by Clark Nida, serialised here by permission of the author.
Alan’s night-duty gave him three clear days off a week, during which he mucked about with his biorhythms and got himself back to conventional hours. It gave him the opportunity to stand-in for his father in the bar, during the slack times when Pop was better employed elsewhere.
Mackie Pringle, Pop’s teacher friend, was occupying his usual place in the corner of the bar. A serious young Scot – another one – he seemed absorbed in watching the bubbles burst in his beer froth. He went over to Germany with the Territorial Army once a year for a fortnight and trundled around in tanks all over the pretty villages, squashing poodles and bulldozing garden walls. He’d just come back from this year’s jaunt and was trying to get used to English beer again, as he put it.
Alan was doing the crossword. “Cold Warrior. Six letters.”
Mackie hadn’t even hesitated. Alan looked up in astonishment. “How did you know that?”
“Because I wasn’t born yesterday – like you.”
Alan was used to Mackie’s surface abrasion and rarely rose to the bait. But just today he felt Mackie needed answering back. How would Pop do it? – he wondered.
“I know I’m only a school-leaver. But I keep my eyes and ears open.”
“Well, tell me this. What’s the Cold War all about?”
“Can’t you improve on that?”
“It’s better than a hot war, isn’t it?”
“It’s-better-than-a-hot-war-isn’t-it.” Mackie aped him. “Yes it is – but what if it turns into a hot war?”
“Then we’ll all be blown to kingdom come! Mutually Assured Destruction. Nuclear Winter…” Alan mouthed the buzzwords.
“Well, no one can say you don’t read the papers! Mutually Assured Destruction. MAD – that’s the acronym. And a very appropriate one too, don’t you think?”
“Yes – well… why not take comfort from it? Both sides would be mad to start a hot war.”
“Well… so you’ve heard of Mutually Assured Destruction. What about First-Strike Capability?”
Alan shrugged. “Just an idea…”
“All right – answer me this,” said Mackie. “What is Yuri Gagarin?”
“You mean who is Yuri Gagarin? Why – the first man in space… Vostok I…”
“No. I said what is Yuri Gagarin?”
Alan was puzzled. He couldn’t think what Mackie was driving at. “You tell me…”
“He is the Russian Bear thumbing his nose at the Bald Eagle. He is the Russians saying: we’ve got bigger rockets than you. We can put a man into space. And a bomb up your backside, any time we fancy!”
Alan looked down, out of his depth for once. He felt like a bear himself, being baited by Mackie. “Well, that’s just the Russians showing off. Being cocky. It doesn’t scare me. But it annoys the Americans – and that’s not such a bad thing.”
Mackie scowled at him like a cricket captain at his leading batsman bowled out for a duck. “So it’s not such a bad thing, eh? Well, I hope they teach you more than that when you get to university. Americans, when they get annoyed, do silly things. As the Japanese found out the hard way – with atom bombs.”
Alan was provoked. He threw away all caution.
“Well all I can say is – thank God for Pontecorvo! Thank God for Klaus Fuchs – and for the Rosenbergs! Because it means that someone else has got the Bomb. And that makes the Americans think twice before throwing their weight about!”
Mackie glared at Alan. “So – angry Americans think twice, do they? Since when, I ask you? What if they thought they could get a pre-emptive strike in first?”
“Well – there’s the whole of the Red Army out there. Got to have something up your sleeve to counterbalance the Imperialist threat…”
“The Red Army – pah! The Red Army…!” Mackie shook his finger. Alan could imagine him doing that in front of the classes he taught. “Each month they make every soldier sign a declaration: ‘I will not drink the anti-freeze’!”
Alan laughed, though nervously.
“Cocky Russians don’t scare me,” continued Mackie, “though they may infuriate the Yanks. But let me admit something to you – frightened Russians do.”
Alan fell silent.
“What’s the worst thing you could imagine doing which would really put the wind up the Soviet Union?”
Alan leaned on his thumb and forefinger, as if pondering a problem in pure mathematics. “Well, what with Eichmann having gone on trial this year – and twenty million Russians dead in the War – I suppose you could bring Hitler out of retirement and give him atom bombs to throw around…”
Mackie smiled grimly and nodded in silence for several seconds. “Clever lad,” he said. “Clever lad. Well, Hitler’s gone – if not forgotten! Though anyway I don’t suppose we could rely on him to oblige…”
He brushed his hair aslant over his forehead, put two fingers to his upper lip and raged in the crashing chimes of a collapsing shop-window, “If I have to come back as Ze Leader – zen it’s No More Mister Nice-Guy!”
Alan, jolted by the realism of Mackie’s impression, bellowed with laughter. He glanced round guiltily, but the two strangers who’d been sitting in the corner had got up and left.
But what Mackie went on to say wiped the smile from Alan’s face. “The USA… has just given the West Germans nuclear weapons.”
“They’d never do that!”
“There are nuclear weapons on German soil! Under German control. How is NATO proposing to stop the Red Army when it carries out its long-expected invasion of Europe?”
Alan went cold. Up to now he’d been throwing out words as growing boys did to one another, meaning to impress more by the noise they made than the substance they contained. But Mackie was in a position to know what he was talking about.
“Not by us Terries,” continued Mackie, “in case you think that’s what I’m about to say. Not by the TA. Nor the BAOR, the Bundeswehr or the Americans all put together. We’d be swept aside by the sheer numbers Russia could field – and anyone else who’s standing in the way.”
“Well then…” shrugged Alan, as if it served to make his point.
“So how is NATO proposing to stop the Red Army?” Mackie took a deep gulp of beer. “I’ll tell you. With landmines. Atomic landmines.”
It must have crossed Mackie’s mind he shouldn’t be talking like this, but they had the bar to themselves. “There are said to be buried tactical nuclear weapons,” he murmured, “in Heidelberg, Stuttgart – and as far to the east as Berlin. They are made out to be fixed installations, designed to go off in the rear of the Red Army once it advances over them. But do you really suppose these ‘fixed installations’ are going to stay still and wait for that to happen? Might they not rove around a bit – just to confuse anyone out looking for them?”
Alan shut his eyes in denial.
Mackie continued. “Mutually Assured Destruction. But both sides are jockeying for a First-Strike Capability. Or at least pretending that it’s on the point of getting one – though that’s more for the benefit of the onlookers. The Russians, by threatening to launch space-platforms capable of raining down bombs on New York and Washington. The Americans, for their part, by trying to site land-based missiles as close as they can to the Russian border to strike at Moscow.”
“But that’s just the Balance of Terror,” protested Alan. “Technology can’t stay still. Rockets get obsolete…”
“No – it can’t stay still. But will it stay in balance?”
Mackie put his beer down. “Let me just ask you a question. How far do you suppose Moscow is from Berlin?”
“I haven’t the foggiest.” Geography was one of Alan’s worst subjects at school.
“A thousand miles, more-or-less, would you believe? That’s comfortably within range of today’s missiles.”
Mackie paused to let the implications of that sink in.
“Now, a technological advance towards getting a First-Strike Capability is one thing – and that’s a powerful diplomatic tool if used in the right way. But the USSR suddenly discovering that the USA has already got a First-Strike Capability – and that it involves Berlin – is going to end up with some very frightened Russians… and some very angry Americans. It’s the thought of that that scares the shit out of me.”
He drained his glass and banged it down, buttoning his jacket up ready to go. “Balance of Terror, eh? You’ll see Balance of Terror all right!”
…to be continued.