Lessons from Oppenheimer: The Imperative of Nuclear Conflict Avoidance Commentary
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Lessons from Oppenheimer: The Imperative of Nuclear Conflict Avoidance

“Where there were great military actions, there lies whitening now the jawbone of an ass.”

Saint-John Perse (French poet, 1887-1975)

As film, the core importance of “Oppenheimer” lies in its messages on human survival. The personal, emotional and romantic aspects of the film are captivating, to be sure, but they are less consequential than any cinematic insights into nuclear warfare. Though such deeper insights are potentially meaningful as history and law, they are not easily understood as matters of science and logic. [1]

Where to begin? From an American perspective, if the United States doesn’t manage to avoid a nuclear conflict, all other national obligations will immediately become moot. Accordingly, all available fiscal and intellectual resources should now be vested in this obligation. Here, mustering capable intellectual resources untainted by partisan politics should be overriding. [2]

There are more specific imperatives. In thinking about such unique perils, metaphor could be helpful. A nuclear war – any nuclear war – would closely resemble an incurable disease. All realistic “therapeutic” hopes, therefore, must lie in prevention. Among many things, this means a primary focus on science-based [3] analyses, not on delusionary or self-serving manipulations.

To progress with such a disciplined assessment, one that is suitably theoretical and not merely ad hoc, a key distinction should be introduced. This distinction concerns basic differences between a deliberate or intentional nuclear war and a nuclear conflict that is unintentional or inadvertent. Should this distinction be ignored or overlooked for any reason, the United States could impair its capacity to identify meaningful and plausible policy options. Any such impairment could prove intolerable and irremediable.

Multiple impediments and pertinent ironies would be involved. Because there has never been an authentic nuclear war (Hiroshima and Nagasaki don’t “count”), determining verifiable probabilities would be logically impossible. Always, in both logic and mathematics, true probabilities must stem from the determinable frequency of relevant past events. When there are no such events – that is, when current situations are unprecedented or sui generis –  nothing can be said with predictive reliability or analytic confidence.

There is more. Not every apparent oxymoron must be unreasonable. Good news can sometimes be bad news. Though we are fortunate to have avoided a nuclear conflict thus far, this evident good news also signifies something “bad:” We can scientifically predict nothing about the actual likelihood of a nuclear war.

Still, capable scholars and policy makers should calculate optimal strategies for averting a nuclear war and for minimizing the harms of a nuclear war that cannot be prevented. This challenging calculation will vary according to presumed enemy intentions and the presumed plausibility of a relevant accident, hacking intrusion or decisional miscalculation. Linguistically, when taken together as categories of a potential nuclear threat, these component risks of unintentional atomic war are best described as “inadvertent.”

Language matters. Any instance of accidental nuclear war would be inadvertent, but not every case of an inadvertent nuclear war would be the result of accident. Conceptually, all such examples represent complex elements of a single overall national security problem – that is, preventing a “final epidemic.” [4]

Nuclear war prevention should never be approached by American security thinkers and planners as a narrowly political or tactical issue. Informed by serious historical understandings and by variously refined analytic capacities, US strategists should continuously prepare to deal with a large variety of sometimes-intersecting explanatory factors. Under the best conditions of modern science, this broad variety will appear multi-dimensional and daunting. But it need not also appear insoluble.

There is more. Principal hazards in nuclear war avoidance can only be understood in light of the credible or at least conceivable intersections between them. This is because all such critical intersections are more-or-less plausible, a conclusion based on various expectations of “informal logic” (not on actual history) and on the knowledge that mutually reinforcing intersections could be “synergistic.”  Accordingly, close attention to anticipated synergies should remain among America’s primary analytic defense objectives.

In dealing with growing nuclear war risks involving North Korea, Russia, China or Iran, no concept could prove more important to policy than synergy.  Synergistic interactions are ones wherein the “whole” of any intersectional nuclear war risks or risk effects would be greater than the calculable sum of all “parts.” Inter alia, unless such interactions are correctly evaluated, the United States could sometime underestimate the total impact of any considered nuclear engagement.

It would not be hard to imagine such a critical underestimation. The tangible flesh and blood consequences of any such underestimations could defy analytic imagination and any post-war justifications. [5] Stated succinctly, the survivors of a nuclear war could envy the dead.

This raises a longstanding personal issue. I have been publishing about complex nuclear war issues for over fifty years. After four years of doctoral study at Princeton in the late 1960s, long an intellectual center of American nuclear strategic thought (recall both Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer), I began to consider adding a modest personal contribution to a newly-evolving nuclear literature.  By the late 1970s, I was cautiously preparing a new manuscript on US nuclear strategy. At that early stage of a still-emerging strategic discipline, I was especially interested in US presidential authority to order the use of American nuclear weapons.

From day one, I was told that allegedly reliable safeguards had been incorporated into all operational nuclear command/control decisions, but that these indispensable safeguards could not be applied at the presidential level. To a young scholar searching optimistically for nuclear war avoidance opportunities, this ironic disjunction didn’t make any obvious sense.  What next? I was inquiring, after all, on the hallowed Princeton grounds of Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer.

It was high time for gathering suitable clarifications. I reached out to retired General Maxwell D. Taylor, a former Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. In reassuringly rapid response to my query, General Taylor sent a comprehensive handwritten reply. Dated 14 March 1976, the distinguished General’s detailed letter concluded ominously: “As to those dangers arising from an irrational American president, the only protection is not to elect one.”

Until 2016, I had never given any extended thought to this authoritative response. Today, following the markedly incoherent and unstable presidency of Donald J. Trump, General Taylor’s 1976 warning takes on greater and more conspicuously urgent meanings. Based on both ascertainable facts and logical derivations (technically called “entailments” in philosophy of science terminology) rather than narrowly wishful thinking, we should now reasonably assume that if an American president were ever to exhibit accessible signs of emotional instability, irrationality or presumptively delusional behavior, he could still order the use of American nuclear weapons.

He could do this officially, legally and without any expectations of nuclear chain-of-command “disobedience.”

More worrisome, a US president could become emotionally unstable, irrational or delusional, but still not conspicuously exhibit such liabilities.

What happens then?

A corollary question should now also be brought to mind:

What precise stance should be assumed by the National Command Authority (Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and several others) if it should ever decide to oppose an “inappropriate” presidential order to launch American nuclear weapons?

Could the National Command Authority (NCA) “save the day,” informally, by acting in an impromptu or creatively ad hoc fashion? Or should indispensable preparatory steps already have been taken, preemptively?  That is, should there already be in place certain credible and effective statutory measures to (1) assess the ordering president’s reason and judgment; and (2) countermand the inappropriate or wrongful order?

Presumptively, in US law, Article 1 (Congressional) war-declaring expectations of the Constitution aside, any presidential order to use nuclear weapons, whether issued by an apparently irrational president or by an otherwise incapacitated one, would have to be obeyed. To do otherwise, in such incomparably dire circumstances, would be illegal. Prima facie, any chain-of-command disobedience would be impermissible. [6]

In principle, at least, a US President could order the first use of American nuclear weapons even if this country were not under nuclear attack. In this connection, some further strategic and legal [7] distinctions would need to be made between a nuclear “first use” and a nuclear “first strike.” These would not be trivial or minor distinctions.

While there exists an elementary yet substantive difference between these two options, it is a distinction that candidate Donald Trump failed to understand during the 2016 presidential campaign debates. Lest we forget, Mr. Trump is once again running for president. Shall we simply take for granted that he is now more familiar with the multiple and nuanced expectations of national nuclear doctrine and strategy than during “Trump I”?

What happens next? Where should the American polity and government go from here? To begin, a coherent, authoritative and comprehensive answer will need to be prepared for this axiomatic question:

If faced with any presidential order to use nuclear weapons, and not offered sufficiently appropriate corroborative evidence of any actually impending existential threat, would the National Command Authority be: (1) be willing to disobey, and (2) be capable of enforcing such expressions of disobedience?

In any such unprecedented crisis-decisional circumstances, all binding decisions could have to be made in a compressively time-urgent matter of minutes, not hours or days. As far as any useful policy guidance from the past might be concerned, there could be no scientifically valid way to assess the true probabilities of all possible outcomes. This is because all scientific judgments of probability – whatever the salient issue or subject – must be based upon the frequency of recognizably pertinent past events.

In matters of nuclear war, there are no pertinent past events. This is a palpably fortunate absence, of course, but still one that could inevitably stand in the way of rendering reliable security decision-making predictions. The irony here is obvious and problematic. Whatever the scientific obstacles, the optimal time to prepare for such vital US national security difficulties is now.

Regarding the immediately specific matter of Iran, though that country is merely “pre-nuclear,” increasing US military encounters with Iranian surrogates could conceivably draw in North Korea as an allied and fully nuclear belligerent.  Faced with uncertainties about Kim Jung Un’s expected willingness to push the escalatory envelope, the American president could suddenly find himself confronted with grievously stark choices between outright capitulation and a nuclear war-fighting. [8] Even for a gifted US president, any such choice could quickly prove overwhelming.

To avoid being placed in such a limited choice strategic environment, the American president should always understand that displaying a larger national nuclear force might not bestow meaningful bargaining advantages. On the contrary, it could generate unwarranted US presidential overconfidence and several resultant forms of decisional miscalculation. In any such wholly unfamiliar, many-sided and unprecedented matters, size could actually vary inversely with true national power.

There is more. In the inevitable search for “escalation dominance,” the United States and its adversaries could find themselves caught up in a unique existential crisis. In such fragile matters of world politics, even an inadvertent decisional outcome could include a nuclear war. Whatever the cause, there could be no meaningful “winner.”

In the paroxysmal aftermath of an unintended nuclear conflict, those authoritative American decision-makers who had once downplayed “preparation” in strategic negotiations could plausibly question their strategic thought processes. By then, however, it would already be too late. As survivors of a once-preventable nuclear conflagration, these now-stunned officials might sincerely ask themselves: Were we ever in any way properly schooled in such mind-taxing and esoteric problem solving?

A nuclear war would resemble an incurable disease. The only “therapeutic” hopes therefore must lie in war avoidance. Ultimately, of course, nuclear war avoidance is not a matter of hope or faith, but of reason, intellect and courage. [9] This singularly core insight represents the most enduringly important message of “Oppenheimer.” If it is disregarded by citizens and politicians, our descendants will end up gazing with bewilderment upon what the poet St.-John Perse calls “the jawbone of an ass.”

Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is the author of many books, monographs, and scholarly articles dealing with various aspects of nuclear strategy. In Israel, he was Chair of Project Daniel (PM Sharon, 2003). Over recent years, he has published extensively on nuclear warfare issues in the Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs; The Atlantic; Israel Defense; JURIST; The New York Times; The Jerusalem Post; International Security (Harvard); World Politics (Princeton); The War Room (US Army War College); Modern Diplomacy; Small Wars Journal); Modern War Institute (West Point); Air-Space Operations Review (USAF); and Oxford University Press. His twelfth book, published in 2016 (2nd ed., 2018) by Rowman & Littlefield, is titled: Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy. https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781442253254/Survivng-Amid-Chaos-Israel’s-Nuclear-Strategy. Some of Professor Beres’ earlier writings on US nuclear decision-making were co-authored with US General John T. Chain (USAF/ret.) and US Admiral Leon “Bud” Edney (USN/ret). General Chain was CINCSAC, Commander-in-Chief, US Strategic Air Command. Admiral Edney served as SACLANT, Supreme NATO Allied Commander, Atlantic.

Professor Louis René Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of World War II, At Princeton, he studied German literature and German philosophy along with nuclear strategy and jurisprudence.

[1] “Life can only be understood backwards,” observes Soren Kierkegaard, “but it must be lived forward.”

[2] Says Guillaume Apollinaire: “It must not be forgotten that it is perhaps more dangerous for a nation to allow itself to be conquered intellectually than by arms.” See: The New Spirit and the Poets, 1917.

[3] “Science,” says philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset in Man and Crisis (1958) “by which I mean the entire body of knowledge about things, whether corporeal or spiritual, is as much a work of imagination as it is of observation…The latter is not possible without the former.”

[4] This term was used as title of an important early book dealing with nuclear war dangers: Ruth Abrams and Susan Cullen, The Final Epidemic: Physicians and Scientists on Nuclear War (1981). The well-respected contributors to this sobering anthology were associated with two prominent scientific/medical organizations of the time: Physicians for Social Responsibility and International Physicians Against Nuclear War. The present writer, Louis Rene Beres, was an active member of these groups at both Princeton and Purdue. For authoritative early accounts by this author of nuclear war effects, see: Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1983); Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: U.S. Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1984); and Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1986). Most recently, by Professor Beres, see: Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (New York, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd ed. 2018).

[5] See earlier, by this author, Louis René Beres, at Harvard National Security Journal, Harvard Law School: https://harvardnsj.org/2015/06/core-synergies-in-israels-strategic-planning-when-the-adversarial-whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts/)

[6] Nonetheless, international law is a part of United States law, and the authoritative Nuremberg Judgments clarify that chain-of-command disobedience can be indispensably law-enforcing. See AGREEMENT FOR THE PROSECUTION AND PUNISHMENT OF THE MAJOR WAR CRIMINALS OF THE EUROPEAN AXIS POWERS AND CHARTER OF THE INTERNATIONAL MILITARY TRIBUNAL.  Done at London, August 8, 1945.  Entered into force, August 8, 1945.  For the United States, Sept. 10, 1945.  59 Stat. 1544, 82 U.N.T.S. 279.  The principles of international law recognized by the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal and the judgment of the Tribunal were affirmed by the U.N. General Assembly as AFFIRMATION OF THE PRINCIPLES OF INTERNATIONAL LAW RECOGNIZED BY THE CHARTER OF THE NUREMBERG TRIBUNAL.  Adopted by the U.N. General Assembly, Dec. 11, 1946.  U.N.G.A. Res. 95 (I), U.N. Doc. A/236 (1946), at 1144.  This AFFIRMATION OF THE PRINCIPLES OF INTERNATIONAL LAW RECOGNIZED BY THE CHARTER OF THE NUREMBERG TRIBUNAL (1946) was followed by General Assembly Resolution 177 (II), adopted November 21, 1947, directing the U.N. International Law Commission to “(a) Formulate the principles of international law recognized in the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal and in the judgment of the Tribunal, and (b) Prepare a draft code of offenses against the peace and security of mankind….” (See U.N. Doc. A/519, p. 112).  The principles formulated are known as the PRINCIPLES OF INTERNATIONAL LAW RECOGNIZED IN THE CHARTER AND JUDGMENT OF THE NUREMBERG TRIBUNAL.  Report of the International Law Commission, 2nd session, 1950, U.N. G.A.O.R. 5th session, Supp. No. 12, A/1316, p. 11.

[7] As corollary, under international law, the formal question of whether or not a “state of war” actually exists between states is generally ambiguous. Traditionally, it was held that a declaration of war was necessary before any true state of war could be said to exist. Hugo Grotius divided wars into declared wars, which were legal, and undeclared wars, which were not. (See Hugo Grotius, The Law of War and Peace, Bk. III, Chapters. III, IV, and XI.) By the start of the twentieth century, the position that war obtains only after a conclusive declaration of war by one of the parties was codified by Hague Convention III. This treaty stipulated that hostilities must never commence without a “previous and explicit warning” in the form of a declaration of war or an ultimatum. (See Hague Convention III Relative to the Opening of Hostilities, 1907, 3 NRGT, 3 series, 437, article 1.) Currently, declarations of war may be tantamount to admissions of international criminality, because of the express criminalization of aggression by authoritative international law, and it could therefore represent a clear jurisprudential absurdity to tie any true state of war to formal and prior declarations of belligerency. It follows that a state of war may now exist without any formal declarations, but only if there exists an actual armed conflict between two or more states, and/or at least one of these affected states considers itself “at war.”

[8] This raises the concept of “escalation dominance.”  See, by this author,  Louis René Beres, at The War Room, US Army War College, Pentagon.

[9] See by this writer at Yale Global: Louis René Beres, https://archive-yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/call-intellect-and-courage

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