Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Bomb Is Still With Us

A harrowing depiction of a nuclear apocalypse made this reviewer lose sleep.

United States detonating an atomic bomb

Nuclear War: A Scenario, by Annie Jacobsen. Dutton, 400 pages.

There are two characteristic genres of American non-fiction in the 20th century: the self-help book and the disaster book. One might identify them as the secularized forms of two strains in American Protestantism, the Calvinistic work ethic and the doctrine of a predestined and very sticky end for the mass of humanity. Indeed, you can find a fair amount of overlap between the secular and the still explicitly religious iterations: The Late Great Planet Earth


The disaster book is, frankly, more interesting. The menu of options for being happier has been pretty fixed since the dawn of antiquity—get rich, get good, or lower your standards. The onward march of science and technology, however, means that the gloomy among us usually have some fresh material to work with when turning to prophecy. Paul Ehrlich gives way to Al Gore; the human race keeps trotting along, sometimes doing things in reaction to the doomsayers—often very regrettable things, retrospectively—but mostly not doing much that they haven’t done for the past twelve millennia. The publishers stay more or less solvent, the prophets get to do a few TV hits and give a reading at the 92nd Street Y, and life goes on. It’s a fine system.

Annie Jacobsen’s Nuclear War: A Scenario is an instant classic of the genre. Jacobsen’s previous numbers have been sensational (some have said sensationalist) popular histories of the various bumps and protuberances on the shaggy beast of our military–industrial complex. In her vision of a possible future, North Korea launches a sneak attack on the Pentagon and a nuclear power plant in California; by a series of regrettable but plausible circumstantial occurrences, the Russians mistake our retaliation for a first-strike attack on Moscow and light us up, but good. Civilization and possibly the human race go up in a (very large, very unpleasant) puff of smoke. Perhaps worst of all, one of the only possible survival zones is Australia. 

Her “scenario” is replete with the gory details: people getting vaporized, people whose skin is burned off, people whose insides are liquefied by radiation poisoning, people suffocating in subway tunnels, everything on fire, and the air, water, and earth turned to poison on a permanent basis, at least as far as human timescales are concerned.

This horror—and it is horrible; this reviewer literally lost sleep—is not without its virtues. It is in fact true that, so long as the Bomb with a capital B is with us, we have the capacity to make the human race a thing of the past. When we look away from the hideous, it becomes more possible. Nuclear War makes you understand the triumphalism and the tragedy of the 1990s: We had survived the end of the world. We had been put to the test and been found of quality. And we thought we would never have to worry about that kind of danger again. Yet that kind of danger is closest when you aren’t worrying about it. 

Nations have still evinced a basic rationality when it comes to the Bomb. Think of the early support for a U.S.–enforced no-fly zone over Ukraine; as soon as people (including our collectively rather dim policymakers) figured out what exactly that entailed, the proposal was relegated to the sidelines among the unserious and the loony. Here is the basic weakness of Nuclear War. Jacobsen repeatedly refers to “madness” in the outbreak of nuclear war, and particularly the “mad king scenario”—she posits, more or less, that one day North Korea just lights the candle for reasons unknowable. Nuclear War uses the words “mad” and “madness” 22 times, “insane” or “insanity” seven times, and “irrational” twice. This is not how states, or any human institutions, behave—even North Korea. Sometimes they are obscure, sometimes they are mistaken, but they are rational. They do things for reasons, and those reasons are knowable. The fact that the doctrine of mutually assured destruction has kept great power war on ice for 80 years is a testament to the basic rationality of the international order.


There are some clear upshots here that nonetheless seem to get lost in the hurly-burly of foreign-affairs rhetoric. First and most blindingly obvious: There must always be a clear reason to prefer not going to nuclear war, an oddly hard lesson after the Second World War gave Americans an addiction to unconditional surrender. Attacks on the core territory of another nuclear power and the armed overthrow of a nuclear power’s government—in other words, existential threats—must be visibly off the table. (A lesson for our dangerous Ukraine fantasists.) A corollary to this is that a vigorous bilateralism must be cultivated even with—indeed, especially with—the absolute worst people you can imagine. You have to know what keeps them preferring not to go to nuclear war, what interests they regard as existential, how to bang out some kind of order where you are both kept short of the threshold of mass death.

Living with the Bomb in this always-aware, always-alert way seems to be the only way to go about life. Jacobsen seems sympathetic to banning the bomb. She ends a tangential account about an evolutionary biologist’s experiment with the comment, “A question remains: If the apes know how to get off the treadmill, why don’t we?” But to her credit, she does not engage in complicated imaginary constructs about how this could come to be. She’s just here to put the fear into you.

There is no doubt that she does so, tinny, fragmentary prose notwithstanding. (“When a 300-kiloton nuclear bomb detonates, it releases 300 trillion calories of energy within one-millionth [sic] of a second, a ridiculous amount of force for the average human mind to comprehend.” If it’s so ridiculous, why am I not laughing? “A grand evolutionary shift is underway. [graf break] Like after the dinosaurs.” Who writes like this? Am I reading Twitter?) Most frightening to the sober mind in daylight are the holes she identifies in the system: the shabbiness of American missile defense, the unreliability of Russian warning systems, the aporia about how to handle an electromagnetic pulse attack. The complacency of the ’90s, the feeling that all that is over, means these are not popular things for policymakers to talk about, especially in the abject embarrassment of the post-Bush, post-Obama national security establishment. Talking about weapons of mass destruction is an automatic hit to credibility. Yet they are still gaps, and gaps are dangerous. 

Yes, Jacobsen puts the fear in you. Yet there is a beauty there, too. The nuclear weapons system is the most intricate, elaborate, and vast man-made endeavor in human history—high technology in its ultimate form, physics, electronics, computing, communications, systems engineering. It is like one of the ancient liturgies, or like a horrible Busby Berkeley routine. Occult forces have always been checked or deployed by elaborate processes, Keys of Solomon and glyphs and seals and summoning rings. “We are as gods, and might as well get good at it,” as a counterculture sage of the Cold War era wrote. Might as well—or must.