The hardest of all tasks for the military people who are occupationally obliged to make plans for wars still to come must be to keep a comprehensive up-to-date list of guesses about what the other side might, in one circumstance or another, do. Prudence requires that all sorts of possibilities be kept in mind including, above all, the “worst case.” In warfare, in this century, the record has already proved that the worst-case possibility will turn out in the end to be the one that happens, and, often enough, the one that hadn’t been planned for. At the outset of World War I, the British didn’t have in mind the outright loss of an entire generation of their best youth; nor did any of the Europeans count on such an unhinging of German society as would lead straight to Hitler. When things were being readied for World War II, nobody forecast the destruction of Dresden or Coventry as eventualities to be looked out for and planned against. In Vietnam, defeat at the end was not anywhere on the United States’ list of possible outcomes, nor was what happened later in Cambodia and Laos.

We live today in a world densely populated by human beings living in close communication with each other all over the surface of the planet. Viewed from a certain distance the earth has the look of a single society, a community, the swarming of an intensely social species trying to figure out ways to become successfully interdependent. We obviously need, at this stage, to begin the construction of some sort of world civilization. The final worst case for all of us has now become the destruction, by ourselves, of our species.

This will not be a novel event for the planet, if it does occur. The fossil record abounds with sad tales of creatures that must have seemed stunning successes in their heyday, wiped out in one catastrophe after another. The trilobites are everywhere, elegant fossil shells, but nowhere alive. The dinosaurs came, conquered, and then all at once went.

Epidemic disease, meteorite collisions, volcanoes, atmospheric shifts in the levels of carbon dioxide, earthquakes, excessive warming or chilling of the earth’s surface are all on the worst-case list for parts of the biosphere, at one time or another, but it is unlikely that these can ever be lethal threats to a species as intelligent and resourceful as ours. We will not be wiped off the face of the earth by hard times, no matter how hard; we are tough and resilient animals, good at hard times. If we are to be done in, we will do it ourselves by warfare with thermonuclear weaponry, and it will happen because the military planners, and the governments who pay close attention to them, are guessing at the wrong worst case. At the moment there are really only two groups, the Soviets and us, but soon there will be others, already lining up.

Each side is guessing that the other side will, sooner or later, fire first. To guard against this, each side is hellbent on achieving a weapons technology capable of two objectives: to prevent the other from firing first by having enough missiles to destroy the first-strike salvo before it is launched (which means, of course, its own first strike), and, as a backup, to have for retaliation against the other side’s first strike a powerful enough reserve to inflict what is called unacceptable damage on the other side’s people. In today’s urban world, this means the cities. The recent policy revision designated as Presidential Directive 59, issued by the Carter White House in August 1980, stipulates that enemy command and control networks and military bases would become the primary targets in a “prolonged, limited” nuclear war. Even so, some cities and towns would inevitably be blown away, then doubtless more, then perhaps all.

The term “unacceptable” carries the implication that there is an acceptable degree of damage from thermonuclear bombs. This suggests that we are moving into an era when the limited use of this kind of weapon is no longer on the worst-case lists. Strategic weapons are those designed to destroy the whole enemy, armies, navies, cities, and all. Tactical nuclear bombs are something else again, smaller and neater, capable of taking out a fortified point, selectively and delicately removing, say, a tank division. Damage to one’s country from strategic weapons may be unacceptable, in these terms, but tactical weapons do not raise this issue.

So it goes. The worst case is clouds of missiles coming over the horizon, aimed at the cities. And another sort of merely bad case might be to neglect the advantage of small-scale, surgically precise, tactical weapons, needed at crucial moments on conventional battlefields when things are going against one’s side. So it seems.


Perhaps it really is the other way round. The worst of all possible scenarios might begin with the tactical use of a miniature thermonuclear bomb, a mere puff alongside the gigantic things stowed on Mirvs.

Speaking of mere puffs, we might usefully give a backward thought to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We have gotten used to the notion that the two bombs dropped out of our B-29 bombers on August 6 and 9, 1945, were only primitive precursors of what we have at hand today, relatively feeble instruments, even rather quaint technological antiques, like Tiffany lamps. They were indeed nothing but puffs compared to what we now possess. If we and the Soviets were to let everything fly at once, we could do, in a matter of minutes, a million times more damage than was done on those two August mornings long ago.

How do you figure a million times? You have to know, to begin with and in some detail, precisely what the Hiroshima and Nagasaki damage was like, and then try to imagine it a millionfold magnified. You don’t even have to do that, if your imagination doesn’t stretch that far. Any single one of today’s best hydrogen bombs will produce at least one thousand times the lethal blast, heat, and radiation that resulted from the Hiroshima or Nagasaki bombs. Nothing would remain alive, no matter how shielded or “hardened,” within an area twelve miles in diameter. Taking just one city, Boston for example, you can begin to guess with some accuracy what just one modern bomb can do, say, tomorrow morning.

One thing is sure, that such a bomb would not leave alive anyone to join a committee to prepare a book of sketches and paintings like those in Unforgettable Fire. The people whose memories are contained in this book were residents of Hiroshima, most of them somewhere within a radius of two miles or so from the hypocenter, the Aioi bridge in the center of town. They survived, and made their drawings thirty years later. With one of today’s bombs they would all have been vaporized within a fraction of a second after the explosion. What they recall most vividly, and draw most heart-rendingly, are the deaths all around them, the collapsed buildings, and above all the long black strips of skin hanging from the arms and torsos of those still alive. They remember the utter hopelessness, the inability of anyone to help anyone else, the loneliness of the injured alongside the dying.

Reading their accounts and wincing at the pictures, one gains the sure sense that no society, no matter how intricately structured, could have coped with that event. No matter how many doctors and hospitals might have been in place and ready to help with medical technology beforehand (as, for instance, in Boston or Baltimore today), at the moment of the fireball all of that help would have vanished in the new sun. As for the radioactivity, a single case of near-lethal radiation can occasionally be saved today by the full resources of a highly specialized, tertiary hospital unit, with countless transfusions and bone-marrow transplants, but what to do about a thousand such cases all at once, or a hundred thousand? Not to mention the more conventionally maimed and burned people, in the millions.

Words like disaster and catastrophe are too frivolous for the events that would inevitably follow a war with thermonuclear weapons. Damage is not the real term; the language has no word for it. Some people might survive, but survival is itself the wrong word. As to the thought processes of the people in high perches of government who believe that they can hide themselves underground somewhere (they probably can) and emerge later on to take over again the running of society (they cannot, in the death of society), or, more ludicrous, the underground headquarters already installed in the mountains for corporate executives who plan to come deranged out of their tunnels to reorganize the telephone lines or see to the oil business, these people cannot have thought at all.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Physical, Medical, and Social Effects of the Atomic Bombings is a 700-page, flatly written description of what happened in August 1945, containing a few photographs and a great many charts and tables to illustrate the abundant details in the text. The authors are a committee of thirty-seven Japanese scholars and scientists with credentials in medicine, biology, physics, economics, psychology, sociology, and history. The have worked from a huge base of information (there are nearly 1,000 references) compiled over three decades, some of it reliable and solid, some, as they assert, equivocal and conjectural because of a public policy of ignoring or suppressing the data for twenty years after the bombings.


Here and there, but in only a few paragraphs of the unemotional, factual text, are sentences which reveal the profundity of revulsion and disgust for this weapon and its use by the United States which still remain in the Japanese mind. It is briefly noted that Hiroshima had been spared the extensive fire-bombing to which most other Japanese cities were being subjected in the 1945 summer—there was an eagerly believed rumor that the Americans were sparing the city out of respect because it was known to be a Buddhist religious center. Then, soon after the A-bombing, it was realized that the city had been preserved free of conventional damage in order to measure with exactitude the effects of the new bomb.

The authors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki tersely recall that the first American journalists to arrive on the scene, a month after the bombing, were interested only in the extent of physical damage and the evidence of the instrument’s great power. They note further that no news about the injuries to the people, especially news about radiation sickness, was allowed by the Allied Occupation. “On 6 September 1945, the General Headquarters of the Occupational Forces issued a statement that made it clear that people likely to die from A-bomb afflictions should be left to die. The official attitude…was that people suffering from radiation injuries were not worth saving.”

The Japanese nation is of course now a friendly ally of the United States, peacefully linked to this country, but the people remember. The continuing bitterness of that memory runs far deeper than most Americans might guess. Apart from the 370,000 Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors still alive, whose lasting evidences of physical and psychological damage are exhaustively documented in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese people at large are appalled that other nations can still be so blind to the horror.

To get back to worst cases. What would you guess is the worst of all possibilities today, with the United States and the Soviet Union investing every spare dollar and ruble to build new and more powerful armaments, missiles enough to create artificial suns in every habitable place of both countries—and with France, Britain, India, China, South Africa, maybe Israel, and who knows what other country either stockpiling bombs of their own or preparing to build them? Of all the mistakes to be made, which is the worst?

A very bad one, although maybe not the worst of all, is a technical complication not much talked about in public but one hanging over all the military scientists like a great net poised to fall at any moment. It is still a theoretical complication, not yet tested or for that matter even testable, but very terrifying indeed. The notion is this: a good-sized nuclear bomb, say ten megatons, exploded at a very high altitude, 250 miles or so over a country, or a set of several such bombs over a continent, might elicit such a surge of electromagnetic energy in the underlying atmosphere that all electronic devices on the earth below would be put out of commission—or destroyed outright—all computers, radios, telephones, television, all electric grids, all communications beyond the reach of a human shout. None of the buttons pressed in Moscow or Washington, if either lay beneath the rays, would function. The silos would not open on command, or fire their missiles.

During this period the affected country would be, in effect, anaesthetized, and the follow-on missiles from the other side could pick off their targets like fruit from a tree. Only the submarine forces, roaming far at sea, would be able to fire back, and their only signal to fire would have to be the total absence of any signal from home. The fate of the aggressor’s own cities would then lie at the fingertips of individual submarine commanders, out of touch with the rest of the world, forced to read the meaning of silence.

If the prediction is valid, it introduces a new piece of logic into the game. Metal shielding can be used to protect parts of the military communication lines, and fiber optics lines are already being used to replace some parts. Nuclear power plants can be partially shielded, perhaps enough to prevent melt-downs everywhere. But no one can yet be certain of protection against this strange new threat.

Any first strike might have to involve this technical maneuver beforehand, with the risk of counterblows from somewhere in the oceans or from surviving commanders of land-based missiles, but always with the tempting prospect of an enemy country sitting paralyzed like a rabbit in the headlights of a truck. Guessing wrong either way could be catastrophic, and I imagine the war college faculties on both sides are turning the matter over and over in their minds and on their computers, looking for new doctrine.

But all in all, looking ahead, I believe that the greatest danger lies in the easy assumption by each government that the people in charge of military policy in any adversary government are not genuine human beings. We make this assumption about the Soviets all the time and I have no doubt they hold the same belief about us. We know ourselves, of course, and take ourselves on faith: who among us would think of sending off a cluster of missiles to do a million times more damage to a foreign country than was done at Hiroshima, for any reason? None of us, we would all affirm (some of us I fear with fingers crossed). But there are those people on the other side, who do not think as we do, we think.

It may be that the road to the end is already being paved, right now, by those tactical “theater” bombs, the little ones, as small and precise as we can make them. If the other side’s tanks are gaining on ours, or on those of an ally, and we are about to lose an action, let them have one! And when they send one of theirs back in retaliation, slightly larger, let them have another, bigger one. Drive them back, we will say, let them have it. A few such exchanges, and off will go the ICBMs, and down will go, limb by limb, all of mankind.

I hope these two books are widely translated, and then propped under the thoughtful, calculating, and expressionless eyes of all the officials in the highest reaches of all governments. They might then begin to think harder than they now think about the future, their own personal future, and about whether a one-time exchange of bombs between countries would leave any government still governing, or any air force officer still in command of anything.

Maybe the military people should sit down together on neutral ground, free of politicians and diplomats, perhaps accompanied by their chief medical officers and hospital administrators, and talk together about the matter. They are, to be sure, a strange and unfamiliar lot, unworldly in a certain sense, but they know something about each other or could at least learn to know each other. After a few days of discussion, unaffectionately and coldly but still linked in a common and ancient professional brotherhood, they might reach the conclusion that the world is on the wrong track, that human beings cannot fight with such weapons and remain human, and that since organized societies are essential for the survival of the profession of arms it is time to stop. It is the generals themselves who should have sense enough to demand a freeze on the development of nuclear arms, and then a gradual, orderly, meticulously scrutinized reduction of such arms. Otherwise, they might as well begin to learn how spears are made, although their chances of living to use them are very thin, not much better than the odds for the rest of us.

Meanwhile, the preparations go on, the dream-like rituals are rehearsed, and the whole earth is being set up as an altar for a burnt offering, a monstrous human sacrifice to an imagined God with averted eyes. Carved in the stone of the cenotaph in Hiroshima are the words: “Rest in peace, for the mistake will not be repeated.” The inscription has a life of its own. Intended first as a local prayer and promise, it has already changed its meaning into a warning, and is now turning into a threat.

This Issue

September 24, 1981