Strong opinions, weakly held

The Letter of Last Resort

Ron Rosenbaum in Slate:

In the case of the Letter of Last Resort, the reference turns out to be factual: 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.


  1. Unless someone’s made some amazing advances in submarine technology, that sub would not have a crew alive to read the letter if it were ‘miles below the surface.’

  2. Picky, picky.

    The reference in the article to everyone but Britain having “left MAD behind” after the Cold War ended strikes me as delusional. MAD still exists. 450 Minuteman III missiles sit in silos in the upper Midwest ready for launch. Tensions are much lower, but there is no question that the MAD doctrine is still in effect. The author seems to think it’s a quaint Cold War idea now outdated.

    The article suggests that the deterrent value of the British nuclear force is diminished by the letter because it introduces uncertainty about whether a retaliation attack would occur. Hmm. Dunno about that – who is willing to risk a 50/50 chance of the total destruction of all their major cities? And anyway, the letter only comes into effect if the Prime Minister and his designated second are dead – which even in the event of a massive nuclear attack on London is nowhere near certain, since early-warning systems would pick up ICBMs or bombers, although SLBMs would give much less warning time. But Russia is the only threat wih SLBMs, and they’re not suicidally deranged enough to launch an attack on Britain.

  3. I think MAD certainly remains the guiding principle when it comes to countries who aspire to have nuclear weapons. And clearly Russia and the US think it has some value or unilateral disarmament would be inevitable. A realistic nuclear deterrent is expensive to maintain.

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