In my judgment as an interested citizen, there is a breathtaking degree of denial and illusion in the world of nuclear strategy, on all sides. Kim Jong Un deludes his people with crude propaganda about annihilating the United States. But Americans also underestimate American military strength, along with the strength of the other nuclear powers—a level of potential destruction that could be world-ending. Denial, unquestioned assumptions, and drift masquerade as rational policy. Putting war prevention first is overshadowed by a paradigm of casual bellicosity.
Granting that North Korea initiated the Korean war, 80% of North Korea was destroyed before it was over. The head of the Strategic Air Command, Curtis Lemay, dropped more bombs on North Korea than were detonated in the entire Asia-Pacific theater during World War II. The North Korean economy was decimated and has only partly recovered. There was famine in the 1990s. There’s no closure, no formal treaty of peace. The North Korean mind-set is that we are still at war—a convenient excuse for their leaders to scapegoat the U.S., distracting the minds of their citizens with an external enemy—a classic totalitarian trope. Our country continues to play right into this scenario.
Kim Jong Un’s family is complicit in illicit arms and heroin sales, currency counterfeiting, ransom ware that cruelly disrupted the work of hospitals around the world, assassination of relatives, arbitrary detention, and torture of dissidents in secret forced labor camps.
But our present crisis with North Korea is only a particular instance of a general planetary condition, one that is equally acute in the Kashmir conflict, for example, which pits nuclear India against nuclear Pakistan. As Einstein wrote in 1946, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” Unless we find a new mode of thinking, we’re going to be dealing with more North Koreas down the time-stream.
All the complexity of nuclear strategy, can be boiled down to two inescapable potentialities: We have long surpassed an absolute limit of destructive power and no technological system invented by humans has been forever error-free.
A thermonuclear bomb exploded above any major city would in a millesecond raise the temperature to 4 or 5 times the surface of the sun. Everything for a hundred square miles around the epicenter would be instantly aflame. The firestorm would generate 500 mile-an-hour winds, capable of sucking in forests, buildings, and people. The soot rising into the troposphere from detonation of as few as 1% to 5% of the world’s arsenals could have the effect of cooling the entire planet and diminishing for a decade our capability to grow what we need to feed ourselves. Billions would starve. I have not heard of any congressional hearings addressing this interesting possibility—even though it is hardly new information. 33 years ago, my organization, Beyond War, sponsored a presentation on nuclear winter given by Carl Sagan to 80 united nations ambassadors. Nuclear winter may be old news, but its subversion of the meaning of military strength remains unprecedented and game-changing. Updated models suggest that in order to avoid nuclear winter, all nuclear–armed countries must reduce their arsenals to about 200 warheads.
But even such radical reductions do not resolve the problem of error or miscalculation, which—confirmed by the Hawaii false alarm—is the most likely way nuclear war with north Korea would begin. The public relations cliché is that the president always has with him the codes, the permissive action links, that are the only way nuclear war can be initiated. While this is hair-raising enough, the truth may be even more disheartening. Neither U.S. nor Russian deterrence, nor North Korean for that matter, would have credibility if adversaries believed that a nuclear war could be won simply by taking out the enemy’s capital city or head of state. These systems are therefore designed to ensure retaliation from other locations, and also down the chain of command.
During the Cuban missile crisis, Vasili Archipov was an officer on a Soviet submarine on which our navy was dropping what were called practice grenades, in order to get them to surface. The Soviets assumed the grenades were real depth charges. Two officers wanted to fire a nuclear torpedo at a nearby American aircraft carrier. According to Soviet navy protocol, three officers had to agree. No one aboard the submarine required a coded go-ahead from Mr. Khrushchev to take a fatal step toward the end of the world. Fortunately, Archipov was unwilling to assent. With similar heroic prudence, the Kennedy brothers restrained the above-mentioned General Curtis Lemay from bombing Cuba during the missile crisis. Had Lemay’s impulsiveness prevailed in October 1962, we would have been attacking both tactical nuclear weapons and intermediate range missiles in Cuba with nuclear warheads already mounted on them. Robert McNamara: "In a nuclear age, such mistakes could be disastrous. It is not possible to predict with confidence the consequences of military action by the great powers. Therefore, we must achieve crisis avoidance. That requires that we put ourselves in each other's shoes."
In the moment of relief after the Cuban crisis, the sane conclusion was “neither side won; the world won, let’s make sure we never come this close again.” Nevertheless—we persisted. Secretary of State Rusk blithely drew the wrong lesson: “We went eyeball to eyeball and the other side blinked.” The military-industrial juggernaut in the superpowers and elsewhere rolled on. Einstein’s wisdom was ignored.
Nuclear deterrence contains what philosophers call a performative contradiction: In order to never be used, everyone’s weapons must be kept ready for instant use, but if they are used, we face planetary suicide. The only way to win is not to play.
The mutually assured destruction argument is that global war has been prevented for 73 years. Churchill rationalized it with his usual eloquence, in this case in support of a cockeyed assumption: “Safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation.”
But nuclear deterrence is unstable. It locks nations into an endless cycle of we build/they build, and we drift into what psychologists call learned helplessness.
In spite of our professed assumption that our nuclear weapons exist only to deter, only as defense, many U.S. presidents have used them to threaten adversaries. General MacArthur apparently considered using them during the Korean war, just as Nixon wondered if nuclear weapons could change imminent defeat into victory in Vietnam. Our present leader says what’s the point of having them if we can’t use them? That is not deterrence talk. That is the talk of someone who has zero understanding that nuclear weapons are fundamentally different.
By 1984, intermediate-range missiles were deployed in Europe by both the us and the U.S.S.R. decision-making time for both Nato and the Soviets was shortened to minutes. The world was on edge, as it is today. Anyone who lived through the reds-under-the-bed hysteria of the McCarthy era will recall that mass assumptions about the Soviet Union as criminal, evil and godless were a thousand times more intense than what we feel today about Kim and his small benighted country.
In 1984, to honor the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, my organization, Beyond War, set up a live televised “spacebridge” between Moscow and San Francisco. Large audiences in both cities, separated not only by a dozen time zones but also by decades of cold war, listened to the pleas of the co-presidents of the I.P.P.N.W., for reconciliation between the U.S. and the Soviets. The most extraordinary moment came at the very end when all of us in both audiences spontaneously began to wave to each other.
A cynic wrote a scathing analysis of our event in the Wall Street Journal, asserting that the U.S., aided by beyond war’s useful idiocy, had been exploited in a communist propaganda coup. But the spacebridge turned out to be more than just a kumbaya moment. Developing our contacts, we brought together two teams of high-level nuclear scientists from the United States and the Soviet Union to write a book about accidental nuclear war, called “Breakthrough.” Gorbachev read it. The work of millions of demonstrators, NGOs like Beyond War, and professional foreign service officials began to bear fruit in the second half of the 1980s. In 1987 Reagan and Gorbachev signed an important nuclear disarmament treaty. The Berlin wall came down in 1989. Gorbachev and Reagan, in a poignant moment of sanity, met in 1986 at Reykjavik and even considered mutually eliminating all the nuclear weapons of the two superpowers.
Such initiatives from the 1980s remain deeply relevant to the North Korean challenge.
If we want North Korea to change, we need to examine our own role in the creation of the echo chamber of threat and counter-threat.
Dr. King’s death was a mortal blow to our greatness as a nation. He connected the dots between our racism and our militarism. Significantly, General Curtis Lemay, firebomber of Tokyo in World War II, scourge of Korea, near-trigger of superpower thermonuclear war during the Cuban crisis, reappears in history one more time, in 1968, the same year King was assassinated—as George Wallace’s vice-presidential candidate. Contemplating doing to Pyongyang in 2018 what we did to Hiroshima in 1945 requires a grotesque dehumanization of the 25 million people of North Korea. Lemay’s justification of mass death comes from the same mental space as George Wallace’s (and President Trump’s) racism.
The children of North Korea are as worthy of life as our own. That is not kumbaya. That is a message North Korea needs to hear from us. Were King still with us, he would be thundering that our taxes fund potential mass murder on a level that would make the Jewish holocaust look like a picnic. He would argue that it is moral evasion to assume that our nukes are good because they are democratic, and Kim’s are bad because they are totalitarian. Our country needs to at least surface the subject of double standards, where we prohibit nuclear weapons for Iran and North Korea but not for ourselves. North Korea and Iran should be prohibited membership in the nuclear club, but then so should the rest of us.
New thinking demands that we ask even unsavory characters like Kim Jong Un, “how can I help you survive, so that we can all survive?” Every contact, including the Seoul Olympics, offers opportunities for connection. If we are strategically patient, North Korea will evolve without another Korean war. This is already happening as market forces and information technology gradually work their way into their closed culture.
The ultimate prevention of nuclear war, with North Korea or with anyone else, requires the complete, reciprocal, verified reduction of everyone’s nuclear weapons, first down below the nuclear winter threshold and then, long term, down to zero. Our own country must lead. Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin could put their odd affinity to good use by initiating a permanent nuclear disarmament conference, gradually enlisting the participation of the other 7 nuclear powers. The whole world would be rooting for success, instead of being terrified of us as it is at present. Confidence-building unilateral moves are possible. Former Secretary of Defense William Perry has argued that the United States would be more, not less, secure if we unilaterally eliminated our 450 ICBMs in silos, the land-based leg of our nuclear triad.
Writers like Steven Pinker and Nick Kristof have identified a host of trends that suggest the planet is moving gradually away from war. I want my country to help accelerate those trends, not slow them, or god help us, reverse them. We ought to have supported, rather than boycotted, the recent U.N. treaty outlawing nuclear weapons. 122 countries out of 195 have signed that treaty. Such an accord may at first seem to have no teeth, but history works in strange ways. In 1928, 15 nations signed the Kellogg-Briand pact, which outlawed all war. It was ratified, if you can believe it, by the United States senate in a vote of 85 to 1. It’s still in force, though it goes without saying that it has been honored more in the breach than in the observance. But that supposedly pie-in-the-sky document supplied the legal foundation for convicting the Nazis of crimes against peace during the Nuremberg trials.
The same engines which power our missiles have also propelled us into space, allowing us to see the earth as a single organism—a sane, powerful, complete picture of our interdependence. What we do to our adversaries we do to ourselves. It is the work of our time to seed this new thinking into even our most Machiavellian survival calculations—to put ourselves in each other’s shoes as Secretary McNamara said. The universe did not bring our planet through a 13.8 billion-year process for us to end it in a self-administered omnicide. The dysfunctionality of our present leader only serves to make clearer the dysfunctionality of the nuclear deterrence system as a whole.
Our representatives need to hear a lot of us ask for open hearings on nuclear policy, especially nuclear winter, the self-defeating madness of “strategies” like launch-on-warning, and the prevention of nuclear war by error.
The established worldview is that people of good will are trying to build King’s beloved community, and that nuclear deterrence protects that fragile community from a dangerous world. King would have said that nuclear deterrence itself is a huge part of the danger. If we here in the United States came to terms with the original sin of our racism and violence, we would look at the North Korean challenge with different eyes, and they might even see us differently too. We are either drifting toward unparalleled catastrophe or doing our best to build King’s beloved community—worldwide.