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Offence or Defence

Emmett Sullivan considers how much the fear of M.A.D. not working influenced protest and culture in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s.

‘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.

The 1980s

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’


Able Archer

  • 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.

Further reading.

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.

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From World War to White Heat: the RAF in the Cold War

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