That End of the World Stuff

It’s no fun being an old fart. No one knows what you’re talking about. Hell, try to explain that when you say you’ll dial a number on the phone that has to do with telephones once having dials, not buttons – and long cords – and you couldn’t text or locate your friends via GPS or take pictures or watch videos or read Le Monde or update your Facebook page or any of that stuff. All you did was talk and listen. And there were three or maybe four stations to watch on television, and you had to walk across the room to change channels – no remote. And you got your news there each weekday evening, or from the five-minute show on the radio each hour, or from the morning and evening newspaper, or you caught a weekly summary in the news magazines. There were no personal computers – computers were giant vacuum tube and switches things that filled a big room – and thus there was no internet and no YouTube and Wikipedia and Japanese porn sites and all the rest.

It’s wonder any of us knew anything about anything. And any nostalgia for those times is a sad business – longing for a simpler time, when it never seemed that minute after minute, day after day, the world was spinning out of control.

Of course it was. You just didn’t know it was. Longing for a time when you were smug and happily ill-informed, if informed at all, and generally oblivious to the world around you, is odd. Some folks miss those days. Others just shrug – it was like that, and it’s not like that now, and you can’t really go back. And why would you want to? There’s no need to even think about it.

But there was always the sense that the world was spinning out of control even then – you just didn’t know the details. Consider Pittsburgh in the fifties, the suburbs with the rows of small tract houses – and Joe McCarthy in the news, and on your console television, telling America the government was full of communists and if we didn’t purge them all we would surely die. And then he was gone – a broken alcoholic dead at Bethesda Naval Hospital, and Edward R, Murrow had been right about him, but then Murrow was gone too, dead from lung cancer. What was that all about? And what was this duck-and-cover business at school? We had nuclear bombs, the Soviets had nuclear bombs, and we built more of them and they built more of them, and sooner or later nuclear war would come and, as you had been compelled to practice, you’d scoot under your desk and close your eyes and curl up – and if you weren’t immediately incinerated you’d be okay, and then find yourself alone in a glowing radioactive wasteland and your hair would fall out and you’d die a little more slowly.

That wasn’t very cheery, but to a kid in sixth grade everything is always apocalyptic – forgetting to do the major homework assignment was the end of the world, or Sally and her girlfriends telling you that they hated you, or not to being chosen for something or other you can hardly remember now, or not getting that bike you wanted. So when some folks built fallout shelters in their backyards, and stocked them with canned goods and candy bars, rather than being shocked and in existential despair, you didn’t get upset. That seemed normal, actually – the world blowing up and everything ending. You were a kid and you thought like that anyway. And this was Pittsburgh, after all. That might be the end of the world already.

But maybe you had to be there to get a feel for how things got worse. Sputnik 1 was launched on October 4, 1957, and we couldn’t do anything like that – and soon the bad guys, the Russians (Soviets back then) would have atomic weapons up there ready to drop on us, and we couldn’t do a thing about it, so we’d better get cracking and catch up – or we’d all die. Suddenly there was a lot more math and science in school, and maybe this end of the world stuff was for real. Yeah, the Russians actually weren’t very good at any of this stuff, and most of their nuclear arsenal was crap, and they really didn’t have much in the way of delivery systems – but we didn’t know that then. Joe McCarthy didn’t cause much of a panic – he was a lush with anger issues and a bit of a clown – but this did.

And all we could trust in was MAD – Mutually Assured Destruction. If each side has enough nuclear weaponry to destroy the other side, and either side, if attacked for any reason by the other, will retaliate with equal or greater force, then no one is going to do anything stupid. Immediate escalation is built in, as policy on both sides, and that automatic escalation would mean both sides’ total and assured destruction. You have to assume no one wants to be totally destroyed, so, really, neither side will dare to launch a first strike, because the other side will launch on even a warning of that and it’s all over. But you don’t say you won’t launch a first strike – that keeps the other side guessing, and you want them worried.

That should have worked, but in October 1962 there was the Cuban Missile Crisis – the closest we’ve come to the end of the world, with both sides nearly saying you guys started it and launching everything. That was ninths grade, and it seemed there was no point in doing any homework until we all saw how that worked out. But it worked out. And you did the book report after all.

Still this is madness, and expensive madness at that. And the Soviets are long gone. But we, and the Russians, still have most of the missiles on hair-trigger still, in spite of the many treaties to reduce the numbers a bit, and the new treaty:

President Barack Obama leaves on Wednesday for Prague where he will sign a landmark nuclear treaty with Russia, marking a much-needed diplomatic achievement and a step toward better ties with Moscow.

Obama hopes the agreement committing the two former Cold War foes to new cuts in their nuclear arsenals will help further his goal of a world without atomic weapons.

So he’s off to sign this pact with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev two days after he unveiled our new policy restricting the use of atomic weapons. And the next week there’s a big summit to be held in Washington – forty-seven countries to discuss all this. Obama seems to want “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

That would be nice, but that calls for rethinking just how things would work without them – policy stuff.

And Fred Kaplan covers that in Slate with Nuclear Dreams and Nightmares – this isn’t easy stuff. Kaplan’s 1983 book about the nuclear strategists of the Cold War, on the men who invented nuclear strategy – The Wizards of Armageddon – is still in print. He knows about such things.

And he notes that on Tuesday, April 6, the Pentagon released its Nuclear Posture Review and folks were more confused than ever. The New York Times had its front-page preview of the report headlined with this – “Obama to Limit Scenarios to Use Nuclear Weapons.” The Times said the president’s new strategy was “a sharp shift from those of his predecessors.” But the Wall Street Journal ran the headline “U.S. Keeps First-Strike Strategy.” The Journal said this report was “a status-quo document” that makes “only modest changes” – no big deal.

Kaplan says they’re both exaggerating:

The actual 49-page report is neither dramatic nor ho-hum. In a formal statement this morning, President Barack Obama said it takes “specific and concrete steps” that “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national-security strategy.”

That’s the most that can be said for it, but that’s hardly trivial.

Yeah, the peace and love folks had hoped for more, but Kaplan says that’s like the single-payer advocates in the health care debate – “they were fooling themselves if they expected it.”

But what they got was interesting, as those who follow such things wanted to know whether the document would declare that deterring a nuclear attack is the “sole” purpose of nuclear weapons or merely their “primary” purpose.

No, really. This does matter:

If it was the “sole” purpose that would mean the president was declaring that the United States would never use or threaten to use nuclear weapons except in response to a nuclear attack on U.S. or allied territory. It would signal a “no-first-use” policy.

If it was merely the “primary” purpose, that would mean the United States might use nukes in other circumstances, for instance in response to a chemical or biological attack or to a large-scale conventional invasion of an ally. We would, in other words, reserve the right to fire nuclear weapons first – as we have been doing, and declaring, since the atomic age began.

So as usual, Obama went for the reasonable middle ground, not much caring who would be upset with him. Yes, that drives people crazy, on both sides, but Kaplan finds what Obama had laid out to be novel and intriguing:

It rejects “no-first-use,” noting that the United States is “not prepared at the present time to adopt a universal policy that deterring nuclear attack is the sole purpose of nuclear weapons.”

However, it does declare that the United States will not fire nuclear weapons first at any country that has signed, and is in compliance with, the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

What? Kaplan argues the distinction may seem semantic, but he thinks it is substantial:

Throughout the Cold War and in the two decades since, presidents have always maintained a strategic ambiguity about when and whether they might use nuclear weapons. The commonly invoked phrase has been that “all options are on the table,” sometimes with eyebrows raised while saying “all.”

Obama is now saying that in conflicts with countries that don’t have nuclear weapons and aren’t cheating on the Non-Proliferation Treaty, all options are not on the table. We don’t need to brandish, much less use, our nukes. We can launch sufficiently devastating attacks with conventional weapons and defend ourselves against whatever those countries might throw against us.

And he likes what follows that:

First, the nuclear war-planners at US Strategic Command are, in effect, ordered to stop looking for targets in treaty-compliant countries – and to stop listing “requirements” for more nuclear weapons to hit those targets.

Second, it provides another incentive for countries – even unfriendly countries – not to develop nuclear weapons (if they believe the U.S. declaration, anyway).

Third, it further isolates those countries that are in violation of the NPT – which is to say, Iran and North Korea.

Well, that’s just like Obama. There he goes again – being all pragmatic and thoughtful and clever. And of course our former UN Ambassador, John Bolton – the man even the senate Republicans wouldn’t confirm to that post after Bolton said he’s like to blow up the UN and he’d slap all those people down – reviewed Obama’s policies on national security and said Obama has a worldview that demonstrates “stunning naiveté.” Every nation on earth, even our allies, should know we can wipe them off the face of this earth on a whim, or even by accident – that’s how you get things done.

But Kaplan says Obama is splitting some important hairs in this Nuclear Posture Review:

“The United States wishes to stress,” the document adds, that it will consider using nuclear weapons only “in extreme circumstances” and that it will seek to create the conditions for a no-first-use policy in the future (though it’s vague on just what those conditions might be). Perhaps with this in mind, the authors write that deterring nuclear attack is the “fundamental” purpose of nuclear weapons – a somewhat firmer variation on “primary” but stopping well short of “sole.”

And there’s a reason for that:

In a telephone conference with columnists this afternoon, Jim Miller, the deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, said that officials discussed all the options in interagency meetings but that a strict no-first-use policy was rejected early on. He also emphasized that President Obama made the ultimate decision on the matter.

First, he said, officials agreed that there were strategic reasons for preserving the first-use option under some circumstances against some potential foes. Second, Robert Einhorn, undersecretary of state for nuclear security, added, in the same phone conference, that several allies in Asia and Europe – who were consulted throughout the drafting process – said that they would find a no-first-use policy “very unsettling.” The Cold War concept of the “nuclear umbrella” – in which the United States guarantees an ally’s security by threatening to use nuclear weapons in its defense – is still alive.

Still this is a big deal and quite a departure from past policy:

In the last Nuclear Posture Review, released in 2002 by President George W. Bush, the umbrella was widened. The Bush document (which was classified, though portions were leaked) declared, “Nuclear weapons … provide credible military options to deter a wide range of threats. … Greater flexibility is needed with respect to nuclear forces and planning than was the case during the Cold War. … Nuclear-attack options that vary in scale, scope and purpose will complement other military capabilities.”

Several officials in Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon were trying to integrate nukes into the arsenal as a legitimate and broadly useful weapon of warfare. They didn’t quite succeed. Their proposals to build earth-penetrating nuclear warheads and very-small-yield battlefield nuclear weapons never got off the drawing boards or were roundly rejected by Congress.

Kaplan had written earlier on why they didn’t quite succeed. The argument that nuclear weapons were just like any other weapon – machine guns or bayonets or blimps– didn’t sit well with the old farts in congress. They remember duck-and-cover. Kaplan says Obama’s review rejects that very concept. Some things are different:

The report signals a few new policies about the U.S. nuclear arsenal. First, it says that the 450 Minuteman-3 ICBMs, most of which are fitted with three nuclear warheads apiece, will be modified to carry no more than one warhead. This will greatly reduce – it should eliminate – any fear in the Kremlin that the United States might be planning a disarming first-strike against Russia. This could do much to build trust and stabilize relations.

Second, it says the United States will not build any new nuclear warheads, period. The existing arsenal will be maintained through “life-extension” programs, facilitated by fairly big increases in the weapons laboratories’ budgets. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had been pushing for the new “reliable replacement warhead”; this is one case where Obama seems to have sided against him.

Third (though many will see this as moving in the opposite direction), the report solidifies what appears to be Obama’s commitment to developing and deploying missile defenses. His “phased” approach is more limited than Bush’s goals were, but still, this is a program of which he was once extremely skeptical.

So this Nuclear Posture Review “presents a forward-looking but hardly radical agenda.” Where this goes from here is what matters, and no one knows how this will be received. Obama’s long-term vision of a world without nuclear weapons is nice and all that, but the devil is in the details:

The final section of the report lays out the goals of future reductions beyond those of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which Obama and Russian president Dmitri Medvedev will sign this week in Prague. The goals include sharper reductions not only in long-range missiles but also in tactical, short-range weapons and in spare warheads currently stored in warehouses. Russia has more of the former; the United States has more of the latter. Reducing both will require revisions in military planning, reassessments of national-security interests, and much more intrusive inspection procedures to verify that the cuts have actually been made.

Kaplan says that could get “very complicated, extremely testy, and, if they succeed, truly radical.”

But of course it wasn’t the big news story of the week. On the other hand, if you were a twelve-year-old under your little student desk at Highland Elementary School on the north side of Pittsburgh way back when, thinking this duck-and-cover stuff was stupid, then lived through the national oh-my-God-it’s-Sputnik panic, then lived through that October week in 1962 wondering if this was the end, then later watched movies like Fail Safe and Doctor Strangelove, this seems like a big deal.

But maybe it’s not a big deal. Maybe you had to be there.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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