Politicians’ warnings that we are headed for “nuclear war” – often mispronounced “nuke-u-lar” by young reporters who wouldn’t know a megaton from a megawatt – have been ramping up in recent weeks. I have actually heard wet-behind-the-ears youngsters explaining how you should take cover inside a building when a nuclear attack is expected – as if we were back in 1940s London. Taking cover is fine, if you’re located 20 miles away from nuclear ground zero. But if you’re in Washington, DC, or Manhattan, or any other large American city, there won’t be any buildings standing after the big one hits.
The passage of time, plus the security afforded by the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, have diminished our societal understanding of the stupendous destructive potential of hydrogen bombs that are 50, 100, or even 1,000 times as powerful as the bombs we dropped on Japan in 1945. The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs had yields equal to about 20 kilotons of TNT. But this was just nuclear weaponry’s modest first step. In May 1956 a U. S. Air Force bomber dropped a newly-developed hydrogen bomb from an altitude of 50,000 feet over the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific. It exploded with a force of 15 Megatons – 15 million tons of TNT! – at an altitude of 15,000 feet. Observers said the fireball measured at least four miles in diameter and was brighter than the light from 500 suns.
With weapons of such destructive power on the firing line, representatives of our government met with representatives of the USSR and Great Britain in 1963 to work out details of a treaty to prohibit above-ground testing of any nuclear weapons. President Kennedy and the other two great powers signed the treaty in August ‘63. To the extent that the USSR could be trusted to keep any treaty, this seemed to reduce the temperature of the Cold War and prevent any repeats of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1961. Americans relaxed and went back to working, playing and raising their families – reasonably secure in the assumption that no national leaders wanted nuclear war.
During the 1950s, theaters frequently showed newsreel-footage of nuclear tests – including the horrendous nuclear blast at Bikini Atoll. But after 1963, those newsreel-clips stopped, because the treaty had banned testing. And as new generations of Americans became less acquainted with the awesome power of nuclear weapons, our national understanding that they must never be used gradually diminished.
After 1963 our country engaged in an 8-year war to keep communist forces from overrunning the southern half of Vietnam – only to watch helplessly as the commies achieved that very result in 1975. But during that “Vietnam decade” there was – so far as we knew – no nuclear weapon-rattling by either side.
We then watched a Muslim Ayatollah depose the Shah of Iran, take our embassy staff captive, and turn his country into an implacable enemy of the USA. On the heels of that Middle-east uproar, Soviet military forces invaded Afghanistan in a (failed) 10-year attempt to subdue its wild, ungovernable people. And again, none of the great powers threatened to use nuclear weapons during any of these dustups.
Finally, Ronald Reagan burst onto the political scene, vowing to re-establish America as the “Shining City on the Hill” which the whole world would regard as the “last, best hope of mankind.” President Reagan assured us that the oppressive Soviet Union would end up on the “ash-heap of history.” And he restored a roaring national economy that buoyed the spirits of our people.
Growing up in the post-WWII era, I never imagined that the divided halves of Germany would re-unite. In August 1962 – in the very week of my marriage – East German communists erected a wall across the center of Berlin to prevent their citizens from crossing into West Berlin and fleeing to the west. We thought those divisions were permanent, but they weren’t. In November 1989, 500,000 East Germans staged a protest and knocked down the hated Berlin Wall. Berlin was unified and free, and soon after that the entire nation was re-united as well. Not a shot was fired, and no nuclear threats were issued.
Mr. Reagan was right about the USSR’s collapse, although it happened after his terms in office. After the Soviet Union’s 1991 breakup into individual constituent states, my wife and I took a tour of Russia and Ukraine in 2007. One of our guides was a lady in her 50s who had traveled to the USA several times, so she knew how our country differed from Russia.
When I asked her why the USSR dissolved, she mentioned “freedom” only in a general sense. Instead, she talked about “goods” – things you would buy in stores – as an aspect of freedom that we Americans generally take for granted. “It wasn’t a question of money,” she said. “We had barrels full of money, but there was nothing in the stores to buy.” She said the Communist Central Committee kept prices low to please the people. But factories and farms couldn’t produce at those prices, so they did nothing.
“We were watching television shows from the West, so we saw what life was like in England and America. Our leaders assured us that these were just a theatrical productions, but we soon realized it was completely real. Things simply couldn’t go on as they were, and finally it all collapsed.”
When we were in Russia in 2007, the Ruble had collapsed from its artificial, communist-dictated value of $2 (US) to a value of 4 cents on the World Currency Exchange. (1.6 cents today.) In Ukraine we met a Presbyterian pastor who was ministering to a congregation of 400 people. His wife was a financial counsellor – we would call her a “broker.” It was a brand-new kind of job in a country that hadn’t allowed personal investment for 75 years.
Yet once again, all this disruption in the USSR, Russia and Ukraine occurred without any mention (or threats) of using nuclear weapons. Temperate, visionary leaders like Mikhail Gorbachev realized that peoples of the former USSR needed time and elbow room to decide their future. He was a key figure in the peaceful dissolution of the USSR.
But as we say, that was then and this is now. As often happens in a political vacuum, an ambitious leader soon emerged in Russia, making claims about restoring Russia’s “empire” and promising a return to greatness on the world stage. That ambitious guy was (and is) Vladimir Putin. Like many politicians, he said what people wanted to hear – enough of them, at least, to get elected president of Russia in 2000. He served until 2008; acted as the backstage power for four years; and since 2012 is president again.
Ready to rock-and-roll during his second stint as president, and sensing comity in Barack Obama, Comrade Putin sent his troops into the Crimea of Ukraine and annexed it in 2014. This caused some State Department grumbling in Washington, but not much else. Vlad got away clean with his first move to reconstruct the former Soviet empire. President Obama seemed OK with it, and no alarms – nuclear or otherwise – went off. No one seemed inclined to fight with Russia over Crimea.
After Obama’s terms, Hillary Clinton expected to sweep in and grab the presidential baton. But Donald Trump kicked over the game-table when he ran a strong populist campaign and unexpectedly won in 2016. This shocking development changed the whole story-line, overnight, from friendly cooperation between Barack and Vladimir to Hillary’s accusations that Russian interference in the election had helped Trump win. Those charges had their origin in the Steele Dossier – a collection of salacious tales, funded by the Clinton campaign, of Trump’s supposed “collusion” with Russian agents who stole the election for him. The FBI knew the Dossier was rubbish, but higher-ups treated it as factual to hurt Mr. Trump.
The unexpected elevation of the unknown Trump caused Putin to put further expansionist plans on the back burner during the Trump presidency. But the former KGB tough guy was smart enough not to give Mr. Trump any help – probably hoping that a more pliable Democrat might take over in 2020. That hope was realized, of course, when cellar-guy Joe Biden entered the Oval Office in 2021. Sensing weakness in Joe, Putin began to roll out his next move against Ukraine.
The Russian president was probably correct in his assessment of Joe Biden’s “weakness,” but his grasp of American presidential politics might not have included a realization of how much Joe would need a “boost” to his stature. In the USA that kind of boost is often a war – or, at least, the appearance of a war – to make a president look all commander-in-chiefy.
Following his collegial relationship with Barack Obama, one imagines that Vladimir was pretty surprised and frustrated when Joe immediately “threw down” on the war-thing – making speeches, talking tough, and sending arms worth billions to help the “valiant” Ukrainian freedom-fighters stave off the wicked Russians. What Putin might have expected to be a leisurely stroll in the park, on the way to annexing Ukraine, soon degenerated into a bloody struggle against a well-armed foe. Russian troops advanced; were thrown back; advanced again; took heavy losses; shelled Ukrainian cities; etc., etc. It was ugly.
In recent weeks, Putin has produced anti-war protests on his home-front when he re-instated the military draft. An easy takeover of Ukraine, on the way back to empire, was one thing. But a serious war, with serious casualties, was something else entirely. The Russian people are upset, and Vlad is really steamed.
This has produced the first public mention of possible nuclear war since atomic weapons were developed. Mr. Putin has angrily declared that further opposition to his military objectives in Ukraine could lead to use of tactical nuclear weapons.1 These are battlefield-weapons, so Ukrainian forces would be the probable targets. But European nations of NATO could also be targets.
The USA is a NATO signatory, but one imagines that Mr. Putin would avoid attacking us because of our enormous retaliatory capability. Or perhaps he is convinced that we wouldn’t want to get into a nuclear war. Or, still scarier, he might imagine that Russia is too big and too scattered to be much hurt by any nuclear attack we might launch – so he’s willing to gamble.
We can only guess what is in the mind of Vladimir Putin. The possibilities are scary, but they are made even scarier by Joe Biden’s verbal response, in which he said we are closer to Armageddon2 than we have been since the 1961 Cuban Missile Crisis. No prudent man – certainly no president on either side – should be carelessly throwing such words around. If there are any serious people left on both sides of the pond, they need to sit down without delay and work out an immediate cease-fire as a prelude to a peace-agreement.
For god’s sake, this kind of loose talk has to stop. Joe Biden’s peanut gallery – who have been cheering for war-war-war! – need to put a sock in it. And somebody needs to tell Good Old (Commander-in-Chief) Joe that a war – whether nuclear or conventional – will not salvage his presidency and make him into FDR II. He is gambling with fate, and he needs to put down the dice before they come up snake-eyes.
- Tactical nuclear weapons are lower-yield atomic warheads designed for battlefield (rather than strategic) use. They have been tested, but never used in actual military operations. Military experts are not agreed on their practicality because of the radiation-risk to the deploying force.
- Armageddon is the New Testament name for the last battle between the armies of good and evil, before the Day of Judgment. (See Revelation 16:16)