Time to Stop Playing Nuclear Roulette

In Russian roulette, you have one chance in six of dying – provided you pull the trigger only once. If you pull it once a day, or even once a year, it’s not a question of IF you’ll be killed, only WHEN. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, Pres. Kennedy said he thought the odds of war were somewhere between 1-in-3 and even. If he was right, that crisis was equivalent to playing nuclear roulette – a global version of Russian roulette – with a 2- or 3-chambered revolver. While most events have a much smaller chance of escalating to nuclear war, even a small probability per event can add up to an unacceptable risk if repeated often enough. For that reason, I was shocked to find an article in today’s New York Times that reported Japanese fighters are scrambling more than once per day to intercept Chinese aircraft near some small, uninhabited, disputed islands.

Each such incident puts the world at risk that an error in the judgment by a single fighter pilot will create an international incident with the potential to escalate to a nuclear crisis. There’s only a small risk of that happening, but with 379 such incidents in the nine-month period ending December 31 last year, those risks add up. And the risk appears to be growing since the article noted that this was a six-fold increase from the same period four years earlier.

What’s needed is some hard-nosed critical thinking – re-examining the assumptions that underlie our current policy with respect to China and Japan. Examples of some factors we need to consider include:

An article in TIME magazine from October 2014, Return of the Samurai, quotes Japanese officials as wanting their nation to “finally evolve into a normal country with a normal armed forces.” Critical thinking would examine not only the short-term gain to our nation of that evolution, but also its potential long-term losses. One short-term gain might be reduced US expenditures to protect Japan. A long-term loss might be Japan becoming more aggressive toward China and dragging us into a nuclear crisis, possibly even a war.

Rising Japanese militarism can be seen in that article when it quotes a conservative Japanese Diet (parliament) member as denying both the Rape of Nanking and the Japanese military’s use of sex slaves (so-called “comfort women”) during the war.

A New York Times article last December talked of the plight of a Japanese professor who is being hounded by rightists for his efforts to illuminate Japan’s wartime atrocities. The article notes, “Ultranationalists have even gone after his children, posting Internet messages urging people to drive his teenage daughter to suicide,” and continues, “This latest campaign, however, has gone beyond anything postwar Japan has seen before, with nationalist politicians, including [Prime Minister] Abe himself, unleashing a torrent of abuse that has cowed one of the last strongholds of progressive political influence in Japan [the progressive Asahi Shimbun newpaper].”

Critical thinking also would re-examine the tradeoffs involved in our giving Japan nuclear guarantees over the disputed, uninhabited islands which are the frequent site of the games of aerial chicken involving Chinese and Japanese aircraft. It’s time to stop playing nuclear roulette!

Martin Hellman

If you agree that ideas like this deserve a wider audience, please consider sharing this post with friends via email, Facebook, Twitter, or other means. Thank you!

For more details on how critical thinking can reduce the risk of a nuclear catastrophe, download the course notes for my Stanford seminar “Nuclear Weapons, Risk, and Hope.” Handout #3 is on critical thinking, handout #5 applies it to North Korea and Iran, and handout #7 applies it to the 2008 Georgian War. I haven’t updated the notes to include the Ukrainian crisis that started last year, but searching this blog on Ukraine will turn up a number of posts which do that.

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website: https://anewmap.com.
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