Via Ross Douthat, I ran into this Slate article about the Letter of Last Resort:
At this very moment, miles beneath the surface of the ocean, there is a British nuclear submarine carrying powerful ICBMs (nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles). In the control room of the sub, the Daily Mail reports, “there is a safe attached to a control room floor. Inside that, there is an inner safe. And inside that sits a letter. It is addressed to the submarine commander and it is from the Prime Minister. In that letter, Gordon Brown conveys the most awesome decision of his political career … and none of us is ever likely to know what he decided.”
The decision? Whether or not to fire the sub’s missiles, capable of causing genocidal devastation in retaliation for an attack that would—should the safe and the letter need to be opened—have already visited nuclear destruction on Great Britain. The letter containing the prime minister’s posthumous decision (assuming he would have been vaporized by the initial attack on the homeland) is known as the Last Resort Letter….
According to the reporters for BBC Radio 4, the safe containing the safe containing the Letter of Last Resort is to be opened only in the event of a nuclear attack on Britain that kills both Prime Minister Gordon Brown and a second, not identified person—the person he’s designated as his alternate nuclear decision-maker in case of his death.
Slate author Ron Rosenbaum’s reaction to this situation is not positive:
With all due respect to our British cousins, this seems, well, insane. Or it highlights the fact that the insanity of Mutually Assured Destruction—insanity that was obtained during the Cold War and that we thought we’d left behind—still exists as real policy, however deeply problematic it remains in this and many other respects. (The fact that British defense officialdom allowed the reporters to know about the Last Resort Letter suggests that they’re proud of this system, evidence that a kind of group madness grips Her Majesty’s Royal Navy.)
The old-fashioned, pen-and-ink-on-paper quality of it all (quill pen, perhaps?) somehow makes the system seem like it emanated from a 19th-century madhouse out of Wilkie Collins. Which makes it even more profoundly shocking that the system is still in place.
Perhaps it all has to do with how one deals with the idea of worldly authority and with one’s approach towards human history, but I don’t at all share Rosenbaum’s hysterical reaction. That within the first weeks in office a PM is called on to set aside the jubilation of party dominance and plans for consolidating new-won power and sober himself to write by hand five copies of a letter to the end of the world (or at least, his world) strikes me has having a certain tragic grandeur, and providing a valuable reminder of the incredible temporal responsibilities that rest on our modern world leaders.
I suspect that the US approach to these things is less evocative, but frankly I’d be encouraged to know that our president elect would be pulled away from the cheering crowds for a few hours during his first weeks in office and told to think a little bit more soberly than the “Yes we can!” Bob-the-Builder slogan which swept him into office while penning a letter that would shape a world in which the US no longer existed.