Nuclear Priorities in the Pandemic Era

Stop the New Nuclear Arms Race

by Steve Gallant

Where should we focus our activist energies as the COVID-19 pandemic kills hundreds of thousands, and the Trump administration threatens to tear up nuclear treaties and to restart nuclear testing?

First, let’s assess the dangers and their timelines.

COVID-19 has killed 300,000 people worldwide in a half-year, and it threatens up to a million total fatalities. All in the next 1-2 years, unless we find a successful vaccine.

Nuclear weapons are much more deadly, but are not expected to be used in the short run. (Neither was a pandemic expected in the short run.) Even a “small” exchange between India and Pakistan is estimated to bring on a “mild” Nuclear Winter, which kills one billion people.¹ This is much worse than COVID – fully 1,000 times worse. If we think there is high probability of nuclear warfare in the next 100 years, which I do, then the expected nuclear toll is comparable to having 10 COVID crises in each of those 100 years! As bad as COVID is, the nuclear threat is overwhelmingly more deadly; we cannot ignore it, even in the time of the pandemic.

How might a nuclear war start? We can list several broad categories.

The first way is by miscalculation or by military madness. We came very close to a full-scale nuclear exchange during the Cuban missile crisis, even though both sides wanted to avoid that outcome.² Although we didn’t know about Nuclear Winter in the early ‘60s, even just the US firing all its nuclear weapons (according to the only nuclear plan at the time) would likely have brought on a full-scale Nuclear Winter. Ellsberg estimates the toll would have been 95% to 98% of all human life, with deaths due to starvation from global crop failures over multiple years.

Another example of military madness was related by author James Carroll at MAPA’s annual dinner September 28, 2019. Carroll’s father was Air Force General Joseph Carroll, founding director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who worked at the Pentagon when James was growing up. Carroll relates that there was very serious consideration of a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union before the USSR could obtain nuclear parity with the US.³

A third example is that in the early 1960’s, a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had a standing advocacy of a pre-emptive nuclear strike against China, until China developed nuclear weapons.4

Each of these last two examples – unprovoked nuclear attacks against the USSR and China – would have been the most serious mass murders in world history. Sophisticated military strategic thinking can easily become military madness when nuclear weapons are involved. The fact that a unilateral nuclear attack against the USSR or China would have been seriously considered is prima facie evidence that humans cannot be trusted to possess the means to destroy civilization.

The final example is the US’s actual use of nuclear weapons against Japan in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. According to Ellsberg, there was no real “decision” to use the A-bombs! This was just a continuation of the strategy of fire-bombing Japanese cities that was ongoing. 7 of the 8 US officers of five-star rank in 1945 thought that the A-bombing was not needed to avert the need for a costly (to the US) invasion. The US Strategic Bombing Survey for the Pacific War concluded in July 1946 that “… Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.”5

A second major way that nuclear war might start is from escalation after US threats of nuclear attacks to achieve political goals. Ellsberg lists 25 explicit nuclear threats by the US in the time up through the Clinton administration.6 Using nuclear threats to achieve political ends risks having one of those threats turn into a nuclear exchange, with monstrous repercussions.

A third way that nuclear war might start is through technical mistakes. There have been at least 13 false alarms of nuclear attacks that both the US and Russia have, so far, not acted upon.7

Doing away with nuclear weapons is necessary, but probably not politically feasible for the next 4 years with either candidate. This is especially true with pressure exerted by the defense industry to protect their profits. What remains as most helpful, yet still politically feasible, for us to focus on?

  1. Legislate No First Use of nuclear weapons by the United States. Given as a priority by Ellsberg, NFU would make accidental nuclear war less likely for all three ways of starting a war listed above. Because it limits the power of the administration to use threats of nuclear war for international political gain, it will meet much resistance and a successful campaign will require efforts over multiple years. Working in our favor is widespread opposition to the US starting, or threatening to start, a nuclear war.
  2. Defeat efforts to “modernize” the nuclear force. These would make it easier to fight “limited, tactical” engagements. Anything that makes it easier to start or fight a nuclear war threatens our entire civilization. Is there any nuclear-armed state that would reliably permit their troops to be attacked with nuclear weapons without a nuclear response? Are we willing to bet 95% of human life on a “yes” answer? If not, we need to stop making limited nuclear war-fighting any easier.
  3. Remove US weapons from hair-trigger alert status. This would reduce the danger of an accidental war starting from a technical failure.
  4. Preserve current treaties and do not start weapons testing. Otherwise the international situation becomes more unstable, increasing the chances of an accidental nuclear war.

To summarize, although COVID-19 commands our current attention, we still need to ramp up our efforts to save us from becoming ensnared in an accidental nuclear war — which would be much, much worse than COVID.

Take action against nuclear weapons here. 

1 Estimate by Alan Robuck and Brian Toon. Scientific American, Jan 2010
2 See the two horrifying chapters in Ellsberg’s “The Doomsday Machine”.
3 General Carroll instructed his family that if some night he didn’t come home from the Pentagon, then they were to get in the family car and drive south toward Richmond.
4 Robert Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

5 Ellsberg pg. 262-3
6 pg. 319