Yesterday Donald Trump announced plans to withdraw the US from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). This is a dangerous and destabilising move with the potential to take us back to the worst days of the Cold War. It unleashes the possibility, not only of a spiralling nuclear arms race, but of greater numbers of US nuclear weapons coming to Europe. At a time when President Trump’s recent new Nuclear Posture Review commits to ‘usable’ nuclear weapons, and his Defence Strategy ramps up the conflict with Russia and China, this is not good news.
The reality is that the last time these missiles came to Europe, they were designed for the US’s nuclear war to be fought in Europe. Nothing I have heard so far in the ongoing debate over US withdrawal leads me to think that the situation will be different now.
Signed by Reagan and Gorbachev in 1987, the INF treaty banned ground-launched nuclear missiles with ranges from 500km to 5,500km and led to nearly 2,700 short- and medium-range missiles being eliminated. It meant cruise missiles were removed from Britain and Pershing, cruise and SS-20 missiles from continental Europe. Tearing up the INF Treaty will mark the end of those restraints on nuclear arsenals achieved in the 1980s. It will open the way for the return of cruise-type missiles to Europe – and the increased potential for nuclear war on our continent.
In the 1980s, the deployment of cruise and Pershing marked a massive escalation of the arms race because they greatly reduced the time it took to hit Soviet cities such as Moscow from bases in western Europe, without any equivalent siting of state-of-the-art missiles closer to the population centres of the US. The siting of Soviet SS-20s was used as a justification for the siting of cruise and Pershing, but they did not have the capacity to strike the US. It was for the Soviets exactly the kind of threat that the US had argued it faced from Soviet missiles if they were based in Cuba.
Since the Cuban Missile Crisis, it had generally been assumed that the ability of the US and Soviet Union to annihilate each other many times over meant that no government would be mad enough to actually start a nuclear war. The prospect of ‘mutual assured destruction’ was believed to mean that deterrence worked and that meant, coupled with détente and arms-limitation talks, that popular fear of nuclear war had receded. Cruise and Pershing missiles changed all that.
The real significance of the new missiles was that they made feasible the prospect of ‘limited nuclear war’ confined to the European theatre. In fact this was made absolutely clear in a government publication at the time. Using the same argumentation that Trump uses to back the development of ‘usable’ nukes, it suggested that faced with the choice of surrender or all-out nuclear war:
‘Having smaller medium-range nuclear weapons could give us another choice in those circumstances – allowing us to bring home to the Russians the appalling risks they would run if they pressed us further. The aim of using them would be to persuade the Russian leadership – even at the eleventh hour – to draw back.’
In other words, cruise was to be used within Europe to avoid the superpowers attacking each other with long-range missiles! This idea of ‘limiting’ nuclear war to Europe provoked horror in the countries where it would take place.
We understood that in the 1980s and we mobilised against it. The INF Treaty was in large part a result of massive international protest against nuclear escalation in the 1980s, including CND protests against cruise missiles which mobilised hundreds of thousands of people. The iconic Greenham peace camp was part of that wave of protest. As a result of the protests and the Treaty, cruise was removed from Britain and across Europe, and Greenham was returned to common land.
Our government’s unforgivable support for Trump’s action cannot go unchallenged. We cannot accept these missiles back in Britain, to put us on the front line in Trump’s nuclear wars. Today we must stand resolutely against this return to the nuclear escalation of the Cold War and CND calls on all peoples once again to reject these moves.
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 Government publication, Cruise Missiles: A vital part of the West’s Life Insurance, undated.