I think represent the best of what’s out there. This is by no means authoritative or complete, it’s simply a selection of works that I admire or find find particularly useful (and are, in many ways, reflective of my own research interests).

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