Tag Archives: nuclear 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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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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The Pakistani Nuclear Weapons Programme and Globalisation in the 1970s

6 Mar

sargent_ASTReading Daniel Sargent’s excellent recent book A Superpower Transformed provoked me to re-assess some of the framework supporting my own research into US-UK and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons project in the 1970s. Sargent manages to crystalise some of the conclusions I was tentatively reaching towards, very handy as I work on the manuscript for my own book. One issue that formed a component of my work – but that I hadn’t made prominent enough – was globalisation. Not just globalisation in terms of markets, but in the emergence of modern transnational movements, networks, and ideas (such as human rights), and the significant role they played in US foreign policy.

Sargent’s thesis forced me to re-appraise the role that globalisation and transnationalism played in US-UK nuclear non-proliferation policy, and in Pakistan’s own clandestine bomb programme. The Pakistani nuclear weapons programme had a lengthy history, but only really emerged as an international issue after the catalytic Indian nuclear test of May 18 1974. This spurred Islamabad into action and gave leaders such as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Muhammad Zia ul-Haq the necessary oppositional context to push forward a national nuclear programme.

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Britain, America, Nuclear Non-proliferation, and the Indian Jaguar Deal, 1974-1978

12 Dec

I’m delighted to say that my first published article has now appeared in the august journal, Cold War History. It’s examines a little known nuclear non-proliferation dispute between the UK and US, over Britain’s attempts to sell what were seen as “nuclear capable” Jaguar strike aircraft to the recently nuclearised India.

If you’re quick (and if you don’t have institutional access to CWH), you can download the article for free here.

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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Atomic Triggers

19 Aug

Stillman-Hiroshima-690

Note: Stemming from further useful discussions on social media, I’ve added some additional comment at the end of this piece. The original post remains unchanged.

Recent discussions about ‘trigger warnings’ in higher education have been all over the place, resulting in a predictable mishmash of reasoned argument, straw men, and pointless tosh. Rather than boringly attempt to give yet another take on the issue as a whole, I’d like to address how I see this intersecting with my own teaching of nuclear history. I’d also like to add my support for the term ‘content warning‘ in this context (the linked article usefully discusses this).

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