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The Politics of Nuclear War, Part 1


Graphic by Harold Arthur McNeill

3,525 words

Part 1 of 3

Portuguese translation here [2]


Last month marked the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It merited little more than a passing mention in the mainstream media, despite the fact of having been the most dramatic and iconic moment in the half-century Cold War, a conflict which had stakes higher than any other in history and which continues to haunt our current political landscape.

I don’t wish to write merely another historical retrospective on the event, since many others have already done that, but I do believe that the multifaceted and complex world of nuclear politics is still as relevant today as ever, and is vital for an understanding of the geopolitical reality with which we have to contend, as political activists of various stripes, for the conceivable future. Although fears of all-out nuclear war have receded, as current debates regarding Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel show, nuclear politics remains a defining part of the political landscape.

Nuclear war has exerted a strange fascination upon me since I was a 10-year-old in 1983, when I was barely old enough to begin to understand that the world I lived in, as a result of the Cold War that had just been reheated by President Reagan, was undergoing an existential crisis. Reagan was calling the Soviet Union the “evil empire,” the Soviets shot down a Korean airliner carrying American passengers, and NATO engaged in a massive exercise to simulate a nuclear attack on the U.S.S.R. which very nearly triggered the real thing.[1] The feeling of imminent apocalypse hung heavily in the air. My understanding of it was bolstered by the graphic nuclear war docudrama The Day After, which was televised in November, as well as the far superior, and more frightening, British equivalent, Threads,[2] which aired the following year.  I remember that I began checking books out from the public library on the subject of nuclear weapons and their effects, which were among the first adult books I ever read. I couldn’t understand everything in them, to be sure, but I comprehended enough to realize that the sense of dread was not just a figment of my imagination: it was a dreadful, very possible reality that threatened to burst forth at any moment. I kept checking out more and more books on the topic until my mother forced me to stop, concerned at the effect it was having on my youthful mentality.

Fortunately, I moved on to other interests, but I have never succeeded in exorcising the nuclear demon from my mind. Dreams of a world shattered in a nuclear war still continue to disturb my sleep on occasion. In some ways, the reality of nuclear weapons seems an almost too fantastic thing to be real, sort of like when we first learn about dinosaurs as children. During the 1990s, however, with the end of the Cold War, I largely forgot about it, like most people, thinking that the danger had passed. But starting a few years ago, I decided to check in to see what was happening today. What I found was not reassuring. The nuclear menace has not really receded; really, it has just adapted and taken new forms. And I think it is something that Counter-Currents readers need to take into account.

I will take as the basis for my ruminations an interesting, if flawed, book by the journalist Ron Rosenbaum that was published last year, melodramatically titled How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.[3] Rosenbaum, as one might guess from the name, is a Jew – more specifically, a secular, American Jew who has already had a long career as a journalist and essayist. Counter-Currents readers may recall his 1998 book Explaining Hitler, which was a varied, if unoriginal, effort to explain the “most evil man in history” by relying on psychological speculation and the like. Rosenbaum failed to find a satisfactory explanation, however, since the Hitler imagined by people like him is a superhuman, almost supernatural figure, so great is the “evil” that they project upon him. But that is, perhaps, a subject for another essay.  I use Rosenbaum’s book here both because it is a useful introductory survey, and also because his Jewish identity, which he brings unapologetically to the writing of the book, reveals a lot about Zionist and neoconservative attitudes towards nuclear politics, lessons which we would do well to heed. But more generally, I think it is important to provide Counter-Currents readers with an overview of the nuclear situation today, for reasons that I hope will become apparent.

The Nuclear Watershed: The Cuban Missle Crisis

I should write a few paragraphs about the Cuban Missile Crisis itself, since many Americans, myself included, have been taught a very incomplete and distorted version of what actually happened. (Rosenbaum’s book doesn’t cover the Crisis, apart from a few asides.) The conventional narrative is that the Soviets and their henchman, Castro, eager to find a way to clobber the United States, deviously and without any provocation began to place missiles in Cuba with the intention of blowing us to smithereens. The brave men at the CIA uncovered the plot just in the nick of time, before the missiles were made operational, and Kennedy told the commies to put a stop to their nonsense. Kennedy stood toe-to-toe with Khrushchev, threatening to attack Cuba in order to prevent the missiles from being activated, even if it meant all-out world war between the superpowers. Khrushchev, frightened into submission by this demonstration of American determination, blinked, and he brought his ships scurrying home, presaging the total victory of democracy that took another 30 years to come to fruition.

The reality was very different, and only in recent years have declassified documents and revelations on both sides conveyed the real story. The fact is the Soviet leadership didn’t view their installation of missiles in Cuba as an aggressive act, but rather as a way of preserving the balance of power, since the U.S. had already placed nuclear missiles in Italy and Turkey which were roughly the same distance from the Soviet Union as Cuba is from us. Khrushchev was taken by surprise when the Americans reacted as strongly as they did. Also, the idea that Khrushchev “blinked” was a fallacy concocted to placate the American public. Kennedy conducted secret back-door negotiations with Khrushchev during the Crisis, promising that America would never invade Cuba and that American missiles in Italy and Turkey would be quietly removed in 1963, in return for Khrushchev’s withdrawal from Cuba. Both sides honored their commitments, and the peace was preserved – at least until the next major crisis (which was the Yom Kippur War in 1973).

The one accurate part of the popular American wisdom about the Crisis is that it was the moment when the superpowers came closer to all-out nuclear war than at any other time during the Cold War. Indeed, war was even closer than was thought at the time. The CIA had been wrong that the Cuban missiles had not yet been activated when they were discovered. In fact, several hundred strategic and tactical weapons were already operational, and had been placed under Fidel Castro’s command. In more recent years Castro has made it clear that he would certainly have used them in the face of an American attack. Tactical weapons were deployed to destroy the American base at Guantanamo Bay as well as any invasion force, and the strategic warheads would have been fired upon the continental United States itself. And at one point, as the Soviet naval convoy approached the American blockade surrounding the island, a Russian submarine captain ordered his vessel to fire a nuclear torpedo at the American ships, and was only stopped from doing so by the convoy’s commanding officer.

On the American side, fearing that Washington would be one of the first targets destroyed in an all-out war, the military circumvented the supposedly-sacrosanct authority of the President over our nuclear forces and delegated command to many lower-ranking officers, ensuring that the death of the President and his successors would not halt the American retaliatory response (meaning that a less stable officer obsessed with the idea of “wiping out the commies” could theoretically have launched a nuclear attack on his own, without any higher authority, à la Dr. Strangelove).

Even the men on the “front line,” so to speak, prepared for the worst. Then, as now, the control rooms of the early Atlas Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) required that both men in the two-man crew turn their launch keys simultaneously in order to fire the missiles under their command. The reason for this is so that a crewman who goes nuts cannot launch without the consent of his (hopefully saner) colleague. What bothered these early missileers, as they are called, was that one of them might suddenly get cold feet if and when the order to launch was received, distressed at the idea of annihilating potentially millions of Russians, east Europeans, or Chinese in revenge for the decisions of their politicians, not to mention the inevitable retaliation that would be brought upon American soil, and refuse to turn his key. The missileers came up with a solution: shoot your hesitating companion with your sidearm, tie one end of a long piece of string to your ration spoon and the other end to your partner’s key, and turn both on your own. (Apparently, this remained a secret trick of the missileers for many years, although supposedly today’s ICBM controls have been redesigned to make it impossible.)

In short, during those fateful autumn days, the world primed itself to bring about a man-made apocalypse of a sort that had precedent only in the darker passages of the Holy Scriptures. It is probably not accurate to say that World War III in October 1962 would have been the “end of the world,” but it certainly would have been the end of the North American, European, Russian, and Chinese civilizations (China was part of American nuclear war plans of the time) as we now know them, and would have wrought much death and destruction throughout the rest of the world as well.

Ironically, although it is rarely framed this way in history texts, the whole thing really ended up being much ado about nothing, since by the end of the 1960s, both sides had constructed thousands of land-, sea-, and air-based ICBMs that were, and are, maintained on constant alert, and which can reach their targets in 30 minutes or less. As a result, the need for maintaining missile bases in close proximity to the enemy’s territory became obsolete within a few years of the Crisis, and both sides were able to threaten the other with impunity. It was also far from the only time that the two powers came to the brink of war. Nevertheless, few historians would question that this was the moment when the Cold War came closer to going hot than at any other time.

Nuclear Politics Today: Keeping the Old Game Alive

In terms of providing an overview of the subject of nuclear politics and morality involving the traditional nuclear states (the U.S., Russia, the U.K., France, and China), Rosenbaum’s book is a good introduction to the subject. He doesn’t present anything that can’t be studied in greater depth elsewhere, but he does it in an entertaining and easy-to-read way. His style is more journalistic than scholarly (a habit which can become irritating, as I will describe later), often presenting things in terms of personal anecdotes and with editorial asides. He discusses some of the important lessons to be learned from the Cold War experience, where he presents ample evidence that the fact that the world made it through four decades of Mutually Assured Destruction had as much to do with luck as with the prevalence of sanity amongst the various political leaderships.

Rosenbaum then brings us up-to-date through the two decades since. These chapters of the book serve to correct the impression in the popular consciousness that the end of the Cold War meant the end of the nuclear threat. While it cannot be denied that the collapse of the Soviet Union greatly reduced the risk for conflict, the fact is that little has changed in the standoff since the 1980s. Both the Russian Federation and the United States maintain arsenals of thousands of nuclear weapons based in silos, submarines, and bombers that are maintained on constant alert, ready to be launched at a moment’s notice, and capable of reaching any spot on the globe. Surely, there are far fewer of them today than there were 25 years ago, but each nation retains enough to completely devastate the other, if the situation arose. (According to reports from 2011, both nations maintain approximately 2,000 weapons on alert at any given moment, and each has a few thousand more in storage that could be quickly reactivated. Rosenbaum correctly points out that the real numbers may be even higher.) It is also a fact that both continue to actively prepare for the possibility of war against the other, such as through air patrols which seek to detect holes in the other side’s air defenses. And few believe that the missile defense systems that both the Bush and Obama administrations worked to set up in the vicinity of Russia are purely intended for defense against “rogue states” such as Iran or North Korea.

Rosenbaum describes a conversation he had with retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner regarding the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008. Gardiner calls attention to the fact that, in a briefing to the press during the crisis, the White House mentioned that the Russians had moved some of their SS-26 Iskander missiles into the combat zone. The SS-26 is a short-range missile that is capable of being armed with either conventional or nuclear warheads. Certainly, they were not intended to be used on the Georgian forces, which were already heavily outclassed by the Russians. More than likely, Gardiner says, they were meant to send a warning to the United States not to intervene. The U.S. had no way of knowing if the missiles were nuclear-tipped or not, but this very uncertainty forced the Pentagon into a new strategic calculus. Gardiner was uncertain whether or not there were any actual U.S. plans to aid the Georgians, but in either case, the presence of the missiles upped the stakes, and was likely intended as a deterrent.

Speaking of the SS-26s, Rosenbaum calls attention to the fact that Russia announced that it would be positioning some of them within range of Poland, which is where the Bush-era missile defense system was to be installed, within hours of President Obama’s inauguration. Obama ended up cancelling the Bush plan. Whether this was done as a direct response to the Russian threats, we cannot know, but it seems a tantalizing possibility. (Of course, Obama has since replaced the Bush plan with a missile defense system of his own, which the Russians find no less threatening.)

The moral of the story? The old game of nuclear brinksmanship is alive and well.

This may seem like mere saber-rattling at this point in history, but the fact that the last 20 years have been relatively peaceful between the two nations doesn’t mean that they will always remain that way. If the “collapse,” economic or otherwise, that is often predicted actually comes to pass, it is a certainty that the nations of the world will utilize every method at their disposal to attempt to dominate what remains of global resources, and reassert their dwindling ability to project military power. Nuclear weapons are still a cheap and effective way – much more so than conventional weapons – of intimidating an adversary. There is therefore little doubt in my mind that, if a genuine global crisis occurs, nuclear weapons will return to an even more prominent role in diplomacy and war. Old rivalries could reignite, and new ones could flare up. This time, however, the fight won’t be over ideology, but will be over energy, food, water, and other resources – in other words, survival.  The desperation such a situation will engender will make the actual use of such weapons, rather than mere threats, a distinct possibility.

Rosenbaum quotes the Harvard political scientist Graham Allison, who has apparently been thinking along similar lines, from a 2010 article in Foreign Affairs: “The global nuclear order today could be as fragile as the global financial one was two years ago . . . and the] collapse of the global nuclear order . . . and the consequences [of the collapse] would make nuclear terrorism and nuclear war so imminent that prudent statesmen must do everything feasible to prevent it.”

And this is not even to mention the ever-present specter of a war erupting through a mistake, an accident or even the malicious actions of a political leader or military officer who has lost his mind, as in the classic film Dr. Strangelove. Rosenbaum recounts a number of hair-raising accidental close-calls on both sides of the Iron Curtain in his discussion of the Cold War, during which false indications of an attack in progress nearly led to an accidental counterstrike. In each case, war was only averted as a result of an individual officer trumping the prescribed procedures in favor of his own judgment. And some of the people Rosenbaum interviews who have served with nuclear weapons attest that the popular wisdom about our weapons – that only the President has the ability to authorize their use – was and remains a fiction intended to soothe the public’s fears, as well as those of the military itself.

As Rosenbaum describes in the book, there are many politicians and analysts who have come to the conclusion (usually only after their political careers are over, he notes) that the best course of action would be to abolish nuclear weapons altogether. These days, this is often referred to as “Global Zero,” or the dream of the universal elimination of nuclear arms throughout all countries. The problem is that no state will voluntarily give up all of its weapons, since it cannot rely on the fact that everyone else will follow suit. (To date, South Africa is the only nation to have voluntarily dismantled its entire arsenal, which was done in the early 1990s, just prior to the ascension of Nelson Mandela, for obvious reasons.) As some experts in the field quoted in the book mention, the only way it could become even remotely practical would be if some international body were to arise, independent of any national loyalties, and imbued with enough political and military power to enforce its will over all nations, and equipped with the liberty to enter any state it chose, at any time it chose, in order to ensure that everyone was obeying the ban. Even more fantastically, such an institution could only come into existence if all the nations of the world were to allow it to do so, voluntarily surrendering their sovereignty. Such an organization is certainly the stuff of fiction (and resembles some of the utopian fantasies of H. G. Wells, such as the “Dictatorship of the Air,” consisting of fascistic pilots pledged to abolish war, in his 1933 science fiction novel The Shape of Things to Come).

A more realistic course of action would be for the nuclear powers of the world to take their weapons off of hair-trigger alert. This is also the solution Rosenbaum himself advocates. The best way to do this would be to store nuclear warheads separately from their launchers. In a crisis, they could be reattached and returned to their launching positions, but this process takes several hours, and would be detected by any nation with satellite monitoring capability. The advantage to this is that it would give the governments involved time to negotiate with the opposing side before any weapons are actually used. Of course, this would only work if all nations which currently maintain nuclear forces on constant alert would implement this plan. And, of course, even this would not end the possibility of nuclear war, but it would at least remove the threat of accidental war. I agree with Rosenbaum that this is a sensible course, being much less utopian in nature than the idea of a supra-national watchdog, but strategic planners balk at such a notion, clinging to the idea that a “bolt from the blue” attack, which would wipe out their entire arsenal before any of it can get airborne, remains a genuine threat. Thus, any significant stand-down from our current posture is unlikely to come about in the immediate future.


[1] For a fascinating look at how close the world really came to the nuclear abyss in 1983, I recommend the well-made BBC documentary 1983: The Brink of Apocalypse, which is available at YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8kTnXqfT1Mk [3]).

[2] Threads remains a harrowing viewing experience even today, and may be the greatest apocalypse film ever made. It has also been uploaded at YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_MCbTvoNrAg [4]).

[3] Ron Rosenbaum, How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011).