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
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
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.
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
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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.
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.
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.
then we still have the problem of those rogue states and mad
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
“How the End Begins,” however, is hardly in the same
league as Rosenbaum’s earlier successes. The research is thinner.
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
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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