Nuclear Poker: Poking the Russian Bear and Baiting the Chinese Dragon

October 12th, 2012 - by admin

Martin Hellman / Waging Peace & Nuclear Risk – 2012-10-12 23:54:52


Martin Hellman / Waging Peace

Fifty years ago, the Cuban Missile Crisis had us teetering precariously on the edge of the nuclear abyss. Could it happen again today? Most think not — if they think about it at all. This paper shows that society’s complacency is ill-founded, and that we are still bluffing in a deadly game of nuclear poker. We run an unacceptably high risk of our bluff again being called and finding ourselves, once more, teetering on the brink of the abyss.

This paper’s first section, Risks During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, highlights eleven little-known events which demonstrate that 1962 was a significantly more dangerous year than generally realized.

Examples include:
* During the crisis, American destroyers unknowingly attacked Soviet submarines armed with nuclear torpedoes.

* American decision makers who wanted to invade Cuba did not know that the Soviets had deployed battlefield nuclear weapons for repelling an invasion.

* In March, the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended sinking an American ship in Guantanamo Bay and blaming Fidel Castro to create public support for an American invasion of Cuba.

The paper’s next section, Current Risks and Actions for Reducing Them, identifies eleven current events with the potential to produce a comparable crisis today and provides suggestions for reducing each such risk. Because this paper is written for an American audience, the ameliorative steps are all actions on which we can take the lead. Here are four examples, with more detailed explanations given in that section:

* Warning times have shrunk to virtually zero.

Recommendation: Take our missiles off hair-trigger alert, and de-emphasize the role that first use of nuclear weapons currently plays in our war- fighting plans.

* Nuclear terrorism has added a dangerous new dimension.

Recommendation: Reduce the number of nuclear weapons and the amount of fissile material that is vulnerable to theft by terrorists.

* American conventional military superiority causes Russian war-fighting plans to rely on the early use of nuclear weapons.

Recommendation: Recognize that any war with Russia runs an unacceptable risk of going nuclear, and start acting accordingly.

* Actions taken by Congress and some of our NATO allies reinforce Russian fears that our missile defense system is aimed at them.

Recommendation: Ensure that our actions are consistent with our repeated claims that Russia is not the target.

Even though terrorists, North Korea, and Iran dominate American thinking about nuclear threats, for reasons detailed in the section on Current Risks and Actions for Reducing Them, this paper places more emphasis on the potential for a modern-day Russian-American crisis, mistake, or accident. One reason for that emphasis is that Russia and America possess 95% of the world’s nuclear weapons, creating unique potential for destroying civilization.

Kennedy and Khrushchev created the conditions for the 1962 Cuban crisis by bluffing at nuclear poker. In today’s less polarized world, the cards may be dealt less frequently, but if we keep playing this risky game, it is only a matter of time before a crisis arises, neither side is willing to fold, the bluffs are called, and civilization is destroyed.

Each individual risk may be small, but taken together over an extended period of time, the risk becomes unacceptably high. Even if nuclear deterrence could be expected to work for 500 years before we destroy ourselves, a child born today would have roughly one chance in six of being killed by a nuclear weapon over his or her 80-year expected lifetime — equivalent to playing Russian roulette with a six-chambered revolver pointed at the child’s head.

If we continue to bluff at nuclear poker, we automatically subject each new generation to a round of nuclear roulette. After fifty years, it is high time we stopped playing those deadly games and started creating true national security.

— — — —
The End Notes and References section at the end of this paper back up some otherwise hard-to-believe facts presented here — for example, that the Joint Chiefs recommended sinking an American ship and blaming Cuba, or that President Kennedy was taking massive doses of amphetamines that might have impaired his judgment. Web links in that section are “clickable” in this paper’s PDF at

Poking the Russian Bear and Baiting the Chinese Dragon
Martin Hellman / Nuclear

If we continue to bluff at nuclear poker, we automatically subject each new generation to a round of nuclear roulette

(September 26, 2012) — In my seminar on “Nuclear Weapons, Risk, and Hope,” I emphasize the need for paying attention to early warning signs before a disaster involving nuclear weapons occurs. For example, in one of my course handouts, I identify six key steps that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and demonstrate how, by July 2008, we had repeated five and a half of those mistakes.

But, because it stopped half a step short of becoming a full-blown crisis, almost no one is aware of it — and we continue making the same mistakes. One of the students asked whether the mistakes were only obvious in hindsight, leading me to write this post and explain how they can be seen ahead of time.

With respect to the July 2008 Cuban mini-crisis, I had been warning for about a year before it happened that our Eastern European Missile Defense system had the potential to provoke a Russian-American crisis involving Cuba. I saw an uncanny resemblance between our current missile defense plans and our 1962 Turkish missile deployment which put the idea in Khrushchev’s mind to base similar missiles in Cuba.

A paper I published in March 2008, four months before the mini-crisis occurred, warned:

we are in the process of deploying a missile defense in Russia’s backyard (Poland and the Czech Republic) over strenuous Russian objections. A possible Russian response would be to threaten deployment of a similar missile defense in Cuba, much as our Jupiter missile deployment in Turkey was the stimulus for Khrushchev deploying his Cuban missiles.
While these Cuban missiles would be defensive in nature, many Americans would see them as intolerable. Among other concerns, there would likely be fears that these were offensive weapons disguised as defensive ones. (The Russians have voiced a similar concern over our deployment.)

While the Russian response involved bombers instead of missiles, the danger was the same, with Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz warning that it would cross “a red line.” It is possible to see the early warning signs if one is watching for them.

As another example, just today I came across an article in the current issue of Newsweek [October 1 & 8 edition, page 20] about the anti-Japanese riots in China, which also threatened our ambassador to Beijing. The protests were provoked by Japan taking actions to assert its sovereignty over a few tiny, uninhabited, islands that are also claimed by China and Taiwan.

Owned by China until 1895 when they were lost to Japan in the First Sino-Japanese War, America took control of them after World War II, and in 1972 returned them to Japan. Giving them back to “Red China” would have been unthinkable, even though China seemed to have a reasonable claim for recovering them now that Japan had lost a war in which China was on the winning side.

On September 20, this Sino-Japanese dispute gained the potential to escalate to a Sino-American crisis when, in testimony before a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee, Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, stated that maintaining the islands under Japanese control, “falls clearly under Article V” of the 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan.

Article V is a mutual assistance clause in the event of “an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan.” Similar statements had been made in 2004 by President George W. Bush and in 2010 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

I am not saying that the dispute over these tiny islands will escalate to nuclear threats (and potentially war) between China and the US. But it has the potential to do that, and if we neglect enough of these early warning signs, eventually one will explode in our faces.

Before that happens, we need to reexamine whether issuing security guarantees to Japan over such trivial territory is in our national security interests. There is danger that our actions will cause hardline elements in both Japan and China to take actions they otherwise would not, making a crisis and possible war more likely than it need be.

If we start paying attention to such early warning signs, not only can we reduce the risk of a nuclear disaster, but we can avoid needless crises and conventional wars. Isn’t it time we started dong that?

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