By the US Department of Defense. Explosion “Baker” from Operation Crossroads, US military nuclear testing on Bikini Atoll, Micronesia on July 25, 1946, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.


We have come close to nuclear annihilation many times. We have fixed nothing: There is no reason to think the risk is eradicated.

William Perry, who served as Jimmy Carter’s undersecretary of defense, recalls that one night, in 1979, he was sleeping soundly until the phone rang. “When I picked up the phone, the voice on the other end identified himself as the watch officer for the North American Air Defense Command. The first thing he said to me was that his computers were showing two hundred nuclear missiles on their way from the Soviet Union to the United States. And for one horrifying moment, I believed we were about to witness the end of civilization.

“I can’t really put to words to it. I was—I was stunned. I was just completely stunned.”

This wasn’t the first call the watch officer had made. When the alert first came in, he had contacted the White House. Because the call came in the middle of the night, it went to Carter’s national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski.

It was the height of the Cold War. When Brzezinski got the call, he assumed it was a real attack. Even so, he ordered confirmation of the Soviet launch before he woke the president. Sitting alone, in the middle of the night, Brzezinski decided not to wake his wife. He wanted to spare her the terror of what he thought would be their last minutes on earth.

Just as Brzezinski was going to wake the president, he received a third call, this time saying the other reporting systems were not reporting incoming missiles. It was a false alarm.

“Had he woken the president,” Perry says, “in the middle of the night, no background information or anything, the president would have had to decide, in less than five minutes, whether to launch the missiles before they were struck in their silos. That’s the kind of horrible decision a president would have to make in that case. And since the information he got—that there were two hundred missiles coming to the United States, a major attack, he would undoubtedly have launched a major attack in return.”

It took three days to figure out what had gone wrong. It turned out that when they had changed watch that night, the operator had put in a training tape by mistake. “The computer was showing a perfectly realistic simulation,” says Perry. “It was designed to be realistic.” It was so realistic that launch control centers for Minuteman missiles were put on alert and Strategic Air Command launched fighter jets to prepare to retaliate.

“It changed forever my way of thinking about nuclear weapons,” says Perry. “Up until then, a false alarm—an attack by mistake, starting a nuclear war by mistake—was a theoretical issue. But from that point on, it was never theoretical to me. It was always very, very real, because it got me right in my guts. It’s affected my thinking and my action to this day.”

On August 31, 1983, the pilot of KAL 007 made a navigational error and strayed into Soviet airspace. Soviet jets shot it down, killing 23 children and 63 American citizens, including an American congressman. Six days later, Ronald Reagan delivered one of the angriest speeches of the Cold War.

I remember these events well. I was a teenager. Students in my class worried there would be a war—a nuclear war. We did not know if we would survive. We had no idea how right we were to worry and how close we really came.

Not long afterward, NATO conducted an exercise, Able Archer, that simulated a nuclear launch. Reagan’s speech had so spooked the Kremlin that Yuri Andropov and his top aides believed this was the preliminary to a real first strike. They sent out a molinya, a flash message, to their operatives in the West, warning them to prepare for nuclear war, and readied their nuclear forces and air units in Eastern Europe. Soviet bombers laden with nuclear weapons sat on their runways with their engines purring, on red alert.

On September 26, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov sat watch in the Serpukhov-15 bunker. Shortly after midnight, red lights lit up the bunker. The word LAUNCH, in Russia, flashed up on a gigantic screen. According to satellite data, a nuclear missile had been launched from the United States.

Petrov stared in incredulity at his computer screen. Why? Why just one missile? It made no sense. Against his standing orders, he decided not to press the button that would send this information up the chain of command and precipitate the launching of a massive counterattack.

Then the satellite spotted a second missile.

Then a third.

Then a fourth.

Then a fifth.

Everyone in the bunker began screaming. Sweat poured off Petrov’s face. According to the computer, they would be vaporized within minutes.

By the grace of God, Petrov decided this couldn’t be happening. He didn’t know what was going on, but it just couldn’t be what it seemed to be. It just could not be. He broke his orders outright and reported it as a false alarm. The sirens wailed as the minutes ticked past. The bombs didn’t fall.

Petrov was right, of course: It wasn’t happening. The signals had been caused by a freak alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds above North Dakota and the Molniya orbits of the satellites. A lone Soviet lieutenant colonel prevented the Apocalypse. The Kremlin rewarded Petrov for breaking his orders by reprimanding him and assigning him to a less sensitive post. He took early retirement and suffered a nervous breakdown.


The United States still has an official policy of launch on warning—a hair-trigger alert. Launch on warning has long been viewed as key to nuclear deterrence: Only if adversaries know they have no hope of destroying our missiles in their silos may a balance of terror be maintained. But launch on warning also raises the risk of starting a nuclear war by mistake.

For example, the system rests upon a network of sensors, satellites, and computers that detect incoming missiles. If one of these warning systems indicates an attack, US nuclear forces would move to an increased state of readiness while the information was double-checked. This in itself could trigger war. It would be detected by the adversary, who might respond by raising his own readiness. The detection of this response would confirm the original—and erroneous—information. Likewise, an accidental nuclear explosion, anywhere, and especially during a moment of heightened international tension, could lead swiftly to disaster.

“One of the firm beliefs in the United States, and the Soviet Union as well, was that the other side had a plan to attack us without warning in a disarming surprise attack,” says Perry. “We were so focused on a surprise attack that we set up a system that was very sensitive, that would detect that attack early enough that we could actually launch our missiles before the attack hit the US soil.”[1]Perry, Interview

The evening he describes was far from the only false alarm in our history. It wasn’t even the first time the command and control system was triggered by training tape. The list of false alarms is long. Once, a bear that climbed a fence at an Air Force base was mistaken for Soviet special forces.

Once, a .46 cent computer chip mistakenly reported two thousand missiles en route from the Soviet Union.

Once, a command center understood a series of power outages to be a coordinated attack.

Once, a command center confused a rising moon with a missile attack.

Once, a command center confused a fire at a broken gas pipeline with an enemy jamming a satellite by laser.

Once, an unstable pilot deliberately turned on the two arming switches on his plane’s nuclear bombs.

Lost nuclear-armed bombers have flown into the Russian warning net. Air Force officers have tampered with missiles so better to launch them without orders. B-52 bombers have crashed with nuclear weapons aboard, then vanished from the official histories.

During the Suez Crisis, NORAD received a host of simultaneous reports—from aircraft over Turkey, Soviet MiGs over Syria, and the Soviet Black Sea fleet in the Dardanelles—that signified a Soviet offensive. All of these reports turned out to be misinterpreted or entirely in error: It was a wedge of swans over Turkey, a fighter escort for the Syrian president, a scheduled exercise of the Soviet fleet.

On the night of November 24, 1961, communication went dead between the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command and and NORAD. Headquarters found themselves cut off from ballistic missile early warning Sites in Greenland, Alaska, and England. There were two possible explanations: the coincidental failure of all the communication systems—or enemy action. But the communication systems had redundant, independent routes. Every Strategic Air Command base was put on alert. The B-52 pilots started the engines. At the last minute, headquarters made contact, by radio, with an orbiting B-52 near Greenland, which reported there was no attack.

The explanation for the failure of all of these supposedly independent lines of communication? Upon investigation, it was discovered that all the telephone and telegraph routes ran through a single relay station in Colorado—which had been shut down by an overheated motor.

False warnings during the Cuban missile crisis repeatedly led pilots and radar operators to believe the US was under nuclear attack. On October 24, a Soviet satellite exploded, leading the US to believe that the USSR was launching a massive ICBM attack. The NORAD Command Post logs remain classified.

One day later, a guard at the Duluth Sector Direction Center saw someone climbing the security fence. He activated the sabotage alarm, which set off sabotage alarms at all bases in the area. At Volk Field, Wisconsin, the alarm was miswired: the alarm that went off was the one that ordered nuclear armed F-106A interceptors to take to the air. The pilots believed World War III had begun.

On the next day, a test launch of a Titan-II ICBM confused observers at the Moorestown Radar site. They couldn’t figure out who had launched it. Only after this did the Air Force put in place a protocol for notifying radar warning sites in advance of test launches.

The list continues. And these are just the stories we know about. There are surely more we don’t, probably many more. Such incidents are highly likely to be concealed, because they reflect poorly on the units and commanders concerned.[2]For a discussion of these and other incidents, see Scott Sagan, The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons

Spin the wheel.


On considering this list of near-misses, some have concluded that since none of these incidents led to disaster, the risk must be minimal. This is not a rational conclusion. In other arenas of life, the rate of near catastrophes is closely correlated to the rate of actual catastrophes. We understand this instinctively: The driver who gets into a fender-bender every time he takes to the road is obviously more at danger of a fatal accident than the driver with a spotless record; that’s why his insurance premiums are higher. Nuclear weapons have existed for less than a century. Only a small number of nations have possessed them. Drawing firm conclusions about the risk of an accident from such a limited set of data is impossible, all the more so when we consider how different the coming century’s geopolitics will be from the past century’s.

In 1999, Charles Perrow published Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technology. It has become a classic in organizational sociology. He advances what is now known as normal accident theory. Systems, he argues, vary in two important ways. First, they may be linear or complex.

Linear interactions are those in expected and familiar production or maintenance sequence, and those that are quite visible even if unplanned. Complex interactions are those of unfamiliar sequences, or unplanned and unexpected sequences, and either not visible or not immediately comprehensible.

Second they may be tightly or loosely coupled. In a tightly coupled system, one event follows rapidly and invariably from another without human intervention. Usually, such systems are automated. It is loosely coupled when events unfold slowly, many outcomes are possible, and there is ample time for intervention to fix a problem before it becomes serious. Perrow argues that when systems are both complex and tightly coupled, accidents are not merely possible, but inevitable.

Systems with many complex interactions, he argues, share certain characteristics. They are highly vulnerable to common-mode failures: failures caused when critical components share a common feature that causes them all to break down:

The argument is basically very simple. We start with a plant, airplane, ship, biology laboratory, or other setting with a lot of components (parts, procedures, operators). Then we need two or more failures among components that interact in some unexpected way. No one dreamed that when X failed, Y would be out of order and the two failures would interact so as to both start a fire and silence.

Perrow argued that as our technologies become more complex, the odds of catastrophe increase; efforts to improve safety by means of more complex technology will only beget more accidents. We tend to respond to accidents by adding new safety features. These, he argues, can reduce safety by adding complexity. Boeing’s 737 Max is a classic example.

The most striking aspect of Perrow’s thesis is his claim that this risk cannot be mitigated by improved design, culture, management, or human agency. “No matter how hard we try,” he writes,

no matter how much training, how many safety devices, planning, redundancies, buffers, alarms, bells and whistles we build into our systems, those that are complexly interactive will find an occasion where the unexpected interaction of two or more failures defeats the training, the planning, and the design of safety devices.

Perrow’s thesis is open for debate, of course, and many debate it. But the early warning systems that nuclear deterrence demands are classic complex, tightly coupled systems.


Predictions of a nuclear winter, in the early 1980s, were based on flawed studies; these claims were highly contested, and rightly so. But recent scholarship suggests that even a small-scale regional nuclear war would indeed have a serious effect on the climate and thus on global food production. No one can be sure. But the discovery in 2006 of forest fire smoke in the stratosphere, linked to extreme pyrocumulonimbus storms, lends support to the theory.

In 2007, A. Robock et al. published Climatic consequences of regional nuclear conflicts. Using modern climate models and new estimates of smoke generated by fires in modern cities, they calculated the effects of a regional nuclear war on the climate, modeling the effect of exchanging 100 Hiroshima-size bombs—less than 0.03 percent of the explosive yield of the world’s collective nuclear arsenal:

We find significant cooling and reductions of precipitation lasting years, which would impact the global food supply. The climate changes are large and long-lasting because the fuel loadings in modern cities are quite high and the subtropical solar insolation heats the resulting smoke cloud and lofts it into the high stratosphere, where removal mechanisms are slow. While the climate changes are less dramatic than found in previous “nuclear winter” simulations of a massive nuclear exchange between the superpowers, because less smoke is emitted, the changes are more long-lasting because the older models did not adequately represent the stratospheric plume rise.

In 2012, Özdoğan et al. published Impacts of a nuclear war in South Asia on soybean and maize production in the Midwest United States. Their model similarly found that a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan would lead to a significant drop in corn and soybean yields in the American Midwest. The nuclear winter hypothesis remains debatable, and no one is sure how significant the effect would be. But there is not much debate about this: a limited nuclear exchange would severely disrupt global food supplies.

It is unlikely that a limited exchange of nuclear weapons would end the human race. But were 100 weapons used—.005 percent of the world’s current arsenal—it is also unlikely the impact would be confined to the states that exchanged the weapons. Recent studies suggest two billion people would starve; after all, nearly a billion are already chronically malnourished, so a decline of ten percent in global crop yields would tip the balance.

The most likely candidates for this kind of exchange—but not the only ones—are India and Pakistan. Toon et al. modeled the effects of a limited exchange between India and Pakistan in The effects of Rapidly expanding nuclear arsenals in Pakistan and India portend regional and global catastrophe:

Pakistan and India may have 400 to 500 nuclear weapons by 2025 with yields from tested 12- to 45-kt values to a few hundred kilotons. If India uses 100 strategic weapons to attack urban centers and Pakistan uses 150, fatalities could reach 50 to 125 million people, and nuclear-ignited fires could release 16 to 36 Tg of black carbon in smoke, depending on yield. The smoke will rise into the upper troposphere, be self-lofted into the stratosphere, and spread globally within weeks. Surface sunlight will decline by 20 to 35%, cooling the global surface by 2° to 5°C and reducing precipitation by 15 to 30%, with larger regional impacts. Recovery takes more than 10 years. Net primary productivity declines 15 to 30% on land and 5 to 15% in oceans threatening mass starvation and additional worldwide collateral fatalities.


One of the strangest aspects of our culture’s general climate of hysteria is that we no longer seem to worry about nuclear war. We’re citizens of one of the most anxious cultures in recorded history, but we don’t seem to fear the most obvious risk.

The prospect of a nuclear Apocalypse dominated our consciousness during the Cold War. Our popular culture was saturated with references to it. But this seems to us now as archaic and antique as the steam engine, at least to judge from the history books our children read:

Fear of total human annihilation is a tough feeling to live with every day. For children growing up in the Cold War, mutually assured nuclear destruction literally haunted their dreams. Many of them wrote letters to the president, begging Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and their successors not to push the button. Others just prayed the bomb would kill them instantly, preferring swift death to years of sickness and grief.

I’ve repeatedly asked myself how we collectively decided this risk just magically went away—allowing us to speak of it in the past tense—but I’ve never been able to answer the question to my own satisfaction.

There is no reason whatever to think the risk eradicated, nor even diminished. It is true that the United States and Russia now have significantly fewer nuclear weapons. But this misses the point. We had enough to destroy ourselves many times over. We still have more than enough. There are an estimated 13,900 nuclear weapons in the world. Russia and the United States possess 93 percent of them. This is enough—more than enough.

Some believe the risk of deliberate nuclear war has been reduced with the end of the Cold War. They have no good reason to believe this. Putin’s regime is as hostile to the United States as the Soviet Union was. North Korea is certainly as hostile to the United States as the Soviet Union was. It has tested ICBMs designed to strike the entire continental United States. It has a large inventory of theater ballistic missiles.

Only recently, the head of US Strategic Command testified before Congress that China is putting its nuclear forces on higher alert, and neither the United States nor its allies understands quite why:

While China keeps the majority of its forces in a peacetime status, increasing evidence suggests China has moved a portion of its nuclear force to a Launch on Warning (LOW) posture and are adopting a limited “high alert duty” strategy. To support this, China continues to prioritize improved space-based strategic early warning, and command and control as specific nuclear force modernization goals. Their networked and integrated platform advancements will enable skip-echelon decision-making processes and greater rapid reaction. This shifting posture is particularly unsettling, considering the immature nature of Chinese strategic forces and compressed timelines needed to assess and frame a response, increasing the potential for error and miscalculation. Collectively, China’s strategic nuclear modernization expansion raises troubling concerns and complements the conventional capability growth reported by INDOPACOM and other Combatant Commands.

In the same presentation, he noted:

Over the last decade, Russia has recapitalized roughly 80 percent of its strategic nuclear forces, strengthening its overall combat potential with an imposing array of modernization efforts and novel weapons programs designed to ensure a retaliatory strike capability by all three triad legs. Upgrades incorporate new technologies into weapons systems, such as the nuclear-armed ICBM launched Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle. Other weapons programs, such as the Poseidon nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed underwater vehicle, and the Skyfall nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed cruise missile, threaten to redefine Russia’s nuclear force with asymmetric strategic weapons capabilities never before fielded. In October 2020, Russia successfully tested its multi-role Tsirkon hypersonic anti-ship missile with land attack capability. These new capabilities are specifically designed to thwart ballistic missile defenses, challenge deterrence, and target our capabilities, increasing risk to allies, partners, and the US homeland.

What’s more, we know that terrorists have attempted to procure nuclear weapons. This is a staggering constellation of nuclear risk.

Whether or not you appraise the risk of a deliberate nuclear exchange as high, there is no doubt about this proposition: The risk of serious accidents, including accidental war, remains as high now as it was during the Cold War. It is probably higher, because new nuclear nations lack the West’s and Russia’s experience and technical infrastructure. The number of nuclear powers continues to increase. There was, at least, a hotline between the United States and the Soviet Union. There is no hotline to North Korea.

Ask yourself how well the global systems that were designed to minimize the risk of a pandemic have served us. Consider the competence and care of the people involved in supervising these systems.

Do you think these same people are capable of managing nuclear risk?


Claire Berlinski is co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Cosmopolitan Globalist.


1 Perry, Interview
2 For a discussion of these and other incidents, see Scott Sagan, The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons

47 Comments on "NUCLEAR ROULETTE"

  1. Wow, this essay is a real tour de force; it’s both chilling and brilliantly written. Given the mistakes that almost led to nuclear disaster during the Cold War, is there any reason to believe that mistakes could not have led to the accidental release of SARS-CoV-2 from the Wuhan Institute of Virology?

    • Claire Berlinski | June 8, 2021 at 5:00 pm | Reply

      None. Indeed the preponderance of evidence suggests it.

      • Spin Owsley | June 8, 2021 at 5:49 pm | Reply

        Are you saying, Young Lady, that you believe the preponderance of the evidence supports the idea that SARS-Cov-2 was created in a lab and accidentally released? Also: thread hijacked. Call Putin and complain about it if you want. 😉

        • Claire Berlinski | June 8, 2021 at 5:50 pm | Reply

          I’m saying that if I had to place a bet, I’d place it on, “SARS-CoV-2 emerged as the result of a lab accident.”

          • Spin Owsley | June 8, 2021 at 6:15 pm |

            And do you think that lab accident involves a virus created in the lab, or a naturally occurring virus that simply escaped?

          • Claire Berlinski | June 8, 2021 at 7:45 pm |

            It could be either.

          • I appreciate this position. There is a lot of undeserved certainty flying around the internet on this subject. Likely because certainty is seen as a virtue, deserved or not.

          • Spin Owsley | June 8, 2021 at 7:55 pm |

            That is certainly the case.

          • Spin Owsley | June 8, 2021 at 7:56 pm |

            I’m in the camp of “I’m 100% confident it leaked from the lab, but only 50% confident it was made in that lab” camp. Just because it came out of the lab, and not a wet market, doesn’t mean it’s a virus the researchers made.

          • You’re right. The evidence is increasing that the virus was engineered through gain of function research and accidentally released though other explanations are plausible.

            We can hope that these gain of function experiments were designed with a laudable purpose like finding ways to vaccinate against future diseases where corona viruses are the etiological agent but we will never know that for sure. Gain of function experiments conducted with a more nefarious intent are also possible.

            Whether their motivations are fare or foul, it’s understandable that the Chinese want to cover up the evidence. The more interesting question is why American scientists also facilitated a cover up.

          • Spin Owsley | June 8, 2021 at 7:15 pm |

            “The more interesting question is why American scientists also facilitated a cover up.” We know that answer, and it is two fold. Reason One is that the US funded the research in Wuhan, albeit indirectly. Nobody wants to be a associated with the headline “Global Pandemic Claiming 4M lives the result of US funded research in China.” Reason Two is “Because Trump said it.” If Trump said that it was man-made, and he did, then it must be completely and 100% refuted. It is obviously wrong.

          • Either that or he was briefed on the possibility early, and again let loose with sensitive information when running his mouth.

            Also bad.

          • Spin Owsley | June 8, 2021 at 7:53 pm |

            Be that as it may, and it may not be that, because most of what we now realize about the research was and is public knowledge, the fact remains that if Trump said the sky was blue, there’d be someone saying it must be green. Not to make this all about Trump, because I get sick of it. But the point remains that a great many folks rejected this notion simply because Trump said it.

          • Claire Berlinski | June 9, 2021 at 6:21 am |

            I think the more obvious reason is actually the reason: Daszak was the ringleader. Why? He stood to lose millions of dollars in grants. Probably, too, he was psychologically unable to face the possibility that an entity he funded had, rather than diminishing the pandemic risk, caused a pandemic. Why did so many other scientists go along with it? It looks to me as if they just signed the letter he put in front of them without reading it very carefully–probably because virologists are a clubby lot who all go to the same conferences. Those who didn’t share his conflict of interest are now sheepishly admitting that the evidence in favor of the zoonotic hypothesis doesn’t really seem slam-dunk to them anymore, especially in light of all the revelations from DRASTIC.

            A bigger question is why the Lancet and Nature ran those letters without scrutiny. As I realized when finally I carefully read both submissions *and* the references, they made no sense. So clearly the editors didn’t carefully read or understand the references. I was quite shocked by this, but as I learned more about the editor of the Lancet, I ceased to be shocked. This guy has fallen for hoax after hoax: Why he still has a job is beyond me. That entry doesn’t even mention that the Lancet was duped, too, by Russia’s Sputnik V data. The Lancet needs a new editor, posthaste.

            As for Nature, I don’t know–but a lot of journals have published seriously shoddy research during the pandemic; this is a notorious problem, and the reason is probably as simple as this: Editors haven’t been able to keep up with the pace of submissions. It takes a lot of time to read a scientific paper carefully and check all the references; they probably thought, “Well, these are the big shots in this field, we can probably trust them.” Usually, that’s a reasonably sound heuristic. In this case, it wasn’t.

            As for Reason Two, it doesn’t fit the timeline: The infamous letters to the Lancet and Nature were published *before* Trump started banging on about this–I think they were published when he was still in his “Xi is doing a great job” phase. I may be wrong about that, but certainly it was either in his “Xi is doing a great job” phase or his “it will all go away in the summer” phase. The latter seems, by the way, to have been what Xi told him. (According to Josh Rogin, I don’t know who his source on that was.) The person with the biggest interest in peddling the zoonosis consensus was Xi himself, and during this period, he had Trump’s ear. Trump only decided it came from a lab when his friendship with Xi broke down.

            Also, I think a lot of journalists–and Big Tech–were confused about the distinction between a lab accident and a deliberate release, i.e., a bioweapon. Part of the impulse to step on the latter theory, I suspect, was fear that coupled with China’s efforts to sow the idea (among their own citizens) that this was a US bioweapon, this would put us on a path to war. After all, if China did this deliberately, it would be the worst attack on the US in our history, by far I suspect this was the thought they were trying to censor–and that was why–as opposed to the lab accident thesis. We could do with some serious and *public* soul-searching from Big Tech about how this decision was made.

            Everyone made mistakes during the pandemic, and that’s human: It was a situation none of us had dealt with before. It was an emergency, and the tech companies were in a difficult position because, without a doubt, organized and malicious foreign actors–Russia, to be precise–were doing their damnedest (and still are) to inject the most damaging and divisive lies possible into our discourse. It doesn’t seem to me unreasonable that, e.g., Facebook thought, “We need to crack down on this,” especially in light of the roasting they deservedly received for their role in the 2016 election. Russia’s boosting of anti-mask and anti-vax propaganda has cost–and will cost–many lives. (I too lose my enthusiasm for freedom of expression when I contemplate anti-vaxxers.*)

            But the enforcement of intellectual conformity about the pandemic’s origins was a grievous mistake, one that will have ugly reverberations for decades, if not forever.

            I can easily imagine how it happened: Some special task force was probably convened at Facebook, and likewise at the other social media giants, and told, “Step on these dangerous conspiracy theories: We don’t want to be sued by the relatives of idiots who died after gobbling down anti-vax conspiracy theories.” This task force was probably comprised of millenials with a limited science education; they didn’t even think to check the references on the Lancet letter and the paper in Nature; they just deferred to authority.

            Congress needs to hold hearings about this, and we need a full accounting of how this happened from Daszik, the Lancet, Nature, and the heads of Big Tech. The only way to restore confidence in our institutions is to air this out, publicly. The discovery of an actual conspiracy to hide the truth from the public–and this was indeed an actual conspiracy–will poison political discourse until we address it and shine sunlight on every nook and cranny of the story.

            *It was the very same editor of the Lancet who created the modern anti-vax movement when he published Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent study about MMR vaccines and autism.

          • Claire Berlinski | June 9, 2021 at 6:39 am |

            More about Richard Horton, the editor of the Lancet: He is a gullible leftist imbecile who falls for hoax after hoax.

            But the Cosmopolitan Globalist has also fallen for them: We enthusiastically reported the surprisingly good news about the Sputnik vaccine on the basis of the study published in the Lancet. We didn’t do our homework any more than Horton did his: We assumed that if it was published in the Lancet, it must be sound. Had we carefully studied the paper, we would have seen that the authors just took Russia’s word about the data–which is obviously insane. But we didn’t.

            We’ve retracted that and apologized, however. The Lancet hasn’t. Still, this is the way these mistakes are made–when a link in the epistemic chain is poisoned this way, the effects can look like a widespread conspiracy. But in fact the conspiracy here required only Daszik, Baric, Anderson, and the editors of Nature and the Lancet; after that, laziness and lack of rigor did the rest.

            But that laziness and lack of rigor resulted in yours truly getting scammed on the Sputnik results, too. I think it’s fair to say I’m not generally in the business of running interference for the Kremlin, and we didn’t reproduce the error because of my ideological sympathy with Putin. We just trusted the Lancet, and we should not have. We won’t make that mistake twice.

          • Totally right, especially about the Lancet. That journal was once one of the most well respected medical journals; not any more. There’s a hierarchy in the world of biomedical research where investigators want to publish. Science and Nature are at the top of the list. For younger investigators getting published in either of those journals, even once, can be very helpful on the road to tenure. For years, right under Science and Nature were the New England Journal of Medicine and Lancet. The Lancet has fallen off the list of desirable places to publish. It has no prestige any more. That journal is shoddy and rarely worth reading (though foolishly for mostly nostalgic reasons I maintain my subscription). I don’t know a single scientist who would ever submit their best work to Lancet.

            By the way, the Lancet used to be considered the British equivalent of the New England Journal. No longer. The British should be embarrassed about what happened to Lancet.

            The Wakefield -Autism saga was literally a tragedy for the autism community. It tore the autism community apart and resulted in vitriolic arguments that detracted from that community’s ability to focus on what matters-funding legitimate scientific research into the etiology and pathogenesis of autism.

            By giving Wakefield credibility, the Lancet may have set back autism research for several years. It was criminal. As you may know, Wakefield turned out to be an actual criminal.

            While you mentioned the failures of big-tech, Claire, you neglected to mention the failures of the mainstream media. I think the behavior of the mainstream media may turn out to be one of the biggest (and saddest) stories of all when the history of the pandemic is finally written.

          • Claire Berlinski | June 9, 2021 at 12:01 pm |

            Are you a physician, WigWag? What kind? As for the media, I’m not surprised. It is in fact the basic sales pitch for the Cosmopolitan Globalist: The media has long since been hollowed out; the only newspaper left with a budget that would allow it to do the kind of investigation DRASTIC did is The New York Times, and God alone knows what happened to The New York Times. (Actually, I know exactly what happened to it; indeed, I’ve written quite a bit about it right here in this newsletter. What happened is the Internet.) But I’ve seen exactly this phenomenon again and again. For example, to take a completely different topic: Exactly the same phenomenon–astonishing laziness and incuriosity; the common deference to one or two sources who were selling them a line of horseshit; then the sudden realization that the horseshit was horseshit–upon which the journalists start falling over themselves to scrub their own records, take down their stupid posts, and pretend they always knew it was horseshit.

            So yes, the story shows the laziness and inadequacy of the professional media establishment, but this is not a surprise to me. It’s true of both the left- and right-wing media. Both now devote vastly more time and column inches to repeating what their own side says, or denouncing the other side, than they do to research and reporting. And on this story, I was no exception: Not until I read Wade’s piece in the Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences did it occur to me to check the references in Daszak et al.’s now-infamous letter to Nature.

            This won’t improve until there’s a real business model for serious journalism. Smart people, the kind who could do the job well, don’t go into journalism now: Why would they, when with the same talents they could go into law, business, or PR and earn enough money that they’re not living like grad students at the age of 53? The only reason I’m still at it is that I have an uncommon willingness to live this way. If I had kids, I just *couldn’t* do it. The only way to make money in journalism now is as a partisan hack. That still sells, and boy does it sell. But the real work of journalism, the part I loved–doing a proper investigation, leaving no stone unturned–no one will pay for that anymore, because people would so much rather click on the latest partisan screed than read the results of a complex investigation that takes months, costs a fortune, and perhaps has no obvious partisan angle.

            What DRASTIC did is what the media, in principle, is supposed to do. That’s the disinfectant of sunlight.

            DRASTIC (with whom I’ve become chummy on Twitter) did all of that gratis. I’d be curious to speak to them and work out how many hours, together, they’ve devoted to their research. Let’s say the time of an educated professional–a lawyer, say–is worth 100 dollars an hour. It’s often worth a lot more. DRASTIC probably donated several thousand hours of their time to assembling the planks of their case. There’s no journalist in the world who could convince an editor to let her and her team spend 300,000 dollars worth of time on a story. Not in a world where people will click, over and over, on the latest partisan screed that says, yet again, that if the country falls into the hands of the opposite party, we’re doomed–and where they *don’t* generally click on complex stories that require them really to pay attention to the details and perhaps learn something complex and new about, say, furin cleavage sites and double-arginine codons.

            At this point the function of the media is a narrow one. They exist to amplify stories once someone else has done the hard work, and then offer a lot of ankle-biting partisan commentary. You may not remember this essay I wrote about the condition of the media; you might want to revisit it:


            In that essay, I wrote that people didn’t really grasp how bad the situation was, but that in the coming years, they would begin to grasp it:

            “I don’t think people truly realize how weird the situation is—yet. I think that as of now, people still think they’re getting a “pretty good sense” of what’s true and what’s false from what they read on the Internet. Trump’s supporters read Breitbart and Drudge, watch Fox, and follow right-wing accounts (of which a sizable proportion are Russian). The rest of America reads the Times and the Post, watches CNN, and follows mainstream or left-wing Twitter accounts. (Much of the far-left on the Internet is also Russian: They’ve just dusted off the COMINTERN files.)

            “People express disgust and distaste for “the media,” and claim that the opposite side is fake. They don’t yet fully realize how fake it is and how much of what they think of as their own side is fake.

            “In the coming few years, this will become clearer to people, especially when people start seeing a lot of deep fakes. Then they’ll really get it that the line between true and false has been hopelessly blurred.

            “I don’t think people will like that feeling.”

            So your surprise that the media botched this doesn’t surprise me. I can say very honestly that I’m not one bit surprised.

            And that’s why CosmoGlobe exists–but we’re not yet sure whether we’ll be able to make it fly, financially. An open question. Fingers crossed.

          • Claire, I am not a physician but I do work in the world of biomedical research. That’s all I want to say because in a world where cancel culture rules, my opinions (which seem pretty mainstream to me) could easily have the most negative career consequences and I’m not quite ready to retire yet.

            There are some careers where the more educated you are the better. But there are also careers where the rule of decreasing marginal returns applies. Journalism is one of those careers. We’ve never had a more highly educated cadre of young reporters and editors at the flagship mainstream media companies.

            The question is whether those masters degrees in journalism make the new journalists, barely out of diapers, better journalists or poorer journalists. I would argue it’s the later.

            Ask yourself a simple question; was journalism better or worse when nary a journalist anywhere had a graduate degree? Is a hypothetical young journalist who graduated with a BA from Sara Lawrence and a masters from the Columbia School of Journalism more equipped or less equipped to conduct investigational journalism than the reporters of old who learned their trade in the college of hard knocks and were mentored by other reporters while they hung around the pool room?

            In the United States we suffer from a terrible class divide. It’s not about race; it’s a divergence of world views between non-college educated people (60 percent or so of Americans) and the college educated expert class who hold jobs subsidized or dependent on government.)

            Are teeny bopper reporters who graduated from Columbia really able to report accurately on stories that impact working class people; a group whom they have never met and who possess values that they’ve been indoctrinated throughout their higher education experience to disdain?

            Here’s where I suspect we disagree. I think most young reporters and editors view their primary responsibility as protecting the hegemony of the expert class that they consider themselves a part of. Some of it is unconscious but much of it is very deliberate.

            I believe they ignored the story about the origins of Covid not because the press is cliquish or has a herd mentality. They missed the story because their single greatest desire was to burnish the credentials of experts who were denying the lab leak theory. To show that these experts were dissembling or even just wrong would have contributed to public doubt about the degree to which expertise should be respected.

            As part of the expert class, young journalists believe protecting that class is critical. That’s why they got the Covid origin story wrong.

            That’s why they get so much wrong.

    • Thomas M Gregg | June 10, 2021 at 9:01 pm | Reply

      Well, there’s considerable circumstantial evidence pointing to a lab leak, and I would just note that circumstantial evidence has convicted a lot of criminals.

  2. Matthew Guerreiro | June 8, 2021 at 5:01 pm | Reply

    Just when I was despairing about Tiger Mom-gate and the spreading insanity among our intellectual elites, you’ve given me something else to worry about!

  3. Spin Owsley | June 8, 2021 at 5:47 pm | Reply

    I hope the Russians love their children, too…

  4. Wow.
    What your list of “close calls” actually demonstrates is that the checks and backups actually work.

    I was on the front line in Germany during that 1977 incident My unit and the others like it were on the Soviets’ battlefield prep list. Read about it in Stars and Stripes. None of that warning made it to us, either, except in S&S.

    What a long list of “near misses” that is, and with nary a hit. Of course, no system built by man is perfect; however, I decline to cower under my bed–or in a bunker–in terror that sometime something might go wrong.
    And a couple of examples that illustrate the hysteria of this sort of thing.
    “Soviet bombers laden with nuclear weapons sat on their runways with their engines roaring, on red alert.”
    No, they weren’t. When aircraft sit on their runways, their engines are in idle–not roaring–until they’re actually taking off. For one thing, the brakes won’t hold if the engines are that powered up, whether the jets of a badger or all those props of a bear.
    “Everyone in the bunker began screaming. Sweat poured off Petrov’s face.”
    Widely claimed in hysterical reports–what eye witness, what person present in the bunker, says so? I’ve seen none.

    “The United States still has an official policy of launch on warning….”
    I certainly hope so. The policy was instituted when the Soviets developed a policy, and the tactic to execute it, to detonate warheads over our missile bases in sequenced arrivals to prevent us from being able to launch–the air bursts would rapidly dissassemble our missiles during launch phase. The now-Russian tactic would be easily adaptable to sequenced EMP, which would disrupt our missiles’ electronics.
    That pin-down tactic is also why we wound up eschewing a dense-pack plan of silo installation.
    And yet, with that so-called hair trigger in place, nary a missile has been launched. Because checks and backups work.

    “Once, an unstable pilot deliberately turned on the two arming switches on his plane’s nuclear bombs.
    “Lost nuclear-armed bombers have flown into the Russian warning net. [And they weren’t shot down? By the same government that shoots down lost civilian airliners?]
    “Air Force officers have tampered with missiles so better to launch them without orders.”
    Things right out of a John Travolta sort of movie. You have sources for these incidents? Actual sources, quoting actual people, not newspaper claims quoting their childhood invisible friends.
    Eric Hines

    • “Because checks and backups work.”

      I think I prefer to think of it another way.

      “Because, so far, checks and backups have worked.”

      I’m not sure the current US administration has the savvy, nor the current Russian administration the temperament, but ideally if we could manage to dial back the chances of a disaster even further, I would be for it. In fact, as an added bonus, it might reduce the risk of other nuclear powers doing something stupid, as we could advise them on the better systems to have in place. This shouldn’t be construed as hiding under one’s desk.

      Is it wrong to tune to a slightly heavier trigger pull, if the situation warrants it? And if everyone agrees to it? I’m not sure letting Putin develop more medium range delivery systems was a step in the right direction.

      • “…it might reduce the risk of other nuclear powers doing something stupid, as we could advise them on the better systems to have in place.”
        Yeah, Khamenei and Baby Kim are anxious to get our advice. So are Xi and Putin. Imran Khan wants our opinion. And Narendra Modi.
        Nothing wrong with talking with these folks, but there’s no reason to expect results.
        “Is it wrong to tune to a slightly heavier trigger pull, if the situation warrants it?”
        What’s your plan for doing this? What situation would warrant it?
        “I’m not sure letting Putin develop more medium range delivery systems was a step in the right direction.”
        With what would we prevent him? After all, he was doing precisely that during the INF treaty, which officially banned that sort of thing.
        “And if everyone agrees to it?”
        Who is this everyone? Putin–Russian government men generally–have a long and honorable history of ignoring treaty tenets whenever they become inconvenient. Xi and his predecessors of the People’s Republic of China have already refused even to pretend to enter into any sort of weapons control agreement. And there’re those Khamenei and Baby Kim fellows, again…. I suppose Merkel might agree to such a thing, but she’s already disarmed Germany, even economically; I doubt she’d have trouble limiting Other People’s Weapons.
        The world got a whole lot safer when Reagan committed us to the Strategic Defense Initiative, the Soviet Union couldn’t keep up technologically or economically, and folded. Today, the PRC is attempting that against us, at least technologically. The nation also has (currently) a corner on the global supply of rare earth metals–their mining and processing, and they’re working on expanding that corner, and to corner a range of other minerals and resources, as well as engaging in resource denial with their moves in the South China Sea (you didn’t really think they cared about a few islands, did you?). I suggest the world will get a whole lot safer again if we reverse that trend, and tech and spend the PRC into folding.
        Hoping for our enemies to honor their parts of treaties that will limit us is…suboptimal.
        Eric Hines

        • You’ve brought up a lot here, so forgive me if I simply adopt brevity in my response.

          I worry that you’ve adopted a Realpolitik here that has become cynicism, rather than merely pessimism. Is it possible that diplomatic efforts are merely difficult, not impossible? And if they’re reasonably difficult, is it worth some effort by the State Department? Throwing up our hands when Vlad goes back on the treaty isn’t helping. Greater cooperation with our allies would improve our chances of forcing good behavior.

          And Modi may be vile, but we might be able to appeal to his sense of self preservation. “You guys need to buy yourselves some Red Phones, because look at our laundry list of near misses.”

          • “Nothing wrong with talking with these folks, but there’s no reason to expect results.”
            Nothing in there about throwing up our hands or crying that results won’t come. Difficult meaning possible has long been a mantra of mine, as the folks who follow my writing in other venues (all half dozen of them) know.
            Indian self-preservation and Realpolitik are what moved India closer to the USSR than was comfortable for us during the first Cold War.
            You might worry about my being cynical, but it’s really just a recognition that we need to be much more hard-nosed about our national security–_our_ national security, recognizing that occasionally we need coalition partners for purpose-built operations, treaties needing to be rare–than we have been.
            “Vlad goes back on the treaty isn’t helping.”
            Neither is agreeing a treaty that nominally limits us both that we know a priori we’re the only ones who’ll be limited because Russia will welch on it as soon as Putin (or any of his successors) think we’re not looking. Or have gotten far enough along that it no longer matters whether we’re looking. See INF.
            But we’re wandering a little off the subject–the number of close calls and their meaning. Claire’s laundry list is far from exhaustive, and the fact that we’ve so few accidental nuclear wars–even after actual shootdowns and deliberate collision knockdowns (ram tactics were practiced in NORAD; and apparently by others as well) by the PRC–gives me considerable confidence in the checks and backups that the USSR/Russia, the PRC, France, UK, and us have.
            Of course, those checks and backups always could stand improvement, and I’ve no doubt those efforts are in progress. I decline to worry overmuch about that is, empirically, an extremely low (even if non-zero) probability event.
            What does worry me is the deliberate nuclear war that Khamenei, or his successor, will start as soon as Iran has enough nuclear warheads with which to destroy Israel–which I estimate to be in the region of 4-5. Which destruction Iran has committed itself to, and never mind the damage to Iran. As Hashemi Rafsanjani has said, Islam (not just Iran) might be badly damaged by a nuclear war, but Israel will no longer exist. A fair exchange in Iran’s eyes.
            What also worries me is the deliberate nuclear war, or the accidental one borne of irrationality, that might come from Baby Kim.
            We don’t have any checks and backups for those two, and we’re rapidly losing even our possibility for preventive measures regarding Iran.
            Eric Hines

          • “Nothing in there about throwing up our hands”

            Sorry, you weren’t my intended subject. Rather the last government response.

            I think in our wandering, we’re either regressing towards the mean, or agreeing on broader points. I, too, have a laundry list of strategic concerns that aren’t being addressed. I would like to see measures to lower the likelihood of accidental exchange with the new nuclear powers. On not sure the means that we could achieve that, but that’s my failure of imagination.

            On the topic of Iran, however… I cannot be remotely that confident about their intentions. I think we’ll have to ask that the next CosGlo Controversy “Week” revolve around whether Iran believes their own shit, or if they’re capable of conducting an honest Cold War like the rest of us have. I’m not sure that the Ayatollah would accept a beating that would benefit the Saudis to such a degree, but that’s probably a book worth of analysis to determine…

          • Plainly, I am confident of Iran’s governing men’s intentions. In any event, I’m unwilling to bet the existence of another polity, or the lives of Americans or those of our other friends (of which we actually have one or two), on the premise that Iran’s men won’t act on their acquisition and my posited intent.
            I have written more extensively on my views of the intent of the men in Iran’s government, but that’s a different venue.
            I agree that Iran, and I’d include northern Korea, would be a worthy separate topic, along the lines of “What can we do about nuclear powers whose governing men don’t think like we do or have the same values toward life that we do?”
            Eric Hines

          • Wasn’t the same question being fired over the Artic between the US and Soviets?

            And I don’t mean to dismiss the frenzy of Iranian agitprop, just question the sincerity. I struggle with the intent of religious people often. For example, I can’t figure out how Pence feels about the Apocalypse, which is alarming.

          • The questions regarding firing over the Arctic (I assume you’re talking about missiles) was what the US and the USSR were saying about each other.
            Here’s Hashemi Rafsanjani, speaking for the Iranian government:
            “If one day, he [Rafsanjani] said, the world of Islam comes to possess the weapons currently in Israel’s possession [meaning nuclear weapons]—on that day this method of global arrogance would come to a dead end. This, he said, is because the use of a nuclear bomb in Israel will leave nothing on the ground, whereas it will only damage the world of Islam.”
            That’s not agitprop, that’s straight from the horse’s mouth.
            Separately, to what apocalypse are you referring?
            Eric Hines

          • 1. Questions. The narratives applied reciprocally by the US and Soviets certainly did a lot to cast doubt upon the essential humanity of the other. While We don’t share all of our values with Them, clearly we shared enough to believe in self preservation. There were voices that called that in to question.

            2. The Iranians are going to wipe Israel from the map. Nikita is going to bury us. Trump is going to rain fire and fury. Kim is going to burn the cities of the West Coast. I’m not saying we shouldn’t show solidarity with Israel in the face of this threat, indeed we should consider a promise of reprisal, to assure the Iranian regime they will pay a price. But I won’t take the saber rattling of world leaders literally in all cases. I think the early days of ISIS were the last time I took someone completely at their word.

            3 Pence. I can’t get a sense of how serious he is about his religion. There are considerable Evangelical elements that are quite serious about supporting Israel, for the purpose of bringing about their Rapture. I’d be far more comfortable with him cynically exploiting these voters, than if he was among them in the belief that the world is going to end, and they have a responsibility to support their god in this project. I don’t believe they’re capable of bringing about some supernatural end of the world, but they are capable of causing tremendous suffering with this belief.

          • The Iranians have said that in so many words. Rafsanjani’s sermon shows that the chants are not just rhetoric. Self preservation: the means of achieving that can be dangerously varied. For the Khameneis of the world, the way into Heaven–the only self-preservation that matters–is to die through martyrdom.
            Khurschev’s “we will bury you,” far from being a threat of violence, was his confidence (or his public bluster; his intelligence apparatus had him well-informed of our two nations’ relative capabilities): the phrase is a Russian idiom that means nothing more than “we will outlive you.”
            Baby Kim was speaking domestically as much as he was to anyone else. Trump was doing nothing more than trolling Baby Kim and our domestic press–along the lines if his roughly contemporaneous “my button (IIRC) is bigger than yours.”
            What’s the value of a reprisal against Iran–even were they to believe we’d carry out a serious one–when their government men have said they don’t care the cost of destroying Israel; that extermination being worth any cost?
            I don’t much care about Pence’s view of an apocalypse or the Rapture. He’s made plain his view of our Constitution’s (and, in the end, Christianity’s) view of religious freedom. Whatever his personal views, he has, and would have were he elected in ’24, no intention of imposing his religious views on anyone else. Similar to Thomas More, he understands that his own freedom depends on others’ freedom.
            Eric Hines

          • I certainly can’t share in your confidence.

    • Claire Berlinski | June 9, 2021 at 5:26 am | Reply

      Eric, for a full discussion of all of these incidents, see Scott Sagan, “The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons.”

  5. Ronald STEENBLIK | June 8, 2021 at 9:33 pm | Reply

    I agree with WigWag: a tour de force. Here’s yet another close call, which played out in the Atlantic during the Cuban Missile Crisis:

    “It’s October 1962, the height of the Cuban missile crisis, and there’s a Soviet submarine in the Caribbean that’s been spotted by the American Navy. President Kennedy has blockaded Cuba. No sea traffic is permitted through.

    The sub is hiding in the ocean, and the Americans are dropping depth charges* left and right of the hull. Inside, the sub is rocking, shaking with each new explosion. What the Americans don’t know is that this sub has a tactical nuclear torpedo on board, available to launch, and that the Russian captain is asking himself, Shall I fire?”

    *Note: these were small depth charges, meant to annoy not destroy.

    • Thomas M Gregg | June 11, 2021 at 6:43 pm | Reply

      Probably the reason that the nuclear torpedo was not fired is that if it had been fired, it would have destroyed the submarine itself. The weapon in question was the Type 53-58 or T-5 torpedo with a range of 16 kilometers and a 5KT warhead. It was a standoff weapon designed primarily to sink an enemy sub by creating an underwater shock wave. In other words, since the USN destroyers were right on top of the Soviet submarine, dropping depth charges, the T-5 was essentially unusable.

  6. Humans learn to ignore risks out of their control. It can be a good survival and mental health strategy.
    I was born in the 50’s. At some point I decided, probably subconsciously, that I had no control over nukes and would not waste time and energy worrying about it. Early on I concluded that ducking and covering under my desk was a joke.
    It will either happen or not.
    People who could not manage the nuclear risks this way found other ways. Some built bomb shelters to give themselves the illusion that they did have some control of the situation.
    That their action (we have to do something) was based on an illusion, but for many it was a good thing as it reduced their anxiety and gave them as sense of greater control over their lives.
    We each find our own way to manage the many risks we face as living beings.

    I do expect the people in government and the military who do have some abilities to reduce the risks to worry about these issues and take what actions they can to minimize them.

    I am at risk when I drive my car, but I have some control in that situation. I drive defensively to reduce the risk. I know I cannot reduce the risk to zero. I manage the risk so that I don’t obsess over the risks and become to afraid to drive. Poor risk management can emotionally paralyze a person.

    Never be shocked that others evaluate and manage risks in ways different from your own.
    It is part of the diversity of our species.

  7. Thomas M Gregg | June 10, 2021 at 2:44 am | Reply

    People have exaggerated ideas regarding the risk of nuclear war. As a matter of fact nuclear weapons greatly mitigate the risk of a major war. As Machiavelli put it, fear is more reliable than love, since it involves self-interest, which love does not. The fabled balance of terror is no more than mutual self-interest, and it’s more to be relied upon than idealism and wishful thinking.

    • Claire Berlinski | June 10, 2021 at 5:35 am | Reply

      I fully agree with you that nuclear weapons mitigate the risk of major war. I don’t think we can otherwise understand the Pax Americana. This is why I would never support proposals to dismantle them all.* But I do not agree that our understanding of the risk of nuclear war is exaggerated. If you believe that, you need to explain why this system, alone among systems created by humans, is not apt to fail. Nothing else made by humans is fail proof. The list of close calls I’ve marshalled here isn’t even the half of it. And for the most part of humanity’s nuclear history, the nuclear powers didn’t include North Korea, India, and Pakistan–the addition of these three changes the risk calculus considerably.

      What’s more, you’ve suggested that people have an exaggerated idea of the risk without specifying which people–and what counts as “exaggerated.” In my experience of talking to people about it, most people have no idea how great the risk is. The perception most Americans had *during* the Cold War was fairly accurate; the perception most Americans have now–that somehow the nukes just … disappeared or something?–is wholly inaccurate.

      I’d also point out that US competence has declined along many spectrums: We’re just not as good at managing complex problems as we were throughout the Cold War. (For example: We can’t seem to pull off the mechanics of an election without a hitch anymore.) Why? Complicated problem. I’ve written about it here. To my mind this suggests we should be even more worried.

      *While I wouldn’t support dismantling them, no one has yet explained to me why we need more than required to preserve a secure second-strike capacity. And the doctrines of sole authority to launch and launch on warning are simply too dangerous. I understand that I disagree with a number of my readers about whether Donald Trump was insane. But I do believe that. I did not sleep deeply for the duration of the Trump Administration. I don’t think the odds of his reelection in 2024 are zero. I wish very much that Democrats took their own rhetoric about how dangerous Trump is seriously. If they did, they’d work *now* to reduce the ability of the Commander-in-Chief, all by himself, to end human civilization.

      • Thomas M Gregg | June 10, 2021 at 8:48 pm | Reply

        I agree that there’s some—albeit very little—risk of an accident involving nuclear weapons. I don’t believe, however, that there’s any chance that such an accident would touch off a full-scale nuclear war.

        The well-understood consequences of a major exchange of nuclear weapons, say between the US and China, are sufficiently horrific to impose caution on political and military leaders. However, if you want something to worry about in this area, think North Korea, and Iran: two countries under the control of outlaw regimes whose collective mental stability is open to question.

        North Korea’s leaders, for example, could conceivably become crazy enough to attempt a nuclear strike on South Korea or even the US. That, of course, would lead to the obliteration of North Korea. While terrible to contemplate, however, it would not mean the end of the world.

        The problem posed by Iran is somewhat different. That country’s nuclear ambitions could trigger a regional nuclear arms race, possibly leading to a regional nuclear war. Again terrible to contemplate, but again it would not mean the end of the world.

        Below is a link to a very interesting treatment of a hypothetical full-scale nuclear war between the US and the USSR in 1988, when the nuclear arsenals of both countries were at their peak. After reading it you will no longer wonder why the Cold War superpowers never risked a hot war.

      • Thomas M Gregg | June 11, 2021 at 1:32 pm | Reply

        As a matter of fact, the Commander-in-Chief has no power to end human civilization all by himself. The president cannot launch nuclear weapons; he can only order them to be launched. And the procedures governing the release of nuclear weapons are not automated. They require the participation of numerous other officials and officers, none of whom would transmit or obey an order to launch that came out of the blue. In such a situation NORAD and Strike Command would be well aware that no attack against the US was underway. In short, the “presidential insanity” scenario is fanciful.

        The problem with proposals to strip the presidency of its unilateral control over nuclear weapons is that they would undermine unity of command and by extension, deterrence.

  8. Jon Hepworth | June 10, 2021 at 3:33 am | Reply

    Just finished reading the inventory of close-calls due to error. It takes me back to my 1980’s decade of nuclear war fear. I recall contemplating every foreign-policy action in terms of “closer to or farther from nuclear war. Of course- my analysis was naive and misinformed. One would assume or rather fantasize that there is a greater degree of mishap-safety, than actually is the case.

  9. We should not leave out the incident involving a Soviet submarine during the Cuban Missile Crisis — every major Russian and American city should have a statue dedicated to one Vasily Arkhipov. []

    And this is a good opportunity to urge everyone here to spend a few dollars and buy a bottle of potassium iodide tablets: in the event of a nuclear war, or disaster, it will allow your thyroid gland to satiate itself on harmless Iodine-127 instead of the radioative Iodine-131 which will be produced by nuclear wars or accidents. Not so important for old people, but definitely indicated for children.

    As for rational self-interest protecting us from nuclear war — it didn’t protect us from World Wars One or Two. And we should also consider the effects of the decline of America and the rise of China. The decaying soon-to-be-former world super-power is going to be subject to increasingly irrational impulses. Get that potassium iodide!

  10. The key points that we should all be able to agree on is this:
    (1) No one knows the future.
    (2) There is a risk — not calculatable — of nuclear war — among little powers, big powers or both. Because something hasn’t happened, doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Because there is a risk of it happening, doesn’t mean it will happen even given enough time.

    So … surely a rational, prudent person would ask: is there anything I can do NOW, at very little cost, that might make a significant difference to my own well-being, should the worst happen? (And note that the ‘worst’ is really not a point, but a spectrum — ranging from an H-bomb bursting with you in the kill zone, all the way over to a nuclear power plant going up, with you in the fallout zone or a nuclear war among other countries that seriously disrupts our own supply chain.)

    I used to think that American “preppers” were people leading boring personal lives who wanted to play-act in their own Mad Max fantasy. But whether or not that’s true, the fact is that having a few weeks’ food and other necessities in the basement, some potassium iodide tablets handy, and knowing that if you see a bright flash in the distance you should drop to the ground — costs almost nothing. (Many, if not most, casualities from a nuclear weapon will be people outside the immediate death zone who are shredded by flying glass and other debris. So “duck and cover” isn’t so crazy after all.)

    How horrible to have to be talking about this, when we should be discussing how close we’re getting to nearly-free energy via controlled fusion, defect-free genomes in our descendants via genetic engineering, the elimination of dangerous boring jobs via AI, and all the wonderful promises for the future that human rationality has come up with.

    But we are where we are. And being rational includes understanding ‘normalcy bias’, and learning from the past.

    “X will make war too terrible to wage/too expensive to wage.” “We’re at the End of History. Liberal democracy is inevitable.”

    Right. Go on, all you smart intellectuals. Take a few hours to prepare for the worst, just in case. No one else needs to know. [All you need to know can be found in the Civil Defense Manual, Volumes I and II, available here:]

  11. Chilling and important, Claire.

    It also lead me to a disturbing insight about stubbornness in refusing to abandon long-held views in the face of evidence. You mention KAL007. I am objectively certain later revelations support the “tragic accident” view you cite.

    However, I was the leader and minder of 30 British university students studying Russian in Soviet Ukraine that fatal night, and not only recall every tense hour, and the fear we shared with our hosts, but came to support the cogent arguments of R.W. Johnson that it was not an accident. Many did:

    Here I am, in 2021, knowing the later revelations and stil unwilling truly to accept them,Still thinking more about hysterical Americans pouring Stolichnays in the gutters, while our Soviet hosts hugged us. About the air boycott, so we barely got to make it home vis Air India

    So I tell the story your way, but a part of me is waiting for new evidence….

    I relate this to shed light on the stubborn cognitive dissonance of others… and my own.
    Expertise on how to break through this?

  12. Great essay and comments. Here are my two cents.

    When I was a very little boy, one dinner time my father started talking about nuclear war, nuclear weapons, and the radiation that would come right through the walls and kill you. I remember how terrified I was, and I remember looking out the window and saying, Right through the glass? Yes, right through the glass.

    I was too young to know about the Cuban missile crisis, but years later my father told me how frightened he had been. The Korean War had ended only a few years before, and my father’s six years in the artillery in WWII was not a distant memory.

    Funny how a scare turns to fascination. I read everything with the word nuclear in it, and 60 years later I build equipment for the nuclear industry. I am sure it started with that conversation.

    I have been trained in something called Root Cause Analysis, common in the nuclear industry. When there is a catastrophe or a near miss (funny term that!) you analyse the snot out of it until you know what has to be done to prevent recurrence.

    Complex systems like nuclear power plants, nuclear weapons systems, economies and countries have many checks, approvals, barriers to failure, redundancies and automated detection systems, so a catastrophe almost always has multiple causes.

    Complex systems are never static. They either adapt and renew, or they stagnate and deteriorate. People leave, experience is lost, procedures are revised, equipment is replaced, minor problems have temporary fixes that become permanent, all with unforeseen consequences. Niall Ferguson in one of his books said that complex system can go on for years, seemingly healthy, with the residents blissfully unaware of the rot within. Then one day, a small operator error, a minor equipment failure, a valve that doesnt close at TMI, a foreclosure in 2008, or a gun shot from an obscure Serbian nationalist triggers a cascade of events that crashes through all the inadequate measures and best intentions in place. Black Swan! Unforeseen but predictable.

    It is interesting that when you stand amidst the wreckage and the bodies, looking back in time, with a little investigation the path to failure is relatively easy to see, right back to the initiating event. But, when you go back in time and look forward, all you see is a mass of potential problems and which one is key? Resources are finite and you can rarely deal with them all. I like Kissinger’s observation that choices are never between a good option and a bad option. They are about finding the least worst option.

    One cause that comes up frequently is over confidence, ie hubris. With respect, I hear that in some of the comments.

    I think America and its allies are going to be tested soon.

    I like WigWag’s comment about the disconnect between the college educated elite and the working class joes. No wonder Labour is switching to the Republicans in the US and the Tories in the UK. Charles Murray observed that today there is a cohort of wealthy young Americans that are going from high school to college to business, academia or politics, who have never worked with their hands, never mowed lawns, never waited on tables or cleaned toilets or worked in a factory.

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