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Book Review: ‘Nuclear War,’ by Annie Jacobsen; ‘Countdown,’ by Sarah Scoles - The New York Times
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https://www.nytimes.com/2024/03/24/books/review/nuclear-war-annie-…h-scoles.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share&referringSource=articleShare
Let’s Say Someone Did Drop the
Bomb. Then What?
In “Nuclear War” and “Countdown,” Annie Jacobsen
and Sarah Scoles talk to the people whose job it is to
prepare for atomic conflict.
March 24, 2024
Evidence of the first test of a full-scale thermonuclear device rises over the Marshall Islands on the morning of
4/15/24, 3:54 PM
Book Review: ‘Nuclear War,’ by Annie Jacobsen; ‘Countdown,’ by Sarah Scoles - The New York Times
Page 2 of 8
https://www.nytimes.com/2024/03/24/books/review/nuclear-war-annie…h-scoles.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share&referringSource=articleShare
Nov. 1, 1952.Los Alamos National Laboratory, via Associated Press
Evidence of the first test of a full-scale thermonuclear device rises over
the Marshall Islands on the morning of Nov. 1, 1952.Los Alamos National
Laboratory, via Associated Press
By Barry Gewen
Barry Gewen is a former editor at the Book Review and the author of “The
Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and His World.” He is working on
a book about nuclear proliferation.
NUCLEAR WAR: A Scenario, by Annie Jacobsen
COUNTDOWN: The Blinding Future of Nuclear Weapons, by Sarah
Scoles
When it comes to nuclear catastrophe, there is a large and ever-
expanding body of books and films.
Movies have an obvious visual advantage (what is more photogenic than a
mushroom cloud?), but books like Annie Jacobsen’s gripping “Nuclear
War: A Scenario” are essential if you want to understand the complex and
disturbing details that go into a civilization-destroying decision to drop the
Bomb on an enemy.
Jacobsen, the author of “The Pentagon’s Brain,” has done her homework.
She has spent more than a decade interviewing dozens of experts while
mastering the voluminous literature on the subject, some of it declassified
only in recent years. “Nuclear war is insane,” she writes. “Every person I
interviewed for this book knows this.” Yet the sword of Damocles hanging
over our heads remains unsheathed.
Numbers tell the terrifying story by themselves. A one-megaton bomb
dropped on the Pentagon would kill about a million people in the first two
4/15/24, 3:54 PM
Book Review: ‘Nuclear War,’ by Annie Jacobsen; ‘Countdown,’ by Sarah Scoles - The New York Times
Page 3 of 8
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minutes, and the subsequent war would be a march toward Armageddon.
She estimates that, by its end, at least two billion individuals would lose
their lives.
Jacobsen calls this genocide, but then goes further, describing a mass
extinction event from the postwar impact of nuclear winter and the
degradation of the ozone layer. “As long as nuclear war exists as a
possibility,” she says, “the survival of the human species hangs in the
balance.”
Jacobsen lays out an imaginary narrative that begins with North Korea
launching a missile against the United States. The “why” — Kim Jong-un is
paranoid? resentful? a “mad king”? — is less important than the “how” of
procedure, because nine governments possess nuclear weapons, and for
many of them the decision to kill millions of people in an instant rests with
one man, whether Kim, Vladimir Putin or the president of the United
States. (During the Watergate crisis, Secretary of Defense James
Schlesinger, worried that a drunken and brooding Richard Nixon might
decide to launch a nuclear strike, reportedly told the Pentagon’s leaders to
check with him or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger before following a
directive from the White House.)
In Jacobsen’s telling, Washington fires interceptors to take down the
missile but these fail because, as she explains, tests of America’s
interceptor system have produced dismal results. “With 44 interceptor
missiles in its entire inventory, the U.S. interceptor program is mostly for
show.”
Now the doomsday clock begins ticking. Jacobsen proceeds minute by
minute, even second by second. After the detection of the North Korean
missile, the president has just six minutes to decide whether to fire
America’s own missiles in a counterattack, turning much of North Korea
into dust and inviting involvement by the Russians and Chinese.
4/15/24, 3:54 PM
Book Review: ‘Nuclear War,’ by Annie Jacobsen; ‘Countdown,’ by Sarah Scoles - The New York Times
Page 4 of 8
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One of Jacobsen’s major themes is that apocalyptic choices have to be
made in a frighteningly short amount of time. In her scenario, it takes 72
minutes for the world as we know it to come to an end. (During the 1960s,
the political satirist Tom Lehrer sang about World War III lasting an hour
and a half — not much has changed since then.)
Jacobsen has a second theme designed to keep her readers awake at
night. Traditionally, in the “fog of war,” high-level strategies are inevitably
disrupted, meticulously designed plans go awry, numerous mistakes and
miscalculations are made — and nuclear conflict is the foggiest of wars.
There has never been a nuclear exchange, so no one really knows what
would happen, and all the carefully calibrated, algorithmically determined
projections of the Pentagon and its think tanks may not be worth the
computer paper they are printed on.
4/15/24, 3:54 PM
Book Review: ‘Nuclear War,’ by Annie Jacobsen; ‘Countdown,’ by Sarah Scoles - The New York Times
Page 5 of 8
https://www.nytimes.com/2024/03/24/books/review/nuclear-war-annie…h-scoles.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share&referringSource=articleShare
How can one foresee the impact of widespread panic, the breakdown of
public services, the collapse of the military’s command and control
networks, the anarchic violence and every-man-for-himself ethos bound
to follow? In Jacobsen’s plot, North Korea also launches other missiles,
including a high-altitude explosive that knocks out America’s power grid in
what a former senior C.I.A. official calls “electric Armageddon.”
Jacobsen says more than once that “nuclear war has no rules,” but that’s
not quite true. There is one prediction we can safely make: Apart from the
countless deaths, the result of a nuclear war would be total chaos for
4/15/24, 3:54 PM
Book Review: ‘Nuclear War,’ by Annie Jacobsen; ‘Countdown,’ by Sarah Scoles - The New York Times
Page 6 of 8
https://www.nytimes.com/2024/03/24/books/review/nuclear-war-annie…h-scoles.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share&referringSource=articleShare
those who survived. Nikita Khrushchev, of all people, said that in the
aftermath, the living would envy the dead.
Can anything be done to save us from ourselves? Jacobsen points an
accusing finger at the doctrine of deterrence, which has been America’s
governing policy for decades. Since the nation’s enemies know that any
nuclear attack would be met with an overwhelming response, they are
deterred from starting a war they know ahead of time they cannot control.
But Jacobsen notes that deterrence, which has a spotless record so far,
works only until it doesn’t. Should a nuclear conflict break out, either by
accident, a misunderstanding or the decision of a crazed leader,
Jacobsen’s end-of-the-world scenario becomes much more plausible.
There is no Plan B if deterrence fails.
So far, so good (or bad), but it is at this point that the questions begin.
What is her Plan B? If she favors abolishing nuclear weapons altogether,
she owes it to her readers to say so, and then explain how it could be
done. How do we get from here to there?
Deterrence theory was devised following Hiroshima and Nagasaki by
farseeing thinkers like Bernard Brodie, who grasped that the development
of nuclear weapons had irrevocably changed the entire nature of warfare,
and that the threat of aggression by a rival power had to be met
defensively, and peacefully, by deterrence. There was no alternative.
Entire schools of thought have grown up around the proposition that the
Cold War never turned hot because of the deterrent effect of nuclear
weapons. And there is a legitimate argument to be made that the only
reason we are not at war right now with Russia over its invasion of Ukraine
is the existence of nuclear weapons. (See also: Taiwan.)
Among the people who appreciate the importance of deterrence are the
individuals who populate “Countdown,” by Sarah Scoles, a journalist and
4/15/24, 3:54 PM
Book Review: ‘Nuclear War,’ by Annie Jacobsen; ‘Countdown,’ by Sarah Scoles - The New York Times
Page 7 of 8
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contributing editor at Scientific American. The subjects of this rather
discursive book include former hippies and competitive speedskaters, but
most seem to be born physicists who at an early age aspired to be
astronauts or wanted to explore what makes the universe tick.
Now they “toil in obscurity” at facilities like the Los Alamos National
Laboratory. They are charged with the responsibility of securing and
modernizing America’s deterrence system, and their jobs include testing
the components of nuclear weapons, checking that missiles function the
way they are supposed to and tracking plutonium to ensure that none of it
is diverted. Some spend their time trying to pick up clues of any advances
other countries are making in nuclear technology.
This is incredibly important work, costing hundreds of billions of dollars,
perhaps trillions, and the people who got into it seem to have done so
because they wanted to do something meaningful with the scientific
expertise they had acquired at school. “I honestly feel that I’m serving my
country working here at the lab,” one says. In the 19th century, Baudelaire
observed that the heroes of modern life were individuals who wore frock
coats. Today, we might say they wear lab jackets.
Not everyone would agree. Scoles portrays scientists who often feel
misunderstood and under siege by those convinced that the fastest way
to end the nuclear threat is simply to abolish the weapons themselves. Tell
your friends that your job is modernizing America’s missile system and
count how many of them you lose. Protesters regularly demonstrate
outside the labs. “Evil” is a word routinely hurled at the researchers. They
are even drilled in how to argue with those who accuse them of being
warmongers.
Significantly, the labs are having trouble recruiting talented young
replacements because of the anti-nuke and antiwar beliefs that are
common on American campuses. Who wants to work on projects that
could kill millions of people when you can have the personal satisfaction of
4/15/24, 3:54 PM
Book Review: ‘Nuclear War,’ by Annie Jacobsen; ‘Countdown,’ by Sarah Scoles - The New York Times
Page 8 of 8
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marching outside a nuclear lab as your contribution to “world peace”?
Meanwhile, the population of scientists experienced in nuclear affairs is
graying and shrinking, producing a “worker gap.” Scoles reports that as
much as 40 percent of the current work force at the National Nuclear
Security Administration will be eligible for retirement over the next few
years.
Yet she also demonstrates that many, if not most, of the scientists doing
nuclear work have attitudes not all that different from those of the
marching students. They too believe in abolishing nuclear weapons. They
just don’t think it will happen simply by holding up a sign and wishing for
it. Convinced that the United States has no choice but to keep its
deterrence system safe, secure and operational, they live inside a paradox
difficult for outsiders to understand.
They are embodiments of an antique maxim of international relations: If
you want to prevent war, you have to prepare for war. “These things can’t
just be put away,” one scientist tells Scoles. In his youth, he favored
abolition. Now he asks, “How do you then manage policy that makes sure
that they never get used in anger again?” Another, her exasperation
showing, was blunter. “You know what? Nuclear weapons exist.” One
might add that they are not about to go away anytime soon.
NUCLEAR WAR: A Scenario | By Annie Jacobsen | Dutton | 373 pp. | $27
COUNTDOWN: The Blinding Future of Nuclear Weapons | By Sarah
Scoles | Bold Type | 264 pp. | $30

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PHOTOSYNTHETIC BACTERIA (OXYGENIC AND ANOXYGENIC)
 

Let’s Say Someone Did Drop the Bomb. Then What?

  • 1. 4/15/24, 3:54 PM Book Review: ‘Nuclear War,’ by Annie Jacobsen; ‘Countdown,’ by Sarah Scoles - The New York Times Page 1 of 8 https://www.nytimes.com/2024/03/24/books/review/nuclear-war-annie-…h-scoles.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share&referringSource=articleShare Let’s Say Someone Did Drop the Bomb. Then What? In “Nuclear War” and “Countdown,” Annie Jacobsen and Sarah Scoles talk to the people whose job it is to prepare for atomic conflict. March 24, 2024 Evidence of the first test of a full-scale thermonuclear device rises over the Marshall Islands on the morning of
  • 2. 4/15/24, 3:54 PM Book Review: ‘Nuclear War,’ by Annie Jacobsen; ‘Countdown,’ by Sarah Scoles - The New York Times Page 2 of 8 https://www.nytimes.com/2024/03/24/books/review/nuclear-war-annie…h-scoles.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share&referringSource=articleShare Nov. 1, 1952.Los Alamos National Laboratory, via Associated Press Evidence of the first test of a full-scale thermonuclear device rises over the Marshall Islands on the morning of Nov. 1, 1952.Los Alamos National Laboratory, via Associated Press By Barry Gewen Barry Gewen is a former editor at the Book Review and the author of “The Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and His World.” He is working on a book about nuclear proliferation. NUCLEAR WAR: A Scenario, by Annie Jacobsen COUNTDOWN: The Blinding Future of Nuclear Weapons, by Sarah Scoles When it comes to nuclear catastrophe, there is a large and ever- expanding body of books and films. Movies have an obvious visual advantage (what is more photogenic than a mushroom cloud?), but books like Annie Jacobsen’s gripping “Nuclear War: A Scenario” are essential if you want to understand the complex and disturbing details that go into a civilization-destroying decision to drop the Bomb on an enemy. Jacobsen, the author of “The Pentagon’s Brain,” has done her homework. She has spent more than a decade interviewing dozens of experts while mastering the voluminous literature on the subject, some of it declassified only in recent years. “Nuclear war is insane,” she writes. “Every person I interviewed for this book knows this.” Yet the sword of Damocles hanging over our heads remains unsheathed. Numbers tell the terrifying story by themselves. A one-megaton bomb dropped on the Pentagon would kill about a million people in the first two
  • 3. 4/15/24, 3:54 PM Book Review: ‘Nuclear War,’ by Annie Jacobsen; ‘Countdown,’ by Sarah Scoles - The New York Times Page 3 of 8 https://www.nytimes.com/2024/03/24/books/review/nuclear-war-annie…h-scoles.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share&referringSource=articleShare minutes, and the subsequent war would be a march toward Armageddon. She estimates that, by its end, at least two billion individuals would lose their lives. Jacobsen calls this genocide, but then goes further, describing a mass extinction event from the postwar impact of nuclear winter and the degradation of the ozone layer. “As long as nuclear war exists as a possibility,” she says, “the survival of the human species hangs in the balance.” Jacobsen lays out an imaginary narrative that begins with North Korea launching a missile against the United States. The “why” — Kim Jong-un is paranoid? resentful? a “mad king”? — is less important than the “how” of procedure, because nine governments possess nuclear weapons, and for many of them the decision to kill millions of people in an instant rests with one man, whether Kim, Vladimir Putin or the president of the United States. (During the Watergate crisis, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, worried that a drunken and brooding Richard Nixon might decide to launch a nuclear strike, reportedly told the Pentagon’s leaders to check with him or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger before following a directive from the White House.) In Jacobsen’s telling, Washington fires interceptors to take down the missile but these fail because, as she explains, tests of America’s interceptor system have produced dismal results. “With 44 interceptor missiles in its entire inventory, the U.S. interceptor program is mostly for show.” Now the doomsday clock begins ticking. Jacobsen proceeds minute by minute, even second by second. After the detection of the North Korean missile, the president has just six minutes to decide whether to fire America’s own missiles in a counterattack, turning much of North Korea into dust and inviting involvement by the Russians and Chinese.
  • 4. 4/15/24, 3:54 PM Book Review: ‘Nuclear War,’ by Annie Jacobsen; ‘Countdown,’ by Sarah Scoles - The New York Times Page 4 of 8 https://www.nytimes.com/2024/03/24/books/review/nuclear-war-annie…h-scoles.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share&referringSource=articleShare One of Jacobsen’s major themes is that apocalyptic choices have to be made in a frighteningly short amount of time. In her scenario, it takes 72 minutes for the world as we know it to come to an end. (During the 1960s, the political satirist Tom Lehrer sang about World War III lasting an hour and a half — not much has changed since then.) Jacobsen has a second theme designed to keep her readers awake at night. Traditionally, in the “fog of war,” high-level strategies are inevitably disrupted, meticulously designed plans go awry, numerous mistakes and miscalculations are made — and nuclear conflict is the foggiest of wars. There has never been a nuclear exchange, so no one really knows what would happen, and all the carefully calibrated, algorithmically determined projections of the Pentagon and its think tanks may not be worth the computer paper they are printed on.
  • 5. 4/15/24, 3:54 PM Book Review: ‘Nuclear War,’ by Annie Jacobsen; ‘Countdown,’ by Sarah Scoles - The New York Times Page 5 of 8 https://www.nytimes.com/2024/03/24/books/review/nuclear-war-annie…h-scoles.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share&referringSource=articleShare How can one foresee the impact of widespread panic, the breakdown of public services, the collapse of the military’s command and control networks, the anarchic violence and every-man-for-himself ethos bound to follow? In Jacobsen’s plot, North Korea also launches other missiles, including a high-altitude explosive that knocks out America’s power grid in what a former senior C.I.A. official calls “electric Armageddon.” Jacobsen says more than once that “nuclear war has no rules,” but that’s not quite true. There is one prediction we can safely make: Apart from the countless deaths, the result of a nuclear war would be total chaos for
  • 6. 4/15/24, 3:54 PM Book Review: ‘Nuclear War,’ by Annie Jacobsen; ‘Countdown,’ by Sarah Scoles - The New York Times Page 6 of 8 https://www.nytimes.com/2024/03/24/books/review/nuclear-war-annie…h-scoles.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share&referringSource=articleShare those who survived. Nikita Khrushchev, of all people, said that in the aftermath, the living would envy the dead. Can anything be done to save us from ourselves? Jacobsen points an accusing finger at the doctrine of deterrence, which has been America’s governing policy for decades. Since the nation’s enemies know that any nuclear attack would be met with an overwhelming response, they are deterred from starting a war they know ahead of time they cannot control. But Jacobsen notes that deterrence, which has a spotless record so far, works only until it doesn’t. Should a nuclear conflict break out, either by accident, a misunderstanding or the decision of a crazed leader, Jacobsen’s end-of-the-world scenario becomes much more plausible. There is no Plan B if deterrence fails. So far, so good (or bad), but it is at this point that the questions begin. What is her Plan B? If she favors abolishing nuclear weapons altogether, she owes it to her readers to say so, and then explain how it could be done. How do we get from here to there? Deterrence theory was devised following Hiroshima and Nagasaki by farseeing thinkers like Bernard Brodie, who grasped that the development of nuclear weapons had irrevocably changed the entire nature of warfare, and that the threat of aggression by a rival power had to be met defensively, and peacefully, by deterrence. There was no alternative. Entire schools of thought have grown up around the proposition that the Cold War never turned hot because of the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons. And there is a legitimate argument to be made that the only reason we are not at war right now with Russia over its invasion of Ukraine is the existence of nuclear weapons. (See also: Taiwan.) Among the people who appreciate the importance of deterrence are the individuals who populate “Countdown,” by Sarah Scoles, a journalist and
  • 7. 4/15/24, 3:54 PM Book Review: ‘Nuclear War,’ by Annie Jacobsen; ‘Countdown,’ by Sarah Scoles - The New York Times Page 7 of 8 https://www.nytimes.com/2024/03/24/books/review/nuclear-war-annie…h-scoles.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share&referringSource=articleShare contributing editor at Scientific American. The subjects of this rather discursive book include former hippies and competitive speedskaters, but most seem to be born physicists who at an early age aspired to be astronauts or wanted to explore what makes the universe tick. Now they “toil in obscurity” at facilities like the Los Alamos National Laboratory. They are charged with the responsibility of securing and modernizing America’s deterrence system, and their jobs include testing the components of nuclear weapons, checking that missiles function the way they are supposed to and tracking plutonium to ensure that none of it is diverted. Some spend their time trying to pick up clues of any advances other countries are making in nuclear technology. This is incredibly important work, costing hundreds of billions of dollars, perhaps trillions, and the people who got into it seem to have done so because they wanted to do something meaningful with the scientific expertise they had acquired at school. “I honestly feel that I’m serving my country working here at the lab,” one says. In the 19th century, Baudelaire observed that the heroes of modern life were individuals who wore frock coats. Today, we might say they wear lab jackets. Not everyone would agree. Scoles portrays scientists who often feel misunderstood and under siege by those convinced that the fastest way to end the nuclear threat is simply to abolish the weapons themselves. Tell your friends that your job is modernizing America’s missile system and count how many of them you lose. Protesters regularly demonstrate outside the labs. “Evil” is a word routinely hurled at the researchers. They are even drilled in how to argue with those who accuse them of being warmongers. Significantly, the labs are having trouble recruiting talented young replacements because of the anti-nuke and antiwar beliefs that are common on American campuses. Who wants to work on projects that could kill millions of people when you can have the personal satisfaction of
  • 8. 4/15/24, 3:54 PM Book Review: ‘Nuclear War,’ by Annie Jacobsen; ‘Countdown,’ by Sarah Scoles - The New York Times Page 8 of 8 https://www.nytimes.com/2024/03/24/books/review/nuclear-war-annie…h-scoles.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share&referringSource=articleShare marching outside a nuclear lab as your contribution to “world peace”? Meanwhile, the population of scientists experienced in nuclear affairs is graying and shrinking, producing a “worker gap.” Scoles reports that as much as 40 percent of the current work force at the National Nuclear Security Administration will be eligible for retirement over the next few years. Yet she also demonstrates that many, if not most, of the scientists doing nuclear work have attitudes not all that different from those of the marching students. They too believe in abolishing nuclear weapons. They just don’t think it will happen simply by holding up a sign and wishing for it. Convinced that the United States has no choice but to keep its deterrence system safe, secure and operational, they live inside a paradox difficult for outsiders to understand. They are embodiments of an antique maxim of international relations: If you want to prevent war, you have to prepare for war. “These things can’t just be put away,” one scientist tells Scoles. In his youth, he favored abolition. Now he asks, “How do you then manage policy that makes sure that they never get used in anger again?” Another, her exasperation showing, was blunter. “You know what? Nuclear weapons exist.” One might add that they are not about to go away anytime soon. NUCLEAR WAR: A Scenario | By Annie Jacobsen | Dutton | 373 pp. | $27 COUNTDOWN: The Blinding Future of Nuclear Weapons | By Sarah Scoles | Bold Type | 264 pp. | $30