Every thousand years a doomsday threatens. Early Christians believed the day of judgment was nigh. Medieval millenarians expected the world to end in 1000 A.D. These fatal termini would have required supernatural intervention; in the old days humans lacked sufficient means to destroy themselves. The discovery, in 1938, of how to release nuclear energy changed all that. Humankind acquired the means of its own destruction. Even were we to succeed in eliminating our weapons of doomsday — one subject of “How the End Begins” — we would still know how to build them. From our contemporary double millennium forward, the essential challenge confronting our species will remain how to avoid destroying the human world.
Ron Rosenbaum is an author who likes to ask inconvenient questions. He has untombed the secrets of the Yale secret society Skull and Bones, tumbled among contending Shakespeare scholars and rappelled into the bottomless darkness of Adolf Hitler’s evil. But nothing has engaged his attention more fervently than doomsdays real or threatening, especially the Holocaust and nuclear war. Both catastrophes ominously interlink here.
The book wanders before it settles down. Rosenbaum speculates on the risk Israel took in 2007 when it bombed a secret Syrian nuclear reactor, a pre-emptive strategy Israel has followed since it destroyed an Iraqi reactor in 1981. He cites a quotation in The Spectator of London from a “very senior British ministerial source” who claimed that we came close to “World War III” the day of the attack on Syria. With no more information than the minister’s claim, the best Rosenbaum can say is that “it was not inconceivable.”
He goes on to review the many close calls of the cold war, the continuing interception of Russian bombers by United States and NATO fighter aircraft, the negligent loading of six nuclear-armed cruise missiles onto a B-52 in August 2007 and their unrecognized transport across the United States. He works his way through these and similar incidents as if they prove much beyond the vulnerability of all man-made systems to accident, inadvertence and misuse.
When Rosenbaum turns to the Middle East as a hot center of nuclear danger, however, he hits his stride. He’s already explored the question of the morality of deterrence, of threatening to kill millions of people in a retaliatory nuclear attack if the United States were struck with nuclear weapons. He’s noted that the World Court in 1996 adjudged “that the entire system of nuclear deterrence was a war crime.” That may be so, Rosenbaum acknowledges, but what is Israel, in particular, to do?
Surrounded by enemies who call for its destruction, Rosenbaum writes, Israel has assembled a substantial if unacknowledged nuclear arsenal. An attack by a nuclear-armed regional enemy — perhaps Iran at some future date when it has acquired nuclear weapons and the missiles with which to deliver them — could materialize without effective warning, and only a few nuclear weapons would be enough to destroy the country. Israel has therefore deployed nuclear cruise missiles on a small fleet of German-made submarines that reportedly patrol the Iranian coast. The submarines give Israel a secure second-strike capability, which deterrence theory predicts should be adequate to prevent a rational enemy from attacking. But what if deterrence fails?
The Jews would then be visited with a second Holocaust, Rosenbaum observes. He calls this possibility “Hitler’s chain reaction,” noting that the United States had raced to develop the atomic bomb in the first place because it feared that Nazi Germany was working on such a weapon. “The contemporary Middle East is a Hitler dream come true,” he writes sardonically. “The Jews have been compelled by the Holocaust and history to, in effect, round themselves up and may feel compelled by history to inflict an attack with genocidal consequences on others that could well precede a second one for them.” That is, either Israel would attack first with nuclear weapons, pre-emptively, and then be attacked in turn, or its submarines would retaliate after Israel was destroyed. Either way, a second Holocaust would result.
And just to make sure we understand, Rosenbaum quotes David D. Perlmutter, the director of the school of journalism and mass communication at the University of Iowa, writing bitterly in a newspaper op-ed: “What would serve the Jew-hating world better in repayment for thousands of years of massacres but a Nuclear Winter? . . . For the first time in history, a people facing extermination while the world either cackles or looks away — unlike the Armenians, Tibetans, World War II European Jews or Rwandans — have the power to destroy the world. The ultimate justice?” And indeed, why should Israel not attack Iran, or some other threatening enemy, before or after a nuclear attack? Would the United States do any less? Rosenbaum takes no position on what Israel should do, but he obviously believes it will pre-empt if it concludes a nuclear attack is imminent.
Most of what passes for informed discourse about nuclear weapons is framed by an assumption that they are, as Winston Churchill once told Niels Bohr dismissively, merely bigger bombs involving “no difference in the principles of war.” But the principles are different. This is a classic example of how quantitative changes beyond certain limits become qualitative. Even a “small” regional nuclear war has the potential of inducing a limited nuclear winter worldwide that would result in hundreds of millions of deaths from mass starvation.
“And so everyone is waiting for it to happen,” Rosenbaum concludes, adding, “few believe that the Israelis will wait till the Iranians have enough bombs to destroy them and rely on deterrence to prevent it.” The Israelis may not, but as Rosenbaum himself notes, both Iran and Syria preferred not to retaliate for Israel’s bombing of the Syrian reactor. Israel (possibly with American help) has now reportedly used cyberwarfare — a computer worm — to destroy Iranian centrifuges, a tactic that has evidently set back the Iranian uranium enrichment program by years. Sanity may prevail.
Rosenbaum can be confused about the technologies he’s investigating. The plutonium that North Korea has produced to date might be enough to make six or even 12 atomic bombs, but they would not be “one-megaton-plus” weapons; for megaton yields, you need a hydrogen secondary stage, a technology North Korea has not yet mastered. The difference is important: a single megaton-yield bomb could take out Seoul, or Los Angeles. Rosenbaum also states erroneously that Fidel Castro was given command over the launch of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, something the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, was fortunately too cautious to authorize.
Despite these marks of haste and inattention, “How the End Begins” raises fundamental questions more acutely than dozens of other recent books on the nuclear problem. There is much to learn from it. Whether the 2000 double millennium will be our last, Rosenbaum demonstrates, remains very much to be seen.
Richard Rhodes is the author, most recently, of “The Twilight of the Bombs.”