No Shelter from the Storm
Sean Howard worries that we have become complacent about the potential for a disastrous nuclear conflict. But the threat reviled during the Cold War has not gone away, even if it may have been largely forgotten.
By Sean Howard
The New Yorker’s ‘Talk of the Town’ recently reported how, in the depths of the Big Apple’s COVID-19 lockdown, musician David Mansfield discovered a rusted hatch in his overgrown backyard. Prizing it open, he descended a ladder to a nuclear fall-out shelter, a claustrophobic capsule – or “David Bowie tin can” – assembled as “a patriotic act, so that we Americans could survive a war with the Russians.”
City records dated the ‘act’ to 1961, a year of seemingly impending nuclear doom, with 70+ atmospheric tests, the mass-production — and breakneck deployment — of multi-megaton warheads, and a major Superpower showdown over Berlin. As The New Yorker’s Ian Frazier wrote, the owner of the shelter probably “imagined escaping into it, staying for the recommended two weeks, and reemerging to find Manhattan nuked and gone.” And 1962 was even worse, with shelters built and stocked amid 170+ explosions and an even closer brush with oblivion in the Cuban Missile Crisis. For Mansfield, a kid through those crazy times, the ladder to the shelter was thus a journey back in time:
Funny to remember when nuclear war was what we worried about — all those drills, putting our heads under our desks at school. It’s weird to be going through this pandemic and sheltering here for a different reason. And nuclear war now seems maybe not so bad. In the bigger picture, climate change will be worse.
From this perspective, not only is nuclear war ‘the Storm that never broke’ (and now, it seems, never will), it’s the Storm that, even had it broken, wouldn’t have been as bad as the climate ‘Superstorm’ to come. Such sentiments — the sedated sense that the Mushroom Cloud has both passed and been surpassed — are dangerously prevalent. In his new book Notes from the Apocalypse, for example, Mark O’Connell recalls with near-nostalgia how the Cold War nuclear crisis “adhered to certain established narrative conventions,” replete with “near misses” and “global panic”: “you had plot: you had drama. You had characters.” But are we really lacking nuclear-armed ‘characters’ (Trump, Kim) or powder-kegs (Korea, Kashmir, even Europe) now? Is the ‘drama’ over, or have we just lost the plot?
Reviewing O’Connell’s book for The Guardian, Lauren Oyler refers to such ‘conventions’ as “the apocalyptic fantasies” the author “grew up with in the 1980s.” But humanity very nearly did blow itself to radioactive smithereens in the first half of that rollercoaster decade — unleashing in the process the ultimate climate Superstorm of Nuclear Winter. And if by ‘fantasies’ we mean delusions untethered from reality, denial of the reality that “a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought” is the ultimate delusion. Yet not only do US political and military leaders refuse to repeat those words — the baseline formula adopted by Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1980s — but the increasingly cavalier, New Cold War doctrines of both Washington and Moscow suggest fidelity to an alternative vow (and fantastic proposition): “a nuclear war may well be fought; must then be limited; and so can be won.”
Recent modelling from Princeton University suggests, based on existing plans and postures, that the most likely outcome of efforts by NATO and Russia to skip nimbly up and down a ‘ladder’ of nuclear options would be the death, within days, of tens of millions of people, their obliterated cities lofted high as radioactive soot, causing ‘global cooling’ on a scale certain to kill (from hunger, cold, disease) hundreds of millions more. Equally reputable modelling of more ‘limited’ exchanges, e.g. between India and Pakistan, likewise posit not just regional devastation but worldwide disruption and famine from nuclear climate change.
What ‘picture’ can possibly be ‘bigger’ than that?
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In his memoir Doomsday Delayed, Jack Rubel, assistant secretary of defense in the Eisenhower administration, recalls the unveiling in December 1960 (perhaps the month Mansfield’s ‘Major Tom’ ordered his ‘tin can?’) of a macabre masterpiece, Guernica Goes Nuclear, otherwise known the US Single Integrated Operating Plan (SIOP) for winning World War Three. The elaborate ceremony — dubbed by Rubel “the ballet of the ladder masters” — took place at Strategic Air Command (SAC) Headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, from where any real war would (still) be directed. It began when “two airmen appeared on stage, each carrying a tall stepladder.” As a briefer – and hushed audience – watched, they “stopped at the edge” of a map showing the Soviet Union and China “on a heroic scale.” Then each man:
…climbed his tall ladder at the same brisk rate, reaching the top at the same instant as his counterpart. Each reached up toward a red ribbon which encircled a large roll of clear plastic. With a single motion, each untied the bowstring securing the ribbon at his end of the roll, whereupon the plastic sheet unrolled with a whoosh!, flapped a bit and then dangled limply in front of the map. A bunch of little marks appeared…representing nuclear explosions. The men descended the ladders, folded them, carried them off, and disappeared. The briefer repeated this performance several times as successive waves…dropped their lethal loads over the USSR…
Over 40 megatons were ‘allocated’ to Moscow alone, equivalent to over 2,000 Hiroshima-scale blasts. The briefer then “showed a chart that displayed deaths on the vertical axis, and time in hours, extending out to weeks, along the horizontal axis. He announced that there were about 175 million people in the USSR.” The chart showed that, if all went according to plan, there would soon be 100 million fewer: and as Rubel stresses, it “depicted” only the aftermath of the attack, “the deaths from fallout alone – not from the direct effects of blast or radiation from a bomb going off.”
An “identical” briefing on China (then a non-nuclear state) followed, predicting a fallout death-toll of 300 million (roughly half the population) at which point, a “voice out of the gloom interrupted,” asking the senior officer present, SAC Commander General Thomas Power, “What if this isn’t China’s war? Can you change the plan?” “Well, yeah,’ replied the general, “we can, but I hope nobody thinks of it, because it would really screw up the plan.” “This exchange,” the Jewish-American Rubel writes, “did it.”
Already depressed by the briefings up to that point, I shrank within, horrified. I thought of the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, when an assemblage of German bureaucrats swiftly agreed on a program to exterminate every last Jew they could find anywhere in Europe, using methods of mass extermination more technologically efficient than the vans filled with exhaust gases, the mass shootings, or incineration in barns and synagogues used until then. I felt as if I were witnessing a comparable descent into the deep heart of darkness, a twilight underworld governed by disciplined, meticulous and energetically mindless groupthink aimed at wiping out half the people living on nearly one third of the earth’s surface.
The Satanic ‘logic’ of the 1960 SIOP was to limit American losses from Soviet retaliation to comparatively ‘bearable’ levels (a few million here, a few cities there). By mid-decade, it should have been obvious that the pace and scale of the Superpower arms race meant any first-strike would doom the destroyer to destruction. Yet in 1981, Louis O. Giuffrida, director of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), told author Robert Scheer that while “nuke war would be a terrible mess” it “wouldn’t be unmanageable.” The title of Scheer’s book, With Enough Shovels, highlights the insane advice he received from T.K. Jones, deputy under-secretary of defense for strategic and theater nuclear forces, on just how to ‘manage’:
Dig a hole, cover it with a couple of doors and then throw three feet of dirt on top. … If there are enough shovels to go round, everybody’s going to make it.
In 1970, the British government ordered the BBC to record a secret message (made public only in 2008) explaining in 562 sonorous words – “This is the Wartime Broadcasting Service” – how to “make it.” And you don’t even need shovels – “Roofs and walls offer substantial protection” – just the sense to “stay tuned to this wavelength, stay calm and stay in your own homes”:
Remember, there is nothing to be gained by trying to get away. The safest place is indoors.
Compare this kind of sleep-talking to the chastened candor of many initial reactions to the Bomb. According, for example, to military analyst Hanson Baldwin, writing in The New York Times on 7 August 1945, although “the new face of war was still veiled yesterday in the death pall above Hiroshima,” one thing was clear, that the coming “coupling of atomic-energy explosive with rocket propulsion marks what may be the ultimate triumph of the offensive over the defensive.” “This suggests,” he concluded, “the end of urban civilization as we know it,” for “if they are to be preserved” from the threat of “stratosphere rockets with ‘cosmic’ warheads”:
…cities of the future may have to burrow downward instead of upward; dispersion, rather than concentration, and tunneling into the earth rather than reaching upward into the skies, may be forced in future wars.
“Will man,” Baldwin asked in all seriousness, “disperse and go, mole-like, underground”? Seventy-five years later, the question sounds absurd, but only because so many of us have forgotten how radically endangered – absurdly – we still are. In The Doomsday Machine (2017), his ‘Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner,’ Daniel Ellsberg quotes Rubel’s ‘Wannsee’ epiphany, not as a reminder of ‘when nuclear war was what we worried about,’ but to help resurrect an issue that deserves to become ‘the talk of the town’ again.
Now as then, Ellsberg writes, we countenance “omnicide…as an instrument of national policy”; now as then, that stance is – morally, legally, strategically – “flatly illegitimate;” yet today the truth is “suppressed,” the threat kept on the fringes of cultural consciousness, by “a practice…of maintaining a quasi-academic tone, an ‘objective,’ dispassionate, non-evaluative discourse” dominated by white male, ex-military ‘experts’ with vested interests in, and lucrative connections to, the omnicidal status quo.
Naomi Klein’s 2014 book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate makes a single, early mention of nuclear weapons, arguing that the only “historical precedent” to the climate crisis was “the Cold War fear that we were heading towards nuclear holocaust, which would have made much of the planet uninhabitable.” “But,” she stresses, that was only ever a “threat,” one which “remains…a slim possibility, should geopolitics spiral out of control.” And even when the threat was far more real:
The vast majority of nuclear scientists never told us that we were almost certainly going to put our civilization in peril if we kept going about our daily lives as usual, doing exactly what we were already doing, which is what the climate scientists have been telling us for years.
For all her acuity as a climate justice activist, Klein grossly underestimates both the dangers of a ‘spiral’ to nuclear disaster — signs of which were abundant by 2014 — and the capacity of citizens to act to counter it: to refuse to live ‘as usual’ with the permanent peril of the Bomb. This refusal was crucial in defusing the old Cold War, and needs again to function as a countervailing ‘human factor’ in the otherwise fascist ‘equations’ of 21st century nuclearism.
The Doomsday Machine closes with a quote from one of the Bomb’s fiercest critics, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:
We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihiliation.
In 4 April 2018, the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination, a group of veteran Catholic Plowshares activists broke, with remarkable ease, into the Kings Bay naval base in Georgia, home to America’s East Coast Trident submarine fleet: six obscenely-expensive Wannsee war-machines, each capable of wrecking, with remarkable ease, much of the planet. The group left a copy of Ellsberg’s book as part of their ‘symbolic disarmament’ of the base, a protest aimed both at those on site — the submariners, commanders, and others deep in the Belly of the Beast — and the generally somnolent public, unwittingly complicit in preparations to seal the fate of the Earth.
For daring to stage their anti-Omnicidal ‘ballet,’ the ‘Kings Bay Plowshares Seven’ (KBP7) have suffered pre-trial incarceration, and/or ‘e-carceration,’ and been convicted of serious felonies. Sentencing has begun, with prison for six of the group — at a time of rampant, behind-bars Coronavirus infection — expected. Yet the Seven believe such a price is worth paying to alert us to the cost — a global death-sentence — of continuing to serve the false idol we created.
There are many steps we can take, short of the heroic ‘leaps of faith’ of the KBP7, to ensure we stop ‘going about our daily lives as usual,’ as if the Cloud weren’t there. We can, on this 75th anniversary, listen to the testimony of the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; we can educate ourselves about the status and substance of the new UN Treaty banning nuclear weapons, and ask ourselves why Canada belongs to the minority of states refusing to sign it; we can learn if we are unwittingly ‘Banking on the Bomb,’ and, if we are, divest in the name of disarmament; and we can join, or start, peace groups, insisting that the great contemporary crusade for climate justice be expanded to encompass the fight for Global Nuclear Zero (a process making vast sums available for a Green New Deal).
The problem is not that we can’t change direction. The problem is acknowledging the abyss at our feet.
Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of PeaceQuest Cape Breton and the Canadian Pugwash Group.
This was published in the Cape Breton Spectator on August 5, 2020.