Earl Mountbatten's important speech
On the occasion of the presentation of the Louis Weiss Foundation Peace Prize to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Earl Mountbatten made the following speech, at Strasbourg on 11th May 1979.
Do the frightening facts about the arms race, which show that we are rushing headlong towards a precipice, make any of those responsible for this disastrous course pull themselves together and reach for the brakes? The answer is “no” and I only wish that I could be the bearer of glad tidings that there has been a change of attitude and we are beginning to see a steady rate of disarmament. Alas, that is not the case.
I am deeply saddened when I reflect on how little has been achieved in spite of all the talk there has been particularly about nuclear disarmament. There have been numerous international conferences and negotiations on the subject and we have all nursed dreams of a world at peace but to no avail. Since the end of the Second World War 34 years ago, we have had war after war. There is still armed conflict going on in several parts of the world. We live in an age of extreme peril because every war today carries the danger that it could spread and involve the super powers.
And here lies the greatest danger of all. A military confrontation between the nuclear powers could entail the horrifying risk of nuclear warfare. The Western powers and the USSR started by producing and stockpiling nuclear weapons as a deterrent to general war. The idea seemed simple enough. Because of the enormous amount of destruction that could be wreaked by a single nuclear explosion, the idea was that both sides in what we still see as an East-West conflict would be deterred from taking any aggressive action which might endanger the vital interests of the other.
It was not long, however, before smaller nuclear weapons of various designs were produced and deployed for use in what was assumed to be a tactical or theatre war. The belief was that were hostilities ever to break out in Western Europe, such weapons could be used in field warfare without triggering an-all out nuclear exchange leading to final holocaust.
I have never found this idea credible. I have never been able to accept the reasons for the belief that any class of nuclear weapons can be categorised in terms of their tactical or strategic purposes.
Next month I enter my eightieth year. I am one of the few survivors of the First World War who rose to high command in the Second, and I know how impossible it is to pursue military operations in accordance with fixed plans and agreements. In warfare the unexpected is the rule and no one can anticipate what an opponents reaction will be to the unexpected.
As a sailor I saw enough death and destruction at sea, but I also had the opportunity of seeing the absolute destruction of the war zone of the western front in the First World War, where those who fought in the trenches had an average expectation of life of only a few weeks.
Then in 1943 I became Supreme Allied Commander in South East Asia, and I saw death and destruction on an even greater scale. But that was all conventional warfare and, horrible as it was, we all felt we had a “fighting chance” of survival. In the event of a nuclear war there will be no chance, there will be no survivors – all will be obliterated.
I am not asserting this without having deeply thought about the matter. When I was Chief of the British Defence Staff I made my views known. I have heard the arguments against this view but I have never found them convincing. So I repeat in all sincerity as a military man I can see no use for any nuclear weapons which would not end in escalation, with consequences that no one can conceive.
And nuclear devastation is not science fiction – it is a matter of fact. Thirty – four years ago there was the terrifying experience of two atomic bombs that effaced the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki off the map. In describing the nightmare a Japanese journalist wrote as follows:
“Suddenly a glaring whitish, pinkish light appeared in the sky accompanied by an unnatural tremor which was followed almost immediately by a wave of suffocating heat and a wind which swept away everything in its path. Within a few seconds the thousands of people in the streets in the centre of the town were scorched by a wave of searing heat. Many were killed instantly, others lay writhing on the ground screaming in agony from the intolerable pain of their burns. Everything standing upright in the way of the blast – walls, houses, factories and other buildings, were annihilated… Hiroshima had ceased to exist.”
But that is not the end of the story. We remember the tens of thousands who were killed instantly or worse still those who suffered a slow painful death from the effect of the burns – we forget that many are still dying horribly from the delayed effects of radiation. To this knowledge must be added the fact that we now have missiles a thousand times as dreadful; I repeat, a thousand times as terrible.
One of the two nuclear strikes on this great city of Strasbourg with what today would be regarded as relatively low yield weapons would utterly destroy all that we see around us and immediately kill probably half its population. Imagine what the picture would be if larger nuclear strikes were to be levelled against not just Strasbourg but ten other cities in, say, a 200 mile radius. Or even worse, imagine what the picture would be if there was an unrestrained exchange of nuclear weapons – and this is the most appalling risk of all since, as I have already said, I cannot imagine a situation in which nuclear weapons would be used as a battlefield weapons without the conflagration spreading.
Could we not take steps to make sure that these things never come about? A new war can hardly fail to involve the all – out use of nuclear weapons. Such a war would not drag on for years, It could all be over in a matter of days.
And when it is all over what will the world be like? Our fine great buildings, our homes will exist no more. The thousands of years it took to develop our civilisation will have been in vain. Our works of art will be lost. Radio, television, newspapers will disappear. There will be no means of transport. There will be no hospitals. No help can be expected for the few mutilated survivors in any town to be sent from a neighbouring town – there will be no neighbouring towns left, no neighbours, there will be no help, there will be no hope.
How can we just stand by and do nothing to prevent the destruction of our world? Einstein, whose centenary we celebrate this year, was asked to prophecy what weapons could be used in the Third World War. I am told he replied to the following effect:
“On the assumption that a Third World War must escalate to nuclear destruction, I can tell you what the Fourth World War will be fought with – bows and arrows.”
The facts about the global nuclear arms race are well known and as I have already said SIPRI has played its part in disseminating authoritative material on world armaments and the need for international efforts to reduce them. But how do we set about achieving practical measures of nuclear arms control and disarmament?
To begin with we are most likely to preserve the peace if there is a military balance of strength between East and West. The real need is for both sides to replace the attempts to maintain a balance through ever – increasing and more costly nuclear armaments by a balance based on mutual restraint. Better still, by reduction of nuclear armaments I believe it should be possible to achieve greater security at a lower level of military confrontation.
I regret enormously the delays which the Americans and Russians have experienced in reaching a SALT II agreement for the limitation of even one major class of nuclear weapons with which it deals. I regret even more the fact that opposition to reaching any agreement which will bring about a restraint in the production and deployment of nuclear weapons is becoming so powerful in the United States. What can their motives be?
As a military man who has given half a century of active service I say in all sincerity that the nuclear arms race has no military purpose. Their existence only adds to our perils because of the illusions which they have generated.
There are powerful voices around the world who still give credence to the old Roman precept – if you desire peace, prepare for war. This is absolute nuclear nonsense and I repeat – it is a disastrous misconception to believe that by increasing the total uncertainty one increases ones own certainty.
This year we have already seen the beginnings of a miracle. Through the courageous determination of Presidents Carter and Sadat and Prime Minister Begin we have seen the first real move towards what we all hope will be a lasting peace between Egypt and Israel. Their journey has only just begun and the path they have chosen will be long and fraught with disappointments and obstacles. But these bold leaders have realised the alternative and have faced up to their duty in a way which those of us who hunger for the peace of the world applaud.
Is it possible that this will lead to the start of yet another even more vital miracle and someone somewhere will take that first step along the stony road which will lead us to an effective form of nuclear arms limitation, including the banning of Tactical Nuclear Weapons?
After all, it is true that science offers us almost unlimited opportunities but it is up to us, the people, to make the moral and philosophical choice and since the threat to humanity is the work of human beings, it is up to man to save himself from himself.
The world now stands on the brink of final abyss. Let us all resolve to take all possible practical steps to ensure that we do not, through our own folly, go over the edge.
Shortly after making this speech and possibly before leading the national Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament demo, Lord Mount Batten of Burma was blown up and killed.
In retrospect my guess is that neither Prim Minster Mrs Thatcher or President Reagan new how to put a brake on the military industrial complex. Indeed policy had changed under President Carter's administration to overtly planning and deployment for nuclear war in Europe. That CND perhaps did not know it but Governments were appeasing the military with above inflation budget increases but also trying to head the Military Industrial Complex into more profitable Star Wars "peace shield" rather than actual war.
I also don't know if the big secret was that the missiles were never armed but that would explain a conspiracy of support for nuclear war and that being dead was better then being red?
In anticipation of USSR finally would collapse, the "west" turned more red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalist. Meanwhile the USSR became open and freer under perestroika and glasnosts for a while.
Updated Andrew Lohmann, March 2020,