False alarm in Hawaii, real threat to the world

January 18, 2018

The risk of a nuclear nightmare made Hawaii's panic all too real, writes Steve Leigh.

LAST SATURDAY, residents of Hawaii faced a nightmare scenario when they received this emergency text message on their phone: "Ballistic Missile Threat Inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill."

For 38 minutes, before the false threat was rescinded, panic ensued. Parents tried to find children. Spouses and partners tried to contact each other. Hurried attempts at goodbyes mixed with frantic searches for shelter.

Of course, as the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki learned at the end of the Second World War 73 years ago, there is no shelter from an atomic bomb.

This is all the more true about the much more powerful nuclear weapons of today. If the immediate destruction didn't wipe out the islands, the ensuing radiation poisoning would have ended any semblance of normal human life in Hawaii.

The false alarm injected terror into the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. The warning must have been that much more credible after the nuclear threats of Donald Trump, railing at his new rival, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

The false alarm about an impending missile strike went out via text message
The false alarm about an impending missile strike went out via text message

As commentators wrote and government officials promised, this can't be allowed to happen again in Hawaii or anywhere else. Yet many news articles missed the underlying horror: The false alarm was bad enough, but the threat is all too real, especially in the age of Trump.

If the unthinkable happened, people wouldn't face a brief period of profound trauma, but something much more permanent. With the technological level of nuclear arsenals far advanced, even a limited exchange of these weapons threatens to bring on a "nuclear winter" that would plunge the world into a literal dark age. "The living will envy the dead," the former USSR leader Nikita Khrushchev is credited with saying.

The main lesson of the false alert in Hawaii isn't about the need to upgrade alert systems, as important as that may be, but to eliminate the actual threat of nuclear war.


PEOPLE GENERALLY fear nuclear war less since the end of the Cold War between the U.S. and former USSR.

The nightmare of nuclear competition between the two superpowers began to recede with the arms control agreements signed by Russia's Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan. The two Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START) lowered the number of warheads possessed by the U.S. and the USSR and supposedly made the world a safer place.

Yet the U.S. still has 6,800 nuclear warheads, and Russia has 7,000. This is enough to bring on many nuclear winters.

The continuing threat of nuclear war has several sources: accidents, unplanned escalation and lack of control procedures. That is little different from the past. As the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) pointed out in 2015: "Human and technical mistakes have nearly led to the accidental or mistaken launch of nuclear weapons" on many occasions.

Here are two examples cited by UCS:

On November 9, 1979, the unthinkable happened: computers at the North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) headquarters indicated that a large-scale Soviet missile attack was underway.

NORAD immediately relayed the information to high-level command posts and top leaders convened to assess the threat. Their response was swift: crews responsible for launching U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles were put on the highest alert, nuclear bomber crews boarded their planes to prepare for takeoff, and the Airborne Command Post--the aircraft designed to allow the president to maintain control in the event of an attack--was put in the air, though without the president on board.

Six minutes later, when satellite data failed to confirm any incoming missiles, leaders decided against retaliation. It was later discovered that a technician had mistakenly inserted a tape containing a training exercise scenario into an operational NORAD computer, simulating a full-scale attack...

On January 25, 1995...a Russian early warning radar detected an unexpected missile launch off the coast of Norway. The missile's flight characteristics appeared similar to that of a U.S. submarine-launched ballistic missile, leading radar operators to believe that the missile might detonate a nuclear warhead high in the atmosphere, blinding Russian radars before a larger attack. Russian nuclear forces went on full alert, and President Boris Yeltsin activated his "football," the device used to authorize nuclear launches.

Retaliation was avoided when Russian early warning satellites failed to find activity around U.S. missile siloes. The detected missile was actually the launch of a U.S.-Norwegian scientific rocket (the Black Brandt XII) on a mission to study the aurora borealis, or "northern lights." Norway had notified Russia in advance of the launch, but the information didn't reach the correct channels--and the innocuous science experiment escalated into a high-risk nuclear incident.


ONE OF the factors making such accidents more likely, even today, is the U.S. policy of a hair-trigger response--that is, procedures to launch missiles quickly, giving little time to verify if a launch is needed. As Daniel Ellsberg--the antiwar activist who leaked the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War, and author of the new book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner--put it in an interview last month:

[T]he President wouldn't know for sure whether we were under attack [and might] decide that he had to get his missiles or planes off the ground and use them before we lost them...That problem still exists with our land-based missiles, our vulnerable intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, because, again, it's a use-them-or-lose-them situation. The Russians, like ourselves, can target such missiles and hit them with high accuracy and deprive the adversary of that capability for retaliation.

So there still is a launch-on-warning readiness, actually, which could trigger an all-out nuclear war in a situation where it was really based on false electronic warning. It's a dangerous situation and always has been.

There are other destabilizing factors as well. For example, the decision to use nuclear weapons isn't just one made by the president. Many people don't realize it, but U.S. military commanders have had the authority to use nuclear weapons since the time of President Dwight Eisenhower, as Ellsberg explained:

The public has always been led to believe--and is being led to believe right now, quite falsely--that only the president can launch those weapons...[I]t's worrying the public to think about that because they're looking at the man with his, metaphorically, his finger on the button here as being somewhat unbalanced: the present President.

So the idea that Donald J. Trump can launch those forces is something that's worrying people a lot, and rightly so, actually. But where they're mistaken is to think that only the President can launch them. That's never been true.


THE THREAT of nuclear war has hung over the heads of almost everyone alive for their entire lives, though the urgency of the threat has been less apparent for several decades.

When they do consider it, the possibility of a nuclear war seems like the threat of a natural disaster: Most people see little that they can do about it. Yet we need to start by focusing on how absurd, irrational and ridiculous it is to continue living with a threat that should not exist.

The Cold War policy makers had one thing right: They called their nuclear policy "MAD."

This acronym stood for mutually assured destruction. The idea was that neither side would launch its weapons because it knew that the other could retaliate and wipe them out, too.

Yet during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, escalation almost led to a full-scale nuclear war. During the Korean War, the U.S. contemplated the use of nukes to contain the advance of Chinese forces--another brush with total annihilation.

Though the nuclear planners liked to repeat the word "deterrence" with regard to nuclear policy, as Ellsberg points out, the U.S. has never adopted a "no first use" policy. In other words, it has never said it would only use nukes in retaliation for being attacked.

The fundamental cause of the potential for nuclear war isn't particular government or military policies or inadequate control systems. The root of the problem isn't the technical glitches that can lead to accidents.

At its heart, the threat of nuclear warfare flows from the same twisted dynamic as conventional warfare: the military competition between governments, especially the great powers, that flows from economic competition built into the capitalist system.

The ruling class of each country is more concerned with preserving and expanding its own power and wealth than with preserving the human race and the planet. That's why the U.S. government has continued to maintain its nuclear stockpile, including under presidents who claimed they wished to see the threat of nuclear war ended for good.

Thus, while Democrat Barack Obama preached the need for disarmament in rhetoric, he put forward a plan for "nuclear modernization" that required regular testing, updating and replacement of the U.S. arsenal. As SocialistWorker.org reported in 2016, "One of the most frightening aspects of [Obama-era policy was] making the weapons more useable--and therefore more likely to be used."

For more than 70 years, a nuclear Damocles has hung over the heads of all humanity. It is time to take away the sword. It is time to end the MADness.

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