The rise of Da’esh and Al-Qaida came as a surprise to most people. Twenty years ago nobody foresaw that clandestine religious organisations would regularly inflict significant civilian casualties around the world, or that national intelligence services would be redirected to counter this new threat. Who would have imagined that substantial new resources would be needed to catch people planning religiously motivated terrorist acts? Who would have foreseen that new preventative programmes to address the motives, thoughts and feelings of potential terrorists would, in addition, have to be devised and implemented?
The rise of religious terrorism was itself, in part, an answer to a question. To what story do I belong? To an Islam preaching a merciful and compassionate God in the modern world? Or to a beleaguered seventh century Medina community and to a militarised expansionist Caliphate?
Al-Qaida modernised and re-interpreted jihad, abandoning the original concept of a defensive war and a community obligation authorised by a Caliph, fard kifayah, in favour of an individual obligation, fard ayn. Taking a different line, Da’esh made waging war to revive the Caliphate the touchstone and supreme test of obedience to Allah.
Al-Qaida and Da’esh disagreed about whether to found a Caliphate. From its beginning Al-Qaida decided that the creation of a Caliphate would be premature and that any attempt to found one would bring down the wrath of the ‘kafir’ superpowers. Al-Qaida was both right and wrong. Da’esh did establish at Raqaa in Syria the capital of a functioning, geographical political entity. It provided several aspects of a militarised State or Caliphate, and proved attractive to those who sought belonging in something with purported Islamic legitimacy. And as Al-Qaida had predicted, Da’esh did provoke a powerful military response ( as did Al-Qaida’s attack on the Twin Towers after 9/11).
The difference between Al-Qaida and Da’esh recruiting techniques may seem small but they are significant. The neurosciences are opening up our understanding of cognition, emotions and personality as triggers for action. Insights into the workings of the extremist mind help explain the brief success of Da’esh relative to Al-Qaida, between 2014 and 2018. Al-Qaida’s propaganda is wordy, textual and maps on to the logical, linear reasoning processes of the brain’s left hemisphere. It proposes a sharply binary world of right and wrong, no grey areas, and the dominance of a single value, jihad, in the face of the clashing values of a multicultural, multi-religious modern world.
Da’esh, on the other hand, is adept at the visual and its appeal has greater reach. Its simple, powerful messages, spread through social media, map onto the right hemisphere and limbic system where the brain’s core emotional and motivational centres are located. Da’esh ideology’s binary structure also creates an emotional counterpoint between reward and shock. The Caliphate is presented as an end-times utopia. In it recruits find redemption from a sinful past and initial safety from the hostile world of infidels, a place where desires are fulfilled. Da’esh recruits discover identity, solidarity, the camaraderie of a closely knit in-group.
The extreme brutality of Da’esh provides a counterpoint to these warm feelings. Da’esh’s violence is shockingly portrayed in video clips alongside films about Western killing of innocents. The Muslim viewer is doubly assaulted: by moral shock and a sense of victimhood. The brain’s emotional centres are directly stimulated arousing the well-known fear, fight, flight, freeze response. The overall effect is to short-circuit moral thought by generating a state of anxiety, fear and anger.
Da’esh conflates an ideal past and a blissful future with their actual brutal militarist, patriarchal rule. The Da’esh recruit is literally living out of time. The concept of the Caliphate provides the cognitive framework for a collapse of linear time which triggers the brain’s emergency fast system thinking system in which time stands still. The shock of watching videos of decapitations and torture is countered in a dialectical pattern by the promised rewards of an idealised family life – even fluffy kittens have been shown – and a desired just society. The visual impact of this propaganda is to eliminate and displace moral reflection and thought. The particular horror of this for Muslims is the way elements of Sunni - Salafi – discourse are used and twisted to legitimate a descent into barbarism.
It is no accident that those most affected by this propaganda are 16-25 year olds, the age group in which neural networks are still developing and the group which is most likely to suffer from mental illness. We have to assume that that the violent behaviour of Da’esh jihadis, and their misreading of social and political reality, is linked to something grievously awry in the structure of their thinking and their emotions. If this analysis is not fanciful, then prevention of violent action must include re-establishing, or establishing, a pattern of thoughts and feelings different from the one cultivated by extremist recruiters.
A common feature of young people to whom Da’esh propaganda appeals seems to be their need for simple binary explanations of, and solutions to, problems of identity and belonging. Sometimes, of course, Da’esh merely provides religious legitimation for violence and anger. This explains the number of petty criminals who become jihadis. The high level of cultural dissonance and social mixing resulting from the last communications-led wave of globalisation, calling identities in question, contributes to radicalisation. Interestingly, recruiters use tricks which manipulate both cognition and the emotions to isolate their converts, to distance them from their own families and to build them into a new ‘purified family’.
Extremist thinking tending towards violence can be changed by sensitive group programmes which respect the individual, acknowledge their deepest values, and engage each person in the process of growing away from violent action. One such programme, called IC, Integrative Complexity, aims to prevent recruitment to terrorist groups by strengthening participants’ ability to handle the complexity of life in multicultural societies. IC’s methodology can measurably reduce a propensity for violence.
Modifying extremist perceptions of social and political reality requires group work together with a trusted facilitator. Acknowledgement of the reality of multiple causality by participants is a key step. IC methods are adapted culturally to each group, with the aim of generating new and spontaneously embodied, emotional and interpersonal knowledge, and to stimulate empathy for others by recognition of different values. Sometimes this will not be possible and recourse is made to stimulating empathy for the participant’s younger self, in other words, bringing time back “on-line”.
Youthful idealism is admirable and can be part of the reasons for a descent into terrorism. Radicalised youth need to discover that their ideals can be lived out without violence and without the tragic loss of family, friends, and life. Everyone needs to have their identity and deepest values respected. Coercion does not work. It is vital that changes in thinking develop spontaneously as the consequence of a new set of interactions and without invalidating the needs and core values that drew the would-be, or actual, extremist into a Da’esh or Al-Qaida cell.
The approach I have so briefly outlined is not primarily concerned with the ideological content of extremism, rather with the extremist mind itself. It has application to Neo-Nazis and their violence as well as to jihadis. It gets behind all the variable risk factors that pre-dispose people to move into extremist violence and engages with basic motivating structures of thinking and feeling. And it does so while respecting the integrity of the human person, the deepest values of participants and their capacity to find new ways of seeing and living with religious commitment in the world.
For more details see Savage, S, Khan, A & Liht, J (2014). “Preventing Violent Extremism through Value Complexity: Being Kenyan Being Muslim,” Journal of Strategic Security Vol 7 (3) 2.
See also Roger Trigg Killing in the Name of God: Addressing Religiously Inspired Violence to be published by THEOS early July 2018
I confess. I thought the appeal of Donald Trump was a worrying new political phenomenon akin to the wave of right-wing populism in Europe. But it has a long American pedigree, there is little new about it. What is new is the sheer scale of his success.
My excuse for a skewed perspective is that I lived in New York in the mid-1960s. Nearest the political surface was the civil rights movement: Selma, sirens up the east side after Martin Luther King was murdered, the ashen-face of the TV news presenter, and relief at the muted reaction in Haarlem. The huge, internationalist peace marches against the Vietnam war, different immigrant nationalities streaming to rallies through long caverns of skyscrapers, were full of hope and purpose. We expected radical change never anticipating America First, clamp-down on immigrants, and beggar your neighbour, contempt for the poor, white supremacy.
Naïve you may say. Yet the original American Dream was still alive. It had seen the light of day in The Epic of America written by the historian, James Truslow Adams in 1931: liberty, equality and justice ‘for all our citizens of every rank’ (my italics). Sarah Churchwell’s recent study Behold America: a History of America First and the American Dream charts how the content of this dream mutated over time to become a dream of opportunity, and finally to become the ultra-individualist pursuit of wealth through free-market capitalism.
Churchwell also chronicles use of America First as a mobilizing political slogan from its emergence in 1884, during trade wars with Britain, to its role as a presidential campaign slogan in 1916 by both candidates, and then to becoming the expression of the isolationism in the 1930s. For Woodrow Wilson America First did not mean beggar your neighbor, but indicated that the USA should take the lead internationally, which he attempted in founding the League of Nations - never ratified by Congress. The meaning of America First and the American Dream were transformed almost into the opposites of their original content.
The appeal and success of the slogans America First and its allied theme of Americanism was that their meaning could encompass traditional patriotism and racial bigotry as well as an assertion of white supremacy that overlapped with the extreme views of the Klu Klux Klan. Also in the mix during the 1930s were the Friends of New Germany. On 17 May 1934, 20,000 people attended a rally in Madison Square Gardens beneath a prominent swastika banner. This was the overt face of an American fascism. Though admittedly the mid-1930s lacked today’s hindsight of the full horrors of fascism to come. But fascism’s true American expression was, and remains, the promotion of fascist values under the cover of super-patriotic American slogans.
How much of this dark side of American politics was Trump aware of when he set out on the campaign trail? Perhaps some of his advisers such as Steve Bannon knew their history. It doesn’t really matter. Extreme right-wing ideas have a way of sticking around for a long time like chewing gum under furniture. There are striking parallels with former national figures such as Huey Long and Charles Lindberg. The ideology behind America First and Americanism was there to be discovered or re-invented. Just as America First Inc. emerged in 1934 as a reaction to Roosevelt’s New Deal, so the economic context of Trump’s America First is Obama’s presidency confronting an economic crisis comparable to the Great Crash of 1929.
There is a great danger that Trump will be underestimated and the supposition that disillusioned supporters will eventually see sense. Until our political systems have answers to the human consequences of Rust Belts, the problems of inequality and the challenge of integrating immigrant communities, the ideas found in extreme right-wing thinking will gain traction in the echo-chambers of the mass media and voting patterns. Does this make Trump smarter than we think? Perhaps. More important, it makes him more dangerous.
Before his visit to UK in July, it helps to set Donald Trump’s policies in an historical context, rather than simply dismissing him as some kind of a narcissistic sociopath who accidently got into power. America, Britain and the world have encountered this cluster of ideas before, resisted them, and lived to see another day. Sarah Churchwell has provided the evidence that the current President of the United States is a throwback to a dark past. This doesn’t solve the problem but it is an important insight.
But that is not enough. Trump promised to hold the dominant elites to account. That was an important part of his appeal. The elites must now examine themselves and recognize how much they have contributed to the shaming of America. The Republican Party knows full well that, as Mitt Romney said during the Trump campaign in 2016: ”He has neither the temperament nor the judgement to be President and his personal qualities would mean that America would cease to be a shining city on a hill”. How right he was. The American Dream has become a nightmare.
The Christian Churches in the USA are no less divided about President Trump than the rest of the country. His return from Singapore was like a surreal re-enactment of Chamberlain’s landing after Munich. There was a paper with two signatures on it. He wisely didn’t wave it at the cameras. The paper promised peace in our time but lacked substance. Peace-loving Christians were hopeful. But many commentators thought what little it did promise would prove to be a snare and a delusion.
It is always high season for hyperbole with Mr. Trump. His Singapore performance as the great deal-maker was rewarded. His popularity rating within his own Republican Party rose to 87%, ten points more than that other actor-President, Ronald Reagan at the same stage in a Republican presidency. When considering the ‘his’ in ‘his Party’, think of the poor host bird giving the large cuckoo in its nest a huge vote of confidence.
White evangelical Christians will have significantly contributed to the rise in Trump’s ratings. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount calls peacemakers ‘children of God’. So, after the alleged agreement with North Korea a rise in popularity is understandable in religious terms. But 17 months ago the votes of white evangelical Christians – 80% of them voted for him - played a major, possibly determinative, role in Trump’s election, and they now sustain his position, despite his known character and policies. How, you wonder, do they accept his unashamed admiration for power, money, and what St. Paul calls fornication, in direct contradiction to the teachings of Jesus?
Michael Gerson in The Last Temptation, the cover story of the April edition of The Atlantic magazine, provides a detailed historical account of how and why 80% of a large white Christian community have come to support a President whose personal conduct and national policies are antithetical to the Christian tradition. An evangelical Christian himself, and a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, Gerson has written a poignant and passionate denunciation of the views of fellow white evangelicals “whose political narrative is adversarial, an angry tale about aggression and evangelicalism’s cultural rivals”. And who see “their rights as fragile, their institutions as threatened, their dignity as assailed….a besieged and disrespected minority”. Today the doors of the White House are open to such white evangelical leaders. Being pro-Trump is to be protected from being marginalized by the rival, socially liberal culture of the Democrats. What an illusion.
This is not the only face of the American evangelical Churches; they have not always been, and still are not, all defensive and Right-wing. The story goes back to the 19th century to the confidence and moral concern for social justice of the New England Northern evangelicals and their opposition to slavery, and also to the growth of a radically different Southern black evangelical world which re-emerged powerfully in the 1960s civil rights movement. Obama understood the black evangelical world but related to it with caution.
The best known representative of the white tradition is Billy Graham and his Southern Baptist Crusades. But the best of progressive evangelicalism is seen today in a variety of forms: most strikingly in the progressive mega-church, “purpose-driven life”, led by Pastor Rick and Kaye Warren, and in Jim Wallis’ Sojourners movement. These are forms of evangelical religion, recognizable from a British evangelical perspective which dates back to the anti-slavery movement, Wilberforce and the religious revivals of the 19t Century.
Gerson does not talk much about racism in evangelical circles from the 1960s nor how the electoral victory of a Trump relied on it. But the great racial divide in the USA today is reflected in the congregations of the American evangelical Churches. Thanks to the Evangelical Church Alliance, British mainstream Churches with their different history and early mission outreach, though far from immune to racism, have been spared such a profound division. From the 1840s the Evangelical Alliance has sustained its own tradition of social concern, from anti-slavery campaigning to the work of its former general-director, Pastor Joel Edwards, on poverty, debt and globalization. When the Archbishop of Canterbury was happy with the invitation to an evangelical black American bishop to preach at a royal wedding in Windsor, he was expressing and recognizing the strength of this tradition and demonstrating how evangelical religion remains close to the heart of British Protestantism.
The question raised by Trump for Christians is not just one for evangelicals in the USA. About 56% of Catholics and other Protestants also voted for him. Obama and Hillary Clinton’s hardline on abortion certainly helped Trump, right across the theological board, but there was far more to the Christian vote than sexual ethics and beginning and end of life issues. Views about them had been changing rapidly. The Episcopal Church for example had spearheaded advocacy for gay rights before it gained momentum. Since the days of the ‘Moral Majority’ white evangelical positions have remained reactive, as have those of many other Christians.
The Trump presidency can be funny. Does he really want people to treat him like Kim Jong-un? Doesn’t Republican applause for him on Capitol Hill go on long enough already? But what he is doing isn’t funny. Trump poses particularly urgent questions to all the Churches, about truth, about American values, about describing the poor with contempt as ‘losers’, about the absolutely clear instruction in the Bible concerning love and compassion, on how to treat strangers and foreigners. In the recent words of Jim Wallis, evangelical writer, activist and theologian, at stake now in the USA is “the soul of the nation and the integrity of faith”.
We underestimate the importance of Europe’s different political cultures. They shape attitudes to the European Union. For many years I’ve visited a small Spanish village just below the snow-line in the Sierra Nevada. Opposite the gates of the cemetery is a rock wall with a faded, but visible, cluster of white painted crosses. Everyone knows which are the local Republican, Communist, and pro-Franco families. Despite EU-funded changes, a swimming pool, a new road, a reliable water supply, pick-up trucks instead of mules, historical memory is strong.
Even with O’ level Latin, diligent inspection of El Pais detects passion, honour, intransigence and vitriol at the heart of Spanish political speeches. Former Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s response to ETA’s goodbye swansong amounted to “we defeated you, stop talking rubbish, good riddance”. In the midst of the Catalan crisis not a single reconciliatory word came from the Spanish government, nor from King Felipe, wagging his finger at the separatists.
Likewise Eastern Europe has its own particularities. It is easy to take the high ground on refugee questions, to pour moral opprobrium on the Hungarian, Czech, Polish – (and now the new Frankenstein populist Italian governments). It is merited. But some consideration needs to be given to their historical memories too. The experience of the foreigner, Ottoman, Russian, or Nazi, has been dismemberment, occupation, fear and resistance. A kind of survivor nationalist trauma has infected the bloodstream emerging in a xenophobic way in the circumstances of the 21st. century.
Historical memory blends imperceptibly into historical myth - and sometimes into historical amnesia. This is well illustrated in the UK. My guess would be that the majority of the British population can trace their ancestry during the last three hundred years to people born outside the UK. Immigration has been constitutive and positive for Britain, varying in intensity and place of origin from Huguenots to Irish Catholics sleeping rough on the Liverpool docks, from Windrush to Poles. Attitudes to immigration have changed. What remained consistent is intolerance and hostility prior to integration, followed by acceptance, except during the heyday of Empire when doors were open and welcome official. If you want to know the exact contemporary state of play look at Dame Louise Casey’s carefully researched review of integration published in December 2016.
But what singles Britain out from her European neighbours is not so much the 20 miles of sea from the coast to the Continent, crossed by generations of immigrants, but the failure of invaders to do the same. The UK has not been occupied since 1066. It does not share that profound European historical experience. Britain had its civil war before civil wars could literally destroy a country (Sherman had a good try in the Confederate South of the USA and consider those States political tradition).
Britain’s experience of surviving catastrophic defeat at Dunkirk, seven days in May 1940, became the source of a resonant national myth. Resonant because like all prevailing myths it contains a significant kernel of truth. In its own vision Britain became the plucky little island that single handed held out against the global menace of fascism while countries east and west of the Maginot line fell before the Nazi blitzkrieg. A national weakness for the posh, eccentric celebrity with a clear message and the gift of the gab developed along with a belief that with ball of string and amateur know-how, Britain can go it alone. This popular narrative was immensely reinforced by the clever work of the Ministry of Information during the Second World War. Ball-of-string Britain was fighting Hitler’s inhuman mechanised military juggernaut. David versus Goliath. Davis versus Barnier. In the words of Prime Minister John Major in 1993: “Fifty years on from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers”. A quarter of a century on and the green suburbs have yet to be conquered.
There may be Brexiteers who believe that BREXIT is necessary to destroy dependency on the Welfare State, create an economic crisis and forcibly generate, or restore, the innovative potential contained in our national myth. But it is the myth itself that drives the grey BREXIT vote: We didn’t let them in when they came with tanks and doodle-bugs so why should we let them in when they come in the back of lorries and on Eurostar? We can stand proudly alone and anyone who thinks different is a traitor.
Well, we were very lucky that Japan finally brought the USA into the war and that Hitler’s military misjudgment opened an eastern front and brought in Soviet military power on the allied side. The world has changed. Britain’s undoubted capacity for innovation and research needs the vast EU market and its skill-sets, the bright entrepreneurial immigrants, and the manual labour, to do well just as it has for the past fifty years. Nostalgia is a poor substitute for economic policy.
The European Union must also acknowledge reality. It is time to admit that the differences in political cultures, historical experience, economic stability and social cohesion of its 28 different states cannot be managed merely in terms of “margins of appreciation”, the official term for allowing a small amount of wriggle-room for each national culture while retaining the EU’s core, human rights, values. As the rise of popular and governmental anti-EU sentiment demonstrates, the differences now require something like a two-tier EU to be accommodated. Ironically this requires the innovative, empirical and pragmatic British tradition subverting the principled deductive ways of thinking in the EU Commission.
Short of a further shock to the system, the metastasis of populism into more EU member states for example, such a crise de conscience is most unlikely to happen. Both Britain and Europe are indeed in crisis. Meanwhile Mr. Putin is laughing along with his cyber-warriors.
Prime Minister Netanyahu,
It’s a shame you will never spend time in Iran. Isfahan is lovely; the Sheikh Loftollah Mosque and Nagsh-e-Jahan square exquisite. There used to be a McDonald’s style motorway café just outside Qom you might enjoy.
When you look north from Tehran you see the beautiful Alborz mountain range. On the other side you dip down to the Caspian Sea. Good skiing for the wealthy elite. Good courting for young people wanting to avoid the eyes of the Islamic puritan State. Sad to see couples spring apart when they spot you then laugh when they realise you are not Iranian. Don’t get me wrong, it is indeed a nasty and cruel regime, but with significant progressive countervailing forces that could still bring about change. A divided State that could go either way. Which way do you want it to go?
Iran, you may have noticed, has American troops across its border with Afghanistan, American access to airfields just across the border with Turkmenistan, nuclear Sunni Pakistan in the south-east, Russia with nuclear weapons in the north, Israel with nuclear weapons in the west. Have you ever wondered why they wanted the protection of a nuclear weapon?
But, of course, we learnt from you recently the existence of a nuclear weapons programme in Iran up until 2015. Big news. MOSSAD bagged a stack of old nuclear archives from a warehouse in Iran a little while ago, and there you were presenting on television your definitive case against Iran. What an amazing revelation! Before 2015, the Iranians were developing a bomb, not telling anyone, not talking about it, threatening further proliferation. How can you trust a State that behaves like that?
Just a minute though, isn’t that how Israel behaved when it developed its own nuclear weapons? And helped apartheid South Africa to do the same.
By the way, if the captured nuclear archives are such a deal-breaking revelation, why did Russia, China, France, UK, USA, Germany and the European Union (P5+1) spend so much time getting a closely monitored nuclear deal in 2015 (JCPOA) that halted uranium enrichment and development of a viable atomic bomb? What other reason did the P5 + 1 have for their long and tortuous negotiations than that Iran was creating the capacity for the development of a nuclear weapon. Come to that why are you clocking up air-miles trying to drum up support for the maverick American position of wrecking the agreement?
Iran is proudly nationalist and, amongst predominantly the less well off, devoutly Shi’a. It suffered terribly in the 1980-1988 war against Western-supported Iraq and, like Israel, has genuine defence concerns. Presumably MOSSAD has told you that that bullying Iran will strengthen the hardliners and Revolutionary Guards. And that the only alternative to the nuclear deal is, probably sooner rather than later, to risk a major military confrontation that could drag in super-powers.
Do you really want to take this risk? I know you are having a little bother with allegations of corruption and things are not looking too good for you. But I can’t believe you are doing all this just to divert Israeli public attention. As a former soldier you will not have a romantic picture of war. You will know that war with Iran will cost many Jewish lives as well as Iranian, many more than the Yom Kippur war you served in. As a father and grandfather I hope this weighs heavily on you.
I think our Prime Minister this afternoon will share some of your concerns about Iran’s role in the Middle East, but I hope you listen to her about JCPOA. Try talking to your enemies as well as your friends. There are more ways of influencing people than killing them. One is diplomacy. I recommend it.
A British Grandfather
It was early on a Saturday evening, 27th October 1962, and I was out in London with my future wife, going to the theatre. We wondered if we would be alive the next day, if any Londoners would be alive the next day. US warships were tracking Soviet submarines and blockading ships carrying missiles to Cuba. For the first – and only - time during the Cold War the US Strategic Air Command was on DEFCON 2, one level below full readiness for a first strike nuclear attack. This meant that at any one time almost 200 of the US 1,500 nuclear bombers were airborne.
Khrushchev and the Kennedy brothers’ willingness to face down their military establishments, and pure luck, got the world through the next 24 hours and into what Donald Trump in his coarse business language would call a deal. But would Trump have pulled it off? I doubt it very much.
Are there lessons to be drawn from the Cuban missile crisis as we approach a critical period in discussions with Kim Jong-un, led by a man who is trying to scrap an effective agreement with Iran that halts their development of nuclear weapons? Daniel Ellsberg’s insider account of just how near the world came to a nuclear holocaust in October 1962 in The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner paints a deeply disturbing picture.
The first lesson is the danger of ignorance. It is terrifying how little the potential belligerents knew about their opponents. On the American side, the Kennedys had no idea that the Soviets had already placed over 100 tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba to use against the invasion for which the US military chiefs were seeking a pretext. Nor did President Kennedy know that in the event of communications with Moscow being severed local Soviet commanders were authorised to fire their nuclear weapons. (Khruschev withdrew the authorisation on 22 October). Military estimates of Soviet troops in Cuba were wildly wrong: there were 42,000 Soviet troops on the island not the 7,000 assumed by the US.
On the Russian side, it later turned out, Khruschev had given strict orders to hold fire on all US reconnaissance flights. He had not imagined that under threat of imminent invasion, on 27 October, Castro would direct anti-aircraft fire on US reconnaissance planes nor that a Soviet commander would follow suit and shoot down a U-2 reconnaissance plane with a SAM. This, in turn, was seen in Washington as a major escalation and resulted in an ultimatum that any further attacks - which Khruschev now realised he could not control - would result immediately in US counter-attacks on all missile sites followed by the feared invasion of Cuba. The same would occur if, within 48 hours, the Soviets did not start removing the missiles.
The second lesson is the danger of poor internal and external communication. Within each belligerent state, communications between politicians, military and scientists, were persistently unreliable due to secrecy and systems failures. The US President and Defence Secretary were kept in the dark by scientists and the military about vital details of nuclear procedures. The public were never allowed to know to what degree Execute orders were delegated. There were multiple fingers on the nuclear button precisely because for a variety of reasons communications from above could fail. We can guess that similar conditions prevailed within the secretive Soviet State.
The communications failure that could have resulted in Doomsday took place at 5pm on the afternoon of 27 October. The night before, Defence Secretary McNamara and General Maxwell Taylor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, informed their Soviet counterparts that US vessels would use small explosive charges, hand-grenades rather than regular depth-charges, to indicate that a tracked Soviet submarine should surface. The message never got through to the submarine commanders.
Captain Valentin Griegorievich Savitsky, not far from Cuba in Caribbean waters and out of contact with Moscow, was commanding a B-29 hunter-killer submarine, intended for use in colder climates. Its ventilator system was broken and crew were passing out with heat with carbon dioxide levels well over safe limits. Hemmed in by US vessels, under stress, Savitsky interpreted a series of small explosions on the hull as the beginning of an attack. His deputy political officer agreed with his order to retaliate against the vessels of the US fleet. A nuclear torpedo which had the power of a Hiroshima blast was readied. Together Captain Savitsky supported by Ivan Maslennikov, the political officer aboard the submarine, had the authority to launch. But, by chance, an equally senior officer, Vasili Arkhipov, chief of staff of the brigade, was on board. Acting as second captain, he cited the lack of authorisation from Moscow to countermand the captain. They surfaced.
The danger of poor communications and ignorance in the 1960s persisted and persists. I have always found it odd that our survival during the Cold War and peace in Europe is attributed to the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. Subsequent detailed analysis of the Cuban missile crisis reveals the reality as a reckless gamble with the future of humanity. For many years no-one realised that the use of hydrogen fusion H-bombs in a general nuclear war, a thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, would create a nuclear Winter that would most likely starve all higher life on the planet to death. Secret calculations of the death toll from the explosions went as high as the low billions but the aftermath was spectacularly miscalculated. Despite satellite intelligence, such dangers persist today and will be aggravated by the possibilities of cyber-disruption of communications at critical moments.
At the last count, the 2017 UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has been signed by 122 member states, including the Holy See. It declared both possession and use of nuclear weapons immoral and illegal. Or as former President of Iran, Ayatollah Mohammad Khatami once said very forcefully to me at Lambeth Palace: “haram for both”. The USA, UK and France have dismissed the Treaty out of hand on the grounds that deterrence ensures global security and the treaty did not recognise reality.
In a speech to the new body in Rome for Promoting Integral Development, Pope Francis, by way of reply, described deterrence as providing “a false sense of security”. Nuclear weapons, he said “cannot constitute the basis for peaceful co-existence between members of the human family”. History, we can see from Ellsberg’s book, is on the Pope’s side. And on the side of CND who for years advocated unilateral implementation of this teaching. President Trump should apply this teaching, by reducing his own, vast, planet-destroying arsenal of nuclear weapons. Denuclearisation is not only an imperative for Iran and North Korea.
There are worse negotiating strategies.