The worst nuclear disaster may have yet to happen. William J. Perry and Lisa Perry discuss the ever-present threat of nuclear war and the history of nuclear weapons: the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the threat of an accidental nuclear war.
Publish Date: Mar 29, 2021
the Japanese army was being and now unwilling they were to surrender. I think it's also important historical context to understand German didn't actually. So when he when he was vice president, he was not informed about the Manhattan Project, he did not know about it until he became the president. They told him that they had been working on this project and they had developed an atomic bomb, came quite as quite a shock to him. And so when it was actually the generals who brought forth this plan to Truman, saying, We have these weapons and we have put together this plan to attack these cities in Japan and originally, actually, it was not Hiroshima who was the first city that was chosen, and then they moved it to Hiroshima. But as historical evidence indicates, they somewhat misled Truman to believe that they were targeting military targets, not specifically civilian cities. So when Truman agreed to this plan, he thought that they were mostly going to be targeting military targets and just with the amount of communication and how long it took for information to get out. It wasn't really until the Nagasaki bomb was dropped that they were really understanding the numbers of deaths that were coming out from these incidences. And that is when Truman actually went in. They had a plan to continue to drop bombs. They were going to drop more than just Hiroshima and Nagasaki and after Nagasaki and the reports were coming in of the, you know, hundreds of thousands of deaths that Truman went and said No more. I will not let you drop any more bombs and took the power away from the generals to have any authority over these weapons. And in fact, that is the history of the beginning of what eventually would become presidential sole authority over nuclear weapons. Was that transfer of military to civilian power and making sure that nuclear weapons state under civilian control, to make sure and try to take this power away from any potentially power hungry sort of military members which, as you know, you know, then sort of morphed into its own problem. So we have just landed really in the center of the morass here because this is not an easy problem to think about, because we have already demonstrated the actual utility under certain circumstances of having these weapons. In fact, it's even plausible to say that that lives were saved by the use of the first atomic bombs in World War Two. And we've already demonstrated a willingness, obviously, to use them under certain circumstances. And as you point out, Lisa, this the transfer to civilian control, which makes so much sense in light of that first experience, is now. It's own enormous problem in the presence of someone like Donald Trump, who's followed every moment of the day with the so called nuclear football. We're in the process of rethinking that or trying to inspire our society to rethink that. And it's hard to find a line through this that is going to check all the boxes that we want to check here, is gonna allow us to arrive at all the topics we want to arrive at in a systematic way. But here's the general picture that worries me that I'm getting from having begun listening to your podcast Lisa and becoming aware of Bill's work and reading other sources Here. There's a logic of nuclear proliferation and deterrence, which seems somewhat inescapable and diabolical because having nukes is the difference. That makes the difference on the world stage. In so many cases, countries just treat you differently. Once you have nukes, they don't tend to invade you. The reason why a country like North Korea or Pakistan or India would want nukes or Iran. Now it's not crazy for them to want these weapons, because it's a fact of the matter that this power matters and deterrence only works between nations on the assumption that a country will actually use its nukes. So the fact that we believe that nuclear armed countries will use their nukes to respond to a any significant aggression and, of course, any kind of nuclear first strike. That's the psychological reality that gives the game theory. It's motive force. But this status quo, the fact that we have countries and individuals who have nuclear weapons on hair trigger alert and with launch on warning protocols and we have this demonstrated at least professed willingness to use these weapons under certain circumstances is what makes the possibility of stumbling into an accidental nuclear war So real and I know Bill you in your book, you write that. Actually, the likelihood of an accidental nuclear war is much higher than a war started in earnest because some country initiative first strike on another. I don't know if you have a first point of purchase. You want to take on this problem, bill. But it just seems to me that the status quo should really be intolerable to us because we have a world that has been rigged to explode, really based on mishap, right, based on misinformation based on the prospect of faulty radar or cyber attack, or even the derangement of a single individual house that you think about the current moment. Because I just had one more fact here. The doomsday clock that has been registering our alarm for 70 some odd years now is at its closest point to midnight than it has been at any point in history. Is now 100 seconds to midnight in 2020 and in 1953 it was two minutes to midnight, and it was at around 4 to 5 minutes to midnight during most of the Cold War. So, according to the clock, we are at more risk than we've ever been, and yet it seems to me that most people have gone entirely to sleep on this issue. so talk to us about what it's like to be on the brink bill. The first point I would make is that I agree with the bulletins assessment and without pretty minutes or seconds. And I would simply say that the danger have a nuclear catastrophe. Today is at least as great as it was at any time during the Cold War, and yet almost no one in the public understands that reality. So that's just one important important point. The second thing to consider is we have assessed the danger for decades now as being the danger of a surprise attack on the United States. What we call during the Cold War bolt out of the blue and we geared our policies, and we geared up for structure to deal with that threat. I believe the reality today, and even the reality during the Cold War, was that was never the main threat. The threat has always been the danger of an accidental or the danger of blundering into a nuclear war, either through a political miscalculation or through a technical era. We had several examples of each of those during the Cold War, which happily we survived one of them, of course, the most significant chance of a political miscalculation with the Cuban missile crisis. And as we talked about earlier, I believe the chance of that having erupted into an absolutely catastrophic nuclear war was probably better than 50 50. There were other political miscalculations in the courtroom, but that's perhaps the most that's the poster child of them. Beyond that was a possibility, a technical accident. And we had at least three false alarms in the United States that I'm aware of at least two in the Soviet Union that I'm aware of, and any of those could have resulted in an accidental nuclear war. So the real danger during the Cold War was not a bolt out of the blue, the real danger, what blundering into nuclear war. And I believe that that is the same situation today and with at least the same likelihood today. Not that Russia or North Korea or Iran you name the country is going to deliberately launch an attack against the United States, but that we will blunder into some kind of a nuclear exchange with Russia or with one of the one of the smaller powers just to sort of demonstrate the level of randomness and really, how dangerous and how likely we could really just stumble into an accidental nuclear war. There's this really pretty crazy story of actually what happened during the Cuban missile crisis. There was an incident at a airbase in Duluth, Minnesota, where a. It was late at night and patrols were patrolling the base. And it's in the middle of the Cuban missile crisis. Everyone was on very high alert at the time, and someone noticed that there was someone trying to climb the fence into the air base and they went, you know, in a panic and try to set off the alarm for an intruder. And they actually they hit the wrong switch, and they instead set off an alarm, which then notified the base to then launch there, their nuclear armed planes to start working towards a possible attack. It turned out that it was a bear. A bear was climbing a fence at an air base in the middle of the Cuban missile crisis, and something as simple as that could have stumbled us into a nuclear war. And it's truly when we were at these moments, these politically charged moments when things are at their most scary when it's the easiest for us to stumble. It's part of the reasons why the fire and fury rhetoric from President Trump was so concerning, because whether you believe he would actually follow through or not, just putting out the notion that he might super charges the atmosphere for people to interpret things that they might not otherwise, and to make decisions based on those interpretations which could really lead us to this escalating situation. I think the logic of deterrence is pretty straightforward, and it's fairly solid. But part of the issue is that there are actually some assumptions that we make about this situation that is in place for deterrence to hold up. And some of those assumptions include we assume that the people involved are rational actors, and we also assume that everyone involved has accurate and complete information, which, unfortunately especially in crisis situations, is not always true. And when you don't have full and complete information, you make decisions