'THE SLIPPERY AND CONVOLUTED VIEWS OF E. P. THOMPSON'
Guardian – 7 December 1981
E.P. Thompson complains (Agenda, November 30) of the possible existence of "an orchestrated campaign, centred on Washington, to confuse and divide the European [unilateralist] movements". In support of this contention he refers to conflicting reports in the Dutch and British Press, respectively showing him to have "urged acceptance of President Reagan's 'Zero Option' " and to have rejected it as "an illusory offer and a deliberate deception".
Yet, is this any wonder when the views of Mr Thompson are so slippery, convoluted and obscure? He says that his response to the American offer is "Yes, but more!" – an intriguing conjunction of contraries if ever there was one, the first word indicating acceptance and the other two (as expanded upon) indicating the opposite.
He snipes at the President for his temerity in offering not to deploy missiles in European countries, arguing that this should be for : the European peoples most concerned" to decide. But it has never been the case that such weapons could be deployed against the will of the host nations anyway – unless, of course, Mr Thompson challenges the right of the European governments to act in the name of their own "peoples".
If these governments declined to co-operate, Reagan's nuclear offer would naturally be quite meaningless; but, as long as even one of them is prepared to take cruise or Pershing II, then the Reagan initiative is both morally and politically legitimate.
Mr Thompson's next step is to advocate pressure on both East and West for "the largest possible measure of reciprocal disarmament"; but he combines this with the warning that "if they try to introduce the new missiles, we will refuse them anyway" – as if the latter sanction could be applied equally on both sides of the iron Curtain, instead of merely undermining prospects for reciprocal disarmament (as it would).
Nor is he consistent in his claim that, if the "peace movements" get "drawn in to the numbers game – so many SS-20s equals so many forward-based NATO systems", they will bargain away "their unilateralist birthright for a mess of superpower pottage". For he does precisely that himself, a couple of columns later, when it suits him to observe that a "nil option would take the Soviet Union not back to square one, but a minus figure (in balance), in exchange for the 'withdrawal' of what is not now here and is not ever likely to come".
With unconscious irony, Mr Thompson then goes on to stand the classic multilateralist objection to unilateralism on its head, by declaring that "grossly one-sided proposals" – i.e. Reagan's – "are a threat also, since they block effective negotiations".
In this assessment of the Presidential initiative, Mr Thompson appears to have forgotten what he himself wrote in a letter to The Times (March 6): "If European NATO states, under popular pressure, should reject cruise missiles and Pershing IIs – and if the Soviet Union did not, instantly, halt and then reduce its deployment of SS-20s, we can be sure that Western unilateralist movements would at once lose their popular support."
Now, it appears, Mr Thompson has upped the ante. The Reagan proposals should be accepted certainly, but only if they are accompanied at once by "a general freeze, binding upon all powers, upon the deployment, manufacture, development, and testing of all further nuclear weapons at every level".
The truth of the matter is that CND and END have been put on the spot by Reagan, do not like it one little bit, and now choose to "accept" his practical proposals – but only if they are liked to hideously impractical ones which have baffled disarmament negotiators for decades.
EDWARD LEIGH (Chairman)
Dr JULIAN LEWIS
The National Council for Civil Defence