Risk of Nuclear Disaster Getting More Dire

The political world is still facing and largely ignoring its two existential challenges. Nuclear war and Climate Change. In the issue of Climate Change, the establishment debates over the extent of sustainable energy to implement and the rate at which to wean itself off coal & oil with largely disappointing results from developed nations like the USA and Australia.

But on the issue of nuclear war, there seems to be even less discussion than in regard to Climate Change. The Doomsday clock moved its position to 2 minutes to midnight at the start of 2018. And it appears that the Doomsday clock will inevitably be moving forward again in 2019, figuratively placing the world at its closest point to Nuclear annihilation ever. This is including after the 1953 testing of US and Soviet thermonuclear weapons and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

It pays to keep history in mind when contemplating the rising possibility of nuclear disaster. I had somehow overlooked and only recently begun reading The Doomsday Machine by Daniel Ellsberg (an incredibly important book for anyone interested in foreign policy or nuclear disarmament). The book paints a grim portrait of US foreign policy and military policy in regard to nuclear handling & plan execution throughout the Cold War.

It highlights a glaring range of issues that could have easily resulted in the destruction of humanity if left unchecked. While all of these should be read and understood, I would like to focus on two of these issues that appear poignant in today’s political landscape. These were the issue of overwhelming force and the issue of indiscriminate targeting.

A Questionable History

After World War 2 and the Eisenhower administration, US military planning with regard to general nuclear warfare was focused on a strategy of overwhelming force. This strategy, as evidenced by the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (rather than any military target), did not initially make any distinction between civilian or military target. The plan was, essentially, to bomb all major cities and military posts within China & the USSR and its satellite nations. A plan that would have devastated the world’s population by about 1/3 at the time, not accounting for the nuclear winter that would have wiped out the remainder.

The war plan on its own is egregious enough to raise eyebrows, or at least the eyebrows of Ellsberg, (who has made many of his documents related to nuclear war planning available at his website ellsberg.net) who has worked for much of his life to alter the course of US nuclear planning away from assured destruction of humanity. But horror at the nature of the plans is only compounded by the knowledge of how wide general war was defined under these plans.

The definition of general war that was provided in the JSCP: “General war is defined as armed conflict with the Soviet Union” (Original emphasis in The Doomsday Machine). This definition is explored further in his book, but Ellsberg suggests that armed conflict could have been something as minor as drawn out border disputes with NATO forces. Meaning that the world could have entered nuclear winter over some minor dispute between the US or NATO and the USSR.

But there was another phrase in conjunction with this to add to the horror. One which kept targeting protocols rigid: “…in general war, a war in which the armed forces of the USSR and US are overtly engaged, the basic military objective of the US Armed Forces is the defeat of the Sino-Soviet Bloc”.

This definition meant that, with horrifying rigidity, all nuclear forces would be expended against the entirety of China and the USSR. All major cities and military targets were to receive nuclear payloads. This was claimed to be a move intended to prevent retaliation from the USSR. All targets were identified by co-ordinate, rather than by title and no admissions were made in planning for identifying which targets lay around the borders of particular nations. So if, for example, a split in the Sino-Soviet bloc were to take place behind the iron curtain, as occurred about 1961, and a border dispute were to occur between NATO forces and Russia, the entire nuclear arsenal of the USA could have been unleashed upon targets that were no longer diplomatically or militarily aligned. This was a plan for a far greater crime than the holocaust or even 1000 holocausts.

I found this to be a particularly horrifying, when examined with the lack of forethought given to these kinds of issues by the US military planners and where the US military has been able to hide these hideous plans from civilian authority where necessary.

disarm nuclear bombs

Current Escalations

But things grow more worrying when we take a look at the current administration in the White House. It’s approach to foreign policy and attitude toward de-nulearisation has been startling to say the least. On October 20 the Trump administration announced that it is withdrawing from the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, a document that is noted in the ending of the Cold War.

This withdrawal means that the US will resume its pursuit of intermediate range nuclear weapons. This is a continuation (of Obama era policy) and expanding of US policy of diversifying and growing its nuclear arsenal. Russia has made statements to the effect that they will at least mirror US arsenal growth. They have at the same time also claimed that their weapons technology is decades ahead of their competitors. The withdrawal may also lead to the deterioration of other international nuclear arms treaties as Trump re-evaluates the global position of the USA.

In addition to an expanding nuclear force, the Trump administration has been fond of frightening and alarming rhetoric. He made headlines by threatening the North Korean regime with “fire and fury” to respond to their fast-developing nuclear and ballistics dreams. He also tweeted threats to the Iranian leadership of “consequences the likes of which few have seen before” after removing the US from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Regardless of whether these states have actualised nuclear arsenals or are working toward them, rhetoric like this from the highest office of the US can only have an inflammatory effect.

The current administration (like many Republican administrations) has also held an alarming affinity for grouping together states for the purpose of their international policy and response, regardless of facts. History recalls disastrous cases like the war against communism in South-East Asia in the 60’s and 70’s and in Central and South America through the 80’s. But most recently, senior policy advisor John Bolton grouped the states of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela under the title of ‘Troika of Tyranny’. Regardless of the fact that the US has had a significant role to play in the suffering particular to each of those countries, and that leaders like Bolsonaro of Brazil and Duque of Colombia didn’t make the Troika, the grouping of nations under policy goals remains a dangerous path to tread.

The current administration has shown that it is fond of a Cold War-era approach to foreign policy. Diplomacy comes second to a show of strength, and under these conditions tensions are only going to continue to rise.

Does this use of inflammatory rhetoric along the lines of overwhelming force signify greater emphasis on devastation of the enemy in military planning?

Does this continued policy of grouping foreign states under terms like ‘troika of tyranny’ and ‘axis of evil’ mean a return to targeting of entire regions, rather than state actors? Or did we never really leave this policy behind?

All of this occurs amid an arms race between India & Pakistan, who each rely on the same glacial water supply, a technologically advancing arsenal from Israel who works to suppress Iran and stalling on the North Korea issue in relation to their nuclear programs. Regardless of your political leanings, world political tensions are rising. We can’t afford to ignore the discussion on disarmament anymore.

By Nathan Booth



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