The Spectator

The Letter of Last Resort

The decision about nuclear apocalypse lying in a safe at the bottom of the sea.

Royal Navy nuclear submarine

The secret in the safe deposit box. That recurring image: I’ve found it fascinating and somewhat mysterious that, again and again, the mythic, apocryphal keys to some of the great mysteries of our time are said to be locked away in long-lost, deeply buried, or well-hidden safe deposit boxes. Or in locked safes with combinations or locations unknown.

When I was researching Explaining Hitler, I would often find that some crucial document—the 1931 Munich prosecutor’s investigation of the death of Hitler’s half-niece (and rumored sexual obsession) Geli Raubal, for instance, or the memoir of Hitler’s hypnotherapist at a World War I military sanitarium; both documents said to offer hidden truths about Hitler’s psyche had purportedly been secreted away, and subsequently lost, in Swiss safe deposit boxes.

Then, more recently, the manuscript of The Original of Laura, Vladimir Nabokov’s final, unfinished novel, the one he wanted burned, was, we were told by his son Dmitri, locked away in … a Swiss safe deposit box.

And now, in the course of researching a book on the new face of nuclear warfare, I came upon an astonishing reference to a “Last Resort Letter,” a literally apocalyptic missive secreted in a safe within a safe, deep beneath the surface of the ocean, a Letter of Last Resort containing the orders for—or against—Armageddon.

Why the recurrence of the image of some valuable truth hidden in an inaccessible safe? My theory is that it allows us to believe that certain truths do exist: They’re just forever locked away from our grasp. A thought both comforting and disturbing.

In the case of the Letter of Last Resort, the reference turns out to be factual: At this very moment, miles beneath the surface of the ocean, there is a British nuclear submarine carrying powerful ICBMs (nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles). In the control room of the sub, the Daily Mailreports, “there is a safe attached to a control room floor. Inside that, there is an inner safe. And inside that sits a letter. It is addressed to the submarine commander and it is from the Prime Minister. In that letter, Gordon Brown conveys the most awesome decision of his political career … and none of us is ever likely to know what he decided.”

The decision? Whether or not to fire the sub’s missiles, capable of causing genocidal devastation in retaliation for an attack that would—should the safe and the letter need to be opened—have already visited nuclear destruction on Great Britain. The letter containing the prime minister’s posthumous decision (assuming he would have been vaporized by the initial attack on the homeland) is known as the Last Resort Letter.

Its existence was highlighted a little more than a month ago by two reporters for the United Kingdom’s respected BBC Radio 4 in a report called “The Human Button,” an investigation of the nuclear-launch decision-making process. * Their report first appeared in print in the Nov. 30 issue of the Daily Mail; the documentary was broadcast two days later.

You didn’t know about the Letter of Last Resort? Neither did I. I’ve never encountered anything like it when looking into the mechanics and morals of nuclear retaliation in this and other nuclear nations. As far as I know, no other nation has configured the nuclear retaliation decision in a manner so intimate, so personal. (Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising: England was, after all, the birthplace of the epistolary novel; should not its last expiring act be sealed in a handwritten letter?)

Indeed the Letter of Last Resort foregrounds, personalizes—endows with novelistic suspense—the apocalyptic decision that is rarely, especially in recent years, thought of. And yet which may, once again, in this new nuclear age, have to be rethought.

According to the reporters for BBC Radio 4, the safe containing the safe containing the Letter of Last Resort is to be opened only in the event of a nuclear attack on Britain that kills both Prime Minister Gordon Brown and a second, not identified person—the person he’s designated as his alternate nuclear decision-maker in case of his death.

Assuming the death of his second as well, Brown’s letter, the voice from the grave, from a person most probably reduced to radioactive ashes, will (theoretically) condemn to fiery death tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of innocent civilians.

Here is how the reporters described the writing of the most recent Last Resort Letter in their Daily Mail article:

Within days of coming to power, Gordon Brown had to make a decision with potentially massive consequences for Britain and the world. Would he, in the event of a surprise nuclear attack in which he was killed before he could react, want Britain’s last line of defense—a lone Trident submarine on patrol somewhere under the Atlantic—to retaliate? Brown wrote his answer to that question four times, in long-hand, in the form of letters addressed to the Royal Navy submarine commanders who, we must all hope, will never be required to read one of them.

We are told that every prime minister in recent years has written such a letter and that letters that go unused (Tony Blair’s for instance) are destroyed without being read.

This procedure raises several questions. If Gordon Brown wrote his letter more than a year ago, how would he (or any prime minister) know exactly why and by whom Britain might have been struck?

As the Daily Mail piece puts it:

How on earth does [the submarine commander] know if the PM has been killed and the normal chain of command obliterated? For obvious reasons, no one we spoke to would elaborate on the precise protocols. Suffice it to say that there is a complicated series of checks that the submarine commander must perform to establish the true situation—one of which, curiously, is to determine whether Radio 4 is still broadcasting.

During the Cold War, the origin of a nuclear attack would have been fairly easy to determine: The only nation likely to strike was the U.S.S.R. Now? A single wobbly missile from some Pakistani terror group from a freighter offshore? A series of terror bombs smuggled into the country whose detonation had—as they say in the nuclear terrorist trade—”no return address.” Who would the sub captain target if the PM posthumously ordered a retaliatory launch? Would the Last Resort Letter provide any guidance except a Big Yes or a Big No? And it’s not clear whether the captain is required to show the letter to anyone else. If the captain’s the only one who reads the letter, what’s to prevent him from substituting his own decision, his own notions of justice and vengeance, of what’s ethical and what’s not, for the PM’s, from burning the letter and deciding for himself whether or not he wants to kill tens of millions of civilians depending on his mood or what he ate for breakfast or whether he had a fight with his wife before the sub left home?

And what if it’s a mistaken launch by a salvo of Russian nuclear missiles that succeeded in vaporizing the United Kingdom? Should millions of citizens of Moscow and St. Petersburg, say, be destroyed without a chance to plead their case that it was a human or mechanical error? How would the sub commander know the circumstances if there’s no one in authority left alive (or no functioning communications equipment to let him know)?

With all due respect to our British cousins, this seems, well, insane. Or it highlights the fact that the insanity of Mutually Assured Destruction—insanity that was obtained during the Cold War and that we thought we’d left behind—still exists as real policy, however deeply problematic it remains in this and many other respects. (The fact that British defense officialdom allowed the reporters to know about the Last Resort Letter suggests that they’re proud of this system, evidence that a kind of group madness grips Her Majesty’s Royal Navy.)

The old-fashioned, pen-and-ink-on-paper quality of it all (quill pen, perhaps?) somehow makes the system seem like it emanated from a 19th-century madhouse out of Wilkie Collins. Which makes it even more profoundly shocking that the system is still in place.

How would they know some hacker hadn’t decided to play One Final Trick upon the world above? In 1997, the U.S. Navy discovered that there was a “backdoor” electronic entrance to the nuclear missile submarine launch control system, according to Bruce Blair, head of the World Security Institute, a Washington think tank. Blair told me the “backdoor” entrance would have allowed a diabolically ingenious hacker to insert a launch order into the system.

And it seems stunningly foolish, counterproductive, indeed self-destructive for the Royal Navy to reveal that the United Kingdom’s last line of deterrence, its ultimate safeguard against nuclear attack—the certainty of retaliation—is not certain at all. In fact, any fanatical enemy could figure it had a 50-50 chance that Gordon Brown did not order retaliation. In all likelihood, it’s probably 90-10 against; what prime minister, what human being would want to put in his own handwriting the order to kill tens or hundreds of millions of innocent civilians—especially at the point when the threat to do so had failed to deter the attack it was meant to deter?

The Letter of Last Resort serves at least one purpose: It reawakens us to the awful unresolved paradox of nuclear deterrence. We must make any potential nuclear attackers believe that they would be vaporized—suffer national nuclear holocaust—if they hit us first with nuclear weapons. And yet if they went ahead and did it, if the genocidal threat failed to deter them, there would be no point in carrying out retaliation; it would be useless mass murder, genocide pure if not simple.

On the other hand, if the potential foe thought that we might not retaliate once the threat served no purpose—that retaliatory “deterrence” would, in essence, turn out to be a bluff—it would encourage those disposed to strike first to cause a nuclear holocaust without fear of reprisal. We had to threaten genocide—and convince people we meant to carry out our threat—in order to prevent genocide.

This was always the problem with MAD, and it was spotlighted again by the Radio 4 documentary, which disclosed that at least one person in a position similar to that of Gordon Brown says he would have refused to give a Last Resort order to retaliate. That would be Denis Healey, former defense secretary to Labor PM Harold Wilson. Healey told the documentary makers, “I realized I would find it very, very difficult indeed to agree to use a nuclear weapon—and I think most people would.”

Even if Britain were already lost, Healey told the BBC, “I think I would still have said that that, I’m afraid, is no reason for doing something like that. Because most of the people you kill would be innocent civilians.”

Of course, innocent civilians, millions of them, might have been killed in the United Kingdom if the Soviets had known this was Healey’s attitude at the time.

In 1996, Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, an adviser to Margaret Thatcher, wrote a remarkable essay for the London Spectator in which he reflected precisely on this paradox. He says that from conversations with Thatcher and Reagan, he was convinced both of them would have carried out the threatened nuclear retaliation at the heart of deterrence. They would have pushed the button no matter what. But he also said that upon further reflection of a religious nature, he realized that to do so would have been obscenely immoral. I’ve been obsessed with this question my entire life. The high point, though, may have been my frank discussion of it with the spear carriers of nuclear Armageddon, the Minuteman missile crewmen I met on a magazine assignment at the height of the Cold War. These were the men who, deep beneath the Great Plains in the “launch control centers,” held the keys to the missile launch consoles. It was they who would perform the physical Last Resort act of twisting those keys in their slots and sending salvos of nuclear holocaust missiles halfway round the world.

Pentagon public relations had arranged the tour because they wanted me to see how sane its “missileers,” as they were known, were. And they were sane. Too sane. It was 1978, and I had had been investigating “The Subterranean World of the Bomb” for a Harper’s story of that name, and I decided I had to ask the missile crewmen the ultimate questions. This is how I described it:

I asked these sanest of all men how they could be sure they’d be able to launch when they knew it [the attack] was for real.”One thing you have to understand, remember,” one of the crewmen told me, “is that when I get an authenticated launch order I have to figure my wife and kids’d be dead already up above. The base is ground zero. Why shouldn’t I launch? The only thing I’d have to look forward to if I ever got up to the surface would be romping around with huge mutant bunny rabbits.” We all laughed. It seemed funny at the time.”Okay then, put it this way,” I said , “If you assume that when you get the launch order everyone on our side has been devastated by a Soviet first strike, is there any purpose served by destroying what’s left of humanity by retaliating purely for revenge?”

Our conversation turned to the Christian ethic of “turn the other cheek,” and I asked:

“Say you’re [then President] Jimmy Carter, a serious Christian, and you’re President when the whole deterrence thing fails. …You see those missiles coming in on the radar screen and you know mass murder is about to happen to your people and nothing you can do will stop it. Is there any point in committing another act of mass murder?” “You think he should surrender?” another crewman asked me.”I don’t know,” I said, taken aback by the question.

Recently, long after that encounter, I came upon a fascinating study of Jewish thinking on nuclear retaliation—all this nuclear doctrine leads you ultimately to theological questions. In particular there was a fascinating passage in a paper written by Warner D. Farr, a colonel in the U.S. Army.

Farr had made a careful study of the theological literature on the Last Resort question of retaliation when deterrence fails.

“In Jewish law,” he wrote, “it is asserted, ‘there are two types of war, one obligatory and mandatory (milkhemet mitzvah) and the one authorized but optional (milkhemet reshut).’ … Interpretation of Jewish law concerning nuclear weapons does not permit their use for mutual assured destruction. However, it does allow possession and threatening their use, even if actual use is not justifiable under the law.” (Italics mine.)

Threat, yes? Use, no? Who knew the Talmudists had parsed nuclear war so closely. The footnote to this assertion refers to a paper by a scholar named Michael J. Broyde called “Fighting the War and the Peace: Battlefield Ethics, Peace Talks, Treaties, and Pacifism in the Jewish Tradition.”

Here’s the relevant section on deterrence and retaliation and the Decision of Last Resort:

The use of nuclear weapons as a weapon of mass destruction is very problematic in Jewish law. In a situation of Mutually Assured Destruction if weapons are used, it is clear that the Jewish tradition would prohibit the actual use of such weapons if such weapons were to cause the large scale destruction of human life on the earth as it currently exists. The Talmud explicitly prohibits the waging of war in a situation where the casualty rate exceeds a sixth of the population. Lord Jakobovits, in an article written more than thirty years ago, summarized the Jewish law on this topic in his eloquent manner:”In view of this vital limitation of the law of self-defense, it would appear that a defensive war likely to endanger the survival of the attacking and the defending nations alike, if not indeed the entire human race, can never be justified. On this assumption, then, that the choice posed by a threatened nuclear attack would be either complete destruction or surrender, only the second may be morally vindicated.”However, one caveat is needed: It is permissible to threaten to adopt a military strategy that it is in fact prohibited to use, in order to deter a war. While one injustice cannot ever justify another injustice, sometimes threatening to do a wrong can prevent the initial wrong from occurring. Just because one cannot pull the nuclear trigger does not mean one cannot own a nuclear gun. [Italics mine.] It is important to understand the logical syllogism which permits this conduct. It is prohibited—because of the prohibition to lie—to threaten to use a weapon that is prohibited to actually use. However, it can be clearly demonstrated that lying to save the life of an innocent person is permissible. Thus, this lie becomes legally justifiable to save one’s own life too. An example proves this point: If a person desired to kill an innocent person and one cannot prevent that act by killing the potential murderer, one could threaten this person by saying “if you kill this innocent person, I will kill your children.” While, of course, one could not carry out the threat in response to the murder …

So, Last Resort—threat, yes? Use, no? But if the foe knows there will be no use, the threat is useless. You encourage genocidal attack. An impossible paradox, but one we lived with throughout four decades of the Cold War. One, alas, that we are still living through, even if we only recognize it moment to moment, when something like the Last Resort Letter comes to light.

So, Slatereaders. I put the question to you: What would be in your Letter of Last Resort? Retaliation or reprieve?

Correction, Jan. 16, 2009: This piece originally stated that the BBC reporters revealed the existence of the Last Resort Letter. In fact, the letter had been reported on before. (Return to the corrected sentence.)