OxStu Investigates: What would you do in a nuclear war?


Four minutes. As the warning sirens begin to peal, that is the time left before a nuclear strike. A three-megaton nuclear warhead, aimed at RAF Brize Norton, is soon to detonate, wiping Witney, along with many other towns and villages away in a matter of moments. While you may take some small solace in the fact that Cambridge will go first, hit by a direct strike, the worst is yet to come. As the bomb detonates, a blinding flash of light draws you to the window, before a shockwave shatters it, throwing you across the room. Suddenly a wave of heat hits you, searing your skin as second-degree burns set in. As you drag yourself back to what used to be a window, you see the mushroom cloud rise above the landscape, dispersing radioactive fallout like snow. Your radio, if it can find a signal through the charged atmosphere, begins to play a pre-recorded message. ‘This is the Wartime Broadcasting Service. This country has been attacked with nuclear weapons.’ These are the chilling words that would accompany the sound of, quite probably, the end of the world.

As the remains of the government are evacuated to bunkers, thoughts turn to how to run the country under martial law, and a military response. The Prime Minister is dead, as is the entire cabinet; the warning to evacuate coming too late to evacuate them from their weekly meeting in Downing Street. Meanwhile, out at sea, a nuclear-armed submarine loses contact with London. Searching through the frequencies, the tell-tale pips of Radio 4 are no longer available. Opening a safe, the Commander obtains a letter, containing the final order of Her Majesty’s Government, as it was.

This letter of last resort, written immediately after the Prime Minister entered office, contains one of four instructions. The Commander may be ordered to retaliate with nuclear weaponry, or not. Alternatively, they may instruct the commander to place themselves under the command of an allied nation, such as the USA or Australia, or leave it to the Submarine’s Commander to decide. While this scenario is entirely hypothetical, these events are similar to those that could’ve occurred throughout the Cold War. I presented these options to the students of Oxford. If you were the Prime Minister, which option would you have picked?

Retaliate with Nuclear Weapons

Retaliating with nuclear weaponry was the third most popular option, being picked by around 19% of respondents. Of those who chose to give a reason for their answer, the general impression given seems to be a belief in the nuclear doctrine of M.A.D (Mutually Assured Destruction), with one respondent asking what the point of nuclear weapons is, if not to be used. M.A.D describes the situation in which a pre-emptive, full-scale launch by one nation on another/others (‘funny business’ according to one respondent) would be met by an equivalent response from the target country/countries, leading to the total annihilation of both. This, in theory, is meant to prevent the use of nuclear weapons, as both sides would be too afraid of the consequences to ever use them in the first place, and therefore ensuring that both sides must continue to build better weapons to ensure that survival of the other is impossible. Those choosing this option appeared to have no ethical qualms about their use, as, according to one statement, ‘it’s a dog eat dog world out there’.

Do Not Retaliate

The majority of respondents (49%) to the survey chose this as their answer. In general, their responses fell into two categories. The first was to utilise game theory for a logical rejection of M.A.D. Firstly, it assumes that nations act as single, logical players. If a leader of a country doesn’t care for their own welfare, or that of their subjects, then they may launch nuclear weapons without warning, regardless of the power of their target, and the immense costs that would ensue. It also relies upon a series of assumptions that don’t always hold true. If a weapon was developed that couldn’t be tracked, then destruction could be achieved with minimal repercussions. Detection equipment can also malfunction, as seen through the actions of an unsung hero of the Cold War, Stanislav Petrov. Monitoring the early warning system, he observed a missile, being fired from the USA. He decided it was a computer error, not reporting it as he should have done, as under M.A.D, a large number of weapons would need to be fired at once. He did the same when four more were observed, and it was later found that Soviet Satellites were misinterpreting light reflecting off clouds in the upper atmosphere.

The other response was moral. Causing the deaths of many millions of people is something that would weigh heavy upon the consciences of many of us, and these students chose to take an ethical response. The future survival of the world is something else that occurred to this group of students. While a significant proportion still valued nuclear weaponry for the ability to deter attack in the first place, striking back at this point would only cause unnecessary destruction, though the option of a non-nuclear response was left open by many. As one put it, ‘I personally feel that the survival of humanity would be more important than the concept of nationality’, and others extended this to the environment as well. Finally, some would never have even approached this situation, either through having decommissioned nuclear weaponry on entering office, or through their belief in pacifism. This is the current position of Jeremy Corbyn, as was mentioned by one respondent when making their choice, though the Labour Party’s manifesto currently supports a nuclear deterrent.

Alternative Command

Putting the submarine under the command of another nation was the second most popular option, being preferred by 22%. This option may have been more popular, had I not included the USA as an example. With comments threatening ‘fire and fury like the world has never seen’, respondents did not want to give Donald Trump command of any more weapons for strikes on other countries. Of those who did pick this option, however, there was a clear focus on strategy, and continuing the war despite the destruction of the UK. It also allowed the threat of nuclear retaliation to continue, potentially contributing to the security or offensive power of another nation, with Australia, France and Canada suggested, to safeguard the lives of others.

Commander’s Judgement

Giving the choice to the Submarine’s Commander was the least popular option, with 10% choosing it, though this didn’t stop it being the source of many insightful comments. For some, the desire to see nuclear weapons ‘still under democratic command’ was key, with the possibility that the Commander could use the crew’s opinions to decide. Another factor was experience. The last Prime Minister to have served in the military was James Callaghan (Prime Minister from 1976-1979), and he would have pressed the button, though he stated that he “could never, never have forgiven [him]self”. Without this experience, and also being dead in this scenario, these respondents wanted the best decision to be made, given they could not react to the situation at hand. The importance of this was shown in the case of Vasili Arkhipov, raised by another respondent. He was a Flotilla Commander during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Approaching the US blockade of Cuba, he was aboard the Soviet B-59 Submarine in international waters when the USA dropped depth charges to try and get it to surface. Having been out of contact with Moscow for days, and assuming that war had begun, the Submarine’s Captain ordered its nuclear torpedo to be readied, and aimed at the USS Randolf, an aircraft carrier in the blockade. However, being Flotilla Commander, Arkhipov had to approve the launch. He persuaded the Captain that the fact that the charges weren’t targeted directly at them was a sign they were trying to get them to the surface, rather than an attack, and that further orders were needed to fire. As such, the world did not end on the 27th October 1962.

In all, the students of Oxford University have a diverse array of opinions, as I expect the country at large does too. However, the opinions gathered in this survey may be at odds with the rest of the UK, with a 2016 YouGov poll revealing that 59% of us would launch nuclear weapons in response to a pre-emptive nuclear strike by a foreign power. Of course, while the opinions of those in their poll may have changed in the last eighteen months, and our survey was much smaller, the results gathered by this investigation are still very relevant. With the high probability that an Oxford Student will be Prime Minister in the future, with half of all holders of the role having been educated here, their opinion could influence the very future of humanity should World War Three come to pass.