By Marc Pilisuk, July 30, 2017
Parts excerpted from The Hidden Structure of Violence: Who Benefits From Global Violence and War by Marc Pilisuk and Jennifer Achord Rountree. New York, NY: Monthly Review, 2015.
As US military decision-makers in the Trump administration plan to deal with a much hyped nuclear threat from North Korea, the size of stakes calls for a reminder about nuclear weapons. To act appropriately we need to see the danger as related to our lives. Second, we need to know that highly sophisticated military intelligence and plans contain detailed accounts of plans for attacks upon North Korea, China, the Soviet Union, and others. Such plans are intended threats to deter adversarial actions or as plans for a preemptive strike. But the plans are known in all countries. As a psychologist, I am loathe to labeling political leaders such as Kim Jong-Un or Donald Trump as having dangerously pathological conditions. However, the mathematical classification is established in game theory for rational or optimal moves in the widest variety of conflicts. The one contest for which the theory offers no guidance is the game of chicken. In this game, two parties declare intentions to destroy the other by making credible threats to kill the other, even at the expense of killing oneself. The conclusion is that threats and provocations can only make things worse. Moves that offer time for dialogue and assurances of safety need to be pushed since there are no good outcomes to the current conflict. Bluster, sanctions, and military actions are totally irrational, not to be played by sane antagonists. The game is now being played. Nuclear reality lies before us.
In all wars, suffering is great. But until the advent of the atomic bomb, war did not have the capacity to end, for all time, the continuation of human beings as a species or to threaten the continuity of life itself. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki produced the greatest immediate mass death from individual weapons yet known. The threat of nuclear weapons, the most frightening violent force on the planet, seems to grow with restraints wholly inadequate to the extent of the danger. This psychological reality was expressed by President Kennedy:
Today, every inhabitant of this planet must contemplate the day when this planet may no longer be habitable. Every man, woman, and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or madness. (1)
At a meeting of the National Academy of Sciences, former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry said, “I have never been more fearful of a nuclear detonation than now—There is a greater than 50 percent probability of a nuclear strike on U.S. targets within a decade.” (2) Apocalyptic dangers like this, that we know exist but still ignore, continue to have an effect upon us. They push us away from a long-term connection to our planet, pressing us to live for the moment as if each moment might be the last. (3)
With government prodding, current public attention has focused upon the possibility of a nuclear weapon attack by terrorists. The RAND corporation carried out a broad based scenario analysis to examine the impacts of a terrorist attack involving a 10-kiloton nuclear explosion in the port of Long Beach, California. (4) A varied set of strategic forecasting tools were used to examine immediate and long term results. It concluded that neither the local area nor the nation are at all prepared to deal with the potential threat of a nuclear device being brought into the U.S. aboard a container ship. Long Beach is the world’s third busiest port, with almost 30% of all U.S. imports and exports moving through it. The report noted that a ground-blast nuclear weapon detonated in a shipping container at Long Beach would make several hundred square miles of the fallout area uninhabitable, and that such a blast would have unprecedented economic impacts throughout the country and the world. As one example, the report noted that several nearby oil refineries would be destroyed, in turn exhausting the entire supply of gasoline on the West Coast in a matter of days. This would leave city officials to deal with the immediate gas shortages and the strong likelihood of related civil unrest. Blast effects would be accompanied by intense firestorms, and by long-lasting radioactive fallout, all contributing to a collapse of local infrastructure. Impacts on the global economy could also be catastrophic for two reasons: first, the economic importance of the global shipping supply chain, which would be severely hampered by the attack, and second, the well-documented fragility of global financial systems. (5)
By current standards a ten-kiloton nuclear explosion represents a minuscule sample of the power of larger nuclear weapons now in the arsenals of a growing number of countries. It is difficult even to imagine what a larger nuclear strike would mean. Another former Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara recalls his experience during the Cuban missile crisis when the world came close to an escalating exchange of nuclear weapons launched by the U.S. and the Soviet Union against each other. In his sober warning many years later McNamara, cited a report by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, describing the effects of a single 1-megaton weapon:
At ground zero, the explosion creates a crater 300 feet deep and 1,200 feet in diameter. Within one second, the atmosphere itself ignites into a fireball more than a half-mile in diameter. The surface of the fireball radiates nearly three times the light and heat of a comparable area of the surface of the sun, extinguishing in seconds all life below and radiating outward at the speed of light, causing instantaneous severe burns to people within one to three miles. A blast wave of compressed air reaches a distance of three miles in about 12 seconds, flattening factories and commercial buildings. Debris carried by winds of 250 mph inflicts lethal injuries throughout the area. At least 50 percent of people in the area die immediately, prior to any injuries from radiation or the developing firestorm. (6)
Had the attack on the Twin Towers involved a 20-megaton nuclear bomb, blast waves would have carried through the entire underground subway system. Up to fifteen miles from ground zero, flying debris propelled by displacement effects would have multiplied the casualties. Approximately 200,000 separate fires would have produced a firestorm with temperatures up to 1,500 degrees. A nuclear bomb destroys the fabric of water supplies, food, and fuel for transportation, medical services, and electric power. And radiation damages that destroy and deform living things would continue for 240,000 years. (7)
There is no reason to believe that a nuclear attack would involve the use of only one such weapon. Moreover, the illustrations above are for a nuclear bomb much lower in destructive capacity than most bombs now available on ready-alert status. These larger weapons are capable of what George Kennan has considered to be of such magnitude of destruction as to defy rational understanding. (8) Such bombs, and others still more destructive, are contained in the warheads of missiles, many of them capable of delivering multiple warheads from a single launch.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, nuclear weapon stockpiles far in excess of what would be needed to destroy all of the world’s population have been reduced. There are, however, still 31,000 nuclear weapons in the world—most of them are American or Russian, with fewer numbers held by the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, and Israel. The failure to end the Cold War nuclear confrontation between Russia and the U.S. leaves the two nations with more than 2,000 strategic nuclear warheads on high-alert status. These can be launched in only a few minutes and their primary mission remains the destruction of the opposing side’s nuclear forces, industrial infrastructure, and political/military leadership. (9) We now have the capacity to destroy for all time every person, every blade of grass, and every living thing that has evolved on this planet. But has our thinking evolved to enable us to prevent this from happening?
Our voice and our creative energy needs to be a player in our most fateful decision.
(1) Kennedy, J. F. (1961, September). Address to the UN general assembly. The Miller Center, The University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia. Retrieved from http://millercenter.org/president/speeches/detail/5741
(2) McNamara, R.S. (2005). Apocalypse Soon. Foreign Policy Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=2829
(3) Macy, J.R. (1983). Despair and personal power in the nuclear age. Philadelphia, PA: New Society.
(4) Meade, C. & Molander, R. (2005). Analyzing the economic impacts of a catastrophic terrorist attack on the port of Long Beach. RAND Corporation. W11.2 Retrieved from
(6) McNamara, (2005).
(7) Scientists Committee for Radiation Information (1962). The Effects of a Twenty-Megaton Bomb. New University Thought: Spring, 24-32.
(8) Kennan, G.F. (1983). Nuclear delusion: Soviet American relations in the nuclear age. New York: Pantheon.
(9) Starr, S. (2008). High-Alert Nuclear Weapons: The Forgotten Danger. SGR (Scientists for Global Responsibility) Newsletter, No.36, Retrieved from http://www.sgr.org.uk/publications/sgr-newsletter-no-36