E.P. Thompson

Nuclear Weapons, the Arms Race, and the Peace Movement
E.P. Thompson
Historian and Leader of the European Nuclear Disarmament movement



This interview with E. P. Thompson and Cory Coll first appeared in California Living magazine on September 11, 1983. The discussion was edited by Jon Stewart. Welcome to a Conversation With History. I'm Harry Kreisler of the Institute of International Studies. Our guests are E.P. Thompson, an eminent British historian and leader of the European Nuclear Disarmament movement (END), and Dr. Cory Coll, a leading nuclear weapons designer at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. My first question, for both of you, is this: Why do you do what you do? [EP Thompson: ] I am convinced that we are in a terminal process. I open papers and find the MX is approved, nerve gas is going through, the B-1 bomber's going through. This is a terminal process, making both blocs more like societies which are going to resort to war. I want to come to the end of my life feeling that civilization is going to continue. I don't care tuppence whether I'm forced into a leadership position or not. I'd much sooner not. I have become a prisoner of the peace movement. But you can't say that the termination is coming and then say that you are going back to your own garden to dig. [Cory Coll: ] We rely on nuclear weapons, and as long as we do I think that we need an active research and development program,. It is something that I see as being of long-term importance. While I agree that there needs to be some progress in limiting arms, I think that we will, of for the foreseeable future, need nuclear weapons research. I also find the work to be an interesting technical challenge. It's something that I've been interested in for a long time -- twenty years. There is no question that the progress in arms control in the past five years has been rather grim, and the prospects haven't looked too hopeful. But I don't know that we can reach an agreement with the Soviet Union until both sides get serious, and I don't think that both sides will get serious until we deploy weapons. In the past ten or fifteen years the U.S. has not increased the number of weapons. The total is some 20 percent less than it was in the 1960s. It is only now that we are starting to deploy new weapons, and some of them are replacements for existing weapons. But there is a problem, because we have a weapons cycle here on the two sides, in which one side is always catching up with the other. The Soviets would be hard-pressed to argue that the deployment of the SS-20 is an attempt to catch up with the NATO alliance in intermediate-range missiles, because there are no intermediate-range missiles deployed by NATO. I want to make it clear that I am not into a dialogue that is talking about political relations between two halves of the human species in terms of weaponry and arms control. I think that this is a particularly American mental fault. But if we are to move to the field of military technology, I just have to call you out again and again on statements you made. I mean that if you are going to talk about this very ugly word "replacement," of course the Soviets also justify their SS-20 as a replacement. This very ugly term "modernization" -- in America everything "modern" is supposed to be better. So the kind of talk you gave me of "let's be quiet, we're producing less," is falsified by the actual increase in the density of targeting, in the reach and accuracy and the technological sweetness and the menace that these weapons are producing. I will hear no talk that there are no intermediate-range weapons on the NATO side. We Europeans can count, and we have done our homework, and we have done it very intensely for the past three years. What about the recent decision that the deployment of the Pershing II and the cruise came about by NATO request? I mean, it mean it was initiated by [former West German Chancellor] Schmidt in 1977. Yes! I think they are exactly the same bunch of people in the same mindset. I think you will find scientists that think like you in Germany and Britain, and you will find politicians that think like Weinberger. I think the most bellicose ruling group in the Western world at the moment is the British. They are the most dangerous and the most adventurous, ideologically the most malicious. You're addressing an element that is very important to all of this, and that is that the peace movement in Europe is really part of a search for national autonomy by some countries, and for regional autonomy by Europe. This is very true. There are no European voices at Geneva, there are no European voices at START. But this pressure for more autonomy is happening in the East as well. I was at Pugwash [an international nuclear conference] two years ago, when one of the official delegates from one of the Eastern countries took me aside at a coffee break and said, "Look, we are not only opposed to cruise and Pershing II because they are going to be pointed at us, but because if they are brought in by NATO the Russians are going to want to place similar missiles on our own territory." So there is a similar resentment at superpower control in Eastern Europe as well. This is a healthy thing; it enables the healing process across the East-West divide. But why are we at an impasse on arms control? I think that some of the reasons have to do with the fact that over the past ten or fifteen years the Soviets have spent an extraordinary amount of money deploying new systems, and the U.S. has felt a need to respond to those. That's led to the MX missile, the cruise missile and a number of other programs ... Could I interrupt here, because there is an alternative explanation, which you are particularly well placed to examine. You know the argument that it is the alchemists in the laboratories who invent the sweet new kits. The missiles come first, and the justifications come second. That is, the laboratories are always at work, you people are always at work, you find new weapons ... One of the myths is that the cruise was developed in response to the SS-20. You know as a scientist that both were developed completely independently of each other in the laboratories. And only afterward were the political situations contrived out of which they could be justified. One of the key features of the cruise missile is the turbo-fan engine that was originally developed by its designer because he wanted to have an engine for private airplanes. He was developing it for commercial use. It wasn't developed for the cruise missile. We have these laboratories in Britain. One of the reasons for the modernization program for the Polaris warhead was that there was nothing else for Aldermaston [a weapons lab] to do. There was this expensive research weaponry establishment that was unemployed, hence you had to feed it a new program. So part of the thrust of weaponry comes from the laboratories themselves. Afterward, a justification is made. Well, I think that is too simple. I think there have been times when technology "creep" has affected weaponry, that technology has improved in ways that one wouldn't like it to. But technology has also done some things that have been useful, like Earth satellites. There is no possibility of arms control agreements without that kind of technology. But it is very important historically to know whether the military or the politicians order weapons because they perceive a real emergency, or whether the weapons arrive from the laboratory and then create an emergency, themselves. I would like to get into the question of political failure. The decisions on making these weapons have been made in the realm of experts working with the political leaders. But the politicians haven't been really elected on these issues. I agree that in the past, and also in the present, there isn't enough consultation with the public, with regard to the U.S. I think in Europe there is much less of this, and there is also less in the Soviet Union. My own concern in this country is that most people don't care very much. We have a short attention span on any issue. Even the number of people who stay committed to an issue, no matter what the issue, is fairly small. I think the very fact that we are having this discussion does make the point of a difference between the American and the British countries. In Britain, it would be difficult for me to have a discussion like this with someone in a senior position at a weapons laboratory, because the government would have the scientist's mouth gagged with the Official Secrets Act. I think that the U.S. does have this very much more open attitude, and I admire it very much and I think it's very important to the world. But the information and the discussion sometimes come too late, after the effective decision has been made. One of the things of concern to me is that in the management of our nuclear relationship with the Soviet Union it is important that it should pretty much be divorced from what's happening in the world elsewhere. Nuclear arms control should be pursued for its own sake, because it's important. Unfortunately, we have an electorate in this country that views arms control in relation to "what else is happening in the world." The public often asks questions such as "Well, what about Afghanistan, why are we signing an agreement with the Russians when they just invaded Afghanistan?" I mean, we are a political country and one that tends to take a simplistic view of the world. If we are going to sign an agreement with them, then we have to "like" them. They have to behave in a way that doesn't offend us. All we must do with the Soviets is not destroy ourselves with thermonuclear war, or conventional war. If we don't like them, that's fine. There is not a lot to like, and presumably that is the same in reverse. I would like to look at the Soviet Union, because we know that the peace movement is having an impact on democracies. It is very unclear what effect it is having on the Soviet Union. Some would charge that it just furthers their political advantage. The readings of Soviet society are as many as the experts you speak to. In my view, it's a society that is overdue for measures of democratization and organization. You cannot run a society at the high technological level with the kind of controls and stoppages and blockages on communication which exist there. And people in the middle range -- anyone over 40 years old -- know this. I think it is precisely Western ideological pressure and Western missile pressure that holds in place the old post-Stalinist leadership and prevents this modernization and change from taking place. I thin when Mrs. Thatcher or Mr. Reagan make their Cold War speeches it instantly hardens the structure of control on the other side. I don't have an insights into Soviet behavior or motivation, but I think that there are a few things that are clear. I think that the Soviets will do what they have to do to maintain parity with the U.S. So that people who hold out a promise that the U.S. can regain nuclear superiority, I think they're just wrong. It's a two-sided game, and I don't think either side will let it happen. The possibility for a return to the fifties, when the U.s. was clearly superior in almost every way, is probably gone forever, so I think that we ought to get about the business of living with it. The talk about balance, nuclear balance, seems to me to be metaphysical and doesn't seem to be real at all. You're not saying that balance isn't important? I am saying that balance isn't important. It's a mental bondage that we're in. And I am greatly dismayed by the acceptance of what I think is the most corrupt and exposed argument in the whole nuclear weapons game -- that we'll only deploy certain missiles as bargaining chips in order to initiate at some later stage a process of control. It never has worked. It worked with the ABM [anti-ballistic missile system]. Tell me how. Well, it wasn't until the U.S. made plans to go ahead and build an ABM system that ... This wasn't a missile. It was a protection against the missile. This is the craziest Alice in Wonderland scene we have ever had -- that one of the only treaties that for a long time stuck was a treaty preventing parties from defending themselves. It is crazy. It's a sordid fact but it still stuck. I agree and I think that most people who think about it would agree that it is crazy. We are in a sort of nuclear gobbledy-gook where defense is bad and offense is good and we build weapons so that we don't deploy them and it's crazy, I agree. I didn't invent it. I'm trying to cope with it. Dr. Coll, how do you cope with this whole question of the morality of working in a weapons lab, which the churches and the peace movement have raised? There is no question that the Catholic bishops, in particular, in their pastoral letter have called into question the morality of this willingness to threaten the other side with destruction. In the letter itself there is no specific statement, though, that someone who works for a weapons design lab, as I do, is immoral. I would have hoped all those people who would prefer for us to rely less on nuclear weapons would take the other side of the coin and say, "OK, we have lived with them this long and one could argue that it is only prudent to believe that they have had some deterrent effect. Do we need a substitute?" And I am thinking of a conventional substitute. There's nothing more that I would like to see than less reliance on nuclear weapons. That would be fine. But I am somewhat concerned about the fact that we have a problem and no serious suggestion as to what to pursue as an alternative. So that is my reservation about the Catholic bishops' pastoral letter. What I think is being expressed by the intransigent moral refusal of the peace movement is what I would call the "human ecological imperative." People now have come to an understanding of what an extraordinarily sensitive balance this ecosphere exists in, and the possibility of quite catastrophic events. Thus, the fallibility of your argument that because a deterrent situation has worked for so long therefore it can never break down. The Welsh have a folk saying: "Granny was never ill 'til she died." But how can I throw this back at Dr. Coll? I know that some physicists and other scientific groups have suggested that there should be a Hippocratic Oath in the scientific professions -- that biologists, physicists, other experts should, as part of their professional training, enter into an oath that they will not employ themselves in research, or manufacture of any weapons of genocide -- any weapons of mass extermination. Have you been in these discussions at all? No, I have not heard people suggest that. I can't speak for the motivation to other people. It is an individual thing as to why various people choose to work on weapons. Taking an oath would perhaps be possible and acceptable morally if I believed that nuclear weapons weren't important, that we didn't need them. But most people, I think, who choose to work in weapons world believe that it's needed. In fact, some people would take the argument that they have a moral responsibility to provide these weapons because they maintain peace. Would you make any cutoff with certain kinds of biological weapons, such as nerve gas? I guess my own personal feeling is that we're stuck with nuclear weapons and we have got to try to manage that. There is no question in my own mind that if we can stop these other things before they occur we are much better off. You gentlemen have managed to sit here for almost two hours and talk very civilly, even though you represent opposite sides of the spectrum. Has the experience of sitting here together been at all encouraging, or do you feel that there is a real communication gap between the peace movement and the nuclear weapons establishment? This kind of forum is good and should occur more often. Unfortunately, I think a lot of the dialogue of the confrontation occurs with demonstrations, and it's very difficult for me to believe that when demonstrators are standing outside the gates of wherever you work, Lockheed or Lawrence Livermore, that it is going to foster any sensible dialogue. I think there is a danger of hardening the attitudes on both sides in these kinds of confrontations. Yes, I agree this is valuable and I think this would be helpful if it happened more in Europe. I think it's probably utopian to expect confrontations not to happen. When any major issue is ever being worked out, then you do get to a point of a very confrontational situation. However, I don't actually regard you as my opponent. I regard the opponents as being political. I regard the Cold War as having essentially political and ideological dominant features. And the barbarous extermination is manipulated by the politicians and the ideologues. If I wanted confrontation it would be with those who use this vocabulary to establish nuclear threat as a language of diplomacy. These are my opponents. © Copyright 1983