Illustration by Shan and James
Illustration by Shan and James

Start thinking the unthinkable. We as a nation have to start talking about the prospects for nuclear war.

President Barack Obama says Iran might have a bomb in a year. To hold back the day, the U.S. and Israel have conducted cyberwar, and Israel has apparently assassinated Iranian scientists. But even if Israel attacks to stop Iran’s bomb making now, the day will dawn.

What will we do if Israel threatens Tehran with nuclear obliteration? What if North Korea aims a warhead at Seoul? And what if the missiles start flying? Two dozen North Korean nuclear weapons fired at Seoul and Toyko could kill more people than all the Allied bombings of Germany and Japan in World War II. A nuclear battle in the Middle East, one-sided or not, would be the most destabilizing military event since Pearl Harbor.

Few American military and political leaders have thought seriously about nuclear strategy since the end of the Cold War. No U.S. president has had a serious talk with the nation about the world’s nuclear arsenal since Ronald Reagan took a long hard look into the abyss 30 years ago.

Our military commanders know a thousand ways in which a war could start between Israel and Iran, on the Korean peninsula or in the Indian subcontinent. No one has ever fought a nuclear war, however. No one knows how to end one.

Nuclear Strategy

We don’t need magical thinking about abolishing the bomb. We need to control the nuclear arsenals of allies and enemies alike. The U.S. and the United Nations need to start working on a modern nuclear-arms control regime. A year is plenty of time to talk about the strategy, if we start talking sensibly now.

The U.S., Russia, China, the U.K. and France -- the permanent members of the UN Security Council -- have placed strong controls on their own nuclear weapons, including safety locks that prevent unauthorized or accidental launching. President John F. Kennedy was the first to announce that U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces would lock down nuclear weapons deployed in Europe. After the Cuban missile crisis, the Soviet Union secretly agreed to follow suit by imposing these locks, known as permissive action links, or PALs.

India, Pakistan, Israel, Iran and North Korea need to show the world that they have their own PALs in place. The UN should demand, through a Security Council vote, that all members of the nuclear club demonstrate their safety locks to the International Atomic Energy Agency and to the Security Council itself. Those that refuse would forfeit their seats and their voting rights at the UN. This alone would reduce the chances of war through accident or misadventure.

Paul Bracken, the U.S.’s best civilian expert on the command and control of nuclear weapons, proposes a bold idea in his new book, “The Second Nuclear Age.” The president of the U.S., he writes, should declare: “The United States will not be the first to use nuclear weapons under any circumstances.” In the same breath, he should add that it will use them if any other country goes first.

This would be a warning to every nation: If you go first, you risk becoming a smoking, radiating ruin in no time flat.

Bracken knows whereof he speaks. He, too, has stared into the abyss.

In June 1983, at the National War College on the banks of the Potomac River, the first truly realistic nuclear war game took place. Tensions between Washington and Moscow were high that summer, higher even than anyone realized at the time. The war game was code-named Proud Prophet, and there were no stand-ins: Reagan’s secretary of defense, his chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and hundreds of senior military officers played themselves, holding in their hands the actual war plans of the U.S.

Bracken was invited to be its “Thucydidean chronicler,” in his words. He tells the story for the first time in his new book.

Armageddon

Proud Prophet began with political crises from the Mediterranean to the Pacific. It ended in Armageddon -- “a catastrophe that made all the wars of the past five hundred years pale in comparison,” Bracken writes. “A half billion human beings were killed in the initial exchanges and at least that many more would have died from radiation and starvation. NATO was gone. So was a good part of Europe, the United States, and the Soviet Union. Major parts of the northern hemisphere would be uninhabitable for decades.”

The American military leaders in this game were not crazy or suicidal. They were faithfully executing plans and strategies that a tight little circle of experts had been polishing and perfecting for a quarter of a century. The outcome shocked them. After Proud Prophet, the U.S. stopped rattling sabers and started talking sense about the prospects of nuclear war. In his next State of the Union speech, Reagan said: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

When you look at the war plans we had, and I’ve seen them in outline, you react the way Reagan did the first time he saw them upon taking office. “He became physically sick,” Bracken writes. “The briefing had to be cancelled and rescheduled.”

It is time for another briefing, disagreeable though it may be, about nuclear realities. And the American people need to hear about it from the commander in chief.

(Tim Weiner, a former reporter for the New York Times, has won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for writing on national security. He is the author, most recently, of “Enemies: A History of the FBI.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Tim Weiner at tiwein@hotmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net.