How Star Wars Begat the Doomsday Device

How Star Wars Begat the Doomsday Device

If you start a war, we may die but the rockets will fly automatically.

Thus spake the man who was profiled in William Taubman’s masterwork Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. The Russian premier was addressing U.S. diplomat Averell Harriman, who sought to prepare the way for the Russian premier to make his contentious 1959 visit to the United States. What exactly did Khrushchev mean by “automatically”? After all, computers were still in their infancy.

Ever hear of the Doomsday Machine? The godfather of nuclear strategy, Herman Kahn, provided an example of one in his book On Thermonuclear War:

The device is. . . connected to a computer which is in turn connected. . . to hundreds of sensory devices all over the United States. The computer would then be programmed so that if, say, five nuclear bombs exploded over the United States, the device would be triggered [by the sensory devices] and the earth destroyed. [It] would seem to be the “ideal” Type I Deterrent.

By adding quotes to “ideal,” at least Kahn acknowledged the absurdity of what he suggested. “If Khrushchev should order an attack,” he added, “both Khrushchev and the Soviet population would be automatically and efficiently annihilated.”

Furthermore, “Even though [the Doomsday Machine] is the ultimate in Type I Deterrence [it] is most improbable that either the Soviet or U.S. governments would ever authorize procuring such a machine. The project is expensive enough so it would be subject to a searching. . . scrutiny which would raise questions it could never survive.”

Turns out Kahn gave the Soviets more benefit of the doubt than they deserved. In a wild Wired magazine story, Inside the Apocalyptic Soviet Doomsday Machine, Nicholas Thompson details Russia’s development of such a weapon 25 years ago. Though past his term in power, Khrushchev might well have been aware of the program if it were in its planning stages then.

Thompson elaborates on how it works:

Even if the US. … blew up the Kremlin, took out the defense ministry, severed the communications network, and killed everyone with stars on their shoulders. … sensors would detect that a devastating blow had been struck and a counterattack would be launched. … Before launching any retaliatory strike, the system had to check off four if/then propositions: If it was turned on, then it would try to determine that a nuclear weapon had hit Soviet soil. [If it determined the generals were dead] it would immediately transfer launch authority to whoever was manning the system at that moment deep inside a protected bunker. … maybe a 25-year-old junior officer fresh out of military academy.

What about the United States? Did it then descend to the next circle of hell — the 666th — after the 664th, where those who developed and deployed the atomic bomb reside, and the 665th, home to the wunderkinds behind the thermonuclear bomb?

Thompson writes: “The US did build versions of these technologies [but] never combined it all into a system of zombie retaliation. It feared accidents and the one mistake that could end it all.”

But, as Daniel Ellsburg explains in his new online book, U.S. Nuclear War Planning for a Hundred Holocausts, that he’s doling out free on his website, chapter by juicy chapter, the United States devised a system equally as devious.

. . . one of the most sensitive secrets [was] that to forestall the possibility that our retaliatory response might be paralyzed either by a Soviet attack. . . or by presidential incapacity, President Eisenhower had. . . secretly delegated to theater commanders the authority to launch nuclear operations. … I had further learned that [the commander of the Pacific command] had likewise delegated that authority downward in his command. … That put many fingers on the button.

Meanwhile, what prompted the Soviets to develop a Doomsday Machine? According to Thompson, President Ronald Reagan’s faith in Star Wars, also, of course, known as missile defense.

As we’ve discussed before at Faster Times’s nukes desk, most nuclear strategists soon understood that missile defense throws the nuclear balance between states out of whack, thus undermining deterrence. In other words, even though the fine points of nuclear strategy were often lost on the Soviet Union, it was nevertheless immediately clear to Moscow that a successful missile defense system permitted the United States to launch a nuclear first strike. Theoretically, anyway, the United States would be protected by Reagan’s celestial shield from a crushing counterattack.

While some hawks grasped this concept, others couldn’t — or wouldn’t. This passage from a review of a book celebrating Saint Reagan describes its authors: “The Andersons share Reagan’s puzzlement that [at Reyjkavik] Gorbachev and his team proved unwilling to accept the president’s peace-loving protestations at face value and instead treated SDI as a grave escalation of the nuclear arms race.”

Perhaps they can be forgiven though. Nuclear strategy gets byzantine pretty fast and at first I too had trouble understanding why missile defense is actually an offensive weapon. Odds are that nobody has ever explained it as clearly as Thompson (emphasis added):

To Moscow [missile defense] confirmed that the US was planning an attack. It would be impossible for the system to stop thousands of incoming Soviet missiles at once, so missile defense made sense only as a way of mopping up after an initial US strike. … Some Soviet weapons would survive for a retaliatory launch, but Reagan’s shield could block many of those. Thus, Star Wars would nullify the long-standing doctrine of mutually assured destruction, the principle that neither side would ever start a nuclear war since neither could survive a counterattack.

Once again, we’re left to contemplate two terrible ironies. The same fears that impelled one of our most anti-nuclear presidents to cling to his teddy bear — missile defense — spurred him to pull the rug out from under the fabled Reykjavík summit when the total abolition of nuclear weapons was actually on the table. Worse, it precipitated the development of Russia’s nightmarish technology, which, to this day, stands ready and willing to carry out its mission.

Russ Wellen edits the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points. He also writes about nuclear disarmament for Scholars & Rogues. Not to mention Newshoggers, the Agonist, Dirty Hippies, and Huffing ...read more

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