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The Letters of Last Resort

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Thinkstock

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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NASA, Getty Images
Watch Apollo 11 Launch
Vice President Spiro Agnew and former President Lyndon Johnson view the liftoff of Apollo 11
Vice President Spiro Agnew and former President Lyndon Johnson view the liftoff of Apollo 11
NASA, Getty Images

Apollo 11 launched on July 16, 1969, on its way to the moon. In the video below, Mark Gray shows slow-motion footage of the launch (a Saturn V rocket) and explains in glorious detail what's going on from a technical perspective—the launch is very complex, and lots of stuff has to happen just right in order to get a safe launch. The video is mesmerizing, the narration is informative. Prepare to geek out about rockets! (Did you know the hold-down arms actually catch on fire after the rocket lifts off?)

Apollo 11 Saturn V Launch (HD) Camera E-8 from Spacecraft Films on Vimeo.

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Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma
Utility Workers May Have Found One of Rome’s First Churches
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

The remains of what may have been one of Rome’s earliest Christian churches were accidentally discovered along the Tiber River during construction, The Local reports. The four-room structure, which could have been built as early as the 1st century CE, was unearthed by electrical technicians who were laying cables along the Ponte Milvio.

The newly discovered structure next to the river
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

No one is sure what to make of this “archaeological enigma shrouded in mystery,” in the words of Rome’s Archaeological Superintendency. Although there’s no definitive theory as of yet, experts have a few ideas.

The use of colorful African marble for the floors and walls has led archaeologists to believe that the building probably served a prestigious—or perhaps holy—function as the villa of a noble family or as a Christian place of worship. Its proximity to an early cemetery spawned the latter theory, since it's common for churches to have mausoleums attached to them. Several tombs were found in that cemetery, including one containing the intact skeleton of a Roman man.

Marble flooring
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

A tomb
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma1

The walls are made of brick, and the red, green, and beige marble had been imported from Sparta (Greece), Egypt, and present-day Tunisia, The Telegraph reports.

As The Local points out, it’s not all that unusual in Rome for archaeological discoveries to be made by unsuspecting people going about their day. Rome’s oldest aqueduct was found by Metro workers, and an ancient bath house and tombs were found during construction on a new church.

[h/t The Local]

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