Tag Archives: Cold War

Just How Close Have We Come (And How Close ARE We) To Nuclear War?

For most of human history, we could take comfort in one simple fact. No matter how brutish, crude, or stupid we were, from burning witches to fighting wars over a stray dog, we could never screw up so badly that we would destroy our entire world. Sure, we could leave some pretty noticeable scars, but we could never outright destroy it.

That all changed on July 16, 1945 in Los Alamos, New Mexico when the first atomic bomb was detonated. It’s impossible to overstate how significant that moment was in the history of the human race and not just because it helped end World War II, thereby inspiring countless war movies for decades to come.

For the first time in the history of planet Earth, a species that had evolved to hunt, gather, and pick nuts out of elephant shit had the means to wipe itself out, along with most other life. At the height of the Cold War, there were approximately 64,500 active nuclear warheads. That’s enough destructive power to kill every person in the world, and their pets, many times over.

While the number of live nuclear warheads at the global level has decreased, they still have plenty of destructive power to both wipe out our species and render large chunks of the world uninhabitable to any species less hardy than a cockroach. These are, by and large, the most dangerous items mankind has ever created and that includes machine guns, nerve gas, and fidget spinners.

The very existence of these weapons says a lot about the state of our species and where it came from, more so than I can cover in a single blog post. However, in wake of the 35th anniversary of the day when the world, as we know it, almost ended, I think it’s worth emphasizing just how skilled/lucky/crazy we are to still live in an intact world.

Despite the undeniable danger of nuclear weapons, we don’t always treat them with the same care that we would treat the latest iPhone. Several years ago, John Oliver dedicated an entire show to highlighting the sorry state of America’s nuclear arsenal. Even if you only believe half of what a comedy news show tells you, it’s hard to take much comfort when weapons of mass destruction are involved.

What happened on September 26th, 1983 was terrifying in just how close we came to nuclear war. Many would make the argument that this incident was the closest we, as a species, came to destroying ourselves. I would tend to agree with that argument. Unfortunately, it’s one of those arguments that has an uncomfortable breadth of details.

It’s true. There have been more incidents that could’ve easily escalated to terrifying levels. Some were simple accidents that could’ve warranted far more than a demotion. Some where intense, geopolitical ordeals that went onto inspire major Hollywood movies starring Kevin Costner.

In any case, the stakes were painfully high. You literally can’t get much higher than a nuclear war that wipes out billions. We’ve managed to avoid it, but we’ve come so uncomfortably close that it’s a miracle the world is still spinning. A video from the YouTube channel AllTimeTop10s nicely documents some of these incidents. If you feel like you’re having a bad day, this should help provide some context.

I’ll give everyone a moment to catch their breath, vomit, or a combination of the two. I promise nobody would blame you. Knowing how close we came to nuclear war and how bad it could’ve been, we should all share in a collective sigh of relief every day.

However, as bad as these past cases have been, there’s no guarantee that we won’t face something similar in the future. There’s also no guarantee that there will be someone like Santislav Petrov to make the right decision when those situations come around.

That said, the situation today is very different than what it was during the Cold War. Say what you will about ongoing talking points about Russia. It’s not even in the same hemisphere at it was in the 50s and 60s when the United States and Russia seemed eager for an opportunity to go to war.

The world of geopolitics has evolved, in many ways, beyond the concept of two competing superpowers engaging in a nuclear dick-measuring contest. These days, increased globalism and a more interconnected economy makes that kind of geopolitical strategy untenable and counterproductive.

In a sense, globalization and the economic bounty that came with it made war of any kind, nuclear or otherwise, a losing endeavor. As I’ve noted before, even the most evil billionaires in the world prefer that the world remain intact so they can keep enjoying their billions. That’s just common sense and shameless self-interest.

That might offer some comfort, but there are those much smarter than I’ll ever be who still have concerns. According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, who have been gauging the likelihood of nuclear war for decades, we’re two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. This is their statement on the matter.

For the last two years, the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock stayed set at three minutes before the hour, the closest it had been to midnight since the early 1980s. In its two most recent annual announcements on the Clock, the Science and Security Board warned: “The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon.” In 2017, we find the danger to be even greater, the need for action more urgent. It is two and a half minutes to midnight, the Clock is ticking, global danger looms. Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way.

Since I’m an aspiring erotica/romance writer and not an atomic scientist, I am woefully unqualified to contest the conclusions of these individuals, let alone argue them. They cite a new wave of tensions between Russia and the United States, as well as the nuclear ambitions of North Korea. These are not the same conflicts that fueled the Cold War and that uncertainty has many understandably spooked.

Me being the optimist I am, I tend to believe that world leaders, however deranged or misguided they may be, prefer that the world remain intact. Nobody wants to be the leader of a smoldering pile of ash. There’s no way to build a palace, a harem, or a giant golden statue of themselves on a foundation of ash. That’s as good an incentive as anyone can hope for in avoiding nuclear war.

Unfortunately, human beings don’t always act rationally and are prone to making stupid decisions that change the course of history. One mistake in a situation involving nuclear weapons might be all it takes. Only time will tell, but the extent to which we’ve survived thus far should give us all reasons to be hopeful and thankful.

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How Nuclear Weapons Have (Kind Of) Had A Positive Impact On Society

There are just some ideas in society that cannot and will never be justified. Concepts like sexual assault, spousal abuse, and the premature cancellation of “Firefly” usually come to mind. Some things are just so awful that the world would be objectively better if they didn’t exist.

Well, I’m going to put on some extra layers and change the locks on my doors this morning because I’m about to justify the existence of something that many rightfully dread and for entirely understandable reasons. I imagine my position will upset a certain crowd of people, especially the peace-loving hippie types that are fond of the sexier, more decadent stories I’ve written.

That’s because I’m going to spend this article justifying the existence of nuclear weapons. Given how I’ve covered just how close we came to nuclear annihilation about 35 years ago that may seem like a complete reversal. I promise there’s a logic to it, albeit a distressing kind.

First off, let me make clear that I find nuclear weapons abhorrent. The fact we have weapons that powerful and no killer aliens/superintelligent apes to justify them reflects the sad, chaotic state of affairs of our civilization. The idea that just one of the handful of nuclear armed countries can slaughter millions on the whim of an itchy trigger finger is nothing short of terrifying.

However, and this is where I’m sure I’ll lose the hippie crowd, they may also be responsible for our growing ability to avoid war and cooperate with one another. Please set the pitchforks down for a moment. Let me explain myself, at least as much as any aspiring erotica/romance writer can on such a sensitive topic.

Most of people alive today don’t remember a world without nuclear weapons. Sure, they’re terrifying in their destructive potential, but we’re kind of used to their presence. Most people today don’t give them a second, a third, or a tenth thought. The fact they’ve only ever been used twice in a conflict limits the impact of that terror.

Even if entire generations are numb to it, that doesn’t change the inherent horror or the destructive capabilities of these weapon. These weapons don’t just kill a few hundred or a few thousand people. They kill millions, and even billions, of people. At a time when any event that kills more than tens of thousand people is considered a global crisis, most people can’t even wrap their heads around such horror.

It’s because of that horror, though, that nuclear weapons incurred such a significant impact on the world. It’s not the kind of impact that we feel every day, but it’s one that has shaped the mindset of our society in the late 20th and 21st century. How it did that requires a little perspective that’s not easy for anyone under the age of 75 to understand.

Despite what cable news and conspiracy theories/performance artists may claim, the last 50 years have seen an unprecedented decline in war. That may evoke some heavy scoffs from those who hear terrible news out of Iraq and Afghanistan at least twice a day, but the data doesn’t lie.

Since 1945, there hasn’t been a major world war involving major world powers. Sure, there have been smaller proxy wars like Vietnam, Iraq, and Korea. However, those wars never even came close to the staggering death toll of World War II. Fittingly enough, that was a war ended by nuclear weapons, but it’s really the events that played out in the decades after that war that showed the impact of those weapons.

Now, thanks to weapons that could wipe out entire continents, nations couldn’t wage war on the same level they had for centuries past. Before the 20th century, a nation going to war with another was seen as standard business practices. You couldn’t call yourself a powerful nation without going to war and sending thousands of young men off to die on a battlefield. Some even tried to paint that kind of thing as glorious.

With nuclear weapons, there’s nothing glorious about incinerating entire cities in the blink of an eye. There’s no room for heroism, gallantry, or warrior spirit. One second you’re a live, flesh-and-blood human. The next, you and everything around you is a pile of radioactive ash. That fundamentally changes the image of war.

Suddenly, nations have a very good reason to not go to war, especially with a country that has nuclear weapons. It’s not just their soldiers that will die. It’s every city, town, and village within their borders. Even the most brutal, sociopath-like ruler can’t overlook the high cost of such a war. Most rulers enjoy the perks that come with ruling. Going to war is the quickest way to lose it all.

That’s the biggest impact that nuclear weapons have had, as a whole. They’ve made large wars on the level of World War II impossible, if not downright suicidal for all those involved. Say what you will about the ineptitude of modern nation states, but in general, they want to survive.

Making war that untenable is an objective good, on some level. Granted, that good is only achieved through the sheer terror and destructive potential that nuclear weapons possess, but the result is still the same. Going to war is no longer a viable means for a nation to grow. Instead, nations grow through economics and instead of war stories, that gives us smartphones, cars, and exotic music like K-pop.

Regardless of how you feel about K-pop, it’s much less destructive than any war. It could be argued, and I would tend to agree, that the lack of a major war is a big reason why the 20th and 21st century has seen the hugest economic growth, as well as the greatest reduction in global poverty, in recorded history.

Beyond just making nations too reluctant/terrified of going to war, nuclear weapons have had another impact on how global powers function. In the past, major nations went to war for stupid, petty reasons all the time. Why be diplomatic about anything when war is so much sexier? That’s how the British Empire got to be one of the largest empires of all time.

Then, nuclear weapons come along and suddenly, nobody can afford to be that petty anymore. Now, fighting a stupid war that could escalate for stupid reasons runs the risk of seeing your glorious empire reduced to ash in the span of a day. Nuclear weapons are just that powerful.

Fear, being such a powerful motivator, makes nations more inclined to talk a problem out rather than sending in the army. It requires them to make more of an effort to talk to rival nations, make mutual deals with them, and not rely so much on bully tactics because one might have a larger army. When nuclear weapons are involved, the size of an army means less than the size of their shoes.

That’s why, despite a fair amount of bravado on the geopolitical stage, modern nations generally prefer diplomatic solutions over war. When the alternative is nuclear annihilation, even the most petty rulers will opt to negotiate. As chaotic as the world might be, the presence of nuclear weapons makes war untenable and diplomacy indispensable.

Whether out of sheer terror or begrudging pragmatics, the advent of nuclear weapons has changed the way that modern nations conduct themselves on the global stage. By nearly every measure, that method is an improvement over the bloody wars of the past.

Most people who aren’t kings, despots, or related to one can’t appreciate the benefits of a world where war is so untenable, due to the presence of real doomsday-level weapons. Perhaps that’s for the best. So much of our time as a civilization has been spent dreading when we’ll be conscripted to fight a bloody war for some ambitious king/tyrant/emperor. Not having to live our lives with that fear counts as an improvement.

Now, as beneficial as this on some levels, it doesn’t discount the true danger of nuclear weapons. Make no mistake. These things can and will destroy us all if we use them, even on accident. The stakes literally cannot be higher when such weapons are involved, but if they help us function better as a species and a society, then I think that gives at least some merit to their presence.

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In Memory Of Stanislav Petrov: The Man Who (Literally) Saved The World

Stanislav Petrov

Today is an important day, one that became even more important this past year. You probably didn’t realize it and for good reason. Until recently, the significance of this day had been lost to history, but it’s a day that deserves recognition, albeit for a very sobering reason.

This day became one of the most significant days not affiliated with a holiday sale at the mall on September 26, 1983. On that day, the world as we know it almost ended. That’s not a hyperbole. That’s not a conspiracy theory out of a an Alex Jones fever dream either. It’s painfully true. The world almost died in a nuclear fire on that day, but it didn’t because of a decision made by one man.

That man’s name is Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov and if you were alive on that day, or were born after it, then you owe your existence to this man. For a brief moment on that day, 35 years ago, he literally held the fate of the world in his hand and he made the decision that saved it. As someone who regularly lauds superheroes and the values espoused in comics, even I can’t overstate the significance of what that man did.

The incident that almost ended the world and made Stanislav Petrov a man for the ages widely known about until the mid-2000s. It involved an incident in the former Soviet Union that brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation. In terms of worst case scenarios, this ranked right up there with an invasion by aliens armed with atomic anal probes.

At the time, Petrov was a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Forces and had been on duty at the Serpukhov-15 bunker near Moscow. In terms of Soviet defense strategy, his role in that bunker was pretty damn important. It was tasked with monitoring Soviet air space to detect an incoming nuclear attack.

It’s worth mentioning that this was a time of heightened tension. President Reagan, at the time, was going long and hard on anti-communist rhetoric. Being a former Hollywood actor who’d just been elected President, the Soviets had no idea if this guy was just going to shoot nuclear missiles at them because he thought it would make a great movie.

In a sense, this was the worst possible time for the systems at the Serpukhov-15 bunker to give a false alarm, but that’s exactly what happened. In the middle of Petrov’s shift, the systems began blaring every alarm it was possible to blare, telling them that America’s new Hollywood President had done just what they’d feared. He launched a full-scale nuclear attack to wipe out the Soviet Union.

I’d say it’s a nightmare scenario, but no amount of killer clowns armed with chainsaws can do justice to this kind of horror. As far as the men in that bunker knew, their country and everyone they loved was about to die in a nuclear inferno. It was the policy of the USSR and the Red Army to respond to any nuclear attack with a devastating retaliation, as specified in the doctrine of mutual assured destruction.

It was Stanislav Petrov’s job/duty to inform the Soviet high command of the detection. Every bit of his military training demanded that he inform his superiors to retaliate, thereby destroying the United States and Western Europe in reign of nuclear fire. In a state of such heightened tensions, he might have been justified in doing so.

All it took was one call to his superiors. That would’ve been it. That would’ve ended the world, as we knew it. Try and think about that for a second. In that moment, the fate of the world and billions of lives lay on the shoulders of Stanislav Petrov. If he makes that call, then the world as we know it is over.

However, in that moment when he literally had the world on his shoulders, he didn’t make that call. In that moment, he made a decision that saved the world and its future. He did it by not following the protocol that he’d been trained to follow and by the Soviet Union, no less, who were not known for being understanding to disobedience.

Petrov, with his duty and the weight of the situation bearing down on him, believed it to be a false alarm. He had good reason for believing this. The systems were detecting only several missiles, which was pretty small, given the sheer size of America’s nuclear arsenal. If America’s Hollywood President really wanted to wipe out the Soviet Union, he definitely would’ve used more.

Even so, his training and his duty told him to inform his superiors. He only had 15 minutes to do so because that’s how long it took for a detectable missile to reach its target. That’s right. In the time it takes to watch an episode of “Robot Chicken,” Stanislav Petrov had to make a decision that would’ve determined the fate of this entire planet.

The fact that no nuclear bombs went off and billions of people didn’t die is proof that he made the right decision. It was later determined that the false alarms were caused by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds and the erratic orbits of the Soviet’s satellites.

It seems so trivial now, but keep in mind that these were tense times during the Cold War. It really didn’t take much to spook either America or the USSR. It could’ve easily become a perfect storm, of sorts, for accidental nuclear annihilation and nobody would’ve been left on this planet to admit they screwed up.

It’s because of Petrov’s decision that day, to not follow protocol and trust his instinct, that we avoided Armageddon. For that decision, Petrov received no metal, commendation, or recognition for his decision. He just got a pat on the back, which was the most anyone could hope for in the Soviet Union at that time.

This man literally saved the world in the most painfully literal sense, but was quickly forgotten. There were no parades, movies, or free tickets to a Madonna concert. Petrov just went back to living his life until he retired from the military.

It really wasn’t until 2004 that Petrov began getting recognized for his actions, that day. By then, though, the weight of that moment had lost its place in the public consciousness. The fact I have to write about it on this blog shows just how little awareness this man and that fateful day have in the annuls of history.

Well, in this year, that day became a lot more important because back in May, Stanislav Petrov passed away at age 77. It wasn’t widely reported. It didn’t even get mentioned on any of the major news outlets in America or Russia. This man who saved billions of lives isn’t even alive anymore to appreciate.

He lived a quiet, unremarkable life towards the end. He never considered himself a hero. He never even tried to put that label on himself. He was just the right man in the right place to make the right decision. In doing so, he saved billions of lives and preserved the future of this planet.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the decision that this man made on that fateful day 35 years ago. Some may brag that they saved the world or are arrogant enough to think that they can. Stanislav Petrov didn’t need to brag because he did it. He saved this world and most people will never know what he did.

Now that he’s passed, let’s all take a moment to appreciate what this man did. By trusting his instinct and his humanity, not wanting to make the decision that would destroy this world, he proved just how heroic a person could be in the worst of circumstances.

From the bottom of my heart, and on behalf of all those who are alive because of the decision made that day, thank you Mr. Petrov. Thank you for doing the right thing in the worst of circumstances. This world is still spinning because of you. Rest in peace knowing you saved it.

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