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A Legacy of Reckless Decision Making

For decades, leaders have used the nuclear threat to consolidate power at home—even when it is bad for national security.

Mandel Ngan / Getty Images

As we are all too well aware, in January, 2017, the Doomsday Clock was advanced to two-and-a-half minutes before midnight, a threat level that had not been reached for 30 years. The accompanying statement invoked the two major threats to survival: nuclear weapons and “unchecked climate change.” The call condemned world leaders, who are endangering “every person on Earth [by] failing to perform their most important duty—ensuring and preserving the health and vitality of human civilization.”

This grim declaration naturally brought to mind another one issued just fifty years earlier: the appeal to the people of the world by Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein, calling on them to face a choice that is “stark and dreadful and inescapable: Shall we put an end to the human race; or shall mankind renounce war?”—recognizing that war can quickly turn into terminal nuclear war.

The Russell-Einstein appeal differs from the current declaration in two crucial respects. It did not include the threat of environmental catastrophe, then not sufficiently understood. And it directly addresses the people of the world, not the political leadership. The latter difference is of some importance. There is substantial evidence that on climate change, nuclear weapons planning, and international policies generally, the population seems in general more concerned than the political leadership.

It is hardly a secret that even the most free and democratic governments respond only in limited ways to popular will. For the United States, it is well established that a considerable majority of the population, at the lower end of the income/wealth scale, are effectively disenfranchised. Influence increases slowly as one moves up the scale, and at the very top—a fraction of 1 percent—policy is pretty much determined. That being the case, the attitudes at the very top of the ladder are of great import. These are revealed dramatically in the poll of CEOs released in January 2015 at the Davos conference of “masters of the universe,” as the business press describes them.

The poll revealed that climate change did not merit inclusion among the top 19 risks that concern CEOs. Worse still, at the top of their perceived risks was “overregulation”—that is, the prime method for addressing environmental catastrophe. Their overriding concern was growth prospects for their companies.

The result is not surprising. Whatever their individual beliefs, in their institutional roles the CEOs are constrained to adopt policies that are designed to “pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity,” in the words of the Doomsday Clock declaration. And given the CEOs’ enormous role in determining state policy, it is no less surprising that policy lags behind public opinion on the concerns that have moved the Clock so close to midnight.

Much the same is true of attitudes toward international affairs. Popular opinion diverges significantly from that of the decision-making classes. Among many other examples, a considerable majority have generally held that the UN, not the United States, should take the lead in international crises. Such views are so remote from elite opinion that they are barely even articulated publicly.

A good part of the reason is the nature of elite opinion. As often, it is the critical end of the spectrum that is the most informative. Here is an example from a featured article by the former director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in the March 15, 2015, issue of the New York Review of Books, the leading U.S. intellectual journal, left-liberal in orientation:

American contributions to international security, global economic growth, freedom, and human well-being have been so self-evidently unique and have been so clearly directed to others’ benefit that Americans have long believed that the U.S. amounts to a different kind of country. Where others push their national interests, the U.S. tries to advance universal principles.

Comment seems superfluous. But this is what many in enlightened circles believe. The import on policy is not obscure.

Turning to our immediate concern here, nuclear weapons policies, it is worthwhile to look carefully at how governments regard the principle that “ensuring and preserving the health and vitality of human civilization [is] their most important duty.” Regrettably, governments have consistently not even considered security of their own populations as a particularly high priority.

Let’s begin with the early days of the ultimate weapon, at a time when the United States had overwhelming wealth and power and remarkable security. There was, however, a potential threat: ICBMs with nuclear warheads. In his comprehensive review of nuclear policies, McGeorge Bundy describes “the timely development of ballistic missiles during the Eisenhower administration [as] one of the best achievements of those eight years. Yet it is well to begin with a recognition that both the United States and the Soviet Union might be in much less nuclear danger today if these missiles had never been developed.” He then adds a remarkable comment: “I am aware of no serious contemporary proposal, in or out of either government, that ballistic missiles should somehow be banned by agreement.” In short, there was apparently no thought of trying to prevent the sole serious threat to the United States—the threat of utter destruction. Rather, the institutional imperatives of state power prevailed, rather as in the case of the CEOs for whom the fate of the species is of such little concern that it does not even enter into the rankings.

Could the development of these missiles have been prevented?

There might have been opportunities. One suggestive indication is a proposal by Stalin in 1952 offering to allow Germany to be unified with free elections on condition that it not join a hostile military alliance—hardly an extreme condition in the light of the history of the preceding half century.

Stalin’s proposal was taken seriously by the respected political commentator James Warburg, but apart from him it was mostly ignored or ridiculed. Recent scholarship has begun to take a different view. The bitterly anti-Communist Soviet scholar Adam Ulam takes the status of Stalin’s proposal to be an “unresolved mystery.” Washington “wasted little effort in flatly rejecting Moscow’s initiative,” he writes, on grounds that “were embarrassingly unconvincing,” leaving open “the basic question”: “Was Stalin genuinely ready to sacrifice the newly created German Democratic Republic (GDR) on the altar of real democracy,” with consequences for world peace and for American security that could have been enormous? Melvyn Leffler, reviewing recent research in Soviet archives, observes that many scholars were surprised to discover that “[Lavrentiy] Beria—the sinister, brutal head of the secret police—propos[ed] that the Kremlin offer the West a deal on the unification and neutralization of Germany,” agreeing “to sacrifice the East German communist regime to reduce East-West tensions” and improve internal political and economic conditions in Russia—opportunities that were squandered in favor of securing German participation in NATO.

Under the circumstances, it is not impossible that agreements might have been reached that would have protected the security of the population from the gravest threat on the horizon. But the option apparently was not considered, and possible opportunities were dismissed with ridicule, another indication of how slight a role authentic security plays in state policy. These events from the early days of the Cold War have considerable resonance today.

What happened when the Cold War ended provides instructive lessons into its actual nature. One question had to do with the fate of NATO, now that the alleged threat of Russian invasion had disappeared. Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to allow a unified Germany to join NATO—a rather significant concession—but with a quid pro quo: that NATO would not expand “one inch to the East,” the phrase that was used in internal discussions, referring to East Germany. NATO at once expanded to East Germany. When Gorbachev objected, he was informed that there were only verbal commitments, nothing in writing. Clinton later expanded NATO to the borders of Russia, and as John Mearsheimer pointed out in Foreign Affairs, indications that Ukraine might be assimilated into the Western system, possibly even into NATO, could not fail to be threatening to any Russian leader.

In late December, 2016, the Western-backed Ukrainian Parliament voted 303 to 8 to rescind the policy of “nonalignment” adopted by the ousted president, and committed Ukraine to “deepen cooperation with NATO in order to achieve the criteria required for membership in this organization.” The growing crisis concerning Ukraine is no slight threat.

Returning to the 1950s, other developments revealed the low priority assigned to authentic security. When Khrushchev took office, he recognized that Russia could not compete militarily with the United States, and if Russia hoped to escape its economic backwardness and the devastating effect of the war, the arms race would have to be reversed. Accordingly, he proposed sharp mutual reductions in offensive weapons. The incoming Kennedy administration considered the offer, and rejected it, instead turning to rapid military expansion. The late Kenneth Waltz observed that the Kennedy administration “undertook the largest strategic and conventional peacetime military buildup the world has yet seen ... even as Khrushchev was trying at once to carry through a major reduction in the conventional forces and to follow a strategy of minimum deterrence, and we did so even though the balance of strategic weapons greatly favored the United States.”

Once again, the decision harmed national security while enhancing state power.

How severely it harmed national security was revealed in 1962, when Khrushchev sent missiles to Cuba, partially in a foolhardy effort to right the balance, setting off what Arthur Schlesinger called “the most dangerous moment in history.” There is no need to review here what happened then, though it merits careful thought.

Ten years later, Henry Kissinger called a nuclear alert in the last days of the 1973 Israel-Arab war. The purpose was to warn the Russians not to interfere with his delicate diplomatic maneuvers, designed to ensure an Israeli victory, but a limited one, so that the United States would still be in control of the region unilaterally. And the maneuvers were delicate. The United States and Russia had jointly imposed a cease-fire, but Kissinger secretly informed Israel that they could ignore it. Hence the need for the nuclear alert to frighten the Russians away. Security of the population was a matter of little concern.

Ten years after that, the Reagan administration launched operations to probe Russian defenses, simulating air and naval attacks. These actions were undertaken at a very tense moment and, not surprisingly, caused great alarm in Russia, leading to a major war scare in 1983, the last time the Doomsday Clock reached three minutes before midnight. Newly released archives reveal that the danger was even more severe than historians had previously assumed. A recent U.S. intelligence study concludes that “the war scare was for real” and that U.S. intelligence may have underestimated Russian concerns and the threat of a Russian preventative nuclear strike.

Recently we learned that it was even more dangerous than that. In the midst of these world-threatening developments, Russia’s early-warning systems detected an incoming missile strike from the United States, sending the highest-level alert. The officer on duty, Stanislav Petrov, decided that it was a false alarm and did not transmit the warnings. That was the difference between life and death.

Max Tegmark recalled that 20 years earlier, a Russian submarine commander, Vasili Arkhipov, blocked the launching of nuclear-tipped torpedoes, which could have set off terminal nuclear war. We should also remember that two other commanders had authorized the launch when the three submarines were under attack by U.S. destroyers during the missile crisis. The agreement of all three was required. Yet another sign of how thin is the thread that we grasp for survival.

There are chilling estimates about failures of U.S. systems, which are surely much more reliable than the Russian ones, notably Seth Baum’s recent study in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, where he concludes, appropriately enough, that “Nuclear war is the black swan we can never see, except in that brief moment when it is killing us. We delay eliminating the risk at our own peril. Now is the time to address the threat, because now we are still alive.”

Reviewing his long career as a strategic weapons planner, General Lee Butler, former commander of STRATCOM, wrote he had been “among the most avid of these keepers of the faith in nuclear weapons,” but it is now his “burden to declare with all of the conviction I can muster that in my judgment they served us extremely ill,” outlining the reasons. He then raises a haunting question:

By what authority do succeeding generations of leaders in the nuclear-weapons states usurp the power to dictate the odds of continued life on our planet? Most urgently, why does such breathtaking audacity persist at a moment when we should stand trembling in the face of our folly and united in our commitment to abolish its most deadly manifestations?

General Butler concluded that we have so far survived the nuclear age “by some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion.” These are plainly not risks that would be accepted by any sane decision maker. They are being accepted by leaders who are perfectly sane, just as the risks of environmental catastrophe are being faced with eyes open, and ignored, by the masters of the universe. All are trapped by an institutional logic that is deeply pathological and that must be cured, and quickly, if we are not to “put an end to the human race,” in Russell’s and Einstein’s words.

This article originally appeared in Sleepwalking to Armageddon: The Threat of Nuclear Annihilation, forthcoming from The New Press.