How could we accept nuclear doom as an option?

A friend of mine responded this way to my review / essay on Daniel Ellsberg’s The Doomsday Machine, which quoted Bertrand Russell as saying that President Kennedy was “mathematically” worse than Hitler because he was willing to put the whole human race at risk during the Cuban missile crisis.

Thanks for this. I lived through that time too.  I guess that my perspective is a little different, although I see Russell’s point.  Kennedy was a cold warrior, among the coldest. And Khrushchev was as well.  

And while Kennedy would not have launched unless launched upon, he inherited the nukes and he had a hard game to play. The darkest devil was Curtis LeMay, Air Force Chief of Staff, who enthusiastically pushed for bombing Cuba.

Thank God Kennedy resisted, because those tactical nukes in Cuba would have been raining down on us and then both sides would have launched the ICBMs, and we wouldn’t be here.

Kennedy created some of this tension with his ridiculous missile gap rhetoric during the presidential debates–there was no missile gap, at least not one that favored the USSR, and he certainly knew it.

Again, thanks for your review. It was a terrible time, and there have been many close calls since that the general public has been mostly unaware of.

I liken Kennedy to someone who lives in a house with a basement filled with TNT.  He was able to resolve the Cuban missile crisis without letting anyone get their hand on the detonator.  But he never considered the possibility of getting rid of the TNT or the detonator.

Kennedy was a cold warrior.  So was Daniel Ellsberg.  So was I for many years after Ellsberg saw the light.  I never understood the justice of Bertrand Russell’s words during his lifetime.

My thinking back then—and I was not alone in this—was that the world faced a choice of two equal evils.  One was nuclear warfare.  The other was the triumph of totalitarianism.  I did not think it was better to be red than dead.  I admired President Kennedy for managing to avoid a victory for totalitarianism without waging war with nuclear weapons.

I came of age reading the literature of anti-totalitarianism—George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon.  I thought there was a real possibility that Orwell’s SF dystopia could come true.  I thought that Soviet foreign policy was equivalent to Hitler’s and that conditions in the USSR in the 1960s were equivalent to conditions under the height of Stalin’s Great Terror.

I continued to believe these things long after I was exposed to facts that indicated otherwise.  It is amazing how hard it can be to change an opinion once you’ve committed to it.

I did not know the U.S. military’s secret estimates that nuclear war could result in the deaths of a quarter or more of the human race.  The thought of “omnicide”—the death of all—did not enter my thinking.   Daniel Ellsberg, by the way, does not advocate total nuclear disarmament, at least not to begin with.  He only advocates disarmament to the point where no country has the power to destroy the human race or human civilization.

Another reason for accepting the possibility of nuclear war was my memory of World War Two.  Ellsberg described the slippery slope process in which Americans gave up the idea of obeying rules of war and decided that anything goes when you are at war with a Hitler or Hirohito.

During the war, Curtis LeMay developed a technique for burning up cities.  More people died in the Tokyo firestorms than died at Hiroshima or Nagasaki.  But he was not an outlier.  He was part of a system that made him commander of the Strategic Air Command in 1948 or Air Force Chief of Staff in 1961.

We thought World War Two was an extraordinary emergency in which normal rules did not apply.  But we have come to think of war and crisis as perpetual, and moral exceptionalism as normal.ItI

The other thing about World War Two was that we Americans can into the habit of deferring to the military and military opinion, which we had not done before.  The President and the Secretary of Defense in theory command the armed forces. In practice, the armed forces have greater prestige than the elected politicians do, and the elected politicians treat the armed forces as an independent power center.

So I do not criticize American nuclear policy from a position of pretended moral or intellectual superiority.  It is rather a sense of wonderment that what Bertrand Russell called “herd instruct” had such a powerful hold on me.

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7 Responses to “How could we accept nuclear doom as an option?”

  1. whungerford Says:

    We tend to underestimate danger as argued by Jared Diamond, but we were also actively misled for example by “duck and cover” and promotion of fallout shelters. In the 1960s, employees where I worked were shown a movie suggesting that nuclear war was survivable, and after “all clear” we were to report to an “alternate work location.”


  2. Fred Says:

    WWIII started before WWII ended. The Soviets wanted to grab as much of Europe and Japan as they could. We wanted to deny as much of it as was practical. They took a piece of Japan and Korea and most of Eastern Europe mainly because we couldn’t get there first and weren’t willing to fight over it.

    Truman cut that deal to prevent WWIII from going hot before WWII had ended. It was not clear that the Red Army wasn’t going to try to roll all the way to the Atlantic. I doubt they would have gained anything in the effort (besides the slaughter of millions) but it wouldn’t be the first time a totalitarian dictator suffering from megalomania tried something stupid.

    However, the bomb made the notion of all-out land war unworkable but Stalin was a certified psychopath that couldn’t be trusted with a match and a firecracker and might have made a stupid move without deterrence. Fast forward to Khrushchev and they had a rational man at the helm. Pretty much eliminated the risk of an intentional nuclear war.

    As long as both sides understood the nature of the risks we were safe as anyone could hope for. It is the foul-ups like Able Archer 83 that we didn’t know about until after the fact that were frightening.

    Just prior to that, a faulty Soviet satellite sent information that the missile silos in the Midwest were launching and only because a lowly operator didn’t believe it and didn’t forward the warning until he could confirm it. He couldn’t. Turned out it was the sun glinting off lakes.

    When the ballistic missile warning radar was installed in Greenland, that evening it detected a wave of missiles coming in from the Soviet Union. What stopped a retaliatory strike was the sheer number detected. It had to be a glitch. The engineers eventually figured out that they were signals bouncing off the moon.

    So long as neither side was feeling suicidal, nuclear weapons kept the peace for W. Europe and Japan. The JFK – LBJ – Nixon – Carter – Reagan arms buildup was more of an effort to prove to the Soviets that they couldn’t keep up and it would be better to negotiate. As it turned out, the effort to keep up with the Americans was remarkably stupid. They didn’t have the economy for it. If we spent a billion dollars and they spent a hundred million to keep up, they lost on the deal. And eventually, the USSR collapsed.

    Today, Russia is no real threat to NATO. NATO is also no real threat to Russia but both sides need a big kabuki show for public consumption.

    Seen in that light, a lot of American behavior made perfect sense. Drive the Soviet Union into bankruptcy in a communist version of “Keeping up with the Americans” while keeping them bottled up and actual nuclear war not really on the table as a tactic. Soviet paranoia made it possible. Fight wars of attrition through proxies rather than have NATO and the Red Army facing each other directly. They couldn’t afford it as much as we could.

    It worked. We won. Now we’re on WWIV against Muslim militant NGOs which are themselves just proxies in the game of global control and expansion. I’m hoping that one is starting to wind down a bit.


  3. Benjamin David Steele Says:

    If you want a different perspective on the Cold War, check out Andrew Alexander’s America and the Imperialism of Ignorance.


  4. Himanaya Says:

    Loved your post . I’d be delighted if you check out my post on a similar topic-


    • philebersole Says:

      All countries that now have nuclear weapons acquired them because of fear of a nuclear attack. This includes the United States, which began the Manhattan Project out of fear that Nazi Germany would develop nuclear weapons first. No country with nuclear weapons can afford to unilaterally disarm, because that would leave it vulnerable to a nuclear attack.

      It is better to have a nuclear balance of power than for one country to have a monopoly on nuclear weapons. The only time that nuclear weapons have been used was by a country that possessed nuclear weapons, the United States, against a country without nuclear weapons, Japan. There were those in the U.S. military who advocated a nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union to prevent it from becoming a nuclear power. Luckily saner heads prevailed.

      As you say, the nuclear balance of terror has held for more than 70 years. Yet it has nearly failed many times. The world was at the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis. There have been several times in both the USA and the old Soviet Union when a nuclear attack seemed to be underway, but people on the scene were sensible enough and decisive enough not to react. There also is a problem with command and control. An accident could cause a nuclear launch or give the impression of a nuclear attack.

      I do not advocate that any nation unilaterally disarm. Elimination of nuclear weapons has to be a step-by-step process, beginning with the United States and the Russian Federation, so that neither nation’s leaders feel that are putting their people at risk. The end point would be that the other nuclear weapons nations would join in, and the United Nations or some other impartial international body take charge of nuclear weapons material.

      This would probably be a long process, but it has to start sometime. Unfortunately my own government, the U.S. government, is moving in the opposite direction by canceling the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty and the Intermediate Nuclear Force treaty.

      Liked by 1 person

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