Frank N. von Hippel Murphy’s Law and the doomsday machine

October 17, 2012

In October 1962, I was in my own cocoon, hardly aware that the future of humanity hung in the balance.

Twenty-one years later, over Thanksgiving 1983, I flew to Moscow as another major nuclear crisis was winding down. Unbeknownst to me, the Soviet leadership had interpreted a 10-day NATO nuclear command exercise, Able Archer 83, which started on November 2, as preparations for an actual nuclear attack. Public statements from within the Reagan administration that a nuclear war could be fought and won had already worried the Soviet leadership.

Two years later, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union. A few months later, in November 1985, the joint statement from the first Gorbachev-Reagan summit included the sentence, "A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought." The same sentence appeared in their summit statements of December 1987 and June 1988.

Twenty-seven years after the first Gorbachev-Reagan summit statement and 23 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, however, the United States and Russia still have approximately 1,000 nuclear warheads each on ballistic missiles that are ready to be launched with about 15 minutes of warning. Neither country expects the other to attack, and both militaries are convinced that nothing can go seriously wrong. The Japanese had a similar belief about nuclear reactor safety before the Fukushima accident. They now call it "the myth of safety."

According to Murphy's Law, "anything that can go wrong will go wrong." High-level sustained attention is required to force the military to stand down the nuclear Doomsday Machine that political leaders forgot to stand down in the euphoria of the end of the Cold War. Such attention is unlikely to come, however, until the public demands it.