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March 25, 2009

Eve of Destruction: Pushing Daisies

This is undoubtedly the most famous political ad that hardly anyone ever saw. "Daisy" only aired once during the 1964 presidential campaign.

While it had next-to-no effect on the outcome of that election, it did capture the fears of several generations of Americans in an age when MAD was more than a magazine. If there had been an "Eve of Destruction" shtick 45 years ago, the prospect of thermonuclear war would have rated a "9" on the "Destruction" scale and at least a "6" on the "Eve" scale.

Twenty-seven years, three months and two weeks after "Daisy" aired, the Soviet Union was dissolved. With that, our worst fears of a flame deluge receded. Receded, not disappeared. The irony is that the end of the Cold War made it more, not less, likely that someone might actually set off a nuke in anger. Without the threat of mutually assured destruction, the thought of a "limited" nuclear exchange -- one that kills hundreds of thousands, even millions of people -- became conceivable again. Hopefully not likely, but conceivable.

For instance, we know that both India and Pakistan possess nuclear weapons. We also know that India regards its neighbor and rival as "pretty dysfunctional" and "'perilously close" to being a failed state. Whether it's true or not is besides the point: what matters is whether nuclear-armed India thinks there's any chance that Pakistan's nukes could fall into the hands of India's enemies. Faced with a credible (in its mind) threat, is it really inconceivable that India (or Pakistan) might choose to preempt its rival?

The result would be horrifying.

A U.S. intelligence assessment . . .  warned that a full-scale nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan . . . could immediately kill up to 12 million people. Assuming that both countries would use most but not all of their nuclear arsenals, the report argued that the combined blasts would immediately draw American forces into the conflict. With millions dead and up to 7 million people wounded, the world would collectively have to respond.

That's "likely the worst of all worst-case scenarios." The rosier scenario has "at least one nuclear explosion -- one that, according to an oft-discussed academic report, would immediately kill up to 860,000 people, while slowly killing many more." That's more people than died in the violence surrounding the Partition of India in 1947. 

This is the kind of stuff that keeps the folks at the Nuclear Threat Initiative up at night. Stories like thisthis, and especially this are reminders that not only did history not end in the early 1990s, but we live in an arguably more dangerous time. Or as Nicole Kidman told George Clooney in the otherwise-forgettable  The Peacemaker, "I'm not afraid of the man who wants ten nuclear weapons, Colonel. I'm terrified of the man who only wants one." 

"Destruction" score: anywhere from 1/10 to 4/10. It depends on how succesful Sam Nunn and company are. "Eve" score: 2/10, and I'm afraid it may rise: the global economic crisis is making things worse. 

Next on "Eve of Destruction": Don't Worry. Be Happy.

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Anne Morse

I wonder who that little girl was, and where she is today? She must be around 50 now....unless she died in a nuclear holocaust. Oh, wait, we didn't have one, did we? How smart we were to vote for LBJ....



Did you *intend* for this to be a policy plug for Nuclear Missle Defense program spending? Or is it merely implicit?

Roberto Rivera

Well, if you can come up with a missile defense system that can protect against a nuke in a suitcase, then have at it. (While you're at it, it would be great if you could beam the sucker into space like at the end of "Stargate.") Otherwise, no such endorsement should be inferred.


Heh - I have this mental picture of certain combinations of people accidentally walking into the PFM breakroom at the same time, and everyone else reflexively reaching for earplugs, knowing that the resulting discussion will only *begin* at a cordial low volume... :-)


All the more reason for SDI, something which BO is opposed to.


But my laughter turns to mourning, realizing that this is the end of a long series of long posts. It's therefore reasonable to expect that Roberto will disappear from The Point for a while (as Regis did after the Darwin series). Mr. Rivera y Carlo, I will be scanning the horizon daily in anticipation of your return.

Rolley Haggard

Palindrome for the day, in goofy commemoration of Riveras everywhere.



Heh. Well, Roberto, it is kind of like that overused starfish analogy, where the grumpy old man tells the boy "you can't save all the starfish" and the boy, wiser (natch) than the older man, says "but I can save this one".

If nukes can come in all shapes and sizes - and delivery methods - and we find a way to stop the missle-born types, then should we not do so, simply because we cannot stop the ones that Jimmy The Strangely Unfamous Canadian Soccer Star stashes in his Umbros when he crosses the border.

Of course, your agreement with this is, again, implicit in your post, and let me say how great it feels for us to be in complete agreement on something. You being my hero and all. Like Chris Matthews, I'm "getting a thrill up the leg here".

Roberto Rivera

Rolley: my uncle's name is Eli Rivera.
Lee: more horrible fates for mankind have been brought to my attention.

Jason Taylor

A nuke in a suitcase would not be the "eve of destruction." No Nuke is that powerful and certainly not one that can be carried in a suitcase. What it would be is the destruction of a city. Which threat humanity has lived with for thousands of years.
Ultimatly the threat of a terrorist with a suitcase bomb is no different then the threat of Tartars galloping over the steepes and erasing your villiage. Or Vikings arriving on the seashore. Or the Papists/Heretics(depending on which side your king is on)breaching one's city walls. Or a reasonably robust conventional bombing like Tokyo. Which hardly means it is not a threat, but that it is not a threat to civilization greater then has been common to man. It is not like the movie cliche of every ICBM launched at once. Certainly precautions should be taken, but one thing we should not do is worry. For one thing, that is part of the incentive: they call them "terrorists" for a reason.

Roberto Rivera

Exactly right, Jason.


True, a 'suitcase' nuke is too heavy to carry in a suitcase, usually derived from a fission howitzer shell such as we used to have in Europe. The yield on such devices is far too small to destroy a city. Perhaps 5 city blocks, not much more. They were designed to take out several Soviet tanks at once, not destroy cities.


In response to Allen's jibe, R2 wrote: "Well, if you can come up with a missile defense system that can protect against a nuke in a suitcase, then have at it."

I had one of those sudden stop-in-your-tracks moments this morning: I know someone who worked years ago on a system that could almost do that, guys. At least, it could be used to take out an individual, if given their GPS coordinates. So as long as your tactical nuke wasn't being detonated remotely, Roberto, Allen's got you.

But of course, since a nuke in a suitcase is now not terrorism but the mere creation of a man-made disaster, we have nothing to be afraid of and I suppose this is all moot.

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