Apparently, 80% of Americans are worried about the possibility of an imminent nuclear war (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2017/08/11/8-10-americans-fear-nuclear-war-trump-says-us-locked-and-loaded). Are they right to be?
I’ve always enjoyed Apocalyptic movies such as Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove, which depict nuclear catastrophes that occur due to the failure of programs in place to prevent accidental nuclear war. Both films end with the bomb being dropped, despite desperate efforts to forestall the act. The first film was a serious drama; the second, a satirical farce. But both were meant to deliver a dire warning.
It was a warning I’ve always ignored.
I’ve never feared nuclear war. I never believed it would ever happen. Nor did I believe nukes were the worst aspect of war. War itself is bad, regardless of the weapons used. And plenty of cities have been levelled by far weaker instruments. So why live in fear?
Even at the age of 12, I felt the frequent air raid drills we were subjected to—which called for us to cower under our flimsy wooden desks with our arms wrapped around our heads—were ludicrous in the extreme. I knew entire cities had been destroyed by those bombs, and in no way did I believe that a thin plywood veneer was somehow going to protect me. I felt the whole thing was an exercise in futility, a laughable attempt to reassure us that the people in charge were valiantly defending us. (Yeah, I was anti-establishment even at that tender age. After all, it was the Summer of Love.)
In 1956, Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev infamously said, “We will bury you!” Some leaders in the United States took this as a nuclear threat, and used it to scare the people even further. But it was not. He merely meant that Communism would outlast Capitalism. He said so in a subsequent interview. But such was the prevalent fear of the time that even relatively benign remarks were represented as deadly pronouncements.
None of the leaders of the nine nuclear powers during the Cold War had any intention of starting a nuclear war. This was amply demonstrated, over and over again. All sides had plenty of opportunities, and not one of them took advantage of them. Ever.
But what about the possibility of a terrorist group either building or somehow getting hold of a nuclear bomb, and using it against Western society? This has been the prevalent scare running through America since 1993. While the possibility is definitely there, it’s nowhere near as great as people think it is. Attaining an existing bomb, or building one from scratch, is not easily done. And even if the terrorists acquired such a weapon, their success is not guaranteed. “The Damascus incident,” says Mattias Eken, referring to an accidental nuclear missile explosion in 1980, “proved how incredibly hard it is to set off a nuclear bomb and the limited effect that would have come from just one warhead detonating.” http://theconversation.com/the-understandable-fear-of-nuclear-weapons-doesnt-match-reality-73563
After a very lengthy and dire description of the death, devastation, and economic upheaval resulting from a theoretical terrorist nuclear attack on a major U.S. city, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists were forced to admit: “To date, there is no evidence that nuclear weapons or the materials needed to make them have ever fallen into the hands of a terrorist group….” https://thebulletin.org/2017/09/the-effects-of-a-single-terrorist-nuclear-bomb/
(It’s worth noting that this is the same group who devised and maintain the Doomsday Clock, a speculative measure of how close we are to a world-ending catastrophe. It was originally created in 1947 to track the nuclear threat. For the past two years, the clock has stood at two minutes to midnight, primarily because of the dangers of climate change.)
This is why 9-11, arguably the most intricately planned and perpetrated terrorist act in world history, was not accomplished using atomic bombs. Instead, the terrorists used airplanes. And while about 6.5% of the American populace is afraid of flying, most of these aren’t worried about being hijacked or dying in a plane crash. “The most common person who’s afraid of flying is someone who’s claustrophobic,” says psychologist Martin Seif, who studies phobias. Perceived dangers do not necessarily have to be rational.
All this being said: Today, after 51 years of nonproliferation and the reduction of nuclear arsenals to 14,000 worldwide—0.25% of what they were at the height of the Cold War—the American president is making noises about using them. This is a mistake on a gargantuan order. He needs to be persuaded to change his intentions (even if he won’t change his opinion).
Still, I’m not that worried. Calmer heads have prevailed so far, and I feel confident that they will continue to do so. I’m not diving for my desk yet.