7 decades after Nagasaki, the possibility of nuclear holocaust looms large

The doomsday clock, set up by the scientists involved in the Manhattan, is now 2 minutes away from midnight that symbolizes annihilation

August 10, 2018 by Pavan Kulkarni
Cranes that Sadako made rest in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Her family donated over a hundred of them to the museum, which has agreed to give them back to her family one crane at a time. (Photo: Ari Beser)

A few months ago, over seven decades after the US obliterated Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, with a nuclear bomb, killing around 200,000 Japanese and debilitating subsequent generations, US president Donald Trump threatened North Korea, claiming that the nuclear button he had was “much bigger & more powerful” than that of their leader Kim Jong-un.

Days later, people in Hawaii, barely over half an hour away from the reach of North Korean nuclear-tipped missiles, received an alert, warning “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL,” requiring them to seek shelter in 12 minutes. People flooded the highways as they scrambled to the shelter to the sounds of wailing sirens.

After 38 minutes of panic, in the midst of which Hawaiians tried to come to terms with the possibility of instant annihilation, the emergency was revoked as it became clear that the alert was false, a result of human error. As tensions between the two countries soared, with both the leaders exchanging threats of bombing each other’s countries with nuclear weapons, the panic the population in the US felt was discernible in the sharply increasing sales of potassium iodide pills, which are meant to block the thyroid gland’s absorption of radiation.                  

By the end of that month, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a body in created in 1947 by scientists from University of Chicago, who were involved in the development of the first nuclear weapon, turned the Doomsday clock 30 seconds closer to midnight – ‘midnight’ being a metaphor for nuclear apocalypse.

The minute hand of the clock today stands at 2 minutes to midnight. Except in 1953, the world has never been so close to nuclear destruction – not even at the peak of the Cold War during the Cuban Missile Crisis. As expected by many, following the Cold War, the minute hand moved further away from midnight, but only in the initial years. From 10 minutes to midnight in 1990, it was moved to 14 minutes by 1995.

However, with the US continuing its nuclear expansion and aggressive policies which pushed more and more countries to pursue the nuclear option to deter US aggression, the trend of easing of tensions was quickly reversed. From being 10 minutes away in 1998, the risk of nuclear confrontation has systematically increased over time, reaching 6 minutes away from midnight by 2010, before ticking closer and closer to doom – reaching 3 minutes by 2015 and 2 and a half minutes by 2017.    

In a statement released while moving the hand closer to midnight this January, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists pointed out that “In 2017, we saw reckless language in the nuclear realm heat up already dangerous situations”, adding, “Although the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists focuses on nuclear risk, climate change, and emerging technologies, the nuclear landscape takes center stage in this year’s Clock statement. Major nuclear actors are on the cusp of a new arms race, one that will be very expensive and will increase the likelihood of accidents and misperceptions. Across the globe, nuclear weapons are poised to become more rather than less usable because of nations’ investments in their nuclear arsenals. This is a concern that the Bulletin has been highlighting for some time, but momentum toward this new reality is increasing.”

‘The Madman theory’

While tensions with North Korea have de-escalated – at least for the time being – with both sides now on the negotiating table, Trump has opened a new front by pulling the US out of the Iran nuclear deal, in accordance with which Iran had aborted its nuclear programme and conceded to monitoring, in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.

Late last month, Trump tweeted, addressing the Iranian president, in all caps, “YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.”

While Trump’s reckless threats have never failed to scandalize the media and the liberal establishment, it is not without a precedent for a US President to do so. Such behaviour was even baptized by Richard Nixon as the “madman theory”.

In the memoirs he wrote while waiting for his prison term for his involvement in the Watergate scandal, Nixon’s former chief of staff H.R. Haldeman recollected what he had told him:  

“I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button—and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”

While this did not work, Nixon was taking his cue from Dwight Eisenhower, who had arrived at the White House when the Korean war was at a stalemate. “Eisenhower ended the impasse in a hurry. He secretly got word to the Chinese that he would drop nuclear bombs on North Korea unless a truce was signed immediately. In a few weeks, the Chinese called for a truce and the Korean War ended,” Haldeman wrote.      

It became clear to China and to North Korea that having a credible nuclear capability was an imperative, especially with the US advocating nuclear non-proliferation on one hand, and not hesitating to threaten other countries with nuclear annihilation on the other.

Trump’s use of the nuclear threat against Iran is now strengthening the hardline factions in the country, which had, from the very beginning, objected to the dismantling of the nuclear project on the grounds that there was no alternative way to protect the county from US aggression. Unilateral re-imposition of sanctions by the US has made it a challenge for the rest of the signatories to salvage the deal.

Should the deal fall apart, a possible resumption of Iran’s nuclear programme will trigger a proliferation war in the region, with Saudi Arabia next in line in its pursuit of nuclear capability.

Also, while the North Koreans, currently engaged in negotiations with the US, may have maintained silence on the US pulling out of the deal with Iran, it is unlikely that the demonstration of American willingness to violate the agreements will not have an impact on their own willingness to carry out complete denuclearization.    

The Bulletin did not fail to warn about the other dangers quietly brewing as the media gaze remained fixated on the Korean peninsula for the most part. The statement added:

“But the dangers brewing on the Korean Peninsula were not the only nuclear risks evident in 2017: The United States and Russia remained at odds, continuing military exercises along the borders of NATO, undermining the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), upgrading their nuclear arsenals, and eschewing arms control negotiations. In the Asia-Pacific region, tensions over the South China Sea have increased, with relations between the United States and China insufficient to re-establish a stable security situation.”

A number of longstanding treaties between the US and Russia, which had maintained some checks and balances on the arms race between the two countries for decades, are set to expire in the coming years. No serious efforts are being made to renew them, except for president Vladimir Putin making a mention of it in his recent meet with Trump. Attempts made by Trump to improve relations with Russia have been systematically sabotaged by the US establishment.     

Even as the intensity of the arms race increases, experts point out that the fear is not really of an impulsive or deluded leader pressing the button, triggering a global apocalypse.

The real danger is that in an increasingly nuclear-armed world, a miscalculation in a tense atmosphere – a  mistaken belief on one side that it is under attack by the other, a wrong intelligence report about the enemy’s plan – can increase the potential for use of nuclear weapons. This risk is further compounded by automated systems which are notorious for raising false alerts.  

“The radars of the Arctic Distant Early Warning Line (DEW Line) had more than once, I soon learned, been fooled by a flock of high-flying geese into warning that Soviet bomber planes were coming toward us over the North Pole. In the pre-ICBM era, that still allowed hours in which to discover the error, and meanwhile to get our planes on alert off the ground. But just a year after I joined RAND, the higher-tech radar and computer system Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS), designed to detect incoming ICBMs, in its first week of operation reported that a missile attack was underway. That called for decisions in under fifteen minutes,” Daniel Ellsberg, better known for publishing the Pentagon Papers, wrote in his book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, based on thousands of classified documents he had access to.

In another instance, when BMEWS radar signals bounced off the moon rising over Norway and returned an echo that was so powerful that it was mistaken for an incoming missile, the computer had issued an alert that the US was under a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union with 99.9% certainty. Officials however ignored the threat as Nikita Khrushchev, at the time, was present in the US to attend a UN session.

These are only two of the many examples of false alerts, which have been triggered throughout the Cold War. Despite all the technological advances, machine-errors continue to persist today.

While officials, even under the Trump administration, will no doubt continue to exercise human judgement before executing any retaliatory attack based on alerts triggered by machines, an even greater risk lies in the delegation of authority over the use of nuclear weapons. Contrary to what the public has been told from the beginning, the authority to decide on the use of nuclear weapons is not limited to the president.

The famous black-coloured nuclear briefcase – supposedly carrying all the information the President requires to authorize a nuclear assault – is only for the theatre. This is meant to reassure the public that there is no possibility of a launch being authorized by anyone but the democratically elected president of the country.

But such an arrangement would render ineffective the very concept of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), based which nuclear exchange was supposed to have been thwarted during the Cold War. For if the President alone would be authorized, then a first strike by one state against the other’s capital city, killing the president, would leave the latter unable to retaliate, defeating the purpose of assuring the enemy state that any attack would guarantee a nuclear retaliation.

In 1959, Admiral Harry D. Felt, the nuclear control officer in the staff of Pacific fleet, was given the authority to decide whether or not to use a nuclear weapon, whenever communications lapsed between Washington and his Hawaiian headquarters. And this lapse in communication was a daily occurrence due to atmospheric conditions disturbing the high-frequency radio transmissions.

But the more shocking revelation in Ellsberg’s book is that this delegation of authority was not even limited to “a handful of four-star admirals and generals outside Washington”, but extended way down below. Should the communications lapse between these generals or admirals and their subordinates, the authority to decide on the use of nuclear weapons was delegated to them, followed by multiple layers of subsequent delegations, which finally created a situation where this “delegation reverberated downward in a widening circle that permitted authorized launch by more and more subordinate commanders, not to mention the physical possibility of unauthorized action by control officers or by crews of alert nuclear vehicles, whether planes or submarines.”

Ellsberg has no reason to believe that things are any different today. In the introduction of his book, published in December last year, he wrote, “The basic elements of American readiness for nuclear war remain today what they were almost sixty years ago: Thousands of nuclear weapons remain on hair-trigger alert, aimed mainly at Russian military targets including command and control, many in or near cities.”

While the publicly stated rationale for maintaining such an arrangement is of deterring Russia from carrying out the first strike or to respond to a first strike should Russia carry out one, this rationale, Ellsberg argues, is a “deliberate deception”.

Ellsberg pointed out that the nature, scale, and posture of US nuclear forces was less to deter Russia and more to limit Russian retaliation capabilities in the event of a first strike by America.