With the false nuclear alert that occurred in Hawaii quickly still fresh in the minds of Hawaiians, the feeling of nuclear anxiety has been introduced to a new generation, with a 21st Century twist that it comes from rogue states such as North Korea and Iran possessing atomic weapons. Back during the cold war, the Balance Of Terror was based on the idea that each side in the bilateral world, the United States, and the Soviet Union, was too rational to launch a first strike knowing that it would elicit an overwhelming response.

This, on the part of National Security and military strategy, was called the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction(MAD). However, that system had an element of instability that could have brought about the end of the world at any time. Amos Zeeberg asks, in the pages of Nautilus, why was the world not destroyed in a thermonuclear exchange?

The chance of Armageddon by accident.

One constant theme of nuclear war fiction was the possibility of nuclear war occurring by accident. One way this could have happened is if a technical breakdown caused one side to believe that it was under attack, forcing an immediate retaliation.

This scenario almost played itself out in September 1983 when a new Soviet nuclear launch alert system indicated multiple launches occurring from North America. Only the timely intervention of a duty officer named Stanislaw Petrov prevented the Soviets from launching an attack. Petrov determined, correctly, that a glitch had occurred.

The other scenario involved a military crisis escalating out of control, with actions by one side eliciting escalating responses from the other.

The endpoint occurs with a nuclear exchange. Zeeberg believes that it would have been a similar process to that which occurred in 1914 when mobilization plans by various European powers kicked in with a cascading effect that sparked World War I. The Cuban Missile Crisis might have been the spark for nuclear annihilation had it not been for the circumspection of President John F. Kennedy.

Why did doomsday never occur?

Zeeberg concludes that the reason the world is not a howling, radioactive wasteland is out of sheer luck, plus the presence of people like Petrov at the right place, and at the right time, to defuse a crisis before it got out of control. However, the author fails to mention how the Cold War and the threat of global thermonuclear war ended.

The role of SDI in breaking the nuclear wheel.

President Ronald Reagan was a man who thought outside the box. He saw the strategy of defense through deterrence as fundamentally immoral. Do we really have to ensure peace by threatening to snuff out tens of millions of innocent lives in the Soviet Union?

He also believed, as Zeeberg did, that the then balance of terror was inherently unstable and that, sooner or later, someone would make a mistake and the world, as we knew it, would end.

Reagan’s solution, articulated in a speech delivered on March 23, 1983, was stunning in both its daring and simplicity. “What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant U.S. retaliation to deter a Soviet attack; that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?”

Thus was born the Strategic Defense Initiative, derided as “Star Wars” by Reagan’s enemies.

While congressional Democrats fought the development of SDI every step of the way, the Soviets had a different reaction. We know now that the Soviet leadership had a healthy regard for American technological prowess. The United States had, after all, beaten the Soviets to the moon. So, the Soviets started a crash program to build its own defensive and offensive systems. The effort proved to be unsustainable, mainly due to the weakness of the USSR’s socialist command economy.

Even while the last General Secretary of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, worked to reorient state spending from the military to domestic concerns, becoming more forthcoming in arms control negotiations, the superpower that had threatened the peace of the world began to unravel.

The Berlin Wall fell. The East European states overthrew their Communist governments. The Soviet Union fell apart. As an afterthought, both sides significantly reduced their arsenals of nuclear weapons and took measures to ensure that an accidental war would not occur. A generation that had been born and had grown up under the threat of nuclear destruction found itself liberated from the terror. The wheel had been broken.

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