Being old enough to dimly remember something about the late 1980s, I’ve always been fascinated by the history of the Cold War. I’ve been researching one aspect in particular: the development, deployment and (so far, with two noted exceptions) the non-use of nuclear weapons. As many who have studied the subject know, there is the perverse thrill of thinking the unthinkable and knowing Things That Are Not Good For A Man To Know: for example, just how close Dr. Strangelove was – and, to a large extent, still is – to reality.
However, there is more at stake than just historical interest and “bomb porn” as one fellow nuclear wonk once put it. Curiously, most people seem to have forgotten that there are still thousands of nuclear warheads lurking beneath the badlands of the USA and the steppes of Russia, mere software update and thirty minutes from their targets. What’s worse, there are those nuclear-wars-waiting-to-happen in Pakistan/India and Israel/Iran, maybe with somewhat smaller but still unimaginably horrifying arsenals (and the distinct possibility of sparking off a world-wide conflagration). And there are still men (usually men, that is) sitting and waiting to twist the keys to Kingdom Come. In fact, the chances of nuclear war, accidental or otherwise, have been estimated to be as great as 1 in 100 – every year.
The surreal, beyond-the-looking-glass wonderland of nuclear weapons and nuclear strategies is so full of unresolvable paradoxes, twisted logic, and simply nauseating facts (the Number, for example: at least one billion dead within six weeks) that I doubt many will want to seriously study the subject. I think more people should; while a world without nuclear weapons might be a practical impossibility, there are very good reasons and a good chance for reducing their numbers and their hair-trigger status so that their use would be less likely and the results would “only” equate to the worst ever natural disaster or the Holocaust, not to the destruction of the human species.
For the elucidation of those beginning their journey, here are some pertinent facts and sources after the jump.
WHAT YOU VERY PROBABLY DON’T WANT TO KNOW:
- The last time there was a major nuclear war scare was in 2007. Israeli air forces bombed what was almost certainly a plutonium-breeding reactor in final stages of construction in Syria; had things turned out otherwise, Syria might just possibly have felt compelled to retaliate with chemical weapons, and that would have meant that Damascus would have been reduced to a smoking ruin. And there’s no way to know what would have happened after that.
- The London newspaper Spectator quoted high-level government sources stating “If people had known how close we came to world war three that day there’d have been mass panic.” Perhaps they should have known.
- The argument “we’ve been 66 years (and counting) without nuclear attacks” gives, statistically speaking, only a reasonable degree of confidence that the next 14 years might not contain any. “Might” being the operative word here.
- There is a distinct possibility that Pakistan falls into the hands of the Taliban. Then they would have at least 50 nuclear warheads and missiles to deliver them. Actually, there’s no telling how many Pakistani nuclear commanders are already Taliban sympathizers.
- Further, Israel regards the Iranian bomb program as an existential threat: the Iranian leaders aren’t exactly helping by calling for the death of all the Jews. Most analysts agree that the only way to stop the Iranian program is to use nuclear weapons. And it looks like Israel may very well do just that.
- It gets even better: several journalists, Seymour Hersh included, tell that Israel has a so-called “Samson Option.” What is it, you may ask? Apparently, should the State of Israel be destroyed (it would take two nuclear bombs, approximately), the Israeli submarine commanders – equipped with nuclear missiles – might launch them against the capital cities of Europe as a revenge for not doing enough to prevent the “first” and the “second holocaust.” No, there’s practically nothing anyone can do to stop them.
- All these scenarios contain a distinct possibility that a major nuclear power might be dragged into the conflict, either by choice or by accident. Then we are in the territory of “Armageddon and the bloody Book of Revelation” in the words of aforesaid very high level British government source.
- One reason it could happen might be because there simply isn’t a foolproof command and control system for nuclear weapons. Contrary to what you might think, at least the U.S. and British (and, presumably, all the other) nuclear weapons can in some situations be launched by unauthorized personnel, or simply by mistake. What’s more, although most procedures emphasize the need to authenticate that launch orders are valid, there is absolutely no way to verify that whoever gives the launch orders is sane. Or sober. Reportedly, Richard Nixon boasted at least once that he could leave the room and in 25 minutes, 70 million people would be dead.
- When questioned about the command and control issue of British nuclear submarines (which are, by design, hidden out of reach and need to be able to initiate attack on their own) and of the possibility that a rogue captain might want to wage a private war, a British official replied that such a behavior would be “ungentlemanly” and, therefore, unthinkable for a Royal Navy officer. Great!
- And did I mention there is a real, live Doomsday Device hidden deep within the Ural Mountains, codenamed “PERIMETR?” Luckily to us, it’s probably not turned on (usually) and it still has one human in the loop – but it does give that one person the means to remotely launch all the Russian nuclear weapons if he loses contact with Moscow and some other predetermined criteria are met. It’s great that Russian technology is so sophisticated it’ll never fail!
- Actually, the existence of the “PERIMETR” is a good thing. This is one of the twisters that keep me intrigued about this grisly subject: the system was actually built to lessen the pressure Soviet leadership would have had to launch immediately if they thought an attack was underway. This way, they can just activate the doomsday device to retaliate if they’re dead, instead of firing back immediately. (Which is just peachy, as they mistook a satellite launch in 1997 for a nuclear attack.)
- The end result from just a “regional nuclear exchange” (involving just India and Pakistan and perhaps 100 nuclear weapons) would probably starve some one billion people within a year, as the soot from burning cities would block sunlight. But hey, at least we’d get rid of global warming! If we’re talking about a full-scale nuclear war with 5000+ weapons, one billion corpses would be reached within six weeks, and six billion probably within a year or two.
- The technology required to develop nuclear weapons isn’t that difficult to get hold of. I managed to get quotations for much of the important materials required in building a plutonium-producing reactor similar to the one Israelis destroyed in Syria. No questions asked.
Rosenbaum (2011): How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.
- Excellent book: if you’re going to read just one book on this topic, pick this. Very well written, and although a bit on the scaremongering side at places, Rosenbaum makes a good case by explaining why the threat is still real and possibly getting worse, after a decade or so of relative stability. Actually, this blog post was largely inspired by this book.
- Deals with problems in command and control, and what can be done to ensure that accidents, hackers or crazies cannot launch a nuclear war. (Short answer: not much.) Very good and provocative sections on the ethics of nuclear war (it seems that Israelis think there’s a good case for a pre-emptive attack on Iran) and on the Israeli-Iran problem.
Rhodes (1987): The Making of the Atomic Bomb
- By far the best history of the Manhattan project and the atomic bomb development. Absolutely fascinating; won the Pulizer Prize.
- What the scientists knew and thought at the time, and how the fear of Hitler’s bomb drove them. Also, what was done – what could have been done – to prevent Hiroshima.
- The epic saga continues! The ins and outs of the decision and the race to develop the even-better hydrogen bomb (“the bomb, Dimitri, the BOMB!”).
- Details, among other things, the early Soviet bomb program, and the atomic espionage that sent Ethel and Julius Rosenberg to the electric chair. (It’s almost certain they were guilty, but they were executed more for political reasons than for the seriousness of their crimes.)
- Chilling descriptions of the logic that drove the early Cold War arms race, and good overview to thermonuclear weapons. As far as anyone without U.S. Top Secret clearance can have.
- The last installment of the epic trilogy, and, unfortunately, the worst part. Not that it isn’t good, it’s just it isn’t as good as the other two.
- Lots of info about political personalities and how their agendas contributed to the arms race.
- Includes discussion about how the arms race contributed to the Soviet collapse.
- Very insightful look into the men (again, mostly men) who created the nuclear strategy, and of the arcane doctrinal conflicts that resulted.
- Much of the time you’ll be thinking, “you can’t make this stuff up.” There are situations that could have been directly from Dr. Strangelove.
- Which isn’t that surprising – Kubrick read all the published material on nuclear strategy he could find. There are even direct quotations from some of the books in the movie.
Dobbs (2009): One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War
- Probably the best account of the period when the world was perhaps closer to an end than ever. Several revelations that may be a bit shocking.
- But if you think that was the only time we had a close call, you’d be wrong.
Cirincione et al. (2005): Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Threats, Revised Edition
- THE textbook on, well, what it says on the title.
- Good background material for those interested in arms control (which should be everyone).