Sunday, June 9, 2024

Three reviews of books about nuclear weapons and nuclear war

Nuclear War: A Scenario by Annie Jacobsen
(reviewed June, 2024 by Sharon and Ace Hoffman)

“Nuclear War: A Scenario” (pub. March, 2024) by Annie Jacobsen forces readers to contemplate the incomprehensible: A global war that begins with a nuclear first strike: A “bolt-out-of-the-blue” as nuclear strategists call it.

The book considers one specific triggering event to illustrate the start of a global disaster that would harm or kill every living thing on the planet. At the same time, Jacobsen makes it clear that many different triggering events could lead to the same catastrophic results. It won’t matter which country fires the first shot, or why. It won’t matter precisely how many nuclear weapons each country has or even which country is the target of the initial strike.

The book forces readers to recognize that after the first nuclear weapon is fired, the precarious standoff that has prevailed since 1945 would quickly collapse. Once deterrence fails, it is almost inevitable that every nuclear state is going to execute its plan to destroy its enemies and therefore, the entire planet.

In Jacobsen’s Scenario it quickly becomes apparent that the response options available to the President of the United States and his military commanders allow little or no time for discussion, negotiation, or communication (other than military orders). Jacobsen explains that these limitations to a “rational” response almost certainly exist in the government and military of every nuclear nation.

In Jacobsen’s Scenario, the United States and Russia both make erroneous assumptions which have disastrous consequences. The decision makers acknowledge that their assumptions may be incorrect, and that the results of their actions could spell doom for millions of their own citizens. Nevertheless, both sides launch their entire nuclear arsenals as quickly as possible. Before the other side can destroy them.

The target of one nuclear missile in Jacobsen’s Scenario is a nuclear power plant (Diablo Canyon in California). Jacobsen vividly describes how the radiation released from the reactors and their spent fuel magnifies the destruction and suffering caused by a single bomb. Reading about the repercussions of bombing Diablo Canyon should give pause to everybody watching the ongoing military conflicts worldwide, especially around the Zaporizhzhia reactors in Ukraine, currently being held “hostage” by Russia.

Jacobsen also emphasizes the impact nuclear war would have on the electronic devices that pervade modern life by including in her Scenario a bomb specifically exploded to release a massive electromagnetic pulse (EMP) above the United States. The EMP causes planes to fall out of the sky, cars to stop (or fail to stop) regardless of driver input, and electric grids, sewage plants, and gas pipelines to fail. Communication reverts to a time before telephones, radio, television or the Internet.

Jacobsen gathered data from many different perspectives and talked extensively with people who have studied nuclear war scenarios for decades. The book cites interviews with political leaders including former U.S. Secretaries of Defense Leon Panetta and Dr. William J. Perry, as well as military leaders including General C. Robert Keller (former commander, U.S. Strategic Command) and Vice Admiral Michael J. Conner (former commander, U.S. nuclear submarine forces).

The final section of “Nuclear War: A Scenario” explains in horrific detail that the results of a nuclear attack are not limited to the combatants. An attack on a single country by a single other country would cause global devastation as fallout spreads and nuclear winter descends upon the Earth. Jacobsen’s description of a freezing world where nothing grows, clean water doesn’t exist, and radiation contaminates everything is terrifying.

“Nuclear War: A Scenario” by Annie Jacobsen explains why deescalation in nuclear war is highly unlikely, while unstoppable escalation is nearly inevitable.


The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War by Fred Kaplan
(reviewed June, 2024 by Sharon and Ace Hoffman)

“The Bomb” (pub. 2020) by Fred Kaplan uncovers the complex history of nuclear policy in the United States. From Eisenhower to Trump, “The Bomb” explores the options the U.S. government considered and the decisions that were made.

Some presidents had goals for nuclear policy from their first day in office, but were unable to achieve those goals. Other presidents began their administration with one perspective and changed their minds as they learned more, and/or as circumstances changed. For example, President Kennedy came very close to using nuclear weapons during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but Kaplan explores in depth why, when, and how Kennedy’s perspective changed.

President Reagan’s thinking about nuclear war began to change after he watched “The Day After” (a 1979 television special about the aftermath of a nuclear war). It took several more years and a change of leadership in the Soviet Union, but Reagan and Gorbachev negotiated a drastic reduction in nuclear arsenals. In the mid-1980s there were approximately 70,000 nuclear warheads globally. As of 2024, there are approximately 12,500 warheads in the arsenals of nine nuclear states (currently, the United States and Russia each have more than 5,000 warheads).

Each administration’s nuclear policy decisions involve a complex juggling act. Before announcing a new policy or even making a speech about a possible change in policy, the potential reactions from other countries – both allies and adversaries – must be considered. Conflicting priorities within the government can also impact whether a policy change is possible. For example: Will the Joint Chiefs and their Congressional allies support ratification of a treaty that reduces a specific type of nuclear weapon?

In addition to investigating each president’s perspective and how it evolved (or not), Kaplan introduces many other people who have participated in nuclear policy decisions. For example, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and his Rand Corporation “whiz kids” were active participants during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and many of their ideas continue to impact U.S. nuclear policy.

Most people today would probably agree that ANY nuclear weapon’s use is “overkill” by its very nature, but historically it’s been a hard argument to make. As an example, Kaplan describes how Frank Miller spent decades investigating the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP, and yes, it’s pronounced the same as “psy-op”). Miller’s team eventually got access to data that showed that the SIOP involved firing multiple missiles at practically every target in the Soviet Union. Miller’s team finally convinced both the military planners and the government strategists that most of those missiles were redundant. (Perhaps that was the real psy-op -- but a very necessary one.)

A more than 80% reduction in nuclear warheads since the 1980s is certainly a huge improvement (even though it’s not nearly good enough). But it wasn’t easy or inevitable. Kaplan’s “The Bomb” explains how it happened.


Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom by Elaine Scarry
(reviewed June, 2024 by Sharon and Ace Hoffman)

In this extraordinary book (pub. 2014), Elaine Scarry explains how nuclear weapons violate the social contracts upon which all societies and governments depend. Starting with the United States Constitution and its provisions for declaring and waging war, “Thermonuclear Monarchy” explores how the threat of nuclear attack leads to undeclared and illegal wars. Delving deep into the underlying principles that support all governments – whether ancient monarchies or modern democracies – Scarry shows that executive control of nuclear weapons is illegal because it undermines the fundamental right to live in safety.

“Thermonuclear Monarchy” emphasizes that it is the responsibility of citizens and their representatives to control the means for waging war, and that consent of the governed is the mechanism used to assert this control. Scarry shows the importance of consent by exploring its role in medical practice and other personal social contracts such as marriage. She points out that medical patients control the actions of their physicians by giving or withholding consent, and that citizens must be able to control the actions of their governments by explicitly withholding consent to use nuclear weapons.

Scarry equates the care a physician must take to treat each patient with compassion and expertise to the role of the legislature in carefully deliberating before declaring war. She emphasizes that legislative debate is an important brake on hasty decisions, and helps ensure that all other options have been exhausted first.

Most importantly, Scarry tackles the argument that the emergency nature of a nuclear response requires suspension of the normal rules. This dangerous argument has been used since the beginning of the nuclear age to usurp the requirement for declarations of war and to put control of nuclear weapons in the hands of a few people – whether chief executives such as the U.S. President, military leaders, or tactical military personnel such as bomber pilots, submarine captains, or those manning missile silos.

Scarry reminds us that in any emergency, people need a predefined plan that has been practiced and can be executed without panic. For example, by practicing CPR according to a well-documented plan, two people who have never met (and may not even speak the same language) can work together to save the life of a third person. Similarly, in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Congress did not abdicate responsibility for declaring war – instead the legislature considered the importance of the decision they were making and engaged in thoughtful – though urgent – debate.

“Thermonuclear Monarchy” explains that the arguments presented for giving up control of nuclear weapons in an emergency are actually the antithesis of proper planning. Instead of ceding control to the executive branch to react unilaterally to the emergency, both the government and the citizens should prepare for emergencies. Since planning for a nuclear war is impossible, citizens and their representatives must eliminate nuclear weapons and take back control over, and responsibility for, declaring and waging war.

Nuclear weapons keep the citizens of earth constantly at risk of sudden annihilation. “Thermonuclear Monarchy” by Elaine Scarry explains how utterly immoral that is.


Response to this newsletter:

"I read Thermonuclear Monarchy years ago and tell people it is a meditation on the second amendment that has nothing to do with gun rights."
-- comment from Jan Boudart, secretary, Nuclear Energy Information Service (