I first became deeply and earnestly involved in large questions of public policy in the Spring of 1958. The issue that engaged my energies was the threat of nuclear war. There was a movement then to ban nuclear weapons worldwide, led by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, an organization formed in Great Britain the year before and headed up by my old teatime companion [hem hem], Bertrand Russell.
The invention of nuclear weapons had fundamentally altered military strategy and international affairs because there was no effective defense against them. [I explored all of this at great length in a book I wrote four years later and failed to get published, The Rhetoric of Deterrence.] Overnight, the age old concept of defense had been replaced by the new, untested, and fundamentally different concept of deterrence. Since it was in practice impossible for a nation to defend itself against the devastation of a nuclear attack, there were only two alternatives: either all the nations that possessed nuclear weapons or were capable of producing them had to agree – unanimously – to destroy the weapons they had and to not produce any more, which is to say nuclear disarmament; or else a nation, to defend itself, had to produce and maintain an arsenal of nuclear weapons capable of being deployed even after a nuclear attack with sufficient effect to make it not in the rational self-interest of any other nation to initiate a nuclear war, which is to say deterrence. It took no brains at all to see that deterrence was a very risky option, because either accident, or miscalculation, or – worst of all – a failure of rational self-interest on the part of a nuclear armed nation could very well result in the deaths of scores or hundreds of millions of the residents of one’s homeland.
Which brings me to North Korea, which apparently now possesses nuclear weapons and is actively engaged in trying to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile [ICBM] capable of reaching the West Coast of the United States, a distance of maybe 5000 miles. Should the North Korean development efforts prove successful [and it is difficult to see how they could not be], it would then be possible for Chairman Kim Jong-un to launch an attack on, let us say, San Francisco that the United States would have no ability to stop. Such an attack would be suicidal, it goes without saying. I think it is pretty certain that in response the American military would obliterate North Korea with a flood of megaton weapons, killing the Chairman, his government, and most of the North Koreans. But that would not save San Francisco.
For sixty years, we and the rest of the nuclear armed nations have been relying for our lives on the rational self-interest of all. It is not for nothing that this state of affairs, usually referred to as mutually assured destruction, goes by the acronym MAD.
Let us assume that Kim-Jong-un is not suicidal, that all he wants, like Henny Youngman, is a little respect. [If this is not true, then San Francisco, or Los Angeles, or Beijing is doomed.] The problem is that he is engaged in a very dangerous game, making threats he does not actually intend to carry out in an attempt to bluff the United States and other nations into lifting sanctions, increasing aid [in the case of China], and ceding him a seat at the councils of the nuclear nations.
Since every knowledgeable civilian and military figure in the American government [with the possible exception of the President] understands all of this quite well, there will be enormous pressure on them to launch a first strike to destroy North Korea’s military establishment before Kin Jon-un is in a position to carry out his threats -- threats which, I repeat, cannot be defended against.
We are in dangerous waters.