Gospel nonviolence in action: Early Christians

Martin of Tours, while a soldier. Image by Fr Lawrence Lew OP, Creative Commons licence CC BY-NC-ND

Martin of Tours, while a soldier. Image by Fr Lawrence Lew OP, Creative Commons licence CC BY-NC-ND

What does Gospel nonviolence look like in action? The Fellowship of Reconciliation held a joint conference with the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship looking at this, and included a talk from the Revd David Mumford. Over a series of 14 blogs, some short and some longer, he outlines the different themes and topics covered in his presentation. 

Christians throughout the ages have declared that their first loyalty is to Christ rather than to any secular power. For those Christians for whom a gospel commitment to nonviolence is paramount, that has sometimes led to martyrdom.

Take what happened in 295 CE, in Tebessa in Algeria. Saint Maximilian was brought by his father to enlist. Maximilian declared: “I am not allowed to be a soldier for I am a Christian”.

When told that he must either serve or die, he replied “You may cut off my head but I shall never be a soldier”.

The proconsul Dion did not want to have to execute Maximilian and pointed out to him that there were soldiers who were Christians who served in the Emperor’s bodyguard. Maximilian replied: “They make up their minds what is right for them; I am a Christian and I cannot do what is wrong. My service is for the Lord.”

The choice to follow Christ led to his martyrdom.

Some 60 years later Saint Martin of Tours found himself in the same position. Martin had been baptised in his late teens but was then compelled to join the army – his father had the legal duty to get his son enlisted and Martin apparently was brought in chains to be signed on.

Martin was with the army for many years and during this time his Christian faith deepened. There is the famous account of him cutting his cloak in two to give half to a beggar and then having a vision of Christ coming to him in the selfsame half cloak. The Roman army at that time carried out many of the tasks that our present-day police and highways authorities do.

Eventually in 356 CE Martin, seems to have been faced with a situation where he would have to fight. He declared to his sovereign: “hitherto I have served you as a soldier. Allow me now to become a soldier of God. I am a soldier of Christ. It is not lawful for me to fight.”

He was accused of cowardice, so he demanded on the following day he be placed without arms in front of the line of battle. But there was no battle – the barbarians surrendered and Martin was set free to become a monk and then Bishop of Tours.

The Conscientious Objectors’ Stone in Tavistock Square – and how it came about

Participants at CO Day 2014. Photo: Dave Pybus/FoR

Participants at CO Day 2014. Photo: Dave Pybus/FoR

This is the second of four blogs by Edna Mathieson telling the story of how the conscientious objectors’ memorial in Tavistock Square, London came about. In the first blog, available here, she told of her early attempts to create a memorial through the Greater London Council (GLC) and how they failed when the GLC was abolished. Here, she details her efforts to get others to support the idea. 

The GLC headquarters at County Hall is in the London Borough of Lambeth, so I contacted Lambeth Council. They were sympathetic and supportive. As it happened, they had just set up a small section within the Council which was to help local people wishing to carry forward ideas they had for their local area. I met the new post-holder heading this small section and we decided that an art competition would be set up, to include all London art schools/colleges. It would ask for a figurative or abstract piece of sculpture, to be situated somewhere in the space next to County Hall, dedicated to all COs.

We got as far as drafting letters to the schools and colleges and others we thought might be interested, and finding addresses, when the government began its first series of cuts of local authority budgets. This post was one of the first to go. Back to square one!

I decided to get funding myself. I could only send a letter to newspapers, explaining what I hoped to do and asking for financial help and perhaps general support. Charities are excluded of course from giving funding to groups for political – in the broadest sense – purposes. A lawyer friend pointed out that my proposed course would be illegal – I had to be part of an organisation.

I had been a member of CND but no other peace group. I decided to contact them. Bruce Kent, then Chair of CND, rang me at home, after receiving my letter asking for help. He pointed out the obvious, really – CND is against nuclear war. I wanted to say that non-nuclear bombs also kill and maim, but thought better of it. I didn’t think it would help – not for probably a short, fairly casual, telephone conversation.

The Quakers! Of course! They are against war in both thought and deed. My uncle had met many Quakers while in prison. Their central offices at Friends House in Euston told me that the Society of Friends was similar to a federation – each Meeting had its own aims and ways of acting. I needed to contact a Meeting – maybe my local one. I knew of none in south east London where I lived, so I went south west – in particular, Streatham. It was fairly close.

I contacted them, and was invited to speak to them about the idea. I did. My reception was rather chilly, but food had been kindly laid on so that it might be rather an occasion. I simply put forward the idea of having a stone dedicated to all COs. Their first question was how much did I think it would cost? I had not the foggiest – it would obviously depend on how much a stone cost, how much we received, etc, but I suggested £2/3,000. It was pointed out that many people in Africa and India were starving, surely such a sum would be best spent on them? I replied that Christ had said Man does not live by bread alone (I had gone to church schools!). They were refusing, of course, so I added that, as they were naturally and rightly concerned with people in Africa and India, they might consider asking the National Gallery to sell one of their less famous pieces of art and use that money for the starving. They would get so much more than £2/3,000! I thanked them for listening, and left.

The question then was who else to contact. As I have said, I was not – am not – very familiar with peace organisations.

But I did recall the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) being mentioned when talking, or hearing, of my uncle’s experiences. I made an appointment and saw Bill Hetherington and Lucy Beck. After a consultative meeting with representatives of other peace organisations, it was agreed that Bill would negotiate with the Guardian newspaper for a letter drafted by him in the name of the PPU to be published on International COs’ Day, 15 May 1993, inviting donations. We got support and funding. Of course, I gave, as did friends and relatives of COs.

Read the third blog in the series to see what came of the support Edna raised. 

Gospel nonviolence in action: Jesus


Jesus being tempted by the Devil. Image by  Fr Lawrence Lew OP, Creative Commons licence CC BY-NC-ND

Jesus being tempted by the Devil. Image by Fr Lawrence Lew OP, Creative Commons licence CC BY-NC-ND

What does Gospel nonviolence look like in action? The Fellowship of Reconciliation held a joint conference with the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship looking at this, and included a talk from the Revd David Mumford. Over a series of 14 blogs, some short and some longer, he outlines the different themes and topics covered in his presentation. 

How did Jesus demonstrate Gospel nonviolence? Think of the temptations in the wilderness – especially the temptation to have political power. Jesus resists these temptations, both then and through the rest of his life until his crucifixion. He embodied the words: ‘worship the Lord your God and serve only him’ (Deut 6:13).

The Jewish people were expecting a messiah who would (in the words of the Archangel Gabriel) have the throne of his father David – who would throw out the Roman occupiers and re-establish an independent Jewish state. During the first part of his ministry Jesus refuses to have his messiahship confirmed (except by evil spirits) as the common expectation was that the Messiah would triumph through violence. He teaches his disciples to love their neighbour and their enemy – and yet Peter in the garden of Gethsemane still has a sword and uses it. He rides into Jerusalem on a donkey and not on a war horse – and this is after people have tried to make him king by violence and Jesus has fled from that. Jesus heals the high priest’s servant’s ear; and at the last he refused to summon the legions of angels and instead goes the way of Calvary.


The Conscientious Objectors’ Stone in Tavistock Square – and how it came about

Participants at CO Day 2014. Photo: Dave Pybus/FoR

Participants at CO Day 2014. Photo: Dave Pybus/FoR

This is the first of four blogs by Edna Mathieson telling the story of how the conscientious objectors’ memorial in Tavistock Square, London came about. In this piece, she tells how the idea for the memorial came about and the first attempts to create it. 

In 1976, my uncle, Joe Brett, died. He had been a life-long socialist, and because of those principles, had been a conscientious objector (CO) in the First World War. He had chosen Tom Paine’s ‘simple’ words to express what he believed: “The world is my country, all men are my brothers, to do good is my religion”. He had been an absolutist, that is, did not believe in killing, or helping in any way which might enable some-one else to accept military service and thus kill in his, my uncle’s, place. It was said that to be a CO on political grounds was considered to be less acceptable than on religious ones.

I had asked the Secretary of the National Secular Society (NSS), Bill McIlroy, to speak at my uncle’s funeral. I am a member of both the NSS and the British Humanist Association (BHA). He had agreed and spoke, mainly, of my uncle’s experience as an absolutist. Bill went on to say that, one day, people would acknowledge the courage and foresight of COs as they had, and do, recognise those who fight in wars – and had set up a memorial to them, the Cenotaph in Whitehall.

I thought that a great idea – so obvious, really! But “Never”, I also thought, “in my life time!”

In 1981, I became a Member of the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), a subgroup of the Greater London Council (GLC). I was on many committees and chaired two, and was somewhat overwhelmed by the strangeness of it all – so much to learn to do. But by 1984, becoming more used to it all, it suddenly occurred to me that I had a degree of power/influence … Uncle Joe and a CO commemorative stone … Bill McIlroy’s almost chance remark at my uncle’s funeral! This might now be possible. I put this to the GLC’s Labour Group. All agreed, except one: Andy Harris insisted on a motion, suggesting a commemoration of COs, going to London Regional Labour Party.

This would take time – it always did – and we had heard the rumour of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s intention of abolishing the GLC/ILEA! Why hadn’t I thought of it earlier? Then, suddenly, I realised that John Carr (GLC/ILEA Member) was the husband of Glenys Thornton, then Chair of London Region Labour! This might be the short-cut I needed – he might be interested. The reply from Region, instead of being very slow, was only slow, much to my relief!

It was not merely a rumour that Thatcher intended to abolish the GLC, but abolition was more of a fight than perhaps some had thought – the Church, the Lords and a member of the Royal Family were against it – much to some people’s surprise. But what about my CO motion – would that ‘fall by the wayside’?

The London Residuary Body (LRB) was set up after abolition to take care of all agreements, contracts etc the GLC/ILEA had made. So, as my motion, or any action accruing to it, had not appeared, I wrote to the LRB, asking them where the agreement was that had been made to have some commemorative object dedicated to COs. Nothing so far had been made public, whilst other agreements and contracts had been. I had guessed that this particular one would not have been very popular. Their reply confirmed what I had thought might happen – the agreement by Labour Group could not be found! But now what do I do?

Find out how Edna next tried to move the project forwards in the next blog in this series. 

Introducing Diko

diko picIt’s a new day, it’s a new dawn and… there is a new Diko!

Greetings, my name is Diko Blackings and I am the newest addition to the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FoR) team; I’ll be working as the Campaigns and Engagement Officer. As an International Development and Peace Studies graduate I have a keen interest and understanding of peace and the importance of promoting non-violent peace work and peace efforts. I also really enjoy putting together your excellent campaign ideas to create great campaigns and materials.

You will be sure to hear from me in the next few weeks but until then keep your eyes peeled on the FoR website and social media accounts for upcoming resources and events. Be sure to get in touch – I’d love to hear about the work you are doing and more importantly about the work you think we should be doing. I look forward to hearing more from you all.

With love and courage,


“What dreams may come…?” – International Peacemakers’ Fund 2018

A Fragments Theatre workshop

A Fragments Theatre workshop

Shakespeare and the Bible are probably the two most quoted canons of western literature, and for many good reasons; they both offer guidance for those navigating what it means to be human.

Of all Shakespeare’s plays the most quoted is Hamlet, and of all his characters it is perhaps in Hamlet that we feel most sympathy. We feel ourselves his struggles in working out the fundamental matters associated with this “mortal coil.” We all know that:

“To be, or not, to be. That is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep, no more.”

Obligated by tradition, Hamlet’s ‘wrong’, his father’s murder, demands revenge; it is a question of honour. Yet Shakespeare’s hero is perplexed by two questions. He doesn’t know if he can believe in his father’s ghost. Is what he says true? Not only this, Hamlet looks further ahead, and considers the consequences of revenging by murder… “For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause. And thus, the native hue of resolution is sicklied over with the pale cast of thought.”

Our International Peacemakers’ Fund awards financial means for people faced with the kinds of issues as Hamlet. Their lives have been, are, or will be threatened. Many voices call out for revenge, to violently ‘right’ the ‘wrongs’ committed against them. Our peacemakers are Hamlets for this time, pausing to consider future consequences and silence the calls for retribution.

Yet the heros and heroines of our time, living in these conflict areas, go further than Hamlet. He sees things from an individual perspective and is resolved against revenge by realising that we are all to die, it’s just a case of when, not if, so to murder isn’t necessary. Our peacemakers are motivated by more than this. They have a vision of their community, their society, living in peace and harmony. The vision they have is one for the collective, for the many, to live a better life now and in future.


The director of Fragments Theatre

The director of Fragments Theatre

This year we made awards to two projects situated in communities riddled with conflict for decades. Fragments Theatre is based in Jenin of the Palestinian Territories. They are working with young people often recruited for violence in the ongoing Isreali-Palestinian conflicts. Jenin, and much of the West Bank generally, suffers from a lack of outlets for young adults. With high unemployment and almost no channels for their energy these youngsters have literally nothing to do.

Fragments will be travelling to refugee camps, villages, towns and cities throughout the West Bank and offering workshops on stand-up comedy. Creating a safe space in which young people can build their confidence, creatively release their frustrations, and use comedy to diffuse and ultimately transform the anger they experience. Fragments uses the stand-up format to guide youngsters toward independent, peaceful and successful lives, to transform despair into hope.

Burundi, a relatively small country in Central Africa, is also no stranger to conflict. In the past 50 years it has endured two genocides and almost uninterrupted civil conflict, often between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups. From 2006 to 2015 relative stability was created but recent elections have been boycotted by the opposition in protest against President Pierre Nkurunzia. Alarmingly, Burundi officially withdrew from the International Criminal Court following accusations by the UN of extrajudicial killings, torture and sexual violence (human rights violations). Burundi’s recent period of relative peace is looking particularly fragile.

We received an application from Coventry Cathedral’s Reconciliation Ministry that spoke to this instability in a way that interested us. Due to fraudulent activity by a former Bishop many members of the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital, were finding it difficult to serve the congregation and beyond. Their burden was not simply financial; trust had broken down and the many pains of being betrayed were keenly felt. They asked for the Ministry’s assistance. The exciting thing about this from our perspective is that the Ministry’s reconciliation intervention is Christian-based, rooted in Christ’s life and message. Along with creating harmony within the pastoral and staff community their task is to train the pastors and staff such that they can be active and engaged as reconcilers within the wider community.

We love supporting such peacemakers’ vision of harmony but we need your help to continue doing so. We rely on individuals donating specifically to this Fund. Most of our current donors give regularly, allowing us to plan each year to maintain commitments to peacemakers old and new. We are asking you to become one our partners in this by giving money, large or small, regularly or as a one-off payment. Why not do something right now that fulfils Jesus’, not Hamlet’s, message of peace and love on earth?


Shooting in Paradise Square

On Monday 7th May, there was a non-fatal shooting and standoff in Paradise Square, Oxford. Peace House on Paradise St is just metres from where the siege happened, and though nobody from the Peace House community was in the building that day (it being a public holiday), it naturally affected people. Some of our neighbours were at home and more directly affected – they were told to stay at home until the standoff ended, which happened at 3am that night. Details of the incident have been reported by the BBC and others.

The following afternoon, staff from various organisations in Peace House met together to silently pray and reflect on the attack and the people involved. We ended the silence with a reading of part of the Prayer of St Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace, 
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy


Nuclear letter to Boris

7936244308_e9d803f3f8_mThe Fellowship of Reconciliation joined with 30 other organisations to sign and send a letter to Boris Johnson, UK Foreign Secretary. We urged him to ensure the UK fully participates in upcoming meetings about nuclear weapons and to make progress on the country’s obligations to disarm its nuclear arsenal.

Read the full text of the letter here.

Image by ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons), published under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial 2.0 Generic licence. 

Fellowship of Reconciliation condemns chemical weapons attacks and retaliation in Syria

FOR logo

The Fellowship of Reconciliation understands and shares the outrage that people justifiably feel when told about a government deliberately killing its own people with outlawed chemical weapons. We do not believe in impunity for chemical weapons attacks. But the correct response is to hold to account those individuals who perpetrated the attack and those in the military and political chain of command who authorised and organised it.

We oppose retaliatory strikes, such as those carried out by the USA, France and Britain, on both principled and pragmatic grounds. Our conviction for over a century is that military force does not bring genuine peace. In practice, such escalation often multiplies the number of casualties and leads to more suffering. Moreover, the feeling that ‘we must do something’ should not mean that we do whatever is quickest or easiest, and especially when the stakes are so high we should think carefully of the consequences. We must not salve our outrage using the lives of others.

The Fellowship of Reconciliation was formed in the days before World War One to oppose war and to demonstrate that there could be another way. We hold fast to that message, and to the belief that the Christian way is to reach out, not to bomb, kill and maim. We want to break bread, not break bodies.

Guest post: A review of ‘The Doomsday Machine’ by Daniel Ellsberg

This article by Bob Gardiner was originally published in the Baptist Peace Fellowship Spring Newsletter 2018. For more information about the Baptist Peace Fellowship, go to baptist-peace.org.uk

A few weeks ago, we were treated to the unedifying spectacle of the president of the USA boasting that his nuclear button was bigger than that of the president of North Korea. As it happens, I recently received the gift of Daniel Ellsberg’s recent brilliant book, The Doomsday Machine. This deals compellingly with the history of American nuclear policies: in particular the first strike and first use policies, the size of its nuclear arsenal and the devastating consequences of its use. There is some good news. Russia and the USA have reduced their stockpiles to about 4000 warheads each: in 1985 they had between them about 70,000.

Ellsberg worked for the RAND corporation which is a federal think-tank overseeing and advising government defence policy. His main role within it in the late 1950s and 1960s was to assess the way in which a decision might be made to launch a nuclear response or pre-emptive attack. Right from the outset he was concerned that there would always be “ambiguity” about how that decision which, by its very nature, would have to be speedy, could be reached. He gives many examples of times when there were alerts that almost triggered an unnecessary response: on one occasion it was triggered by a flock of geese mistaken for missiles, on another by the bouncing of signals off the moon! On one occasion the computer programme seemed 99.9% certain that a Soviet missile attack on the USA had been launched. Fortunately Khrushchev was at the UN at the time and that prevented a response as someone commented that the Russians would be unlikely to launch missiles while their leader was in New York. What worried Ellsberg was that so much hung on a snap decision taken in the heat of the moment not only by the president but by the military personnel who necessarily would be advising him. There was also the risk of someone going off piste and launching an attack without the full authorization having been completed. The chances were that in the confusion and limited time restraints of a nuclear launch at least one pilot would take matters into his own hands and drop his load even though their mission had only been generated by a false alarm. During his time as Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara (1961-68) tried to stiffen the electronic code procedures to reduce the chances of this happening by preventing any firing of Minuteman missiles (which were launched by officers in bombproof capsules buried in silos deep in the ground) without receipt of a coded message from the highest authority. This, however, was circumvented by the Strategic Air Command which fixed all the codes for all units at 00000000! When, decades later he heard about this McNamara said, “I am shocked, absolutely shocked and outraged. Who the hell authorized that?” Apparently, the Strategic High Command had deliberately set all the digits to zero so that everyone would know the codes to save time in the need for a speedy launch. They were much less concerned about the risk of inadvertent launch. This overwhelming emphasis on speed was because the policy was to destroy enemy weapons before they were launched and to get American weapons launched before they could potentially be destroyed. Delays were anathema. Crazily, all the bombers were supposed to reach their targets simultaneously, taking no account of wind direction, or the fact that orders arrived at different bases with lapses of up to 4 hours. Moreover, there was no officially authorized way for a president or anyone else to stop planes in the air once they had received an execute order from proceeding to the target and dropping their bombs, even though many hours may have elapsed between that order being given and the targets reached, during which time the scenario might have significantly changed. Ellsberg says the reason he was given for this was that “the Soviets might discover the stop code and misdirect the whole force back to base”. All this is eerily reminiscent of Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove where the president is unable to turn back an attack launched by the mad base commander General Jack D Ripper.

Nuclear warheads over timeSince the construction of NATO in 1949, it had been axiomatic that the main trigger for a US nuclear strike would be if the Soviet Union launched a massive attack using conventional forces on Europe. But the terms of what would trigger a response were wider than that: “general war”, which was defined as any conflict with the Soviet Union. This was muddied by the later use of the phrase, Sino-Soviet Bloc. It did not seem to occur to the American government that the Soviet Union and China were not necessarily a bloc! A renewed conflict in Korea (where only a fragile cease-fire was still maintained) would almost certainly qualify. This, perhaps, explains why the North Koreans have been so determined to develop a nuclear deterrent of their own. The Americans believed that no conventional war could remain limited for long and therefore it would be best, as Carwyn James once said (in the totally different context of rugby), “to get our retaliation in first”, and go to an all-out nuclear first strike. This policy was strengthened by the fact that it was much cheaper than trying to match Soviet conventional forces. The Americans believed that the Soviet forces had 175 divisions: this was a gross exaggeration but they did have 20 divisions stationed in East Germany. So the decision was reached, in the last years of Eisenhower’s presidency, to develop a massive strike force of nuclear weapons, as can be seen in the graph. By 1961 there were 1700 bombers carrying thermonuclear bombs, of which 500 were of 25 megatons. Each 25 megaton bomb was 1,250 times more destructive than the bomb which destroyed Nagasaki. Indeed one such bomb was equivalent to 12 times the total bomb tonnage the US airforce had dropped over the whole time of the 2nd World War. Each of these warheads had more firepower than all the bombs and shells that had ever been exploded in the whole of human history. There was at least one warhead aimed for every city in the Soviet Union that had more than 25,000 population. Cities in China were also targeted. Even by modest estimates it was predicted that Chinese casualties might be in the region of 300,000,000, even if China’s actions had not precipitated the attack. The Marines commander, David M Schoup, objected to this policy, “All I can say is that any plan that murders 300,000,000 Chinese when it might not even be their war is not a good plan. That is not the American way.” (p103). Ellsberg commented: this was the plan and I made it my passion to change it.

Eisenhower, who, having suffered a stroke, knew the dangers of an incapacitated president, had written letters of authority in 1957 to his theatre commanders specifying circumstances in which they had the power to launch a nuclear strike. Kennedy was unhappy with this but the chief of staff he appointed, Curtis LeMay, was clear that the decision should be primarily taken by the generals rather than the president. “Command and control! What’s that? It’s telling a fighting man what to do, that’s what it is. And that’s a job for a professional soldier. They talk about the president exercising command and control. What is a president? A politician. What does a politician know about war? Who needs a president if there is a war? Nobody. All we need him for is to tell us there is a war. We are professional soldiers. We’ll take care of the rest.”

Ellsberg, on his 30th birthday in 1961, managed to change the plans for nuclear war to mitigate some of these dangers: China was no longer to be automatically included in a war with the USSR. Cities were no longer to be the primary targets. The whole nuclear arsenal was not necessarily to be launched immediately. Conventional forces would be used if possible instead of a knee-jerk nuclear response. There was to be a tightening of procedures to prevent accidental or attack made on the initiative of someone down the command chain, limiting decision making to the president or as high an authoritative person as possible. Despite attempts by the chiefs of staff to prevent Kennedy getting the full documents, he insisted on reading them and the changes were accepted. Unlike the present president, Kennedy was “a great reader”. Ellsberg claims that those changes to the original plan have remained in force ever since. However, despite these improvements, the threat to humanity of virtual annihilation remained.

The Berlin crisis of 1961 and the Cuban missile crisis brought immediate relevance to these policy discussions. McNamara privately admitted that even if the USSR invaded West Berlin the Americans would not launch a nuclear attack. The consequences would be too severe. The Joint Chiefs of Staff tried to reassure Kennedy that “if the worst came to the worst” and America had to go to war with the USSR over Berlin it would probably result in less than 10,000,000 deaths in the USA. No advice given to Kennedy took into account the likely casualties for Europe, which on the most conservative estimates was 100,000,000 dead. Even given the American gross exaggeration of Soviet nuclear warheads at that time, these figures were almost certainly an underestimate. Ellsberg admits that he drafted a speech for Kennedy (actually delivered by Roswell Gilpatric, Deputy Defense Secretary) threatening Khrushchev with the words, “The fact is that this nation has a nuclear retaliatory force of such lethal power that any enemy move which brought it into play would be an act of self-destruction on its part”. Khrushchev later maintained that it was this threat that forced him to relent to the pressure of his military advisors and accelerate soviet nuclear capacity. He also shrewdly pointed out that the public admission of the change in policy, made by McNamara at Ann Arbor, from attacking cities to primarily attacking military installations, was merely an attempt to make nuclear war seem less unacceptable to the American electorate and world opinion, thus making it more justifiable and therefore more, rather than less, likely to happen. As a result of their perceived humiliation in Berlin (the building of the wall was in effect an admission of the successful existence of West Berlin) the Russians set out to imitate the American policy in every detail. As the graph shows they succeeded. So we now live with 2 doomsday machines. By the end of the cold war in the late 1980s the Russians had 40,000 nuclear warheads, almost twice as many as the USA. When asked at that time what would be necessary as a deterrent, Herbert York, a nuclear physicist who had worked on the development of the A-bomb known as the Manhattan Project, said, “somewhere in the range of 1,10 or a hundred warheads, closer to 1 than 100.” The size of the button simply meant you could destroy the earth several times over.

Ellsberg points out that the installation of medium range ballistic missiles on Cuba did not really change the war threat significantly. Washington could already have been reached by missiles launched from submarines. However, it did show that the numbers of soviet warheads was being significantly increased. In the Caribbean the military arithmetic was reversed from that of Berlin, the previous year. Here the USA had massive conventional arms superiority, despite the catastrophic failure of the Bay of Pigs attack in 1961. It would have to be Khrushchev who would have to respond with a nuclear attack. McNamara summed up the issue to Kennedy with typical perception and brevity: “I’ll be quite frank. I don’t think there is a military problem. This is a domestic political problem.” The quarantine (Kennedy deliberately avoided the word blockade and so make USA look less in breach of international law than Russia had been in Berlin in 1948), was the minimum Kennedy could do to satisfy the hawks in Congress, his armed forces and the media. The oil on which Cuba was dependent would only last 6 weeks without new shipments. However, if the government was really worried about the missiles, 6 weeks was far too long. The missiles would be operational in days not weeks and the quarantine might give the Russians the excuse to use them. Ellsberg claims that he persuaded the White House to issue an ultimatum for the missiles to be decommissioned. Bobby Kennedy announced a deadline of 48 hours the next morning. Later that day Khrushchev sent a 6 part telegram to Kennedy pointing out the unacceptability of nuclear war and promising to dismantle the missiles if Kennedy promised never again to invade Cuba. However, the following morning a further communication from Khrushchev demanded the compensatory dismantling of US missiles in Turkey. Most of the defence advisors in Washington, including Ellsberg, thought Kennedy should ignore this new condition. But Kennedy was leaning towards accepting it. Then it was discovered that a US U2 spy plane had been shot down over Cuba by a soviet missile. It later transpired that this had been ordered by Castro in obstinate defiance of Khrushchev’s orders. Kennedy had assured the military chiefs that any shooting down of an American plane would be retaliated with a devastating attack on the missile bases. Yet the president did not order one. Meanwhile the Turks were consulted about the future of the US bases. They were adamant that they should remain. De Gaulle was already arguing that the USA could not be depended upon to defend Europe. The result, as Ellsberg saw it, would be the collapse of NATO, which may have been Khrushchev’s motive behind the whole Cuban missile programme.

A cartoon from the Washington Post of November 1st. 1962 in which Kennedy and Khrushchev are seen desperately trying to close the Pandora’s box they have foolishly opened. The cartoonist seems to be implying that now that the box has been opened it won’t ever be properly shut again.

Fortunately for the world on Sunday October 28th Khrushchev climbed down and announced the withdrawal of missiles from Cuba. The world breathed a sigh of relief. Later McNamara confided something of his state of mind on Saturday 27th. “I remember leaving the White House. It was a beautiful fall day and thinking that it might well be the last sunset I saw.” It is now clear that Castro’s shooting down of an American plane convinced Khrushchev that it was too dangerous to site missiles on Cuba since he would not be able to control what an unreliable Castro would do with them and that was too dangerous a risk for him, for the Soviet Union and above all the world. That was why he gave the order to dismantle them. Even more frightening is the revelation that there were 42,000 Soviet troops on Cuba armed with over 100 tactical nuclear weapons. These troops were instructed to act, “on the orders of local commanders against an invasion fleet even without instructions from Moscow.” This was not known until 1992. As McNamara said when he heard this for the first time, “We don’t need to speculate what would have happened. It would have been an absolute disaster for the world. No-one should believe that a US force could have been attacked by tactical nuclear warheads without responding with nuclear warheads. And where would it have ended? In utter disaster.” That danger occurred to Khrushchev, too, which is why he ordered the disarming of Cuba well within the time limit of the deadlines.

Ellsberg graphically illustrates the supreme danger the world faced in those days with further revelations about the blockade. Unknown to the Americans, the Soviets were deploying submarines armed with nuclear missiles in the vicinity. These submarines had been designed for use in the Arctic and did not function so well in the warm Caribbean waters. On 30th October (2 days after we had all thought the danger had passed) the US warships discovered them and tried to warn them off with depth charges but these were interpreted as attacks. The submarine crews felt very vulnerable and were suffering from heat exhaustion and high CO2 levels. The captain of one of them said, “Maybe the war has already started up there while we are doing somersaults here…..we’re going to blast them now. We will all die but we will sink them all… so will not disgrace our navy.” But he did not fire the nuclear torpedo. He was able to rein in his wrath and made the decision to surface. The reason for this was that a senior naval officer, Arkhipova, was on board and he argued strongly against firing the missile because it had not been directly ordered by Moscow. Ellsberg comments had the missile been fired, “the aircraft carrier, USS Randolph and probably the rest of the surrounding fleet would have been destroyed or if not drenched in a bath of radio-active water which would have incapacitated the crew within minutes and killed them soon after”. One shudders to think of the consequences of that. Arkhipova’s widow proudly commented in 2012 that her husband had been the “man that saved the world”.

Ellsberg then examines how bombing cities and deliberately killing civilian populations became accepted tactics in warfare. Perhaps, surprisingly to some readers, he puts the blame for this firmly on the British and Americans, while acknowledging the precedent of Sherman’s march though Georgia in the American Civil War and Franco’s bombing of Guernica. He argues that Hitler’s bombing of London was in response to allied attacks on German cities, particularly Berlin in 1940. After the defeat at Dunkirk, Britain had little option but to resort to bombing and it was difficult to be so precise as to concentrate on strategic targets especially in night time raids. Whereas Hitler, Ellsberg argues, had always seen air-power’s primary role as being in support of land forces. Ellsberg also makes clear that the switch to incendiary bombing was deliberately to increase civilian casualties. Over 40,000 were killed by the firestorm bombing of Hamburg on 28th July 1943 known as Operation Gomorrah. This policy was perfected by Curtis LeMay (who later became Kennedy’s fierce chief of staff of air defense). Le May claimed his raid on Tokyo of March 12th 1945 had killed over 1,000,000 (although, in fact, this was a big exaggeration the true number was still probably greater than that killed at Hiroshima). He pointed out that the Japanese houses made of wood and cardboard were ideal for maximum casualties from magnesium bombing. “The purpose of our attack as to kill as many people as possible.” In this context the decisions to launch the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki looked to Truman like nothing different from what was already standard war practice. The arguments that the use of the atomic bombs precipitated the Japanese surrender, brought a speedy end to the war and therefore saved lives were exactly the same as those used by the British Bomber Harris to justify the raid on Dresden. “I do not personally regard the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one Grenadier guard.”

There is strong evidence, however that the purpose of the atomic attack on Japan was directed less against that enemy than to terrify Stalin. Just 2 weeks after Japan’s surrender, Major General Norstad sent a memo to General Groves, director of the Manhattan project, identifying 40 Soviet cities as targets for future atomic attacks, though the number of bombs needed was many more than they possessed at that time. By 1948 it was estimated that 400 bombs like the ones used at Nagasaki were needed. At that time the arsenal was 50 bombs. Thus what had been seen initially as simply a more efficient way of continuing the wartime policy of firestorm bombing grew into something even more sinister and morally corrosive.

As early as 1942 Teller and Fermi were working on the development of a hydrogen bomb more lethal than the atomic bomb of the Manhattan project. Such were the dangers initially perceived to be inherent in this project that Arthur Compton, who was in charge of it, commented that it would be “better to accept the slavery of the Nazis than to run a chance of drawing the final curtain on mankind”. According to Speer, Hitler had a similar feeling: “Hitler was plainly not delighted with the possibility that the earth under his rule be transformed into a glowing star”. Ultimately the risk of global catastrophe through the ignition of the atmosphere was reduced to one so small that it was negligible and development of the weapon continued. In 1949, 2 proposals were put to the supreme command that no further development of the H-bomb should be continued: the one proposal by Oppenheimer and Conant, who had been key members of the development of the A-bomb based their argument that the extreme danger to mankind of such a weapon far outweighed any military advantage that could be gained from its development. The second proposal by Fermi recommended a withdrawal from the programme provided that the USSR also desisted from theirs. But it was even stronger in the terms of its description: “in its practical effect it is almost one of genocide. It cannot be justified on any ethical ground.” President Harry Truman ignored this advice from the major scientist working on the project. A vivid example of the difference in scale between the weapons now being developed and the ones used at Hiroshima can be seen in the fact that the A-bomb is now used as a detonator for thermonuclear warhead. In a personal note in the book Ellsberg shares that his father had been working for the company building the plutonium plant in Georgia, but had resigned in 1949 when he discovered that it was going to be used for the H-bomb.

Instead of the crises of 1961 & 1962 bringing about a rethink and withdrawal from dependence on nuclear warheads the opposite happened. There was a massive increase in warheads on both sides. Strangely American policy focused on eliminating the Soviet high command allegedly with the aim of successful negotiations being achieved after the attack. It didn’t seem to occur to anyone that with all the high command killed there would be no-one with whom to negotiate. Perhaps with knowledge of this the Soviets developed an automatic response system, known as the dead hand, so that the launch of weapons would continue even if there was nobody fit to issue the orders. It would be triggered by just one large explosion in Moscow. The Russians still have this system in place as was revealed in January 2017. It is extremely likely that a similar system exists in Washington. Ellsberg believes that similar dead hand devices exist in China, Britain, France, Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea. That is wherever nuclear weapons are to be found. This, of course, makes the danger posed by terrorism even more potent.

Apparently, Nixon came quite close to using nuclear weapons during the Vietnam War. He said to his chief of staff Bob Haldeman: “I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that we can’t restrain Nixon when he’s angry and he has his hand on the nuclear button and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.” These words sound very familiar to us from Trump’s tweets on North Korea. The tactic of mad unpredictability had, of course, been previously used by Hitler with spectacular success in the Rhineland and Sudetenland. What will be encouraging to readers of this newsletter is that it was the massive nationwide protests by 2,000,000 million Americans in October 1969 that made it clear to Nixon that he would be not able to launch a nuclear attack on North Vietnam without massive civil disobedience. However he continued to issue the threats and the protestors had no inkling of their success. In fact 13 threats of the use of nuclear weapons were made according to Le Duc Tho, North Vietnam’s negotiator in Paris in 1974. Ellsberg then lists 25 situations since 1945 in which the Americans have threatened an enemy with nuclear attack, the last being Clinton’s warnings to North Korea in 1995 and Libya in 1996. George Bush senior turned down Gorbachev’s attempt to get a non-first use agreement in October 1991. Subsequent attempts by other countries to get the USA to agree to this have always been refused, despite the UN resolution on December 1981 which states: “States and statesmen that resort first to nuclear weapons will be committing the gravest crime against humanity.” Britain and Israel were among the 19 nations opposing this resolution. Of recent politicians seeking senior office only Obama has forsworn the first use of nuclear weapons and then he quickly rowed back on that under further questioning and accusations of naivety by his opponent for the democratic nomination, Hilary Clinton. Ellsberg then states that as a result of this the USA and all its allies, including Israel along with Pakistan, Russia and North Korea qualify as “terrorist nations” in that they use the threat of nuclear weapons to terrorize the world. A major way forward would be to place the abandoning the policy of first use on the table to begin peace talks with Russia, Iran, China, North Korea and any other nation.

So both USA and Russia have what Ellsberg calls Doomsday Machines. “A very expensive system of people, machines, electronics, communications, institutions, plans, training, discipline, practices, and doctrine, which under conditions of electronic warning, external conflict, or expectations of attack, ……both are on hair-trigger alert that makes their joint existence unstable. They are susceptible to being triggered by false alarm, a terrorist action, unauthorized launch or a desperate decision to escalate. They would kill billions of people, perhaps ending complex life on earth.” Are these Doomsday Machines needed? The answer is of course no. But Ellsberg argues that dismantling them should be only the prelude to a total nuclear disarmament. The risk posed by nuclear war being started inadvertently is now greater than the threats which caused the weapons to be created in the first place. Even more grave is that it can now be clearly understood that any significant nuclear strike would have such devastating consequences for the planet that no ordinary cause of war (under the just war theory) could justify its use. The stated purpose of Ellsberg‘s book is therefore to encourage pressure on Congress and parliaments to grapple with the truth of the gravity of the risks the world is taking. Whistleblowers and those with the knowledge should convince our politicians to grasp the nettle and respond. He ends this important book with a powerful quotation from Martin Luther King: “ We must move past indecision to action….If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality and strength without sight. Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter but beautiful struggle for a new world.”

Ellsberg’s well-written, at times exciting, illuminating and thorough account was published by Bloomsbury in USA , 2017,
350pp + glossary, notes, acknowledgements and index of 70pp. £20.