May 23, 2013
A Hundred Holocausts: An Insider’s Window Into U.S. Nuclear Policy
Posted on Sep 10, 2009
The authority I had in mind initially was the secretary of defense. (Although funding for RAND, including my salary, came mainly from the Air Force at that time, I was in effect on loan to the Office of the Secretary of Defense for much of 1961.) But as I’ve said, the question was picked up by the White House and sent in the president’s name. I had deliberately limited it, initially, to effects in the Soviet Union and China alone, instead of worldwide or in the Sino-Soviet bloc. That was to keep the Joint Staff from disguising its lack of any estimates at all by pleading a need for time to calculate casualties, say, in Albania, or the Southern Hemisphere.
Alternatively, I expected the Joint Staff to improvise an estimate which could easily be exposed, to its embarrassment, as unrealistically low. The point of eliciting either of these expected responses was to gain bargaining power for the secretary of defense in a bureaucratic effort (discussed later) to change the JCS plans in the direction of guidance I had drafted for the secretary earlier that month.
But my expectations were wrong. The Joint Chiefs were embarrassed neither by the question nor by their answer. That was the surprise, along with the answer itself. The implications, as I saw them, were literally existential, bearing on the nature and future of our species.
I myself at that time was neither a pacifist nor a critic of the explicit logic of deterrence or its legitimacy. On the contrary, I had been urgently working with my colleagues to assure a survivable U.S. capability to threaten clearly unacceptable damage to the Soviet Union in response to the most successful possible Soviet nuclear attack on the U.S. But planned slaughter of 600 million civilians—10 times the total death count in World War II, a hundred times the scale of the Holocaust? That aimed-for accomplishment exposed a dizzying irrationality, madness, insanity, at the heart and soul of our nuclear planning and apparatus.
The Americans who had built this machine, knowing, it turned out, that it would kill more than half a billion people if it were turned on—and who were unabashed in reporting this to the president—humans like that would not fail to pull the switch if ordered to do so by a president, or, as I mentioned above and will discuss in the next installment, possibly by a superior other than the president.
And the presidents themselves? A few months earlier, Dwight Eisenhower had secretly endorsed the blueprints of this multi-genocide machine. He had furthermore demanded largely for budgetary reasons that there be no other plan for fighting Russians. He had approved this single strategic operational plan despite reportedly being, for reasons I now understood, privately appalled by its implications. And the Joint Chiefs had responded so promptly to his successor’s question about the human impact of our planned attacks because they clearly assumed that John Kennedy would not, in response, order them to resign or be dishonorably discharged, or order the machine to be dismantled. (In that, it turned out, they were right.)
Surely neither of these presidents actually desired ever to order the execution of these plans, nor would any likely successor want to take such an action. But they must have been aware, or should have been, of the dangers of allowing such a system to exist. They should have reflected on, and trembled before, the array of contingencies—accidents, false alarms, outages of communications, Soviet actions misinterpreted by lower commanders, unauthorized action—that might release pent-up forces beyond their control; and on possible developments that could lead them personally to escalate or launch a pre-emptive attack.
Eisenhower had chosen to accept these risks. To impose them on humanity, and all other forms of life. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson to my direct knowledge did likewise. So did Richard Nixon. To bring this story up to the present, there is much evidence—and none to the contrary—that the same has been true of every subsequent president.
Two more aspects of their gambles were not known to me in 1961. Later accounts in this series will reveal that in the Quemoy crisis three years earlier and the Cuban missile crisis one year later—and to lesser extent in a couple of dozen other episodes—these risks came secretly closer to being realized than almost anyone recognizes to this day.
Moreover, the scale of the potential catastrophe was and remains vastly greater than I or the JCS or any presidents imagined over the next 20 years. Not until 1982-83 did new calculations—recently confirmed—reveal that hemispheric and possibly global clouds of smoke and soot from the burning cities attacked by U.S. or Russian forces would block out sunlight for a prolonged period, lowering temperature drastically during spring and summer, freezing lakes and rivers and destroying crops worldwide. This “nuclear winter” could extinguish many forms of life and starve to death billions of humans.
Yet the “option” of massive attacks on cities (or, euphemistically, upon industrial and military targets within or near cities) almost surely remains one among many planned alternatives, ready as ever to be carried out, within the strategic repertoire of U.S. and Russian plans and force readiness: this, a quarter-century after the discovery of the nuclear winter phenomenon.
The U.S. and Russia currently each have about 10,000 warheads, over 2,000 of them operationally deployed. (Each has several thousand in reserve status—not covered in recent negotiations—and an additional 5,000 or so awaiting dismantlement). Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev have agreed to lower the operational warheads to between 1,500 and 1,675 by the year 2012. But the explosion of 1,000 warheads together by the U.S. and Russia could trigger a full-scale nuclear winter. And recent studies show the possibility of ecological catastrophe from smoke effects on the ozone layer after a very much smaller exchange, such as could occur between India and Pakistan.
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