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Letter of Last Resort

September 2, 2010

A good friend recently shared a Slate blog post she had come across, thinking I’d be interested. What an understatement!

In the post, acclaimed author/journalist Ron Rosenbaum describes a fascinating phenomenon, the “Last Resort Letter,” which is a real pen-and-ink letter written by the current British Prime minister, locked in a safe in a submarine loaded with ICBMs. Rosenbaum explains:

The decision? Whether or not to fire the sub’s missiles, capable of causing genocidal devastation in retaliation for an attack that would—should the safe and the letter need to be opened—have already visited nuclear destruction on Great Britain. The letter containing the prime minister’s posthumous decision (assuming he would have been vaporized by the initial attack on the homeland) is known as the Last Resort Letter.

After the break, I’ll describe this letter in more detail, and also why I think it may provide a captivating introduction to my thesis:

More than anything, Rosenbaum’s tone in first describing the letter captured my attention. He calls it

a literally apocalyptic missive secreted in a safe within a safe, deep beneath the surface of the ocean, a Letter of Last Resort containing the orders for—or against—Armageddon.

As Rosenbaum’s tone makes clear, this letter is suffused with drama of magnificent scope, potentially controlling the destiny of the lives of millions of people. The apocalyptic drama is only amplified by what Rosenbaum describes as the “old-fashioned, pen-and-ink-on-paper quality of it all (quill pen, perhaps?).” This is further clarified by an article Rosenbaum quotes, which had initially publicized the Letter:

Would [Gordon Brown], in the event of a surprise nuclear attack in which he was killed before he could react, want Britain’s last line of defence – a lone Trident submarine on patrol somewhere under the Atlantic – to retaliate?

Brown wrote his answer to that question four times, in long-hand, in the form of letters addressed to the Royal Navy submarine commanders who, we must all hope, will never be required to read one of them.

We are presented with an incongruous image: state-of-the-art, devastating nuclear technology capable of wreaking devastation is controlled–we might say ‘safeguarded’–by a flimsy piece of paper. Indeed, the word ‘safe’ is especially relevant here. Not only is the letter literally stored in a physical safe, but we are protected from its troubling contents. Rosenbaum proposes that this “allows us to believe that certain truths do exist: They’re just forever locked away from our grasp. A thought both comforting and disturbing.”

Rosenbaum speaks of “certain truths,” but I would argue that the Letter of Last Resort is precisely so compelling because it represents everything that is real about the nuclear condition–that there is, in fact, no ‘reality’ of a nuclear apocalypse outside of texts like the Letter. Indeed, by creating a document upon which the future of mankind potentially hinges, the Prime Minister confirms the textuality of the nuclear apocalypse. If this catastrophe were to be made real, and millions were to be killed in unadulterated nuclear warfare, it would already be too late; we must rely instead on texts to comprehend–and in this case, proleptically resolve–this future dilemma.

I particularly enjoyed Rosenbaum’s contextualization of the letter within British literary history:

As far as I know, no other nation has configured the nuclear retaliation decision in a manner so intimate, so personal. (Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising: England was, after all, the birthplace of the epistolary novel; should not its last expiring act be sealed in a handwritten letter?)


Indeed the Letter of Last Resort foregrounds, personalizes—endows with novelistic suspense—the apocalyptic decision that is rarely, especially in recent years, thought of.

By positioning the Letter of Last Resort within a literary and textual tradition, he underscores its narrative appeal and performativity. The letter responds to a problem of unparalleled scope and blank horror in a way that is personal, particularizing, and palpable. It may be impossible to fully grasp the possibility that the world will cease to exist, but we can mentally grasp the riveting allure of a handwritten letter that could decide it all. The letter’s reliance on “novelistic suspense,” therefore, displaces the possibility of a nuclear apocalypse. Our apocalyptic thoughts are channeled through something that is real and Now, because we can’t fully grasp what the End might mean.

But Rosenbaum’s ultimate goal in the blog post is to question the morality and practicality of such a letter within the context of what he calls the “insanity of Mutually Assured Destruction.” Though this is a worthy goal, it causes him to lose sight, I think, of how nuclear textuality is enacted:

(The fact that British defense officialdom allowed the reporters to know about the Last Resort Letter suggests that they’re proud of this system, evidence that a kind of group madness grips Her Majesty’s Royal Navy.)


And it seems stunningly foolish, counterproductive, indeed self-destructive for the Royal Navy to reveal that the United Kingdom’s last line of deterrence, its ultimate safeguard against nuclear attack—the certainty of retaliation—is not certain at all.

Rosenblum argues that by opening up and publicizing the possibility that Britain’s posthumous response may be to do nothing, the letter undermines its own existence; essentially, the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction crumbles if it is not “assured.” I would counter with the idea that the letter is only powerful if we know about it. Surely, in the limit-case that Britain is completely eviscerated, the letter would have power. But, as Rosenblum himself points out, there is no guarantee that the letter would be followed. What I think is more powerful is the idea that there is a letter locked away in a submarine loaded with missiles. The fact that the decision is made, yet out of our reach, resonates with a fatalist eschatological view that apocalypse is either going to happen or it won’t. What the letter really does now is to get us to think about the paradoxes of the nuclear condition, while helping us realize that the scope of our actions in the face of catastrophe are actually quite limited.

Finally, the irony that the instructions to (potentially) destruct the world are locked in a safe is not lost on me, nor has it been lost on others. In this clip I made of Dr. Strangelove, the characters receive much the same message, with the same dilemma, as the commander of the British submarine who is holding the Letter of Last Resort:

Though I didn’t notice the paradoxical implications of the word ‘safe’ on my first viewing, I couldn’t help but be reminded after reading Rosenbaum’s blog post. Much like the Letter of Last Resort, Kubrick’s “attack profile” is a text that is granted an ultimate agency, locked away in a safe. In this clip, I’m interested in how the bombers transition from various kinds of texts in their boredom–novels and even ‘Playboy’–to a much more apocalyptic text that ultimately spells doom for the planet. And though they have been waiting for that encoded message to come, they are speechless and confused when it does. I can’t help but imagine that the scene would go down much the same way on the British submarine holding the Letter.

After thinking about the Letter of Last Resort and its implications, I am inspired to include it in my thesis. If I were to describe the Letter–perhaps by borrowing from Rosenblum’s language and tone–it could make for an excellent, gripping introduction. By highlighting the apparent clashes of textuality and warfare, conditionality and reality, I could underscore the paradoxes of the nuclear condition and show that many of the concepts I will discuss are enacted by a submarine that is, at this very moment, patrolling the ocean’s depths.

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