Professor Sir Laurence Martin, head of Chatham House in post-Cold war era who warned of the dangers of appeasing Russia – obituary

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Sir Laurence Martin, director of Chatham House 1991-96
Sir Laurence Martin, director of Chatham House 1991-96

Professor Sir Laurence Martin, who has died aged 93, was appointed director for the Royal Institute of International Affairs in 1990, delighting Conservatives who had regarded Chatham House (as the think tank is more commonly known) as “the voice of the Extreme Moderates” in the words of a Sunday Telegraph editorial.

Known for his robust views on defence, Martin had established a reputation as a man of the Right during nine years as professor of war studies at King’s College London from 1968 to the start of 1978.

He was mainly known for his staunch opposition to unilateral nuclear disarmament, a stance he set out in a series of BBC Reith lectures, “The Two-Edged Sword”, in 1981.

In a lecture which holds many resonances today, he doubted whether the West could ever develop a position of trust with the Soviet Union despite agreements on arms control, because it maintained “a fundamentally antagonistic” view of relationships in which military power played a central role.

He warned, however, that “many Europeans, and especially Germans, want to appease the Soviet Union because of its growing military strength, and because of Soviet economic weakness would like to feel it is safe to do so.

“We should not forget ... that economic and political dealings create vested interests on both sides, while military weakness is appearing only in the West.”

Martin was appointed director at Chatham House as the world was entering the post-Cold War era, when he struck a more optimistic note, observing that “the objective conditions exist to eliminate violent and mutually harmful conflict at least between the major powers.”

But he went on to warn that Russia might not have changed its Soviet-era spots, pointing out: “The only current conceivable mortal threats to Britain are a revival of Russian strength and aggression.”

In 2014 as Russian forces massed on the border with Ukraine, prior to the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian War, he observed in a letter to The Daily Telegraph that President Putin had proclaimed that it was Russia’s nuclear forces that made him confident that his policy would not lead to war with Nato.

“Similar confidence in the underlying deterrent balance explains the relative Western public calm before Russian tanks on the Ukrainian border,” Martin went on. “This confidence will remain rational only if the Western side of the balance is maintained.”

Laurence Woodward Martin was born on July 30 1928 and grew up in Cornwall. His father was a teacher and his mother worked at a brewery. From St Austell Grammar School he went up to Christ’s College, Cambridge, to read History and, after National Service as a Flying Officer in the RAF, did a PhD at Yale University.

Martin’s BBC Reith lectures set out his staunch opposition to unilateral nuclear disarmament
Martin’s BBC Reith lectures set out his staunch opposition to unilateral nuclear disarmament

He remained in the US as, successively, an instructor at Yale, assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, assistant professor in the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and research associate at the Washington Center of Foreign Policy Research.

In 1964 he returned to the UK as Woodrow Wilson Professor of International Politics at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, where he was appointed dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences in 1966. Two years later he took up the Chair of War Studies at King’s College London, replacing Professor Sir Michael Howard.

Martin was not only a gifted academic but proved to be a brilliant and popular administrator and committee man. During his years at King’s, the War Studies department steadily expanded student numbers. In 1978 his administrative gifts won him appointment as Vice-Chancellor at Newcastle University, where he remained for 12 years before taking up the directorship of Chatham House.

He was appointed Deputy Lieutenant of Tyne and Wear in 1987.

Chatham House had lost its core government funding during the 1980s, so Martin set about securing its financial position by modernising its approach to fundraising. As a result he raised money for a refurbishment of the institute’s premises and for the development of its presence on the internet, helping to reach new audiences and better communicate its ideas to policy makers.

In addition to his role at Chatham House he served on the councils of several international institutes of strategic studies.

His books include Peace without Victory (1958), Arms and Strategy (1973), Strategic Thought in the Nuclear Age (1979) and The Changing Face of Nuclear Warfare (1987). His Reith lectures were published as The Two Edged Sword: Armed Force in the Modern World.

He was knighted in 1994.

In his retirement Martin enjoyed fishing, gardening, going to exhibitions and entertaining at the RAF Club. He also became a frequent contributor to the letters page of The Daily Telegraph.

In 2012 he recalled that, while he did not admire the premiership of the former Labour leader Jim Callaghan, he came to admire the man himself after he was asked by a reporter in the run-up to the Falklands War, whether it was not unbelievable that Britain should be contemplating war: “He got the sharp reply that when national security was at stake, no sacrifice was too great.”

His respect, Martin went on, “became affectionate when I was appointed director of Chatham House. The institute had three honorary presidents... Lords Grimond, Carrington and Callaghan.

“I felt I should pay each of them a courtesy visit and wrote proposing one. Grimond replied that he was too busy. Carrington invited me to his house for tea. Callaghan replied: ‘I am sure that you are busier than I am these days,’ and called on me.”

Laurence Martin married Betty Parnall, a teacher, in 1951, and they had a daughter and a son. His wife and daughter predeceased him, and in their memory he established the Lady Betty Martin Fund which awards grants to young artists in the North East, and an annual Jane Martin Poetry Prize, run by Girton College, Cambridge.

Professor Sir Laurence Martin, born July 30 1928, died April 24 2022

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