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Let’s Say Someone Did Drop the Bomb. Then What?

NUCLEAR WAR: A Scenario, by Annie Jacobsen

COUNTDOWN: The Blinding Future of Nuclear Weapons, by Sarah Scoles


When it comes to nuclear catastrophe, there is a large and ever-expanding body of books and films.

Movies have an obvious visual advantage (what is more photogenic than a mushroom cloud?), but books like Annie Jacobsen’s gripping “Nuclear War: A Scenario” are essential if you want to understand the complex and disturbing details that go into a civilization-destroying decision to drop the Bomb on an enemy.

Jacobsen, the author of “The Pentagon’s Brain,” has done her homework. She has spent more than a decade interviewing dozens of experts while mastering the voluminous literature on the subject, some of it declassified only in recent years. “Nuclear war is insane,” she writes. “Every person I interviewed for this book knows this.” Yet the sword of Damocles hanging over our heads remains unsheathed.

Numbers tell the terrifying story by themselves. A one-megaton bomb dropped on the Pentagon would kill about a million people in the first two minutes, and the subsequent war would be a march toward Armageddon. She estimates that, by its end, at least two billion individuals would lose their lives.

Jacobsen calls this genocide, but then goes further, describing a mass extinction event from the postwar impact of nuclear winter and the degradation of the ozone layer. “As long as nuclear war exists as a possibility,” she says, “the survival of the human species hangs in the balance.”

Jacobsen lays out an imaginary narrative that begins with North Korea launching a missile against the United States. The “why” — Kim Jong-un is paranoid? resentful? a “mad king”? — is less important than the “how” of procedure, because nine governments possess nuclear weapons, and for many of them the decision to kill millions of people in an instant rests with one man, whether Kim, Vladimir Putin or the president of the United States. (During the Watergate crisis, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, worried that a drunken and brooding Richard Nixon might decide to launch a nuclear strike, reportedly told the Pentagon’s leaders to check with him or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger before following a directive from the White House.)

In Jacobsen’s telling, Washington fires interceptors to take down the missile but these fail because, as she explains, tests of America’s interceptor system have produced dismal results. “With 44 interceptor missiles in its entire inventory, the U.S. interceptor program is mostly for show.”

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