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Taking Nuclear War Seriously

February 23, 2024

It is vital that Americans take nuclear war seriously.

For the last three and a half decades, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Americans have relaxed and behaved as though they were essentially safe from nuclear events.

When President Bill Clinton and I created the Hart-Rudman Commission in 1998, we hoped to create a deep rethinking of American security strategies. The Commission was brilliantly led by Gen. Charles Boyd and produced a remarkable report.

We warned that the greatest threat to the United States was a nuclear attack in an American city – likely by a terrorist group. We proposed a Department of Homeland Security capable of dealing with three simultaneous nuclear events. That would have been a department with the discipline and training we associate with military organizations or first-class fire departments.

As a sign of how little people understood the danger of nuclear weapons, the department degenerated into a bureaucratic mess of enormous incompetence. Today, it cannot cope with unarmed civilians at the border. It would likely be totally incapable of dealing with one (let alone three simultaneous) nuclear events.

Yet, nuclear war is becoming increasingly possible. When dealing with the Soviet Union, it was conceivable that a strategy of mutual assured destruction could sustain a balance of deterrence to keep nuclear war at bay. Neither country would launch a nuclear weapon, because there was a virtual certainty of annihilation. In many ways, mutual assured destruction resembled Abraham Lincoln’s response to a duel challenge. Lincoln chose shotguns at three feet, and the other guy backed down.

Now, however, we have countries getting nuclear weapons that may not care if we retaliate.

It is possible that the Iranian theocratic dictatorship would accept the exchange of Tehran for Tel Aviv as a net plus on ideological grounds.

We have no understanding of the values and thought processes of Kim Jung Un and his leadership (including his sister who is supposedly more hard line than he is). Faced with the growing economic, technological, and quality of life achievements of South Korea, it’s possible the North Korean regime might be willing to risk a nuclear attack as the only element in which it has an advantage.

Pakistan is unstable, and its long-time opponent India is steadily growing. This could lead to a nuclear conflict if Pakistan becomes threatened by India’s size – or if India aggressively responds to a perceived Pakistani threat. Ultimately, a nuclear conflict could occur in the region from pure misunderstanding.

The Russian dictatorship is a dangerous combination of Soviet training (Vladimir Putin was a KGB officer and is still deeply loyal to the spirit of the Soviet Union) and Great Russian Nationalism. Furthermore, the depth of Putin and his allies’ corruption – and the intensity and savagery of his response to domestic opponents – create a psychological environment in which the use of nuclear weapons as an alternative to defeat becomes increasingly possible. Putin himself has suggested the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Recently a close ally of his suggested nuclear weapons would be used on London and Washington if Russia was forced to give back any land in Ukraine.

Finally, the most rational and stable of our opponents with nuclear capability is Communist China (this alone should tell us how unstable the world is becoming). It is possible that with a declining population, a rapidly decaying economy, and a growing sense of frustration and global isolation, General Secretary Xi Jinping could decide to risk invading Taiwan or forcing a crisis in the South China Sea. Conflict could spiral out of control with remarkable speed.

Faced with this reality, we need to revisit Herman Kahn’s Classic study “Thinking About the Unthinkable.” To understand how dangerous a nuclear attack would be, it is helpful to also go back 70 years to Philip Wylie’s astonishing novel “Tomorrow.” It is the story of a nuclear attack on a single city and the power of a nuclear weapon to destroy life and civilization. This was the book which convinced me as a high school student that we had to do virtually everything to avoid nuclear war – and survive it if it came.

I recently reread Stephen Hunter’s 1989 novel “The Day Before Midnight,” in which a Russian nationalist remarkably like Putin seizes an American ICBM silo in an effort to start a nuclear war.

If we took nuclear war seriously, we would do three things immediately:

First, we would build an Israeli quality missile defense system at every level. It would take out missiles as they leave their silos, through their time in space to reentry, and finally at a point of defense. President Ronald Reagan proposed a Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983. It was ridiculed as Star Wars. Its technological heirs have saved tens of thousands of Israeli lives. A global version could save hundreds of millions of lives.

Second, we would develop the domestic survival system capable of responding to three or more nuclear events – with hospitals, security, construction workers, and whatever else it took to minimize loss of life. This would involve stockpiling radiation survival medicine, food, water, etc.

Third, we would have a crash program to harden our entire system against a potential electromagnetic pulse attack. As Bill Forstchen wrote in his remarkable book, “One Second After,” an EMP attack would be devastating and civilization destroying.

We were surprised at Pearl Harbor. We were surprised on Sept. 11, 2001. We cannot afford to be surprised by a nuclear attack.

For more commentary from Newt Gingrich, visit Gingrich360.com. Also, subscribe to the Newt’s World podcast.

This article was originally published by RealClearPolicy and made available via RealClearWire.
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