Archives for posts with tag: nuclear war

[Recently I heard a story about World War II that rings true today. Back then both sides used cyphers to scramble their messages, especially the ones about war plans, troop movements and so forth. The Germans had an especially good cypher, called Enigma, which they thought unbreakable. What they didn’t know was that the British had, in fact, broken it. So the Brits had a window into German operations and could take appropriate countermeasures when necessary. But the British advantage would last only so long as the Germans were unaware that their messaging was compromised.

The British advantage could be helpful for a lot of reasons, most especially because in the 1940s the Germans did a lot of bombing in England. In those days, by the way, many bombing campaigns were considered “strategic;” i.e., were focused on destroying factories, ports and other war-making “infrastructure.” The Germans didn’t worry much about civilian casualties when going after strategic targets. Later in the war our side pretty much did the same thing to them.

Well, one day the Germans did a major bombing run against Coventry, England, a town in the industrialized Midlands. The locals weren’t told about it in advance, didn’t evacuate, and the raid was catastrophic. In one night over 4,300 homes were destroyed, and two-thirds of the city’s buildings damaged.[1]So why wasn’t the target city warned? Well, there are two versions of an answer:

  • One is that the central government simply didn’t know Coventry was targeted that night. The government had data about an impending attack, but didn’t know where the German bombers would go.
  • The other is that the government did in fact know the target, but withheld the information for reasons of state. Warn Coventry and most likely that would tell the Germans Enigma was compromised. The British would lose their intelligence advantage.

So which is it? Did Winston Churchill sacrifice some civilians to preserve a competitive advantage in World War II? Or did he not know about the Coventry raid? Some say that the British had some information that might have helped them identify the target, but they didn’t understand it. On the other hand, Churchill himself is quoted as saying he had “aged 20 years” when he decided to let Coventry burn.[2] That implies he knew. This sounds like a good topic for a thesis. Perhaps some Ph.D. candidate in History can get to the truth for us.

The point of the story is not that it’s true or false. It’s that there are circumstances, conceivable circumstances, where our government – or any government – might elect not to tell its citizens about a threat. The TV version of that, of course, is the plastic character who decides people would panic if they knew the truth about this or that, so he [or she] lies to save us from ourselves. That’s pretty much a sci-fi cliché. Don’t tell anybody about the space aliens; if you do, the country might disintegrate!

But instead let’s talk about something more serious, about what happens if our government lies to us or says nothing about impending danger, and when that might happen. In particular, let’s look what might happen at the start of a global thermonuclear war.]

This is Fred, by the way, and yes, I’m back on nuclear war. Lots of people criticized my last post, saying I was far too pessimistic. Sure, if war caught us by surprise, people at the various grounds zero would not have much time to evacuate. But really, the critics said, when would a major war sneak up on us like that? Crises leading to war take time to build. Surely there would be advance warning. People would leave their bullseye neighborhoods as soon as they knew there was a problem.

Perhaps. Let’s think about evacuation for a bit. People won’t run until they’re sure there’s a crisis, right?   So who should they believe: the media [who these days are alarmists about everything, just to keep the ratings up]; the family psychic or minister, who seems to know just about everything; or our government?  I’m betting that, at the end of the day, most folks would turn to the government when the issue is war or peace. After all, it’s supposed to be the expert on foreign crises and will fight any wars that erupt. And in a crisis what will our government say about whether people should flee their homes? That depends. Remember Coventry.

Who Wants A Nuclear War?

Atomic conflicts are not a new problem. Luckily we’ve avoided nuclear war for seven decades, so we have no actual experience with it. But we’ve been thinking about it all that time, and a lot of good work has been done. For our purposes let’s start with an early example of the war plan genre: Herman Kahn’s scary treatise about the unthinkable, On Thermonuclear War.[3] It’s a classic; old but still relevant; one of the foundational books in the field. It also has things to say about our current subject.

Herman Kahn believed most governments, if left to their own devices, would prefer peace over war. [He said that over 50 years ago, and perhaps had in mind stable governments like those in Eastern and Western Europe; not the failed states we find today here and there around the globe.] Peace is safer than war. But, he added, if war is inevitable, most governments would prefer to strike first, rather than wait for their enemy to take the initiative.[4] Those who go first, attacking the enemy’s strike forces, improve their chances of surviving the engagement. This, of course, also was Dwight Eisenhower’s view when he was President.

If a country decides war is probable, the pressure on it to strike first increases. Once the other side understands that, it’s also motivated to do a first strike.  There is a “reciprocal fear of surprise attack” that pushes both sides toward war.[5]

How Bad the War?

It would be very bad. Back in the 1950s we had a combination of nuclear and thermonuclear weapons in the inventory. [The so-called “A” and “H” bombs.] The difference between them is the difference between kilotons and megatons. A kiloton is 1000 tons. A megaton is 1000 kilotons. The destructive power of the bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was measured in kilotons. Today the warheads on our missiles are measured in megatons. “Megaton weapons are comparable to gross forces of nature, such as earthquakes and hurricanes.” [6] If used, they would be enormously destructive.

Evacuating People

So here we are in a paranoid situation, two countries, hyper vigilant, sure that there will be a war, each afraid that the other will attack first, and then one of them evacuates its cities. Flee, flee, it says to its people! The bombs are coming! What does that tell the other side? That its enemy is going to war, and is preparing its people to survive retaliation after it strikes? That’s the logical conclusion, wouldn’t you think? But evacuation is more than a “tell” in poker. It’s the same as a declaration of war. [7]

Herman Kahn was of two minds about this. He thought that evacuations should be low key and reassuring to the other side. Evacuations should be “as undramatic as possible,” and assurances should be given that no decision has been made to go to war. But if one side has decided to launch a surprise attack, of course it would make reassuring noises. Why ruin the surprise? And why would its adversary believe anything from a country that’s obviously mobilizing?

Why indeed? Even Herman Kahn saw the problems. “Evacuation-type maneuvers,” he said, “are risky because they may touch off an attack by the other side.[8]” And that, I think, is the answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this piece. Why would a government refuse to tell its population about an impending threat? Answer: To avoid aggravating an already bad situation. Perhaps it thinks a peaceful resolution is still possible. Perhaps it’s going to launch a pre-emptive strike and doesn’t want to telegraph its intentions. Either way, it doesn’t want to agitate the other side. Boom!


So get used to it. In a crisis your government may well lie to you, for the very best reasons, of course. There are always reasons. Use your own judgment when you read the news.

[Please note: This post is speculative only. We don’t have any government secrets here at Elemental Zoo Two, and don’t want any. If you want confidential sources, named or unnamed, go to the Washington Post. And we’re not accepting calls from North Korea. Have a nice day.]



[1] See the Wikipedia entry on the Coventry Blitz, at .

[2] Id. at Coventry and Ultra.

[3] See Kahn, On Thermonuclear War (Princeton, 1960, Transaction 2007, 2010). The Transaction edition is a reprint of the original, plus some additional material added by the publisher. The book will be cited as Thermonuclear War at __. Page references will be to the 2nd Transaction edition of 2010.

[4] Thermonuclear War at p. 136. “Most governments when asked to choose between war and peace are likely to choose peace, because it looks safer. These same governments, when asked to choose between getting the first or the second strike will very likely choose the first strike. They will do so for the same reason they choose peace in the first choice; it is safer.… [M]ost governments would much prefer getting in the first strike once they feel war is inevitable, or even very probable.”

[5] Id. “As soon as either side thinks that war is probable it is under pressure to pre-empt. …[T]he instability is increased  by the “reciprocal fear of surprise attack” in which each side feels a pressure to strike mainly because it feels the other side has exactly the same pressure.”

[6] Thermonuclear War at p. 313: “The most important technological development … is the fact that it would have been a thermonuclear rather than an atomic war.  The difference between megaton and kiloton is very large, in some ways larger than the difference between a kiloton and a ton. Megaton weapons are comparable to gross forces of nature, such as earthquakes and hurricanes. The effects of the use of such weapons are not only extremely widespread; they are also occasionally very subtle and hard to predict. As a result, for the first time in the history of war we have what might be called the problem of the post attack environment.”

[7] Thermonuclear War at p. 648. “If true and clear to the enemy, this is extremely serious, because he will be impelled to strike the U.S. during the evacuation (not to kill civilians, who are not really a military target, but to get in the first blow.)”

[8] Id. at 132.

[This is Fred again. I was more or less shut out of the UFO project, so I decided to look for something else civilized folks don’t like to talk about and discuss that. That could have been any one of a lot of things, usually involving sex or death, and possibly the End Times. But last week I spotted a new book about bomb shelters that fits perfectly, and is interesting to boot, so I went with that. The book is Raven Rock;[1] my local book store got only two copies; I snapped up one of them; and have been reading it since. It’s well researched, has lots of footnotes [I like that sort of thing] and seems accurate. I lived through some of the events it describes and haven’t found any glaring errors.

Also it’s worth noting that our posture vis-a-vis North Korea and its weapons program has worsened quite a bit and people are beginning to notice. North Korea has built some of the smaller nuclear weapons – the  so-called atomic ones – and our media and foreign policy establishment seem totally afraid that North Korea might use a few of those to attack us or someone we like. Some, most notably the hackers known as “Anonymous,” have predicted a nuclear war in our future: no, strike that; in our near future[2]. See . I don’t agree; nor do I disagree with Anonymous.[3] Who knows what might happen? But the current furor makes revisiting the bomb shelter issue look a bit more intelligent than it did, say, last week.

G. Sallust has a story that pretty much explains who needs bomb shelters and who doesn’t. It seems that he worked in the Pentagon in the 1970s, and lived within walking distance of it. Each day he would leave work via the South Parking entrance, walk through the parking lot to a tunnel under the highway[4], go through the tunnel, then cross a road to his apartment building. So one day he was doing just that and was passed by a military guy doing the same thing. Being a friendly sort, G. decided to make small talk. “I read in the Post,” he said, ‘that Soviet missiles could reach us within 15 minutes of launch if we go to war. What would you do if you got word that was happening?”

“I’ve thought about it,” the guy said. “I’m not responsible for making launch decisions, so probably I would do what we’re doing now. I would have just enough time to leave the Pentagon, go to our apartment building, take the elevator to the 14th floor, go to the roof, crack open a beer, and watch the traffic jam. Then, boom!” The moral of the story was, you don’t have post-apocalypse worries if you live or work on Ground Zero. The Pentagon certainly was that.

The same was true for me back in the 1960s, when I lived outside an air base that hosted SAC B-52s[5] kept ready to respond if Soviet missiles came our way. The bombers were “locked and loaded,” you might say, and so were the crews; both were ready to take off in less than 15 minutes if the need arose. That made the air field a prime target for our enemies; in time of war they would try to strike before the planes took off. Whether the planes escaped or not, bystanders didn’t need to make long-term survival plans. The whole area would go boom when the missiles arrived!]

So bomb shelters aren’t really for the people at Ground Zero. Modern thermonuclear weapons [bombs or warheads] most likely will destroy anything in the blast zone that humans have built. Shelters are for the people who aren’t immediately incinerated; they’re for survivors who need to be fed, watered and protected from radiation. You put them far away from the blast zones and hope survivors get there before they die of the aftereffects of the attack. What aftereffects? Well, radiation poisoning, dehydration, starvation, epidemics, violence, that kind of thing.

We do have bomb shelters for that, but mostly to protect the Government, and its ability to fight a war; and to plan for reconstruction; not to shield civilian bystanders. The public are expected to flee the various Ground Zeros that will dot our landscape, and forage for food and take shelter on their own. No doubt there’s a Government plan to help with that – usually labeled “Civil Defense”- but I haven’t heard much about it in recent decades. I’ll bet you haven’t, either. Post war everything will be magically reconstructed through the miracle of capitalism. Details to follow.

Global Nuclear War

These kinds of things were openly discussed back in the day, and sometimes intelligently, but you don’t hear much about nuclear war in today’s media. Instead you hear babble and chatter about our “national interest” in this sea lane or that mountain top, or in righting wrongs in one place or another, or spreading democracy here and there, or in fighting terrorism or making the world safe for our way of life. Our leadership in the 1950s didn’t think that way. They were much more practical, and knew stupidity could have consequences. “Global war as defense of freedom [is] almost [a] contradiction in terms.[6]Who said that? Our President, Dwight Eisenhower, a seasoned warrior from World War II who held five stars and commanded the European Theatre of that war.[7] His Vice President, Richard Nixon[8], also had served, and so had a large part of the American population.

So what? You might ask. Nobody wants a “global” nuclear war. Let’s just have a limited one. We’ll just use a few nukes here and there, and promise not to do more; the other side will fold; and we’ll win. What’s wrong with that? Winning is good.

It’s unrealistic.  Suppose we launch one or two nuclear missiles at Russia to punish its government for something it did, or we thought it did, in the Middle East. Then we promise that we won’t throw any more at them. Why should they believe us? We already did a sneak attack. What’s to stop us from doing another? Also, the Russian military would be livid. If they were caught napping by us, they won’t want to repeat the experience. It would be better, they would argue, to strike first, in strength, to maximize Russia’s chance of surviving a war. Otherwise Russian armed forces would be merely targets for the Americans.

So how do I know that’s the way they would think? Because it’s the way we would.[9] President Eisenhower, for one, understood that “… the only way to mitigate losses [in a nuclear war] would be to strike first in a surprise attack ordered on the sole authority of the president himself ….”[10] If he did otherwise, he said, the Congress should have him shot for dereliction of duty.


Raven Rock isn’t about bomb shelters for the masses, so probably we should reserve that topic for a later post. The book discusses four principal ones, two of which are well known today, and two that are relatively obscure. All are [or were] intended to help preserve the “continuity of government”[11] in the event of a big war. In Government-speak that’s also known as “COG.” The facilities are:

  • A very large fallout shelter built into the Greenbrier Hotel, a resort complex in West Virginia, to shield our Congress in the event of war.
  • The Cheyenne Mountain communications center, maintained by the North American Aerospace Defense Command [NORAD] near Colorado Springs, CO.
  • Raven Rock, an alternate DoD command post and communications center maintained in Pennsylvania in case the Pentagon is destroyed. Actually the military identified a need for an alternate Pentagon just six years after the original opened for business.[12] They selected Raven Rock and have been digging there and improving the site ever since.[13]
  • Mount Weather, a similar facility maintained for the civilian agencies.[14]

There was a time when each of these was a big secret. Since they were alternate command and control centers for use in time of war, or as a refuge for key members of our Government, or both, no one wanted them targeted for nuclear weapons. While three of them were truly “hardened” sites, possibly able to withstand a nuclear attack, why test that if you can keep the site a secret? The enemy can’t nuke what it doesn’t know about. However, none of the big 4 is secret anymore. Today they all have very informative Wikipedia entries.[15] So if the Government wants to have secret places to hide again, it will have to build new ones. Perhaps it has. Stay tuned.


President Eisenhower was not an optimist about nuclear war, and how it might turn out for us. He thought, for example, that every country that entered such a war would emerge as a dictatorship. Democracies could not survive the stress of all that death and destruction.[16] Also the survivors might be set back quite a bit in their technology. If World War 3 is nuclear, the one after that might be fought with bows and arrows.[17]

Nevertheless, he didn’t give up on the notion that we might rebuild something after a nuclear war and, to that end, made arrangements to appoint key people, leaders of industry, to guide the effort. These individuals, also known as his “shadow government,” were specially appointed by him to take charge if disaster struck, and do what was necessary. Perhaps the legality of all that was questionable, but the idea was that if everything was falling apart, the survivors would go along.[18]

The idea began with the Eisenhower Administration, but didn’t end there. The Reagan people, for example, devised a complex plan to deal with a hypothetical “decapitation attack,” i.e. a successful attack mounted by our adversaries to eliminate most or all of our leadership. It also included a list of civilians who could be drafted to take over in case of need.[19]

My guess is that those are not the only administrations to have had that idea. It’s a natural if one is planning for catastrophe. So don’t be surprised if there are more revelations.


So that’s enough for now about bomb shelters and disaster plans.  I don’t put a lot of confidence in shelters largely because, if they’re hardened, most likely they’ll be obvious from the air, something like a castle in the middle of nowhere, with roads running to it and no reason to exist. I’ll just bet that we spend a lot of satellite time looking for that kind of thing in Russia; and they do the same with us. And both sides, if they find something interesting, add it to a target list, along with a note as to what size nuclear device might be needed to crack it. Aerial and/or space surveillance can be very effective. Just ask ISIS about the MOAB.

Of course if you live out in the country and a good distance from a potential Ground Zero, and worry about nuclear war, you might want to consider some sort of fallout shelter, perhaps like the ones people use to shelter from tornados. But be sure to cover it with at least 3 feet of earth. And, of course, if you live near any kind of military installation, you might want to forget the whole thing. You’re probably in a Ground Zero of some sort. Blast is your problem, not radiation.


[1] See Graff, Raven Rock, The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself While the Rest of Us Die (Simon & Schuster, 2017).  Hereafter the book will be cited as Raven Rock at __.

[2] See also New York Post, Perez, Anonymous warns world to ‘prepare’ for World War 3 (May 8, 2017), available at  

[3] If I did, no doubt they wouldn’t forget. Who would want Anonymous for an enemy?

[4] Today it’s called I-395. Before that, it was “Shirley Highway.”

[5] For those of you who must know, it was Robins AFB in Georgia. It’s still there, but apparently the nuclear weapons aren’t. See the Wikipedia entry on Robins AFB at

[6] This is from President Eisenhower. See Raven Rock at p. 46.

[7] Wikipedia has a pretty good Eisenhower biography at .

[8] Wikipedia’s Nixon biography is at .

[9] See Raven Rock at p. 67. “Wars and military endeavors were unpredictable, irrational and difficult to control once started; they escalated in unintended ways and, and military commanders would never admit defeat if they still had weapons to deploy. Eisenhower was certain any war with the Soviet Union would become a nuclear war, and that any nuclear war would escalate into a full, all-out general nuclear exchange. That end, catastrophic for the planet, was just too awful to contemplate. … ‘You might as well shoot everyone you see and then shoot yourself.’”

[10] See Raven Rock at p. 68.

[11] See Raven Rock at p. 49.

[12] See Raven Rock at p. 50.

[13] See Raven Rock at p. 49 – 54.

[14] See Raven Rock at p. 61-62, 130-32, 185 –188, 228 – 231.

[15] See Raven Rock at ; Mount Weather, at ; Cheyenne Mountain Complex, at ; and The Greenbrier Bunker photos at .

[16] See Raven Rock at p. 57. “The President said that, of course, his imagination as to the horrors of a third world war might be overdeveloped, but he believed that every single nation, including the United States, which entered into [a nuclear] war as a free nation would come out of it as a dictatorship … That will be the price of survival.”

[17] See Raven Rock at p. 77: “The destruction,” Eisenhower told his cabinet at one point “might be such that we might ultimately have to go back to bows & arrows.”

[18] See Raven Rock at p. 92 – 97.

[19] See Raven Rock at Chapter 16, Nine Naught Eight, p.297 – 337


“It is stated on very good authority that a bomb can now be manufactured which will be 2,500 times as powerful as that which destroyed Hiroshima. Such a bomb, if exploded near the ground or under water, sends radio-active particles into the upper air. They sink gradually and reach the surface of the earth in the form of a deadly dust or rain. It was this dust which infected the Japanese fishermen and their catch of fish. No one knows how widely such lethal radio-active particles might be diffused, but the best authorities are unanimous in saying that a war with H-bombs might possibly put an end to the human race. It is feared that if many H-bombs are used there will be universal death, sudden only for a minority, but for the majority a slow torture of disease and disintegration.”

Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell and Others[1]

“I think I could see myself meeting with Putin and meeting with Russia prior to the start of the administration. I think it would be wonderful ….”

Donald Trump[2]

[Well, here we go again. I thought we were done with politics after the last post, but the wheels of discord turned, and Trump’s in trouble, again. The U.S. blames Russia for the torrent of emails WikiLeaks is releasing, much to the embarrassment of the Democrats. Russia stole the emails from the Democrats, or so goes the narrative, and gave them to WikiLeaks to undercut Hillary Clinton’s bid to be our next President. The current President – a Democrat, in case you forgot – thinks he might retaliate against Russia for infringement of our sovereignty. Donald Trump, on the other hand, said that, if he’s elected, he might meet with Vladimir Putin even before inauguration day to resolve differences. What a pickle!

Of course Trump is only following the lead of Winston Churchill, the World War II Prime Minister of England, who said “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”[3]Negotiations, if possible, are better than bloodshed, especially if the other side has nuclear weapons. Is it wrong to talk to Russia before the shooting starts? Is the honor of Democrats so important that we must retaliate right now? And by the way, if the Russians really did it, are they spreading falsehoods or the truth? Will the U.S. retaliate simply because the truth hurts?]

This is Fred. As you know, G. Sallust is out, we’re not sure for how long; so we’re going to rotate the lead writer in responding to the issues of the day. I’ve decided to deal with this kettle of nonsense myself, and nobody objects; so here goes.


We’ve had numerous leaks in the past few years; notably by Edward Snowden, Bradley [now Chelsea] Manning[4] and others; and allegedly highly classified information was involved; but so far as I know, at no time did we go to the brink of war with Russia. But apparently this time is different. The DNC and its politicians do not generate classified information; but they’ve been embarrassed by the leaks and we’re in the middle of an election; so the charge is that the Russians are trying to affect the outcome of by stealing and releasing things that are embarrassing, but true! I say “true” because so far nobody has alleged that any of them are made-up or false. But wait! Some Democrats have said the emails may not be totally authentic.[5]

So what do the Russians say? They have an Embassy here, right in Washington, D.C.[6] and one of its jobs is to explain and justify the Russian view of things. The Russians deny hacking the DNC, etc.; of course; but say also that not too long ago our intelligence people admitted they couldn’t make a case to “attribute this activity [the hacking] to the Russian Government.”[7] So the Russian position is obvious, that (i) they didn’t do it, and (ii) the U.S. admits it can’t prove otherwise.

U.S. Reverses Course

Perhaps, but on October 7 our side changed its mind. The official U.S. position, as of now, is that “the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations. [These activities] are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts. These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process.” [8] There are not a lot of specifics there, and no smoking guns. No guilty emails or anything of the sort. So it’s difficult to evaluate the charge. Only an insider would know the facts, and then he or she wouldn’t be able to tell; it’s based on classified information, don’t you know?

So what do the candidates know? Let’s see what they said in the last debate.  Hillary Clinton accepted that the Russians were behind the hacks, and said it was unprecedented. “We’ve never had a foreign government trying to interfere in our election. We have 17 — 17 intelligence agencies, civilian and military, who have all concluded that these espionage attacks, these cyberattacks, come from the highest levels of the Kremlin and they are designed to influence our election. I find that deeply disturbing.”[9] Then the moderator asked Trump, “[D]o you condemn any interference by Russia in the American election?” Trump said, “Of course I condemn.”[10]

Trump, who presumably received the same information about the hacks as Clinton, also said she, really, “ha[d] no idea whether [the perpetrator is] Russia, China, or anybody else.”[11] To my way of thinking that means he – Trump – was less than impressed with the Administration’s case against Russia.

Then he said: “Now we can talk about Putin. I don’t know Putin. He said nice things about me. If we got along well, that would be good. If Russia and the United States got along well and went after ISIS, that would be good.” Putin has “no respect” for Hillary Clinton or Barrack Obama.[12]

If We Retaliate, What Might We Do?

Moving on, there are all kinds of rumors out there about some sort of U.S. counter-attack against the Russian Federation.  You may recall that earlier this year we ran a blog on how the Administration might respond to cyber-attacks.[13] There wasn’t a lot in the published documents[14] to indicate just how far the Administration might go in a cyber-war. DoD – as opposed to other agencies – will respond only if a cyber-attack involves “significant consequences” [presumably bad] for the United States.

The decider of what’s “significant” will be a civilian, either the President or the Secretary of Defense.[15] He or she will decide that on a case-by-case basis.[16] What criteria might he or she follow? Well, the DoD policy tells us that “… significant consequences may include loss of life, significant damage to property, serious adverse foreign policy consequences, or serious economic impact on the United States.”[17] However, those are just examples; they’re not an exclusive list of what might be considered.[18]


Frankly, given the relatively narrow language in DoD’s policy; the “significant consequences” on which DoD will act seem to cover ongoing crises, not past ones; it doesn’t seem likely that our military would volunteer to avenge prior hacks on the DNC. Of course, that doesn’t mean other agencies are similarly constrained. So what happens if one agency, say, Homeland Security, mounts a counter-attack, then the Russians respond, and we respond to that, and so forth? Could events escalate to the extent the military might have to be called in?


Some people already think we’re headed to war with Russia. [19] Others don’t believe it’s inevitable, but think it’s risky to blunder from a cold to a hot one because of small or nonexistent provocations[20]. I agree with both views, by the way. And war always brings up the question of nuclear weapons. Today we and NATO maintain the right to strike first with those things, if we’re properly threatened[21]; and the Russians will use them if Russia or its allies are attacked with weapons of mass destruction, or Russia is losing badly in a conventional war.[22]And the first one of us who decides that the other side intends to go nuclear will, of course, do it first.[23] And if you want to know more about what happens after that, take a look at the quotation that opens this piece.

So that makes Donald Trump’s mantra – “let’s talk” – patriotic, not weak, at least in my view. Is there really a large war faction in Washington, DC? If so, who do they represent?


[1] “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” I got this fine old quotation from Brainy Quote.  See   it’s not clear to me whether the quote is real or apocryphal, but I suspect real. Einstein, the author of the Theory of Relativity was more or less a pacifist but did endorse the Manhattan Project, which developed the U.S. A-bomb. See Atomic Heritage Foundation, Preserving and Interpreting the Manhattan Project, at  . Later, however, he and philosopher Bertrand Russell argued that all war should be prohibited, largely because thermonuclear weapons were so dangerous. See Atomic Heritage Foundation, Russell-Einstein Manifesto (July 9, 1955), available at

[2] See CNN, Watkins, Trump: ‘I could see myself’ meeting with Putin before I’m president (October 18, 2016), available at

[3] Normally we cite the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (6th edition, 2004) for this kind of thing, but today we’re sticking with the more accessible Brainy QuoteSee Brainy Quote at

[4] For more on Chelsea Manning see the Wikipedia entry at .

[5] See, e.g., Breitbart,  Spiering, Tim Kaine Busted After Questioning Authenticity of WikiLeaks Emails (October 21, 2016) available at

[6] It has a website. See Embassy of the Russian Federation, Washington, DC, at . We’ll cite documents from this source as R. Embassy, ___, at ___.

[7] See R. Embassy, October 13 regular briefing by Maria Zakharova, at .

[8] See Director of National Intelligence, Joint Statement from the Department of Homeland Security  and Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Election Security (October 07, 2016), available at .

[9] See The New York Times, Transcript of the 3rd Debate (October 20, 2016). We have a pdf version of the transcript with no page numbers. The interchange discussed here comes about the middle of the document. You can get the original at

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] See the blog of 2016/08/09, Cyber-War, available at

[14] See, e.g., DoD, The Department of Defense Cyber Strategy (April, 2015), available at

[15] See Cyber Strategy at p. 5: “If directed by the President or the Secretary of Defense, the U.S. military may conduct cyber operations to counter an imminent or ongoing attack against the U.S. homeland or U.S. interests in cyberspace.”

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id. DoD has written this very carefully, to avoid foreclosing Presidential discretion. This is only natural. After all, the President, under our Constitution, is Commander-in-Chief, and outranks anyone in DoD. See U.S. Constitution, Article II, Sec. 2: “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States …” The Constitution is available from many sources; our favorite is the National Archives, at  Look around and you can find all of the Amendments, as well.

[19] See, e.g., Institute for Political Economy, Roberts, Will the November US Presidential Election Bring the End of the World?  ( May 24, 2016) sometimes available at s/

[20] See, e.g., Rand Corporation, Libicki, Crisis and Escalation in Cyberspace (2012), especially pp. 97-99, available at

[21] Actually, it’s worse than that. NATO maintains the right. See the Wikipedia entry on “no first use” at

[22] Id. Russia will use nukes if others use them [or weapons of mass destruction] against it or its allies; or use even conventional weapons “when the very existence of the state is threatened.”

[23] See Kahn, On Thermonuclear War (Princeton, 1960, Transaction reprint, 2010). Henceforth the Kahn book will be cited as Thermonuclear War at ___. See Thermonuclear War at p. 136.



                Loose lips sink ships.

                American World War II security slogan[1]

[This is G. Sallust again. Well, here it is, Christmas day, and here I am, thinking about Donald Trump. That’s what happens when you live too close to the Capital Beltway. Actually I’m not thinking so much about Trump as about his critics and competitors. The rap on Trump is that he’s a bully; he would never be able to stand up to Vladimir Putin, among others; and is erratic and shouldn’t be trusted with nuclear weapons. Well, there are other raps as well, but let’s stick with the big three.

  • Who’s a bully? Guess what, folks? There’s late, breaking news on that! Everybody in today’s politics is a bully. Modern politicians get where they are by successfully eliminating, neutralizing, or otherwise crushing their opponents. They do that mostly by attracting big money early in their campaigns, often from large donors with crackpot agendas, and then dancing to the tune of their financial masters.
  • “Now, G,” you might say, “you can’t really say there’s a quid pro quo hiding in that process, can you; that candidates are really selling options on the offices they hope to win next November?” And you would be correct. I’m not saying that. I’m not the FBI, or the NSA; I don’t have access to solid proof, the kind that might hold up in court. But I do know one thing. The rich aren’t in the business of subsidizing candidates who disagree with them. They didn’t get rich by being stupid. Donald Trump is different, of course, because he is certifiably wealthy. If necessary, he can finance his own campaign. He doesn’t absolutely have to have help from outside.
  • So let’s move on to the next question. Will Trump cave if Vladimir Putin confronts him on one issue or another? The idea here is that schoolyard bullies, like Trump is supposed to be, always run home crying when they are beaten. That’s pretty much a myth, fostered by misinformed kindergarten teachers. Tony Soprano probably never ran home crying for any reason.[2] Most likely he plotted revenge. More to the point, recently Putin had some nice things to say about Trump.[3] Thereafter, the critical narrative switched, from “Trump is too weak to face Putin,” to “Trump is too much like Putin,” and cannot be trusted. Make up your minds, critics!
  • And finally, can Trump be trusted with nuclear weapons? This is difficult to prove, one way or the other; indeed, you might say that those who have opinions can only speculate. I’m ok with that, and here’s mine. Donald Trump impresses me as a builder, not a destroyer. He’s spent a good part of his life creating things – buildings, businesses, TV shows, etc. – and obviously enjoys doing it. No doubt this kind of thing feeds his ego, but so what? The point is, with the mindset of a builder, he’s an unlikely candidate to go to war – nuclear or otherwise – for frivolous reasons.
  • Can we say the same about some of his Republican opponents? I don’t think so. What we have there is a collection of politicians, some of whom are fixated on war, the Middle East, and nuclear politics, and all of whom want to look tough. A few seem to have an unhealthy fascination with nuclear weapons, and their awesome power to destroy.

This brings us to Senator Ted Cruz, the current runner-up to Trump for the Republican nomination. Cruz seems to advocate extreme violence, up to and including nuclear weapons to fight ISIS, our current enemy. [For those of you who have been asleep, that’s the terror organization physically located in parts of Syria and Iraq.] “’We will utterly destroy ISIS,’ he said … ‘[w]e will carpet bomb them into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out!’”[4]

Sand glowing from nuclear explosions? Is that really a good policy? Should we even talk about such things? What will Russia think if we start dropping nuclear weapons in its back yard? What would we think if the Russians nuked Mexico? Of course, we don’t have much recent experience with nuclear war – our last time out was at the end of World War II – but the weapons and delivery systems are still there, in the arsenals of the nuclear powers, and are much improved in the last 70 years. And more to the point, we’ve come close to an actual hot war on more than one occasion.

Fred’s our resident expert on such wars, so I’ve asked him to take another trip down memory lane, and tell us about how they might happen today.]

Thanks, G. Today’s quote – “Loose lips sink ships” – will be the theme for my presentation, but I’ll modify it a bit to make it more topical. How about, “Loose threats start wars?” To make my point I think we need to begin with Herman Kahn, and his frightening book On Thermonuclear War.[5] If you recall, Kahn says that most governments “asked to choose between war and peace are likely to choose peace, because it looks safer.”[6] But if convinced that war is inevitable, or even probable, a government most likely will choose to strike first.[7]

Why? It’s safer to strike first rather than absorb the other side’s initial blows.  “As soon as either side thinks that war is probable it is under pressure to pre-empt.”[8]  In thermonuclear war there are significant advantages to the side that goes first. It strikes at a time and with tactics of its choosing.[9] If successful it can neutralize a good part of the enemy’s nuclear capabilities, destroy enemy command and control, and neutralize its ground forces before they are able to deploy.  The enemy’s response would be hobbled and uncoordinated, and could be totally demoralized. Its capacities might be so reduced that it becomes susceptible to nuclear blackmail. It might even give up when told “retaliate and we’ll destroy your cities, industry, farmland, etc. next.”[10]

The advantages of striking first are, of course, only relative. No doubt it would be better to avoid a war, and its enormous costs, and settle for peace. But none of that matters if one or both adversaries think war is likely or inevitable. Each country’s military will be very aware of the relative advantages that come from striking first. And, of course, the leadership of each country will know that the other side is having the same thoughts, and may launch missiles at any time; so there is a “reciprocal fear of surprise attack” that further destabilizes the situation.[11]

This was Kahn’s analysis in 1960, but perhaps you didn’t know that we almost lived through it – for real – in the early 1980’s. The story is laid out in a recently declassified[12] 1990 memorandum from the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board [the PFIAB].[13] To save time I’ll summarize the report, but everybody interested in War [and Peace] should read the whole thing. It’s not as long as the Tolstoy novel, and there’s a lot less fiction in it.

[There’s nothing wrong with fiction, as long as you don’t believe it’s true.]

Anyway, our story begins around 1980. Leonid Brezhnev, a long time Soviet leader, was in bad health and died in November, 1982.[14] He was succeeded by Yuriy Andropov, a former head of the KGB who, it turned out, also was not well. Andropov passed away on February 9, 1984.[15] Then came Konstantine Chernenko, another old-timer. He died on March 10, 1985.[16]

So there was disruption at the top of the Soviet Union and, at the same time, the U.S. had just elected Ronald Reagan as President. Reagan immediately announced a major peacetime military buildup and U.S. foreign policy “took on a new assertiveness.”[17] Reagan also declared that arms control treaties were “no substitute for military preparedness and characterized the Soviet Union as an ‘evil force,’ the antithesis of the U.S.”[18]

Ultimately the Soviets concluded that the U.S. indeed was looking to dominate, and might do so with military action. At the time a lot of our people in intelligence didn’t believe the Soviets really believed that. After all, everybody knows we’re the good guys; we wouldn’t attack first! But by 1990 analysts here concluded the Soviets were serious. “We [the PFIAB] believe that the Soviets perceived that the correlation of forces had turned against the USSR, that the U.S. was seeking military superiority, and that the chances of the U.S. launching a first strike – perhaps under cover of routine training exercises – were growing.[19]

So if you’re a Russian, and expecting a surprise attack, what would you do? The same thing an American would, I think: harden up, ready your forces, and send out the spies. And so they did. If you want a partial list of what the Soviets did, check out the note below.[20] President Reagan, when notified of some of these activities, commented that they were “really scary.”[21]

Yes they were. After all, following Herman Kahn’s analysis, if you think the other guy is going to hit you, you should hit him first. The Soviets were setting themselves up to do just that. Now let’s talk for a moment about the “Able Archer” exercise NATO held in November of 1983.[22] According to the PFIAB, “Able Archer” was an annual affair to practice “nuclear release procedures,” and included NATO forces “from Turkey to England.”[23] The Soviets generally kept an eye on it, when it happened; but in 1983 they went overboard. “Air armies in East Germany and Poland were placed on alert.” The spies went after NATO to look for signs of an impending attack.[24]

Of course there was no nuclear war in 1983. Why not? Well, for one thing, while the Soviets were super vigilant NATO did not reciprocate. “As it happened, the military officers in charge of the Able Archer … minimized [the] risk [i.e., of escalation] by doing nothing in the face of evidence that parts of the Soviet armed forces were moving to an unusual level of alert.”[25] So nobody was frightened into a first strike and everybody got to go home at the end of the maneuvers.

Within hours of Chernenko’s death the first of a new generation of Russian leaders took the top slot. I’m speaking, of course, of Mikhail Gorbachev. He knew that we had come close to nuclear war, and said so. “Never,” he said, “… in the postwar decades has the situation in the world been as explosive and, hence, more difficult and unfavorable as in the first half of the 1980’s.”[26] He was an insider and I wasn’t; but I think he’s right.

[What if there were a Senator Cruz or, God help us, a President Cruz back in 1983, lurching about and making nuclear threats? His loose talk easily could have tipped the Soviets into striking first and if so, you can bet after the war was over, he wouldn’t have blamed himself for the mess. Instead, he would have gone after the intelligence community for not warning him. And U.S. voters, those who survived, might have bought into a dumb excuse like that.

Do you think the Ted Cruz we know today will act differently if he precipitates a disastrous nuclear war in the Middle East? What if it spreads to the homeland?]

Who can say? We’re talking about hypothetical cases here, and all we can do is speculate. But it’s worth noting that Cruz hasn’t backed away from his proposals[27], and he seems to have some public support.[28] And he did say, back in early December, that “[w]e will utterly destroy ISIS. … [w]e will carpet bomb them into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out!”[29] We’re going to find out? That sounds like a promise to me.

[I understand. Loose threats indeed can start wars. Ted Cruz is a debater, but not a smart one; he’s too in love with the sound of his own voice. If anyone can talk us into an accidental nuclear war, he’s the one to do it, especially if he decides to drop H-bombs in the Russians’ back yard.  Compared to him, Donald Trump is the soul of discretion.

That’s my opinion, and I guess I’m stuck with it.]

[1] See Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (Oxford, 6th Edition, 2004) at p. 526, Military Slogans, n. 13. Henceforth this dictionary will be cited as ODQ at __.

[2] Yes, I know Tony Soprano is a fictional character. It’s a metaphor.

[3] If you follow this kind of stuff, you should add the National Security Archive, hosted by George Washington University, to your source list. See George Washington University,  National Security Archive , at

[4] See Politico, Glueck, Cruz pledges relentless bombing to destroy ISIL (12/05/15) at

[5] See Kahn, On Thermonuclear War (Princeton, 1960, Transaction reprint, 2010). Henceforth the Kahn book will be cited as Thermonuclear War at ___.

[6] See Thermonuclear War at p. 136.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] See Thermonuclear War at p. 128.

[10] Actually I’ve adapted this scenario from one that suggested the old Soviet Union might have followed if we had intervened in 1956 revolt in Hungary, then a member of the Soviet Bloc. See Thermonuclear War at p. 128

[11] See Thermonuclear War at p. 136. “I will point out later that the instability is increased by the ‘reciprocal fear of surprise attack,’ in which each side feels a pressure to strike mainly because it feels the other side has exactly the same pressure.”

[12] See note 3.

[13] See President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, The Soviet War Scare (February 15, 1990), available at  The Report was really classified. It was marked “TOP SECRET UMBRA GAMMA WNINTEL NOFORN NOCONTRACT ORCON.” Henceforth, the Report will be cited as PFIAB at __. If you’re interested in the latest wisdom on security clearances, and how to justify restricting access, take a look at DOD Manual 5200.45, Instructions for Developing Security Classification Guides (April 2, 2013), available at  By the way, in the past even the names of some of the restrictions – GAMMA, UMBRA, etc. – might have been classified. See also the Wikipedia entry on Classified information, available at

[14] Actually, it was on 10 November of that year. See PFIAB at p. 41, n. 16.

[15] Id.

[16] See PFIAB at p. 91.

[17] See PFIAB at p. 2.

[18] Id. Actually, I remember the description as “evil empire,” not evil force. But perhaps that was George W. Bush. But wait! Probably I’m wrong.  GWB was concerned about an “axis of evil,” not an evil empire.

[19] See PFIAB at p. vii.

[20] See PFIAB at p. v, vi. “The changes in Soviet military and intelligence arrangements included: improvements of Warsaw Pact combat readiness … an unprecedented emphasis on civil defense  exercises, an end of military support for gathering the harvest (last seen prior to the 1968 Czech invasion), the forward deployment of unusual numbers of SPETSNAZ forces, increased readiness of Soviet ballistic missile submarines and forward deployed nuclear capable aircraft, massive military exercises that for the first time emphasized surviving and responding to a sudden enemy strike, a new agreement among Warsaw Pact countries that gave Soviet leaders authority in the event of an attack to unilaterally commit Pact forces, creation within the GRU of a new directorate to run networks of illegal agents abroad, an urgent KGB … requirement that gave the highest priority [to] the gathering of politico-military indicators of USD/NATO preparations for a sudden nuclear attack, establishment of a special warning condition to alert Soviet forces that a surprise enemy strike using weapons of mass destruction was in progress, and the creation of a special KGB unit to manage a computer program (the VRYAN model) that would objectively measure the correlation of forces and warn when Soviet relative strength had declined to the point that a preemptive Soviet attack might be justified.”

[21] See PFIAB at p. 17.

[22] See PFIAB at p. vi, 7, 8, 9.

[23] See PFIAB at p. 7.

[24] Id.

[25] See PFIAB at p. x. The PFIAB also said: “But these officers acted correctly out of instinct, not informed guidance, for in the years leading up to Able Archer they had received no guidance as to the possible significance of apparent changes in Soviet military and political thinking.”

[26] See PFIAB at p. ii. The quote is from February, 1986.

[27] See  New York Times, Rappeport & Schmitt, Ted Cruz’s Call to ‘Carpet-Bomb’ the Islamic State Draws Scrutiny (Dec. 16. 2015) at

[28] See Opposing, Allen, How Ted Cruz’s Supporters Feel about Carpet Bombing ISIS (Video) (December 17, 2015)

[29] See n. 4, supra.