Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Lies Your High School History Teacher Told You About Nukes

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Welcome to the Interpreter newsletter, by Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, who write a column by the same name.
On our minds: One of the most commonly known facts about nuclear weapons may actually be a myth.
A deactivated Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile in a silo at the Titan Missile Museum, a preserved military complex near Tucson.
A deactivated Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile in a silo at the Titan Missile Museum, a preserved military complex near Tucson. Brendan Smialowski/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Lies Your High School History Teacher Told You About Nukes
If you think back to high school, there is probably one thing you remember learning about nuclear weapons: mutually assured destruction. At once terrifying and reassuring, this idea  says two nuclear powers will never fight a nuclear war because doing so would ensure both sides were annihilated.
Your teacher probably used this theory to explain why the Cold War stayed cold, why incidents like the Cuban Missile Crisis never escalated into war and why all those nuclear warheads remain safely ensconced in their silos, never to be used by any right-thinking leader.
We have bad news. Your teacher was wrong. Mutually assured destruction, according to a growing body of scholarship, is a myth. There is no magic theory that renders nuclear war impossible.
If you don’t believe us, consider what happened in the 20-plus years from Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara’s speech articulating mutually assured destruction to the end of the Cold War. If the theory were correct, then neither country would need to alter its nuclear strategies or upgrade its arsenals, which would already ensure mutual annihilation and therefore mutual deterrence.
But that is not what happened. Instead, both sides spent billions on larger and more numerous warheads as well as faster and more accurate missiles. They conducted high-risk drills and exercises to prepare for nuclear war, gamed out how to fight such a war and, according to internal documents, worried desperately that one might come about.
Two political scientists, Brendan R. Green and Austin Long, pull at this thread in a new academic paper: If mutually assured destruction made nuclear escalation unnecessary, they ask, why was nuclear escalation such a high priority for the United States and Soviet Union?
They reach an answer that a growing number of nuclear scholars are circling around -- because mutually assured destruction does not exist. Even if Soviet and American leaders both declared as policy that nuclear war was unthinkable, they behaved as if it was very much foreseeable.   
American advances in missile technology, intelligence-gathering and other fields were building toward a strategy known as counterforce. The United States could at some point, in theory, launch a series of rapid nuclear strikes against Soviet nuclear arsenals, disarming the country before it could retaliate.
The Americans, Professors Green and Long wrote, were trying to “escape” mutually assured destruction.
Moscow, internal Soviet documents have since revealed, was terrified of this prospect. If the Americans could secure the ability to fight and quickly win a nuclear conflict, it would have, in a narrow but real sense, won the Cold War. Then Washington could freely bully Moscow, unrestrained by the old precept of mutually assured destruction.
The Soviets felt they had no choice but to compensate at virtually any cost. In a series of advances, they tried to ensure that they would retain second-strike capability — the guaranteed ability to fire a return volley after an American first strike. But these steps, by design, increased the risk of war.
Some changes, for instance, reduced Soviet response times, making it likelier than an accident or miscalculation could lead to unintended nuclear war. Others saw the Soviets develop more advanced missiles that could more credibly threaten Western Europe with rapid annihilation.
Those steps provoked American responses, each cycle of which brought the world closer to a nuclear war that both capitals considered plausible but that, according to a theory still taught in schools, should have been impossible.
Neither country, of course, wanted a nuclear war. But both feared that the other could “escape” mutually assured destruction, gaining the ability to fight and win such a conflict. That possibility was, for them, so real and terrifying that it justified steps that came at the cost of making such a war likelier.
You see similar dynamics playing out among nuclear powers today. The United States and Russia are still racing, for example by developing nuclear-armed cruise missiles that can strike in a matter of minutes. North Korea’s nuclear program can be explained, as we’ve written, as a drive to make nuclear conflict survivable. India and Pakistan are locked in their own cycle of tit-for-tat advances.
The lesson here – beyond disparaging your high school history teacher, whom we’re sure is otherwise terrific – is that nuclear war has always been and still remains a real possibility. It’s not a problem we’ve solved and it’s not a distant memory of a bygone era. It’s here.
Have a lovely week!

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