Once again, Elon Musk nailed the zeitgeist, or a least a hefty portion of it, in a meme he tweeted. The image shows a soda dispenser. Two spigots are visible, blue on the left, red on the right. The index and middle fingers of someone’s right hand are pushing buttons to dispense blue and red fluid, respectively, into a single cup. A label on the left dispenser reads, “Laughing at WWIII memes.” On the right, the label reads, “Kinda being worried about WWIII.” Is there any sane person who, contemplating what is happening in Ukraine, does not share that ambivalence?
Until recently, worries about nuclear Armageddon seemed so 1950s and ’60s. Ancient history. The era of “duck and cover.” That “public service” film started life in earnest but in time became a joke. A comment on an internet posting of the clip summed up the attitude: “When I watched this film in grade school in the ’50s, I believed I’d soon be dead, crispy-fried. I just watched again here and laughed so hard I couldn’t finish.”
Why the laughter? Partly because everyone realizes that crouching under a desk with your hands over your head will not afford much protection against a nuclear blast. (Hence the frequent, somewhat rude addendum to the precautionary instructions: “Crouch down under your desk; put your head between your legs; kiss your ass goodbye.”)
Decades went by. There was no nuclear attack. Therefore there would never be a nuclear attack. That was the unspoken if faulty logic.
There are several different currents of thought and sentiment that make up the dominant consensus. One flowed from the doctrine of deterrence and “mutually assured destruction.” That seems to have worked for decades, bolstering both faith in the doctrine and the widespread forgetfulness about the stakes behind the policy.
At the same time, critics have pointed out that “MAD” was an appropriate acronym for a doctrine that seriously contemplated incinerating tens or hundreds of millions of people. Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film “Dr. Strangelove” (with its biting subtitle “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”) gave a darkly humorous voice to that recognition. Most people, I suspect, are divided in their minds, recognizing the potential enormity of the doctrine while appreciating the wisdom of Benjamin Jowett’s comment that “Precautions are always blamed. When successful, they are said to be unnecessary.”
The drama unfolding in Ukraine has palpably affected public sensitivity about a possible nuclear exchange. Lots of websites are advertising, or warning about, “the return of ‘Duck and Cover.’” Many politicians, mostly but not exclusively on the right, are warning about the prospect of “World War III.” And entities like the World Health Organization are advising people to stock up on medicines that can help protect against “radiological catastrophe.”
Such anxieties have been in circulation to some extent ever since the United States began its ostentatious support of Ukraine shortly after Vladimir Putin attacked that country a year ago. At first, the wise men who teach us “what is what” said Russia would easily crush that former Soviet state. But the Russian army showed itself to be a bumbling mess while the Ukrainians fought stalwartly for their country. Almost overnight, the regime narrative turned itself inside out. Now Russia was sure to lose, and soon.
That hasn’t happened. Indeed, although the United States has sent more than $100 billion in aid to Ukraine, the war on the ground grinds on in its bloody way, chewing up men and matériel. According to some estimates, 150,000 Ukrainians are dead. The Russians are poised to mount a huge new offensive. One estimate says there are 700,000 Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s Eastern border. As the West wrings its hands and tightens sanctions against Russia, the Chinese are reported to be about to supply lethal weapons to Putin even as they, along with India and other states, are availing themselves of discounted Russian oil and natural gas.
For his part, Putin has deployed ships armed with tactical nuclear weapons for the first time in 30 years. He has also pulled Russia out of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), a decision that, according to Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s Secretary General, dismantles “the whole arms control architecture.”
The fact that Putin controls more than 6,000 nuclear weapons is a sobering fact that has been mentioned regularly ever since his latest round of aggression against Ukraine began a year ago. At first, it seemed little more than a data point, as people who might be aghast at Putin’s aggression nevertheless wondered what America’s national interest in Ukraine might be and whether the United States—deeply, irresponsibly in debt—should really be funneling so much money to Ukraine, a besieged but also a deeply corrupt country.
Those pragmatic questions continue to resonate but seem to have been supplanted by more urgent questions of national security. Russia is engaged in blatant nuclear saber-rattling even as the Chinese deploy surveillance balloons that traverse the entire continental United States before being taken out over the Atlantic. What was that all about? No one really knows.
There are many other imponderables. What is the significance of China’s apparent willingness to supply lethal aid to Russia? How will China react to the United States quadrupling its forces on Taiwan? And behind all this, of course, are some nagging “what if?” questions. What if Russia actually uses tactical nukes in its campaign against Ukraine? Do we respond with nukes ourselves? We’ve all heard lectures about how far superior American forces are in comparison with the Russian military. Would it be worth testing that judgment in an actual nuclear exchange?
The fact that there are people in positions of power and influence who would say yes to that last question must give us pause.
This past week, Joe Biden paid a surprise visit to Ukraine. Rumors that his son Hunter asked him to pick up his missing paychecks are, of course, just vicious conservative taunts. Questioned about public support for U.S. spending on Ukraine, Joe Biden suggested that most people are behind it, except for “right-wing Republicans” and “the MAGA crowd.”
At the same time that Joe Biden was serenading Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kiev, Donald Trump was visiting the people of East Palestine, Ohio, which was reeling from the effects of a terrible toxic catastrophe after a freight train derailed and caught fire. Some observers noted the irony that on President’s Day, the U.S. president was visiting and promising money to the Ukrainian president while Donald Trump went to a local disaster in the United States and offered aid and comfort to American victims. Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) spoke for many when he observed that “you can either be the party of Ukraine & the globalists or you can be the party of East Palestine & the working people of America.”
For many, that is the choice we are facing. The introduction of nuclear weapons into the calculus only sharpens the dichotomy.