Facing Nuclear War

P. Dutton has just published a startling book by Annie Jacobsen titled Nuclear War: A Scenario.

The “scenario,” as she describes it in an Author’s Note, begins with a nuclear strike on the Pentagon, a “Bolt out of the Blue” that the U.S. Nuclear Command and Control System (NCCS) calls an “unwarned large [nuclear] attack.”

Annie Jacobsen next identifies 47 people she interviewed for the book—nuclear scientists, people who formerly held NCCS positions, and different U.S. policymakers. They include Dr. Richard L. Garwin (now age 95), the nuclear weapons designer of the first thermonuclear  bomb (Ivy Mike) to undergo a full scale test, in 1952 (in the in Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands); Dr. Charles F. McMillan, Director Los Alamos National Laboratory (2011-2017); Dr. Charles H. Townes, inventor of the Laser, Nobel Prize in Physics; Leon Panetta U.S. Secretary of Defense, Director of the CIA, White House Chief of Staff (now 85 years old); Dr. William Perry, U.S. Secretary of Defense (90 years old); Lewis C. Merletti, Director of the U.S. Secret Service; plus other people who formerly held positions in NCCS. Nuclear War: A Scenario Jacobsen, Annie Best Price: $15.95 Buy New $13.55 (as of 01:22 UTC - Details)

In a Prologue to the book titled “Hell on Earth,” she writes:

“A 1-megaton [of TNT] thermonuclear weapon detonation begins with a flash of light and heat so tremendous it is impossible for the human mind to comprehend. Its one hundred and eighty million degrees Fahrenheit is four or five times hotter than the temperature at the center of the Earth’s sun…

The light superheats the surrounding air to millions of degrees, creating a massive fireball that expands at millions of miles per hour. Within a few seconds, this fireball increases to a diameter of little more than a mile (5,700 feet across), its light and heat so intense that concrete surfaces explode, metal objects melt or evaporate, stones shatter, humans instantaneously convert into combusting carbon.”

We learn that the heat from a 1-megaton thermonuclear fireball will ignite everything flammable extending out several miles around it, followed by a great firestorm that consumes everything in a “100-or-more-square-mile area.” In addition to the nuclear fireball’s blinding pulses of light, nuclear blast waves generate wind up to 300 mph–2-times greater than a category 5 hurricane. An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) generated by the blast “obliterates all radio, internet, TV [and] cars electric ignition systems in a several-mile ring outside the blast.” This is followed by a 7-10 year long nuclear winter where temperatures stay 40 degrees lower than normal.

A 1-megaton (1,000 kilotons of TNT) thermonuclear weapon is sixty-six times more powerful than the 15-kilotons of TNT atomic bomb the U.S. Air Force dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. A thermonuclear weapon just this size does the following:

“Not a single thing, in the [mile-wide] fireball remains.
Nothing.
Ground zero is zeroed.”

This bold author gives a second-by-second, then minute-by-minute account of what would happen if North Korea suddenly launched two nuclear weapons in a bolt out of the blue against the United States, first a road-mobile Hwasong-17 ICBM targeting the Pentagon followed by a nuclear ballistic missile fired from a North Korean submarine 300 miles away from California’s shoreline against its Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant.

Quentin Harvey, Former Deputy Tech Editor at the New York Times, then Head of Editorial, Google Cloud considers what Annie Jacobsen writes about nuclear war in an hour-long conversation sponsored by the Commonwealth Club of California’s public affairs forum. Jacobsen explains she discovered that a nuclear war today would happen within seconds and be largely over in just 72 minutes. Their conversation is on YouTube, available HERE. One person who watched this interview commented: “Well, that was both incredibly interesting and utterly terrifying at the same time.” Another good interview of Annie Jacobsen on this subject with Lex Fridman is also available on YouTube HERE.

Sprinkled throughout her unfolding 72-minute nuclear war scenario, Annie offers the reader nine short, good History Lessons. They are titled: 1-Deterrence; 2-The ICBM; 3-Launch on Warning; 4-ICBM Launch Systems; 5-The President’s Football; 6-Nuclear Armed Subramines; 7-The Proud Prophet War Game—played in 1983 by 200 top officials in the military establishment to see how well American doctrine for responding to a Soviet invasion of West Germany would play out; 8-Radiation Sickness; and 9-Apes on a Treadmill—an essay in Foreign Policy in 1975 by Paul Warnke, where he “criticized not only how insanely dangerous nuclear weapons are, but how wasteful the entire nuclear arms race is, and always has been,” calling it a “’monkey see, monkey do’ phenomenon, with all participants copying one another’s moves, and getting absolutely nowhere, like unintelligent beasts.”

In History Lesson no. 6, she writes this about the U.S. Ohio-class submarine: Surprise, Kill, Vanish... Jacobsen, Annie Best Price: $8.00 Buy New $15.18 (as of 01:22 UTC - Details)

“Stretching two football fields in length, each Ohio-class submarine is capable of launching twenty submarine-launched ballistic missiles—the dreaded SLBMs. Forty-four feet in length, eighty-three inches in diameter, and weighing 130,000 pounds at launch, each SLBM is armed with multiple nuclear warheads in its nose cone.”

I first listened to the author read her book, unabridged, on Audible (11 hrs and 15 mins), before I could get a printed copy. Readers comment that they couldn’t put the book down. Likewise, I could not stop listening to it.

Among five other books that Annie Jacobsen has written, Surprise, Kill, Vanish: The Secret History of CIA Paramilitary Armies, Operators, and Assassins, published in 2019, became one of the most popular audiobooks purchased that year. The Pulitzer Prize Board nominated her 2015 book The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America’s Top Secret Military Research Agency for its 2016 Pulitzer Prize in History. The Board described it as “A brilliantly researched account of a small but powerful secret government agency whose military research profoundly affects world affairs.” (With Annie Jacobsen deemed a “finalist,” the Pulitzer Prize for History that year went instead to T. J. Stiles’ Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America.)

One hopes that the political and military leaders of the nine nations that possess nuclear weapons—United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, France, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Koreawill read and heed Nuclear War: A Scenario. Fifty thousand years of human civilization depends on it.