The Queen’s ‘World War III’ Speech That (Thankfully) Never Was
I remember being very scared in the early 1980s. Apparently I wasn’t alone. Newly-released British government documents reveal that UK officials had written a speech to be delivered by Queen Elizabeth II in the event of a nuclear war between the United States (and, by extension, Britain) and the Soviet Union, circa 1983.
Those were dangerous days. President Ronald Reagan was ratcheting up his anti-Soviet rhetoric to heights unseen since the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, with bellicose bluster and confrontational cowboy talk of an “evil empire.” It was more than just talk, what with his provocative Star Wars missile ‘defense’ system and ever-escalating military budgets designed to force the Soviets to spend themselves broke. As for the Russians, they seemed to change leaders more often than Menudo changed band members in those days. The scary sight of goose-stepping Red Army soldiers and menacing missiles and terrifying tanks rolling through Red Square each year struck fear in my pre-pubescent heart. It was more than just parades, too. There was the occupation of Afghanistan. There was the shoot-down of a US-bound Korean civilian airliner that strayed into Soviet airspace. It seemed as if the world was headed irreversibly toward armageddon.
That fear was constantly reflected in the zeitgeist of the age. There were books about World War III, like Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka’s “Warday.” There were movies too, like the apocalyptic “Threads” and “Red Dawn,” laughable today but downright terrifying back in the day. Then there was “The Day After.” My mother tried to stop me from watching that ABC special about the effects of a nuclear war on a small Kansas city, but I feigned sleep and snuck a peek on my rabbit-eared, four-channel bedroom TV set anyway. I’d never seen anything scarier before– or since.
“The Day After” left quite an impression on President Reagan too– say what you want about him (and I’ve said plenty), but he wrote about how the film deeply affected him in his diary, and it wasn’t long after that a series of nuclear arms control summits with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev began.
Apparently the specter of global thermonuclear annihilation weighed heavily upon Queen Elizabeth’s speechwriters too, as evidenced by the freshly-released details of a ‘World War III’ address they had prepared for her.
“The horrors of war could not have seemed more remote as my family and I shared our Christmas joy with the growing family of the Commonwealth,” the Queen was supposed to have said in the spring of 1983, the most tense year of the Cold War since the superpowers narrowly avoided full-on nuclear war during the Cuban crisis. “Now this madness of war is once more spreading through the world and our brave country must again prepare itself to survive against great odds.”
Later in the speech, the Queen would have continued:
“We all know the dangers facing us today are greater by far than at any time in our long history. The enemy is not the soldier with his rifle nor even the airman prowling the skies above our cities and towns but the deadly power of abused technology. But whatever terrors lie in wait for us all the qualities that have helped to keep our freedom intact twice already during this sad century will once more be our strength.”
The chilling speech would have concluded:
“Help those who cannot help themselves, give comfort to the lonely and the homeless and let your family become the focus of hope and life to those who need it. As we strive together to fight off the new evil let us pray for our country and men of goodwill wherever they may be. God bless you all.”
Thankfully, Queen Elizabeth never had to deliver that address. But as it was for my parents’ generation, the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union remained with us Gen X-ers, a seemingly permanent possibility, until the thrilling, unforeseen events of the decade’s last years brought the threat of superpower confrontation crumbling down like the Berlin Wall.
Today’s generation mercifully knows nothing of the bad old days. It lives in fear of terrorists, maybe, and deals with potential body counts in the thousands, at worst. We dealt with the palpable prospect of human extinction, a prospect that may have faded but is still very much alive, simmering just beneath the surface in a world in which the means and methods of developing ‘game-over’ weaponry are available to an ever-increasing list of potential players. The true test for humankind will come when those of us old enough to remember the real danger of World War III pass from the scene, and those who’ve never lived in fear of being instantly vaporized, or much worse, are running the show.
Tagged Cold War, Mikhail Gorbachev, nuclear war, Queen Elizabeth II, Queen's World War III speech, Reagan arms control, Reagan evil empire speech, Reagan Star Wars, red dawn, Ronald Reagan, Ronald Reagan nuclear war, Soviet Union, The Day After, Threads, Warday