‘I Have Spent Most of My Life Worrying About Nuclear War’

Readers respond to our July/August 2022 issue.

image of magazine open to story about nuclear weapons
Katie Martin

We Have No Nuclear Strategy

The U.S. can’t keep ignoring the threat these weapons pose, Tom Nichols wrote in the July/August issue.

Tom Nichols provides a sobering reminder that the threat of nuclear catastrophe did not recede with the fall of the Soviet Union, but actually grew—even as public engagement diminished. And yet, Nichols’s article is itself partially trapped in cobwebbed Cold War thinking. Focusing solely on the threat of nuclear confrontation with Russia, Nichols devotes not even one word to the possibility of cataclysmic Indian-Pakistani nuclear war, or to the terrifying prospect of extremists in Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.

Benjamin Shinewald
Winnipeg Beach, Manitoba, Canada

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Tom Nichols is right to remind us that the Cold War years were characterized by widespread engagement among academics, politicians, and activists of all stripes for whom the nuclear threat was a compelling preoccupation. I, too, was among those who “cared a lot about nuclear weapons,” having spent my graduate years at UC Berkeley researching the attitudes of the Pentagon’s top brass on a possible U.S.-Soviet nuclear war in Europe.

In light of the enormous body of data that has since surfaced regarding the limitations of human perception and calculation, and the wide range of cultural and political biases affecting decision making, one wonders if we have been asking the wrong questions. What if—looking squarely at the cognitive (and affective) vulnerabilities of our species—we were to admit that we are not fit for the job of managing the threat that nuclear weapons pose to our longevity on this planet?

Donna Brasset-Shearer
Petaluma, Calif.

Nichols, along with NATO and the U.S., failed to note that Vladimir Putin has “used” his nuclear arsenal to good effect, neutering the response to his criminal war in Ukraine just by mentioning the obvious fact that he has one. We halted a routine test of an intercontinental ballistic missile out of fear of alarming Putin. More important, we have stood by while Ukraine is systematically destroyed. It would have been far better to recognize that Putin’s nuclear threat was a hollow one, because none of his military or political objectives would be advanced by any use of a nuclear weapon. Our timidity will play out in dangerous ways, including increasing the likelihood that China will move on Taiwan by force.

Colonel Michael R. Gallagher
Hillsboro, Ore.

Mr. Nichols is right. The prospect of nuclear war lacks the salience that it once had. I find that college students worry about climate change and do not think much about the possibility of a nuclear holocaust. Like the author, I have spent most of my life worrying about nuclear war, in government service and teaching at our National War College and at various universities. But I do not favor the same prescriptions as Mr. Nichols.

He argues that if our government wants to rely on nuclear weapons to make up for inadequate conventional-military capability to meet our security commitments, it should say so. Or, alternatively, if the sole purpose of our nuclear weapons is to deter an adversary from using their nuclear weapons against us or our allies, then the government should say that.

But for the U.S. to publicly acknowledge our need to rely on nuclear weapons to meet our global security commitments would be to encourage adversaries to challenge those commitments, and discourage allies from trusting them. This is particularly true when an adversary possesses nuclear weapons of its own and believes it can deter us from making the first strike. Think here of Russia, China, and now even North Korea. As long as uncertainty over the first use of nuclear weapons when our vital interests are threatened deters adversaries from aggression, we should not abandon the benefits of that uncertainty.

Alternatively, if the U.S. were to assure friends and foes alike that the only circumstance under which it would ever launch a nuclear strike would be after deterrence had failed and we or an ally had already been the victim of a nuclear attack, we would be inviting a conventional attack and face the prospect of a protracted conventional war to deal with the consequences.

Robert L. Gallucci
The Plains, Va.

American Rasputin

Steve Bannon is still scheming, Jennifer Senior wrote in the July/August issue. And he’s still a threat to democracy.

Many thanks to Jennifer Senior for her illuminating piece on Steve Bannon and his obsessions. Or maybe no thanks, given that what she portrays is a callous (or worse) personality that advocates for tearing down all institutions no matter what good they do, with no thought given to replacing or rebuilding them.

Christopher E. Klots
Towson, Md.

I share Atlantic articles with an 89-year-old friend in assisted living. After reading the Jennifer Senior article on Bannon, she remarked, “Why would such a respected publication waste ink on another angry white man and insurrectionist who is a buffoon?” My sentiments exactly!

Robert Pelrine
Arnold, Md.

Jennifer Senior’s loathing of Steve Bannon comes through loud and clear. It’s a pity that her analysis of his appeal falls short. Why are Bannon’s ideas so apparently influential that they translate into a surge of Republican and even Trumpian support? The Hillary Clinton answer, that these supporters are all “deplorables”—idiots and puppets being manipulated by a master—doesn’t wash, as it didn’t for Clinton in 2016. A sensible and humble starting position would be that the priorities and policies of the liberal establishment don’t resonate with large swaths of ordinary Americans, who therefore don’t trust politicians who are mouthpieces of that establishment. Rather than rail against the malign influence of Bannon and his ilk, would-be future leaders of America should ask themselves how they lost the hearts and minds of so many of those they expect to put them in power. Is there any Democrat, or moderate Republican, who has the courage to do that?

Chris Morey
Marsaskala, Malta

I just finished rereading Jennifer Senior’s terrifying and excellent article on Steve Bannon. She writes with razor-blade precision, cutting into Bannon’s personality such that the pain of what he is doing to our nation is somewhat delayed by the fascination with his weird charisma. She made a man out of the monster, but also let the reader know why he is, in fact, a monster.

Barbara St. Hilaire
Asheville, N.C.

One detail in particular struck me: Bannon was radicalized by his father’s suffering during the economic meltdown of 2008. I believe this was an important turning point for him. The tragedy is that neoliberal economics is the handmaiden to Donald Trump and Stephen Miller. Neoliberal capitalism destroys more than it builds, producing moments of crisis that it solves by handing the bill over to the 99 percent. Name a more infamous duo than economic desolation and authoritarianism. Bannon understands full well that every disaster for which neoliberalism goes unpunished encourages rage, isolation, malignant fantasy, and the percolation of conspiracy theories.

Eric Baylis
East Lansing, Mich.

Behind the Cover

The three features that make up this month’s cover package—by Anne Applebaum, Franklin Foer, and George Packer—describe the realities of the war in Ukraine through on-the-ground reporting. For the cover, we looked for a photograph that would represent the resilience of the Ukrainian people as they defend their country against Russian aggression. In the image, plumes of yellow and blue smoke—the colors of the Ukrainian flag—flare skyward, suggesting both a call for help and a defiant patriotism.

Genevieve Fussell, Senior Photo Editor

This article appears in the October 2022 print edition with the headline “The Commons.”