How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III

How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III BY Ron Rosenbaum. Simon & Schuster. Hardcover, 320 pages. $28.

The cover of How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III

If the history of ideas told a sensible story, the enduring lesson of the cold war would be that fighting and winning a nuclear war is at best a futile proposition but more likely an insane one. Alas, history is never sensible. As Ron Rosenbaum reminds us in his new book, How the End Begins, ideas thought to be well past their expiration date have a strange way of reviving themselves. “The threat of nuclear war is back,” he warns, “and we have to face it again.” Rosenbaum memorably wrote about the subject for Harper’s more than thirty years ago; contrary to all rational expectations, not much has changed.

What persists is the central problem of “command and control”—that is, whether the possibility of accidental or unauthorized launch can ever be erased from nuclear arsenals, and whether soldiers can be expected to follow launch orders from their leaders. Nuclear war, Rosenbaum warns, is the road to “world holocaust”; during the cold war, several brushes with such an apocalypse were avoided only because of quick-thinking individuals like Soviet colonel Stanislav Petrov, who, in 1983, guessed that a Russian satellite had mistaken a cloud’s reflection for incoming missiles.

We still rely on feats of dumb luck and goodwill. Drawing on the research of nuclear-weapons expert Bruce Blair, Rosenbaum shows how “a single canny missileer could, for whatever mad reason, launch fifty missiles on his own given the right circumstances.” More worrisome, America’s arsenal remains on hair-trigger alert. In practical terms, this gives the president fifteen minutes to respond to a foreign launch by authorizing our own—a short enough period to dramatically increase the chances of accident. The New START treaty between Russia and the United States, which will achieve only modest arsenal reductions, doesn’t touch this issue. Nor does it have any power to address the harrowing scenario, which Rosenbaum details, in which a seemingly isolated exchange between two nuclear powers, such as India and Pakistan, quickly turns into global conflagration.

Rosenbaum is most unsettling when discussing the work of Stanford scientist Martin Hellman, who has argued, quantitatively, that the odds of nuclear war remain unthinkably high. According to Hellman’s equation, America has a one in ten chance of being blown to smithereens this decade alone. And Hellman’s approach is intentionally conservative, measuring only the chances of another confrontation similar to the Cuban Missile Crisis, while excluding the chances of accidental exchange. “You cannot play with fire too long without getting badly burned,” Rosenbaum writes, “if not entirely immolated.”

The high priests of the American nuclear establishment—the people who oversee the weapons on a daily basis—don’t seem to have gotten this message. Rosenbaum is best when showing how this establishment has quietly attacked the bipartisan abolition movement that now boasts a presidential seal. This is a movement backed by two former secretaries of state, including Henry Kissinger, no peace lover. But at a conference Rosenbaum attended in 2009, General Kevin Chilton, the commander of Strategic Command and thus the head of the nuclear food chain, publicly credited nukes for preventing World War III while being utterly dismissive of abolitionism. As Rosenbaum notes, Chilton’s speech “couldn’t have been, in a coded low-key way, a more dramatic repudiation of the president.”

Occasionally, Rosenbaum goes too far, as when he describes the possibility of a nuclear attack against Israel as “a second Holocaust, when it happens,” before correcting himself with “if.” How the End Begins is a sprawling book that reads like a disjointed series of polemics, some more persuasive than others. Rosenbaum’s mission is to awaken the world to the very real prospect of its own demise, an urgent cause for which he deploys his rhetorical gifts, generally to good effect.