‘This Is Not a Drill’: The Threat of Nuclear Annihilation
As more nations seek the bomb, and as the United States and Russia expand their nuclear arsenals, veterans of the Cold War say the public is too complacent about the risk of nuclear catastrophe.
If you were in elementary school in the early 1950s, chances are that you had the fear of nuclear holocaust drummed into you with fair regularity. Children were taught “duck and cover” techniques, which typically meant hiding under their desks as if that would save them from an atomic bomb landing nearby.
In big cities like New York, many pupils received military-style dog tags bearing their names and addresses — to help parents identify their bodies, they were told. (Of course, Mom and Pop had to survive themselves.) Some recall that the tags also listed the family religion. That, a teacher explained to one class of second-graders, was to guarantee their burial in an appropriate cemetery. Somehow, this was supposed to reassure them.
Those days are long gone. Or are they?
On a Saturday morning in January, Hawaiians scrambled for shelter after a state government bulletin that a ballistic missile was headed their way. Many of them were already on edge at the thought of a possible nuclear attack by North Korea. “This is not a drill,” a cellphone alert said.
Indeed it wasn't. It was an error. During a test of emergency preparedness, someone had mistakenly activated “live alert” instead of “test alert.” It took more than half an hour for word to get out that there was no need for panic. But nerves remained frayed. In Hawaii and other parts of the United States, there has been, for example, a spike in sales of potassium iodide, a drug that can block the thyroid gland from absorbing radioactive iodine released in a nuclear attack.
It is an echo of the Cold War's bad old days, and as this installment of Retro Report shows, some people worry that it is an omen of what may lie ahead, as the major powers resort to the sort of nuclear saber-rattling not seen for a long while. The concerns were hardly dispelled when President Trump announced on Tuesday that he was pulling the United States out of the multinational nuclear deal with Iran. That decision could remove constraints on the Iranian regime and impel it to restart a uranium enrichment program that it had agreed to curtail through the 2020s.
When the Cold War ended nearly three decades ago, “we believed that the danger of nuclear annihilation had gone away,” William J. Perry told Retro Report, a series of video documentaries examining how major news stories of the past shape present events. Mr. Perry, an emeritus professor at Stanford University, was defense secretary in the Clinton administration from 1994 to 1997. “We’ve never been able to re-grasp that it’s come back,” he said of the risk, adding ominously that, if anything, “the danger of some kind of a nuclear catastrophe today is actually greater than it was during the Cold War.”
At the moment, it may seem as if reason to fear cataclysm has receded, given that the United States and the two Koreas are engaged in diplomatic maneuvering that could — at least from the American and South Korean vantage — lead to dismantling North Korea’s nuclear stockpile. But this is not the first new dawn on the Korean Peninsula. And a collapse of the negotiations would not be the first failure. There is no guarantee that North Korea and the United States will not return to the bellicosity of just a few months ago, when the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, said that “a nuclear button is always on my desk” and President Trump responded in a tweet that his own nuclear button was “much bigger & more powerful.”
In the meantime, the leaders of the two countries most capable of mutual annihilation, Mr. Trump and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, have promised to modernize their own arsenals and make them more menacing. Publicly, neither man has shown much interest in renewing soon-to-expire agreements that impose checks on their capabilities, like on-site inspections. That has experts like Mr. Perry worried.
The decades of nuclear standoff between the United States and the old Soviet Union were premised on an assumption that neither side would dare launch an attack because it would invite a devastating counterattack and amount to committing national suicide. But a calculated launching of missiles by one side or the other is not the big scare, Mr. Perry said. What troubles him more is the increased potential for error inherent to increased weaponry: a misread blip on a computer screen or a false alarm like the recent one in Hawaii.
When international tensions are high, as they were in the depths of the Cold War and as they have at times been of late, the risk grows, Mr. Perry said, that “we would blunder into a nuclear war.”
That kind of fear all but defined much of the 1950s and 1960s, vividly captured in popular culture. At about the time that American grade-school children were ducking under their desks, the English author Nevil Shute wrote “On the Beach,” a best-selling novel about nuclear apocalypse that became a 1959 movie. As deadly radiation spreads from the northern hemisphere to the southern, a scientist in Australia explains how humankind stumbled to its doom:
“Everybody had an atomic bomb, and counter-bombs, and counter-counter bombs. The devices outgrew us; we couldn’t control them. I know. I helped build them, God help me. Somewhere, some poor bloke probably looked at a radar screen and thought he saw something. He knew that if he hesitated one-thousandth of a second, his own country would be wiped off the map. So he pushed a button, and the world went crazy.”
The world has come closer to such moments than many people realize.
In September 1983, East-West tensions soared after Soviet missiles shot down a South Korean civilian airliner, killing all 269 people aboard. Having somehow deviated from its charted course and entered prohibited Russian airspace, the plane may have been mistaken for an American spy plane. Less than a month later, a Soviet early warning system appeared to detect the launching of five missiles from an American base. Fortunately, a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet air defenses, acting on intuition, decided after nerve-racking minutes that it was a false alarm.
In October 1960, American radar detected what seemed to be dozens of Soviet missiles headed to the United States. It turned out to be a moonrise over Norway, misinterpreted. In November 1979, someone touched off fears of a Soviet missile attack by mistakenly inserting a “war games” tape into a computer of the North American Air Defense Command. A similar foul-up occurred the following June; apparently a computer chip (cost: 46 cents) had malfunctioned.
“Machines do err, and will err again,” Mr. Perry said, “And humans will err again.”
For Alex Wellerstein, a specialist in the history of nuclear weapons at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., the enemy may be complacency. With the Cold War in the rearview mirror and the Soviet Union long gone, “people don’t think nuclear war is on the table at all,” Mr. Wellerstein told Retro Report. “We stop preparing for it, we stop talking about it for the most part.”
But people must remember, he said, that nuclear missiles are “actual things that might be used in their lifetimes — they’re not fictional creations, they’re not cultural metaphors.”
The panic in Hawaii was a reminder of how easily things could go wrong. It perhaps also reinforced a lesson imparted in another cultural touchstone about nuclear dread. This was the 1983 film “WarGames,” in which a military supercomputer is put in control of the American arsenal. Thinking it is conducting a strategic exercise, the computer prepares to launch actual missiles — until it comes to understand the global devastation it would inflict.
“A strange game,” it concludes. “The only winning move is not to play.”
CLYDE HABERMAN, a regular contributor to Retro Report, has been a reporter, columnist and editorial writer for The New York Times, where he spent nearly 13 years based in Tokyo, Rome and Jerusalem. Subscribe to our newsletter here and follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.
This article first appeared in The New York Times.