As a young man, my brother occasionally played high-stakes poker in private residences on Long Island, games that drew wealthy players from around the country. Before any given game he would calculate the worst-case scenario, and if that turned out to be more than he could afford, he would not play. Conversely, if he saw he could bear the worst possible outcome, he would play—and play with an easy confidence and untroubled conscience.
I thought of this recently as I put down William J. Perry’s important book—published last year, but not widely noticed—My Journey at the Nuclear Brink. (Recently, he has had airtime on 60 Minutes and published an op-ed in The New York Times.) Perry had a long and distinguished career with the U.S. government that culminated in his serving as secretary of defense for President Bill Clinton. For all that time in government, Perry played a high-stakes nuclear poker game with the Soviet Union in which the worst-case scenario was the annihilation of both countries.
As a case in point, we now know from Perry that during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, U.S. intelligence did not know Cuba had already obtained nuclear warheads for some of the 162 missiles that had been identified in aerial photographs. These missiles were either ready or nearly ready to retaliate in case of an American attack. (Defense Secretary Robert McNamara has gone even further in identifying 90 tactical nuclear weapons the Cuban military were prepared to fire in case of a U.S. attack.)
Meanwhile, at the highest levels of our government, military officials and cabinet members including Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson recommended that President John F. Kennedy attack Cuba. Kennedy demurred, recalling that complex events like these can sometimes spin out of control, as they did before the onset of World War I. So he rejected their advice and instead ordered a less risky option of quarantine. In so doing, JFK likely averted a nuclear exchange with Cuba that would have triggered an exchange of missiles with the Soviet Union. His decision, considered by LBJ to have been shamefully weak, probably averted an American holocaust.
In another incident in 1979, computers at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) showed that 200 Soviet ICBMs were streaking toward U.S. targets. Perry writes, “It took us several days to ascertain that an operator had mistakenly installed a training tape in the computer.” Four years later, on the other side of the world, a Soviet duty officer named Stanislav Petrov saw with mounting alarm one, two, finally five American ICBMs heading for targets in the USSR. He hesitated calling supreme headquarters, knowing that his leaders thought President Ronald Reagan was planning a preemptive strike. Petrov later wrote, “All I had to do was reach for the phone, to raise the direct line to our top commanders—but I couldn’t move.”
In his book Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident and the Illusion of Safety, Eric Schlosser reveals that worst-case scenarios have come harrowingly close to coming true on a number of occasions—yet the American public has never been adequately informed.
So the question that continues to haunt me is, Why would a generation of presidents, supported by responsible men like William Perry, engage in a nuclear poker game that no sane gambler would in good conscience play? Why on earth wouldn’t both sides calculate the worst-case scenario and elect not to play the game?
On some nights during the Cold War, I lay awake turning over that question. The only plausible answer I was able to imagine is that they, the two governments, couldn’t help it. They had no choice, or thought they had no choice: the nuclear genie was out of the bottle and both sides seized on deterrence as an existential necessity. But was it?
This is not a merely historical question. David E. Sanger and William J. Broad reported in The New York Times in early September that President Obama’s national security advisers have persuaded him against announcing a pledge of no first use of nuclear weapons, something he had been considering as a step toward eliminating nuclear weapons—and something he had promised to do when running for president in 2008.
Both China and India have pledged no first use, and Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, has promised no preemptive first strike, meaning he would only strike back if attacked by nuclear or massive conventional forces.
To answer my midnight question about existential necessity, I had to do a bit of research. I knew something about the so-called foundational document of the Cold War, NSC-68, the 1950 rationale on which the nuclear-arms race was based, but not enough. So I dug into the subject and found very quickly that the rationale was based on highly subjective, even tendentious thinking. The NSC-68 document, prepared for the National Security Council by Paul Nitze and staff, endorsed by Dean Acheson, who was then secretary of state, was presented to President Harry S Truman in 1950. This document asserted that the leaders of the Soviet Union were a secretive cabal of atheistic revolutionaries, obsessed by a “fanatic faith” that drove them “to impose [their] authority over the rest of the world.” What’s more, the NSC-68 document went on to say, “The integrity and vitality of our system is in greater jeopardy than ever before in history.” In short, a nuclear arms buildup was essential to our continued existence.
On the other side, Kremlin documents now reveal that Soviet leaders were still reeling from the death of almost 25 million people and the wholesale destruction of their major cities in the Second World War. They were horrified by the prospect of a war with the United States. Although they did not want war, these same Soviet leaders assumed that the U.S. government was in the hands of a clique of greedy capitalists who were bent on not just destroying the Soviet Union but establishing a world capitalist hegemony. Therefore, nuclear arms were essential for the survival of their way of life.
In other words, although there was some truth in these exaggerated assertions, the larger truth is that the fundamental points of view adopted as gospel by both sides were based on a toxic combination of fear and loathing. Both sides inflated the threat of the other, and both sides saw themselves as 100 percent right.
What Perry recognized, however, at the end of his government career, was that the game of nuclear deterrence contained a fatal trap. He saw that if the game were played long enough, a misunderstanding would inevitably occur, a miscalculation would be made, the empty pistol would unaccountably discharge: the nuclear trap would snap shut, with a very large bang.
So Perry chose to become an unapologetic and forthright advocate for the elimination of nuclear weapons.
Unfortunately, Perry is one of a minority of informed citizens, and his voice is not loud enough or his influence strong enough to persuade politicians whose focus is shaped largely by what happened yesterday. What almost happened 55 years ago in Cuba is not something that they consider.
Meantime, as if the past didn’t exist, western leaders and their Russian counterparts are on the march again, flags flying, into a new Cold War. Russia is now engaged in a gigantic new program to rebuild nuclear arms. This includes new ICBMs with multiple warheads, a new generation of nuclear submarines, and a whole new array of shorter-range nuclear weapons.
As if in tandem, the United States is now committed to a trillion-dollar program over 30 years that will not only refurbish the current stockpile of nuclear weapons but also create a new generation of smaller nuclear weapons that will be easier (and thus more likely) to be used. In short, the world has once again grown not less but more dangerous. William Perry says we are approaching a danger not experienced since the depths of the Cold War. In 2015, board members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists have moved the minute hand of its Doomsday Clock from five to three minutes to midnight.
We are right back where we were in 1950. The first hand has been dealt for another rousing game of nuclear poker. This time there are more players, but the stakes are the same. And if you ask our statesmen why they play the game, the answer is just what it always was: we can’t help it; we have no choice; it is an existential necessity.
Does history repeat itself as farce? If it does, then it is a play in which our leaders make up their own reality, and we are here as silent witnesses to a terrifying display of reckless behavior.
Still, it’s hard to imagine that my younger brother has more common sense than the august leaders of the United States and Russia.