One of the great achievements of humankind in general, and the United States in particular, is the prevention of a recurrence of nuclear war. To end a long and grueling war between Japan and the United States, two atomic bombs were used. The debate over the propriety of this continues to this day, but the alternative seemed to be years more of grinding, island-by-island warfare.
Since 1945, thermonuclear weapons — considerably more powerful than the weapons used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — have been developed and deployed, but they have never been used.
This remarkable restraint has not come easily — there have been times when the world was at the brink.
Not long after World War II, the United States fought communists in Korea. Gen. Douglas MacArthur wanted to use atomic bombs against China but President Harry Truman (barely) prevailed and forbade it. A decade later, an American U-2 spy plane observed preparations in Cuba to install nuclear-capable missiles. The two thoughtful and informed leaders involved — John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev — both overrode their more warlike generals, and an agreement was reached to climb down: the United States removed some missiles from Europe and the Soviet effort to install missiles in Cuba was aborted.
And then there have been the near accidents. There have been reports of incidents wherein launches almost occurred because of a computer error, a power outage, a wedge of swans, loss of contact with a relay station and moonrise. Although many forget or refuse to acknowledge it, for three quarters of a century, a thermonuclear war — the destruction of the planet as we know it — has been a sword of Damocles hovering over us.
An article in The Economist magazine well-describes our current situation: “of late it has been a taboo to discuss nuclear war. Even though the advent of [smaller] tactical nuclear weapons has made the possibility more likely, still well-bred, folks will never mention the subject.”
A recent, syndicated column from Fareed Zakaria published in the Charleston Gazette-Mail well-illustrates this taboo. Zakaria’s piece, under the headline “Time to start thinking about the end game in Ukraine,” never once mentions nuclear war.
The war is compared to a chess game, which, Zakaria says, has a clear beginning, middle and end (thus the reference to “endgame”). Good analogy but wrong lessons.
Chess at the master’s level often ends in stalemate — the players shake hands and the game is over. But, while war may indeed result in a long stalemate, the “players” never thereafter shake hands and acknowledge the end of the game. Another missed lesson: Games played below the masters level often end in an unexpected way. An apparently innocuous pawn move clears a path for the queen (or a bishop or rook) to swoop across the board, and that’s all she wrote.
Zakaria writes: “The alternative to some kind of negotiated settlement would be an unending war in Ukraine which would further devastate the country and its people.” No, Mr. Zakaria, in the history of the world there has never been an unending war. Very long ones, yes; unending? No.
Zakaria seems to be assuring us that the Ukraine-Russia war is similar to a football or baseball game: After four quarters or nine innings, we can expect some kind of definitive outcome, and then it’s over. Well, maybe it will happen that way, but maybe it won’t.
We know how the long and grueling conflict in the Pacific Theater of Operations during WWII ended. We do not yet know how the “unending” war between Russia and Ukraine will conclude. We are now once again on the brink. Checkmate might equal no planet.