Americans of a certain age remember things about their youth—Bert the Turtle and the ditty “Duck and Cover” (1951), Pat Frank’s apocalyptic novel Alas, Babylon (1959), and Sidney Lumet’s film Fail Safe, from Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler’s novel of the same name (1964 and 1962, respectively). “There was a Turtle by the name of Bert, and Bert the Turtle was very alert”; that song was whistled by kids like myself, ironically often at the same time we whistled the catchy tune from Peter and the Wolf, Sergei Prokofiev’s classic children’s story adapted by Walt Disney and very popular at the time.
My father, a career Air Force officer who spent the first part of his career with the fighter-interceptor squadrons of North American Air Defense Command, had borrowed Frank’s biblical reference in crafting his own nuclear war warning for my mother. It took me awhile to figure out what they were talking about, and when I finally did, it was terrifying. The delta-winged fighters that futilely chase down the errant nuclear-armed bombers in Fail Safe were identical to the F-106 Delta Darts my father’s squadrons flew to shield America from similarly armed Soviet bombers that probed our borders on a daily basis, and I was able to figure this out quickly the first time I saw the movie.
Nuclear Armageddon was a pervasive reality during the Cold War, and America had an arsenal and doctrine to make it a reality. Again, flashbacks from my childhood make it all-too real: F-100 fighter-bombers carried nuclear bombs on air-strip alert at an air base in Turkey. F-106 fighter-interceptors armed with nuclear “Genie” air-to-air missiles were on constant air patrol over the skies of Michigan. My father told my mother how he never wanted to be assigned to Strategic Air Command because the “Chrome Dome” mission was insane—packs of nuclear-armed B-52 bombers constantly in the air, flying towards the Soviet Union only to be called back on a routine basis.
Whether by accident or design—Cold War historians have differing accounts—over those years America perfected its nuclear Triad (the ground based missiles, manned bombers and missile-armed submarines that comprised its strategic nuclear force). Atlas missiles grew into Titans, which became the Minuteman and finally Peacekeeper. The first Atlas missiles carried a single W49 warhead possessing a yield of 1.44 megatons; the Peacekeeper carried ten 300-kiloton W87 warheads. (By way of comparison, the “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had yields of 15 and 21 kilotons, respectively.)
The generals and politicians who controlled this arsenal were schooled in the art of global apocalyptic warfare, having fought and prevailed against fascism in the Second World War. Nuclear war wasn’t an abstraction to them, but reality—America was prepared to fight and win a nuclear exchange with the Soviet enemy, using doctrines with names such as “counterforce,” “first strike,” and “mutually assured destruction,” better known as MAD. Only when the absurdity of the MAD acronym sunk in did these leaders finally undertake to control the arsenal of Armageddon they had created. One of the first agreements reached between the U.S. and the Soviet Union (the anti-ballistic missile, or ABM Treaty) limited their respective defenses against nuclear missile attack, so that neither side would be lulled into a false sense of security and thus be tempted to do the unthinkable.
And yet, even as both American and Soviet leaders sought to limit their respective nuclear forces through negotiations, each side continuously modernized and improved their arsenals to increase the responsiveness, survivability—and ultimately, accuracy and lethality—of the very weapons both parties claimed they never wanted to use. Nuclear war was always a math problem: The first planners calculated that 400 nuclear bombs were all it would take to destroy the communist world. One can assume that the Soviets had similarly calculated that a like-number of their bombs was all they needed to destroy western civilization as well. By the 1970s, each side possessed an arsenal of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, enough to destroy the planet hundreds of times over.
Sometime in the 1980s a realization struck home. Confronted with the stark reality of the 1983 ABC television film, The Day After, and the buildup of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe, whose speed and accuracy all but demanded a preemptive first strike by the other side, American and Soviet leaders began negotiating not simply limits on the numbers of nuclear weapons, but their reduction and eventual elimination. As a member of the first team of inspectors assigned to implement the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty inside the Soviet Union, I was part of this process. I came to that job from an assignment with a nuclear-capable artillery unit, where we trained to lob atomic-tipped shells toward an advancing Soviet host. The other inspectors and I turned to our new task with the kind of gallows humor only the recently reprieved can truly appreciate. When asked what he could see when looking into a Soviet missile launch canister, one American inspector spelled out “C-h-i-c-a-g-o,” and the first American film festival hosted by U.S. inspectors at a Soviet missile factory featured Stanley Kubrik’s Dr. Strangelove.
History, however, did not allow the Cold War to play itself out in normal fashion. At the very moment the U.S. and Soviet Union were making the greatest strides toward nuclear arms reduction, the Soviet Union simply disappeared. While the collapse of the Marxist-Leninist state in December 1991 was seen as a great victory for democracy and the free world, it was a disaster for arms control. One of the critical elements essential to the successful disarmament efforts of the 1980s was a sense of equality, that the reduction and elimination of nuclear weapons had reciprocal value to both parties. When, in the aftermath of the demise of the Soviet Union, the United States emerged as the sole remaining superpower, this sense of reciprocity disappeared, and with it the sense of urgency that had once existed regarding the elimination of nuclear weapons.
American politicians from both political parties can point to the efforts that have been made since the end of the Cold War to reduce America’s nuclear arsenal and limit the risk of nuclear warfare: the reduction of the number of land-based missiles from 1,100 to 400, and a similar reduction in the numbers of submarine-launched missiles and manned bombers. The fact remains, however, that while our nuclear weapons are no longer automatically targeted at cities and installations inside Russia, we still maintain a nuclear Triad whose very premise is built on a Cold War doctrine of survivability—we can ride out any preemptive nuclear attack delivered by any enemy, and deliver a nation-killing response. This is the heart of the notion of “nuclear deterrence” that has dominated strategic thinking since the dawn of the nuclear age: We will destroy you if you attack us, so don’t think of attacking us.
The inescapable logic of “nuclear deterrence” is that its proponents can point to decades of nuclear-free conflict as a means of sustaining both its logic and success. It doesn’t matter that, at one time, the fallacy of “nuclear deterrence” had been exposed as a false dream, that when two parties are in a race to develop newer and more lethal forms of nuclear weapons delivery, at some point these weapons will stop being seen as a force for deterrence and actually become the weapon of choice in eliminating a threat so pervasive it cannot be allowed to continue. This was the lesson of the push for nuclear disarmament in the 1980s, born as it was from decades of living under the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation. When the end of life on earth as we know it was a visceral reality, disarmament was seen as a logical option.
Not so today. America’s collective nuclear amnesia has led to the lessons of the past having been largely forgotten. Our military and political leaders have not been schooled by global wars of destruction where hundreds of millions died, but rather minor battlefields where the death toll, while tragic, numbers in the thousands and tens of thousands. We have become accustomed to a war of precision strikes, where threats can be largely dealt with by remote control, either through a drone-delivered missile or a satellite-guided bomb dropped from 30,000 feet. American bodies come home singly or in small groups, enough to remind us of the cost of conflict, but not enough to be painful for anyone but the immediate family and friends of the deceased. The Civil Defense movement has morphed into Emergency Preparedness that is more focused on Mother Nature than nuclear Armageddon.
The Trump administration has just announced that it is moving ahead with an Obama-era plan to modernize America’s nuclear arsenal , sprucing up the nuclear Triad with a new fleet of land-based missiles, missile-carrying submarines, and air-delivered nuclear weapons that will cost the American taxpayer well over $1 trillion in the coming years. The ostensible purpose behind this modernization effort is to maintain America’s nuclear deterrence capability for decades to come. The harsh reality, however, is that through this nuclear upgrade, America is simply repeating the mistakes of the past, building weapons whose precision and speed will trigger a new arms race with Russia and China as they seek to match this new American capability with weapons designed to sustain their version of nuclear deterrence.
Mutually assured destruction (MAD), once relegated to the trash bin of history, has had new life breathed into it. This time there is no foundation of arms control in place to limit the insanity—the ABM treaty is a thing of the past, and America today hides behind the false promise of a missile-defense shield that has questionable utility against a North Korean madman armed with a handful of missiles, let alone a Russian or Chinese military armed with hundreds. Disarmament talks with Russia—once a hallmark of the Trump foreign-policy vision—are stillborn in the face of allegations of election meddling from Moscow.
American tanks patrol the Polish frontier opposite their Russian counterparts, while U.S. and Russian warplanes share the skies over Syria, and play cat and mouse over the Baltics. Into this volatile mix, President Trump now wants to deploy a new generation of nuclear weapons that any enemy possessing a modicum of strategic insight would have no choice but to view as possessing genuine first-strike capability. Given the enhanced performance of these weapons, there will be no “fail safe” mechanism to limit the scope and scale of inadvertent use. There won’t be time for military officers to call home with a furtive warning of impending doom, and “Bert the Turtles” lyrical admonitions to “duck and cover” will be rendered meaningless to a population who has long ago forgotten what it was like to live under the threat of imminent nuclear holocaust. Today Americans are unable or perhaps unwilling to hold their elected leaders responsible as they play nuclear Russian roulette—a game as avoidable as it is insane.
Scott Ritter is a former Marine Corps intelligence officer who served in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control treaties, in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm, and in Iraq overseeing the disarmament of WMD. He is the author of Deal of the Century: How Iran Blocked the West’s Road to War (Clarity Press, 2017).