Armageddon's Choices

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Ron Rosenbaum, on 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.

Rosenbaum's piece reminded me of a striking passage from William F. Buckley's posthumous The Reagan I Knew, which I've been reading for a forthcoming essay. Buckley is describing the speech he gave at National Review's 30th anniversary dinner, with Reagan in attendance:

Dwelling on it years later, I was prompted finally to explore what I said and its larger meaning. My purpose here is philosophical and historical. I had acted for many years, indeed most of the world had done so, on a premise which I celebrated that night as the primary agent for United States independence from the Soviet threat. We were safe (I said) because Reagan was Reagan, meaning, in this instance, a non-ambiguist on the critical question of deterrence. What I said in as many words, dressed for the party, was that Reagan would, if he had to, pull the nuclear trigger.

Twenty years after saying that, in the most exalted circumstances, in the presence of the man I was talking about, I changed my mind. Whether that change will in any way influence policy in the years ahead can't be said. But you may agree on the importance, to this author, at any rate, of the revised thinking. Mr. Reagan is not here to tell us - and I doubt that he told anyone his circle - that the critical moment having arrived, he would in fact not have deployed our great bombs, never mind what the Soviet Union had done.

"Why?" I heard Henry Kissinger say one night when the conundrum was discussed. "After all, what's the use?"
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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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