When F.D.R. proclaimed that “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” we had not yet developed nuclear warfare. Today, with nuclear armaments expanding in North Korea and the increasing threat of non-governmental terrorists securing or building nuclear bombs, there is good reason to be very worried.
We came closer to nuclear annihilation in the Cuban missile crisis under President Kennedy than most of us realize. In the bio-documentary of Robert McNamara, “Fog of War,” we hear the taped committee discussion where Kennedy faces two replies from the Soviet Union. J.F.K. wisely follows the civilian advice to respond to the less militaristic message. As a high school student at that time, I joined the rest of America in sighing relief that all ended well.
But we came much closer to an exchange of nuclear missiles and worldwide devastation than we knew. William J. Perry, the U.S. Secretary of Defense from 1994 to 1997 was a young photo analyst at the time. In his book “My Journey at the Nuclear Brink,” he reveals the pure luck that prevented a civilization-ending war. The Soviet fleet that approached our Cuban blockade included submarines equipped with nuclear torpedoes. Because underwater communication was difficult, the Soviet submarine captains had been given full authorization to decide whether to open fire. When our fleet attempted to force a submarine to the surface, the submarine captain gave the order to fire nuclear torpedoes at our destroyer. It was only by chance that the fleet commander, Vasili Arkhipov, was aboard that submarine and countered the order—and prevented World War III.
But the U.S. had risky commanders as well, including General Curtis LeMay whose advice to go ahead and bomb the Cuban missile sites was rejected by Kennedy. Only long afterward did we learn that the Soviet commanders manning those Cuban missiles, similar to the submarine captains, had been given discretion to launch without further orders. We now know that had General LeMay’s plan been enacted, there is little doubt that some of those nuclear missiles—including warheads targeted at Washington, DC—would have gotten through.
To a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. In the cases of Generals Douglas MacArthur and Curtis LeMay, every problem had a military solution with nuclear options included. There are notable exceptions, including Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall. But our history has shown the wisdom of a civilian Secretary of Defense.
We laugh at the naive “duck-and-cover” school exercises of the early Cold War era. But although the deadly and long-lasting effects of nuclear blasts and fallout radiation are now better understood, they are nearly completely missing from the modern school curriculum.
The actual effects of nuclear warfare are barely perceived by a public that would simply rather not know. Ironically, one of the more accurate portrayals was filmed in Lawrence, Kansas. “The Day After” aired in November, 1983 on ABC stations. Although it was seen by over 100 million people, there is little evidence today of any residual appreciation for the civilization-ending impact of a full scale nuclear war. The decades-long “nuclear winter” and other effects of these weapons remain beyond the comprehension of supposedly well-informed modern citizens.
Nor do today’s generals really understand the destructive force of nuclear warfare. Thanks to the test ban treaty, we no longer have any generals who have witnessed a nuclear bomb. Harold Agnew, a physicist from our Manhattan Project, explains “...you don't know what heat is until you've seen the heat from a ten megaton, fifteen megaton hydrogen bomb. The most impressive thing about the heat is it doesn't stop, it just gets hotter and hotter and you start to really worry even though you're twenty some miles away....” Agnew believed that if generals felt the intensity of that distant inferno firsthand, they would never order a thermonuclear bombing. No audio-visuals, no modern media in 3-D, could ever replace the feel of that heat penetrating your body. But today’s generals whose only imagery of the H-bomb is from conventional weapons and abstract videos made this a more dangerous world.
So, where is a school curriculum that helps our next generation understand these things—if there is to be another generation?