Bob Sheak, April 5, 2022
In February 2020, I wrote and sent out a post titled “The looming danger of nuclear war: the context and the doomsday clock.” I will include a copy of the article after the Forward.
The doomsday clock
The “doomsday clock” refers to annual assessment by scientists and analysts at the site called “Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.” It was started in 1945 by Albert Einstein and University of Chicago Scientists who, as the Bulletin describes it, created “the Doomsday Clock” in 1947, “using the imagery of apocalypse (midnight) and the contemporary idiom of nuclear explosion (countdown to zero) to convey threats to humanity and the planet. The Doomsday Clock is set every year by the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board in consultation with its Board of Sponsors, which includes 11 Nobel laureates. The Clock has become a universally recognized indicator of the world’s vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change, and disruptive technologies in other domains. The clock has been closest to midnight in 2020-2022 of all the years since it was first published.”
The increasing danger of never-justifiable nuclear war
As I point out in my February 2020 article, the existence of nuclear weapons and the competition and potential conflict particularly among major nuclear states, the US, Russia, China, risks war by accident or intention. In the context of the present Russian invasion of Ukraine and Putin’s decision to put Russian nuclear forces on “alert,” nuclear war has generated intensified worldwide concern that such a war could happen, irreversibly in minutes, leading to a US/NATO nuclear response, and, at that point, the extinction of civilization. See Max Fisher’s article, “Putin’s Case for War, Annotated” (https://nytimes.com/2022/02/24/world/europe/putin-ukraine-speech.html).
On the threat of nuclear war stemming from Putin’s war on Ukraine, check out the following. See for example: Alexander Witze’s article on “how a small nuclear war would transform the entire planet (https://nature.com/articles/d14586-020-00794-y), or Mark Lynas’ piece on what the science says on whether humans could survive a nuclear war between NATO and Russia (https://alliance-for-science.cornell.edu/blog/2022/03/what-the-science-says-could-humans-survive-a-nuclear-war-between-nato-and russia), or Daniel Boffey’s report, “Russia reasserts right to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine” (https://theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/26/russia-reasserts-right-to-use-nuclear-weapons-in-ukraine-putin), or Andrew Cockburn’s “The Rising Threat of Nuclear War” (https://counterpunch.org/2022/03/28/the-rising-threat-of-nuclear-war).
Spending more on war preparation
Withal, over time, diplomacy has taken a back seat to military preparedness and escalation. And the US, Russia, and China are all spending more on their respective militaries and “modernizing” their nuclear arsenals, with the U.S. spending far more than the others. William Hartung reports on U.S. military spending, “replete with examples of waste and dysfunction,” as follows (https://commondreams.org/views/2022/03/29/ukraine-war-cannot-justify-bidens-too-damn-high-pentagon-budget). His figures leave out the military spending’s contribution to the ever-rising National Debt.
“The Biden administration’s FY 2023 proposal for national defense, released on Monday, far exceeds what is needed to provide a robust defense of the United States and its allies. At $813 billion, it is substantially more — adjusted for inflation — than spending at the height of the Korean or Vietnam wars, and over $100 billion more than peak spending during the Cold War. The $800 billion-plus figure for national defense includes the Pentagon budget, work on nuclear warheads at the Department of Energy, and smaller defense-related outlays at a number of other federal agencies.”
(I delve into “military spending” in one section of an earlier post, “U.S. militarism: Some Evidence,” at https://vitalissues-bobsheak.com/2021/10/13/u-s-militarism-some-evidence.)
Putin’s war on Ukraine
It is devastating and genocidal war has been intensely filmed and documented by journalists and others. A recent Amnesty International investigative report provides recent documentation (https://amnesty.org/latest/news/2022/04/ukraine-russia-cruel-siege-warfare-tactics-unlawfully-killing-civilians-new-testimony-and-investigation). Here is a sample of what Amnesty International investigators have found.
“For the first time, Amnesty International field investigators in Ukraine have independently verified physical evidence of banned cluster munitions, the use of which violates international law. They have also collected testimony that documents Russian siege tactics, including unlawful indiscriminate attacks, disruption of basic utilities, cuts to communication, destruction of civilian infrastructure, and restrictions on access to medicine and healthcare.”
Putin finds ways to justify the unjustifiable savage invasion
Ukraine has always been a part of Russia; the US/NATO threatens Russia militarily by including countries on the border of Russia (e.g., Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and the prospect that Finland and Sweden will join); Russians in Ukraine are being oppressed by a Nazi, illegitimate Ukrainian state and need to be liberated.
On NATO expansion into eastern Europe, historian Ronald Suny, a Professor of History and Political Science, University of Michigan, points out that it is an issue worth considering, though not a justification for war crimes (https://theconversation.com/ukraine-war-follows-decades-of-warnings-that-nato-expansion-into-eastern-europe-could-provoke-russia-177999). Suny writes:
“The opposing view [to the US/NATO view] argues that Russia’s security concerns are in fact genuine, and that NATO expansion eastward is seen by Russians as directed against their country. Putin has been clear for many years that if continued, the expansion would likely be met with serious resistance by the Russians, even with military action.
“That perspective isn’t held just by Russians; some influential American foreign policy experts have subscribed to it as well.
“Among others, Biden’s CIA director, William J. Burns, has been warning about the provocative effect of NATO expansion on Russia since 1995. That’s when Burns, then a political officer in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, reported to Washington that ‘hostility to early NATO expansion is almost universally felt across the domestic political spectrum here.’”
“In June 1997, 50 prominent foreign policy experts signed an open letter to Clinton, saying, “We believe that the current U.S. led effort to expand NATO … is a policy error of historic proportions” that would “unsettle European stability.”
“In 2008, Burns, then the American ambassador to Moscow, wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice: ‘Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin). In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players, from knuckle-draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin’s sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.’”
The US/NATO view of Putin’s war
The Russian view on NATO is countered by the US/NATO. Here’s some of what Suny tells us.
“The more widespread and familiar view in the West, particularly in the United States, is that Russia is and has always been an expansionist state, and its current president, Vladimir Putin, is the embodiment of that essential Russian ambition: to build a new Russian empire.
“This was … always about naked aggression, about Putin’s desire for empire by any means necessary,” President Joe Biden said on Feb. 24, 2022.
Additionally, the US/NATO position is that many eastern European countries have “democratically” chosen to join NATO and have a sovereign right to do so.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which is not a NATO member, is an example of why NATO membership for that country should be acceptable, if not now then sometime in the future. Here is a statement from The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (https://nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_192648.htm).
“NATO condemns in the strongest possible terms Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine – which is an independent, peaceful and democratic country, and a close NATO partner. The Alliance calls on President Putin to stop this war immediately, withdraw all his forces from Ukraine without conditions and engage in genuine diplomacy.”
No diplomatic breakthroughs yet, and the Russian devastation of Ukraine continues with terrible effects
So far, in the devastating Russian war on Ukraine, consider: peace negotiations have not made headway; the barbaric Russian destruction and death continues, killing and maiming tens of thousands and creating tens of millions of refugees; Ukrainian forces armed by US/NATO fight back; Putin’s threat that he may order the use of nuclear weapons keeps the US and its allies avoiding any militarily direct involvement in the war; and there are harmful repercussions from the effects of the war on US/NATO sanctions on global food and fuel commodities. On the last point, see, for example, Bill Conerly’s article, “The Long-Term Economic Effects of the Ukraine War (https://forbes.com/sites/billionerly/2022/03/30/long-term-economic-effects-of-the-ukraine-war/?sh=7bb4f2ad10fa), or Robin Pomeroy’s “How the Ukraine war is driving up food and energy prices for the world” (https://weforum.org/agenda/2022/03/ukraine-energy-and-food-radio-davos), or Sara Menker and Rajiv Shah’s “Putin’s War Has Started a Global Food Crisis” (https://nytimes.com/2022/04/05/opinion/ukraine-war-food-crisis.html).
It’s not clear at all what circumstances will bring an end to the Russian onslaught on Ukraine – or to the heightened danger of nuclear war. It’s not for the lack of people, scientists, and movements across the world calling for peace. Here are two examples of peace proposals.
- Richard Falk, “Make Peace, Not War” (https://counterpunch.org/2022/03/make-peace-not-war-in-ukraine)
- Jeffrey D. Sachs, “A Blueprint for a Reasonable Path to Peace for Ukraine (https://commondreams.org/views/2022/03/28/blueprint-reasonable-path-peace-ukraine)
Sources of information on the peril of Nuclear weapons and war
The following websites offer information and analysis justifying de-nuclearization and analyses of the historic and current status of nuclear weapons, associated dangers, hotspots, and more.
- The Nonproliferation Review – https://nonproliferation.org/research/nonproliferation-review
- International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons – https://icanw.org
- Nuclear Information Project – https://fas.org/issues/nuclear-weapons
“The looming danger of nuclear war: the context and the doomsday clock.”
The current post was inspired by the 2020 annual report of the Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists specifying its decision to move the minute hand on the “doomsday clock” closer to midnight (end-game for humanity) than ever before in the over 70 years of such decisions. This year’s decision was based on their assessments of the chances for nuclear war and the ongoing cataclysmic advances of the climate crisis. This post focuses on the nuclear war part of the report, since I have recently written on the climate crisis.
There are three parts to my post. The first part provides background and context for understanding the existential threat of nuclear war. The second part reviews the Board’s report. The third part includes my “concluding thoughts.”
The concern about the increasing likelihood of nuclear war is not a topic that much surfaces in the media, or gets much attention in the Democratic presidential primaries, though pocketbook issues understandably resonate with broad swaths of the public. But indications from polls and news reports are that the growing potentiality of nuclear war won’t have much of an impact on how people vote in 2020. However, like the unfolding climate crisis, the growing danger of nuclear war is a well-documented reality that, if we are not extremely lucky, could destroy everything in a wisp of time. And this is not a new concern. Prior to the onset of the Cold War, Albert Einstein sent a telegram on May 1946 to several hundred prominent Americans “asking for contributions to a fund ‘to let the people know that a new type of thinking is essential’ in the atomic age.” In the telegram, he wrote: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” Einstein’ statement is truer today than ever.
Part 1 – The historical and contemporary background on nuclear weapons and the threat to human existence
Nuclear weapons are the deadliest of weapons ever created by humans, in this case by scientists with financing by the federal government (i.e., the taxpayers). Along with anthropogenic climate disruption, or “climate change,” nuclear weapons have the potential to destroy all human societies and much of life on the earth. What a sad accomplishment for us creatures with the most complex organ in the universe – the brain.
The Manhattan Project – letting the genie out of the bottle
The project to create nuclear weapons (then called atomic bombs) was initiated by the government and paid for by taxpayers during the early 1940s. The story of the project, called the Manhattan Project, is captured in detail by Wikipedia, the online free encyclopedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manhattan_Project).
Nuclear weapons – some facts
In hindsight, the creation of atomic bombs appears to have been an expression of the height of human folly by many knowledgeable people and scientists. Whatever, these terribly destructive weapons are a part of present day reality and most civilian and military leaders in the US and Russia, which alone have 93% of the warheads, view them as vital and necessary components of their military arsenals, while basing their views on a hollow and ultimately counter-productive conceptions of nationalism, “national security,” a vapid patriotism, and the self-serving assumption that nuclear arsenals can be managed in ways that deter the use of these weapons. (Richard Falk takes issue with the view that the existing nuclear arsenals can be managed and makes an argument for banning these weapons: https://popularresistance.org/contesting-management-or-transformation-an-urgent-challenge.
While the issue does not attract much mainstream media attention, it continues to be of utmost importance with 15,500 nuclear weapons stockpiled in the world, according to the Arms Control Association. That includes nuclear warheads that are on delivery vehicles and ready to be launched and thousands of warheads in non-operational status that can readily be made operational (https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/Nuclearweaponswhohaswhat).
Some of these warheads are on missiles located on launching pads in the US, on submarines, and on large bombers – and are ready to be launched in just minutes. The Union of Concerned Scientists notes that “the United States still keeps its 450 silo-based nuclear weapons, and hundreds of submarine-based weapons, on hair-trigger alert….around 3,500 total—are deployed on other submarines or bombers, or kept in reserve” (http://www.ucs.usa.org/nuclear-weapons/hair-trigger-alert#.WGbjjeQzXIU). In the meantime, the US military is planning to introduce “‘low-yield’ nuclear weapons on submarine-launched ballistic missiles – weapons that could cause as much damage as the bombs the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The relatively lower-yield of such warheads makes them more likely to be used in a wider range of situations considered to be threatening by the US military command (http://truth-out.org/news/item/43460-pentagon-to-allow-nuclear-responses-to-non-nuclear-attacks).
Perhaps the gravest hotspot, or potential nuclear war situation, is in the highly rancorous and hostile relations between Pakistan (130 nuclear weapons) and India (120 nuclear weapons), particularly over the disputed control of Kashmir. These are two nuclear powers whose troops are within miles of one another. Any slight, accidental, or misunderstood provocation could be the spark that leads to the use of nuclear weapons. And it appears that the Trump administration is aching for the opportunity to wage war on Iran.
There are other nuclear powers, including England, France, China, Israel, and North Korea. At the same time, dozens of countries have the capacity to build nuclear warheads and the means to use them. At one time, six other countries had nuclear weapons but agreed to give them up (Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, South Africa, Iraq, and Libya). There were four other countries on their way to having nuclear weapons and then “shelved their nuclear weapons’ programs” (Argentina, Brazil, South Korea, and Taiwan). These figures come from: https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/Nuclearweaponswhohaswhat).
What about other countries. Per the Nuclear Weapons Archive:
“Virtually any industrialized nation today has the technical capability to develop nuclear weapons within several years if the decision to do so were made. Nations already possessing substantial nuclear technology and arms industries could do so in no more than a year or two. The larger industrial nations (Japan and Germany for example) could, within several years of deciding to do so, build arsenals rivaling those planned by Russia and the U.S. for the turn of the millennium….” (http://nuclearweaponsarchive.org/Nwfaq/Nfaq7-5.html).
The point is that the human world is already in a situation in which any one of the nuclear states could use their weapons for any one of a number of reasons – to extend power, preserve a perceived credibility, destroy an “enemy,” avoid a military defeat, or by accident.
It can be safely assumed that most citizens who even think about these weapons have no idea of how fragile nuclear weapons launching technology and procedures are. Couple this with a president who thinks in tweeter-length thoughts, who likes being right and winning every time, who glories in the spotlight, and you end up with an irrational and accident-prone nuclear weapons control and command system.
The crumbling of nuclear arms agreements between the US and Russia (formerly the Soviet Union)
After having some success in nuclear weapons reduction agreements in the 1960s and first years of the new millennium, the US and Russia now are on a course that is taking the world in the opposite direction, a position taken up and considered later in this post by the board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. This topic has received some attention in the media, especially on important progressive/leftist online websites (e.g., Democracy Now, Truthout, Truthdig, Counterpunch, Antiwar.org).
Daryl Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control organization, reviews the US-Russian nuclear arms control agreements from 1969 to 2014 (https:///www.armscontrol.org/2556).
#1 – A overview of strategic nuclear arms agreements
The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) commenced in November 1969 and led to the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, limiting strategic missile defense to 200, later 100, interceptors each, and then an Interim Agreement, “an executive agreement that capped US and Soviet ICBM and SLBM launch tubes and SLBM-carrying submarines.” There were gaps. “The agreement ignored strategic bombers and did not address warhead numbers, leaving both sides free to enlarge their forces by deploying multiple warheads (MIRVs) onto their ICBMs and SLBMs.” There was a follow-up agreement, SALT II, signed in June 1979, that “limited US and Soviet ICBM, SLBM, and strategic bomber-based nuclear forces to 2,250 delivery vehicles (defined as an ICBM silo, a SLBM launch tube [or missile launcher], or a heavy bomber) and placed a variety of other restrictions on deployed strategic nuclear forces.” However, when the Soviet’s invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, President Jimmy Carter “asked the Senate not to go ahead with the next round of negotiations known as SALT III.
In July 1991, President Ronald Reagan signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), which “required the United States and the Soviet Union to reduce their deployed strategic arsenals to 1,600 delivery vehicles, carrying no more than 6,000 warheads….[and] required the destruction of excess delivery vehicles.” The implementation of this agreement was “delayed for several years because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and ensuing efforts to denuclearize Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus by returning their nuclear weapons to Russia and making them parties to the NPT [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] and Start agreements.” In January 1993, Presidents George H.W. Bush and Boris Yeltsin signed a follow-on agreement, called START II, which “called for reducing deployed strategic arsenals to 3,000-3,500 warheads and banned the deployment of destabilizing multiple-warhead land-based missiles.” However, “START II was effectively shelved as a result of the 2002 US withdrawal from the ABM treaty.” In between 1991 and 2002, Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin “agreed to a framework for START III negotiations… ‘to promote the irreversibility of deep reductions including prevention of a rapid increase in the number of warheads.”
But when START II was abandoned, the negotiations over START III never happened.
Later in 2002, on May 24, 2002, “Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin signed the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT or Moscow treaty), requiring that the United States and Russia reduce their arsenals to 1,700-2,200 warheads each.” This was to take effect on December 31, 2002. One of the limitations of the treaty was that the US limited reductions to warheads “deployed on strategic delivery vehicles in active service, i.e., operationally deployed’ warheads, and would not count warheads removed from service and placed in storage or warheads on delivery vehicles undergoing overhaul or repair. Nonetheless, the Senate and Duma approved the treaty and it entered into force on June 1, 2003.
The process of nuclear arms control agreements got another boost on April 8, 2010, when “the United States and Russia signed New START, a legally binding verifiable agreement that limits each side to 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on 700 strategic delivery systems (ICBMs, SLBMs and heavy bombers), and limits deployed and nondeployed launchers to 800.” This lowered the warhead limits of SORT and included tighter verification requirements, including “on-site inspections and exhibitions, data exchanges and notifications related to strategic offensive arms and facilities covered by the treaty, and provisions to facilitate the use of national technical mans for treaty monitoring.” Additionally, the treaty “provides for the continued exchange of telemetry (missile flight-test data on up to five tests per year) and does not meaningfully limit missile defenses or long-range conventional strike capabilities.” The Treaty was finalized on December 22, 2010, after it was approved by the Russian parliament and the US Senate.
#2 – Non-strategic Nuclear Arms Control Measures
This involves “ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers,” or 311 miles and 3,418 miles. The US and the Soviet Union signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty on December 8, 1987, including ‘intrusive on-site inspections.” The two sides “completed their reductions by June 1, 1991, destroying a total of 2,692 missiles, and later extended after the breakup of the Soviet Union to include “the United States, Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine.” The US became concerned in 2014 that Russia was violating the agreement by deploying ground-launched missiles that were prohibited. This would later give Trump a reason to withdraw from the agreement – rather than to seek a negotiated resolution.
The undoing of nuclear arms control agreements
Legal scholar Marjorie Cohn provides an informative analysis of the breakdown of US-Russian nuclear weapons treaties in an article titled “US Refusal to Negotiate with Russia Increases likelihood of Nuclear War” (https://www.truth-out.org/news/item/43811-us-refusal-to-negotiate-with-russia-increases-likelihood-of-nuclear-war). She reminds us that George W. Bush withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with Russia, which called for the reductions of anti-ballistic missile defenses in both countries. Cohn quotes David Krieger, founder of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation: “The fuel for a new nuclear arms race was already on fire, and a Russian strategic response was predictable, when the US withdrew from the ABM Treaty and began developing a replacing missile defense systems globally. The US withdrawal and abrogation of the ABM Treaty may prove to be the greatest strategic blunder of the nuclear age.” Obama also contributed to the undermining of the nuclear détente with Russia when he signed off on the policy to “modernize” the US nuclear bomb arsenal. The official US nuclear arms position as reflected in the US Nuclear Posture Review has also, Cohn notes, reduced “the threshold for using nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear attacks, including cyberattacks, in ‘extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States, its allies and partners.”
Enter Donald Trump
Now there is increased concern about US nuclear weapons and control and command over the nuclear arsenals. President-elect Trump has twittered and blustered in his braggadocio, narcissistic manner, that it may be better for the world if even more countries possessed their own nuclear weapons (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Japan, South Korea), implied that he might use nuclear weapons in the Middle East to “wipe out ISIS,” suggested that the US could win an escalated nuclear arms race, has withdrawn the US from the multilateral agreement with Iran over its nuclear energy program, is totally and unconditionally in support of Israel (which is in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation international treaty and whose policies intensify the repression of Palestinians and the expropriation of their land), appears to be committed to streamlining the “modernization” of the US nuclear weapons system. Trump has tweeted: “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” From Trump’s shallow knowledge of the subject and bully-boy temperament, there is no place for a policy of nuclear weapons reductions or nuclear weapons free zones, such as been proposed for the Middle East. From what we know, Trump is likely to behave impulsively in a crisis – and order helter-skelter the lunch of nuclear weapons against Iran, Russia, North Korea, or some other perceived adversary. That would cause unimaginatively catastrophic and irreversible war. Indeed, a war to end all wars.
Bear in mind that Trump’s mental instability, impulsiveness, malicious narcissism, and con man approach to policy does not bode well for America or humanity given the power of his presidency. (See the new books: (1) Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, A Very Stable Genius, and (2) Mark Green and Ralph Nader, Fake President: Decoding Trump’s Gaslighting, Corruption, and General Bullsh*t.)
History professor and author Lawrence Wittner writes on how arms control and disarmament agreements have been “rapidly unraveling” under Trump’s administration (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2019/07/29/dear-moderates-presidential-debates-how-raising-issues-how-avert-nuclear-war). He gives the following examples. On May 2018, “the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the laboriously-constructed Iran nuclear agreement that had closed off the possibility of that nation developing nuclear weapons.”
Then on February of 2019, “the Trump announced that, in August, the US government will withdraw from the Reagan era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty – the historical agreement that had banned US and Russian ground-launched cruise missiles – and would proceed to develop such weapons.” Russian President Vladimir Putin responded in kind. The 2010 New Start Treaty is also on the chopping block, that is the treaty that “reduces US and Russian deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 each, limits US and Russian nuclear delivery vehicles, and provides for extensive inspection.”
Wittner notes that if the treaty is allowed to expire, “it would be the first time since 1972 that there would be no nuclear arms control agreement between Russia and the United States.” Then there are other ominous messages from the White House and Pentagon. Wittner adds: Some in Trump’s administration are pressing for a US resumption of nuclear weapons testing. The push for “modernizing the nuclear arsenal, with the introduction of new types of nuclear warheads, is gaining support in the White House, a violation of Article VI of the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. And the US Joints Chiefs of Staff are expressing “new interest in nuclear warfare,” declaring in a June 2019 planning document that “using nuclear weapons could create conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability.”
A history of nuclear weapons accidents
There is a long history of accidents at nuclear weapons’ launching missile sites, both in the US and Russia (formerly the Soviet Union), that came within minutes of starting a nuclear war. This history is painstakingly documented by Eric Schlosser in his book Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety, and in an article for The New Yorker, titled “World War Three, by Mistake (Dec 23, 2016). You can find the article at: http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/world-war-three-by-mistake.
Schlosser’s main argument is that “harsh political rhetoric, combined with the vulnerability of the nuclear command-and-control system, has made the risk of global catastrophe greater than ever.” He concludes his long article with the following ominous words.
“My greatest concern is the lack of public awareness about this existential threat, the absence of a vigorous public debate about the nuclear-war plans of Russia and the United States, the silent consent to the roughly fifteen thousand nuclear weapons in the world. These machines have been carefully and ingeniously designed to kill us. Complacency increases the odds that, someday, they will. The ‘Titanic Effect’ is a term used by software designers to explain how things can quietly go wrong in a complex technological system: the safer you assume the system to be, the more dangerous it is becoming.”
Fred Pearce devotes an entire book to how accidents, mis-judgements, out-right lies have almost triggered nuclear war. See his book Fallout: Disasters, Lies, and The Legacy of the Nuclear Age. In his book, The Doomsday Machine, Daniel Ellsberg writes: “every president from Truman to Clinton has felt compelled at some point in time in office – usually in great secrecy – to threaten and/or discuss with the Joint Chiefs of Staff plans and preparation for possible imminent US initiation of tactical or strategic nuclear warfare, in the midst of an ongoing non-nuclear conflict or crisis” (pp .319-322). There were also such instances during the Bush Jr administration and, much more blatantly under Trump, who have talked about bombing North Korea and Afghanistan with nuclear weapons (see Mark Green and Ralph Nader’s book, Fake President: Decoding Trump’s Gaslighting, Corruption, and General Bullsh*t, the chapter on “War and Peace”).
There are more fingers on the nuclear launch button that the president’s
“For decades, Americans have been told that there is “exclusive presidential control of the decision to go to nuclear war and how it is to be conducted.” This officially propounded view is “embodied by the iconic ‘football,’ the briefcase carried by a presidential military aide that is to accompany the president ‘at all times,’ containing codes and electronic equipment by which the president, on receiving warning of a nuclear attack, can convey to the military his choice of a response ‘option’ to be executed” (p. 67-68). Ellsberg argues this is not true: “It was not only the president who could make the decision and issue the orders, and not even…the secretary of defense or the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon, but commanders in the field thousands of miles from Washington who thought their forces might be about to be destroyed…. In some circumstances, commanders of four-star rank could issue in their own name an authorized directive to undertake nuclear attack without the immediate prior involvement of the president” (p. 68).
This “hidden” decentralized command structure is considered to be necessary because of the threat of decapitation, that is, that the president and other high government officials in Washington DC could be wiped out by a surprise nuclear attack. Ellsberg puts it this way. “A single nuclear warhead on the capital could kill not only the president but all of his legally designated successors in the cabinet and Congress (and the JCS along with the secretary of defense, the only civilian aside from the president in the military chain of command) – all of them who were in town at that moment. If nuclear deterrence were to have any substantial backing at all – if it were to be more than an empty bluff – it could not be the case that one such explosion would definitively block any authorized, coordinated nuclear response to that or any subsequent attack” (p. 69).
America’s “First Use”policy of nuclear weapons
Ellsberg makes this point.
“Preparation for preemption or for carrying out threats of first use or first strike remains the essence of the ‘modernization’ program for strategic weapons for the last seventy years – prospectively being extended by Presidents Obama and Trump to one hundred years – that has continuously benefited our military-industrial-complex” (p. 324)….“The felt political need to profess, at least, to believe that the ability to make and carry out nuclear threats is essential to US national security and to our leadership in our alliances is why every single president has refused to make a formal ‘no-first-use’ (NFU) commitment” (p. 324)
“…the United States has tenaciously resisted the pleas of most other nations in the world to make an NFU pledge as an essential basis for stopping proliferation, including at the Nonproliferation Treaty Extension Conference in 1995 and the Review Conference since 2000. Moreover, the United States has demanded that NATO continue to legitimize first-use threat by basing its own strategy on them, even after the USSR and the Warsaw Pact had dissolved (and most of the former Pact members had joined NATO. Yet this stubborn stance – along with actual threats of possible US nuclear first use in more recent confrontations with Iraq, North Korea, and Iran – virtually precludes effective leadership by the United States (and perhaps anyone else) in delegitimizing and averting further proliferation and even imitation of US use of nuclear weapons” (324-325)
“UN Resolution 36/100, the Declaration on the Prevention of Nuclear Catastrophe… was adopted on December 9, 1981, in the wake of Reagan’s endorsement of the Carter Doctrine – openly extending US first-use threats to the Persian Gulf – which this resolution directly contradicted and implicitly condemned. It declares in its preamble: ‘Any doctrine allowing the first use of nuclear weapons and any actions pushing the world toward a catastrophe are incompatible with human moral standards and the lofty ideals of the UN” (p. 325) – 82 nations voted in favor of it, 41 abstained (under pressure from US), 19 opposed it (including the US, Israel and most NATO member nations).”
No nation, no people, can survive an even limited, regional nuclear war with warheads in the present nuclear arsenals. Even a first-use attack by, say, the US to destroy the nuclear-launching capacity of, say Russia, would produce a worldwide catastrophe. The smoke from nuclear bomb blasts would rise into the atmosphere and remain there for an extended period, enough to cripple food production around the world. (See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_winter). There are no winners in nuclear war. However, the “doctors strange loves” in the Pentagon are busy at designing smaller nuclear weapons that may not themselves produce a nuclear winter.
Other effects of a nuclear war
Then there is the radiation from nuclear blasts. Robert Jacobs describes some of the chaos and hardship that would prevail after nuclear war had commenced (https://truth-out.org/news/item/3290-we-cannot-survive-a-nuclear-apocalpse-by-ducking-and-covering). He offers this graphic example: “After a nuclear attack, the suggestion that one [a survivor] can go somewhere and find clean water is ridiculous. Or that one could take their contaminated clothes off and simply find uncontaminated clothes nearby. Or that washing your hair one time will remove the systemic dangers of being in a radiologically contaminated environment, and your hair would not simply reabsorb some of that radiation. Or that shampoo would be contaminated, etc.” Jacobs refers to a study by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) which concluded that the radiation produced by a hydrogen bomb “detonated over Washington DC would have the following effects: “not only would everyone in Washington DC be dead from the blast and heat of the weapons, but everyone in Baltimore, Philadelphia and half the population of New York City would soon die of radiation sickness if they did not immediately evacuate.”
Part 2 – The Minute hand of the Doomsday Clock is moved closer to “midnight.”
The Science and Security board of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists have just made their annual adjustment of “the doomsday clock” (https://thebulletin.org/doomsday-clock/current-time). The prestigious scientific board uses the doomsday clock as a symbol of how distant or close the minute hand is from midnight, which, if ever reached, would, in their considered estimation, result in a cataclysmic outcome, most likely the end of humanity and much of life on the planet in the case of nuclear war.
In their 2020 report, editor John Mecklin writes: “the members of the Science and Security Board have concluded that the complex technological threats the world faces are at least as dangerous today as they were last year and the year before, when we set the Clock at two minutes to midnight (as close as it had ever been, and the same setting that was announced in 1953, after the United States and the Soviet Union tested their first thermonuclear weapons).” In January, the board moved the minute hand to 100 seconds before midnight, the closest it has ever been to this end-game time over all the years the board has been publishing its assessments. While the board includes both the prospects of climate change as well as nuclear war in is recent decisions, the focus in this post will be on the threat of nuclear war. (I have recently written on the climate crisis.)
The board offers two multifaceted justifications for its decision. One is that the danger of nuclear war is increased by “cyber-enabled information warfare.” This is a multifaceted technology that will have the effect of reducing the time it takes to recognize a nuclear missile attack, but at the same time increases the chances of launching nuclear bombs because of mistaken information….computers that control bombs may be hacked….“many governments used cyber-enabled disinformation campaigns to sow distrust in institutions and among nations.”
They refer specifically to “the emergence of new destabilizing technologies in artificial intelligence, space, hypersonics, and biology,” all of which, the board contends, “portend a dangerous and multifaceted global instability.” ICAN provides an in-depth analysis of how these “emerging technologies” increase the risk of nuclear war, as they “add another layer of risk to an already unacceptable level of risk of nuclear weapons use” (https://popularresistance.org/emerging-technologies-and-nuclear-risks ). A 2018 study by Chatham House of cyber security and nuclear weapons found, according to ICAN: “The risks of a cyber-attack on nuclear weapons systems raise significant doubts about the reliability and integrity of such systems in a time crisis, regarding the ability to: a) launch a weapon b) prevent an inadvertent attack c) maintain command and control of all military system d) transmit information and other communication e) maintenance and reliability of such systems.”
The board’s second justification for moving the minute hand on the doomsday clock closer to midnight concerns that the heightened danger of nuclear war is compounded by the erosion of the “international political infrastructure for managing” the nuclear arsenals of the US and other countries. “They write: “national leaders have ended or undermined several major arms control treaties and negotiations during the last year, creating an environment conducive to a renewed nuclear arms race, to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and to lowered barriers to nuclear war. Political conflicts regarding nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea remain unresolved and are, if anything, worsening. US-Russia cooperation on arms control and disarmament is all but nonexistent.”
The Board concludes its report on a positive note, despite all the bad news, and assume, first, the nuclear dangers can be potentially managed and kept from happening and, second, that “there are many practical, concrete steps that leaders could take – and citizens should demand – to improve the current, absolutely unacceptable state of world security affairs.” What are the practical steps?
“US and Russian leaders can return to the negotiating table to: reinstate the INF Treaty or take other action to restrain an unnecessary arms race in medium-range missiles; extend the limits of the New START beyond 2021; seek further reductions in nuclear arms; discuss a lowering of the alert status of the nuclear arsenals of both countries; limit nuclear modernization programs that threaten to create a new nuclear arms race; and start talks on cyber warfare, missile defenses, the militarization of space, hypersonic technology, and the elimination of battlefield nuclear weapons.”
Further: “The United States and other signatories of the Iran nuclear deal can work together to restrain nuclear proliferation in the Middle East….Whoever wins the United States’ 2020 presidential election must prioritize dealing with this problem, whether through a return to the original nuclear agreement or via negotiation of a new and broader accord.”
Additionally: “The international community should begin multilateral discussions aimed at establishing norms of behavior, both domestic and international, that discourage and penalize the misuse of science.”
Finally, there must be attention given to the need “to prevent information technology from undermining public trust in political institutions, in the media, and in the existence of objective reality itself. Cyber-enabled information warfare is a threat to the common good. Deception campaigns – and leaders intent on blurring the line between fact and politically motivated fantasy – are a profound threat to effective democracies, reducing their ability to address nuclear weapons, climate change, and other existential dangers.”
Part 3 – Concluding thoughts
The proposals by the Board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists may be the best that can be advanced, however unlikely they are to be implemented, especially during the ascendancy of the Trump administration. Trump often refers to nuclear weapons as a tool to be used to threaten and intimidate adversarial nations at a whim, to get attention, or to really mean it without any understanding or regard of the dreadful and irretrievable consequences of launching nuclear weapons. As the nuclear situation stands now, one thing is crystal clear, that is, Trump, the Republican Party, and their corporate enablers will not follow the recommendations of the Board or anyone else who proposes that more diplomacy with the goal of multilateral agreements should be the basis for moving away from “midnight,” with the goal of phasing out nuclear weapons.
Indeed, in a rationale world based on verifiable, scientifically based evidence, the world leaders would be not only taking “practical” steps to reduce the chances of war but making efforts to ban nuclear weapons altogether. This is not so far-fetched. On July 7, 2017, “some 130 countries” at the United Nations successfully negotiated a treaty to outlaw nuclear weapons and, according to a report by Kennette Benedict for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, “agreed to make the developing, testing, manufacturing, possessing, or stockpiling of nuclear weapons by any state illegal” (https://thebulletin.org/prohibition-nuclear-weapons-treaty-10936). As with the festering and accelerating climate crisis, nations have little time to come together and truly advance such an effort.
In the US, the 2020 elections will represent a seminal moment in the country’s history. If Trump and the Republicans win, the existential threats faced by the country – and the world – will be ignored and made worse than they are. If “moderate” Democrats win, then there is the possibility that the threats will be acknowledged but insufficiently addressed. It will take political candidates with transformative agendas to give the country a chance of possibly advancing policies that lead us away from the “midnight” of nuclear war. The odds of this happening are not good, but not impossible.
There is some public concern. Wittner refers to a May 2019 opinion poll by the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland that found “two-thirds of US respondents favored remaining within the INF Treaty, 80 percent wanted to extend the New START Treaty, about 60% supported ‘phasing out’ US intercontinental ballistic missiles, and 75 percent back legislation requiring congressional approval before the president could order a nuclear attack” (cited previously). Dahr Jamail offers a detailed report (Truthout, Nov 11, 2018) on how “physicians work to bring back the anti-nuclear movement (https://truthout.org/articles/physicians-work-to-bring-back-the-anti-nuclear-movement).
According to an article by Jon Letman (Truthout, January 13, 2020), “cities in the crosshairs are pushing back against nuclear weapons” (https://truthout.org/articles/cities-in-the-crosshairs-are-pushing-back-against-nuclear-weapons).
And, in a report by Marjorie Cohn (Truthout, Oct 28, 2019), some brave anti-nuclear activists engage in non-violent acts of disobedience against US nuclear facilities, even though it may result in long-term imprisonment (https://truthout.org/articles/convicted-anti-nuclear-activists-speak-out-pentagon-has-brainwashed-people).
James Carden writes in an article for the Nation magazine (Oct 2, 2019): “women state legislators and advocacy groups are uniting to call for a no-first-use nuclear policy” (https://thenation.com/article/trump-nuclear-proliferation). There are, moreover, some Democrats in the US Congress who vote against increases in the bloated military budget and who favor nuclear arms control initiatives, if not a ban on these horrendous weapons.