Foreign Policy

Have we forgotten the Cold War? Nuclear threat more real than ever.

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I lived most of my adult life during the Cold War, and, throughout, I never lost sight of one overwhelming reality — at any time, the Cold War could turn hot, resulting in the extinction of our civilization. Now, inexplicably, we are recreating many of the conditions of the Cold War. In fact, I believe that, today, the likelihood of a nuclear catastrophe is actually greater than it was during the Cold War.

The relations between the United States and Russia are as hostile as they were during the Cold War. Russia has dropped its long-term policy of “No First Use” of nuclear weapons and is rebuilding its nuclear arsenal. It is threatening its neighbors with these deadly weapons and indirectly threatening the U.S.

{mosads}Responding to this challenge, the U.S. has begun rebuilding its nuclear arsenal. We seem determined to replay the Cold War arms race, with costs estimated at more than $1 trillion — with predictably terrible dangers.


Have we simply forgotten the immense dangers of the Cold War? Several times during the Cold War, we faced the prospect of a nuclear war by miscalculation, most dramatically during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. After that crisis, President Kennedy said that he believed we had a one-in-three chance of nuclear war.

But Kennedy did not know — which we now know — that the Soviet Union had already placed tactical nuclear weapons on the island that were fully operational. If Kennedy had accepted the unanimous recommendation of his Joint Chiefs of Staff to invade Cuba, our troops would have been decimated on the beachheads by tactical nuclear weapons and a general nuclear war would surely have followed.

The miscalculations of Soviet and U.S. leaders almost subjected the world to a nuclear holocaust. I believe we avoided that catastrophe as much by good luck as by good management. Today, because of the ongoing hostility between the U.S. and Russia, we are recreating the conditions that could lead to a nuclear war by miscalculation.

A higher risk is that of an accidental nuclear war. Because of our “Launch on Warning” policy, a nuclear war could result by accident if our missile attack warning system experienced a false alarm. During the Cold War, there were three such false alarms in the U.S. and two that we know about in the Soviet Union.

In 1979, I personally experienced one of the false alarms in the U.S., and it changed forever my way of thinking about nuclear dangers. I was awoken at 3 a.m. by the watch officer at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) saying that the computer was showing 200 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) on the way from the Soviet Union to the United States.

We were spared a disaster because the watch officer correctly concluded that the computer was giving a false reading — as it turns out, due to human error. 

But what if that false alarm had occurred during the Cuban Missile Crisis? In that context, the watch officer surely would have passed the alarm on to the president, who, after being awoken at 3 a.m., would have had less than 10 minutes to decide whether to launch our ICBMs before they were destroyed in their silos.

Humans will err again. Machines will malfunction again. Today, just as in the Cold War, we face the possibility of an accidental war destroying our civilization. Besides the return of those Cold War dangers, we now have two new dangers: the possibility of a regional nuclear war or a nuclear attack by a terror group. 

We know that al Qaeda and ISIL have made attempts to get nuclear weapons, and I believe that if they succeed in getting one they will use it. The barrier to achieving their objective is the difficulty of manufacturing fissile material, the fuel of a nuclear bomb.

But if they were somehow able to obtain a small amount of highly-enriched uranium, enough to fit into a shoe box, they could make an improvised nuclear device —one that could be delivered in a truck or freighter and detonated with the power of the Hiroshima bomb. 

Every day the danger of a regional nuclear war grows. Just a few months ago, Pakistan threatened to “destroy” India in response to a border skirmish. That was not an empty threat. Pakistan has more than 100 nuclear weapons, more than enough to destroy its rival neighbor. India, of course, would retaliate by launching its own 100-plus nuclear weapons.

North Korea routinely makes threats to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire,” and boasts that they are nearly ready to launch a nuclear-tipped ICBM at the U.S. I believe these threats are bluster. North Korea does have 15 to 20 nuclear weapons, a large arsenal of medium-range ballistic missiles and a program to develop an ICBM, but while the North Korean leaders are ruthless and reckless, they are not crazy.

They know that if they launch a nuclear attack, the American response would bring death to them, an end to the Kim regime and devastation to their country. Their nuclear weapons have value only if they do not use them. 

A chilling return to Cold War nuclear dangers in addition to the more recent possibilities of nuclear terrorism and regional nuclear conflicts lead me to conclude that the likelihood of a nuclear catastrophe today is greater than it was during the Cold War. One thing is very clear: our policies are totally inadequate for dealing with these existential dangers.

It should be the highest priority for this administration to develop policies that recognize this new reality, and then to devise new, robust programs that can mitigate them.


William J. Perry was the nineteenth secretary of defense for the United States, serving from February 1994 to January 1997. He previously served as deputy secretary of defense (1993–94) and as undersecretary of defense for research and engineering (1977–81). He currently heads the William J. Perry Project, which aims to prevent the use of nuclear weapons in the future. He is the Michael and Barbara Berberian Professor at Stanford University and serves as codirector of the Nuclear Risk Reduction initiative and the Preventive Defense Project.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill. 

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