I love teaching, and I especially love teaching undergraduates. (Watching young people discover something for the first time is an exciting part of the job.) But it’s a frustration beyond words that younger Americans have no historical memory at all. That’s probably why no one seems to care about nuclear weapons anymore. Not only do many of my students no doubt think that my accounts of the Cold War sound like “crazy grandpa” stories about the Kaiser and the Huns, but they seem to think we’ve solved all those problems now, and that the biggest threats to the planet are things like carbon emissions and Wall Street’s executive bonuses.
In other words, they worry about things that could make us uncomfortable and change our lives by a few degrees over the next 50 years, and remain oblivious to the things that could increase the planetary temperature by ten million degrees in the next 50 minutes.
I suppose there’s plenty of blame to go around. The media, of course, are always a good choice: when Ronald Reagan was president, there wasn’t a day that went by that news anchors like Dan Rather didn’t tell us all to have courage even though that nutty old man was going to blast us all to bits. Once the Cold War was over, and Clinton told us all it was the economy, stupid, nukes went away (just like the homeless, who seem to vanish from the media during Democratic administrations). Journos didn’t rediscover the nuclear danger until George W. Bush started up about nuking the “Axis of Evil” — a self-inflicted wound typical of the Bush 43 administration — but by and large, the media doesn’t understand nuclear issues and doesn’t care about them. (And yeah, FOX News, I mean you, too.)
Now we’re facing the possible creation of an Iranian nuclear bomb, which would be an epochal event that could get a lot of people killed a lot faster than a notional rise in beach temperatures. No one seems to know what to do about it; Rick Santorum says he’ll bomb them, Ron Paul says we should mind our own business (and that the Iranians are just afraid of the Jews, anyway), and the President, as presidents do, is expressing “deep concern.” (On that last one, I recommend we all cut President Obama some slack: this situation sucks, and it’s not of his making. I don’t want him to say anything definite one way or another; I’d rather let the Iranians have to wonder about that, rather than seeing POTUS paint himself into a corner. That’s how deterrence works — I hope, but that’s an issue for another day.)
But on the bigger issue of nukes in general, I have a bigger worry. I think people don’t care about nuclear weapons because we’ve just gotten used to them. We’ve learned to accept things that no sane person should accept.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I was an anti-Soviet nuclear “hawk” in my early career in the 1980s, because I believed that the sons of bitches –that’s a political science term — who ran the Kremlin didn’t scare easily, and if nuclear weapons were needed to keep the peace, so be it. I had no love for anti-nuclear activists, whom I thought of in the main as harebrained political menaces. No one remembers Helen Caldicott, the then-famous anti-nuclear activist, but I do: she was (I am not kidding) an Australian pediatrician.. She was also a person of staggeringly silly politics, and I firmly believe that if she had been listened to in her time, we’d all either be working in Soviet lumber camps or rooting around for canned goods in radioactive ashes. The Cold War was already a nerve-wracking series of games of chicken, and the last thing we needed back then were screechy kibitzers grabbing the steering wheel and telling us to just make nice with Yuri Andropov and the other murderers in the Soviet Communist Party.
But even then, we were in danger of being infected by our own propaganda. It’s one thing to warn the Soviets not to screw with us or our NATO allies, it’s another entirely to think you could go, as Major Kong said in Dr. Strangelove, “toe-to-toe with the Russkies” and pull it off. I knew guys back in the day, during the height of the last stage of the Cold War, who really bought into things like “limited” scenarios where “only” 10 or 12 million people die on Day One. This tended to be the kind of thing the middle-level nuclear operators and wargamers were especially fond of, but Reagan’s senior advisors weren’t that crazy; before he died, Paul Nitze — not exactly a wobbly liberal on this stuff — admitted that he privately told Reagan never, under any circumstances, to use nuclear weapons, not even in retaliation for a nuclear attack. (I think the reasoning here is that if all was lost, there wasn’t much strategic, or moral, point in massacring 100 million Russians on the way down.) It wasn’t something you wanted to say out loud in earshot of the Soviet marshals, but it was certainly the right thing to believe.
The ease with which we think about this stuff today, however, does not speak well of any of us. We don’t need to play this game of nuclear stoicism any longer. I once gave a lecture a few years back where I described a hypothetical attack on the U.S. land-based missile force, and I said it would probably kill 40 million people. A young Air Force major walked out of the lecture with me and with a disapproving look said something like: “Well, you know, sir, that number’s high, it’s probably only 8 million or so.” And I said, with all the dryness I could muster: “What a relief. For a moment there, I thought it was going to be really bad.” He didn’t get it. Among the many casualties of the Cold War, irony was clearly one of them.
We live in a better world today, no doubt about it. In 1968, the United States had over 30,000 nuclear warheads; today, it has 5000. By treaty, we and Russia will only deploy 1550 each. But here’s the thing: That is still an insane number of weapons. If we and the Russians ever lose our minds and exchange just a fraction of that, say 500 weapons each, we’re going to exterminate the Northern Hemisphere. We can’t even clean up New Orleans after a flood, for heaven’s sake. We’re certainly not going to “recover” from a couple of hundred nuclear strikes. (Don’t get me started about missile defense. It doesn’t work, and will never work enough to matter in a nuclear crisis. The Russians know it too.)
Even China can ruin our day, with its little arsenal of 25 or so ICBMs. Some people a lot brainier than me over at the Federation of American Scientists and the National Resources Defense Council have estimated that if we try to take out those Chinese missiles, we’ll kill something like two million people, and that’s lowballing. And if the Chinese get one missile loose against a U.S. city — and I mean just one — they estimate that 800,000 Americans will die, and that doesn’t even count the long-term effects of things like the destruction of infrastructure, the loss of irreplaceable records and national treasures, and all the other things that will stick around long after Los Angeles is a red zone. For reference, that’s more than the total U.S. casualties of World War II, and we’re talking about it all happening in minutes, not years.
People don’t realize that the momentum for change is actually on the side of nuclear reductions. If Bush 43 dropped the ball on military intervention as a means of stopping proliferation, Obama has likewise let American leadership on nuclear reductions dissipate the same way. It’s not a sexy enough topic, and it costs a president, any president, a lot of capital to champion it; to be fair, Obama’s not going to get mired in nuclear issues now that he has the Republicans climbing up his leg for destroying the U.S. military, which is — Irony Alert, Part Two — actually not an accurate claim. You don’t see it much, but if you scout around, you’ll find a lot of the progressives are venting in the leftist media about how Obama has reneged on what they thought were his promises to them to slash the military. (They’re right, but that’s a good thing.) And let’s face it, nobody is going to occupy Zuccotti Park over this. (Irony Alert, Part Three: People used to hold sit-ins against nukes, back during the Cold War — at exactly the time they shouldn’t have. The Soviets loved that stuff and even instigated some of the protests themselves, the clever devils.)
For most people, nuclear weapons are just “out there,” an undefinable problem that’s too technical to grasp. Younger voters would rather listen to Ron Paul’s crackpot conspiracy theories — I am deeply queasy over how many of his supporters are young people who are attracted to his simplistic nonsense — than tackle something that really could change the world. Right now, the nuclear “club” has 10 demonstrated members: The U.S., Russia, Britain, France, China, Pakistan, India, Israel, North Korea, and South Africa. (Yes, South Africa. The crazy white regime built six of them before dismantling them when apartheid collapsed.) There are over 20,000 nuclear weapons in the world, and at least one more country determined to get them. And credit card ATM fees are our big worry?
The old Cold War hawks know the nuclear threat better than anyone, because they helped build it. And that’s why people like Henry Kissinger, William Perry, George Shultz, Sam Nunn and many others are now desperately trying to tell us to get rid of the damned things. But no one’s listening.
Last May, Kissinger, Shultz, Perry, and Nunn hosted a major conference of retired generals, diplomats, statesmen and others in London to try to re-energize the nuclear reduction movement. Former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans noted ruefully that there wasn’t a person there under 65. (For the record, I am 51, the same age as the President.) Evans lamented that people from all political parties, from every country (including Russia, I would add) have managed to put aside their other differences to concentrate on this apocalyptic threat, but that no one currently in power seems to be interested in seizing the moment. At the conference, former British defense minister Des Brown summed it up: “People who used to be something really want to tackle this issue. The trouble is that those who are something don’t.”
I’ll just close with a moment from a great old Cold War movie, Seven Days in May. It’s a classic, about a military coup in the United States, staged by General Scott (a glowering Burt Lancaster) against President Lyman, who Scott wants forcibly removed from power to prevent the signing of an arms treaty with the Soviets. Once the plot is put down, Lyman says:
“He’s not the enemy. Scott, the Joint Chiefs, even the very emotional, very illogical lunatic fringe: they’re not the enemy. The enemy’s an age – a nuclear age. It happens to have killed man’s faith in his ability to influence what happens to him. And out of this comes a sickness, and out of sickness a frustration, a feeling of impotence, helplessness, weakness.”
We can turn our eyes from it, but we still have that helplessness; it’s a learned response. Right now, there are hundreds upon hundreds of nuclear weapons around the world on high alert. One mistake, one miscalculation, and there’s going to be hell to pay, quite literally.
The late Lawrence Eagleburger, one of America’s great diplomats, said shortly before his death a few years ago: “One nuclear war is going to be the last war, frankly, if it really gets out of hand. And I just don’t think we ought to be prepared to accept that sort of thing. But I’m not at all sure that there are very many people who look on this as being as terribly dangerous as I do, so I may be exaggerating the whole thing. But I just don’t think we can tolerate it.”
He was a great American, a conservative, and a tough and smart U.S. diplomat. And he was right. If people showed a little more concern about the future of humanity, and did a little less complaining about student loans and their smartphone data plans, we might actually be able to get something important — really important — done before it’s too late.
Tom Nichols is Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College. He blogs at The War Room (tomnichols.net/blog/). His opinions are his own and do not represent the U.S. Government.