The horrifying image of a mushroom cloud as the dominant cultural symbol was replaced during the Moon trips with the lovely, inspiring, and unifying image of the Earth hanging in space, notes Stewart Brand in a recent podcast. Yet, although the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union crumbled a couple years later, the nuclear threat never really went away.
Now that former KGB strongman and mass-murderer Vladimir Putin has invaded Ukraine and not-so-subtly threatened to launch nuclear warheads if others interfere, the threat of nuclear war has increased substantially. That the world has come closer to conflagration a few times, as during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and the Soviet “nuclear false alarm incident” of 1983, hardly takes the edge off of today’s crisis. “The likelihood of a nuclear war, while still low, is rising,” says James M. Acton of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Strangely, I worry a lot more about the potential for nuclear war than a lot of people seem to do because I think it is largely survivable. Make no mistake, a large-scale nuclear war would be horrifically catastrophic, killing or maiming many millions of Americans. It would also destroy trillions of dollars worth of our assets and inflict serious long-term damage to the broader environment, causing widespread famine.
A big nuclear war almost certainly would be the worst thing ever to happen in recorded human history. Other events that begin to compare include the genocidal rampages of Genghis Khan, which killed maybe a tenth of all people; the Black Death, which killed maybe half of Europeans; the disease and violence Europeans brought to the Americas, which killed most of the native population; and Mao Zedong’s Communist slaughter machine, which killed tens of millions. But the United States government, and most residents, would survive war. At least they could survive, if our governments and our people took basic preparations seriously.
So why does the survivability of nuclear war make me worry more? If you (incorrectly) think that nuclear war literally would cause the extinction of the human species, then nuclear war is so unthinkable that you probably don’t think much about it. If you think that launching a nuclear war is effectively suicide for a state leader and his country, then you probably cannot imagine someone actually going through with it. But if you think that Putin could inflict catastrophic damage on the United States (short of annihilating it) while keeping his own government intact, you begin to see why an authoritarian figure might entertain the idea. Hatred of the enemy can go a long way.
Paul Hare of Boston University insists that Putin’s “objective is not to bring the world to nuclear war.” But war is hard to predict. Obviously Putin did not achieve the easy victory he expected. And given that Putin obsessed about Ukraine’s supposed threat to Russian security, might he nurture similar delusions about other neighboring countries? Hare told Vox, “We do of course hope that Putin is still a rational actor.” Uh, this is a guy who murders his political opponents and who nurtures ethno-nationalist fantasies. Rationality left the station long ago. Analyst Beth Sanner told CNN that Putin is not “insane or unhinged,” merely “high emotional” and “very isolated.” How comforting.
Assuming we get through Putin’s current war without international escalation, we will remain under continual low-level threat of nuclear war. It takes only one mentally unstable or highly vindictive authoritarian leader of a major nuclear power to push the button. Or two egomaniacs who get locked into a game of nuclear chicken. Or an accidental launch.
Long term, the only world totally safe from nuclear war is a world free from nuclear weapons. In this I agree with Colorado Newsline’s Quentin Young (who, to his credit, came around to my view that the nuclear threat is serious). But, whereas Young suggests that Americans should protest American nucs, I recognize that we need such horrible weapons so long as other countries have them. Any deescalation would have to be across the board, step by step. But Young is right that, at this point, because of military facilities in our states, Colorado is “a prime target for a Russian nuclear attack.” And that’s pretty scary.
Why do I think that, with some preparation, even a large-scale nuclear war is survivable by our nation and by most of the people in it? Mainly it’s because I read the book Nuclear War Survival Skills by Cresson H. Kearny, who worked for the Oak Ridge National Laboratory before retiring to Montrose. Here’s what Edward Teller writes in the foreword to the 1987 edition: “With relatively inexpensive governmental guidance and supplies, an educated American public could, indeed, defend itself. We could survive a nuclear war and remain a nation.” Kearny focuses on teaching “the basic facts about nuclear weapon effects and what you, your family, and small groups can do to protect yourselves.” A lot of the book focuses on the construction of emergency underground fallout shelters. (Note: An older version of the book is available online.)
Both Teller and Kearny point out that our government long failed to take seriously preparations for nuclear war, a fact that remains true today.
“The thought of nuclear war has largely been relegated to history lessons and old YouTube videos,” Colorado Public Radio assured us in a 2017 article. The Denver Office of Emergency Management maintained “a thousand [fallout] shelters . . . between 1962 and 1974,” CPR reports. Although no longer officially maintained, “the shelters would still provide adequate protection from any radioactive fallout. Of course, you’d have to bring your own emergency supplies,” CPR adds, citing a city official. In other words, you’re basically on your own.
Some people will continue to ignore the threat of nuclear war because the chances of it happening in a given year remain relatively low. But the small chance of such devastating harm merits attention. By comparison: Covid caused 12,556 Colorado deaths as of March 3, or about 0.2% of the total population, and look how seriously we took that. It’s hard to estimate risks of nuclear war, but Luisa Rodriguez makes an educated guess that aggregates the estimates of various experts: “There’s about a 1.1% chance of nuclear war each year,” and “the chances of a nuclear war between the US and Russia, in particular, are around 0.38% per year.” That implies a substantial lifetime risk.
The immediate threat of nuclear war remains relatively low, although Putin has dramatically increased the risks. But, so long as we face a real risk of nuclear war, I see the prudence of a little preparation by the government and by individuals. Maybe someday we’ll live in a world without nuclear weapons. Until then, I’m going to stock up and keep a shovel handy.
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.
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