Optimism and Nuclear War
Believing in a bright future can blind us to danger
Posted March 7, 2018
The world has come close to an accidental nuclear war several times. On November 9, 1979 the NORAD monitors showed a full-scale Soviet attack underway. US missiles were already being readied for a counter strike before they realized they were accidentally watching a training program. In 1983,a new Soviet early-warning satellite indicated a series of five US missile launches in periodic succession. But the cautious commander on duty chose not to launch a Soviet retaliation, and thankfully so: later, the Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that the sun, the clouds, and US missile fields had aligned in a way that fooled the satellite and caused a false alarm.
It is not hard to imagine how a nuclear war could start by accident. If a nation believes it is under attack, there may be only minutes for it to launch its own missiles before they are destroyed in their silos, and so systems must always be ready to launch at a moment’s notice. There is no check on the US President’s authority to launch a nuclear attack. At a time when the President brags on Twitter about the size of his nuclear launch button to the paranoid leader of a nuclear-armed pariah state and Russia is developing a new generation of nuclear weapons designed to circumvent US defenses, it is worth reflecting on how easily one false move could lead to nuclear war.
The military and political leaders who could initiate this war attained their leadership positions, as do all leaders, partially because of their confidence. Could they be overconfident about the risks of nuclear war? One form that this overconfidence might take is excessive optimism regarding the future. After all, we have gone seventy years without nuclear weapons being used in war. If the future is like the past, the risk of nuclear war might be small. However, this might be a self-negating optimism if it reduces our efforts to prevent a mistaken launch.
The second and more pernicious consequence of our leaders’ confidence is that they might be too sure of themselves. Their career success has given them reason to trust their judgment. The more sure they are that they will not make a mistake, the less interested they will be in precautions that reduce the risk. But in this situation, the risks of making an error by reacting too quickly are far greater than the risks of reacting too slowly. Reacting too quickly could lead us to misinterpret warning signs and initiate a nuclear war.
It is hard to fathom the horror of a nuclear explosion in a city. When the bomb exploded over Hiroshima, thousands of people were vaporized immediately. The explosion ignited a firestorm that burned people and buildings for miles around. Those who escaped the fire storm were injured by the intense heat and flying debris as far as six miles from ground zero. Many thousands died of radiation poisoning over the coming days. Over half of Hiroshima’s 255,000 inhabitants perished. But that destruction still pales in comparison to the potential devastation of modern weapons. Today, just one of our Trident missiles can carry twelve warheads, each with over thirty times the destructive power of the bomb that obliterated Hiroshima.
Many Americans say they believe they should be optimistic about the future. They want to be optimistic because they believe their optimism makes good things happen. But belief in a bright future need not be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Indeed, it can be a self-negating prophecy. The skydivers most optimistic about their invulnerability are not those with the longest life expectancies. The military commanders most convinced that they cannot be defeated are not those whose victory is most likely. And the leaders most sure of their infallibility are not immune from error.
We should all be concerned about the consequences of our leaders’ overconfidence. Being overly optimistic about the risks of nuclear war will not assure our safety. There are policies we could implement that would reduce the risk of a tragic error, such as requiring a launch order to be cross-checked by the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or by the US Vice President. We cannot be cavalier in the face of this risk and, above all, we must not delude ourselves about what is at stake. Our nation has built an arsenal of weapons so fearsome that we should all hope that they are never used. It is our responsibility to take every precaution to see that they are not.