PROF. GROETESCHELE: I say 60 million is perhaps the highest price we should be prepared to pay in a war.
MR. FOSTER: What’s the difference between 60 million dead and a hundred million?
PROF. GROETESCHELE: Forty million.
MR. FOSTER: Some difference.
PROF. GROETESCHELE: Are you saying saving 40 million lives is of no importance?
MR. FOSTER: You miss the point, Professor. Saving those 60 million lives is what’s important.
PROF. GROETESCHELE: Face facts, Mr. Foster. We’re talking about war. I say every war, including thermonuclear war, must have a winner and a loser. Which would you rather be?
MR. FOSTER: In a nuclear war, everyone loses. War isn’t what it used to be.
PROF. GROETESCHELE: It’s still the resolution of economic and political conflict.
MR. FOSTER: What kind of resolution with 100 million dead?
PROF. GROETESCHELE: It doesn’t have to be 100 million.
MR. FOSTER: Even sixty!
PROF. GROETESCHELE: The same as a thousand years ago, sir, when you also had wars that wiped out whole peoples. The point is still who wins and who loses, the survival of a culture.
MR. FOSTER: A culture? With most of its people dead, the rest dying, the food poisoned, the air unfit to breathe. You call that a culture?
PROF. GROETESCHELE: Yes, I do. I am not a poet. I’m a political scientist, who would rather have an American culture survive than a Russian one.
— Fail-Safe (1964)
“When I asked the military advisors if they could assure me that holding fast [during the Cuban Missile Crisis] would not result in the death of five hundred million human beings, they looked at me as though I was out of my mind, or what was worse, a traitor. The biggest tragedy, as they saw it, was not that our country might be devastated and everything lost, but that the Chinese or the Albanians might accuse us of appeasement or weakness. So I said to myself, “To hell with these maniacs. If I can get the United States to assure me that it will not attempt to overthrow the Cuban government, I will remove the missiles.” That is what happened, and now I am reviled by the Chinese and the Albanians.… They say I was afraid to stand up to a paper tiger. It is all such nonsense. What good would it have done me in the last hour of my life to know that though our great nation and the United States were in complete ruins, the national honor of the Soviet Union was intact?”
— Nikita Khrushchev
Back during the Cold War—when the world still had serious public discussions about the danger of rival powerful countries having vast arsenals of nuclear weapons—a number of excellent speculative films about World War III were produced. Five standouts from within a few years of each other—Dr. Strangelove (1964), Fail-Safe (1964), On The Beach (1959), Ladybug, Ladybug (1963), and The Bedford Incident (1965)—can be watched today as a kind of pentalogy, each dramatizing (or spoofing, in the case of Strangelove) a different aspect of the threat posed to humankind by nuclear weapons. Like many quality works of fiction, they tell us the truth more powerfully than any number of studies, essays, documentaries, and monographs.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb has had the most enduring fame, and is the most entertaining. (Spoilers of all films follow.) In it, a paranoid Brigadier General, obsessed with one of those peculiarly American conspiracy theories (in this case, the notion that Communists are fluoridating the water to sap American vitality) goes rogue and orders a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union. The President of the United States discovers that the Soviets have built a Doomsday Machine, which will destroy all life on Earth in retaliation for an attack. Efforts to call off the strike only partly succeed, and just before the world ends, the president’s adviser (ex-Nazi Dr. Strangelove) is excitedly explaining that all is not lost: the leading men of the country will simply live deep underground, along with a vast harem of women who will repopulate the Earth when its surface becomes inhabitable again.
Dr. Strangelove was originally intended to be a realistic drama, but director Stanley Kubrick found that he couldn’t suppress the absurdity of his subject matter and thus created a dark comedy. The film is based on a true situation—the U.S. and the Soviet Union were indeed keeping world-ending weapons on hair-trigger alert, as the U.S. and Russia still do today. Even the presence of Nazis in the U.S. government was grounded in fact: after the war, the U.S. established a special jobs program for Nazi scientists, so that we could use their technical expertise in genocidal weaponry to help us figure out how to more efficiently obliterate Russians. Kubrick effectively exposed the sheer ludicrousness of our predicament—one in which Very Serious Rational Men in suits and ties and uniforms cannot keep themselves from doing things that are utterly deranged.
In Dr. Strangelove, beneath all the talk of strategy and deterrence, the men making decisions are shown to be motivated by primal sexual urges. Sexual themes are everywhere in the film, from the opening sequence in which two warplanes are engaged in in-flight refueling to the strains of “Try A Little Tenderness,” to the ending, in which Dr. Strangelove and General Buck Turgidson are in an almost ecstatic state thinking about the end of the world (and all the women they will have to impregnate to begin civilization anew). The cowboy pilot who rides the bomb to the ground whoops in ecstasy. The rogue Brigadier General, who appears at first to simply be ideologically anticommunist, reveals that his communist fluoridation theory came to him when he couldn’t perform in bed—and realized that some external force must be sapping his American libido. In a famous scene, Strangelove cannot keep his prosthetic arm from Sieg Heiling. The obvious message is about humankind’s inability to control our disastrous technology, but—especially since Kubrick acknowledged the sexual themes throughout the work—the stiffening of Strangelove’s arm at the prospect of armageddon is also clearly meant as a kind of uncontrollable erection. These men, Dr. Strangelove shows, get off on the end of the world. (The two men who try earnestly to stop the end of the world, British colonel Lionel Mandrake and U.S president Merkin Muffley, are, respectively, repressed and camp—Muffley’s phone conversations with the Soviet premier are played like a couple’s quarrel.) Dr. Strangelove ties together nuclear war and heterosexual masculinity, impishly suggesting that when the end of the world comes, it will be produced by men compensating for their feelings of sexual inadequacy by setting off the biggest missiles they can produce.
Dr. Strangelove is not the only ‘60s nuclear war film to bring sex into the picture. In Fail-Safe, Walter Matthau plays a political scientist and U.S. policy advisor who is sanguine about nuclear destruction. In an early scene, he meets a woman who is clearly turned on by his power to play God and inflict death:
ILSA: You know there won’t be any survivors.
PROF. GROETESCHELE: Not many.
ILSA: None at all. That’s the beauty of it.
PROF. GROETESCHELE: I’ve heard nuclear war called a lot of things, but never beautiful.
ILSA: People are afraid to call it that, but that’s what they feel. We all know we’re going to die… but you make a marvelous game out of it that includes the whole world[…] You make death an entertainment…
PROF. GROETESCHELE: […] I make death into a game for people like you to get excited about. […] You’d love making it possible. You’d love pressing that button. What a thrill that would be. Knowing you have to die, to have the power to take everyone else with you…
— Fail-Safe (1964)
Prof. Groeteschele repels Ilsa’s advances, insisting that he is “not your kind.” He is, he is convinced, a rational man whose theories are high-minded and come from sincere humanistic desire to save lives. He is not a nuke fetishist like that Nazi pervert Dr. Strangelove.
Still, Fail-Safe is in many ways like Dr. Strangelove performed as a drama. (Indeed, there was a legal dispute over the similarities.) It also involves the United States accidentally launching a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, but there is no insane general ranting about the sapping of our “precious bodily fluids.” There is only a simple computer malfunction, one that triggers a set of automated procedures that prove impossible to counteract. Strangelove shows many of the men running the show to be demented, aroused by power and murder. Fail-Safe shows the same situation differently: these men (for they are all men here too) aren’t horny for death, but they are nevertheless delusionally convinced of their own infallibility. They have set up a system that depends on the complete elimination of human error and oversight, and in which one slip-up will spell doom for humanity. They are shocked to discover that they are not capable of perfect rationality.
On The Beach and Ladybug, Ladybug look at the same crisis—the end of the world—from a different perspective. Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe are both set in war rooms, where planners in front of giant computer screens must figure out how (and whether) to arrest the unfolding of a process they themselves designed. Ladybug, Ladybug looks at a classroom of rural school children whose teachers receive an alert about an incoming nuclear attack—that is, they face the same situation that Hawaiians did in 2018 when they received a chilling text that said BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. The teachers and principal in Ladybug, Ladybug must try to maintain their sanity as they walk their students home knowing that everything they love might be destroyed before the end of the day.. On The Beach takes place on the other side of the event (and the other side of the world), among those who survive the Third World War, residents of Australia who know they will soon be killed by drifting fallout. They search for signs of life elsewhere, and have to decide whether to maintain false hope of survival, acting “normally,” or to live it up and embrace death. Both Ladybug, Ladybug and On The Beach end with warning messages. In Ladybug, Ladybug, a little boy looks up at planes overhead and cries out “STOP!” In On The Beach, we see an emptied Australian city—its residents all dead after radiation exposure—with an old Salvation Army banner fluttering that reads: “THERE IS STILL TIME, BROTHER.” Time to give yourself to Jesus and be saved, but time also to stop humanity from self-destructing.
My own favorite World War III film from the era is The Bedford Incident, an unjustly neglected picture starring Sidney Poitier and Richard Widmark. Its director, James B. Harris, had worked on Dr. Strangelove but thought it ought to have been a drama. The Bedford Incident is his own attempt to send the same message. The film takes the clever approach of retelling Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick with a nuclear theme: in this case, the “white whale” is a Russian ballistic missile submarine, and “Captain Ahab” is highly-decorated U.S. Navy captain Eric Finlander, who commands a destroyer patrolling the GIUK gap. Captain Finlander’s men are fiercely loyal, and he sees his work as critical to preserving national security and containing the spread of communism. Sidney Poitier, the film’s equivalent of Ishmael, plays magazine journalist Ben Munceford, who comes aboard the ship as a guest to write a Defense Department-approved profile of the captain. Munceford soon begins to notice something wrong. The isolated crew live in terror of the captain, a self-described “mean bastard.” The captain himself has logical explanations for his behavior, but displays an alarming obsessiveness with pursuing the Russian submarine, and Munceford begins to suspect he might want—whether consciously or subconsciously—to destroy it. Captain Finlander is completely convinced of his own sanity, and scoffs at Munceford’s suggestions that emotion may be influencing his command decisions. As with Moby-Dick, the voyage ends in disaster, with the crew realizing only too late that the confident, brilliant commander was acting less than rationally.
Each of these films offers a theory or message about the prospects for nuclear war. Ladybug, Ladybug and On The Beach show us the beautiful, ordinary human lives that are put at risk by conflict, and the terror that the prospect and the aftermath of war inflict upon the innocent.1 Strangelove asks us to see those who have ostensibly sober-minded discussions about the annihilation of humankind as ridiculous and demented, their “reason” ultimately serving their passions. Fail-Safe asks us to consider the possibility that we have confidently and arrogantly built machines we cannot control, that “fail safes” on nuclear weapons are as presumptuous as the “unsinkable” R.M.S. Titanic. The Bedford Incident repeats Strangelove’s theme that confident men in uniform who look reasonable can actually be ruled by their emotions, and offers a more realistic demonstration of how that truth might be discovered only when it is too late for humanity.
At the time these films were made, people took the possibility of nuclear armageddon very seriously indeed. It was a major issue in the 1964 election, when Lyndon Johnson ran a famous television ad accusing his opponent, Barry Goldwater, of being likely to get atomic bombs dropped on little girls picking flowers. (It ended with the rather incredible sentences: “We must either love each other or we must die. Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd.”) Cold War cultural artifacts are saturated with nuclear anxiety and references to Atomic this-and-that. (My favorite remains a 1950 gospel song called “Jesus Hits Like The Atom Bomb.”2) The U.S. and the Soviet Union were manufacturing nukes at an insane pace well into the ‘80s, and it showed up in the culture. The 1983 TV film The Day After, a chilling depiction of a post-apocalyptic America, was a major event, its screening followed by a live debate among an esteemed panel of public intellectuals including Carl Sagan, Henry Kissinger, Elie Wiesel, Robert McNamara, and William F. Buckley, Jr. It became the most-viewed television movie of all time, and supposedly influenced Ronald Reagan in realizing the danger of nuclear war, helping to precipitate the signing of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. (Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the treaty in 2019.)
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, plus the steady diminishment of nuclear stockpiles, the public awareness and discussion of nuclear war receded. But this was not because the great powers of the world no longer had the capacity to destroy the world. As Our World In Data documents, the remaining stockpiles of active nuclear weapons may still be enough to wipe humanity off the face of the Earth. The suffering they could cause seems unimaginable. The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki look like firecrackers compared with those developed since, and first-person accounts of the mutiliation and burning caused in those disasters make for stomach-churning reading. The deaths in a nuclear explosion are not just those who die of direct injuries in the blast. Many more will die slowly and painfully of cancer. The obliteration of cities means the end of hospitals, leaving the remaining humans to perish in a burned-out radioactive wilderness. In an all-out nuclear war, a nuclear winter could drop the temperature of the Earth to the point of causing a mass famine, and those “lucky” people who didn’t die in the blasts or from radiation would starve to death. In other words, we still have a “doomsday machine,” even if we don’t talk about it and try not to think about it. We are only at “peace” if keeping a loaded gun pointed at humanity’s head can be considered a state of peace.
The fall of the Soviet Union eased Americans’ fear of nuclear annihilation, in part because they associated that fear with the grand “capitalism versus communism” struggle between those two countries. With the “triumph of capitalism,” the Earth was thought to be in a new era lacking the kind of epic struggles that would precipitate a catastrophic nuclear exchange (we were in an “end of history” even). Globalization brought harmony; Mikhail Gorbachev starred in a (bizarre) Pizza Hut commercial. Could two countries with Pizza Huts ever go to war?
But the nuclear weapons themselves are still here. In fact, both Russia and the U.S. have been modernizing their nuclear forces—the U.S. plans to spend well over half a trillion dollars further developing its nuclear weapons in the next ten years. The situation is strange in one way, because in the 1980s, Reagan and Gorbachev came close to agreeing to complete nuclear disarmament. Reagan became more anti-nuke throughout the course of his presidency, and told TIME magazine in 1984:
“I just happen to believe that we cannot go into another generation with the world living under the threat of those weapons and knowing that some madman can push the button some place… My hope has been, and my dream, that we can get the Soviet Union to join us in starting verifiable reductions of the weapons. Once you start down that road, they’ve got to see how much better off we would both be if we got rid of them entirely.”
Elsewhere Reagan made the sensible observation:
“A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The only value in our two nations possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used. But then would it not be better to do away with them entirely?”
(Unfortunately, Reagan himself may have ruined the chances for this actually happening through his unwillingness to give up his fantasy of weapons in space.)
It’s still the case that, at least in this country, “some madman” can “push the button.” In The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump, former Secretary of Defense William Perry and Ploughshares Fund policy director Tom Collina explain that alarmingly few checks exist to stop a United States president from committing mass murder and possibly ending life on Earth. They show that, in the absence of a heroic subordinate willing to disobey a lawful order, the president alone without Congressional approval can commit unspeakable acts of genocide. “I can go back into my office and pick up the telephone and in 25 minutes 70 million people will be dead,” said Richard Nixon. Former National Intelligence director James Clapper admitted that “there’s very little in the way of controls over exercising a nuclear option, which is pretty damn scary,” saying that if Donald Trump had decided to wipe away North Korea “in a fit of pique” there was “very little to stop him.”3
“Genocide” is a word that Daniel Ellsberg uses to describe the situation in his book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. Ellsberg, famous for his leaking of the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s, also spent time at the RAND corporation in the Dr. Strangelove period of the Cold War, helping with plans for nuking the Soviet Union. He recalls seeing a document marked “For The President’s Eyes Only” which contained a disturbing chart showing the hundreds of millions of Soviet civilians the country expected to kill with an all-out attack. Ellsberg says he realized that such a document should never have been produced, that it was crazy for such a thing to even be dreamed of. It was a plan for a genocide worse than anything committed by Hitler, and it had been drawn up by “freedom-loving” planners in the United States of America.
The total death toll as calculated by the Joint Chiefs, from a U.S. first strike aimed at the Soviet Union, its Warsaw Pact satellites, and China, would be roughly six hundred million dead. A hundred Holocausts. I remember what I thought when I first held the single sheet with the graph on it. I thought, this piece of paper should not exist. It should never have existed. There should be nothing on earth, nothing real, that it referred to.
Yet Ellsberg admits that when he was working in these programs, he felt like he was saving the world and serving humanity. This is the topsy-turvy land of nuclear policy: a person coming up with sophisticated ways to kill people in the most horrible ways possible on a scale like nothing before in history can think of themselves as preserving safety and security. That’s the case even today: I suspect that none of the people working on the half-a-trillion dollar nuclear weapons modernization program at the weapons companies and the Defense Department think of themselves as genocide planners, even though that’s precisely what they are. They don’t think about the fact that, if we spent this money on life instead of death, we could probably end COVID-19 or cure cancer. (Cancer research is a fraction of nuclear weapons spending.) They think of themselves as good, rational people who love their families and their countries even though what they are doing is insane.
Ellsberg recalls that when he was in high school social studies, before the bombing of Hiroshima, his teacher had the class write an essay about nuclear bombs. It had been reported that it was, in theory, possible to produce a kind of bomb that could destroy a whole city in an instant. The class was asked to write essays on whether they thought this type of bomb should be allowed. Ellsberg recalls that it was the unanimous opinion of the class that a bomb this powerful was just too dangerous, that it could not be used responsibly, that it would end civilization. A few years later, the United States was trying this civilization-ending bomb out on actual human beings.
Ellsberg’s The Doomsday Machine convincingly makes the case that we have built the very kind of “doomsday machine” lampooned in Dr. Strangelove, and that it didn’t go away with the end of the Cold War. Importantly, he also shows how the idea of exterminating large quantities of civilians became normalized over the course of World War II. At the beginning of the war, this was considered the gravest kind of war crime. But after the London Blitz, all bets were off. The Allies themselves aimed not to minimize but to maximize civilian casualties in the bombings of German and Japanese cities. Air Force general Curtis LeMay, when orchestrating the firebombing of Japanese cities, asked his weather officer: “How strong does the wind have to be so that people can’t get away from the flames? Will the wind be strong enough for that?” The weather officer was sickened, and recalled that “It was the first time it had entered my head that the purpose of our operation was to kill as many people as possible.” The U.S. bombing of Tokyo was a huge success, burning 100,000 people to death, and TIME magazine gleefully reported in March 1945:
A dream came true last week for U.S. army aviators: they got their chance to loose avalanches of fire bombs on Tokyo and Nagoya, and they proved that, properly kindled, Japanese cities will burn like autumn leaves… Never before had there been an incendiary attack of comparable scale. The Luftwaffe’s ‘great fire raid’ on the City of London… burned not more than one square mile. Major General Curtis E. LeMay’s Marianas firebirds were in another league [burning an estimated fifteen square miles.]
Here, then, the American press openly celebrated the fact that the country had outdone the Nazis in the commission of a horrible war crime. For Ellsberg, this helps explain why Harry Truman said he didn’t lose a minute of sleep or pause for a second over the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Wiping out whole cities with nuclear weapons wasn’t much different then wiping them out with conventional weapons, which we had already become accustomed to.
Ellsberg points out that the United States learned a dangerous lesson from World War II. Convinced that bombing huge numbers of civilians had been indispensable to our victory, we ceased to have any qualms about planning for the possibility of future acts of mass murder. Convinced that the bombings of Hamburg, Tokyo, Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and dozens more cities were necessary and morally justified, we had not a second’s hesitation in plotting the bombing of Moscow and St. Petersburg if necessary to defeat communism. We began to think in the terms of Prof. Groeteschele in Fail-Safe: mere numbers. If losing “sixty million” can save “forty million,” then the murder of sixty million people is better thought of as the saving of forty million lives. Without any qualms about bombing civilians, the U.S. would soon terrorize civilians in Korea and then Vietnam with bombing campaigns (and considered using nuclear weapons in Vietnam). Obliterating civilian populations from the skies went from impossible to contemplate doing to impossible to contemplate not doing. No wonder we continued to develop civilization-ending weapons without any moral qualms.
Speculative scenarios about a Third World War, such as those in Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe, often involve computer errors, rogue officers, misunderstandings, or mistakes. Some accident happens that causes all the nukes to go off at once, and there’s no way to stop it. There is an alarming history of “close calls” (in 1962, one Russian submariner named Vasili Arkhipov may have saved the whole world through his refusal to authorize the launch of a nuclear torpedo).4
It makes sense that when people thought about World War III, they often thought of a war starting by mistake. The U.S. and the Soviet Union had no obvious reason to destroy one another. In a conflict, the annihilation would be mutual, meaning that any attack was also suicide, which was why, as Reagan said, a nuclear war could not be won. The doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction would ensure permanent safety, because nobody would want to destroy themselves. Thus mistakes were the only possibility, and so terrible mistakes were the scenario dwelt upon.5
It’s certainly true that no rational country would destroy itself, which can make it seem possible to safely maintain a nuclear “balance of terror” and simply iron out the possibilities for human error. But—and hear me out here—what if we do not live in a world in which human beings behave rationally? What if there are situations in which people would kill themselves and others merely to avoid being embarrassed? What if there are times when someone would destroy the whole world rather than let their pride be wounded?
Nikita Khruschev’s statement quoted above suggests that, at least in the Soviet Union, there were plenty of high-level people who would allow millions of their fellow citizens to die horrible agonizing deaths to avoid “national humiliation.” Khruschev himself decided that these people were maniacs, and so agreed to back down and pull Soviet missiles out of Cuba. (Would Stalin have backed down?) Imperial Japan was ruled by more fanatical nationalists, who viewed surrender as immoral and disgraceful. Incredibly, even after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there were those among the Japanese military brass urging the Emperor to fight on until either victory (impossible at that point) or the complete extermination of Japan (which Americans would almost certainly have carried out, given that they had already been setting Japanese cities on fire by the score in the hopes of maximizing the number of civilians killed). If Japan and America had both had nuclear arsenals, “mutually assured destruction” would not have kept anyone safe, because it depends on the parties valuing their self-preservation. (And, while Americans saw Japan as uniquely reluctant to surrender, if the situation had been reversed, America too may have found that if boxed into a corner, many Americans would choose death before perceived dishonor.)
In fact, rather than looking at the Cold War, where “accidentally or insanely pressing the button” was the likely instigator of hostilities, if we want to understand where the danger of a World War III lies, we might do better to look at World War I and World War II. A film at the National World War I museum, trying to explain the causes of that war, says: “No one can say precisely why it happened. Which may be, in the end, the best explanation for why it did.” The assassination of an Austrian archduke in Bosnia caused a series of dominos to fall, and soon millions of young Brits and Germans and Frenchmen and Russians were being herded into trenches and cut down by machine guns, none of them ever being given satisfactory explanations as to why it had to happen. As World 101 helpfully explains the context:
European leaders had spent years prior to the assassination constructing a network of alliances built on the promise of collective security, or the idea that an attack on one country would be treated as an attack against the entire alliance. In theory, those alliances were intended to serve as a deterrent to conflict; a stronger country would be less inclined to attack a weaker one if the latter had the support of a powerful ally. In reality, the alliance networks had the opposite effect of expanding a local issue into a continent-spanning crisis, for behind Austria-Hungary stood Germany, behind Serbia stood Russia, and behind Russia stood Britain and France. One week after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II pledged unconditional support to Austria-Hungary in however it chose to respond to the attack. With this so-called blank check assurance, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914, and within days, France, Germany, and Russia announced their own cascading declarations of war.
(I bold the portion above to encourage you to note the comparison with today’s NATO Article 5: “Collective defence means that an attack against one Ally is considered as an attack against all Allies.”)
World War II is thought to be a more explicable conflict, because it had a greater ideological component. In a humiliated and ruined Germany, a charismatic psychopath rose to power promising to restore national greatness and embarked upon the conquest of Europe and the extermination of Jews, those considered genetically or medically inferior, communists, homosexuals, and Roma people. In the East, Japan too came under the influence of fanatical expansionist nationalists who waged a war of aggression.
The two world wars that have actually happened can tell us some basic things about how world wars can start:
- A world war can start from a small local conflict if that conflict forces members of alliances into conflict with one another.
- A world war can start because a fanatic bent on conquest is appeased or ignored until it is too late.
One more point from the world wars should be borne in mind: once a war begins, emotion makes it very difficult for either side to back down. The United States bombed Japanese cities in part because it was insistent that Japan surrender unconditionally, which the Japanese refused to do. It would, perhaps, have been more moral to say that in the interest of preserving human lives, it was not necessary to completely subjugate Japan, that if a conditional surrender would stop the war it was worth it. But so many American soldiers had been killed by the Japanese that compromise became unthinkable. As John Dower documents in his classic study War Without Mercy, among Americans it was considered an open question whether the Japanese should be exterminated outright, and dehumanizing views of the so-called “Japs” were just as racist as Nazi caricatures of Jews. In war, the enemy ceases to seem like a human being. They become a monster, and the situation is seen as kill-or-be-killed. As the corpses mount, neither side is inclined toward negotiation of a friendly settlement, even if this would save lives on both sides. Hatred, and a desire to avenge the dead, means that many will prefer to fight and die themselves rather than even consider a compromise that will give the Enemy some of what it wants.
Vladimir Putin has launched a criminal invasion of Ukraine, a war of aggression that has already created a catastrophic refugee crisis, killed families, and wrecked cities—in addition to tanking the Russian economy. Putin’s war is insane and indefensible, and it looks like he cannot win it. There are many reports of Russia struggling to achieve its objectives, and the Russian population does not seem especially supportive. Even if Putin subdues Ukraine through overwhelming force, as he is expected to ultimately do, he faces the likelihood that the occupation will be a bloody quagmire like the U.S. invasion of Vietnam. This blundering criminal war may cause Putin to be remembered as one of the worst leaders in Russian history.
But even if the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a disaster for Russia, it is still a terrifying moment for the world. Putin has already raised the specter of raining nuclear bombs on anyone who interferes with him, and many mainstream politicians and commentators have recommended direct U.S. military engagement with Russia through what is euphemistically called a “no fly zone” (in practice, a commitment to blowing Russian planes out of the air).
The present crisis has revealed a few truths that show a “World War III” is not as impossible as it would once have seen. First, many analysts predicted that Russia wouldn’t invade Ukraine at all, because doing so would be insane and disastrous. If they were right about it being insane and disastrous, then we can see that just because something is insane, this does not mean that the leader of a nuclear-armed power will not do it. That should be frightening, because many of the theories for how we can be safe in a world where countries keep nukes pointed at each other depend on the idea that world leaders are relatively sensible. If we assume that they are committed to self-preservation, then we can assume they won’t ever press the big red button that triggers the Doomsday Device. But what if they do act out of anger? What if a leader like Putin would rather punish Ukraine for defying him even if it means wrecking Russia? What if machismo matters in world affairs, and there are those who would rather die and take the rest of us with them than feel emasculated? We know that Vladimir Putin has watched Dr. Strangelove (there is a video on YouTube of him watching it, although he doesn’t seem terribly amused). Putin commented: “There are certain things in this film that indeed make us think, despite the fact that everything you see onscreen is make-believe.” But did he think about whether he himself, while posing as a cunning strategic thinker, may actually just have a big war boner? He shows no sign of having picked up on this theme.
Second, we can already see how notions of pride and justice can, in a time of war, override more rational deliberation on harm-reduction. The president of Ukraine has been begging NATO to get directly involved militarily, and many who see harrowing pictures and videos coming out of Ukraine think it would be immoral not to send the cavalry in. Won’t we be ashamed of ourselves if we do not act? But discussions like these have to include considerations of what a war between the United States and Russia would be like, and how it might escalate. When wars start, though, sometimes we want whatever feels like justice, and all consideration of long-term consequences flies out the window. In a nuclear-armed world, prioritizing that which keeps us from being ashamed over that which keeps humanity alive makes us like the Soviet advisers to Khrushchev who saw backing down and letting the U.S. win as a sign of despicable weakness. Khrushchev correctly saw that feeling of satisfaction that you did the right thing means nothing if everyone ends up dead.
World War III may not begin the way people in the Cold War thought it would begin. It might be a lot more like World War I. A small local conflict, a set of alliances and “collective security commitments,” and millions of people find themselves fighting to the death for reasons nobody can quite understand. It could just spiral out of control. In Ukraine, Putin might commit more atrocities, leading to more pressure on NATO to directly intervene. NATO countries escalate their support for Ukraine, leading ordinary Russians to be more receptive to Putin’s narrative that NATO is hostile, and as Putin starts losing conventionally, he is more tempted to deploy the weapons he has that are guaranteed to defeat Ukraine. He issues a direct nuclear threat if Ukraine does not surrender completely. He threatens U.S. bases in Europe if the U.S. tries to stop him. Then the U.S., with its bases directly threatened, contemplates a nuclear “first strike.” And so forth.6 All of it is complete madness. But, examining the history of the previous two world wars, we should take note of how hatred consumes populations, and emotion overwhelms the humans who have to make decisions. The atomic bombings of Japan are usually justified in clinical strategic terms—they were necessary to prevent a land invasion and thus save lives. Those who make this defense are reluctant to admit that Americans also wanted to avenge Pearl Harbor, and didn’t view Japanese civilians as human beings anymore. A senior U.S. Army intelligence officer in Japan distributed a report in 1945 that read: “The entire population of Japan is a proper Military Target… THERE ARE NO CIVILIANS IN JAPAN.”
We need to understand how easily huge wars begin, even when they are absurd and the overwhelming majority of people have no interest in fighting them. World War III, should it occur, might not occur because a new kind of world-dominating Hitler arises (I see Putin as much more like George W. Bush, with a touch of Saddam Hussein), but because we cannot figure out how not to go to war, and seem to stumble into it, as with World War I. Then hatreds will be whipped up, antiwar movements will be branded as traitorous, atrocities on an unprecedented scale will be normalized, and sooner or later one will be reading headlines about which city suffered a nuclear attack this week. We might not see the situation in which “all the nukes go off at once and end the world in two minutes” but a spiral into the abyss dragged out over a longer period.
There are some people who say we are “already in World War III.” This is dangerous and stupid talk, and people who say things like this should be mocked and ostracized. (I am serious. It’s dangerous. Don’t say that shit, because when you say it’s here already, you eliminate the urgency of the mission to avoid it.) We are not in World War III yet. But we must recognize that we cannot simply assume there will never be a World War III, and understand that preventing it will take work. It will require us to study the previous world wars and understand why they happened and think about how they could have been avoided. We will also have to avoid facile comparisons, like assuming that any concessions to Russia are “appeasement” and anything short of all-out war is like giving in to Hitler. Simplistic thinking and self-righteousness will be a big part of any kind of stumble towards a World War III.
We have to think about what the world needs in order to live in peace. We can see how something like NATO is quite dangerous, because alliance blocs with collective security agreements can turn a local conflict into a global one. Instead of NATO, we need a world government committed to universal collective security, so that if a country like Russia invades a country like Ukraine, it is not an alliance of Western powers that try to enforce international law, but the whole international community. Easier said than done, of course, but recognizing that U.S. power should be used to push for a universal alliance will at least make the goals clear. Our ultimate goal should be to eliminate nationalism and nation-states altogether, since they are simply too dangerous. The UN should be an actual government whose rules are enforced—if the U.S. would stop treating it with contempt and start behaving as if we believed in international law, this process would be much easier.
But we also have to eliminate nuclear weapons from the earth. We need a new global disarmament movement; even Henry Kissinger recognizes this, and does not see it as a crazy idea. Nuclear weapons are a huge waste of money, since the only thing they could ever do in practice is destroy the world. It’s painful to think about what we could have done with the trillions upon trillions of dollars we have spent developing these doomsday machines that are essentially “unusable” because any actual deployment of them would be unconscionable. If this money had been spent on health instead of misery, we’d probably all be immortal by now. We must disarm the world. Do not be pessimistic about the prospects for this. If a crusty old warmonger like Kissinger can believe in it, you can too. This should be an easier problem to solve than climate change, because all it involves is not building things that exist to murder us all.
We must be committed to avoiding World War III, and creating an everlasting peace. We can do it if we try. But to avoid repeating the calamities of the 20th century, we will need to study the First World War, the Second World War, and the Cold War and think about what drove people to such violent insanity. A good place to begin is by watching some of the old films. Although the films do not show the ways in which World War III is most likely to actually unfold, they remind us that—sensible and civilized as we might like to fancy ourselves—we can be governed by paranoia, anger, and lust. We must learn from our tragic history in the hope of containing our worst tendencies so as not to squander and destroy the precious gift that is life on Earth.
For a previous essay I’ve written on the nuclear threat, see here. For a Current Affairs podcast on existential threats to humanity, listen here.
Note that it is difficult to set a film during a nuclear war for reasons laid out in 1969’s post-apocalyptic absurdist comedy The Bed-Sitting Room, in which a BBC announcer recalls that the “nuclear misunderstanding… lasted two minutes and twenty-eight seconds, including signing the peace treaty.” ↩
Lyrics: Everybody’s worried about that atomic bomb / But no ones seems worried / about the day my Lord shall come /He’s gonna hit (boom boom) like an atom bomb / when he comes ↩
In 1973, a trainee nuclear missile launch officer named Harold Hering asked his superiors “How can I be sure that any launch order I receive comes from a sane president?” The Air Force fired him. ↩
Eric Schlosser’s book Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety goes through the full chilling history. ↩
Interestingly, the term Mutually Assured Destruction was coined by a strategist who meant the term pejoratively—he used MAD because he thought the idea was madness. But as with the term “meritocracy”—also coined by someone who meant to present it as absurd—the concept was soon taken very seriously. Now there is a contrasting doctrine, NUTS (Nuclear Utilization Target Selection), which theorizes the possibility of a limited nuclear war that does not turn into mutual destruction. So it is accurate to say that the choices in nuclear policy are between “mad” and “nuts.” You can’t make this stuff up. No wonder Kubrick had to turn Dr. Strangelove into an absurdist comedy. ↩
Patrick Cockburn warns: “Strangely, there was probably more concern in the West over Saddam Hussein using his non-existent WMD in 2003 than there is about Putin using his vast and all-too-real nuclear arsenal today. The risk is not only real but it is growing as Putin’s military adventure in Ukraine looks like one of the greatest misjudgements of the last hundred years. It is becoming clear that Russia simply does not have the strength to conquer and pacify a nation of 44 million supported by most of the rest of the world. But what makes the crisis doubly dangerous is that the Russian disaster in Ukraine was wholly predictable, even inevitable. What if the same poor judgement is at work when it comes to deploying and using nuclear weapons?” ↩