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Letter of Last Resort


The BBC carried an interesting programme on Radio 4 on Saturday 1st June 2013.  Called ‘Letter of Last Resort’ it was a drama and discussion, exploring the dilemma faced by every new prime minister of the UK.  One of the first tasks of a new PM, undertaken on the first day in office, is to write a letter to the commanders of the nuclear submarines, giving orders as to their course of action following a nuclear attack in which the UK has been destroyed, and all chains of command wiped out.  The letter would be placed in a special safe on board each submarine.  The safe would have two ‘keys’, one held by the commander, and the other by the executive officer, so that only with their joint consent could it be opened, and their strict orders are that it is not to be opened until the circumstances outlined above have been verified.

The ethical dilemma faced by the incoming PM is whether in such a situation. The submarines should:

  1. Retaliate.  It that a moral position to take?  Since the point of a nuclear deterrent is to deter, would the aggressor nation then assume that no western nation will retaliate, and launch an attack on USA or Australia, for instance?
  2. Do not retaliate. Avoid civilian fatalities.  Given that an aggressor nation would have had warning of a likely attack. They would have had time to preserve their chains of command, so the casualties of war resulting from retaliation, running into many millions of people, would be innocent civilians.  Instead, the submarines should make their way to a friendly nation, such as Australia, and put themselves at the disposal of their navy.

The drama enacted the scenario, played out between the PM and his civil servant advisor,  arguing between them the case for and against the act of retaliation.  The discussion involved a panel of experts, with differing ethical standpoints, giving their opinion, and reading the letter of last resort they would write if they were PM.  Before they gave their opinion, they listened to an contribution by a journalist who had actually been told in an interview by a former PM (Jim Callaghan) what instructions his letter had contained.


During the panel discussion that followed, one of the contributors referred to this interview, and declared that the journalist may just be giving too much credence to the former PM’s words, as the basic stock in trade of any politician, – his innate trait, his natural instinct is HIS ABILITY AND TENDENCY TO SAY ONE THING WHILE MEANING/DOING EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE.

Certainly such duplicitousness is evident in politics and politicians.  How frustrated do people become when they hear a politician make a promise, sometimes in the most strident manner, then later break that promise?

Paul wrote in 2nd Corinthians, telling the readers that in everything he did, he was open and honest and sincere.

1:12 For our boasting is this: the testimony of our conscience that we conducted ourselves in the world in simplicity and godly sincerity, not with fleshly wisdom but by the grace of God, and more abundantly toward you. 13 For we are not writing any other things to you than what you read or understand. Now I trust you will understand, even to the end 14 (as also you have understood us in part), that we are your boast as you also are ours, in the day of the Lord Jesus.

15 And in this confidence I intended to come to you before, that you might have a second benefit— 16 to pass by way of you to Macedonia, to come again from Macedonia to you, and be helped by you on my way to Judea. 17 Therefore, when I was planning this, did I do it lightly? Or the things I plan, do I plan according to the flesh, that with me there should be Yes, Yes, and No, No? 18 But as God is faithful, our word to you was not Yes and No.


  • Can a Christian be a politician and maintain his integrity?  A Christian can never be duplicitous!

(When you think about this, consider that if there were NO Christians in politics, there would be no godly influence in government whatsoever…  so what kind of laws would be enacted? Consider how Christian politicians can shield themselves from acting duplicitously)

  • How do you react if someone make a promise to you, then breaks it?   Do you judge first and ask questions later, or do you pray for the person, considering that there may be some unusual circumstances?  What circumstances had prevented Paul from keeping his promise to visit Corinth?  (See text above).
  • As a Christian could you be responsible for causing suffering to people, even if they had wronged your nation?
  • ‘The purpose of a deterrent is to deter’.  If you were PM, what letter would YOU write?

Answers above please, or write your comments below.

From → Christian Ethics

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