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Once More on Nuclear War

Today I read an article called “In the Shadow of the Mushroom Cloud” on Quillette about the threat of nuclear war. The article does a very sensible thing in comparing our current danger to the Cuban Missile Crisis, probably the time our world came the closest to a nuclear exchange. (Every time I read about those 13 days, I am amazed that we managed to avoid war; and I am grateful to John F. Kennedy for not listening to the hard-liners who were pushing for an invasion. An invasion might not have led to a nuclear war, but it would have made it much more likely.)

The article actually refrains from drawing many parallels to the Cuban Missile Crisis other than wondering if the current leaders of the U.S. and Russia are men who would be willing to negotiate a solution rather than refuse to back down. I don’t know enough about the psychology of either president to hazard an assessment, but I will note one significant difference: Khrushchev was the head of government, but he ruled through a council of officials who kept an eye on, and eventually removed, him. Putin seems to be autocratic and to rule without significant checks on his power. In the long run, of course, he is vulnerable to dissent, but he does not need to consult with anyone for his immediate actions. This makes him a much more dangerous adversary where nuclear war is concerned. (It is true that this article suggests that, even in the case of nuclear war, the process is not as simple as pressing a button. However, it is unclear whether the article is referring to strategic nuclear weapons or tactical ones, since it notes at the outset that “launching the kind of strategic nuclear missiles whose use would likely spiral into global destruction is somewhat easier than deploying” smaller, battlefield ones.)

There is one other major difference between the Cuban Missile Crisis and the current threat of nuclear war, and that is time. Whereas the Cuban Missile Crisis was precipitated by the sudden discovery of missiles near to the United States and the progression of their readiness to launch, we are under no such pressure at the moment. In fact, the whole issue of nuclear war has only been mooted mostly in undertones or indirectly. The most likely case, most people seem to agree, is the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine, with the chance that it might escalate to strategic nukes afterward. There is thus every chance to intercept the crisis before nuclear weapons’ use even becomes an immediate concern. It seems (as the article in Quillette shows) that everyone is on edge about the possibility of nuclear war, but there has been remarkably little done to pre-empt this danger. I hope some world leader will step up and begin the negotiations to end the Ukraine war and put us all at peace.

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