Day 837: The Chess Moves Of Nuclear Madness

originally published April 16, 2014

I hate to get all gloomy and dark, but as blissful as the post-Cold-War afterglow may have been (and oh, how it was), we need to take a step back and remember that we still live in a world saturated with nukes, ready to pop out of the ground like strategic pimples speckling a teenager’s face. While it’s somewhat comforting to know that the people who really hate us are not equipped with the ability to bury us under a mushroom cloud, I still don’t feel right about this. I live near my country’s primary oil reserves – if the bad guys want to kick Canada in the crotch, I live in that crotch.

That said, it isn’t likely. I grew up with the knowledge of precisely where Ground Zero would be, based on the Soviet nuke that was perpetually aimed our way, according to the local rumor. I didn’t let this knowledge derail my existence – I had food to eat, girls to chase and weekly doses of Quantum Leap to enjoy. But the knowledge was there.

I’m fascinated by the way nuclear weapons swiftly and immediately changed the face of military strategy. The discussion went from “we’re stronger” and “we’re smarter” to mutually-assured destruction. You attack us, we die – but we attack you and you die too. Not a lot of wiggle-room for options there. But the intricacies of nuclear strategy are far more complex.

Richard Nixon took over the presidency in the middle of an unpopular war, after having campaigned with the promise that his “new leadership” would end it. He knew that negotiating with the North Vietnamese (or with the USSR, who – let’s face it – were really on the other side of that blood-stained coin) wasn’t going to cut it. So he borrowed a page from Machiavelli and employed the Madman Theory.

Nixon felt that his best strategy would be to convince America’s enemies that the proud ol’ USA had just elected an unpredictable leader with one foot mired in the tendrils of bat-shit loopiness and the other poised to kick at the nuke-launching button with a highly-polished cowboy boot. If the communist countries thought that Nixon was completely mad, they would back down and surrender rather than face the wrath of Dick’s kooky whims, which might plunk his thumb down on the Button.

In theory. In practice, this was a dangerous gambit and it very nearly caused an irreversible shit-storm.

Less than one year into office, Nixon rolled those dice. In October of 1969, Nixon deployed 18 B-52s packed to the overhead compartments with nuclear weapons. Their mission: to fly directly at the Soviet Union. They weren’t to cross into Soviet airspace, nor were they supposed to drop their payload on Moscow, but Nixon (and Kissinger – let’s not forget,if Nixon rolled the dice then Henry Kissinger was the one blowing on Dick’s hand for luck first) wanted the Russians to spot the planes. The message of Operation Giant Lance was that Nixon would be willing to stoop to nuclear war if necessary in order to end the conflict in Vietnam.

He was just that crazy.

Except he wasn’t. Nixon ordered the mission to be terminated three days after it began – that was three days that the entire USSR was on full nuclear alert, and we had no idea. We never learned the full details until the files were opened recently. Nixon and his diplomatic team also tried to pass off the 1970 incursion into Cambodia as another symptom of his madness, but none of it worked; the North Vietnamese were actually prepared to make any sacrifice for their cause. The Madman Theory isn’t going to fly against an adversary with nothing to lose.

It’s easy to go a little overboard on the Dr. Strangelove references when discussing something as insane as nuclear theory. Much like in the Kubrick film, the Soviets did have something akin to a “doomsday device” in place, just in case the Americans got a little trigger-happy with their most deadly weapons. They called it Dead Hand (also ‘Perimeter’, but Dead Hand sounds more awesome). Using seismic, light, radioactivity and overpressure sensors, the system was designed to launch the nation’s ICBM stash in the event of an attack.

Again, this is something that most of us didn’t know about until recently – in this case until it was leaked by some high-ranking officials after Russia had hung up its Soviet cloak for good in the early 90’s. We knew they would launch if they saw our missiles heading toward them, but this even rules out a quick strike on the Soviet leadership before attacking. It’s pretty smart, really.

The scary thing is, we don’t know if the Russians still have this doomsday device in place. It might still be sitting there, waiting for an attack… or for a gruesome malfunction.

The British contribution to nuclear theory is decidedly grim and discomfortingly mysterious. I’m speaking here of the Letters of Last Resort, a quartet of hand-written letters addressed to the commanders of four ballistic missile submarines, at least one of which is always out on patrol. The letters – which are kept locked inside a vault inside a vault on each sub – dictate the actions the commander or commanders should take if the leadership has been wiped out by a nuclear attack.

What do the letters say? Well, since this is still an active procedure with the British military, even in this era where know daily what color Khloe Kardashian has dyed her pubic hair (I believe today it’s chartreuse), we still don’t know what these letters have said. The orders are either to strike back, to not strike back, to scoot over to a military ally’s place, or for the commander to use his or her best judgment. When a new Prime Minister takes over, the old letters are destroyed and the new PM sets about writing fresh ones. This is one of the first cold splashes of reality for any Prime Minister who takes office – penning what could be the final act of Her Majesty’s government. Heavy stuff.

For Israel, the prospect of nuclear defense is going to be messy. First off, they have been rather puckish about admitting that they have nukes to begin with. For another, most of their enemies live right across the street. For their purposes, they might need to employ the Samson Option. This one ain’t pretty.

Referencing the biblical Samson, who pushed apart the pillars of the temple where he was being held prisoner by the Philistines, killing himself and his captors, this option suggests that if need be, Israel will launch a heap of nukes at their foes and take everyone down in a big ol’ colorful boom. No more Middle East, period.

Let’s hope it never comes to that. I’ve still got the last season of Quantum Leap to finish.

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