'CHESHIRE vs KENT'

The Tablet – 23 February 1985

Group Captain Leonard Cheshire, the hero of Bomber Command who won the VC in 1944, was one of the official British witnesses of the destruction of Nagasaki. That experience is credited with having changed his life. Mgr Bruce Kent saw something of the horrors of conventional war when he witnesses the starvation in blockaded Biafra during the Nigerian civil war. That was a turning point for him. Monday night saw both men on opposite sides of a platform at Friends' House, the Quakers' headquarters in London. The issue before them was: "Nuclear Weapons – Peace or Disaster?"

Group Captain Cheshire defended deterrence and Mgr Kent attacked it. The event was not a debate and the speakers followed their own lines without always engaging the opponent. But the audience of 300 listened to what must have seemed to many, judging by the applause, convincing arguments on each side.

It was an evenly matched contest. Group Captain Cheshire spoke slowly and seriously, without notes, his gaunt figure buttoned up in a blue suit. Mgr Kent rattled out facts and claims, looking a much warmer figure with his grey woollen cardigan.

For Group Captain Cheshire, the question:

"Do nuclear weapons make war more likely or less?"

could be answered by looking at how nuclear weapons had changed the nature of war itself. The superpowers could not now contemplate going to war for fear of the consequences for themselves. Picking up a sentence from his opponent's speech, he emphasised that Mgr Kent could not conceive of any circumstances in which either the United States or the Soviet Union would go to war deliberately. That, he suggested, was due to the fact that the deterrent existed.

Mgr Kent had already demonstrated a different approach in his speech. Nuclear war, he said, could start by accident.

"There is no way that you can deter a nuclear accident, and there have been many accidents."

Moreover, Britain had a policy of first-use of nuclear weapons, he claimed. The Government held policies which were

"not only immoral but also criminal, so that servicemen should not be obliged to follow them".