100 Seconds to Midnight

Mutually Assured Destruction - MAD. These 3 terrifying words have somehow been the source of relative peace in the world for close to 6 decades. Yes, the only way we humans were able to achieve some sort of world peace is by keeping the most deadly weapons known to mankind on standby. Regardless of the irony, however, it is indeed true that these weapons have induced a sense of restraint to geopolitical decisions, at least as far as the major powers are concerned. That is, of course, until about a month ago when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began. Any country intervening with the invasion will have, and I quote, “consequences that you have never faced in your history,” said Vladimir Putin. “We are ready for any outcome.” 

Of course, he isn’t really referring to any outcome. He is only really referring to one outcome. That of nuclear war. You see, up until now, the policy of mutually assured destruction had been working well. The fear of death provoked prudence, not war. Now, instead of acting as a deterrent, which was the original goal anyway, the prospect of nuclear war is giving dictators the ability to act with impunity. Vladimir Putin can do as he pleases so long as he has the red button in his hand. 

This comes nearly 3 decades after Ukraine voluntarily removed its nuclear arsenal, the third largest at the time after the United States and Russia, in exchange for security guarantees. Countries that guaranteed that protection was the United States of America, the United Kingdom, and Russia. 

That’s worked out pretty well, hasn’t it?

The security guarantees that were thought to have been ironclad were nothing more than some signatures. The recent events are setting precedents, not just for dictators to do as they please, but also for countries who might have previously considered denuclearization. Even without nuclear weapons, this recent chain of events will lead to a re-militarization across Europe and the rest of the world. The average military spending had actually been going down across Europe for the past 10 years. Now, with the injection of military spending from Germany, countries across the world will be looking to prioritize military spending using money that could have gone to schools, health care, or really just any other form of infrastructure. 

This also leads to the realization that the rest of the world is no longer as comfortable with relying on Russia for oil and gas as it was just a month ago. Germany, in addition to bolstering their military, has also accelerated their plans to move to renewable sources by 15 years. While self-sufficiency and the move towards renewables is always a positive thing, it is not realistic to expect most countries to transition so rapidly. Inevitably, solar, wind, and hydroelectricity will not be sufficient to meet all of these demands; some will take the nuclear turn. 

This is not to say having nuclear power plants is going to end humanity. In fact, the fear of consequence has so far meant that nuclear power plants are quite safe. But, Russia has attacked nuclear power plants in its invasion of Ukraine. It does not take much to realize that these power plants themselves are very high-priority military targets, especially during war. The United States conducts, what it calls, “Force on Force” drills on all its nuclear power plants every 3 years, since an attack on these plants could lead to widespread contamination of the community nearby. Ironically, the United States and Israel have actually devised a computer worm “Stuxnet” to corrupt the uranium enrichment facilities in Iran. It is not hard to foresee a similar attack on other major powers. And when that happens, what would you bet on not to fail? The cascading set of events from last month's invasion are making peace look more like an ambitious target, rather than our reality. 

But the latest set of events is hardly the only questionable thing in the history of nuclear weapons. When these weapons were initially being built, not many people actually knew about their ferocity. Even the people who built it were not truly aware of its devastation. 

But of course, they had to be put to the test.

Across 2 decades, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia deployed over 450,000 soldiers to witness the explosions, and clean up afterwards. Many of them weren’t told what they were there for. Most of them did not know anything about the health risks of such bombs either. The best they got was advice to cover their eyes if it got too bright. After the blindingly bright flashes of chaos, they all went home after they were “dusted” for what was supposed to be decontamination. It was in the years that followed, that the true destruction of this weapon presented itself. Young men in their 20s were rendered infertile. Out of no consent of their own, they were denied the opportunity of having children. And the few that could have children were not much better off either. Many of the children born to these soldiers had missing limbs, deep genetic anomalies, and often died very young. Eventually, 18,500 of the 22,500 British soldiers died earlier than the general population and did so from radiation exposure-induced diseases, not natural causes. Up until a new law was passed in the late 90s, these men were sworn to secrecy and threatened that any breach would be treasonous. They couldn’t even share what had happened to them with their families.

“When the flash hit you, you could see the x-rays from your hand,” said one victim.

But of course, once the devastation of these bombs had manifested as quick victories in war or otherwise, leaders were quick to embrace them. So much so, that in 1972, the Soviet Union and America actually signed an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty. It’s basically a treaty to minimize missile defenses, which should, in theory, minimize the development of more nuclear weapons. MAD, well and truly. However, during President Bush’s reign, the United States withdrew from that treaty, citing “the hostility that once led both our countries to keep thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert” had passed. Of course, this led to Russia developing more robust missile delivery systems, with Putin stating that this was a direct consequence of the ABM treaty withdrawal. 

Now, it is likely that the world will see this one out. But it is filled with instances that could spark a conflict now or in the future. 

Russia has hit nuclear power plants and has taken them over. Besides, everyday that the war goes on, we approach a more vitriolic world, a world with many more seeds of hatred. Historian Yuval Noah Harari said, “The seeds for this war were probably sown in Leningrad. Likewise, this war too will sow seeds that will culminate into who knows what 50 years from now.” 

All this points to one thing only: Nuclear war is more likely now than it was in the recent past, even if incrementally so.

Which makes you wonder, what would happen if a nuclear warhead were to be fired accidentally? Well, something like this has already happened. In a story that has been well popularized, we all know of the cold-war incident when the US deployed depth charges to ward off Soviet submarines. Those depth charges were misunderstood as a deliberate act of aggression, one which initiated a nuclear response. However, for a submarine to deploy such a weapon, protocol had it that everyone on board the ship had to agree that it was an act of aggression and that retaliation was needed. 

Only one man, Vasili Arkhipov, of all the personnel on board, refused to vote to fire the nuclear torpedo. He was not the highest ranking officer on the Foxtrot-class B-59 diesel submarine. He was the second in command. But, as per protocol, without his consent, the warhead could not be fired. In that moment, even he wasn’t sure if it was the right call. But it was. An advisor to President John F. Kennedy said that this was, “not only the most dangerous moment in the cold war, but the most dangerous moment in human history.” 

It was a call that potentially saved humanity’s fate. How many more times will we have that luck? One more time, at least, it seems. Nearly 2 decades after the Cuban missile crisis, another malfunction triggered early warning systems in the Soviet nuclear monitoring systems. Of course, at the time, the duty officer at the command center outside Moscow, Colonel Stanislav Petrov, did not know that it was a malfunction. All he could see was that 5 intercontinental ballistic missiles had been fired from American bases. In a matter of minutes, he started contacting his superiors, who were almost certain to order a retaliatory attack. 

Colonel Petrov had an instinctive feeling that this was not “it.” This couldn’t have been. Upon later questioning, he said, “When people start wars, they don’t just start them with 5 missiles. The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word 'launch' on it.” 

It was that judgment call that probably saved humanity. For a while longer at least.

But of course, we do learn from our mistakes, and the major powers, especially the United States and Russia, agreed that never again should the fate of mankind be decided on some 50/50 signal of aggression. This one piece of information has to be as unambiguous as can be. That led to the creation of the famous “red phones.” 

Known initially as the Washington-Moscow hotline, the red phones are communication devices designed to convey information with the most clarity during times of nuclear war. What the red telephones are not, however, are telephones. They are probably not red either. Actually, they were first created as teletype machines, with two at both Washington and two at Moscow. One prints in Latin and the other one in Cyrillic. They were then turned into fax machines, and since 2008, the communication now takes place entirely over computer link via text and email. Since the general weaponization of the world has accelerated in recent years, the importance of having these bilateral hotlines has also increased. Other hotlines also exist. Namely, North and South Korea have hotlines, and so do India and Pakistan. These hotlines are supposedly used everyday. Not to start a war, but to simply test that the machine is functioning for you cannot start a nuclear war and “hope” everything works. 

Once nuclear war starts, there is no going back.

But the track record of disaster communications, at least for the US, is not so great. It was reported that despite the high-tech communication equipment on board Air Force One, President Bush apparently found it hard to reach the situation room, failing to do so numerous times. During nuclear war, those in charge would have just over 30 minutes to react. With 30 minutes to go, even simple questions on an exam don’t make sense; imagine what it would feel like to have humanity’s fate on your shoulders. Colonel Petrov had close to five minutes, and it’s important to note that even though his incident took place in 1983, which is after the red phones had been in operation, the red phones were not used that day. 

I made a video titled “Two Minutes to Midnight” 4 years ago. That was where the doomsday clock stood in 2018. Every year, the bulletin of atomic scientists recalculates the risk of total human obliteration. In 2022, on the 20th of January, the Doomsday clock stood at 100 seconds from Midnight. This was a month before the invasion began. 

The bulletin has since released a brief saying that the clock will remain at 100 seconds. 

The risk of nuclear war may not have palpably increased, at least to those of us who want to see the glass half full. But, there is no denying that the so-called “nightmares of yesteryear,” those stories that only our parents lived through, might become our future, a dangerous future, one where we are only seconds to midnight.  

“The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” - Albert Einstein.

- MA, MM