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Megatons and Memory Holes

12.14.2007 | POLITICS

A couple of months ago I did something I've always wanted to do: I co-starred in a date-scene film montage.

My acting partner was a kindly Russian pensioner named Stanislav Petrov, better known as "The Man Who Saved the World." In 1983, Petrov bravely disregarded Russian military protocol during a false alarm and very likely prevented World War III. But more about that in a minute.

I met Petrov and a Russian tv news crew on a clear September afternoon at the fountain in Manezh Square, just outside the Kremlin walls. After microphones were clipped to our lapels, Petrov and I strolled arm-in-arm around the square, chatting about his military career and the night that made him famous. True to the genre, the final edit of the montage includes me buying Petrov a staged vanilla ice cream cone.

The occasion of our meeting was the 24th anniversary of a historic nightshift Petrov worked at the Serpukhov missile command center. What happened was this: half past midnight on September 26, 1983, the radar screen in the Serpukhov bunker showed several missile launches on U.S. territory. Petrov was the ranking officer on site. The protocol that he himself had authored dictated that he inform his superiors immediately. They, in turn, would have contacted the ailing, paranoid, and hawkish Soviet premiere at the time, Yuri Andropov.

With his computer screens beeping havoc, Petrov was forced to think fast. Under unimaginable pressure, he reasoned that because of the small number of launches, the alarm was likely false. "In a real first-strike, they would have hit us with hundreds of missiles," he said. And so he sat tight and never kicked the alert up the chain of command.

It was the right call. It turned out the alarm was the result of sunlight reflecting off low-altitude clouds above several U.S. missile silos. A satellite misread.

When the story of Petrov's (in)action came out in 1998, the world media descended on him from every direction, crowning him the "Man Who Saved the World." A documentary film was made about the incident. There was talk of a Nobel Prize. The Association of World Citizens flew him to San Francisco and gave him a "World Citizen Award" and a $1,000 check. (Petrov bought a vacuum cleaner with the money, which in a delicious detail turned out to be faulty.)

When the producer of the Russian news program called and asked me to appear in the anniversary segment, I said where and when. Who wouldn't want to meet the Man Who Saved the World? After I agreed to do the show, he began to brief me on the state of U.S.-Soviet relations at the time of Petrov's fateful decision. I politely cut him off and told him I didn't need any background. I was nine years old in 1983 and remember it all too well. For me and every other kid on my block, 1983 was an annus scared shitlessicis; the culture more drenched in nuclear dread than at any time since October 1962.

The Great Fear of 1983 is the most vivid memory of my childhood. If I shut my eyes, I can still see Reagan administration officials on the old McNeil/Lehrer Report, which my family often watched during dinner, talking about "winnable" nuclear war—and my parents going pale. The weekly magazines had mushroom clouds on their covers. Freeze activists came to our Boston door. I tried to block out the news, but it was impossible. There was no avoiding the test-patterns on the airwaves or the suddenly ominous black-and-yellow fallout shelter signs dotting my public school hallways. Compounding things, that summer I purchased a collection of old Mad magazines from the 1950s and early-1960s, which dumped an earlier wave of panic onto the one I was living through.

The terror reached screaming pitch with the primetime November 20, 1983 broadcast of The Day After on ABC. It was at this point that nuclear dread became so unavoidable, so widespread, that it was almost as much of a subject of debate as the weapons themselves. The day before the film's airing, my rabbi called a special meeting during Hebrew school to try to reassure us. It was just a movie, he said. But we knew that was bullshit. What made the early 80s so scary for children was how obvious it was that adults were as scared as we were. It was they, after all, who were calling the 1-800 hotlines that ABC had set up to calm people down during and after the Day After airing. Adults had grown up with their own nuclear nightmares; nobody and nothing could make them go away. (It's always struck me that children have a dog-like intuitive sixth sense when it comes to nuclear danger. During the Kosovo war, when U.S.-Russian relations sank to a post-Cold War low, psychologists reported a remarkable increase in nuclear nightmares among young children—children with no memory of the Cold War.)

Needless to say, the autumn of 1983 could not have been a worse time for false alarms in Moscow like the one Stanislav Petrov stared down. Although few knew it at the time, it was the season of Able Archer, a war game conducted by NATO so elaborate that it convinced the Kremlin that the West was preparing to launch a first-strike. In response, Andropov ordered Project RYAN, an intelligence-gathering operation in which Soviet agents were instructed to note possible evidence of western preparations for nuclear war. A directive went out to the Soviet embassies in Europe and North America to scrutinize such signs as parking patterns at the Pentagon and "increased purchases of blood from donors and the prices paid for it."

This last morbid detail comes from Richard Rhodes new book, Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race. While not as comprehensive a history as the author's two definitive studies of the American atom and hydrogen bomb programs, Arsenals provides a timely and wise reexamination of the politics, people, and policies that underpinned and drove the arms race on both sides. Like all of Rhodes' books, it is also a great read.

Rhodes assembles a damning case that the extreme overkill capacity built up by the nuclear superpowers was always every bit as unnecessary and insane as it appeared. Yet it rolled on for nearly four decades. Why? Rhodes explains the arms race as the irrational result of interplay between institutional inertia, domestic politics driven by often-false threat perceptions, and the malign designs of ideologically driven and frequently sociopathic defense intellectuals. Neither side—"two apes on a treadmill"—ever stopped long enough to consider this and begin reversing course until Reagan and Gorbachev began a climb-down in the mid-80s.

By then, the superpower standoff resembled two Siamese twins with Elephantitis: Cold War nuclear stockpiles totaled more than 50,000 bombs and warheads with a combined explosive force equal to 1.5 million Hiroshimas—a completely unusable capacity to destroy the earth every day for a hundred years. As scientists began to figure out around the time these levels were reached, it would take only a fraction of this megatonnage to throw enough debris and soot into the air to block the sun for generations, resulting in a "nuclear winter." (Anyone interested in imagining what life would be like in this endless winter is directed to Cormac McCarthy's Oprah-approved nuclear novel, The Road.)

It wasn't just turtle-necked eggheads like Carl Sagan who knew the weapons could never be used. Rhodes shows that despite efforts to get around it, establishment thinking throughout the Cold War always ran up against the fact that "all roads lead to MAD (Mutal Assured Destruction)." Rhodes quotes Henry Kissinger at a 1974 Moscow press conference in a rare instance of a major official speaking the bald truth about the arms race. "One of the questions which we have to ask ourselves," said Kissinger, "is what in the name of God is strategic superiority? What is the significance of it, politically, militarily, operationally, at these levels of numbers? What do you do with it?"

For a radical fringe in Washington, the question was not rhetorical.

The most memorable cameos in Rhodes' narrative are provided by some familiar names: Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld. All helped drive the last and most dangerous phase of the arms race and undermine attempts to stop and reverse it the 1970s and 80s.

But first there was Paul Nitze, the godfather of neoconservative nuclear politics. Although he would later convert, like Kissinger, to abolitionism at the end of his life, Nitze was a dark multi-generational presence hovering over the important nuclear debates of the 20th-century.

He left his defining mark in 1950 at the State Department by authoring NSC-68, the cornerstone document of the early Cold War. In Manichean terms, Nitze argued the urgency of countering the Soviet threat in Europe with a massive arms build-up, including new nuclear weapons. To accomplish this, NSC-68 called for the institutionalization of a national security state, with the defense budget decoupled from the federal budget for the first time in American history. As Nitze's accomplice in NSC-68, Dean Acheson, would later admit, the point of the policy paper was to hype the Soviet threat so as to "bludgeon the mass mind of ‘top government'."

In other words, threat inflation. The arms race began with a self-conscious lie.

Threat inflation would be the modus operandi for American nuclear hawks for the remainder of the Cold War. And nobody practiced it like Nitze's most studied protégés. Two of the most important of these flocked to Nitze in the summer of 1969, when he set up a committee to lobby against a missile defense treaty (which Nixon signed in 1972 and Bush crumpled up in 2001). For writing and research, Nitze hired two precocious conservative graduate students: Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle. They lost the ABM Treaty fight, but gained a taste for politics and power. Both would return to capital after their nuclear nerd summer of '69 to begin their Washington careers.

It wasn't much later that another anti-détente duo began their rise. When Gerald Ford named Don Rumsfeld White House chief of staff and later Secretary of Defense, he enabled not just Rumsfeld but his shadowy sidekick and yes-man Dick Cheney. The pair would use their influence to wage war on détente from within and without: By attempting to undermine Kissinger's SALT II negotiations, and by supporting outside efforts to discredit moderate CIA estimates on Soviet strength and intentions. The face of this latter effort was "Team B," the famous grouping of hawks who argued détente was putting America at risk and called a "full-court press" against the Soviets. The Team B report set the stage for Reagan's 1980 anti-détente campaign and subsequent arms build-up. It was also, writes Rhodes, "the origin of Cheney's alliance with the loose association of blusterous…Democratic and Republican radicals who came to be called the neoconservatives."

Among the scariest of these radicals was Richard Pipes, father of Daniel. The Harvard historian thought nuclear war was not only thinkable, but winnable. Moreover, the Soviet Union was hell bent on total world domination and would readily fight a nuclear war to achieve it. Those who thought the Soviets were afraid of WW III were simply "mirroring" their values on the enemy. He based these views on his "deep knowledge of the Russian soul."

Almost three-dozen people like Pipes were swept into office on the coattails of Ronald Reagan in 1980. All told, Reagan hired 31 members of the Committee on the Present Danger, the threat inflation lobby and hawk-workshop that had been hurling public invective at arms control and détente from the sidelines of power since 1975. Soon the biggest military buildup in peacetime history was underway, matched by provocative rhetoric and military maneuvers along Russia's borders. As the Euromissile debate intensified, the sky around U.S.-Soviet relations grew darker than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was in the midst of this darkness that a computer told Stanislav Petrov an American attack was underway.

Then high-level sanity made a comeback. Within a few years, Reagan and Gorbachev would come to similar conclusions about the arms race and nuclear weapons. As they edged toward a new and more radical détente, Rhodes describes how the nuclear hawks in Washington began to lose influence to relative doves like Secretary of State Shultz and Reagan himself. In Moscow, too, Gorbachev either outmaneuvered the hawks or brought them on board.

The dramatic climax of this double re-think was the informal 1986 meeting in Rejkjavik, a tale Rhodes tells with all the suspense it deserves. In what has become a legendary afternoon, Reagan and Gorbachev came within one detail of a deal to abolish all nuclear weapons within ten years. The one sticking point was the pipedream of SDI, which Reagan refused to give up or compromise on. Gorbachev demanded one thing in exchange for the Grand Deal of total, mutual nuclear disarmament: a treaty limiting SDI research to the laboratory for 10 years. During a break in the negotiations, Reagan turned to Richard Perle, the "prince of darkness," for guidance. Rhodes quotes Perle's biographer in describing the scene:

The president first looked at Perle. "Can we carry out research under the restraints the Soviets are proposing?"

Perle's mouth went dry; he felt short of breath. Reagan was asking him for a reason.… [Perle said] "Mr. President, we cannot conduct the research under the terms he's proposing. It will effectively kill SDI."

And with that, the Grand Deal collapsed.

With the passing of Reagan and Gorbachev from the world stage, leadership-level interest in abolition among nuclear powers passed as well. But the broad international support for arms control and abolition that encouraged Reagan and Gorbachev to think big remains.

According to a November poll conducted in the United States and Russia by in conjunction with the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, there is robust support for bold cooperative steps to reduce nuclear dangers and move toward the global elimination of nuclear weapons.

The poll, carried out in Russia by Moscow's Levada Center, found that the goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons is endorsed by 73 percent of Americans and 63 percent of Russians. Seventy-nine percent of Americans and 66 percent of Russians want their governments to do more to get the disarmament ball rolling again. (Likely the Russian numbers would be higher were it not for America's missile defense program and NATO expansion.)

The bottom line, says Steven Kull, director of, is that "in contrast to the growing tension between their governments, publics in the U.S. and Russia [still] show enthusiasm for dramatic cooperative steps to reduce the nuclear threat."

"Current U.S. security policies do not reflect underlying public opinion," agrees John Steinbruner, who co-conceived the poll.

Nor does it reflect broader global opinion, which is still waiting for movement among the nuclear powers toward abolition, as required by the Non-Proliferation Treaty. At the moment, the world is having difficulty getting the nuclear powers to even consider minor steps.

Earlier this month, the UN Disarmament Committee voted 124-3 in favor of total "de-alerting" nuclear weapons, a move that would increase response time and lessen the risk of accident or unauthorized launch. The measure was opposed by the United States, France and Britain.

Closing this gap between nuclear policy and public opinion will require either a nuclear war to remind us what these weapons actually do, or the emergence of a new generation of brave leadership with a mass disarmament movement at its back. Right now, the former looks far more likely.

This article first appeared in the eXile.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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