“Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent” – a very large slice of human history could be wrapped up in that fictional quote from Mayor Salvor Hardin in Isaac Asimov’s 1942 novel, Foundation.
The Cold War period.
Surely, in any situation, any solution which avoids violence is the preferable choice? Yet just 3 years after Foundation was published, the US was to drop two atomic bombs on Japan, arguably an already defeated nation.
The United States military estimated that around 70,000 people died at Hiroshima, though later independent estimates argued that the actual number was 140,000 dead. In both cases, the majority of the deaths occurred on the day of the bombing itself, with nearly all of them taking place by the end of 1945 (1). When Nagasaki was bombed 3 days later, similar estimates range from around 40,000 people dead, to 70,000.
For a death count ranging between 110,000 to 210,000 people, from the use of just two bombs, all civilised nations must have then surely hoped and expected that only the very best leaders would become the custodians of these terrible weapons.
But what did they actually get?
Shortly after those bombings the world would face a horrific new war that was to span the globe and officially last for 44 years (1947 – 1991), but which in reality still seems to be in progress. This ‘Cold War’ essentially saw the USA and Russia face off across the ‘Iron Curtain’ that Churchill declared had fallen across Europe ‘… from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic” (2).
Both sides and their proxies (NATO, Soviet Union / Warsaw Pact) would go on to develop megaton-yield fusion bombs that were thousands of times more destructive than the bombs dropped on Japan.
By the official end of the Cold War in 1991 they would have mounted over 50,000 nuclear warheads on weapons ranging from ‘small’ ‘low-yield’ bombs to nation-destroying, MIRV’d ICBMs (3). Between them, the US and Russia literally had enough nuclear weapons to destroy the entire world through a combination of blast, radiation, fallout, and nuclear winter.
So did the world get the leaders that it needed for this moment of existential risk to the survival of the entire human species?
Arguably the answer is ‘No’.
After World War 2
The United States emerged from WW2 in a position of great strength. All the other significant international powers of the 1920s and 1930s had been significantly weakened by the war, whilst the US emerged stronger than it had been. Its GDP growth was erratic in the post-war period, however, varying from around 4% in the early 1960s, to below 3% in the late 1970s, then gaining somewhat in the late ‘80s – early ‘90s, before falling below 2%. Even so, the US has generally enjoyed more prosperity than its international competitors during that time (4).
The world would have been greatly aided if the United States’ had chosen to use its unprecedented economic advantage to draw nations together in friendly cooperation, creating the culture needed to keep mankind safe in the nuclear era.
Stronger, more able US leaders could have forged a stable, less confrontational relationship with the USSR and its satellites. What they actually cultivated instead was a paranoid nuclear stand-off.
Presidents are products of the prevailing culture and other circumstances of their times, of course. And the post-war Presidents certainly faced a wide range of both political and personal challenges:
- Truman became bogged down after deciding to seize the nation’s steel mills in order to thwart a strike during the Korean War – in 1952 impeachment resolutions were introduced against him but not passed.
- Whilst Kennedy’s popularity had been high during the first year of his presidency, it was generally falling from 1962 (5), with civil rights confrontations leading to divides across the nation before he was assassinated in 1963.
- Johnson struggled with the increasing death toll of US soldiers in the Vietnam war and a general reputation for lying. Impeachment resolutions were introduced but not passed against him in 1968.
- Nixon was sunk by the Watergate scandal but had already been illegally bombing Cambodia between March 1969 to May 1970, killing an estimated 500,000 people (6). He resigned in 1975 before he could be impeached.
- Reagan was threatened with impeachment for an illegal invasion of Grenada and trading arms for hostages in the Iran-Contra scandal. He survived an attempted assasination in 1982.
- George H. W. Bush was threatened with impeachment in 1991 for an illegal attack on Iraq, but the resolution was not passed.
US Presidents don’t work in a void, of course, and their domestic politics reflects the balance of power between the Establishment, elected Representatives and the interests behind the millions of dollars of funding that help to put them there. Those million-dollar interests have their own everyday, normal needs to satisfy, and seem to be largely uncaring about the theoretical existential risks created by nuclear weapons.
Locked into cycles of defensive patronage, although US Presidents are very powerful and influential leaders on the global stage, most seem to have lacked the larger quality of selfless statesmanship that would have been needed to draw nations together and avoid the Cold War nuclear madness.
And if the head lacked those qualities, what chance did the body have?
After WW2, much of industrialised Britain was severely damaged, including its economy. The British national interest surely should have been focussed on recovery and rebuilding after 6 years of war?
Other than the pursuit of national vanity, there was no great need to rush with trying to maximise the power that the nation could exert on the international stage. America’s dominant position was obviously largely unassailable, but Japan and Germany were defeated, Russia was in ruins and much of Europe had been laid to waste.
There was time available to rebuild and heal the nation.
Unfortunately, the UK did not fare much better with its choice of leaders.
Rather than healing the nation, the issue that seems to have most vexed successive governments was how to hold onto some international respect as a major global power, combined with dismay at being denied access to US nuclear secrets from 1946 (ref the US Atomic Energy Act of 1946 – the McMahon Act).
We should not underestimate the effect that the McMahon Act had on driving the UK towards developing its own, independent nuclear weapon. The nation’s leaders were rightly proud of the determination shown by the country during the war, playing such a massive part towards the liberation of Europe from Nazi Germany. They were also proud of the UK’s early work towards the development of the bomb through the ‘Tube Alloys’ project, and their status as a key partner with the US on atomic bomb development up to 1942. A rot set into that relationship later that year when the US, making rapid progress in their own atomic bomb project, started restricting Britain’s access to their nuclear bomb secrets. Some more information came back to the UK from a small team of scientists sent to work on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos in 1943, but Britain never had full access again.
This move by America to leave Britain out in the cold was a terrible slap in the face of what should have been a very friendly alliance.
The UK government was still debating what it should do when, after returning from an October 1946 meeting with the US Secretary of State, Ernest Bevan (UK Foreign Secretary) told a secret meeting chaired by Prime Minister Attlee that “… We’ve got to have this thing. I don’t mind it for myself, but I don’t want any other Foreign Secretary of this country to be talked at or to by the Secretary of State of the United States as I have just been in my discussion with Mr Byrnes. We’ve got to have this thing [a nuclear bomb] over here, whatever it costs … We’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack flying on top of it.”
The only way that Britain was going to retain a place at the top table of international politics would be by becoming an independent nuclear superpower. National leaders had once again failed to cooperate and placed self-interest before the greater needs of the international community… and those narrow self-interests were driving the entire world towards the brink of destruction in the Cold War.
British Prime Ministers are also a product of their times:
- Attlee committed the country to the development of the bomb when all other national imperatives should have directed that investment towards rebuilding and healing after the war.
- Eden oversaw the collapse of Empire with the shaming farce of the Suez Crisis in 1956.
- MacMillan struggled with the French veto of Britain’s application to join the EEC and the Profumo scandal in summer 1963.
- Callaghan struggled with Trades Unions during the Winter of Discontent.
- Thatcher was forever mired in the animosity of the Miners’ Strike and Poll Tax protests. Definitely not a dove (as the Falklands War showed), she did become a genuinely trusted voice with both President Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. She tried to use those relationships in order to become a strong influencing voice on international politics, but arguably failed to damp down the nuclear stand-off. Reagan pressed ahead with anti-Soviet rhetoric and a drive to develop space-based anti-missile systems (7) (the Strategic Defence Initiative, SDI, or ‘Star Wars’), actions which destabilised the nuclear balance.
The Soviets saw SDI not just as a defensive technology, but also as a tool which could block either their own first-strike or retaliatory ICBMs, leaving them wide open to an attack by the US / NATO. The cost of matching the technology probably exceeded their budget, but they could maybe swamp SDI’s capacity. The Soviet stockpile grew by 9 thousand warheads between 1980 to 1985, whilst the US dropped by around 2 thousand. Paranoia and fear (and many other factors – see Downing’s book) brought the Soviets to within inches of launching a first-strike against the West in 1983, when they misinterpreted the West’s Operation Able Archer wargames as preparations for a first-strike against the Soviet Union (8).
Able Archer scared Reagan so much that he changed course, toned down his rhetoric and began earnest arms control talks with the Soviets.
Post-Cold War and the 21st Century
Somehow, perhaps with a massive helping of luck, the world managed to survive the Cold War and avoid a full ‘nuclear exchange’ (such a quaint term for mutual annihilation and a possible global nuclear winter omnicide).
By 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed and the official Cold War was over – had the world at last produced leaders with abilities that truly matched the unforgiving threats posed by nuclear weapons?
If anything, in recent years the trend has been towards the election of poseurs and buffoons with large egos and narrow self-interests – not a happy combination of characters needed from leaders with their ‘fingers on the button’.
“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” (9)— Isaac Asimov (1980).
Self-interest and a general dumbing down of politics seemed to have continued in the US in the post-Cold War period, and Presidents continued to face serious challenges over their shortcomings:
- Clinton was impeached in 1998 after lying about inappropriate sexual relations with an intern.
- Impeachment charges were introduced against George W. Bush in 2008 for misconduct in seeking authority for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the treatment of prisoners, including the kidnapping and detention of foreign nationals, and the use of torture (as at the now infamous ‘Guantanamo Bay’ facility, for example).
The entire world felt a glimmer of hope for the future with the election of Barack Obama as President between 2009 – 2017. International respect for the US rose during a period that included withdrawing all US troops from Iraq, finding (and killing) the notorious terrorist Osama bin Laden, and implementing a ‘Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’ with Iran which lifted some sanctions in exchange for Iran agreeing not to acquire any nuclear weapons. On the domestic front he advocated for gun ownership reforms following the Sandy Hook school shooting and set up the so-called ObamaCare programme, offering an affordable means of healthcare for those most in need. Obama is often evaluated as having been one of the best American presidents (10).
Obama’s stance towards warfare and nuclear weapons was inconsistent, however. Whilst he did negotiate reductions in nuclear weapons stockpiles with the 2010 US–Russia New START treaty, by 2015 he also began a $348 billion nuclear arms programme, the largest US buildup since the Reagan Administration (11).
Unfortunately, American politics then took a massive lurch to the right during the Presidential campaign and subsequent election of Donald Trump in 2017. More than any national leader in the post-WW2 period, Trump seems to exemplify the general ‘dumbing down’ of politics that Asimov was criticising in 1980.
Trump was the first President of the United States who did not have prior experience as a military leader, politician or from holding a senior government post. During his election campaign and subsequent presidency he appealed to his core of supporters through divisive, inflammatory soundbites and false statements, often delivered using the ‘Twitter’ social media platform. He owed very few favours and debts from his election campaign, and hence had a much freer hand than most Presidents (12). His style was a fundamental break with the way that the world expected US Presidents to behave. He was extremely plain-spoken, often uncomfortably explicit and sometimes appearing to be both offensive and idiotic. This seemed to appeal to his right-wing core of supporters but it led to a large drop in international trust for the US, and the media generally did not try to conceal his errors and weaknesses from the world (13).
Trump faced two impeachment trials during his single term of office, but was acquitted both times due to a Republican majority in the Senate. The first charges were for soliciting Russian interference in the 2020 Presidential election. Outside of the US, many people were shocked by Trump’s apparent support for the Russian position on many topics, ultimately leading to concerns about the leverage that Moscow might have over him (14). The second were for inciting insurrection after the Capitol building was attacked by protestors on 6th January 2021, following his failed bid to be re-elected for a second term in office.
The world is now hoping that President Biden will be a more successful President.
But what of the UK in the post-Cold War years?
The quality of domestic politics in the UK seems to drop substantially after Thatcher was forced from office in 1990.
Her successor, John Major, was so bland he was parodied by a very grey puppet in the satirical TV show Spitting Image. It is largely true to say that he achieved very little indeed in over 7 years at 10 Downing Street.
Major was succeeded by Tony Blair, the first Labour (left wing) Prime Minister in 18 years. Blair threw off many of the trappings of Old Labour and positioned his party as a progressive voice for equality. He promised a ‘New Labour’ to the country, without ever really explaining how that was different to ‘Old Labour’. The country was soon to work that out. Blair’s progressive façade was hiding an almost evangelical, self-righteous presumption that whatever he thought had to be right. But much of what his government did was not ‘right’ by many people’s yard stick, whether that be:
- bringing an informal management style to government decision making, which seemed to erode Parliament’s scrutiny of his actions, or
- letting loose a new policy of multiculturalism and transforming the UK’s national culture without debate or an electoral mandate, or
- creating a new financial system called the Public Finance Initiative which essentially hid public debt off the national balance sheet, or
- deceiving the country over the reasons for going to war with Iraq in 2003, eventually costing the lives of between around 100,000 to 500,000 Iraqi civilians (there is no accurate count) (15).
Blair’s government was a shambles of egotism, and he was lucky not to have been declared a war criminal in his lifetime. His successor, Gordon Brown, was a lame-duck PM who was constantly satirised in the media – achievements close to zero.
Blair’s legacy eventually fell to rich toff David Cameron’s Conservative government in 2010. Lots of new progressive hot air came from the Cameron camp about how this new Conservative government was concerned with everyone’s welfare, not just old-Etonians. Yet he was to go on to run a disastrous referendum that eventually saw the UK vote to leave the EU, and still risks seeing the Union break up as a result. Some legacy.
Cameron resigned rather than face the shame of governing after losing the BREXIT referendum. He was followed by lame-duck Theresa May who did seem to do her best to deliver the separation from the EU that the nation had voted for, but which was driving a massive divide down the country, between regions and sometimes within families.
This long-running debacle ends (so far) with the election of the buffoon Boris Johnson as Prime Minister in 2019. Johnson replaced May by “misrepresenting a lot of facts” to the British public about the benefits that leaving the EU would bring to the UK. By 2021, when BREXIT had happened, it was becoming clear that there would be significant costs to the UK for leaving the EU, and a wide gulf has opened up between former allies on variety of topics, including access to vaccines against Covid-19.
The world seems to look upon Britain’s leader with the same mockery as they did for Donald Trump (except for the success of the UK’s vaccine drive for Covid, something the EU is no doubt jealous of). In 2019 American television host John Oliver branded Johnson as “a dumb person’s idea of a smart person” (16).
There is much that Boris Johnson could focus on to reduce inequalities across the UK, and generally make the country safer and more prosperous. And yet, like Attlee in 1946, what has he chosen to invest in? Nuclear warheads…
– the cap on the number of warheads the UK holds will be increased from 180 to 260 – because nothing says ‘idotic egotist with his hands on power’ like a stack of nukes (17).
1 – “Counting the dead at Hiroshima and Nagasaki” – Alex Wellerstein – Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists – August 4, 2020 – https://thebulletin.org/2020/08/counting-the-dead-at-hiroshima-and-nagasaki/
2 – “Sinews of Peace” speech – Winston Churchill, Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri, 5th March 1946 – https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/resources/cold-war-on-file/iron-curtain-speech/
3 – “Global nuclear weapons inventories, 1945–2010” – Robert S. Norris & Hans M. Kristensen – Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists – 27th November 2015 – https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.2968/066004008
4 – “The US in the early 21st century: decline or renewal?” – http://www.realinstitutoelcano.org/wps/portal/rielcano_en/contenido?WCM_GLOBAL_CONTEXT=/elcano/elcano_in/zonas_in/usa-transatlantic+dialogue/ari43-2013-lowenthal-us-21st-century-decline-renewal
5 – “JFK’S APPROVAL RATINGS THROUGHOUT HIS PRESIDENCY” – DAVID COLEMAN, https://historyinpieces.com/research/jfks-presidential-approval-ratings
6 – “Richard Nixon committed far greater crimes than the Watergate break-in” – Irtish Times – https://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/richard-nixon-committed-far-greater-crimes-than-the-watergate-break-in-1.1433510
7 – “Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)” – Atomic Heritage Foundation – https://www.atomicheritage.org/history/strategic-defense-initiative-sdi
8 – See “1983: The World at the Brink” by Taylor Downing – Abacus 2019, for example
9 – “A Cult of Ignorance” – Isaac Asimov – Newsweek magazine, January 21, 1980, p. 19
10 – “Barack Obama” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barack_Obama#Health_care_reform
11 – “Barack Obama” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barack_Obama
12 – “How Donald Trump is retooling politics for the 21st century” – https://theconversation.com/how-donald-trump-is-retooling-politics-for-the-21st-century-90836
13 – “How Donald Trump is retooling politics for the 21st century” – https://theconversation.com/how-donald-trump-is-retooling-politics-for-the-21st-century-90836
14 – “Mueller Testifies Russia Had Blackmail on Trump” – Jonathan Chait – Intelligencer, 25th July 2019 – https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/07/mueller-testifies-russia-blackmail-leverage-trump.html
15 – “Iraq war in figures” – BBC News, 14th December 2011, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-11107739
16 – “‘Boris Johnson is a dumb person’s idea of a smart person’ – US TV host on the British PM” – https://www.theneweuropean.co.uk/brexit-news/john-oliver-on-boris-johnson-61706
17 – “Integrated review: UK to lift cap on nuclear stockpile” – BBC News – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-56413920