Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds EMMETT SULLIVAN: Now, by the time we reach the 1980s fears about a potential nuclear apocalypse became really quite commonplace in the media, in discussions of the general public, and in the news reporting we’re finding at the time. Now the RAF is still performing an important role of defending the country from aviation-based threats, but it’s becoming more apparent as the 1970s and into the 1980s move on, that although the bomber still has a place in delivering nuclear deterrents, ultimately we’re fearful of missile forces. And in the 1970s and 1980s there was effectively no defence against missile attack.
Skip to 1 minute and 2 seconds We do see the Soviets having that anti-ballistic missile forces around Moscow, and in the 1980s we have President Ronald Reagan’s attempt to develop a strategic defence initiative. But in the context of Britain and fears of Soviet strikes, certainly the deployment of new forms of missile technology on British soil caused the general public much concern, and the RAF had a role in defending Greenham Common and other American bases whereby these new nuclear capable missiles were stationed. In the public mind, the Pershing II and the cruise missiles we’re the ones that brought most concern. Now, over my shoulder is a type of Cruise missile.
Skip to 1 minute and 56 seconds This is the Boeing air launch cruise missile, and this particular piece of technology means that the missile flies like a subsonic aircraft. It flies low to the ground, it flies below radar cover, and has very accurate terrain following technology for the 1970s and the 1980s. So with those missiles being based in Britain, and them being perceived as a very real threat by the Soviet propaganda, it raised tensions in this country in the early part of the 1980s.
Skip to 2 minutes and 33 seconds Now, if you want an idea about how concerning the fears of nuclear apocalypse were becoming, your start seeing it in the hit parade, to use an old and rather hackneyed phrase, at the times when people actually bought singles for them to be in the singles charts. And you see between 1980 and 1984 a successive number of prominent hits, which have an anti-nuclear theme or are concerned about the prospects for nuclear war.
Skip to 3 minutes and 7 seconds So whether you start with Kate Bush’s “Breathing” and to go all the way through from 1980 to 1984, when Queen’s “Hammer to Fall” uses Cold War imagery in the way it portrays the song, there seems to be a concern that’s working through what is a fairly common day art form that there was a real danger that nuclear war could come through. And that’s, I think, an indication of how it became almost a commonplace, within Britain at the time, to be worried about that sort of issue. 1983 ends up being a peak year of tensions. After a couple of years of Ronald Reagan being an office, the rhetoric between the Soviet Union and America was quite tense. And you have Mrs.
Skip to 4 minutes and 5 seconds Thatcher making reasonably belligerent comments against the Soviet Union in a time that the Polaris fleet is eventually replaced by the Trident force. Now, in 1983 we see a number of tragic events. In Korea, the shooting down by the Soviets of an airliner, a Korean airliner 007. You have the screening in America of The Day After, a two hour docudrama which portrays what might happen to an American city if it was hit by nuclear strikes, and we have the Able Archer 1983 military exercise, which the Soviets misinterpreted as being actually the preparation for a eastward push by NATO forces.
Skip to 5 minutes and 3 seconds Now, thankfully, none of those manifested themselves in a substantial retaliation, or in terms of relieving the pressure on the politicians to do something about those tensions as they arose. It took a succession of Soviet leaders to die, from Brezhnev, Chernenko, Andropov, to a man that Mrs. Thatcher said that she could do business with, Mikhail Gorbachev, for those tensions to eventually be relieved. So we have, in 1986 and ‘87 with the Reykjavic discussions, and eventually the 1987 treaty, the Double Zero Option. So tensions start to reduce within Europe. The Double Zero Option is the removal of all medium range battlefield nuclear missiles from both the Soviet and American side.
Skip to 6 minutes and 4 seconds So some of the tensions that were prevalent and clear in the public mind in the early 1980s slowly disappear.
Offence or Defence
‘We don’t want to die’
This is a very short summary of some of the social and cultural features associated with the deployment of nuclear weapons – and particular nuclear warheads on American operated missile systems – in Britain during the 1980s.
Possibly 1983 was the nadir of that period in what some have called the ‘second Cold War’ (from 1975) –
- The downing of the Korean Air Lines Flight 007 by the Soviets for straying into Soviet controlled airspace;
- Soviet Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov deciding that the Americans would not start a nuclear pre-emptive strike with only five nuclear missile launches – he thankfully disobeyed his standing orders to launch is nuclear missiles ‘on warning’;
- ‘The Day After’ screened in America;
- Able Archer 1983 left the Soviets waiting for a NATO invasion of Eastern Europe in the hours afterward; and
- Nina’s ’99 Luftballons’ and Pink Floyd’s ‘Two Suns in the Sunset’ putting some of those general worries into song.
When Frankie Goes to Hollywood …
… released ‘Two Tribes’ in 1984 they also covered Edwin Starr’s 1970 hit ‘War’:
‘War, Huh Yeah
What is it Good For?
Absolutely Nothing, Oh Hoh, Oh’
With the success of the cover version, Edwin Starr tried to cash in with ‘Missiles’. This had the refrain
‘We Don’t Want To Die
Keep Those Missiles From the Sky’
Hence ‘We Don’t Want to Die’. ‘Missiles’ was not a hit. It would appear that it is not currently available on CD.
If we trace the continuing growth in public fear about the prospects of nuclear war, we can observe an upsurge around the 1980s. Public naivety was certainly not the case by the time we reach the 1980s, with discussions about nuclear weapons becoming common place throughout the media. Fears grew as it became clear that the threats from the Soviets were becoming more and more difficult to defend against. The bomber still has a place in the defence of Britain, but a limited one. There existed no effective defence against missile attack, and that was the now the common means of deploying a nuclear weapon.
Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative (nicknamed ‘Star Wars’)
- Reagan had been deeply opposed to the notion of MAD, and proposed a missile defence program that could protect against attack from a ballistic missile.
- It was an incredibly ambitious system, something which the technology of the day could not achieve
RAF Greenham Common
- The United States Airforce and later the Strategic Air Command had been a very imposing presence at Greenham Common, and it was feared by the public that they were, as such, especially susceptible to attack.
- The Women’s Peace Camp was established on the same site as the RAF base, and was active in protesting against nuclear weapons for 19 years. Their campaigns received attention globally from both the public and the media.
Pershing II missiles and Cruise missiles were at the cutting edge of technology available at the time, but their presence across Europe brought enormous concern. It appeared abundantly clear to the public that they would become the target of Soviet aggression if they were to attack, and the RAF’s responsibility of defending these weapons, tainted their service.
This had a vast impact on popular culture, and there are many notable examples of anti-nuclear weapon songs throughout the 1980s,
Kate Bush’s, ‘Breathing’, 1980, featured the lyrics:
> ‘We’ve lost our chance
We’re the first and the last
After the blast, chips of plutonium are twinkling in every lung’,
conveying the dangers of radioactive fallout.
Similarly, Queen’s ‘Hammer to Fall’, released in 1984, shows the awareness of the imminence of nuclear war:
‘What the hell we fighting for
Just surrender and it won’t hurt at all
You’ve just got time to say your prayers
While you’re waiting for the Hammer to Fall’.
Earlier in the song, Queen explore the general condition of growing up in the MAD/Cold War era:
‘For we who grew up tall and proud In the shadow of the Mushroom Cloud’
- Was an annual exercise carried out by the United States Military in Europe, to simulate command and control procedures should war break out.
- In 1983, the exercise was undertaken in such a realistic nature, the Soviet Union actually readied their arsenals for launch. Supposedly this was the closest we had come to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
The Reykjavík Summit, held in 1986, was a meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev, and whilst an apparent failure in the short-term, did pave the way for the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987. The ‘Zero Option’ involved the complete withdrawal of American and Soviet missiles of this type from European territory. Many of the tensions that had culminated throughout the 1980s finally began to fade.
The air-launched cruise missile I was standing in front of in the Milestones of Flight is Boeing AGM-86. The cruise missiles stationed in Britain in the 1980s were the Tomahawks, now manufactured by Raytheon. This was deployed in Britain in a ground launch version; and the Royal Navy also operates this missile. The BBC produced a short guide to cruise missiles in 2001.
© Royal Air Force Museum & Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, University of London