“Now for a few tense and terrible days the prospect was faced. People looked directly into the pit. There can be no doubt as to the result: thousands and perhaps millions began to wonder if there was not some slightly less heroic but substantially more pleasant alternative”. Recollection of the Cuban Missile Crisis by J K Galbraith, from The Age Of Uncertainty.
A BBC Question Time special yesterday evening featured - separately - Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, who were in turn subjected to a light grilling from a studio audience. While the Tory leader got questions about welfare cuts and lack of public sector wage increases, Jezza inevitably was confronted by those who considered his stance on nuclear weapons, confirming no first use, to be insufficiently bellicose.
What appears to have been forgotten in that more than half-century since the United States and the then USSR faced off over the latter deciding to station nuclear missiles in Cuba, very close to the US mainland, is what would result from the use of such weapons. Just to loose off one such device in anger would result in death and destruction on a scale unimaginable, the after-effects being with us for generations.
What also appears to have passed by all those - including, it seems, Theresa May - is that the destructive power of nuclear weaponry is now far in advance of the last ones to be used in anger, against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Those bombs wiped out entire cities, laid waste to swathes of land, spread death and disease whose effects were felt for decades afterwards.
But the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were puny in comparison with the firepower now in the hands of countries like Britain - and several others. The destructive power of modern nuclear weaponry would not merely lay waste to large cities, but to entire small-sized countries. The euphemistically titled “kill zones” would encompass not hundreds, but thousands of square kilometres, or miles for the imperial purist.
That is why British Governments from the 1950s to the present day - Ms May seemingly excepted - have predicated their holding of these weapons on there being no first use of them. The scale of destruction they would wreak is too terrible to imagine, the finality of their deployment too awful to contemplate, the likelihood of other countries being drawn into a yet more destructive nuclear exchange too much to even visualise.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, it was the generals who had previously advocated first strikes who were fortunately sidelined, in favour of those like JFK and his advisers who realised all too well the inevitable consequences of such actions. It is due to those men of restraint and common sense under pressure that we owe the pulling back from the brink.
And for those who still harbour dreams of that clean, decisive first strike, one more thought enters: there is no instance in history of nuclear weapons being deployed against an enemy capable of retaliating in kind. I’ll just leave that one there.