The ongoing conflict in Ukraine threatens to be the biggest risk to peace between the West and Russia since the end of the Cold War era.
In the late 1940s, Eastern European countries became satellites of the Soviet Union, including East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Romania. The United States and the West responded by creating NATO in 1949.
In 1961, the Soviets built the Berlin Wall, a symbol of the Cold War. During the 1950s through the late 1980s, the threat of nuclear war between the West and the Soviet Union hung over Europe and the rest of the world. The Cuban Missile Crisis of the 1960s was when many experts believe the world came closest to falling into nuclear conflict.
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The arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, and their respective allies during the Cold War, only increased geopolitical tensions and the fear of the general public. This would not end until 1991 when the power and influence of the Soviet Union waned and its communist regime imploded.
For anyone born in the last 30 years, it’s hard to truly understand the fears that surrounded people experiencing nuclear war even in the 1980s. There were public information broadcasts about what to do in the event of an attack; even children growing up in that decade were aware of the serious talk surrounding the possibility of nuclear war.
In Manchester, a relic from this Cold War era still exists as part of The Guardian Telephone Exchange. Also known as ‘Scheme 567’, it consists of a hidden network of tunnels and a bunker buried some 35 meters under the streets and buildings of Manchester.
In the 1980s, a US government Strategic Defense Initiative called the “Star Wars program” was proposed as a civil defense system by which enemy missiles could be intercepted before they reached their target. A television advertisement broadcast in the US at the time featured an animation made up of children’s drawings of nuclear missiles exploding against a protective rainbow that arched over a smiling family of sticks.
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However, the proposed defense system only served to increase tensions between the US and the Soviet Union. In Britain, members of the CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) held disruptive protests at British military bases.
The UK government also produced its own brochure aimed at the general public in May 1980 called ‘Protect and Survive’, which contained information on ‘how to make your home and family as safe as possible under nuclear attack’. Defense strategies were proposed for how the UK and its major cities might respond in the event of an attack.
A paper entitled ‘Target North West’ produced by the Richardson Institute for Peace and Conflict Research established at Lancaster University in 1959, was the first independent academic institute to carry out research on how a nuclear attack would affect the North West England and what would happen next.
A copy of the report available at the Wilson Centre, an online digital archive that publishes now-declassified documents, contains fascinating information about how large cities might respond in the event of a nuclear attack. Greater Manchester and Merseyside were both seen as likely targets due to their “urban-industrial importance”.
Despite the obvious devastation that a nuclear attack would inflict on any country, the researchers, in consultation with a regional government emergency planning officer at the time, outlined a plan for civil defense to ensure “our survival and recovery at some semblance of normalcy after the attack. The report goes on to describe that after a nuclear conflict, plans were put in place to replace the central government with a government system made up of 12 regions.
Merseyside, Lancashire, Cumbria, Manchester and Cheshire would compromise one of the regions. The Regional Headquarters of Government would be built within the Regional Armed Forces Headquarters at Fulwood Barracks, Preston, which would have overall control.
For Manchester, Merseyside and Cheshire, the former concrete bunker of the air defense radar station at Hack Green near Nantwich was reportedly undergoing “secret and extensive renovation” as another operating base. The report states: “The county chief executive will normally be the county controller, working alongside county military and police commanders and supported, in facilitating the transition to unrepresentative government, by a committee of three councilors comprising exercise all the powers of the council will be theoretically vested”.
The report also states that during the “period of uncertainty leading up to the attack”, the UK government had already decided that it would broadcast any impending nuclear launches to the public as a means of preparing the public. A wartime broadcast service would broadcast information to help keep the public calm and would include helpful instructions on building things like shelters.
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He predicted that in this period, large numbers of people from Manchester and Merseyside would ignore advice to stay at home and try to flee to more rural areas of the North West such as Cumbria, only to find that roads were closed and became essential military routes. . .
The plan states: “They will try to flee the cities, only to find that the main main roads are closed to become essential service routes for the state security services. The crowds will return to the main target areas like rats in a trap.
“Ugly riots are certain to develop in some areas as the full implications sink in. But as the last section made clear, police are already planning for such an eventuality to move in with sophisticated riot control technologies to reassure the public.”
Among the creation of regional government posts after an attack would be district food and food distribution officers, a scientific adviser, a communications officer and other roles to lead health, sanitation and, rather grimly, an officer responsible for the ‘ burial of the dead’. ‘. The report even cites the importance of requisitioning the school canteen service for emergency feeding of the surviving population.
Food distribution would also be under the control of the local government, something the plan suggests would be implemented within two weeks of a nuclear attack. The report states: “The current target is to provide 20 million people in Britain with ‘half a pint of stew-type food’ a day, cooked with burning rubbish; Cumbria hopes to add a cup of tea a day. According to reports, the The government estimates that people could survive on this type of diet for two years.
With the end of the Cold War came nuclear disarmament programs between the US, Russia and their allies. Experts now argue that other issues, such as global warming, are of more pressing and realistic concern than nuclear war.
But for those who grew up in the 1980s, even the slightest possibility that an attack could happen was a worrying moment. Looking back now, it is more fascinating how emergency plans could have been implemented 40 years ago, something that could never have been predicted by today’s communication technologies like the Internet, changes in global politics, and the increasing rise of private industry supplying many of the solutions in a modern world.
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