For decades after the Cold War ended, the threat of nuclear war seemed to fade into the global background. Climate change took center stage as the existential crisis of our time, and it seemed for a few brief years that treaties and diplomacy, however flawed, had led nuclear powers to set aside the possibility of using nuclear weapons again. (To date, it is only the U.S. that has detonated nuclear weapons—both in Japan—and it continues to be the country with the largest nuclear arsenal by far.)
Now, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ushers in a daunting new era, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the threat of nuclear war is once again something to keep us all awake at night. Ted Postol, a physicist and nuclear weapons specialist as well as MIT professor emeritus, joins Robert Scheer on this week’s edition of “Scheer Intelligence” to explain just how deadly the current brinkmanship between the U.S. and Russia really is. Having taught at Stanford University and Princeton prior to his time at MIT, Postol was also a science and policy adviser to the chief of naval operations and an analyst at the Office of Technology Assessment. His nuclear weapons expertise led him to critique the U.S. government’s claims about missile defenses, for which he won the Garwin Prize from the Federation of American Scientists in 2016.
Scheer, who wrote “With Enough Shovels: Reagan, Bush and Nuclear War,” met Postol 30 years ago when the two participated in a historic seminar at the Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation about the threat of nuclear war. From his expert vantage point, Postol rings all the alarm bells imaginable regarding escalating rhetoric both in the U.S. and Russia regarding nuclear weapons. The MIT professor states in no uncertain terms that, while Russia was in no way justified in its attacks on Ukraine, which both he and Scheer have described as war crimes, it is imperative to consider NATO’s role in the current crisis in order to understand the nuclear threat. Explaining that the U.S. must urgently learn from the past and present if we are to avoid a nuclear war in the short or long term future, Postol laments an unwillingness amongst U.S. political leaders and media to reflect on the country’s actions.
In a moment that few listeners will be able to forget, the “Scheer Intelligence” host asks the leading expert to lay out what would happen to Americans were Russia to unleash its most destructive weapons.
“Tell us, what are we talking about here?” Scheer asks his guest, “Are we talking about Hiroshima and Nagasaki for every town in America?”
“We’re talking about a wall of fire that encompasses everything around us at the temperature of the center of the sun,” Postol solemnly warns.
Listen to the full conversation between Scheer and Postol as they consider Vladimir Putin’s motives for raising the possibility of using Russia’s nuclear arsenal, and how the U.S. in many ways could be its own worst enemy in this terrifying climate.
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, and the intelligence, of course, comes from my guests. In this case, Theodore Postol, Ted Postol, one of our leading experts on nuclear war fighting and the whole threat of nuclear war. Someone I met three decades ago at the Stanford center—I forget the official title—the Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation.
And we had this seminar—I had just written a book about nuclear war fighting, and got invited to it. Condoleezza Rice was a member, then she became a provost at Stanford, and then she became a national security advisor to the first President Bush, and a secretary of state. So it was a high-powered group of top physicists, led by a guy named Sidney Drell, who was adjacent, had access to the highest information. And we were very worried then that they would develop some idea of nuclear war fighting, and you could win, and so forth. And then the nuclear threat dropped off the page with the end of the Soviet Union, and hopefully the end of the Cold War, but it’s back and forth right now.
And Vladimir Putin has raised the possibility of actually using these weapons, if other means fail. And we’re right in the middle of a discussion—and most of the media and the politicians are ignoring that threat, that danger, and there’s even talk of using smaller nuclear weapons, and there’s a whole question of new technology that can evade it. So I turn to someone that has been a leader, as I said, in this field. Ted, tell us about your background, your work in the Pentagon, your academic work, and how you feel about this moment. Am I being an alarmist?
TP: Ah, no, I don’t think you’re being an alarmist. I think things are extremely dangerous. It’s very hard to know how to quantify this, because there are so many unknowns, but it is easily as dangerous as the Cuban Missile Crisis. And my gut feeling, which is all I can work on, is that it’s far more dangerous.
But let me just fill you in a little bit on my background, just so your audience has some idea of where my experience comes from. I’m not a normal academic, career type; I only came to academia after I had spent a few years in the Pentagon. And I was working as a science and policy advisor to the chief of naval operations, and during that time I had a very broad level, a broad series of experiences and responsibilities. So, for example, I provided technical and policy advice on the choices, the technical choices we would be making on the Trident II ballistic missile; that missile had not yet gone to sea, this was in the early 1980s; we had the Trident I, but we then were preparing the Navy for the Trident II, and there were many technical trade-offs that we needed to think about.
During this time I also was deeply involved with the actual nuclear war planning. So I saw and actually worked on solving problems, if you want to call it that, in the nuclear war planning. So I was intimately familiar with the plans, and also concerned with policy implementation of them—which, I should make clear, I never—I thought the whole thing was crazy. But that’s different from my technical responsibilities within the Navy structure. I had a responsibility to make sure that certain things were done as appropriate, given what people were thinking about. I certainly made it clear many times that I did not think that the framework for the planning was very sound, but that’s another discussion.
I also was involved in evaluating strategic anti-submarine warfare capabilities that the Russians might try to use against the United States, and also the kind of capabilities the United States was then using against the Russians. At that time, Russian submarines were very noisy, which is not the case today. And they were so noisy that we could track them at great distances, and we basically had a good, first-order understanding of where many of these submarines were when they were at sea. So this was a tremendous vulnerability that the Russians had at that time, that they no longer have.
I also worked on missile defenses. In particular, I looked extensively at the Russian missile defense systems, and their air defense systems, which had some features that indicated they were designed for a dual purpose, to try to engage ICBMs. They in fact had no capability; there was no realistic capability. But the intelligence people come up with these ideas that have a near-zero chance of working, and then they blow them up into a threat. But this was a real concern at this time, and entered into the ABM treaty of 1972 in a big way.
I looked at American missile defense systems and the technology we had, and did a lot of work on that, which is what led me to be an outspoken critic of the Strategic Defense Initiative, because it was clear that the technology was not even close to up to the job of doing what people were claiming. So that’s kind of a broad brush of what I was doing.
RS: By the way, just a footnote on the Strategic Defense Initiative, known colloquially as Star Wars. And one time when I was with you at this arms control seminar I ran into Edward Teller, the father of the H-bomb, who was the big proponent of Star Wars missile defense—the idea that you could shoot down enemy missiles, and then some people thought that would be destabilizing, because you could then do nuclear war fighting, which is a concern now with the hypersonic weapons that the Russians seem to have developed.
But nonetheless, I happened to be on an airplane going from L.A. up to San Jose to our seminar, and Edward Teller was on the plane. And after we got off the plane he said, what are you doing up here? And I said, I’m going to the seminar that Sid Drell has. He says, well, make sure Sid tells you about the great results we had with the cottage test. Which was the biggest secret at that time, and he claimed they had gotten lazy, and they really had the means to make this weapon. And when I got up there, Sid Drell, who did have access to everything and was adjacent, turned white, took me outside the building and said, you know, what is Teller doing? He’s not supposed to be talking about any of this, I’m not going to talk about it, it’s a crime. And so I just remember that moment. And then they found out that in fact the test was flawed, and they hadn’t got the results.
But President Reagan sort of believed that. Then I had the opportunity to interview, many years later, Ronald Reagan when he was running for president. And we discussed the question of nuclear war fighting, and he still entertained ideas about that. But nonetheless, when he met with Gorbachev in this historic moment, they both looked at each other, talked and said—as he had said a number of times, he wanted to get rid of these weapons. And they actually started this process.
So take us back. How did we go from that moment of optimism about the end of the Cold War, and where we are now? And also, you haven’t answered the question: how alarming is the current situation? So it’s a two-pronged question. How did we get here from the Gorbachev-Reagan meeting at Reykjavík, and how concerning is the current moment, where actually Vladimir Putin has said, reminded the West he has this huge nuclear arsenal?
TP: Well, I think Gorbachev and Reagan were serious. But the people who saw themselves as expert policy people—people like Richard Pearl, who was a big figure at the time—they saw Gorbachev and Reagan as naïve. Which, incidentally, I do not agree with; I think they were actually right on the mark, and the naïve people were the so-called experts. I lived in that community of experts, and I heard so many things that if you were dealing with things in an intellectually clear and well-informed way, you would immediately recognize as total nonsense. Just one individual repeating nonsense from another.
And unfortunately, most of what people believe—even people who are quite well educated—is just unchecked. You know, only if you’re a real expert—and these people were not, in spite of the fact they viewed themselves that way—do you understand something about the reality of what these weapons are about. And so basically, to use a term that gets overused a lot, I think the deep state in both Russia and the United States—more the United States than Russia, at least as far as I can see—the deep state in the United States mostly, basically undermined the ideas and objectives of Ronald Reagan. And of course Gorbachev was facing a similar problem in Russia.
So there’s these giant institutions inside both countries. They’re filled with people who, at one level, honestly believe these bad ideas, or think they are right; and because they think they are right, and they convince themselves that it’s in the best interest of the country, what’s really going on, it’s in their best interest as professionals but they mix up their best interest with the interest of the country. They, these people take steps to blunt the directives of the president, and basically the system just moves on without any real modification, independent of this remarkable and actually extraordinarily insightful judgment of these two men.
So it was the system that defeated them. And I honestly, I’m not a sociologist, so it’s very hard for me to understand this in broader terms, but I honestly believe that these organizations are so big and so filled with people, some of whom—many of whom honestly believe the wrong things, but they’re honest about it, and many people who know that what they’re doing is wrong, which makes them dishonest, but see it in their best interest. These gigantic organizations are extraordinarily hard to change, which is one of the reasons why this extraordinary proposal—which could have saved us from the current situation—never got anywhere.
And now, we’re in a situation where the firepower available to the United States against Russia—when I say firepower, in this case I’m talking about the peculiar ability to place nuclear warheads close enough to Russian ICBM hardened silos, hardened ICBMs, close enough to destroy those ICBMs. That requires a hundred-meter accuracy or something in that range, to be able to do that. Now, the nuclear weapon that they’re using to provide, that has this hundred-meter accuracy or better, would destroy an urban area three or four or five miles in radius. So if it’s five miles, it’s like a 75-mile-square area. So this weapon that they want to deliver to a hundred meters precision would destroy 75 square miles of an urban area. So when they talk about war fighting, they’re talking about this one very specialized feature of the weapon: the ability to use it against the very hard underground structure.
We now have the ability, because of a modernization program that’s gone on over the last 10 years, to destroy all of Russia’s ICBM, land-based ICBMs—maybe a thousand, half of their warheads, a thousand of them or so, with 20 percent of the warheads we have available to us. So that means 80% of the warheads we have available are available for other purposes. Those warheads, many of them which would have been used to try to destroy these silo-based ICBMs and command centers and things like that, are now free to be used for other things. Those other things could be—who knows what they’re being used for, because you can’t even find targets. But of course now that we can increase the number of targets that we want to attack, for example, in China, and it just goes on and on and on.
And right now I would say there are many more weapons than you can find legitimate targets for, whatever that means. And so we have this tremendous firepower. The Russians are aware of our strenuous efforts to build this tremendously increased firepower over the last 10 years. So imagine you are a Russian military officer. Your job is to provide a nuclear response should Russia be attacked; that’s your job, that’s what your profession is. And you study the American effort, and you say my god, these Americans are planning to fight and win a nuclear war against us.
Now, I know—the Russian might say to himself—I know that there’s no fighting and winning a nuclear war, because both countries will be destroyed. But the Americans look like they don’t understand this, or are acting like they don’t understand it, or are acting like they want an option to try to do this. Well, I have to be prepared to respond, because if they really believe this, then I’d better show them that it would be a very bad idea to try, and that what will happen will be the end of both countries and actually all of Europe and the Northern Hemisphere, immediately. And god knows what else would follow.
But, so that’s one thing; so the finger is closer to the button in Russia because of these American activities which the military officers—who do not want to see this happen. Anyone who thinks that these people are crazy just doesn’t understand their culture. They do not want to see this happen. Their job is to be prepared to provide this service to their country, if you want to call it a service.
So you have them on a higher state of alert, and it turns out that their early-warning system is much less capable than ours. They don’t have the broad early-warning capabilities that we have, and they cannot tell they’re under attack until it’s too late. If you look at the timelines they have for political leaders to make decisions that then are carried out by the military, the timeline is too short. The military leaders would be dead if the Americans attacked like they would expect them to.
So the only thing the Russians can do—not that they’re crazy, or not that they’re trying to be, you know, suicidal or homicidal—the only thing they can do to stave off American enthusiasm about attacking them is to make preparations for an automated response. A doomsday kind of weapon, although that’s not, I doubt that’s exactly the way they think of it. But a doomsday kind of response, which basically occurs if the leadership is killed in the early phase of an American nuclear attack.
Now, when you do that, you have to make provisions for, like, if you lose communications under certain conditions, if this happens or that happens, and so on. Well, that’s a complicated system, where errors in that system can occur that could then lead to a devolution of launch authority, resulting in massive launches that were unauthorized. And basically the American modernization, and Russia’s unfortunate inability to improve their early-warning system, has resulted in a situation where everything is potentially a lot more dangerous, because an accident could much more easily occur. And this is both a social, political and technical problem.
RS: You’re talking about the modernization of the last 10 years. So that includes Barack Obama.
TP: Oh, definitely. Definitely.
RS: Yeah. So we can’t blame all this—and it doesn’t include—well, it does include Trump, but he didn’t initiate it. So we have a situation where somebody who got elected saying he was frightened of nuclear weapons and did not want to expand their power, has in fact presided over that. And there’s bipartisan support for it. And in turn, this makes sense, then, if Putin’s bragging about his hypersonic weapons—of which they claim they already used one or two in the Ukraine—which can also deliver nuclear weapons. And that’s a way of sort of—and remember the press conference, where he talked about it sort of trumping the American modernization, right? Yeah, so talk about that.
TP: Well, I think a lot of this race that contributes to it being so dangerous is the need, the perceived need by national leaders to show first that they’re tough, and to show second that they’re innovative—that they have so many ways, new ways to destroy the other that, you know, don’t mess with me; it’s that kind of thing. So the hypersonic vehicles that China and Russia are touting, they’re meaningless. Both these countries—the United States has no ability to intercept anything they fly at us. No ability. I’ve looked at this in great detail, I have written articles on this. They simply—the current systems have no chance of working under the best of conditions. And they don’t work under the best of conditions.
So people talk about a hypersonic vehicle that can evade defenses—well, a normal ballistic missile system that supposedly, the statement implies that somehow normal ballistic missile systems can be intercepted. But, you know, if you have hundreds of decoys, where you have no chance of understanding which is a decoy and which is a warhead coming at you, for every warhead that you see, you’re not going to intercept anything.
That’s assuming your interceptors work. And we know that the interceptors don’t work. In other words, the interceptors—the technology demands and reliability of the interceptors, even when they are tested under choreographed, idealized conditions, is very low. So you do anything at all to disrupt them, they won’t intercept anything, not even the decoys. Because even when there are no decoys, they can’t reliably intercept a target. So now, when you have hundreds of decoys per warhead, and jamming systems and spoofing systems, and—there’s no chance these will do anything. And so to all of a sudden suggest that a hypersonic vehicle somehow changes the game is silly. But it’s not silly if you’re looking for fear, if you’re trying to create fear, you know, in your adversary’s mind with regard to your determination and your ability to respond.
So it’s not an accident that this gigantic robot submarine that the Russians were showing us in, it must have been as early as 2010, I’d have to look at my notes, but the submarine—it looks like a giant torpedo, it’s about seven feet in diameter. So it’s a very large, giant torpedo. And it’s got a nuclear power plant in it, and it could carry a warhead, a nuclear warhead of a hundred megatons. A hundred megatons. And it could swim into the harbor of a big city, or up a river, and detonate, and it could destroy an area of 40 miles radius. Forty miles. If it’s 40 miles radius, it’s like four or five thousand square miles destroyed by one weapon.
RS: So as opposed to the planes that went into the World Trade Center, there would be no New York.
TP: There’d be no New York State. No New Jersey. There’d be no—well, half of Long Island would be taken. So this is—this is a fantastically destructive weapon. And we know they can build it, because they built a weapon that was similar and detonated it in 1957. That’s a long time ago. So it’s not an accident that this weapon was advertised by Putin. What he was saying—what he was trying to do, in my view, is he is worried than an American president would be misinformed enough—and I think there have been some pretty misinformed presidents, including Ronald Reagan during the Star Wars episode—to believe that we could do things that were just ridiculous.
So he’s afraid of the misinformed American president doing something that gets everybody killed. He’s not worried about us getting ourselves killed, but he is worried about Russia. So what he wants to do is make it clear to anybody—to a child on a bicycle—that you cannot win. They will destroy the United States in response, no matter what your defenses can or cannot do. We have no defenses against an underwater device that can cross the Atlantic, nuclear-powered, and the Pacific, and go into our harbors and destroy the entire coast of the United States. Where, you know, a very high percentage of our population and industry live. That they could do with this weapon alone. And they have it, and they’re advertising it.
RS: So let me ask you, because the New York Times, which is part of what I now consider the giddy media—you know, sort of cheering on the effective use of troops now against the Russians, and we’re going to turn the Ukraine into another surrogate battlefield, as we have done in other countries around the world. They had a whole takeout the other day on smaller weapons. You know, two percent of the yield of Hiroshima, and so forth—nuclear weapons, that can be usable. And that relates also to the question of NATO expansion—that smaller-range weapons can be used that have this power, if you can place them closer to a nation, as we feared in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
So I’d like to sort of wrap this up by relating this to NATO expansion. Because after all, one of the things that Reagan and Gorbachev were talking about was the end of this kind of Cold War military confrontation. And one would have thought the beginning of the end for an alliance like NATO, as well as its Soviet equivalent. And so why don’t you bring us up to speed on that? Because for Putin, that seems to be really the issue here, the NATO expansion.
TP: Yeah, well, let me just take a second to comment on the New York Times article, which was written by a normally pretty good science journalist, Bill Broad. Ah, one of the disturbing things about that article is Broad talks about weapons that are probably four or five kilotons in yield, from his description. Now, a four- or five-kiloton nuclear weapon is going to destroy 70% of the area that was destroyed at Hiroshima. Now, if you consider that minor, OK; I guess it’s your judgment. But I don’t consider that a minor, small weapon that anybody would ignore. So there’s a question of scale and reality that’s missing from this kind of article, and that’s troubling to me.
But the question of NATO is a question of history and responsible leadership. And what has happened—first of all, I want to be very clear: there is no excuse for what Putin has done. And he has made a tremendous mistake, even if you’re cold hearted and you’re just thinking in terms of his strategic objectives. It’s just horrifying, what has happened here. However, there is a lot of guilt to go around. And the conditions that have led to this confrontation were produced by NATO. And I think that people who are concerned about avoiding this kind of thing in the future should not simply think of arms control—which I agree with; I think we should be doing arms control. But they should also be thinking about our political conduct.
So for example, in 2008 NATO announced, over the objections of two important NATO members, Germany and France—Germany and France objected to this—in 2008, NATO put out this Pollyannaish statement that they would welcome Georgia and Ukraine to join at some future time. Of course, neither of these countries were even close to qualifying for entry into NATO, because they have internal domestic problems that disqualify them, and they have internal corruption problems that disqualify them. Maybe they would solve those problems, but they were certainly a decade or decades away from ever being even a possible qualifying candidate.
So why would you do this? So we did it anyway. And instantly—I want to underscore, instantly—Putin said, these countries, Georgia and Ukraine, are a red line for Russia. It’s a red line: that’s the words he chose. They are on our border, they are traditionally parts of what the Soviet Union was, and they are culturally close to us, and we will not tolerate these countries becoming part of a hostile alliance against us. And all this nonsense about NATO not being a hostile alliance against—all you have to do is read NATO’s statements and records, and what they’re up to, and why they’re planning and what their planning is for. It’s ridiculous to claim that NATO is not a hostile alliance against Russia.
So Putin sees them that way, and he sees Georgia and Ukraine as fundamental security dangers to Russia if they were to become part of this hostile alliance, what they call the “near abroad.” So this occurs in April of 2008. By August of 2008, Russia and Georgia are at war, and Russia wrecks Georgia. Well, that should give you a message. The details of that are complex, and I could talk about them, but it wasn’t Russia that started that; it was Saakashvili, the leader of Georgia, who was emboldened to think that NATO would support him. So the statements made by NATO took this guy—who frankly I think was unstable to begin with, actually is now in jail in Georgia for corruption—and they emboldened him to attack Russian peacekeeping troops in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and the Russians responded.
And incidentally, I’m not trying to suggest the Russians were totally innocent. But let’s be clear: Georgia started it. And Georgia was encouraged by NATO, and Russia wrecked Georgia in response. So now what do you have? It’s 2022, or 2021, the end of that, and you have all this encouragement of Ukraine to join a hostile military alliance against Russia. Now, Georgia should have been a lesson that the Russians are serious. But there’s no learning behavior in NATO that I can see. Look at this guy Stoltenberg—when he starts talking, you just want to hold your head and cry. And so what does NATO do—and the United States, of course, leading NATO—is we start talking about Ukraine becoming a NATO member when of course they don’t qualify for the longest time. So we just get the Russians crazier and crazier over this misperceived threat from Ukraine, because Ukraine is not a threat to them.
But what matters is, you know, diplomacy; rhetoric matters. What you say matters in diplomacy; that’s why you do diplomacy, you’re trying to increase communication in a way that avoids conflict, which is exactly the opposite of what happened here. And now you could have said, we would like to see Ukraine become a modern, independent, prosperous country like Finland; Finland is on Russia’s border, Finland is a member of the EU, Finland also trades heavily with Russia—and Finland is not a member of NATO. It’s not a member of a hostile alliance against Russia. Finland does very well. And instead of talking about a neutral power and working to bring the standards of living in the Ukraine up, and help it develop a modern democracy, we put these people in harm’s way. We put these people in harm’s way. And Stoltenberg, he’s going to root for Ukraine until the last Ukrainian is murdered by these Russian forces.
RS: You should give his position. He’s the head of—
TP: He’s the head of NATO, he’s the deputy general of NATO. So where is the diplomacy here? Again, I do not want to look like I’m blaming the West exclusively for this, because it is not the exclusive—I mean, it was an incredible blunder, even if you’re just thinking in cold, strategic terms, for Putin to go ahead and invade Ukraine. No question about it. And I do not want in any way to look like an apologist for Putin. But you know, it’s important that you look at what you did. Whenever I make a mistake, the first question I ask myself is, could I have done this differently? You don’t see any evidence of learning behavior from these people, who have now participated in a big way in creating a crisis that is going to be extremely difficult to extricate us from, and could result in World War III, which could be the end of the world we know. And unless people start thinking about—instead of using the word “diplomacy,” but not showing any indication that you understand it or that you’re committed to it, we’re going to blunder into World War III, if not here, somewhere else.
RS: OK, but I want to wrap this up with that, because that’s how I met you. We were at an arms control seminar; I think it was very prestigious, I was grateful to have been invited to participate. And it was the most frightening experience of my life up to that point, and I’d actually been in some war zones; I’d been in Vietnam a number of times as a journalist, I’d been in the Mideast during the end of the Six-Day War, I’d been in the Soviet Union. I’d been in a lot of different situations. But when I sat at that seminar, it was the same as sitting at the seminars that Ed Teller had at Livermore, or that they had at Los Alamos. It was all about nuclear war fighting. That’s why I wrote the book, I wrote the With Enough Shovels book, because they were talking about it as if it could just happen.
And at that seminar we had top people, including people who had been in the higher rank of the military advising, and discussing what this means, World War III. And it doesn’t matter whether it happens by accident, miscalculation—but there’s almost no sense in the media—and William Broad, the guy who wrote that article in the New York Times, he wrote up our discussions then, and that alarm, and he shared it. It now seems to be absent. So tell us. What are we talking about here? We’re not talking about another Iraq; we’re not talking about another Vietnam. We’re talking about, what, Hiroshima and Nagasaki for every town in America?
TP: We’re talking about a wall of fire that encompasses everything around us at the temperature of the center of the sun. That will literally turn us to less than ash, if this thing gets going. I can’t emphasize how powerful these weapons are. When they detonate, they’re actually four or five times hotter than the center of the sun, which is 20 million degrees Kelvin. They’re 100 million degrees Kelvin at the center of these weapons.
They are—there is no way to imagine, as a human being, the scale of—the scale is so off anything that human beings have tools to imagine, that it’s impossible to—you know, I can send, I’ve written articles repeatedly about the consequences of nuclear weapons on cities, for example. And this is a danger that is literally as primal as one can get. It starts at the center of our own sun in terms of consequences.
If this gets going, it’s going to be as if each side could reach into the very center of our sun, heat it up, and bring it down to the surface of the Earth in specialized, in areas of their interest, and literally turn those places into less than ash. This is really dangerous. This is something beyond anything that human beings have been able to imagine. And I don’t know how to emphasize how dangerous this is.
RS: Well, that’s the part I don’t get, now. Because you know, you’re almost considered a Putin apologist if you dare bring up this danger. And it’s ironic, because we finally have grown to be concerned about climate change, global warming; we’re finally starting to do something about it, and that involved cooperation throughout the world. And now you have a danger, certainly much greater in the short run—I mean, yeah, it couldn’t be any greater—that has been unleashed, and it’s not being seriously discussed. You know, it’s just not.
And it’s odd, because we discussed it at the height of the Cold War. In the Cuban Missile Crisis, we certainly discussed what would happen, the harm. I mean, you know, President Kennedy was quite clear about the danger of the moment. So was McNamara; he’s written about it, talked about it. In fact, McNamara, who was our secretary of defense during the Vietnam War, spent the last years of his life regretting the Vietnam War and talking about the real danger of nuclear weapons. Maybe that’s something to think about. What has happened to our consciousness about this?
TP: Well, I think that’s almost a question for a sociologist.
RS: You have too much confidence in sociologists. Pretend that you are one. [Laughter]
TP: I didn’t say I had confidence in them. There are good ones. [Laughs] I worked with a very good one—
RS: C. Wright Mills was a great one, and he wrote a book called [The Causes of] World War Three. You know, and he warned us about this, yes.
TP: Well, you know, it requires education, and incidentally, my grave concern is I know some of these characters who worked for Obama, and who now work for Biden. And I’m sorry to say it—I know it will be considered arrogant to say this—but they are ignorant. Let me be very clear: this is not an accidental statement on my part. They are outright ignorant. And they’re a bunch of—you know, they trained at these elite schools; they don’t know anything, but they think they know things; and—
RS: I should point out, by the way, that you were at Stanford and you are now—I mean, you spent that last part of your life at MIT, which is certainly an elite school. So they didn’t get the benefit of a good education, even though—
TP: I have taught at Stanford; I have taught at MIT; I have taught at Princeton, OK. And at Harvard. So I know what a lot of these people are, because they are very privileged—this is of course a generalization; there are certainly some extremely intelligent and thoughtful people among these. But a great bulk of these people are just completely in love with themselves; they are convinced that they know a lot more than they do; they will not listen, they’re not interested in learning—I mean, you try to present facts to them, they sort of walk away from you laughing. You know, like some—it’s like watching Law and Order on television when they have something about privileged children who get away with things in colleges or something.
And they are not experts. And it’s not a problem—it’s no problem at all that they are not experts. The problem is that they’re not interested in learning. So, you know, I had this character, a guy named Colin Kahl, he’s the deputy assistant secretary now for policy at the Pentagon. He doesn’t know anything. He was at Stanford, they made him a co-director of the center there. Rude beyond belief. And you know, he tells me at one point, I’m trying to discuss something with him—discuss something—he turns around and he says, I’ve got a job, I’ve got a real job, I don’t have time for this. This is a guy who’s at the Department of Defense, top levels now, possibly advising Biden.
This is the danger. And if we look at the Obama administration, we saw similar dangers. There’s a very interesting Atlantic Monthly article written by a guy named Ben Rhodes. Rhodes was the national security advisor for communications in the White House, and he wrote a totally fraudulent, supposedly government intelligence report that was released to the public about the nerve agent attack that occurred in Damascus in August of 2013.
And it’s very interesting; I would suggest your readers go read that Atlantic Monthly article. Because in his attempt to show everybody what a smart guy he is, he’s revealing that his main objective with Obama, with the president, was to get him to make a decision which would have been a disaster for the United States, but he didn’t know it. But to attack Syria, before the public outrage from the misinformation people had about that nerve agent attack died down. In other words, he didn’t want the public outrage to die down before he forced or tricked or got Obama to make a momentous decision that would have been a disaster for the United States. A total disaster.
So he’s bragging about that in this article. That’s a real window that people ought to use to look into the mindset of an individual who basically, through privilege and accident, became a national security advisor with no real knowledge of what’s going on in the intelligence system.
So we’re in a dangerous situation. We have a lot of—I’m sorry, because I’m so disturbed by this—we have a bunch of punks, you know, 30-year-old punks who come from privileged backgrounds, claiming they’re experts in policy when they actually do not have the basic knowledge. And they’re advising presidents. And this is not a good professional system. we need to do something about it.
RS: Oh boy. Well, that’s a good place to end it. Because when I met you, I encountered a fellow, TK Jones, in the Pentagon, who seemed very smart; there were others over at the labs and everything else, who were convinced that you could survive a nuclear war, you could do nuclear war fighting. And the title of my book was With Enough Shovels—you just dig a hole in the ground, put some doors on top of it, put some dirt on top of the doors, and you can survive it. And this was part of our whole nuclear defense fighting strategy and Star Wars.
Now I am afraid, and picking up on your point, that we’re in a situation where people are—you know, this does not mean you don’t care about what happens to people in wartime and try to combat it and stop it and what have you. It’s all the more reason to do that, and I agree with your condemnation of Putin’s invasion. But the point is, to put the nuclear issue off to the side as if it doesn’t exist—we’re clearly—and it’s not just Putin. I mean, we’ve had people on the U.S. side, I think—I don’t know, Madeline Albright at one point, or even Hillary Clinton talked about why do we build these weapons if you can never use them.
And you know, and now, we don’t even talk about it. You know—yeah, bring it on, bring it on, we’re not going to be intimidated—and intimidation is another way of saying, well, maybe we should think about diplomacy, or maybe we should think about alternatives. So I’m going to let you have the last word here, and then we’ll wrap it up.
TP: Well, I don’t know what they were thinking when they made the statements you quoted.
RS: I’m not sure which one made the statement—
TP: That’s OK, but let me say that the reason these weapons can’t be used is if we use them, we will all die. It’s that simple. And I can explain in much more detail why what I just said is correct. So if they ask the question again, why can’t we use these weapons, the simple answer is: if we do, we are all dead.
RS: Well, I’m going to—as the editor of this discussion, I’m going to ask you to take a minute or two to tell us why. Because people have forgotten.
TP: Well, when a nuclear weapon is used, no one will know what happened and what is next. When the—think of the World Trade Center situation, when we were not attacked with a nuclear weapon; our communications and sensing systems were all up and running and fine. And the planes, two planes hit the World Trade Center, and we had no idea what was going on. The president was taken forcefully to, I think it was Alabama initially, and flown to several locations far from Washington, because we didn’t know if there was a nuclear weapon going to go off in Washington.
Condi Rice and Dick Cheney were hiding in the basement of the Pentagon when, in my judgment, since they were in leadership roles, they should have been talking to the country and trying to calm people, but they were instead hiding in the basement. Thank goodness for the leadership of Joe Biden, who was then chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was out on the steps of the Capitol—actually risking his life without knowing, because the Capitol was one of the targets—and trying to assure people that the country is still up and running, and that the government is working and will be taking care of their defense.
Now, that happened when no damage to the country occurred, really; I mean, it’s horrifying damage in those locations, but everything was up and running. All the communications systems and sensing systems were working, and we had no idea what was going on. Now, a nuclear weapon goes off on the battlefield. Nobody knows what that means. Was it a single weapon? Is it going to be followed in minutes or in hours by multiple, additional weapons? Is the adversary who you just attacked going to follow with single or multiple weapons immediately or in days? Are they going to try to attack the nuclear weapons sites you have, where you might be trying to deliver additional weapons if you choose to?
Everyone has no knowledge of what the other is doing. It’s like playing chess on a board where you can only see one piece that you’re moving at a time, and you cannot see your own pieces, which are not just where you thought they were, but are moving themselves, because they have their own independent moves. And you can’t see your adversary’s weapons, and you can’t see your own, and your adversary is making moves where they can’t see their own weapons, and they can’t see yours. And everybody is in a total melee, and these weapons start getting used, and before you know it, it escalates into thousands of weapons being used, from a few tens of hundreds of weapons. It’s just inevitable. It’s like the catastrophe of 2008–09; if you look at the instabilities that exist, it’s inevitable that the catastrophe will not be stoppable. So that is why you really ought to be very afraid that nuclear weapons will be used at a low level.
RS: And you of course made the point also that in the name of defense, we modernize, and so do our adversaries, or other powers that have them, in order not to be vulnerable to the modernization of your opponent. And in the case of Russia, they know that we could take out a large part of their force, so therefore you have a use-them-or-lose-them mentality; you don’t have a very good early-warning system, probably not as effective as you had at other times. And you have automatic responses.
And I remember interviewing people at our own weapons labs, in the Pentagon, and in Russia, in Moscow, in the old Soviet Union. And you and I were actually at arms control conferences with people who came from the old Soviet leadership, and from the U.S. And there’s no question that if these weapons go off, whatever their tonnage, that opens—there is no turning back. That is what we have lost sight of. An accidental firing under the circumstances today—forget about a calculator, if you think of—you know, I was in Chernobyl a year after that explosion, and there was terror even then. And that was a plant designed to be supposedly safe. If you have one weapon go off now, in a fraught, worldwide situation now, there’s no turning back. It’s the end of humanity. Why don’t we just say it? It’s the end of humanity.
TP: I mean, it’s simply—the argument about using small nuclear weapons is equivalent to saying, if I only create a small spark in this room that’s filled with gasoline vapors, it won’t be a problem. It’s, you know—that, I think, is not a bad analogy. It’s physics rather than social, but it’s basically the situation. You can’t have a small spark in a room that’s filled with gasoline fumes. It’s not going to be a good outcome.
RS: Well, that’s a good point on which to end there. Thank you for giving me this time and giving our listeners this time. And I hope the alarm that we’ve expressed is misguided, but unfortunately I think back on your lifetime of work on these issues, ever since I first met you back in the 1980s, and unfortunately it’s only become more ominous, more frightening. But I think we’re also lulled into a false sense of security.
So that’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence I want to thank Christopher Ho and the staff at KCRW for posting these podcasts. Joshua Scheer, our executive producer, for putting it all together. Natasha Hakimi Zapata for doing the introduction. Lucy Berbeo for doing the transcription. And the JWK Foundation in memory of a really courageous journalist, Jean Stein, for helping fund these podcasts. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.