"Hard Luck" for "Hard Rock": Civil Defense and British Democracy in the Late Cold War

Friday, January 4, 2019: 4:10 PM
Boulevard C (Hilton Chicago)
Anthony Eames, Georgetown University
In the Fall of 1982, the British Home Office cancelled the civil defense exercise “Operation Hard Rock,” due to mounting opposition from antinuclear activists. The Thatcher government had planned for the operation to be a central piece of a larger civil defense initiative designed to alleviate growing British anxieties over the threat of nuclear war. However, groups such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the European Nuclear Disarmament Movement, and Scientists Against Nuclear Arms, argued that the Thatcher government’s civil defense program was not at all about protecting British citizens.

Antinuclear activists launched “Operation Hard Luck” in Spring 1982 to prove that civil defense initiatives only provided protection for a small number of government elite. “Hard Luck” exposed civil defense as propaganda intended to lure ordinary British citizens into a false sense of security by drawing on scientists, medical experts, and advances in computing technology to debunk national government estimates on the effects of nuclear war. In light of the revelation of the national government’s misleading messaging about nuclear war, dozens of local governments followed the example of the Manchester City Council and the Greater London Council in declaring their territories Nuclear Weapon Free Zones.

This paper demonstrates that civil defense initiatives generated tension between the layers of British democracy by provoking heated debates about how governments could best protect those they governed. If the national government proved derelict of its responsibility to protect British citizens, did local governments have the right to intervene? Local governments sought to expand their role in protecting British citizens by making agreements with governments outside of the United Kingdom, and by calling for greater transparency so that independent scientific and medical experts could better educate British communities about the causes and consequences of nuclear war.

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