ASPECTS OF HISTORY ARTICLE (June issue)
Wed 30th Jun 2021
1953 - The Year of Living Dangerously
By Roger Hermiston
In the Cold War’s 44-year-old history (if one accepts the general view that it started in 1947 and ended with the dissolution of the Soviet empire in 1991), certain years have acquired special resonance, appearing to shape the uneasy East/West conflict more distinctly than the rest.
Take 1948, when world tension rocketed sky high as Stalin’s blockade of the western sectors in Berlin began to bite. Or 1950, when the Korean War pitted America against the Soviet Union and China in a dangerous proxy war. Or 1956, when the Hungarian uprising was ruthlessly crushed and Britain blundered into the Suez Crisis. Then there’s 1968, the ‘Year of Revolution’, with student protests around the globe and the disaster of the war in Vietnam being exposed nightly on American TV.
Extend this parlor game to choose the ‘most dangerous’ year in the Cold War and no-one would be surprised if you plumped for 1962, when the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Or 1983, when a highly realistic NATO war game, training for nuclear conflict (codenamed Able Archer), was at one point misinterpreted by the Russians as being the real thing.
Few would think to add 1953 to either list. It has generally been viewed as merely another dull, monochrome post-war year for the ravaged European continent, enlivened only in Britain by the coronation of Elizabeth II, the ascent of Everest by Hillary and Tensing, the Stanley Matthews FA Cup Final, and England regaining cricket’s Ashes from Australia after a 20-year absence.
But the ageing prime minister Winston Churchill, who had been elected for a second term in late 1951, worried about what lay ahead in 1953 – especially after his old wartime colleague Dwight Eisenhower, soldier turned reluctant politician, was elected the first Republican President in twenty years. ‘For your private ear I am greatly disturbed’, he told his secretary and confidante Jock Colville. ‘I think this makes war much more probable’.
Certainly the pace of the nuclear arms race had become frenetic by 1953. In late 1952 Britain had joined the atomic club, successfully testing her own weapon of mass destruction on board a frigate on the Monte Bello islands off the coast of Australia. A few weeks later, on 1 November, America moved from the kiloton into the megaton era when she exploded the first-ever thermonuclear device codenamed ‘Mike’, the prototype of a hydrogen bomb, out in the Central Pacific Ocean.
The Soviet Union responded in kind. On 12 August 1953, at the Semipalatinsk Test Site, on the steppe in north-east Kazakhstan, she successfully exploded her first thermonuclear device, named ‘Joe-4’ after the late dictator. Although its yield of 400 kilotons was significantly less than America’s device (but still thirty times the power of the Hiroshima A-bomb), the Russians argued that their weapon – unlike the clunky ‘Mike’ - was ready for immediate use as it could be delivered by a bomber.
The arrival of ‘Joe-4’ was enough for the editor of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Eugene Rabinowitch, to move the hands of the ‘Doomsday Clock’ to two minutes to midnight. The clock was the crude guide the Bulletin had devised for the public’s benefit to assess the up-to-date danger of nuclear annihilation. Midnight would be Armageddon, when the world was obliterated after a nuclear conflict between the superpowers.
This was the closest the clock had been to midnight in its six-year history *. The Soviet thermonuclear explosion meant, Rabinowitch asserted, that ’the continued existence of the urban, technological Western civilization will soon hang in a precarious balance, resting almost entirely on a highly irrational and unreliable fear’.
A few weeks before ‘Joe-4’ exploded an uneasy truce had finally been agreed in the Korean War, with the hope – if not necessarily the expectation – that a proper peace agreement might be thrashed out in Geneva early in 1954.
Between February and June 1953 Eisenhower’s National Security Council (NSC) debated seven times whether to drop tactical atomic bombs on their North Korean – and Chinese – enemy. The President’s hawkish Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had squarely confronted the moral inhibitions of using this terrifying new weapon of mass destruction, and was determined to break down the ‘false distinction’ between conventional and nuclear weapons in time of war.
By May, with no end still in sight in Korea, Eisenhower had been convinced by Dulles that ‘we have got to consider the atomic bomb as simply just another weapon in our arsenal’. Now he was assessing the financial benefit of using the ultimate weapon. ‘It might be cheaper, dollar-wise’, he told the NSC, ‘to use atomic weapons in Korea than to continue to use conventional weapons against the dugouts which honeycombed the hills along which the enemy forces were presently deployed’.
Even after the armistice at the end of July, Eisenhower and his generals worried that the Chinese or the North Koreans would break it. The President’s new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Arthur Radford, demanded to know whether he could count on the use of A-bombs if war broke out again. Although he constantly fretted about it, Eisenhower once again told the NSC in October that ‘we should use the bomb in Korea if the aggression is renewed’.
Throughout 1953 America, although now in possession of the H-bomb, continued to carry out tests to improve the capability of her A-bomb stock. Most of these took place in the wide expanse of the Nevada desert, and extraordinarily, in March, one early morning test was broadcast live, observed by millions of Americans sipping their coffee in front of televisions or listening while huddled around their radio sets.
They watched as a 16-kiloton atomic device, given the comforting name of ‘Annie’, tore to shreds a make-believe neighborhood named ‘Doom Town’, constructed along the lines of a traditional American suburb, with two-storey colonial-style wood-framed homes at its heart, occupied by ‘families’ – macabre men, women, children and even baby mannequins, fashionably attired, cast as ordinary people frozen while engaged in typical activities as the bomb went off.
‘Annie’s’ live appearance was deemed necessary by the White House and the civil defence chiefs to dismiss from the minds of Americans that the bomb was just a vague, mysterious instrument of infinite disaster. People needed to grasp that it was a real and present danger to their way of life.
A Soviet A-bomb attack was one thing; the enemy within was another. The atmosphere of worry, even paranoia about Communism in America was very much present in 1953 and continuing to be stoked by the witchfinder-in-chief, Joe McCarthy.
McCarthy had found himself a new role in the fresh Congress of 1953 – that of chairman of a little-known body called the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. It had been a sedate committee in the past, but it did have wide discretionary authority and a full-time staff to boot.
So it granted McCarthy unlimited scope to investigate whatever and whoever he wanted. It would provide the perfect stage – and the committee’s hearings would often be on television, watched by millions – from which the senator from Wisconsin could root out supposed spies and traitors in American society.
His old enemy the US State Department, the Voice of America radio stations, and even the US Army would have to face his aggressive, often brutal investigations in 1953, which were often akin to Soviet show trials and featured flexibility with the facts which were the classic methods of the totalitarian regimes which he professed to despise.
In the corridors of Westminster and Whitehall fear of the Soviet threat also prevailed in 1953, if not quite at the level of America. The government allocated a huge £240 million on Operation Rotor, a badly needed modernization of the country’s early warning and detection system, for the day when Soviet Tu-4 bombers swooped over the Channel with their atomic payload on board.
Churchill also fretted that a nuclear weapon might be smuggled onto British soil concealed in a merchant ship from behind the Iron Curtain. There was also a fear that a bomb might be broken down into numerous parts – say fifty packages of equal weight – and brought into the country by different routes, some perhaps disguised as ordinary merchandise on ships, while others would come in as diplomatic freight through the Soviet embassy in London. This scenario would thirty years later form the plot of a bestselling thriller by Frederick Forsyth entitled The Fourth Protocol.
A top secret Whitehall body, given the ambiguous title of the Imports Research Committee, considered the prospect of this clandestine nuclear attack. Another committee, tasked with developing Britain’s own atomic weaponry, was so secret it wasn’t even designated a name; it went by the acronym NNC (standing for No Name Committee).
The Prime Minister worried too that the Soviets were out to bug him in Downing Street – just like they had successfully eavesdropped on the American embassy in Moscow. In March 1953 - egged on by MI5 - he even began to fear that his hearing aid in the Cabinet Room might be tapped.
The electronics company Multitone, run by father and son Joseph and Alexander Poliakoff, Jewish emigres who had fled Russia after the 1917 revolution, were suddenly under suspicion after years of loyal service to Churchill. At the insistence of MI5’s deputy director general Roger Hollis, they were eventually given their marching orders – with no evidence of any treachery on their part.
This was the climate of 1953 – fear of Communism, and the spectre of Soviet attack. But it was a pivotal year in which the world not only faced immediate serious threats, but was also storing up a legacy of problems for future generations.
In February Churchill sent a warship to remove a small group of ‘invading’ Argentinians and Chileans from Deception Island, one of the smaller Falklands territories. “Down with Britain’ and ‘The Malvinas are Argentine’ chanted crowds in Buenos Aires, as resentment at the colonial power festered.
In August in Iran an MI6/CIA orchestrated coup toppled the democratically-elected leader Mohammed Mossadegh. America had worried that the country would turn communist, while Britain wanted her oil back. ‘The English Job’, as Iranians dubbed it, would come back to haunt ‘The Great Satan’ (America) a quarter of a century later.
By the end of 1953 France, although backed heavily by American money, equipment, and military advisers, was struggling to hold onto its South-East Asian possession of Indo-China. The Battle of Dien Bien Phu was going badly for the French, with the astute and inspirational Vietminh leader Ho Chi Minh bolstered by bigger and better weaponry from Mao Tse Tung. America’s ‘long agony’ in Vietnam – as Indochina would shortly become – was about to begin.
Then there was Europe. Economic collaboration had already begun by 1953 with the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community. As the year progressed, efforts to develop a European Army (the European Defence Community) and to move towards political unification (with a European Political Community) continued.
Churchill’s attitude towards these moves towards European integration was put succinctly in his famous Commons speech of May 11. ‘It can be expressed by prepositions, by the preposition ‘with’ but not ‘of – we are with them, but not of them. We have our own Commonwealth and Empire’. A long national argument was just beginning.
So that was the year that was. The shadow of nuclear conflict, fear of communism within and without, leaders clinging on to their empires. 1953 was a fascinating year – and a year of living dangerously.
* In January 2018 the Doomsday Clock moved to two minutes to midnight for the first time since 1953, prompted by the war of words between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Today it is even closer at 100 seconds to midnight ( moved in January 2020), because of the twin threats of nuclear war and climate change.
* Roger Hermiston’s book, ‘Two Minutes to Midnight – 1953, the Year of Living Dangerously’ (Biteback), has just been published..