Doomsday Book

"Our luck is bound to run out before we find a way to eliminate nukes," writes Ron Rosenbaum.

By MATT NESVISKY
June 14, 2011 16:39
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Yay!_311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

PERHAPS THE MOST DIStressing assertion – one among many, many distressing assertions in the American journalist Ron Rosenbaum’s “How the End Begins” – is that his “road to nuclear World War III” runs right through the State of Israel.

Rosenbaum maintains that since atomic bombs were last used in 1945 on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world has come close to nuclear Armageddon several times, but perhaps never so perilously as in September 2007, when Israeli warplanes took out a suspected nuclear facility in the northeast corner of Syria. To support this view, Rosenbaum quotes an article in the British press that in turn quotes a “very senior ministerial source,” who opined that as a result of Israel’s action: “If people had known how close we came to world war three that day there’d have been mass panic.”

The fear was that some nuclear someone – the North Koreans, who allegedly helped build the facility, or the Pakistanis, or the Russians – would have been so piqued by Israel’s action that nuclear retaliation would have been the order of the day, followed by a U.S. response, an Israeli response and so on to worldwide nuclear winter.

Nor was this the only occasion, Rosenbaum states, that Israel was at the center of such a doomsday scenario. He points out one reasonably well documented instance during the 1973 Yom Kippur War: the Soviet Union rattled its nuclear arsenal as a means of saving the Egyptian army from total annihilation and the US rattled back. In addition, Rosenbaum is convinced that Israel maintains a fleet of nuclear-armed submarines that regularly patrols the Persian Gulf, ready to retaliate against an Iranian nuclear strike or to launch a preemptive attack against such a strike.

While according to Rosenbaum, “Israel remains the most likely initial flashpoint” for a global holocaust, the author offers many alternative hypothetical narratives to frighten us. There is the threat of terrorists obtaining nukes, of rogue states going nuts, of superpowers getting carried away with their superior status – and then, of course, accidental nuclear war. Indeed, much of Rosenbaum’s book recounts a series of foulups that nearly caused disaster.

There were the close calls when Americans and Russians momentarily believed the other side had initiated a launch. Then there was the time when, in February 2009, French and British nuclear submarines collided in the Atlantic. Don’t forget that the Soviets developed a virtual Doomsday machine (famously suggested in the film “Dr. Strangelove”), and that the Americans absentmindedly trucked nuclear missiles around the country in 2007 exposing to public view dubious chain of command systems and fail-safe mechanisms.

(Among Rosenbaum’s more frightening disclosures is that the soldiers who control the launch keys in Minuteman missile silos buried deep beneath the American prairie have discovered a way to bypass certain launch controls by the use of a spoon and a length of string.)

WITH THE FATE OF THE planet perhaps literally hanging by a string, what then has prevented a nuclear holocaust for close to 66 years since Hiroshima? Many will argue it is the deterrent nature of nuclear weapons, the very fact of their destructive power assuring that no one will ever use them. Maybe.

But the deterrent factor is riddled with paradoxes. If you are certain your enemy won’t resort to nukes, for example, then what prevents you from a first strike? Retaliation? Again, maybe. The threat of retaliation makes it all the more urgent that your first strike is as effective as possible – so effective that retaliation, even if possible, has no point. Yet again, maybe. Perhaps retaliation needs no logic other than sheer vengeance. Or perhaps this is simply an argument for launching a first strike. And so on.

In any event, Rosenbaum is convinced that the non-use of nukes so far owes less to their power of deterrence than it does to sheer luck.

He is equally convinced that, in a world bristling with upwards of 20,000 nuclear weapons and with a number of undesirable types eager to add to the stockpile, our luck is bound to run out. Yes, US President Barack Obama says he is seeking a world with zero nuclear weapons and the Russians make approving noises. Fine, says Rosenbaum. But much more urgent than arms reduction is accident prevention – in other words, better control on those hair-trigger launch mechanisms.

And then we still have the problem of those rogue states and mad terrorists.

Rosenbaum is also distressed by the fact that, as a result of having avoided nuclear war for almost 66 years, the world has largely developed amnesia about the issue.

This is largely true, and this of course is largely why Rosenbaum wrote this book. To be sure, I eagerly seized upon “How the End Begins” not because I tend to worry unduly – or to worry at all – about nuclear weapons but solely because Ron Rosenbaum was the author and just about anything he writes is worthwhile. He did after all produce “Explaining Hitler” (1998) and “The Shakespeare Wars” (2006), two deeply researched and very thoughtful books.

“How the End Begins,” however, is hardly in the same league as Rosenbaum’s earlier successes. The research is thinner.

He’s done the requisite reading, including pertinent American and Russian documents that have recently been made public.

He also has a few good interviews. But Rosenbaum certainly hasn’t penetrated the classified closets of the US, Russia, Israel or anywhere else. He must instead rely on what is publically available, on dissident voices and on press cuttings. As a result, readers more knowledgeable than I have already pounced on numerous errors of fact. Weapons expert Richard Rhodes, for example, has pointed out that Rosenbaum is confused about North Korea’s plutonium enrichment capabilities, and that Rosenbaum is in error in asserting that Fidel Castro was in control of the Soviet missiles in Cuba, in 1962.

Rosenbaum’s thinking on display here is rather that of the enthusiastic undergraduate.

Most off-putting is his frequently sophomoric writing style, which repeatedly resorts to cheap jokes, heavy-handed irony and exclamation points. He also relentlessly engages in an unaccountable and unseemly cuteness; the Israelis, for example, “are damned if they do preempt, and dead if they don’t.” Such drollery serves only to undermine the seriousness of the enterprise.

“How the End Begins” contains a pungent polemic. Yet it has failed to make even a ripple with the reading public. The abovementioned flaws certainly didn’t help. Nor did a small matter of luck, which Rosenbaum believes has so far saved us from annihilation, but which, in regard to his book, has been all bad. Consider: in March 1979, “The China Syndrome,” a film about a nuclear reactor meltdown, was released and a few weeks later we had the nuclear plant accident at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania – the kind of publicity event Hollywood flacks could only dream about. Now Rosenbaum publishes his book on nuclear warheads, a few weeks later there’s a quake in Japan and ever since everyone is obsessed with nuclear power plants – with no one giving a moment’s thought to nuclear war.

“It’s all about luck now,” Rosenbaum writes near the conclusion of “How the End Begins.” And in case we haven’t got the point, he adds: “I’m a pessimist. I think only luck has saved us regardless of the configuration of nukes we deploy and our luck is bound to run out before we find a way to eliminate nukes. We cannot escape the Faustian bargain we made.”


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