Vol. 4 No. 8 · 6 May 1982

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Big enough to deter

SIR: I am sorry that your reviewer, Mr McMahan, interpreted my reference to the concept of minimal deterrence as implying an ‘absolute’ measure of the size of a nuclear arsenal (LRB, 15 April). The engaging sophistry with which he treats the issue, and then provides his own answers, would, I imagine, apply equally to the apocryphal question of how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. It also reveals a certain remoteness from the real world and some innocence about the technical and military realities of nuclear armaments.

Lest what he has written mislead any of your readers into supposing that the numbers and kind of nuclear arms that are possessed by the nuclear powers have been produced in the fulfilment of rationally-formulated operational requirements, let me, as one who has been directly involved in the process, assure them that this is not the case. Nor is it the case that one country’s idea of what constitutes an adequate armoury is determined by the example of another. At the time of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the number of warheads in the arsenals of the USA and the USSR was a fraction of what they have now. There were, however, enough to deter both sides from starting a nuclear war, given that either, at any time, had thought of doing so. In relation to what exists now, those numbers constituted a level of, let us say, minimal deterrence.

The United Kingdom then also had a sizeable arsenal, but what use it would have been, given that hostilities had broken out, no one knew. We were at the ringside of the dispute, into which we would have been inevitably drawn if it had not been defused. Had the Russians not given way, it was expected that what was called ‘the nuclear balloon’ would go up on Sunday, 28 October. As I recounted in an obituary of Lord Mountbatten, he, our three Chiefs of Staff, the Permanent Under-Secretary and myself (then Chief Scientific Adviser) were together with the Minister of Defence, Mr Thorneycroft (now Lord Thorneycroft), when we learnt that the Russians had accepted the Americans’ terms and that the crisis was at an end. We just sat round the table looking at each other, until the silence was broken by Lord Mountbatten, with the remark: ‘Well, what would we have done if the Russians had not pulled back: do we know?’ No one knew, and no one has yet provided an answer. Somehow I doubt that one has been produced by Mr McMahan or by any of his fellow research students.

Mr McMahan tells us with categorical assurance that a nuclear arsenal of the size which the United Kingdom possesses ‘would not provide a credible deterrent to such threats as the destruction of shipping or a limited conventional attack’. What the source of this presumed piece of military wisdom is, he does not indicate; I cannot believe that it derives from his own experience. The critical fact is that no direct ‘limited conventional attack’ has taken place from either side since Nato was formed. None occurred in the 1950s, when Nato’s total arsenal in terms of destructive power could not have been much in excess of what the UK disposes now. If the Russians had wanted to invade Nato territory then, would they not have been deterred by féar of a nuclear riposte, whether or not this would have happened? Was the Nato nuclear armoury not a ‘credible’ deterrent then? What, in fact, does ‘credible’ mean in Mr McMahan’s vocabulary? Does the fact that a nuclear exchange today would result in vastly more devastation than it would have done twenty years ago make the nuclear threat and counter-threat more credible? Mr McMahan confuses me. Happily, however, there is a grain of comfort in the knowledge that when it comes to action, military commanders and planners are not governed by the post hoc rationalisations of armchair strategists. Everyone in a position of authority and responsibility on both sides has known for years that a direct armed confrontation between the Western and Warsaw Pact powers must be avoided because of the risk that it could trigger a nuclear war.

One final point. Mr McMahan writes as though it is not my view that one or other of the two superpowers could start unilaterally reducing the size of its enormous nuclear arsenal before the two engage in what is called ‘balanced reduction’. This is not so. As my book makes clear, I do believe that this could be done, at the same time as I hold that neither of two nuclear-armed adversaries could in reason divest itself of its nuclear weapons to the level at which the other side could use the threat of a nuclear attack as an instrument of political policy. What this level would be is anyone’s guess, but knowing something about the nature and repercussions of destruction in war, I would settle, as I suggested, for enough destructive power to guarantee, say, the devastation of ten of the UK’s, or the USSR’s, or the USA’s, or France’s main cities. But that, of course, is a personal view, not the result of some abstruse and ‘objective’ calculation, or of some academic exercise of logic applied to terms which are dealt with in a manner that denies them any military or political reality.

Solly Zuckerman
Lord Zuckerman, University of East Anglia

America and Israel

SIR: Mr Wieseltier (Letters, 15 April) neatly proves my point. He does not dispute, because he can’t, the evidence I gave that Israel has systematically frustrated a comprehensive settlement since 1967. Nor does he dispute that for most of that time American governments to their shame have gone along with that objective. To Mr Wieseltier this is not because of Zionist pressure but because Israel is right. But that won’t wash. It does not explain why at various times the Nixon, the Ford and the Carter administrations tried to escape from Israel’s embrace and pursue fair policies in the American national interest. Each time the Zionist lobby defeated them.

Mr Wieseltier is also conspicuously silent about what Israel has done and is doing on the West Bank. Does he approve? If so, why does he not say so? If, on the other hand, he thinks that the Palestinians, like other people, should have the right to self-determination and should not be subjected to an oppressive colonial occupation which steadily removes their land from them, why does he not speak up?

Referring to Zionist influence on the American media, I said in my article that ‘fear of the charge of anti-semitism, constantly fanned, silences all but the brave.’ Connoisseurs of the technique will relish Mr Wieseltier’s last two sentences.

Ian Gilmour

Tony Harrison

SIR: Blake Morrison is a little hard on Tony Harrison’s Oresteia: ‘God only knows’ what it is like ‘to have to hear it in the National Theatre’ (LRB, 1 April). I cannot speak for God, but I myself found it, combined with Harrison Birtwhistle’s score and the strictly choreographed masked movement of Peter Hall’s National Theatre company, both rhythmically compelling and visually exciting. The verse may have lacked the exhilaration of Continuous, but it was surely aiming at quite different effects and represented a different enterprise altogether. Harrison is to be applauded for his nerve in employing such a bold verse-strategy in the face of such a daunting text. In the theatre his alliterative Yorkshire Aeschylus succeeds brilliantly.

Nicholas Murray
London SE1

SIR: There is a tendency among reviewers to take several works by one author, to discuss one at length, and then, as their word limit draws perilously close, to dismiss the rest in a few throwaway sentences at the end. This is sometimes tiresome and occasionally infuriating. After a lengthy and detailed assessment of Tony Harrison’s Continuous Blake Morrison alienates all sympathy by his flippant treatment of Harrison’s translation of the Oresteia. ‘To read the play is dull enough: what it would be like to have to hear it in the National Theatre, waiting for the next alliterative noun-compound to make its inevitable thud-thud, God only knows.’ Perhaps God does know. The people who have been flocking to the production since it opened (necessitating an extension of the run from January to June) certainly know. Does Mr Morrison not think it possible that a work written for the theatre, for performance in a particular way (by an all-male cast wearing masks) in conjunction with a musical score, might have more, rather than less, impact in performance than it does on the page? Quite possibly Mr Morrison would still dislike the Oresteia if he did go to see it. I concede that he was not asked to review a play in performance. Yet, as a reviewer of the text, he surely ought to exercise a little imagination. Would he dismiss Rigoletto, Die Meistersinger, Peter Grimes or Fiedermaus unseen if a glance at the libretto failed to impress him?

Rosemary Burton
London NW11

SIR: In what monkish cell has Blake Morrison been conducting his explorations into contemporary verse? He alleges, without telling your readers what they are, that ‘there are grounds for thinking Tony Harrison the first genuine working-class poet England has produced this century … Harrison seems to have the field to himself.’ This would be admissible only if you’d had your ear to the grounds of middle or upper-class literary coffee mills. Which is not to say that Harrison isn’t a genuine or working-class poet – nor that working-classness necessarily or always matters very much.

But since Morrison invokes these grounds, and a concern with thinking, let me commend the food for further thought on this subject to be found in plenty in the poetry of Attila the Stockbroker, Jim Burns, Aidan Cant, Anne Clark, John Cooper Clarke, Joolz Denby, Patrik Fitzgerald, Mark Hyatt, Roger McGough, Barry MacSweeney, Brian Patten, Tom Pickard, Tom Raworth, Alan Sillitoe and Seething Wells; and in the poems, as well as the songs, of pre and post-punk songwriter-singers, such as Syd Barrett, Pete Brown, Kevin Coyne, Ray Davies, Roy Harper, Richard Jobson, John Lennon and Paul Weller – amongst many, many others. None of them is haut bourgeois (indeed, most of them wouldn’t know, or want to know, what that means): but each is, or was, like Tony Harrison, in full possession of ‘first-hand knowledge of the material they deal in’.

Michael Horovitz
New Departures, Bisley, near Stroud

Blake Morrison writes: I have yet to see a Michael Horovitz letter (and I have seen many) which does not reel off at least a score of names which are said to prove the existence of some renaissance in contemporary British poetry. The names vary from week to week, but the ones cited here do little to persuade me that I was wrong in singling out Tony Harrison. For this is an issue of quality rather than quantity, and the ‘genuine working-class poet’ is, as I understand it, not only genuinely working-class but of genuine poetic stature. None of Horovitz’s candidates meets that requirement, not even what he calls the ‘pre and post-punk songwriter-singers’ (in what useful sense can the likes of Roy Harper and Syd Barrett be called pre-punk – this is rather like calling a Thirties poet a pre-Forties poet?). Like Horovitz, I don’t believe that ‘working-classness necessarily or always matters very much.’ But it does matter in Harrison’s case because it is the subject of Continuous. And if one is going to invoke class one should be accurate and not assume that all rock musicians are by definition working-class. John Lennon was brought up in a semi in a respectable neighbourhood, and punk has had more to do with bourgeois art schools than with working-class council estates. Nicholas Murray and Rosemary Burton take me to task over my remarks on the Oresteia. I agree with them that the text is not all, and that a score, choreography, masks and even perhaps ‘an all-male cast’ may well be enriching, complementing or at any rate distracting. But not being able to relegate the matter of language as happily as they seem to, I still feel that my own pleasure in the production would be ruined by the illiterative overkill of the translation. I can’t imagine what theatrical rituals would enable me to tolerate the violence done to language:

Leave the prophet’s earthcleft free of pollution
or a serpent with wings on and venomous fangbane
shot from gold bowstrings will go through your gutbag …

The fact that people have a taste for this sort of thing, and that the National Theatre run has had to be extended, does not make Harrison’s translation good. No Sex Please We’re British is another popular London play.


SIR: When A.J.P. Taylor says (LRB, 4 March) that 1882 is not a fertile year for anniversaries, he is either suffering from presbyopia or indulging in provocation – presumably and hopefully the latter. A short search will reveal not just Bradlaugh administering the oath to himself in the House of Commons – a particularly ironic episode in his six-year struggle to take his seat without taking the oath (something most people still wrongly think he never did) – but also Bradlaugh being prosecuted for blasphemy, and many other much more important events. Taylor himself must be perfectly well aware of the Phoenix Park murders in Ireland and the formation of the Triple Alliance in Europe. There are the British occupation of Egypt, the Mahdi rising in Sudan, the Italian invasion of Eritrea, the Serbian proclamation of a kingdom, the Tonkinese rising against the French, the French claim of protectorate in Madagascar, the American laws against polygamy and Chinese immigration, the establishment of electricity generation and electric street lighting in Britain and the United States, the discovery of the tubercle bacillus and the invention of the electric fan and iron, the opening of Epping Forest and the St Gothard Tunnel, England’s loss of the Ashes, Oscar Wilde’s journey to America and Kipling’s journey to India, the performance of Wagner’s Parsifal and Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, the playing of Tchaikovsky’s 1912 Overture and the exhibition of Manet’s Bar at the Folies Bergères, the publication of Tolstoy’s Confession and Nietzsche’s Gay Science, William Vanderbilt saying, ‘The public be damned,’ and John Bogart saying: ‘When a man bites a dog that is news.’ Is there any chance that 1982 will be so fertile a year?

Arthur Freeman
London El

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