Ever since I can remember, the world has lived in fear of one side or another using nuclear weapons. At school in the 1950s, we had air-raid drills; hiding under desks, facing away from the windows. As if that would have made any difference, if a nuclear bomb had actually struck central London, some two miles from where I was concealed under my old desk, in a school built during the Victorian era. We had seen the result of the American attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and these new bombs were many times more powerful.
At the time, there were few countries capable of using such weapons. The Soviet Union was the presumed enemy during the Cold War, and Britain had been given the means to retaliate too, by America. The French had also tested atomic bombs in the Pacific, so it was safe to assume that only four countries had these bombs in their possession. We are now in 2018, and that list of countries has not grown significantly. As well as Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and Israel are all known to have the potential to launch nuclear weapons. And if you believe the propaganda by both sides, (I don’t) North Korea may well have a viable delivery system too.
Then there is the issue of ‘sharing’. That sounds very cosy, given what is being shared. The USA has ‘shared’ the option to launch nuclear weapons with Turkey, Belgium, Holland, Italy, and Germany. This basically consists of the USA siting weapons in those countries, then deciding whether or not to fire them. There are also countries that once had nuclear weapons, but apparently no longer have any; South Africa, Canada, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. One thing we can be sure of, there are a lot of nuclear bombs and missiles out there.
By using published figures, there are 14,900 nuclear missiles and bombs stored around the world. That’s more than enough to wipe out the human race, many times over. Probably enough to not only eradicate all life on Earth, but also to destroy the very fabric of the planet. When we read about the nuclear threat, it is generally in terms of a supposedly limited conflict. The US has hinted that it will use them against the DPRK, should their leader fire rockets at US bases, South Korea, or Japan. But the DPRK has a border with China, so involving the Chinese could not be avoided. India and Pakistan square up against each other all the time, and have been in conflict since 1947. But both sides know that using nuclear weapons would also be self-destructive, so have never launched any. For Israel to use them against their near-neighbours would also result in disaster for their own country, so they are almost certainly not going to launch any.
For almost sixty years, I have lived in the shadow of this Nuclear Threat. The Cold War, The Cuban Missile Crisis, and many other supposed ‘near misses’ over the decades. I have finally decided that nobody will use them. It doesn’t make economic sense, and money rules the world. I stopped living in fear of the Nuclear Threat, and concluded that it is just that. A threat.
Perhaps it is because I was brought up during the intensity of the Cold War, but I always fancied being a Spy. I wasn’t lucky enough to ever have a career where secrets could be exchanged, or where my position as a potential traitor could be exploited. I doubt that the Soviet government in 1970 wanted to know about gramophone records, and it is equally unlikely that Kosygin or Brezhnev wanted the lowdown on Ambulance Training, in 1980. By the time I actually had a job where I might have something of value to betray, in 2004, there was nobody left to offer a deal.
My idea of being a spy owes nothing to James Bond, and his imitators. Despite Ian Fleming’s own association with the Secret Services, this playboy fiction was just that. I preferred the grittier, raincoat-clad spies, or the pillars of the establishment, who surprised everybody with their defection, like Philby, Burgess, and Maclean. I never imagined myself as a spy hunter, like Harry Palmer in the novels of Len Deighton. I would have been the spy, passing secrets to the Soviet Bloc, pressurising weak civil servants; arranging honey traps, and delivering brown envelopes, containing compromising photographs. Perhaps I would have been dormant for years, apparently loyal and beyond reproach. Suddenly activated, I would wreak havoc in one mission, before fleeing to Leningrad, and obscurity in a tiny flat.
The paraphernalia of spying is attractive. Tiny cameras, microfilm, poisons, and occasional use of complex explosives. Add those to carrying a concealed handgun, after extensive covert training, and excitement would surely have been guaranteed. The constant fear of discovery, perhaps torture and imprisonment, a life lived without trust, and one eye over a shoulder. I can only imagine the adrenaline rush, and sense of being alive, that this must inspire. That life would also have to be abandoned in a moment. Every connection, the closest family, the lifelong friend; wife, children, lover, all gone in a heartbeat. To be so focused, so determined, and so committed, so as to be strong enough to do all this, that is a wonderful thing.
Of course, my examples naturally follow the traditional path of spying for the Russians, against The West. That is what I understood, and that would have been my spying career of choice. But it could apply just as well in any direction. The rules are pretty much the same, whatever presumed loyalty you are set on betraying. During time of war, it is all very different. Our own spies are seen as heroes, and those of the enemy are reviled, and executed without pity. Once the war is over, it takes on the sense of a surreal game, where points are scored, and a ‘some you win, some you lose’ attitude prevails. Some enemy spies are even given reluctant admiration, for their spying skills, or ability to escape detection. Their victims are ridiculed as buffoons and dupes, who were no good anyway.
If all else fails, you can opt to become a double agent. Then neither side ever really knows who you are spying for, and they feed you with reams of false information, until they begin to confuse themselves with their own complexities. If the outcome is good, you get to choose where you end up, and whatever side you settle on, sees you as a hero. Along the way, there is an element of foreign travel, reasonable expenses, and decent hotels. You gain language skills, even Knighthoods are not unknown, and you have influence far beyond your capabilities. Whichever side you end up on, you have a Civil Service pension, a reasonable standard of living in retirement, the odd medal, and the thanks of a grateful nation.
I always knew I should have gone to university.
It is interesting to consider what makes a person ‘choose sides’. Outside influences, parental input, peer pressure, all can be relevant. Then there is propaganda, appealing to the young and impressionable; as well as literature, historical precedent, and even the area where you are born and raised. Religion can be a factor, as well as race. In countries where such things still exist, tribal divisions can determine your choice, and in fiercely nationalist nations, loyalty to your country may be the path you take.
I have never really put my finger on what made me choose the side of The Left. It was certainly not anything to do with my parents. My father was a former soldier, a believer in Empire, and inherently racist. He voted Conservative, joined the Freemasons, and reviled all non-whites, as inferior to him. By contrast, my mother was a liberal person in ideas, and a member of the Labour Party for most of her life. I did not follow in any family footsteps, when I embraced the politics of the Extreme Left during my teens. It was certainly not peer pressure either. My school friends had no interest in politics, of any colour or persuasion, and considered it boring, and something that ‘other people’ did. We were never really subjected to any propaganda either, at least not from Communists, or other Leftist groups. Religion and race were not relevant in my decision, as neither were ever an issue when I was young.
So, how did a working-class teenager from South London decide that he would choose to support, often actively, what was very much ‘The Other Side’, in Cold-War Britain? When I think about it long enough, the answers do appear; they do not always seem strong enough to justify my later commitment, but they must have been, because it certainly existed.
During the late 1960’s, it seemed to many of us that the World was changing. All over the planet, revolutionary groups were emerging, resisting the governments backed by the Western Allies, of France, Britain, and America. Africa was in turmoil, with what seemed to be a new war every week. Former colonies, like Cyprus, Kenya, Angola, and many others, were rebelling against their European masters, and forming their own governments. Once they had done so, they would then normally fight internal wars, each side backed by one or other of the superpower factions. In the cities of America, black youngsters were fighting for their rights, and others were beginning to protest about the growing involvement in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. In Europe, demonstrators fought the police in Paris, West Germany, and even in London. They protested about almost everything and anything, making their voice heard, and telling the authorities that things had to change.
I actually believed that things were going to change. I wanted to be part of that change, and as far as I could see, it was only the Left that was going to do anything about it. I filled my head with reading, about the Russian Revolution, The Paris Commune, The Redshirts in Italy, and any other Communist groups that I could find out about. I joined the Young Communist League, and later transferred to the main party, but found that I had little in common with my intellectual ‘comrades’. They mainly followed the Trotskyist philosophy, and were notably anti-Soviet. I saw Russia as the bastion of world Communism, and the only hope of ever ending the Capitalist stranglehold on the West. I did not concern myself about the DDR, The Berlin Wall, the occupation of the Baltic States, or any Eastern Bloc countries. I accepted that the situation was far from ideal, but then there was Cuba, Yugoslavia, and other places where life under a Communist regime was far preferable to the alternative.
When you choose a side, you have to overlook those things that others point out as faults. Was life in China so much better under an emperor, and warlords? If so, then for who? Certainly not for most of the population, who lived life as little better than slaves. Russia under the Tzars was only a good place for the upper classes and the rich. Others just toiled relentlessly, exploited by landowners, the Church, and the Aristocracy. Once the Communists took control, education was provided, work and accommodation was guaranteed, and health care, and acceptable living standards introduced. These may have seemed basic from a Western point of view in the 1960’s, but only 40 years earlier, they were unknown in most countries that were now run by Communists. Of course there would be dissidents, and restriction of perceived ‘freedoms’. This was the price paid for a better life for all, instead of the few.
That was how I saw it then, and to some extent, still do. I was also captivated by the iconography of Communism. The heroic statues, the monolithic Art Deco architecture, the banners, badges, and flags. We did not have that here, at least not at the same level. There were no inspiring posters, or buildings adorned with 100 foot banners and red stars, lit at night. Of course my ‘side’ had its problems. Stalin was being discredited, China was isolationist, and the Berlin Wall was a visible sign of repression. Somehow, that all became attractive to me; the more it was criticised, the better I liked it. Being called a ‘Leftie’ in Britain, was a derogatory term, and being a ‘Commie’ was tantamount to treason. I lapped it up. If they wanted to think me a rebel, then that is what I would be. America, Germany, Britain, and many other nations, were all set against Communism, and prepared to fight it, if need be. That was all I needed to know, to make my choice permanent; if they were against it, then I would be for it.
Many years later, and I was no longer a party member. The new ‘Euro Commies’ were not to my taste. I had the chance to travel, and visited the Soviet Union, East Germany, and eventually, China.
It didn’t change my mind. I had picked my side, and I am still on it.