Nuclear Luck


We pity the climate deniers, so blinded by their ideology they are reduced to what they think just must be true, even if it contradicts scientific findings. Blinded by ideology and apparently, in some cases, guided by an economic interest in selling fossil fuels, the deniers keep returning to arguments and speculations shown to be false.

In the end they will mumble, “mistakes were made.” (Not by them.) Meanwhile, they insist it’s not reasonable to “upset a whole economy” in response to a “theory.” Even if the transition would create jobs. Even if the theory is a scientific consensus .

However, there is another situation, just as dangerous, a situation that many of us just accept: the danger of a full-scale nuclear exchange. Is it denial to assume that the absence of nuclear war for seven decades proves stability? Or that there’s no alternative?

Besides being perilous, the two issues differ in some ways:

  • The climate changes slowly, while a full-scale nuclear exchange would be relatively quick;
  • Fossil fuels have powered our civilization, while nuclear explosive devices have no peaceful value;
  • Everybody uses coal, oil and natural gas, which is as close as the corner filling station or the electrical outlet, while the nuclear system is mainly invisible;
  • The nuclear issue had been obvious since Hiroshima in 1945; while James Hansen’s Congressional testimony about climate change was delivered only in 1988.

But the two dangers (greenhouse gases and “deliverable” nukes) can each kill us.

Here I want to to write not about climate change, but about the nuclear situation, and to relate it to events in my own life. The generation that was born around the Second World War and that started to grow up in the Eisenhower era may have something to offer to those for whom nuclear systems have always been normal.

It was in 1938 that a German experiment showed that a nuclear chain reaction was possible, and it wasa in 1945 that the first fruit of the Manhattan Project exploded at Alamogordo, New Mexico, then above two cities in southern Japan. When he USSR soon got the atomic bomb and then the “super,” we school-kids here were taught to “duck and cover,” as if our desks would somehow protect us. Sometimes during drills we were led into the school’s basement next to the boiler broom.

When still in grade school I saw a large-format magazine in my best-friend’s living room. It had an article showing what would be destroyed if a nuclear bomb exploded above Times Square in Manhattan. My father’s office was nearby.

At the time I didn’t deny it could happen. I just felt it was unlikely, not something to worry about, any more than falling out of a well-built tree-house. Besides, what could Dad do?

I began to worry again only in college when reading brilliant books such as two published in 1960: Herman Kahn’s On Thermonuclear War and Thomas C. Schelling’s The Strategy of Conflict. In addition, I heard Kahn address a seminar run by Henry Kissinger, who later served as a top advisor to President Nixon. The assertion that nuclear explosive devices could be used in a “limited” way that surely would not lead to a full-scale exchange did not fit with what I was learning as a history major about how decisions had been made in the real world, by people other than game theorists.

In late 1961 a college room-mate and I happened to be in Berlin when the famous wall was thrown up and tanks faced off at what our side called Checkpoint Charlie. But it was the Cuban Missile Crisis in late 1962 that revealed the danger of the situation that we took almost for granted, the situation of two nations threatening each other with “retaliation” while suspecting the other side might, at any moment, “preempt” and strike first.

I knew that crisis was dangerous, but how dangerous did not become plain until 1986 when I was told a nuclear secret by a former aide to Premier Khrushchev.

Meanwhile, back in 1963, I realized that the missile crisis had made John Kennedy somewhat less of a Cold Warrior and had helped him to respond creatively to the dangerous station we were in. At American University, in the season before his assassination, he delivered what was called “a strategy of peace.

This was followed, the next year, by Stanley Kubrick’s genius-level movie, “Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” (Dr. Strangelove, in the war room, was played by Peter Sellers.) Of course, Kubrick’s message was that it’s crazy even to tolerate the bomb.

Although most of the critical commentary concerned the alleged impossibility of a rogue officer starting a nuclear war, a fallacious assurance, most critics missed or downplayed the possibility of a “doomsday machine.” As Dr. Strangelove points out when the Soviet ambassador reveals that his side,fearing aho surprise attack, has constructed a secret device to poison the whole globe with radioactivity, what would be the benefit of building such a machine and then keeping it secret? Yet as we found out decades later, that is exactly what the Soviets did with their “Perimeter” system (or as they called it, the “dead hand”).

Returning to what was known here at the time, at least two of the top people in the administrations of JFK and LBJ (1961-65), when asked how we had avoided nuclear war, gave the same one-word reply, “luck.” One of these well-informed officials had served as Secretary of Defense; the other, as the President’s National Security Adviser. As a student newspaper executive in college I had met weekly with the latter, then a dean, and knew he did not give frivolous answers.

As the U.S. Minuteman missile program began to replace the bombers of Kubrick’s satire, my father did his part by supplying equipment that got electricity into the missile silos. Otherwise how could the missiles ever take off? I continued to assume there was no alternative.

In 1968 Robert Jay Lifton gave us his book about effects of the first use of a nuclear bomb, Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima. The bomb killed many by blast and fire, but many others were injured or poisoned by radioactivity. In contrast to the distinction of the Geneva Convention between combatants and civilians, the target was a whole city. Scholars later showed that the Japanese were ready to surrender.

War critics were distracted from the persisting nuclear danger by increasing U.S. involvement in Vietnam. At the risk of spending his life in prison, Daniel Ellsberg released secret papers about the lies that sustained and protected the U.S. involvement, documents pprinted in 1971 by the New York Times and many other newspapers. In the same year my mentor Nwvitt Sanford and I co-edited a book called Sanctions for Evil: Sources of Social Destructiveness. (The paperback editions of both books were published by Beacon Press.)

By this point, I was against the adventure in Vietnam, as well as troubled by the nuclear stand-off, but it was not until the early 1980s that the latter issue became more salient for me.:

  • Randy Forsberg led a broad movement called The Nuclear Freeze;
  • In 1980 the Palme Commission report introduced the concept of ”common security,” a concept that had a decisive impact on Mikhail Gorbachev, who was not yet General Secretary;
  • In 1982 Jonathan Schell gave us The Fate of the Earth (which, like John Hersey’s account of Hiroshima, appeared first in the New Yorker magazine);
  • In the mid 1980s I attended what was in effect a NATO conference in Berlin where it became obvious that the response to an attack from the East would be the use of nuclear devices

But would the Cold War ever end? Very few thought so.

In 1983 Yuri Andropov, the leader of the USSR, suspected that the West was plotting a surprise nuclear attack on his country, using the NATO exercise called “Able Archer” as cover, and he tasked the KGB, of which he had been Chairman, to compile evidence of this nefarious plot. We don’t know exactly how close he came to striking first. In any case, the US was not planning to attack, and remained ignorant of Soviet suspicions. As a member of the Politburo, Mikhail Gorbachev must have been aware of Andropov’s near-mistake. I have suggested that the end of the original Cold War stemmed in part from Gorbachev’s sensing the instability of the nuclear system.

At this juncture, but not yet knowing about the Able Archer episode, I had lunch with a prospective client, a millionaire who wanted to write a book, start a foundation, and do some good in the world. I was then a “book creation coach” who worked with private clients. I asked a routine question: “what are your goals?” He wanted to help end the Cold War. Drawing on the common wisdom, I gently replied this was admirable but would be difficult. “I know it's impossible, Craig,” he said, “but it's necessary.”

Together we edited a pair of books, Citizen Summitry and Securing Our Planet (Tarcher, 1986). It occurs to me that the latter was a sort of extension of the Palme Report. The former book included some contributions by Soviet writers who were asked to envision a positive future. As citizen diplomats, we traveled to Moscow and back in the US we appeared on over a hundred radio and TV programs.

In 1988 in London I saw Michael Frayn’s play, “Copenhagen,” about a fictional 1941 meeting between Nils Bohr, the Danish physicist, and his German colleague, Werner Heisenberg. Each wanted to find out whether the other side was working toward a nuclear bomb. I came to admire Bohr, in part for his brilliance as a physicist, in part for his response to an idea put forward by a young physicist at a scientific conference. Here’s how I heard the story: When asked for his group’s reaction, Bohr` said his group agreed the young man’s idea was crazy, but some members, including Bohr, wondered whether it was crazy enough to be true! (In response to this quality of mind, I once made a pilgrimage to Bohr’s institute while traveling to Copenhagen).

Is there a certain resonance between Bohr’s recognition that great ideas often sound crazy at first, and my colleague’s invitation to help in a seemingly impossible task because “it’s necessary”? In any case, I was drawn to these attitudes.

It’s strange about impossibility. Almost anything out of what is normal can seem not worth thinking about, as if it’s impossible. For example, the scenario of a tsunami wrecking a seaside nuclear power plant, as at Fukushima. For example, the Challenger rocket explosion. For example, the 2007-08 financial collapse. For example, the loss of (or stalemate in) every U.S. war since 1945. Clearly, these things did occur, but we don't like to think about them.

Which brings us to 2017 and the publication of Daniel Ellsberg’s book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. Looking back, as in the recent PBS documentary about the war in Vietnam, we know that healing is possible from a regional war fought with “conventional” weapons. However, a single full-scale exchange of nuclear devices would be one exchange too many. In this era, we can no longer learn from experience., a process on which humans have often relied.

We like to congratulate ourselves that “the system is working.” But the political system is not working and cannot work as long as many of us are blinded by denial, whether about greenhouse gases or nuclear explosive devices.

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.