Atomic bomb test. Public domain
“You will hear of wars and rumors of wars.” Matthew 24:6
“Why can’t we use nuclear weapons?” Donald Trump, August 2016
On July 4th, 1961, the K-19, one of the new 658-class of Soviet nuclear submarine, suffered a catastrophic breakdown of its coolant system. Under captain’s orders, seven members of the engineering crew, braving incredibly high levels of radiation, managed to jury-rig a second system, thereby averting a complete meltdown. Overseeing them was the deputy commander, 35-year old Vasili Arkhipov. During the next two years 22 of the crew died of radiation exposure.
Just over a year later, Arkhipov found himself at the center of another potential calamity. With the Cuban missile crisis at its height, the Soviets had dispatched four nuclear-armed Project 641-class diesel-electric subs on a secret mission to patrol Cuban waters. Unlike nuclear-powered subs, diesel-electric ones had to surface periodically in order to recharge their batteries. On October 27th, the B-59, with Arkhipov onboard, was spotted.
Soviet submarine B-59 caught on the surface by U.S. Naval forces in the Caribbean near Cuba.
Despite crash-diving, it continued to be tracked by some eleven U.S. Navy destroyers and the anti-submarine carrier USS Randolph.
Conditions inside the B-59 were horrifying, with temperatures rising to 120F due to the failure of the air-conditioning. In an effort to force it to surface the ships above were bombarding the sub with so-called signal depth charges and sonar, both of which made deafening blows on the hull. Worst of all, there had been no radio contact with Moscow for days, so there was no way of telling whether or not war had broken out.
The sub’s captain Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky, convinced that a full-scale confrontation was unfolding, ordered the crew to prepare the B-59’s nuclear-armed torpedoes for firing, with the aim of blowing the USS Randolph out of the water.
Savitsky was not authorized to fire the torpedoes on his own. He needed the agreement of the political officer, Ivan Maslennikov, and Arkhipov. The latter was deputy commander, but also overall flotilla commander. In all probability influenced by his horrific experience aboard the K-19, Arkhipov alone refused to give his assent. A heated argument broke out, but Arkipov, most likely on account of the high respect in which he was held, prevailed. As Noam Chomsky notes in Hegemony or Survival (2003), we were “one word away from nuclear war.” Had the K-19 fired on the Randolf, it would almost certainly have provoked a full nuclear response from the U.S., with unimaginable consequences. It was, as Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. observed, the most dangerous moment in human history.
Herblock cartoon in Washington Post, (November 1962).
Arkhipov, “The Man Who Saved the World” (as the title of a BBC/PBS documentary portrays him), was known as shy and humble man. His wife Olga described him as intelligent, polite and very calm. After a long and honorable career in the Russian Navy, Arkhipov died in 1998 from kidney failure probably triggered by the radiation to which he had been exposed on the B-59. We all owe him an immeasurable debt of gratitude.
Vasili and Olga Arkhipov
For over fifty years, the possibility of nuclear war—and with it the absurdities of “Duck and cover,” MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), and nuclear winter—has seemed to recede. In 1962 the famous Doomsday Clock created by members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists stood at seven minutes to midnight. By 1991, it had moved back to 17 minutes, or 11.43 pm. Yet just days after President Trump’s inauguration, it was moved up from three minutes to two and a half minutes before the doomsday hour, in part because of pledges he made that appeared to impede progress in regard to reducing threats from nuclear weapons. As two officers of the organization noted, “Never before has the Bulletin decided to advance the clock largely because of the statements of a single person.”
Here’s a sampling of what they may have had in mind:
Why can’t we use nuclear weapons?
MATTHEWS: Where would we drop a nuclear weapon in the Middle East?
TRUMP: Somebody hits us within ISIS — you wouldn`t fight back with a nuke?
MATTHEWS: They`re hearing a guy running for president of the United States talking of maybe using nuclear weapons. Nobody wants to hear that about an American president.
TRUMP: Then why are we making them?
The biggest problem we have is nuclear — nuclear proliferation and having some maniac…go out and get a nuclear weapon.
BLITZER: You’re ready to let Japan and South Korea become nuclear powers?
TRUMP: I am prepared to.
COOPER: Saudi Arabia, nuclear weapons?
TRUMP: Saudi Arabia, absolutely.
Let it be an arms race … we will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.
The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.
The New START Treaty limiting the size of American and Russian nuclear arsenals, ratified by the Senate 71 to 26, is “just another bad deal.”
If countries are going to have nukes, we’re going to be at the top of the pack.
No wonder President Obama felt obliged to remark at an October 2016 rally, “How can you trust him with the nuclear codes? You can’t do it.” Unfortunately, we now have to trust him, and him alone, because under the current protocol, the president is the only person authorized to give the order to use nuclear weapons.
Some analysts have speculated that North Korea, which now has the capability to hit Japan with nuclear missiles, might become a target, but that would have the potentially disastrous effect of drawing China into the conflict. ISIS is almost certainly ruled out, in spite of what Trump has said, because of the massive civilian casualties a nuclear attack would entail. Which brings us to Iran.
“Just for the record,” wrote Roger Cohen shortly after Trump’s announced intention of increasing the defense budget by 10%, “massive military buildups tend to precede a war. My bet would be with Iran, possibly before the midterms.” Cohen, a veteran international affairs columnist for the New York Times, may well have had something like the following scenario in mind:
The 2018 elections are fast approaching and Republicans have failed to produce any really impactful legislation. Even their signature replacement of Obamacare turned into a hopelessly complicated compromise that satisfied no one. Other legislation has been stalled by a combination of Trump’s loss of interest in the workings of Congress and endemic Republican infighting. Both the president’s and the party’s poll numbers are badly down. Something dramatic has to be done.
Enter the presidential whisperer-in-chief, Steve Bannon. He reminds Trump that the country always rallies round the commander-in-chief during a major crisis, especially a war. Iran is a natural target. Trump has already declared that the multi-nation agreement Obama orchestrated to restrict Iran’s nuclear weapons program is a “terrible deal.” But why negotiate a new one? Why not have the intelligence services state that Iran has now crossed a red line in its development of “weapons of mass destruction.” Israel could certainly be relied on to help whip up a frenzy of public support. A tactical nuclear strike would limit fallout while inducing sufficient terror to persuade the Iranian government to abandon all future work on nuclear arms.
Trump is delighted with the plan, which at a stroke not only solves his election problem but also reinforces his image as a fearless man of action. Above all, it appeals to his innate ‘Messiah complex’ (“I alone” can fix things was a favorite line during the primary campaign). What better opportunity to demonstrate this as president? Trump can already imagine himself landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier after the strikes have taken place. As he emerges from the helicopter he triumphantly tweets to the world, “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!”
If all this seems farfetched, it’s worth remembering what Steve Bannon, chief strategist in charge of “vision, goals, narrative and plan of attack,” told The Hollywood Reporter’s Michael Woolff: “Darkness is good. Dick Cheney, Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.” While we may dismiss some of this as sardonic bravura, the reference to Cheney is startling. Bannon, seeming to Woolff like an almost “messianic” voice rising above the chaos of the administration, boasted that “we’re going to build an entirely new political movement. It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution.” Is it possible, then, that his grandiose plans include replacing the memory of George W. Bush’s ill-considered war on Iraq with something not only more historic but also successful?
Mark Danner, writing in the current New York Review, observes that a war-related crisis could be
the vital springboard of a Trump presidency, especially an increasingly shaky, unpopular, and unstable one. The lower his poll numbers, the more outlandish his lies…the likelier he will be to seek to use a crisis and all the opportunities it offers to lever himself from a position of defensiveness to that of dominating power.
It is worth taking very seriously that some sort of crisis will come and that, given Trump’s past behavior, his ruthless opportunism, and his drumbeat emphasis on “protecting the country,” such a crisis might well serve as a turning point in a Trump presidency, particularly one that is increasingly under siege.
One of the possible confrontations Danner explicitly foresees is Iran.
Given the unholy destructive power of nuclear weapons, even a 5-10% chance that this conjecture about a war against Iran could prove true is deeply alarming. If nothing else, a strike using tactical weapons would partly remove the 50-year taboo on nuclear war, leaving the door wide open for other nations (e.g., North Korea, India, Pakistan) to follow suit. The risk of an ensuing nuclear war between superpowers sponsoring client states at war would increase astronomically. The unthinkable would then become not just thinkable but real. It’s just such a catastrophic escalation that a Trump “limited” war in the Middle East threatens to produce. It would be marvelous if some Vasili Arkhapov—sane, calm, intelligent, deeply humane—were to appear, urging wiser counsel on the man with his finger on the button. But don’t count on it.