We still haven't solved the Nuclear Age
A lone madman can still bring down civilization
“If it’s not love/ Then it’s the Bomb/ Then it’s the Bomb that will bring us together” — The Smiths
After the detonations of the atomic bombs that he helped to design, the physicist Richard Feynman wandered around in a depressed funk. He believed that it was only a matter of time before the same destruction visited on Hiroshima and Nagasaki came home to the city where he lived. Decades later, he wrote:
I sat in a restaurant in New York, for example, and I looked out at the buildings and I began to think, you know, about how much the radius of the Hiroshima bomb damage was and so forth... How far from here was 34th street?... All those buildings, all smashed — and so on. And I would go along and I would see people building a bridge, or they'd be making a new road, and I thought, they're crazy, they just don't understand, they don't understand. Why are they making new things? It's so useless.
But, fortunately, it's been useless for almost forty years now, hasn't it? So I've been wrong about it being useless making bridges and I'm glad those other people had the sense to go ahead.
And ever since then, that’s how we’ve been living. Before the Bomb, “destroying the world” was only a metaphor for the havoc wreaked by occupying armies; in the Nuclear Age, it was a literal, real thing that could happen any day.
“The Bomb.” For whole generations of people all over the world, that phrase needed no explanation. It instantly conjured up visions of Biblical destruction — eyeballs melted out of skulls, flesh dropping off arms, shadows on the walls where human beings were vaporized. Ducking and covering would not save you; it merely gave you something to focus on doing in your last moments.
Most people assumed that eventually, this would happen — that the massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons built up by the U.S. and the USSR would be used to their full extent, and that most of the world would be destroyed in the conflagration. That assumption permeated our future visions — even Star Trek portrays a human race that came together only in the aftermath of a World War 3 that began in 2026. Those of us born before 1991 grew up living in the shadow of the Sword of Damocles.
And then one day I woke up and it seemed like the threat was gone. The August Coup had overthrown the USSR peacefully, and the final holdouts of the old communist regime had not, in fact, chosen to launch their ICBMs in one last spasm of nihilistic despair. I remember walking through the halls of my school in a daze, understanding what few of the people around me seem to grasp — that the world had changed. That nuclear holocaust was not our inevitable future. That we would live on.
But the threat was not gone.
Over the decade that followed the end of the Cold War, the U.S. and Russia — which inherited all of the old USSR’s nuclear stockpile — reduced their arsenals dramatically from the insane heights to which they had climbed:
Even the numbers at which these lines settle — about 5,000 weapons apiece — are a bit exaggerated from what would likely be launched in a full-scale war. The actual number of deployed nuclear weapons is more like 1600 each; the others are in storage, and it’s not clear they would ever make it out of storage if the bombs started falling.
If you’re worried about a world-ending nuclear winter from which only cockroaches emerge, then this massive reduction in nuclear armaments might be a relief. But if you live in the U.S. or another country that would be on the firing line in a nuclear war, that’s cold comfort; even if some warheads no longer function, this amount of nuclear weaponry is definitely enough to kill you, me, and everyone we know in short order.
And in recent days, as Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has begun to crumble, we have been reminded that the Sword of Damocles is not gone, and never was gone. Putin has increasingly resorted to nuclear threats as his armies have been driven back, and his claimed annexation of four of Ukraine’s regions — whose boundaries he didn’t even bother to define — is being widely viewed as a justification for nuclear use. That might mean “tactical” lower-yield battlefield devices used against Ukraine’s army, or bigger “strategic” nukes lobbed at one of Ukraine’s cities. Either way, an important taboo that has existed since the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will have been breached.
In the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union often contemplated using their nukes against weaker nations, but pulled up short. There was a general understanding that even a “limited” nuclear use was likely to spiral out of control into the cataclysmic World War 3 that everyone expected and feared. So the U.S. didn’t use our nukes in Korea or Vietnam, the USSR didn’t use theirs against China or in Afghanistan, and wars stayed limited and the world was not destroyed.
In the decades following the Cold War, it was tempting to see this restrained outcome as inevitable — the unique equilibrium solution of the game theory of Mutual Assured Destruction. If, in Sting’s words, the Russians love their children too, then they won’t launch and neither will we. And nobody ever will, as long as we all maintain second-strike capabilities that would make any nuclear attack a suicide attack.
But that was always an “if”. It’s easily possible to look back at history and find leaders who, if they had had nuclear weapons at their fingertips, would have used them. Do you really think that Adolf Hitler wouldn’t have pressed the big red button as the Allied armies closed in? Or gambled his whole nation on a first strike? This is the man who launched his entire country into a genocidal kill-or-be-killed race war, fully comfortable in the belief that if his armies lost, it would mean his country had proven itself inferior and deserved to die.
Do we view Hitler’s apocalyptic attitude as a singular historical anomaly? I’d like to believe that, but I can’t. Mao Zedong let tens of millions of his people die in a famine of his own making, and basically shrugged. Pol Pot nearly depopulated his whole country. Suicide bombers take their own lives simply to strike one more spiteful blow at a hated enemy.
What if Vladimir Putin is the dictatorial equivalent of a suicide bomber? His dreams of restoring the Russian Empire were never possible given the means at his disposal, and the Ukraine war has only served to expose their impossibility even more. Given the choice between acknowledging the failure of his life’s dream and destroying both his own country and all his enemies in a final burst of apocalyptic spite, how sure are you that he will choose the former? I am not sure at all, to be honest. The man is 69 years old, and rumored to be in poor health. Perhaps eking out a few more years as a shattered failure of a man appeals to him less than being the man who blew up the world.
Of course, even if Putin is a world-suicidal madman, that doesn’t mean his generals and his top government officials also are. Ultimately, they are the ones responsible for implementing an order to launch the nukes; Putin can’t do it from his cell phone. They may be less enthused about seeing themselves, their families, and their country reduced to shadows on a wall. They may refuse, or even remove Putin from office.
That’s a comforting thought, but it just makes the madman-holocaust scenario somewhat less likely. It does not eliminate the possibility that Putin, or another future leader of a nuclear-armed country, might successfully transform his entire nuclear chain of command into a death cult — or even create a nuclear launch system that can be fired by one person’s hand.
In fact, a number of leaders, including Richard Nixon, have tried to deter nuclear-armed rivals by portraying themselves as unhinged madmen. The question is what happens when this strategy is used offensively instead of defensively. What happens when a nuclear-armed conqueror says “Let me conquer your country, or I will destroy the entire world, including myself?”. What do you do? Do you assume he’s bluffing and refuse him his prize? Or do you capitulate in the face of a possible madman, and let him take whatever he wants, because you don’t want to take the chance that you love your children infinitely more than he loves his own?
That is the scenario we now essentially face. Putin has shown no willingness to negotiate any sort of peace settlement, instead simply issuing unilateral demands for territory backed by vague nuclear threats. What happens if he gets his territory? If Ukraine gives Putin four of its provinces — condemning their populations to torture, rape, forcible relocation, and other horrific repressions — then will he be satisfied? It seems highly unlikely; a few months ago he was attempting to conquer the entire country. If Ukraine and the West capitulate to nuclear threats, why wouldn’t he just repeat the trick in a few months with the rest of Ukraine? And if that gets surrendered, what about Poland, the Baltics, or the other former territories of the Russian Empire with which Putin is so enamored? Do we just keep surrendering land after land, people after people, until Putin dies, in the hope that his successor will be less apocalyptic?
I am inclined to answer “No, we should not surrender,” but that’s not an answer that satisfies me.
The Nuclear Age, in other words, presents us with not just one unsolved problem, but several. In addition to the threat of accidental nuclear launch, and the threat of a spiteful madman launching nukes as a final act of nihilism, there’s also the possibility that a calculating tyrant might be able to conquer at will by credibly pretending to be a madman.
In the years since the Cold War, this threat has increased rather than decreased. Among the new nuclear states are North Korea, a quasi-religious totalitarian society ruled by a single all-powerful dictator, and Pakistan, which alternates frequently and chaotically between military and civilian rule. Iran, a cruel theocracy that’s even now engaged in yet another slaughter of its restive population, might join them soon. These regimes command (or might command) much smaller nuclear arsenals than Putin’s, but even a regional nuclear war can wreak a very large amount of havoc.
In other words, maybe there was nothing inevitable or deep or eternal about the way the Cold War worked out. Perhaps a populace still shocked by the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, combined with the memory of the U.S.-Soviet alliance that beat Hitler, combined to discourage nuclear use. Perhaps the USSR, being the bureaucratic, ideological, party-controlled state that it was, felt like a system that would never die, meaning that its leaders felt like they had a lot of future to lose. Or perhaps the fact that only two power blocs had nuclear weapons meant that the chances of misfire or miscalculation were simply that much lower, and we just lucked out.
Maybe Feynman was right after all. Maybe now that humans have nukes, we’ll inevitably use them (again). We’ve used every other weapon we’ve ever created, multiple times. Maybe war obeys the principle that everything possible is mandatory.
I hope this is not true, obviously. But if we’re going to make sure it isn’t true, we need to be more purposeful about finding a solution to the Nuclear Age. Denuclearization makes for a nice slogan, but unilateral disarmament invites a first strike or a nuclear-backed conquest. And MAD is unstable in the face of the madmen that periodically seem to come along and take charge of countries. We can neither game-theory our way out of this, nor kumbaya our way out of this. We need a more robust approach, and I don’t pretend to know what that is.
Until we find that solution, we’ve just got to keep building roads and bridges, and living our lives, and hoping that everyone loves their children as much as they did in the Cold War.