What am I listening to lately? Why, nuclear Armageddon, of course!

19 February, LI A.S.

Or more precisely, 

narrowly averted and ever-looming Nuclear Armageddon!

We knew the world would not be the same. Few people laughed, few people cried, most people were silent.

I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.

-Dr. Julius Robert Oppenheimer

 As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, I’m a huge fan of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast. His presentation style is slick, exciting, and concise, and he offers a great deal of fascinating and entertaining information, especially on the experiences of individual historical characters. While Carlin isn’t a historian, he does self-describe as a big fan of History, and does a lot of work reading and collecting notes for reach episode. Since I too consider myself a fan of History, I especially admire Carlin’s enthusiasm for presenting numerous and lengthy podcast episodes on historical conflicts ranging from the rise of the Mongol Empire, to the Greco-Persian Wars, to the Great War.

Recently, I finished listening to Dan Carlin’s latest HH episode, The Destroyer of Worlds, covering roughly the first twenty years of the Cold War, with the focus squarely on nuclear weapons. Carlin takes us into the White House situation room and the Soviet Kremlin as we learn about the dire questions facing Harry Truman, Joseph Stalin, and their respective successors as they dealt with the reality of atomic warfare emerging in the last days of the Second World War. We learn about the bitter exchanges between President Truman and J. Robert Oppenheimer (the so-called Father of the Atomic Bomb,) the ethical considerations in the grim potential of a first strike against the Soviet Union to strangle the Russian nuclear weapon program in the cradle, and the balance of terror that Kennedy and Kruschev especially struggled with during the harrowing two weeks of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I’ve been interested in Cold War history a long time, (and I’m a big fan of movies like Dr. Strangelove, and board games like Twlight Struggle,) so I was enthralled with hearing all this detail and context surrounding the birth of atomic weapons and mankind’s challenge in not destroying ourselves with said weapons. From my own perspective, I step back and find it worrying that younger generations (including my own) have no memory of the ever-looming Cold War, “Mutually Assured Destruction” dynamic, despite the continued existence of thousands of thermonuclear weapons massively more powerful and with more advanced delivery systems than anything conceived in 1945. Sure, as Carlin discusses, there hasn’t been a direct Great Powers war since World War II, and there are valid reasons (economic integration, decades of precedent and norms, faster communication, the United States’ current military dominance,) to think that such a war is highly unlikely. But in the scope of human history, those seventy years that separate us from the end of the last big war don’t look like such a big buffer, and historical trends sometimes have a way of reversing themselves with all the warning of an oceanic squall. I can’t help but think that the risk of nuclear war rises, as, to paraphrase Carlin, subsequent generations get so used to that “gun” pointed at our collective heads that we forget the gun’s even there. Making it over 70 years without a nuclear exchange is impressive, and the end of the Cold War does ease some pressure, but it remains to be seen how the next fifty or a hundred years go. It’s hard to understand historical undercurrents that you’re still in the midst of.

I can’t help but think that the risk of nuclear war rises, as, to paraphrase Carlin, subsequent generations get so used to that “gun” pointed at our collective heads that we forget the gun’s even there. Making it over 70 years without a nuclear exchange is impressive, and the end of the Cold War does ease some pressure, but it remains to be seen how the next fifty or a hundred years go. It’s hard to understand historical undercurrents that you’re still in the midst of.

Anyway, this is a great piece of work by Carlin, and even with the episode clocking in at a little under six hours, I never once felt bored. It brought to top of mind for me the critical ways in which the rise of nuclear weapons has altered political leadership, the meaning of security, and the entire American government apparatus. I had trouble finding the quotation online myself, but Carlin quotes Ronald Reagan Reagan, saying (heavily paraphrased), that Russian nuclear-armed submarines often patrolled off the U.S. East Coast, and one of their medium range missiles launched from there would destroy the White House in eight minutes, meaning that he, (President Reagan) has eight minutes to make a decision to talk with his advisors and make a decision on launching a retaliatory strike, based on no more information than little blips on a radar screen. The pressures facing American presidents (and their Russian counterparts) in regards to the grave responsibility attached to the “Football” and the grim power it grants, became much more clear and real to me after hearing talk of nuclear war decisions on such a personal level.

This new technology, itself seemingly inevitable in the pressures of an anarchic world stage of vying nation states, compels us to grant to the man or woman we elect President the unilateral power to unleash armageddon at the push of a button, for fear that without a convincing deterrence, someone else can threaten to unleash armageddon on us. From that flows the entire national security state of the C.I.A, N.S.A, the Pentagon’s intelligence services, secret prisons, secret armies, secret wars, cyberwarfare, double and triple agents: all of them, born to either directly seize and maintain a lead in the nuclear arms race, or to fight against opposing superpowers through means short of utterly catastrophic total war. Post-Cold War, that national security state still looms large, its individual officers and agents keeping their posts far beyond the timeline of any democratically elected leader, and now dealing increasingly in the shadowy field of counter-terrorism, as well as counter-nuclear super power, operations. Like the threat of nuclear armageddon itself, post WWII generations, and now post-Cold War generations, have grown accustomed to the opacity and reach of the national security state, collectively shrugging at its surveillance and extra-judicial powers as the price to pay for safety in the modern day. Since I tend to side with libertarian political views, I’d already read and thought a lot about the real and potential dangers of that persistent “shadow state,” especially since the revelations brought forth by Edward Snowden on NSA mass surveillance of American citizens. I just hadn’t put it all in such a defined context of the evolving and expanding threat of nuclear weapons from 1945 onward.

Will every country of the world fall into the iron grip of totalitarian, high-tech elites making use of the well-established and widely accepted security apparatus in place across all nuclear weapon states? Will Jihadi (or right-wing, or left-wing,) terrorists succeed in obtaining and detonating a dreaded “suitcase nuke” in a major Western city? Will Chinese and Russian challenges to American hegemony culminate in an outright conventional war with one or the other, inevitably escalating in a prisoner’s dilemma to an intercontinental thermonuclear exchange? The 21st century is still young, and the pace of history seems to me to have exponentially sped up over the last couple hundred years. It’s honestly hard to say, and I find that truly frightening.

The Atomic Age has also spawned stories involving the effects, for good or ill, of radioactivity. Take for instance Godzilla, the Hulk, or loads of other superhero comic book characters. Getting into more of the horrible aspects of radiation sickness and mutation, you have movies like The Hills Have Eyes. The prospect of a civilization-ending nuclear war is a common idea explored in books, television, movies, and video games, brought to the forefront for younger generations through the success of the recent Fallout games. Again, I wonder if that type of post-apocalytpic fiction raises the concern and alertness over the dangers of atomic weapons, or perversely desensitizes post-Cold War generations?

Anyway. Dan Carlin. The Destroyer of Worlds. It’s a great podcast episode, and I greatly recommend giving it a listen. It was sure as hell entertaining and thought-provoking for me.

-G.R. Wilson

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