June 18, 2013
A Hundred Holocausts: An Insider’s Window Into U.S. Nuclear Policy
Posted on Sep 10, 2009
A 2007 peer-reviewed study concluded that “the estimated quantities of smoke generated by attacks totaling little more than one megaton of nuclear explosives [two countries launching 50 Hiroshima-size bombs each] could lead to global climate anomalies exceeding any changes experienced in recorded history. The current global arsenal is about 5000 megatons.” A December 2008 study in Physics Today estimates that “the direct effects of using the 2012 arsenals [1,700 to 2,200 Russian and American warheads each] would lead to hundreds of millions of fatalities. The indirect effects [long-term, from smoke] would likely eliminate the majority of the human population.”
It is the long-neglected duty of the American Congress to test these scientific findings against the realities of our secret war plans. It is Congress’ responsibility to investigate the nature of the planned targets for the reduced operational forces proposed by Obama and Medvedev—1,500 to 1,675—or some lower but still huge number like 1,000, and the foreseeable human and environmental consequences of destroying those targets with the attacks currently programmed.
The questions to be addressed initially are simple: “How many cities would burn under our various preplanned ‘options’? How many humans would die from these various attacks—from blast, fire, fallout, smoke, soot and ozone depletion—in the target country, in its regional neighbors, in America, and worldwide?”
And these, less simple: “For each of these possible attack options and exchanges, what is the likely, and the range of possible, impact on the regional and global environment? Which of our options, if any, threaten to produce regional or worldwide nuclear winter? Do we—or does any state—have a right to possess such an ‘option’? Should a U.S. or Russian president have the authority—or the power, as each now has—to order attacks that might have the global effects described above?”
This is not a responsibility only for Americans and their representatives. The stakeholders directly threatened by the possibility, however unlikely, that Americans and Russians might launch a major fraction of their presently deployed nuclear forces against each other comprise all the citizens of every state on Earth.
Every parliament in the world has an urgent need to know what its constituents have to expect—in the way of homicidal and environmental damage—from a U.S.-Russian nuclear exchange: or for that matter, from an India-Pakistan exchange. These assemblies have a stake in discovering—and changing—the societal and ecological impact of the existent contingency war plans of every nuclear weapons state, the U.S. and Russia above all but the others as well. What is needed is a worldwide movement. Fortunately there are several efforts to join (see here, here, here, here and here), in keeping with President Obama’s declared goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.
I felt sure in 1961 that the existent potential for moral and physical catastrophe—our government’s readiness to commit multi-genocidal extermination on a hemispheric scale by nuclear blast and fallout (no one knew yet of the global danger of ecocide and mass extinctions from smoke and ozone depletion)—was not only a product of aberrant Americans or a peculiarly American phenomenon. I was right. A few years later, after the Soviets were humiliated by the Cuban missile crisis and Nikita Khrushchev was ousted, the Kremlin set out to imitate our destructive capacity in every detail and surpass it when possible.
To be sure, Americans, and U.S. Air Force planners in particular, were the only people in the world who believed that they had won a war by bombing, and, particularly in Japan, by bombing civilians. In World War II and for years afterward, there were only two air forces in the world, the British and American, that could so much as hope to do that.
But the nuclear era put that demonic temptation—to deter, defeat or punish an adversary on the basis of an operational capability to annihilate most of its population—eventually within the reach of a great many nations. By the spring of ’61, four states (soon to be five, now nine) had, at great expense, bought themselves that capability. Humans just like these American planners—and presidents—were surely at work in every nuclear weapons state producing plans like these for nuclear attacks on cities.
That chart set me the problem, which I have worked on for nearly half a century, of understanding my fellow humans—us, I don’t separate myself—in the light of this real potential for self-destruction of our species and of most others. Looking not only at the last eight years but at the steady failure in the two decades since the ending of the Cold War to reverse course or to eliminate this potential, it is hard for me to avoid concluding that this potential is more likely than not to be realized in the long run.
Are further proliferation and—what I have focused on here—the persistence of superpower nuclear arsenals that threaten global catastrophe a near-certainty? Is it too late to eliminate these dangers, in time? Some dark days I think so, as I did that morning in the White House. Most of the time I don’t, or I would not have tried as I have and still do to eliminate them, and I would not be using my time to begin this account of them.
The story does get worse; see, for example, my next installment, “How Many Fingers on the Buttons?” The more one learns about the hidden history of the nuclear era—this is the cumulative message of this ongoing series—the more miraculous it seems that the doomsday machines which we and the Russians have built and maintained have not yet triggered each other. At the same time, the clearer it becomes that we could and that we must dismantle them.
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