Bang. The end of the world.
Even before we attained the capability of mass destruction, our ancestors were certain we were headed for it. Whenever there was an eclipse or a comet passed or some half-baked numerologist cast a spell on the first of February, a considerable portion of the population agreed that, yes, this is it, the end of the world.
In the year 1806 a fellow in Leeds, England, plunged the surrounding community into panic. He advertised that his hen was laying eggs on which appeared in good English, "Christ is coming." Multitudes visited the henhouse and examined the marvelous eggs. Sure enough, they said "Christ is coming." Everyone was terrorized, expecting the earth to end momentarily. Not until some cynic investigated did the panic subside. A close examination revealed that the eggs had been inscribed with corrosive fluid and then crammed back into the chicken's body. The animal lovers were appalled. But the vast majority was relieved. Humanity had escaped another scare of destruction.
In this respect, our ancestors were at a considerable advantage over us. Their panics were concentrated into a few days, and their causes were purely imaginary. Today, things are different. It isn't the wrath of God that we fear, but mathematical probability (multiplied exponentially by each fall in Carter's popularity poll). Between Iran and Afghanistan, odds seem to favor some government blowing us all to smithereens.
Several years ago, before the latest run of frightening news, someone tried to quantify the risk of nuclear destruction. He calculated the number of nuclear weapons, factored in consideration of fail-safe devices, and computed the number of madmen at or near a nuclear trigger. He then fed the resulting data into a computer—which concluded that we all should have been blown up in 1967.
Whether the fellow who made that calculation was a charlatan hardly matters. We can't shrug and forget as the folks in Leeds did in 1806. Our threat of obliteration has no end because it is not focused upon a single event. Whether the hostages escape, whether Carter is reelected, our danger will presumably be protracted as long as we live. The result is that we are not terrorized, but numbed.
As time passes, the natural human reaction is to tire of the whole thing. Our fallout shelters have grown over and fallen into disrepair. The accumulated civil defense rations are too stale to eat. If we are running to the hills, it is not to prepare for the worst but to get away for the weekend. And all this has consequences. The Cold War, having anesthetized our senses, is in constant need of being heated up in order to reach the threshold of public attention. And attention is what is desired by political leaders. Like prophets of apocalypse during times past, they profit from the increased power and prestige they obtain by manipulating public fears.
In ordinary times, keeping fear alive is a job for men such as former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, sometimes known as "Dr. Doom." He and others have tried to ignite a debate over the survivability of nuclear war. That's not necessarily a silly thing to think about, but a frequent conclusion of those prone to such thinking is. Dr. Schlesinger suggests that we consider seriously the prospects of "limited" use of nuclear weapons and proposes that under certain circumstances the United States should be the first to explode them.
Whatever has been said in public reflects a growing private enthusiasm in Defense circles for actually using the deadly weapons in our nuclear arsenal. (The conventional weapons, as the Iran rescue mission suggested, may not work.) Former Adm. Elmo Zumwalt privately told attendees at a Boston conference on defense strategy that limited nuclear war may be desirable in the near future. Among his points, shared by Pentagon analysts, is that improved weapons technology has made nuclear war far cleaner. According to one estimate, as few as 800,000 Americans might be killed in a limited nuclear exchange; other estimates place the number of fatalities as high as 22 million. Either way, there would be millions of terrorized survivors.
These calculations assume an almost friendly restraint by the leaders of the United States and Russia in striking only at tactical targets, such as missile installations. It is well known that either side has enough nuclear weaponry to obliterate most life on earth. But that very excess of power may make the weapons unusable. Even the "winners" in an all-out war presumably would gag on the fallout from their own bombs. Hence the efforts to negotiate strict limits on the deployment and use of nuclear weapons, efforts that may have enhanced the prospects for limited nuclear war—war that might serve political purposes in both camps.
The leaders of both Russia and America have a tremendous vested interest in remaining enemies. It rationalizes diversion of greater resources into military spending and keeps the populations in both countries lined up in support of the respective governments. The more frightful each government seems—and both Carter and the Politburo seem pretty frightful now—the better it is for the other. A limited nuclear war would be a social shock sufficient to snap almost everyone to attention. If people knew not just that Afghanistan had been scorched but that their neighbors, friends, and relatives had been nuked by the enemy, the Cold War could be revived with an unparalleled intensity.
The ultimate irony of detente may be that it is (or was) not the opposite of the Cold War but its salvation. Whatever becomes of the complicated agreements, including SALT I and II, concluded with the Russians, the world is not likely to be any safer. History shows that complicated foreign policies inevitably break down and then, by their breach, serve to justify hostilities.
It is not safer to trust the rulers of two powerful governments, working together, than it is to trust one. In reality, it is safe to trust neither. And only a spread of that realization can limit the dangers of war by bringing nearer the day President Eisenhower predicted, when "the peoples of the world will shove aside the governments of the world and declare peace."
Jim Davidson is founder and chairman of the National Taxpayers Union. His latest book, The Squeeze, was published recently by Summit Books.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Viewpoint: The Breakdown of Detente".