There is still time …?

Bloggaaja käsitelee Ron Rosenbaumin ydintuhon uhkaa käsittelevää kirjaa How the End Begins monin tavoin valaisevaa luettavaa maallikolle ja historioitsijalle, kuten blogikin, vaikkei varmasti ja tietenkään koko totuus.

Leafing books at the Bristol Airport last May, I came across a book, How the End Begins. The Road to a Nuclear World War III, written  by an American journalist Ron Rosenbaum. The book discusses the  threat of nuclear war both in the past and the present. Looking for something completely different to read (in comparison to my usual readings in late medieval or early modern history), I bought the book and later congratulated myself on my choice of reading for the flight back home.

Well written, vivid and witty, Rosenbaum’s book analyses the ”holiday from history” that people have taken in the post-cold war period, choosing to trust that the nuclear threat is no longer relevant. I want to stress that I am no expert on the topic. Rosenbaum’s  arguments may have serious faults and some bias is certainly to be found in the book. The fact that the text is written to be intelligible to all (or many) also means that simplifications have been made.

Anyway, the book does a great (terrific, terrifying) job in showing the possibility, even probability of human or technical errors that could trigger a nuclear war. The problems include the one presented by Major Herringin 1973 ( ”How can I know that an order I receive to launch my missiles came from a sane president?”), the long tension between the USA and Soviet, later Russia, the role of ”nonstate actors” (terrorists etc.) or the nuclear codes gone missing (p. 34). As Rosenbaum points out, any system is just as strong as its weakest link/agent. And when the book turns its attention to the Near East, the reader can easily understand why and how the nuclear arsenals of both the super powers and the poor countries are intertwined in the local conflicts – conflicts that might go nuke and turn into worldwide disasters.

The source analysis made by Rosenbaum and his informants  is often delightful for a historian to read. It is amazing how much one can read into, say, short announcements given by military forces or politicians – what words are used when a sale of nuclear capable submarines is announced,  how to read ”bland nondenials” of the existence of nuclear weapons in certain countries – it comes close to the ”close reading” of fragmentary sources of the previous centuries. Rosenbaum discusses the forbidden questions and hidden contentions that linger around the nuclear threat.  The analysis of euphemisms (such as civilian targets being renamed ”economic infrastructure”) is always useful, too, in history as well as in politics.

In the USA,  the president and the secretaries face the possibility of having to take control over the nuclear codes – a nerve wrecking burden to say the least. Thinking on this, I couldn’t help thinking that leaders of a small country enjoy some ”benefits” –  incompetent and irritating as our lads and lasses in charge sometimes may seem, they are unlikely to become guilty of causing ”the death of the consciousness” (the result of a total nuclear apocalypse: no-one to observe that there is no-one around anymore).

Also, after reading the analysis on the precarious balancing of words and deeds in the publicity and in the military and political negotiations, threats, action, and conciliation behind the scenes (an example of Rosenbaum’s being the case of Syria, now as topical as ever!), one can better understand how problematic situations, loss of face for politicians, even a need to retaliate could be triggered by, say, some wikileaks.

Rosenbaum’s book is thought-provoking, unfortunately the nuclear threat is not a puzzle easily solved so the book does not really offer easy solutions, except for the final statement: nothing justifies following orders for genocide. As Rosenbaum shows, however, this opinion is not shared by everyone. Nuclear threat is a dishearteningly complicated problem like the global warming and economic meltdown – and there are limited means, interest, and time resources to try solve these huge problems.

I am writing this at the same time as I am watching at the movie On the Beach, a post-apocalyptic film from the late 1950s, broadcasted by the  Finnish broadcasting company a couple of days ago. As the film suggests, ”There is still time…” but how long? And what are we to do about it, if anything?

Ron Rosenbaum has a blog in

(I was surprised, by the way, that there were hardly any mentions of the non-existent WMD in Iraq, and nothing of the Moscow–Washington hotline or its equivalents.)


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