Giant monuments to mankind's paranoia

Cold War
March 4, 2005

The defeat of Germany and Japan in 1945 did not lead, as had been hoped, to a prolonged period of peace and harmony. It was followed almost immediately by the arm's-length, though potentially cataclysmic, confrontation of the Cold War, with America and its Allies on one side and the Soviet Union with its satellites and occupied countries on the other.

It began in 1946 and ended in 1989 with America having spent more than $5 trillion (£2.6 trillion) on nuclear arms and their delivery vehicles.

The Soviet Union's corresponding expenditure caused its economic collapse and dissolution.

Central to the Cold War was the arms race, at the height of which America and the Soviet Union had accumulated between them as many as 70,000 nuclear weapons. The firepower of these is equivalent to a million Hiroshima bombs or three tons of TNT for every man, woman and child on the surface of the Earth. Few people realise that a single H-bomb contains the equivalent of all the firepower expended by all sides in the Second World War, and that two H-bombs have the energy equivalent of the huge earthquake that triggered the Indian Ocean tsunami.

The nuclear arms race has an important legacy. None of the five "official" nuclear-weapons states - the US, Russia, China, the UK and France - has abandoned its nuclear weapons, and Israel, India and Pakistan have joined the nuclear "club". Where limited nuclear disarmament has taken place, the fissile material has usually been retained in stores - an attraction for terrorists who wish to purloin sufficient enriched uranium or plutonium to be able to manufacture their own weapon. Throughout the Cold War, Britain was one of America's staunchest allies, and many of our existing airfields were adapted for use by American bombers. This was important before the advent of intercontinental ballistic missiles because American aircraft and early rockets did not have the range to threaten western Russia from the US mainland. At a later stage, UK airfields were used as launching sites for Thor and cruise missiles. We were also an integral part of an international radar network capable of giving early warning of hostile planes or rockets approaching Western Europe or America. Associated with these activities, many buildings and structures were created and huge landing strips constructed, often on former Second World War airfields. The UK nuclear forces, essentially the "V" bombers, generated their own buildings, structures and radar stations, as did the Polaris submarines.

The question arises: should these buildings and structures be destroyed or allowed to decay, or should a selection of them be preserved because they are of historical interest? If the latter, it is first necessary to carry out a thorough survey of our Cold War sites and make a photographic record with associated plans and written descriptions of all the relevant buildings and structures. Such an inventory has been produced under the auspices of English Heritage by two intrepid experts, Wayne Cocroft and Roger Thomas, who have published their findings in this magnificent book, Cold War: Building for Nuclear Confrontation 1946-1989 . A feature of the book is the splendid illustrations: more than 300 photographs and numerous plans, maps and diagrams decorate the text. It is quite simply the most important book published in recent times in the general field of heritage studies.

The first two chapters serve as a historical survey of the major events of the Cold War. Indeed, the book is an excellent primer of the 40-odd years of the period. As the Truman Doctrine of containment evolved into Eisenhower's mutual assured destruction, the US bombers were moved from eastern UK airfields (Sculthorpe, Marham and Lakenheath) to more western airfields (Brize Norton, Fairford and Greenham Common), with associated changes to the buildings. Britain's own airborne deterrent was carried by the V-force - Valiants, Victors and Vulcans - which required massive investment in infrastructure in no less than ten airfields.

The intermediate range ballistic missile Thor was deployed at four British airfields from 1959, but little remains of its launch pads. By 1983, a significant building programme at Greenham Common produced the shelters for the first of 96 ground-launched cruise missiles. This became the most controversial nuclear site in the UK, and there have been suggestions that some form of memorial be constructed commemorating the Greenham women's peace camp.

Radar was the most effective method of detecting hostile aircraft and rockets, and the two chapters on this subject provide some of the book's most vivid photographic images, particularly the beautiful spherical radomes of the Fylingdales ballistic missile early-warning system. Another chapter traces the back-up research establishments and their buildings together and offers an account of where nuclear weapons were manufactured.

Relatively little attention was paid to the early stages of development of the atomic bomb, and it is rather worrying that Harwell has announced the demolition of 140 of its buildings and the decommissioning of Gleep, its pioneering graphite pile.

The final chapter takes an international perspective. It points out that the Trinity atom bomb test site in New Mexico was listed as a national historic landmark in 1975, and I recall that the Clinton graphite reactor at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, is now a national monument. In Hiroshima, one of the few survivors of the atomic bomb is the burnt-out shell of the domed Industrial Exhibition Hall, and it is now part of the city's Peace Park.

All these should be considered monuments to the Second World War rather than the Cold War, but this might be splitting hairs as nuclear weapons played such an important part in the Cold War.

In 1998, I was one of a small party of members of Pugwash, the peace organisation, invited to visit Sarov inRussia where Andrei Sakharov designed Russia's hydrogen bomb and the world's largest nuclear bomb, which had the firepower of a 100 million tons of TNT. A former colleague of Sakharov and other senior scientists showed us Sakharov's former home and conducted us around their museum of nuclear weapons. What was disturbing was the unqualified pride the scientists took in their achievements, as though creating a weapon that could kill a million people was in some way a virtuous accomplishment. This spirit is matched by the triumphant manner in which Enola Gay , the B-29 bomber that dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima, was first displayed at the Smithsonian Institution, and the jubilant temper of the National Atomic Museum in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

It may well be decided to retain some of the Cold War buildings and structures illustrated in this book. One can only hope that if this comes about the monuments will remind us not only of man's technological ingenuity, but also of his stupidity and paranoia, the evidence for which being the monstrous size of the nuclear arsenals.

Jack Harris is vice-chairman of British Pugwash. He spent 35 years working in Britain's civil nuclear power industry and is a fellow of the Royal Society.

Cold War: Building for Nuclear Confrontation 1946-1989

Author - Wayne D. Cocroft and Roger J. C. Thomas
Publisher - English Heritage
Pages - 281
Price - £24.99 and £14.99
ISBN - 1 873592 69 8 and 81 7

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