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“Nuclear War: A Scenario” – A Chilling Reminder of the Ever-Present Threat

In this review of Annie Jacobsen's book "Nuclear War: A Scenario," I reflect on the ever-present threat of nuclear war, drawing from my personal childhood experiences, the sobering realities of the Cold War era, and the chilling minute-by-minute account presented in Jacobsen's work.

Childhood Nuclear Nightmares

In 1983, while I was still in junior school, we participated in what now seems like a peculiar lesson. We built a nuclear fallout shelter in the classroom using old cardboard boxes, and each student brought an item to put inside. Many of us brought tins of unwanted food from our home cupboards, but ironically, no one thought to bring a tin opener! As part of the lesson, we also role-played a nuclear attack scenario, with the bomb falling during lesson time, this was certainly one way to get out of a maths test!

Living Under the Shadow of Mutually Assured Destruction

Although the 1980s were not the 1950s, there was still a pervasive feeling of existential dread surrounding the possibility of a nuclear war. The Cold War was at its height, with the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in a tense standoff, constantly threatening each other with the prospect of mutually assured destruction. Schools around the world may have ceased “duck and cover” drills, which were a futile attempt to prepare for the unthinkable.

The BBC science program “Tomorrow’s World” aired a special episode focused on the potential consequences of a nuclear war. In just thirty minutes, they painted a grim picture of how quickly our world could be destroyed. 

Looking back, the memory of that cardboard fallout shelter and our role-playing exercise serves as a stark reminder of the fear that gripped society during the Cold War era. A time that was not that long ago. The constant threat of nuclear annihilation had become a part of our daily lives, shaping our worldview and the way we understood the fragility of our existence.

A Harrowing Minute-by-Minute Account

In a similar vein, Annie Jacobsen’s recently released book called “Nuclear War: A Scenario,” which echoes the themes explored in that “Tomorrow’s World” special. In her book, Jacobsen takes the reader on a harrowing journey, providing a minute-by-minute account of a hypothetical nuclear attack against the United States. The book highlights the devastating consequences of such an event and the challenges faced by decision-makers in the midst of a crisis. Jacobsen emphasises the ongoing threat of nuclear war, even after the end of the Cold War, quoting former secretary of defence William Perry:

“After the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union was dissolved, William Perry found in his experience as secretary of defence that’many people clung to the idea that nuclear war was no longer a threat.’ In fact, he now says, ‘nothing could be farther from the truth.'”

Declassified records reveal a startling truth: U.S. military planners estimated that a mere 200 nuclear weapons would be enough to annihilate the entire Soviet Union. Yet, during the nuclear arms race of the 1960s, the United States amassed an astonishing stockpile of 31,255 nuclear warheads. The destructive power of just one of these weapons is unfathomable—capable of levelling an entire city and claiming the lives of over 10 million people.

This staggering accumulation of nuclear weapons was justified under the concept of deterrence, a twisted logic cloaked in doublespeak. The idea behind deterrence is that maintaining an enormous arsenal of nuclear weapons would discourage adversaries from using their own, ultimately preventing a nuclear war from breaking out. However, the sheer scale of the stockpiles and the unimaginable devastation they could cause raise serious questions about the morality and effectiveness of this strategy.

“U.S. military planners estimated that a mere 200 nuclear weapons would be enough to annihilate the entire Soviet Union. Yet…..the United States amassed an astonishing stockpile of 31,255 nuclear warheads.”

The concept of deterrence relies on the assumption that rational actors will always choose to avoid mutually assured destruction. However, it fails to account for the possibility of accidents, miscalculations, or irrational decision-making in the heat of a crisis. The risk of a nuclear war breaking out due to human error or misunderstanding remains a terrifying prospect, even decades after the height of the Cold War.

Close Calls and False Alarms

Cover of "Nuclear War: a scenario"

Jacobsen discusses the close calls and false alarms that have occurred in the past, such as the incident involving Soviet lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov in 1983. When satellite data indicated that five American ICBMs were on their way to strike Moscow, Petrov relied on his intuition and questioned the validity of the attack, ultimately preventing a potential nuclear war. This incident highlights the immense pressure and short time frame in which critical decisions must be made during a nuclear crisis.

Jacobsen stresses the limited time available for the president to respond to a nuclear threat, stating, “The president has no idea that as soon as he has been briefed on what is happening, he will have just six minutes to deliberate and decide which nuclear weapons to launch in response. Six minutes.” This emphasizes the gravity of the situation and the potential for human error or miscalculation, as exemplified by the Petrov incident. She also points out that “Nuclear war, we are about to learn, robs man of reason,” underscoring the psychological toll and the potential for irrational decision-making in the face of such an existential threat.

“The president has no idea that as soon as he has been briefed on what is happening, he will have just six minutes to deliberate and decide which nuclear weapons to launch in response. Six minutes.”

The book also debunks the myth that the U.S. can easily shoot down incoming ICBMs, with Jacobsen stating, “There is a myth among Americans that the U.S. can easily shoot down an incoming, attacking ICBM. Presidents, congresspeople, defence officials, and countless others in the military-industrial complex have all said as much. This is simply not true.” She further underscores the ineffectiveness of the U.S. missile defence system, noting that “from 2010 to 2013, not a single one of the early interceptor tests was successful.”

Societal Breakdown and the Human Toll

Jacobsen delves into the potential societal breakdown in the aftermath of a nuclear attack, quoting former secretary of defense William Perry, who believes that “if military rule is ever imposed on today’s America, ‘it would be almost impossible to undo military rule’ in the United States.” The book paints a grim picture of the chaos that would ensue, with Jacobsen writing, “When a nuclear bomb hits Washington, D.C., chaos will grip the nation. Without a functioning government, there will be no rule of law. Democracy will be replaced by anarchy. Moral constructs will disappear. Murder, mayhem, and madness will prevail.”

The book also sheds light on the devastating human toll of a nuclear attack, with Jacobsen stating, “More than a million people are dead or dying, and less than two minutes have passed since detonation.” She also highlights the challenges faced by emergency response agencies, quoting a FEMA official who admits, “The best the federal government could do is to tell people—people who still have a radio—what they can do for themselves to self-survive.”

“Fire-to-Strike Time” and the Realities of Nuclear Warfare

Jacobsen explores the concept of “fire-to-strike time,” which is “so short that if the United States had an attack submarine trailing the Soviet ballistic missile submarine, it could not fire a torpedo in time to sink the submarine before it was empty of missiles.” This underscores the immense pressure and time constraints under which military personnel must operate in a nuclear crisis.

The book also delves into the harsh realities of nuclear warfare, with Jacobsen stating, “As the world is about to learn, there are no laws in nuclear war. The premise of deterrence is that nuclear war is never supposed to happen.”

A Thought-Provoking Read with a Sobering Conclusion

I don’t want to include any spoilers, but let’s just say it ends badly for everyone. I managed to read this almost in one sitting, as Jacobsen has hit the sweet spot in covering a highly technical subject in easy-to-read prose. If you do pick this up, remember what they used to say at the end of the British TV show “Crimewatch”: “Don’t have nightmares.” The book underscores the need for continued efforts towards nuclear disarmament and global cooperation to ensure a peaceful future.


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