Martin Rees The Choice: Arms control or Russian roulette

October 17, 2012

During the days of the Cuban crisis, I participated anxiously in student demonstrations. But we would have been not merely anxious, but paralytically scared, had we realized just how close we were to catastrophe. Only later did we learn that President Kennedy assessed the odds of nuclear war, at one stage, as "somewhere between one-in-three and even." And only when he was long-retired did Robert McNamara state frankly that "[w]e came within a hair's breadth of nuclear war without realizing it. It's no credit to us that we escaped — Khrushchev and Kennedy were lucky as well as wise."

Throughout the decades of the Cold War, we lived under a threat of nuclear catastrophe that could have shattered the fabric of civilization. October 1962 was the tensest moment, but there were other occasions when the superpowers could have stumbled toward Armageddon through muddle or miscalculation.

It is now conventionally asserted that deterrence worked — indeed, there's no denying that, in a sense, it did work. But that doesn't mean it was a wise policy. If you play Russian roulette with one or two bullets in the barrel, you are more likely to survive than not, but the stakes would need to be astonishingly high — or the value you place on your life inordinately low — for this to seem a wise gamble.

But we were dragooned into just such a gamble throughout the Cold War era. It would be interesting to know what level of risk other leaders thought they were exposing us to, and what odds most European citizens would have accepted, if they'd been asked to give informed consent. For my part, I would not have chosen to risk a one-in-three — or even a one-in-six — chance of a disaster that would have killed hundreds of millions and shattered the physical fabric of all our cities, even if the alternative were a certainty of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. And of course the devastating consequences of thermonuclear war would have spread far beyond the countries that faced a direct threat.

The threat of global annihilation involving tens of thousands of H-bombs is thankfully in abeyance — even though the risk that smaller nuclear arsenals are used in a regional context, or even by terrorists, is higher than ever. But when we recall the geopolitical convulsions of the last century — two world wars, the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, and so forth — we can't rule out, later in the present century, a drastic global realignment leading to a standoff between new superpowers that could be handled less well or less luckily than the Cuba crisis was. So a new generation may face its own Cuba — and this thought should surely energize worldwide arms control efforts.