Calling Dr. Strangelove

Mitt Romney lashed out at President Obama for telling Russia’s President Dmitri Medvedev that after the U.S. elections, there will be more “flexibility” to deal with arms control. But the greater danger may be delays in eliminating land-based missiles that add to the risk of nuclear disaster, say David Krieger and Daniel Ellsberg.

By David Krieger and Daniel Ellsberg

President Barack Obama and other world leaders gathered at the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea, this week to address threats posed by unsecured nuclear material. If Mr. Obama is truly concerned about nuclear safety, he should seriously consider doing away with the 450 inter-continental ballistic missiles deployed and ready to fire at Russia on a moment’s notice.

Last month we were among 15 protesters who were arrested in the middle of the night at Vandenberg Air Force Base, some 70 miles north of Santa Barbara, California, We were protesting the imminent test flight of a Minuteman III inter-continental ballistic missile.

Mushroom cloud over Nagasaki, Japan, Aug. 9, 1945. (Photo: U.S. Archives)

The Air Force rationale for doing these tests is to ensure the reliability of the U.S. nuclear deterrent force; but launch-ready land-based nuclear-armed ballistic missiles are the opposite of a deterrent to attack. In fact, their very deployment has the potential to launch World War III and precipitate human extinction as a result of a false alarm.

We’re not exaggerating. Here’s why: These nuclear missiles are first-strike weapons most of them would not survive a nuclear attack. In the event of a warning of a Russian nuclear attack, there would be an incentive to launch all 450 of these Minuteman missiles before the incoming enemy warheads could destroy them in their silos.

If the warning turned out to be false (there have been many false warnings), and the U.S. missiles were launched before the error was detected, World War III would be underway. The Russians have the same incentive to launch their land-based missiles upon warning of a perceived attack.

Both U.S. and Russian land-based missiles remain constantly on high-alert status, ready to be launched within minutes. Because of the 30-minute flight times of these missiles, the presidents of both the U.S. and Russia would have only approximately 12 minutes to decide whether to launch their missiles when presented by their military leaders with information indicating an imminent attack (after lower-level threat assessment conferences).

That’s only 12 minutes or less for the president to decide whether to launch global nuclear war.  While this scenario is unlikely, it is definitely possible: Presidents have repeatedly rehearsed it, and it cannot be ruled out due to the graveness of its potential consequences.

Russia came close to launching its missiles based on a warning that came Jan. 25, 1995. President Yeltsin was awakened in the middle of the night and told a U.S. missile was headed toward Moscow. Fortunately, Yeltsin was sober and took longer than the time allocated for his decision on whether to launch Russian nuclear-armed missiles in response.

In the extended time, it became clear that the missile was a weather sounding rocket from Norway and not a U.S. missile headed toward Moscow. Disaster was only narrowly averted.

Here is the really compelling part of the story: If all 450 US land-based Minuteman III missiles with thermonuclear warheads were ever launched at Russia with many of the targets in or near cities, as now planned most Americans would die as a result, along with most of humanity. Our own weapons would contribute as much or more to these deaths in America and the rest of the globe as any Russian warheads launched.

This is because smoke from the enormous nuclear firestorms created by even a “successful” U.S. nuclear first-strike would cause catastrophic disruption of global climate and massive destruction of the Earth’s protective ozone layer, leading to global famine.

Recent peer-reviewed studies, done by atmospheric scientists Alan Robock (Rutgers), Brian Toon (University of Colorado-Boulder), Richard Turco (UCLA) and colleagues, predict that such an attack would create immense firestorms that would quickly surround the planet with a dense stratospheric smoke layer.

The black smoke would be heated by the sun, lofted like a hot air balloon, and would remain in the stratosphere for at least 10 years. There it would block and prevent a large fraction of sunlight from reaching the Earth’s surface. The sharp reduction of warming sunlight would rapidly produce global Ice Age weather conditions. This would eliminate or dramatically reduce growing seasons for a decade and would likely cause the starvation of most or all humans.

Along with other effects including prolonged destruction of the ozone layer most complex life on Earth could be destroyed. Scientists say the process would be similar to when an asteroid hit the Earth some 65 million years ago, raising a global dust cloud that reduced sunlight, lowering temperatures and killing vegetation. That caused the extinction of the dinosaurs and 70 percent of the Earth’s species.

The cause of extinction in our case would not be an external, celestial event, but rather the launching of thermonuclear weapons we had created by our own cleverness, supposedly for our own security. The Minuteman III missile tests from Vandenberg Air Force Base are thus really tests of an American Nuclear Doomsday Machine.

Nuclear weapons do not make the U.S. or the world more secure. In particular, the Minuteman III missiles land-based, vulnerable, on high alert, and susceptible to being triggered by a false alarm make us less secure.

Anyone who cares about humankind having a future should protest these tests and call for the elimination of all nuclear-armed inter-continental ballistic missiles as an initial step toward the total abolition of nuclear weapons.

If the U.S. did away now with its nuclear-armed land-based missile force, it would still have 288 invulnerable submarine-launched ballistic missiles (armed with approximately 1,152 warheads) to act as a retaliatory threat to nuclear attack. But it would no longer have tempting targets for the Russians to strike preemptively in a time of tension or in the event of a false warning of attack.

It would still be imperative to reduce U.S. (and Russian) total warheads to levels that do not threaten the possibility of causing human extinction.

Skip to next paragraphAnd even the smaller existing nuclear arsenals of India and Pakistan threaten global disaster. Professor Robock and his colleagues have estimated that in a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan in which each side used 50 Hiroshima-size bombs (each side now has more than that number), the smoke rising into the stratosphere could cause a global reduction of sunlight and destruction of ozone leading to crop failures and global famine.

By comparison, the launch-ready thermonuclear forces of the U.S. and Russia contain roughly 500 times the explosive power of the 100 atomic bombs of India and Pakistan.

Now is the time for the people and nations of the world to stand up against the potential extinction of the human species and demand that political leaders pursue the path to zero nuclear weapons, a path mandated by the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the International Court of Justice. Until then, protest and civil resistance will be necessary.

We should seek two principal goals: first, a commitment by the existing nuclear weapon states to forego launch-on-warning and first use of nuclear weapons under any circumstances; and second, good faith negotiations for a new treaty for the phased, verifiable, irreversible, and transparent elimination of nuclear weapons.

It is our hope that by committing nonviolent civil resistance, being arrested, going to federal court, and explaining our actions to the public, we will help to awaken and engage the American people on this issue of utmost importance to our common future.

David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. Daniel Ellsberg is a distinguished senior fellow at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and a former strategic analyst for the Defense Department famous for having released the Pentagon Papers. This statement represents the authors’ individual views. The authors benefitted greatly from consultations with Steven Starr and Alan Robock. [This article originally appeared in the Christian Science Monitor and is reprinted with the authors’ permission.]

9 comments for “Calling Dr. Strangelove

  1. March 31, 2012 at 10:27

    You can certainly see your expertise within the work you write. The sector hopes for more passionate writers such as you who aren’t afraid to mention how they believe. Always follow your heart.

  2. March 29, 2012 at 19:55

    The realities that our war-game strategists have created are way beyond professional criminality. Read Ron Rosenbaum, “How the end begins.”

    The war-crazed Doctor Strangeloves who now play with the fate of the World demonstrate that we need to promote social-psychological analysis and mass peace-action as priorities above other human concerns and activities.

    We need to organize Russian-American friendship and commonality far more than any other national activities. The citizens that we know as friends need to be convinced to end their irresponsible lifestyles, as Dr. Helen Caldicott so forcefully did in her recent talk in California.

    We need to tell all our fellow citizens that they should promote the leaders of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation as our saviors more than we need religious saviors who scholars have shown to be merely mythological and fictional characters invented as “immortality projects” to give every culture imaginary ways to personal salvation.
    Psycho-imperialism has created the real end of the world with its denials and escapes from our recognizing the trajectory of our hell-bent realities.

  3. Hillary
    March 29, 2012 at 11:02

    What about the elephant in the room ?

    Depleted Uranium.

    With the amounts of depleted Uranium we have deposited in Iraq , Afghanistan , Lebanon & Palestine we may expect soaring rates
    in WORLD WIDE birth defects & cancers.

    For for generations & generations. h-defects

    This is a human disaster of enormous proportions that MSM & OUR Government keeps from “we the people”.

    Judeo Christian messainics want to fulfill their end times scenario.

    Iraq was the start with G.W.Bush & his Gog Maygog agenda.

    Religious zealots are leading our World towards their Armageddon.

    More & more depleted Uranium will fulfill the prophesy.

  4. darms
    March 29, 2012 at 01:40

    “The black smoke would be heated by the sun, lofted like a hot air balloon, and would remain in the stratosphere for at least 10 years. There it would block and prevent a large fraction of sunlight from reaching the Earth’s surface. The sharp reduction of warming sunlight would rapidly produce global Ice Age weather conditions”

    This is a potential refutation of ‘global climate change’, or at least the warming potion – conditions? How about the heat of the ‘black smoke’ cloud as it would absorb heat. A ‘white cloud’ would be more efficient…

  5. rosemerry
    March 28, 2012 at 16:45

    Does the USA after all its efforts not realise the Cold War is over? Its friend Israel does not realise the Nazis lost WW2 and the “good guys” and the Jews won. Why not accept the next step, and give peace a chance? All the weapons and enemies make WW3 more likely, and as Pres Eisenhower said, take away the useful things the money and skills could be used for. All the thousands of nukes were for “deterrence”, which is bad enough, but now the attitude is “let’s use them”, as if nobody remembers Hiroshima and Nagaski.
    It seems perverse to claim fear of a certain nuke-free nation, then refuse its presence at a meeting of countries to discuss nuclear safety.

  6. F. G. Sanford
    March 28, 2012 at 08:21

    Now that Dick Cheney’s got a new heart, I can picture him drooling over the prospect of being in that hardened underground bunker and taking very seriously his obligation to help repopulate the earth with all those nubile young women Peter Sellers’ character described in the movie. Do you really thing the folks with a back-up plan like that give a shit what happens to the rest of us? Old Dick got whisked right off to a safe place on 9/11, while George got left hanging out to dry in a public school room, the location of which was plastered all over the media. The dog that didn’t bark…or just an innocent oversight? That little episode crystallized my faith, or lack thereof, in how far we can rely on the good judgment of elected officials. It’s kinda like that story about Louis Armstrong getting into a cab with two other musicians. Louie sits in the front and lights up a joint, puffing away. One of the guys in the back seat says, “Hey, Louie, you gonna share that?” Louie says, “Man, I forgot you cats was back there.” Just an innocent oversight.

  7. March 28, 2012 at 05:33

    The Pakistan-India war scenario, noted in passing (6th paragraph from bottom) was an interesting study, but not particularly convincing. It is not a study of the use of 50 Hiroshima bombs, but a study of 50 Hiroshimas all landing on cities. Given that many of the bombs will land on military facilities, in the countryside, or city periphery (airports) that would require a lot more than 50 warheads.

    They indicate in the study that there is a huge amount of guesswork in their methodology, but their statements based off the study don’t reflect this huge amount of uncertainty. The net result of all this is to make me very suspicious of their “detailed” studies.

    The net result of an India-Pakistan war could easily see 100 million people die. The net result of some combination of U.S. – Russia – China war might very well set us back to the stone age – if it didn’t just kill us all off. The wide area of effect of (the still poorly understood) high altitude Electromagnetic Pulse type bombs risks the collapse of the world economy on even very small exchanges.

    Nuclear warfare is horrific enough without having to overstate your case.

    • March 28, 2012 at 15:38

      The Pakistan-India war scenario modeled a total of 100 atomic bombs being detonated (50 in the cities of India, 50 in the cities of Pakistan), as the article specifies. Experts believe that there are now a total of about 200 operational nuclear weapons in the combined arsenals these two nations, so it is not necessarily a stretch to imagine that half of them might be detonated in urban areas.

      All scientific predictions are essentially educated guesses. If you take the trouble to read these studies (a complete list of references to the article can be found at ), you will find that many pages of calculations went into the smoke estimates.

      The real point being made here is that the 100 atomic bombs used in India-Pakistan models contained much less than 1% of the explosive power that resides in the launch-ready nuclear weapons of the US and Russia. I don’t think it is possible to “overstate” the danger of this case. The latest NASA computer models predict that following a strategic nuclear war, the minimum daily temperatures in central North America and Russia will be below freezing every day for one to three years, and that growing seasons will be completely eliminated for a decade.

      No American or Russian President has ever acknowledged or discussed the long-term environmental consequences of nuclear war. The current political dialogue in the US is still focusing upon the numbers of nuclear weapons, rather than upon the consequences of their use. Unless you believe nuclear deterrence will work perfectly, forever, this is the equivalent of rearranging the furniture on the deck of the Titanic.

      Steven Starr
      Senior Scientist, Physicians for Social Responsibility

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