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The Letters of Last Resort

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If you have a secret to keep, there's no better place to keep it than in a safe inside another safe in the control room of a nuclear-class submarine deployed deep in the ocean. It takes a truly momentous secret to warrant such treatment—a matter not just of life or death, but of potentially millions of lives or millions of deaths. There are four such safes inside other safes inside submarines, and each one contains an identical hand-written letter by Britain's Prime Minister with instructions on what to do in the event that the country is wiped out by nuclear attack.

The scenario: Britain has been obliterated by nukes. The Prime Minister is known to be dead, an unidentified second government official is dead (this is another secret that each Prime Minister is responsible for: establishing a person to be designated as his alternate nuclear decision-maker in case of his death). The commanders of the submarines with nuclear capabilities open the safes, break the seal on the letters and do as the Prime Minister posthumously commands. There is one of two possible directions inside: either retaliate—and kill millions of innocent, although foreign, civilians—or don't.

Making that weighty hypothetical decision is one of the first tasks performed by every new Prime Minister. If the letters go unused, as they always have, they are destroyed—unread—when the premiership changes hands. Truly unknowable secrets.

Some flaws in the system

A 2008 BBC documentary detailing Britain's nuclear protocol piqued the interest of Ron Rosenbaum, who has written about the potential for a nuclear World War III. He took to Slate to explain exactly why, "with all due respect to our British cousins, this seems, well, insane."

It is not simply the incongruousness of a quaint hand-written letter serving as the ultimate directive for nuclear use that drove Rosenbaum to call the process "profoundly shocking." There is the practical problem of how the sub commander would know whom to aim the missiles at if everyone up on the mainland had already been turned to ash. Effectively establishing with an sufficient level of certainty that everyone back on land had been killed in a nuclear attack seems problematic. Some sources claim the broadcasting, or not, of Radio 4 is the signal of nuclear genocide, but that seems reprehensibly glitchy.

The Paradox of MAD

The purpose of broadcasting a nation's nuclear capabilities is to reap the deterrent benefits of mutually assured destruction (MAD). Hopefully, if you know we could nuke you, it will discourage you from nuking us. But does retaliation in the case of an unstoppable nuclear attack even make moral sense? Introducing the letters into this equation doesn't change the ethics, but it does highlight the paradox. In a conversation with Rosenbaum on This American Life, Ira Glass sums up the problem detailed in the Slate article, saying, "Doesn't it undermine the whole point of having nuclear weapons in the first place to publicize the fact that there's a secret letter that very well might say no, don't retaliate?"

But of course, why would you retaliate? Rosenbaum says it best:

If your nation has been wiped out by a nuclear strike, is there any point in retaliating and killing tens, hundreds of millions of innocent people when the threat to retaliate has already failed?

So then, the doubt implied by a decision to be made is dangerous, but the certainty required for MAD is immoral. Thus, the benefit of the letters—and the benefit of making their existence known—is in allowing civilians to feel at ease with the Schrodinger's Cat situation. It's hard to top Glass' eloquence:

[T]hen the advantage of having this letter with the order locked away in a box inside another box—what it does is that you don't want your enemy to know that you're not going to launch those missiles, but you don't want to think for yourself that you are. So it lets you believe both things. It lets two truths exist at the same time.

So in the case of the Letters of Last Resort, it's not just the unknown information that's important—the act of secrecy itself serves a national purpose.

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Wikipedia/Public Domain
Civilian Researchers Discover Wreckage of the USS Indianapolis
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Wikipedia/Public Domain

On July 30, 1945, the cruiser USS Indianapolis sank in the Pacific Ocean after it was torpedoed by the Imperial Japanese Navy submarine I-58. More than 70 years after the historic naval tragedy— which claimed the lives of nearly 900 crew—The New York Times reports that the ship’s mysterious final resting place has been found.

The discovery came courtesy of a team of civilian researchers, led by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. His state-of-the-art research vessel, Petrel, located the wreck 18,000 feet below the Pacific’s surface, the team announced on Saturday, August 19.

"To be able to honor the brave men of the USS Indianapolis and their families through the discovery of a ship that played such a significant role in ending World War II is truly humbling,” Allen said in a statement. “As Americans, we all owe a debt of gratitude to the crew for their courage, persistence, and sacrifice in the face of horrendous circumstances."

Before it sank, the USS Indianapolis had just completed a top-secret mission to a naval base on the Northern Mariana island of Tinian. After delivering enriched uranium and components for Little Boy— the atomic bomb that the U.S. would drop on the Japanese city of Hiroshima about a week later—the cruiser forged ahead to Guam, and then to the Philippines. It was supposed to meet the battleship USS Idaho at Leyte Gulf in the Philippines to prepare to attack Japan.

The USS Indianapolis never made it to Leyte Gulf. Shortly after midnight on July 30, the Japanese submarine I-58 spotted the cruiser and fired six torpedoes. The USS Indianapolis—which was hit twice—sank within 12 minutes. Around 300 to 400 sailors and Marines were killed in the attack; the rest were stranded in the Pacific Ocean for several days.

Many of these survivors would ultimately lose their lives to sharks, a grisly scene that would be famously (albeit semi-accurately) recounted in the 1975 movie Jaws. Others died from drowning, heat stroke, thirst, burns and injuries, swallowing salt water or fuel oil, and suicide. More than 300 crew members were rescued after a bomber pilot accidently sighted the imperiled men while on a routine antisubmarine patrol.

The mass tragedy—which wouldn’t be announced to the public until August 15, 1945—sparked controversy: Charles B. McVay III, captain of the USS Indianapolis, was found guilty in a court martial of failing to steer the ship on a “zigzag” course to elude Japanese submarines. A Japanese submarine captain testified that this precautionary measure wouldn’t have thwarted the enemy, but McVay was charged nonetheless. The captain died by suicide in 1968, and wouldn’t be officially exonerated by the Navy until 2001.

For decades, the remains of the USS Indianapolis were lost to the ravages of time and nature. But in 2016, naval historian Richard Hulver found a historic ship log that mentioned a sighting of the USS Indianapolis. Allen’s search team used this information to locate the ship, which was west of where experts assumed it had gone down.

Allen’s crew took pictures of the wreckage, including a piece of its hull, and will search for more of the ship. They plan to keep the exact location of the USS Indianapolis a secret, however, to honor the sunken ship as a war grave.

"While our search for the rest of the wreckage will continue, I hope everyone connected to this historic ship will feel some measure of closure at this discovery so long in coming,” Allen said.

[h/t The New York Times]

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The Time That Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis Opened Competing Restaurants on the Sunset Strip
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From 1946 to 1956, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were show business supernovas. With an act that combined singing, slapstick, and spontaneous hijinks, the duo sold out nightclubs coast to coast, then went on to conquer radio, television, and film. Long before Elvis and The Beatles came along, Dean and Jerry  were rock stars of comedy.

Offstage, there was a cordial but cool friendship between the laidback Martin and the more neurotic Lewis. But as the pressures of their success increased, so did the tensions between them. Martin grew tired of playing the bland romantic straight man to Lewis’s manic monkey boy. And when Lewis started to grab more headlines and write himself bigger parts in their movies, Martin decided to quit the act. In an angry moment, he told Lewis that he was “nothing to me but a f**king dollar sign.”

After the split, both men went on with their individual careers, though it took Martin a few years before he regained his footing. One of his ventures during that transitional period was a Hollywood eatery called Dino’s Lodge.


In the summer of 1958, Martin and his business partner, Maury Samuels, bought a controlling interest in a restaurant called The Alpine Lodge, at 8524 Sunset Boulevard. They hired Dean’s brother Bill to manage the place, and renamed it Dino’s Lodge.

Outside they put up a large neon sign, a likeness of Dean’s face. The sign turned into a national symbol of hip and cool, thanks to appearances on TV shows like Dragnet, The Andy Griffith Show, and most prominently, in the opening credits of 77 Sunset Strip.

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Dino’s Lodge was popular from the get-go, serving home-style Italian food and steaks in an intimate, candlelit, wood-paneled room meant to replicate Martin’s own den. In the first year, Dean himself frequented the place, signing autographs and posing for photos with starstruck diners. He also occasionally brought along famous friends like Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine. To promote the idea of the swingin’ lifestyle that Martin often sang about, Dino’s served “an early morning breakfast from 1 to 5 a.m.” The restaurant also had a lounge that featured singers, though only females. Dean apparently didn’t want any male vocalists encroaching on his turf.

But as with many a celebrity venture into the food business, this one soon turned sour. And most of that was due to the jealousy of Jerry Lewis.


In late 1961, Lewis wooed Martin’s business partner Maury Samuels away, ponied up some $350,000, and opened his own copycat restaurant three blocks down Sunset. It was called Jerry’s. To make it clear he was out for top billing, Lewis had his own likeness rendered in neon, then mounted it on a revolving pole 100 feet above his restaurant. In contrast to Dino’s Italian-based menu, Jerry’s would serve “American and Hebrew viands.” Lewis didn’t stop there. Within a few months, he’d hired away Dino’s top two chefs, his maître d', and half his waitstaff.

Wire Photo, eBay, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

When Lewis was in Los Angeles, he made of point of table-hopping and schmoozing with his guests at his restaurant, and he occasionally brought in a few of his celebrity friends, like Peggy Lee and Steve McQueen.


By the following year, a disgusted Dean Martin was fed up with the restaurant business and cut ties with Dino’s Lodge. Much to his aggravation, he lost a motion in court to have his likeness and name removed from the sign. So the new owners carried on as Dino’s Lodge, with the big neon head staring down on Sunset for another decade before the place finally went bust.

Jerry’s lost steam long before that, folding in the mid-1960s.

For the rest of the 1960s and the early 1970s, Martin and Lewis avoided each other. “Jerry’s trying hard to be a director,” Dean once told a reporter. “He couldn’t even direct traffic.”

In 1976, Frank Sinatra famously engineered an onstage reunion of the pair during The Jerry Lewis Telethon. While the audience roared their approval, Sinatra said, “I think it’s about time, don’t you?” And to Sinatra, Lewis said under his breath, “You son of a bitch.”

What followed was an awkward few moments of shtick between the former partners. Reportedly, Martin was drunk and Lewis was doped up on painkillers. There was a quick embrace, Martin sang with Sinatra, then blew Lewis a kiss and disappeared from his life for good. Martin died in 1995. Lewis passed away today, at the age of 91.


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