Seven writers on surviving the nuclear present, published in Harper’s Magazine, December 2017 (with two essays from The Nation further below)
- Rachel Bronson is the executive director and publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
- Mohammed Hanif’s third novel, Red Birds, will be published next year by Bloomsbury.
- Lydia Millet’s next book, the short story collection Fight No More, will be published in 2018 by W. W. Norton.
- Theodore Postol is a professor emeritus of science, technology, and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
- Elaine Scarry is a professor of English at Harvard University. She is the author of Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom (W. W. Norton).
- Eric Schlosser is the author of Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety (Penguin).
- Alex Wellerstein is a professor of science and technology studies at the Stevens Institute of Technology, and a principal investigator at the Reinventing Civil Defense project.
Introduction by Harper’s:
In February 1947, Harper’s Magazine published Henry L. Stimson’s ‘The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb’. As secretary of war, Stimson had served as the chief military adviser to President Truman and recommended the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The terms of his unrepentant apologia, an excerpt of which appears on page 35, are now familiar to us: the risk of a dud made a demonstration too risky; the human cost of a land invasion would be too high; nothing short of the bomb’s awesome lethality would compel Japan to surrender. The bomb was the only option.
Seventy years later, we find his reasoning unconvincing. Entirely aside from the destruction of the blasts themselves, the decision thrust the world irrevocably into a high-stakes arms race — in which, as Stimson took care to warn, the technology would proliferate, evolve, and quite possibly lead to the end of modern civilization. The first half of that forecast has long since come to pass, and the second feels as plausible as ever. Increasingly, the atmosphere seems to reflect the anxious days of the Cold War, albeit with more juvenile insults and more colorful threats. Terms once consigned to the history books — “madman theory,” “brinkmanship” — have returned to the news cycle with frightening regularity.
In the pages that follow, seven writers and experts survey the current nuclear landscape. Our hope is to call attention to the bomb’s ever-present menace and point our way toward a world in which it finally ceases to exist.
Read ‘Destroyer of worlds: Taking stock of our nuclear present‘ (12-page special in Dec 2017 Harper’s Magazine here at Harper’s weblink or by clicking on the pdf text here: Destroyer of worlds, Harper’s Magazine special Dec 2017
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In the United States, just one person has the power to kill millions of people
Our nuclear-weapons strategy enables one man, the president, to kill and maim an unthinkable number of people in a single afternoon.
The following is the text of remarks delivered by Elaine Scarry at the conference ‘Presidential First Use of Nuclear Weapons: Is it Legal? Is it Constitutional? Is it Just?’ held at Harvard University on November 4, 2017. Elain Scarry is professor of English at Harvard University and the author of ‘Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom’ (Norton, 2014).
Among the things we know about nuclear weapons, two features are our focus today.
The first is the spectacular level of injury that nuclear weapons can inflict on the earth and all its inhabitants, human, animal, and plants. On our ground and on our sky.
Recent work on nuclear winter shows that if even a tiny fraction of the worldwide current arsenal is used—not 1 percent but 3/100th of 1 percent of the total blast power—20 million people will die on the first afternoon and 1 billion in the first months. That research, by scientist Alan Robock, has appeared in leading science journals.
It is for this reason that the International Committee of the Red Cross has said that, if even a single city is hit, its worldwide resources will not be sufficient to help.
Every study reaches the same conclusion. Even if the weapon should be still smaller—reduced so that it is 3/10,000 of 1 percent of the total nuclear blast power available today, the injuries will be beyond our reach. A study in the Netherlands showed that a single small nuclear weapon arriving in Rotterdam will kill 70,000 people. Ten thousand survivors will be severely burned. Yet in all of Netherlands there are only 100 burn beds. If the discrepancy between the number burned and the number of treatment beds seems uncivilized, recognize that Mass General, a leading hospital in Boston, has seven burn beds.
As the size of the weapon increases, so too do the injuries. According to a report by Steven Starr, Lynn Eden and Ted Postol in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, if an 800-kiloton weapon should be detonated above Manhattan, the center of the blast will be four times the temperature of the sun and within “tens of minutes,” a firestorm will cover 90 to 150 square miles.
So the first feature is the unconscionable level of injury, injuries that cannot be repaired. Only injuries that have not yet happened can be undone. Once they have happened it is too late to be indignant.
Even more central to our discussion: The second feature of the nuclear arsenal is that this capacity for unthinkable levels of injury resides in the hands of a solitary person, or a small handful of persons, in the United States as well as in the other nuclear states. Nuclear weapons strategy in the United States is designed around “presidential first use,” an arrangement that enables one man, the president, to kill and maim many millions of people in a single afternoon.
The key features of nuclear architecture are, then, this unthinkably magnified level of injury at one end of the weapon and at the other end of the weapon, an unthinkably small number of men who determine our collective fate and the fate of the planet.
What remains to be seen is whether the people of our own country—and more generally the people of the earth—will permit these weapons and these arrangements for presidential first use to remain in place.
And then there is a second key question: If the people of this country do not wish these arrangements to remain in place, are there legal and constitutional tools that can help dismantle those arrangements?
It will be helpful to keep in mind that the nuclear architecture is a physical architecture, but the physical architecture is accompanied by a mental architecture and it is this mental architecture that keeps the physical architecture in place.
Let me say a few words about each.
As for the physical architecture, we can see from this chart that 93 percent of the world’s total arsenal is possessed by the United States and Russia. The small wedge at one o’clock is the portion of the arsenal owned by the other seven nuclear states. North Korea has, by the most accurate estimates, fissile material for fewer than 20 warheads. (Here and there estimates have come in as high as 60 warheads, but Hans Kristensen at the Federation of American Scientists—over time the single most reliable voice on weapons count—judges 20 or fewer to be still the best estimate.)
The legend on the chart tells us that each icon represents five warheads. To get an accurate picture of the world arsenal, we need to multiply the field of icons fivefold.
In attempting to comprehend the vast scale of the United States arsenal, we are assisted by The New York Times, which recently provided a compelling set of graphics. It calculated what portion of the US stockpile would be needed to “decimate” Libya, what portion to “decimate” North Korea, what portion to “decimate” Syria, Iraq, Iran, China, Russia, and then showed how many weapons would be left over after we had killed one-fourth of the population in those seven countries. Their answer: Seventy percent of the US arsenal would remain.
It takes thousands of painstaking small steps to put a physical arsenal into place, and 99 percent of those steps have already been completed. We’re not waiting for something to start; we’re very late, as the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’s 2 ½-minutes-to-midnight tells us. Only the last of the thousand steps—the launch itself—remains.
For example, specific cities all over the world have specific targets assigned to them. Weapons are assigned not just to our opponents but to our potential opponents, and even to our non-opponents. During the most-recent Bush administration, Vice President Cheney became curious about how many are assigned to each city: “Tell me, I said to the planners, how many warheads are going to hit Kiev under the current plan. It was a difficult question to get an answer to because I don’t think anybody had ever asked it before, but I finally got a report back that under the current targeting plan, we had literally dozens of warheads targeted on this single city.”
Until the Clinton administration, the longitude and latitude of those cities were programed into the missiles before they were loaded into the Ohio-class submarines. Out of fear that a hacker would initiate a launch, this practice was changed so that instead of the geographical coordinates of cities, the longitude and latitude of uninhabited regions of ocean were programed into the missiles. It is noteworthy that this ethical change was brought about not by the application of moral reasoning—not by the demands of the citizenry or councils of government—but by the very real possibility of a hacker. Throughout this enlightened shift to open-ocean targeting, what never changed was the assignment of specified weapons to specified cities.
What about the mental architecture that has kept this physical architecture in place?
The mental architecture requires first and foremost that little information be given to the citizenry. In turn, attempts of the citizenry to protest can be silenced by pointing out that they are speaking without knowledge or information. This blackout of information imperils citizenship in the same way that in earlier centuries depriving people of the art of reading and writing imperiled citizenship. It has acted as a firm piece of social control.
Many Americans believe that our nuclear weapons will be used only in response to a nuclear attack by another country. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have had first-use arrangements and a first-use policy throughout the 70 years of the nuclear age.
Most Americans believe that the only time following Hiroshima and Nagasaki that the United States came close to launching a nuclear weapon was during the Cuban missile crisis.
We now know that Eisenhower twice considered using an atomic weapon in the Taiwan Straits in 1954 and again in Berlin in 1959; that the Kennedy administration, according to Robert McNamara, three times came within “a hair’s breadth” of war with Russia; that Lyndon Johnson considered using a nuclear weapon against China to prevent that country from getting a bomb; and that Nixon, by his own account, four times contemplated using a nuclear weapon. The record stops there because only after a 30-year-time-lag when presidential papers are released do we learn what our leaders planned.
Our current president, President Trump, is for many of us in the country and for many people throughout the world a particularly reckless figure. Yet the presidential first-use structure is catastrophic even in the hands of the best of men. Yes, it is wildly dangerous if someone is openly reckless and irrational; but it continues to be fatal even in the hands of those who are nominally rational because it is itself a deeply irrational and reckless architecture.
One great silencer against questions or complaints has been deterrence, an incoherent doctrine whereby nuclear war is best prevented not by ceasing to have, but by having nuclear weapons.
Gen. Lee Butler, commander in chief of the US Strategic Command from 1992 to 1994, punctures the concept of deterrence most succinctly, deploring the way over decades “the nuclear priesthood extolled its virtues and bowed to its demands”:
Appropriated from the lexicon of conventional warfare, this simple prescription for adequate military preparation thus became in the nuclear age a formula for unmitigated catastrophe … it was premised on a litany of unwarranted assumptions, unprovable assertions, and logical contradictions.
A third feature of this disabling mental architecture is the erroneous belief that nuclear weapons cannot be unmade. Assurance that they can be unmade comes from many quarters. The entire Southern Hemisphere is blanketed with nuclear-weapons-free treaties: the Treaty of Pelindaba, Treaty of Tlatelolco, Treaty of Bangkok, Treaty of Rarotonga. The nuclear architecture takes place across a north-south divide; nuclear states reside only in the Northern Hemisphere. A study made in Scotland of the timetable for eliminating the United Kingdom’s nuclear arsenal by John Ainslie—a timetable judged reasonable by leading military experts in our own country such as former missile-launch officer Bruce Blair—shows the simple and straightforward steps that can be followed (some completed in hours, others requiring several years). Compared to the problem of global warming, the steps for dismantling nuclear weapons are straightforward and eminently doable.
Is the question that we are asking today—about the legality, constitutionality, or justness of presidential first use—a narrow question (as some people have said to me)?
Or is it instead, as I believe, a question whose answer is profound and deep and has the potential to strike a fatal blow to the nuclear architecture?
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Read a critical review of Elaine Scarry’s 2014 book Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom, by Richard Rhodes, New York Times, March 21, 2014. Richard Rhodes is the author of the magistral The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1987, story here in Wikipedia).
Former Defense Secretary William Perry sounds the alarm over the present nuclear danger
What will the consequences be if the bipartisan consensus on Russia continues to be almost completely untethered from reality?
On a brisk Tuesday night in Washington, DC’s tony Cleveland Park neighborhood, hundreds of concerned citizens gathered at Washington National Cathedral to hear some unpleasant truths from former defense secretary William Perry.
Perry was there as part of the cathedral’s Nancy and Paul Ignatius Program to address what he believes is the very real danger of an accidental nuclear conflagration between the United States and Russia, now that relations between the two nuclear superpowers have deteriorated to their lowest point in the quarter-century since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Perry recalled his own experiences during the first Cold War, when, as a young man, he served in the Army during the occupation of postwar Japan, and later, when he served as undersecretary of defense for research and engineering under President Jimmy Carter, and, later still, from 1994–97, when he served as Pentagon chief under President Clinton.
California Governor Jerry Brown has written, “I know of no person who understands the science and politics of modern weaponry better than William J. Perry.”
Perry recalled that, during the first Cold War, both the United States and the USSR experienced multiple nuclear false alarms that could have resulted in planetary catastrophe.
Perry recounted one such incident that he experienced firsthand, when, in November 1979, during his time as undersecretary, he was awakened by a 3 am phone call from a watch officer at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). The watch officer informed Perry that 200 intercontinental ballistic missiles had been launched at the United States by the Soviet Union.
It was quickly determined that this was a false alarm—but Perry noted that, because relations between the United States and the USSR were relatively stable at that time, there was reason to question whether the information from NORAD was correct.
But what if, asked Perry, such a false alarm had occurred during a time of heightened tension, as during the Cuba or Berlin crises, or even today?
Perry warned that the nuclear risk has not abated since the end of the first Cold War—indeed, the risk has only grown. Said Perry, “The likelihood today of a nuclear catastrophe is greater than during the Cold War.”
“Today, inexplicably to me, we are recreating the geopolitical hostility of the Cold War and we are rebuilding the nuclear dangers of the Cold War. We are doing this without any serous public discussion, or any real understanding of the consequences of these actions: we are sleepwalking into a new Cold War, and there is a very real danger we will blunder into a nuclear war.”
Following Perry’s address, Susan Eisenhower, a respected arms-control and Russian-affairs expert, appeared alongside former secretary of state John Kerry, former national security adviser Stephen Hadley, and Washington Post columnist David Ignatius for a discussion about a number of potential nuclear flash-points.
Eisenhower observed that today relations between the United States and Russia are so bad that it would be hard to imagine that an American president could extend an invitation to a Russian president to visit the United States—as when her grandfather invited Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to visit in 1959.
Eisenhower agreed with Perry that the situation that exists between the United States and Russia today is fraught with danger, which is why, she said, “I don’t understand why we are cutting off all the vital exchanges that keep US-Russian relations from dropping below an acceptable level.”
“Today we have no exchanges of any kind, we are punishing Russia, [and] we are punishing ourselves…. it would be catastrophic if we turn the Russian people against us.”
Yet the question remains: What will the consequences be if the warnings of Perry and Eisenhower continue to fall on deaf ears and the bipartisan consensus on Russia continues to be almost completely untethered from reality?
It hardly should need pointing out that the new Cold War is unfolding against the backdrop of a renewed assault on the P5+1 Iranian nuclear agreement. The assault, led by the Trump administration and abetted by the congressional war party, is taking place in spite of the fact that in mid-November the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed, for the ninth straight time, that the Islamic Republic of Iran is in compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
According to a recent news report:
Iran is operating within the essential limits on its nuclear activities imposed by the 2015 nuclear deal with six world powers, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says in a new report.
The confidential quarterly IAEA report, seen by several Western news agencies on November 12, said Iran “has not enriched” uranium above low levels and that its stockpile of enriched uranium was under the agreed limit of 300 kilograms. The IAEA also said its inspectors faced no difficulties in accessing sites that they wanted to visit…
On Tuesday at the National Cathedral, John Kerry, a principal architect of the Iranian nuclear agreement, pushed back on the newly empowered critics of the agreement. In the absence of a deal, “and without exaggeration,” said Kerry, “the likelihood is very high that we would have been in a conflict” with Iran.
“Iran was a threshold nuclear nation when we sat down to talk for the first time in 35 years,” said Kerry. But under the agreement, Iran went from 12,000kg of enriched uranium to 300kg. That, said Kerry, is the stockpile Iran has today and will have for the next 15 years, thanks to the agreement.
Still more, the Iranians agreed to keep the level of enrichment at 3.67 percent (down from 20 percent, which was the level of enrichment Iran had reached prior to the deal) for the next 15 years. Kerry noted that the international community is now able to trace “every ounce of uranium they produce in their mines for the next 25 years.”
“It is physically impossible to make a nuclear weapon,” said Kerry, “with 300kg at 3.67 percent enrichment.”
Kerry observed that, while many in Congress and in the administration are agitating to implement ever-greater sanctions on Iran (in order, of course, to destroy the deal), few are aware that the we have fewer sanctions in place against North Korea, which has roughly 20 nuclear weapons, than we have in place against Iran, which has none.
And so: What to do with the world on the nuclear brink, with the very real potential for an outbreak of perhaps simultaneous crises between the United States, Russia, Iran and North Korea?
As Perry pointed out, climate change is another looming catastrophe, but it is one of which the public is, for the most part, aware. Perry argued that, as is the case with climate change, “we need a program of public education” regarding the growing nuclear danger.
And for his part, Perry pledged to dedicate the remainder of his public career to the task.
In his recent book, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, Perry writes: “Our chief peril is that the poised nuclear doom, much of it hidden beneath the seas and in remote badlands, is too far out of the global public consciousness. Passivity shows broadly.”
Finding, he said, his motivation in a wish that his grandchildren not have to live with the ever-present specter of nuclear catastrophe hanging like a Sword of Damocles above their heads, Perry has proved to be anything but a passive player in this continuing, and very troubling, drama.
James W. Carden is a contributing writer at The Nation and the executive editor for the American Committee for East-West Accord.
Retired nuclear warriors versus active duty armageddon, by John Laforge, published in Counterpunch, Dec 1, 2017