The headline of this email is only partly a hoax. Last Sunday a Georgian TV station closely linked to President Saakashvili broadcast a “fake news” story that Russia had invaded Georgia, Saakashvili had been killed, and that opposition leaders had betrayed their country by siding with Moscow – a nice swipe at the political opposition! (See RESOURCES below for links to a report on the hoax and other source materials.)
Announcements that the account was fictional were only made at the beginning and end of the broadcast. Many listeners missed those brief disclaimers, leading to widespread panic in Georgia. Cell-phone channels were swamped as anxious residents attempted to reach friends and family, and there was a rise in the incidence of heart attacks.
If even one Georgian military unit had been fooled by the hoax and resultant panic, or used it as a pretext for taking action, a second Russian-Georgian war would have been the likely result. As with the August 2008 war, which since has been determined to have been started by Georgia, Saakashvili then would have been tempted to pin the blame on Russia. Many Americans, attuned to seeing Russia in a negative light, would believe these new false accusations, resulting in strong pressure for America to assist Georgia. Where the conflict could go from there is all too clear.
Such a scenario is made more probable because, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, many Americans continue to believe that the August 2008 Georgian war was unprovoked Russian aggression. The danger is exacerbated by reports that Saakashvili may be trying to engineer a confrontation with Russia to further his own agenda.
There was only a small chance that this hoax would start a nuclear war, but that is no reason for complacency. There was only a small chance that O-ring burn through would cause a Space Shuttle to crash. Complacency led to the Challenger disaster. There was only a small chance that a tire blowing out would destroy the Concorde supersonic transport, again leading to complacency and a fatal crash. Fifty-seven tire failures occurred on the Concorde before the fatal incident. Thirty-two of those damaged the aircraft’s structure, engines, or hydraulics; and six resulted in penetration of a fuel tank.
Society needs to start paying attention to similar warning signals of a nuclear disaster before one of those small probability events ends civilization. The risk analysis approach that I am advocating be applied to nuclear deterrence pays attention to events that can cause a catastrophe BEFORE disaster strikes, not AFTER. That is particularly important here, where there might not be an after.
You can help reduce the risk: If Americans were to see world events more clearly, the danger would be greatly reduced. In the new, more cooperative environment that resulted, further steps that are inconceivable today would become possible. While treaties, arms reduction and more are all needed, the first critical steps – recognizing the risk inherent in relying on nuclear weapons and seeing the world more clearly – are things that each of us can do on our own. I hope you’ll help spread that message of hope through your network of friends by sharing this email. If enough of us do that, we can change the world. It’s been done before, and we can do it again.
Thanks very much for your efforts to defuse the nuclear threat.
Member, National Academy of Engineering
Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering
HOW YOU CAN HELP:
As noted above, please share this article with friends who might be interested.
- Radio Free Europe’s article on the Georgian invasion hoax
- For a fictional account of how a similar rumor started armed conflict between the United States and Russia, watch “The Sum of All Fears” on DVD.
- A report that Saakashvili may be trying to engineer a confrontation with Russia
- The mistaken American perspective on the August 2008 war
- Discussions of the European Union report that found Saakashvili started the August 2008 war by shelling South Ossetia are available here (Spiegel) and here (NY Times).
- The full European Union report in three volumes are available here: Volume I ; Volume II ; Volume III .
- An account of the 57 tire failures on the Concorde. To jump to that part of the article, go to page 4.
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