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Dr Stragelove, I Presume.

Michael Foot. Victor Gollancz. [pounds]16.99. 241 pages. ISBN 0-575-06693-8.

There were at the last count forty-five nations in the world with a 'nuclear capability', that is, with the materials, facilities and know-how to make atomic bombs of some sort if they decided to do so. They include all the large industrial states, with most of the world's population. The fact that only a minority have chosen to go down the road of overt possession, including testing, suggests that common-sense is more widespread than reading the daily papers might lead one to suppose. However those nations with a nuclear capability do include India, a fact which has disturbed Michael Foot mightily. To him, India is more a moral concept than anything else, and to see her developing and testing bombs and the rockets to deliver them is baffling and distressing. Of course, since India has done this, Pakistan must also have an Islamic Bomb - which must cheer Kashmiris up no end.

The book is a re-statement of the case for nuclear disarmament to be driven and inspired by one major nuclear state - Britain - leading the way and dragging the others behind it by example. It is eloquent; no public man in the last half-century has written better English than Michael Foot. It draws on a wide culture, ranging from Byron's nihilistic poem, Darkness, to H. G. Well's astonishing 1914 prophesy of nuclear war, The World Set Free.

There is a deep pessimism behind the writing. The author thinks that the luck of the last half-century, when not one of the 140 recognised military conflicts 'went nuclear', cannot last forever. He does not beat one over the head with an account of the probable immediate destruction, followed by the long agony of fall-out, followed perhaps by anarchy and starvation in a nuclear winter, but there is no doubt he feels all these things.

Michael Foot's basic criticism of the multilateral case is that its hesitant steps through the Test-Ban Treaty towards SALT is tending to legitimise and embed the nuclear culture and further, that it is accepting American hegemony. He nowhere says that he dislikes and distrusts the United States, but a thread of anti-Americanism runs through the book. Fairly, he praises Eisenhower for exposing the military-industrial complex that tries to drive US policy, Kennedy for accepting the 'dove's' case on Cuba, and Reagan for shocking the military by telling them that he, at least, would never sanction the first use of a nuclear weapon. But these were exceptionally 'big' Presidents, and against them one thinks uncomfortably of Clinton's launching cruise missiles against targets in Sudan and Afghanistan at a bad time in his personal affairs.

The weakness of this book is that it is, in places, slackly argued. It tends to assume as given, propositions that have to be justified. There are many people throughout the world who do not accept the internationalist position, and the view that there is a special high rightness about the United Nations, its Charter and the Security Council. These include people who have seen it at close quarters: I think of Conor Cruise O'Brien's description of the UN and its Council as 'sacred drama'.

Do not spend time on a rain-making dance when you might be digging an irrigation ditch is the argument here. The arms programmes are regarded solely as diversions of resources which might have gone to useful, peaceful things. Certainly, India needs child-care clinics, not nuclear bombs, but it is an ironic fact of twentieth-century history that armaments programmes have driven economic progress as often as they have retarded it. Certainly, atomic war holds the threat of limitless devastation, but one must give at least a quick glance to two sizeable, thriving cities of present-day Japan, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

If one thinks of America as a country with no friends, but only interests, and one all too ready to use its size to get its way, one must also admit that the American standards of control and safety in all matters nuclear are unsurpassed. With the fall of the Soviet Union, a dreadful light is beginning to fall on places like Kazakstan and the consequences of Soviet indifference to fall-out - and similar news may yet come from the Lop Nor region of Chinese testing. Is this a consequence of Communism, or were these countries brutal and primitive anyway?

So, though the book is imperfectly argued and most unlikely to convince anyone but an old Aldermaston marcher that he was right all the time, and is still fight, I want to give credit for altruism of aims, for courtesy in argument, for polish of style. It is a shame that it seems to be exciting no special debate, and that the English-speaking world seems to have a temporary tactical deafness. Undoubtedly Michael Foot is right on one point: we have been lucky so far. The world in general is not getting any safer. Let us hope that the next major war is fought in cyberspace, not outer space.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Wedd, George
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1999
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