Why are we avoiding the ‘what if’ of nuclear war?

The clear and present danger of nuclear escalation that once lurked over the civilised world’s head has dissipated into the ether, and the nonchalant manner that the world has adopted toward it raises many questions, Stewart Mackinnon writes.

Exactly 37 years ago, on a bleak outlook overlooking the Atlantic, the two remaining Cold Warriors met in Reykjavik and proposed the almost unthinkable — to rid the world of all nuclear weapons. 

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev began a dialogue that set in motion a series of summits that would ultimately not achieve this bold objective but resulted in what many historians cite as the beginning of the end of the Cold War. 

However, the question remains: to what end?

Nuclear weapons are deadlier than ever

While the Cold War came to a close, the threat of nuclear war did not. The global nuclear arsenal had reached its peak in 1986 with over 63,000 weapons in circulation compared to 12,500 today, according to the Federation of American Scientists. 

But the number of missiles is immaterial, as today’s weaponry is five times more lethal than Big Boy and Fat Man — the two bombs dropped on Japan at the end of WWII. 

In addition, the range and mobility of the current arsenal have expanded significantly with the ability to reach any destination — from London to Moscow to Washington — in a matter of minutes, wiping out millions of people instantaneously.

Russia’s nuclear warhead-capable Sarmat intercontinental missile is shown at an undisclosed location, March 2018 | RU-RTR Russian Television via AP

The lethality of the weapons has advanced greatly since their inception in 1942. That historic moment, which was so aptly captured in the sure-to-be award-winning film Oppenheimer, showcased how the technology for “the bomb” was developed. 

However, except for a few symbolic scenes in the film, the true horror and devastation of the weapons were largely glossed over. A missed opportunity.

From Megadeath to Mutual Assured Destruction

In 1945, history was irrevocably changed with the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, leaving 80,000 citizens dead and another 30,000 to later perish from radiation exposure. 

The term “megadeath” — a unit used in estimating the number of casualties from a nuclear bomb strike — had become a reality and the horrific devastation wrought on its victims was unimaginable. 

The Atomic Bomb Dome is seen over colourful paper lanterns floating down Hiroshima’s Motoyasu river, August 1988 | Katsumi Kasahar/AP1988

Many survivors were burned beyond recognition and exposed to high levels of radiation that would burden them physically and psychologically for the rest of their lives.

The subsequent arms race that ensued between America and the Soviet Union led to the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD, that served to handcuff both sides with the premise that “if you fire on me, I’ll fire on you.” 

A flawed concept to be sure. Yet the MAD strategy (which it truly is) remains the primary nuclear conflict deterrent today.

Nuclear engagement is not out of the question

Adding to this MADness is the nonchalant manner that a large part of the world has adopted toward the threat of a nuclear conflict. 

The possibility has shifted to the back of our collective psyches allowing us to focus on more important issues crowding our agenda. 

A case in point is the most recent Republican presidential debate. While there were several questions around Taiwan and Ukraine, there was no specific reference to the “what if” of a nuclear engagement.

North Korean soldiers turn and look towards leader Kim Jong Un as they carry packs marked with the nuclear symbol in Pyongyang, July 2013 | Wong Maye-E/AP

Sadly, such an event is not out of the question. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has openly threatened the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine. 

And recently leaked documents revealed plans to conduct nationwide nuclear war drills in Russia along with the testing of a nuclear weapon in the Arctic as a show of force to the West. 

His comrade in arms Kim Jung Un regularly rattles his nuclear sabre threatening his neighbours near and far and touting North Korea’s advancements of long-range missiles capable of reaching Western shores in the not-too-distant future.

It was refreshing to see nuclear disarmament on the agenda at the United Nations General Assembly meeting a few weeks ago even though it is not one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. 

However, the issue was largely overshadowed by other global issues from climate change to artificial intelligence. Truly, these are important topics to tackle but they become irrelevant with the launch of a nuclear war where there are no winners, only losers.

We still don’t have a plan B?

As a child of the Cold War, I can still remember the air raid drills in my community and hiding under my school desk. 

That clear and present danger had lurked over the civilised world’s head but has since dissipated into the ether. 

Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev, looking at his watch, and US President Ronald Reagan in Reykjavik, October 1986 | AP/AP

One would hope bright minds in political capitals around the world are gaming how to avoid a nuclear conflict. 

But that notion calls to mind a moment when President Reagan after being briefed on the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction posed the simplest of questions, “What is Plan B?” to which his advisors had no answer.

And today as we celebrate their famous meeting in Iceland almost four decades later it is time again to ask our leaders — “What is plan B?”

Stewart Mackinnon is the CEO of Circle Pictures. He is the creator of Amazon’s “Man In the High Castle” and “MAD”, a new drama on the Reykjavik Summit.