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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

In September, 2007, Israeli jets destroyed a building in a remote corner of Syria. The first skirmish, writes Ron Rosenbaum, of the second nuclear age.

The building turned out to house a nuclear reactor built with North Korean help and designed to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. Israel judged that eliminating that threat was worth the risk of a wider war. Syria judged that Israel's nuclear weapons made it too risky to retaliate.

But will the same calculations hold if and when the target is Iran? In a new book, Ron Rosenbaum argues that we've relegated nuclear holocaust to the dustbin of history since the end of the Cold War, when Iran, Israel, Pakistan, India and North Korea make the prospect all too real and maybe inevitable. And don't forget about the big nuclear powers: Russia and the United States.

Later in the program, a budding opera star who once starred at fullback for the University of Colorado and saw his future in the NFL, not at the Metropolitan Opera.

But first, Ron Rosenbaum, who tells a fascinating story in his book. In 1973, a U.S. Air Force major training to command nuclear missile silos asked a dangerous question. What Harold Hering wanted to know was: How can I know that an order I receive to launch my missiles came from a sane president?

After two years of appeals, Major Hering lost his job but neither he nor anyone else ever got an answer to that question.

If you ever worked with nuclear weapons, what did you think then about their use, and how did it change you? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ron Rosenbaum's book is titled "How The End Begins: The Road To Nuclear World War III." He's also a culture columnist for Slate and joins us from our bureau in New York. Thanks very much for coming in today.

Mr. RON ROSENBAUM (Author): Oh, thank you for having me on.

CONAN: And Major Hering's question came when the president in question was Richard Nixon, falling apart amid the ashes of the Watergate crisis.

Mr. ROSENBAUM: Yes, the amazing quotation, which has been forgotten, was that Nixon, drinking a lot, behaving erratically, told a dinner party: I could leave this room and in 25 minutes 70 million people would be dead.

I would not advise that as an opening gambit for your dinner party, but it's - in fact, it illustrates the unpleasant truth that one man, the president, has sole authority. He doesn't have to check with anyone. He doesn't have to give any reasons. He can order the launch of nuclear missiles, start World War III, on his own.

Constitutional scholars have argued about this and have not come up with any good answer, and it's one of those questions that we debated, thought about during the Cold War. And then after 1991, after the Cold War ended, all these questions, many more, were left unanswered.

And we took what was called a holiday from history, and only - I felt there was a kind of wake-up call with that Syrian raid, because one British magazine said we came close to World War III that night because of the possible involvement of other nuclear powers.

And I wrote the book as a warning, as a wake-up call, that we need to address these questions that we've left behind with the Cold War.

CONAN: And those questions, we'll get into some of the more scary scenarios, but they include command and control of not just American nuclear weapons but Russian nuclear weapons as well.

Mr. ROSENBAUM: Yes. You know, there was a lot of excitement when it was discovered that the Russians had something known as the doomsday machine which was very similar to the doomsday device in "Dr. Strangelove."

CONAN: Anybody who's seen that picture will remember the scene. It's Peter Sellers as the eponymous Dr. Strangelove, who muses, after he discovers the fact that the Russians have set up this automatic device that would blow up the world in the event of a nuclear attack.

(Soundbite of film, "Dr. Strangelove")

Mr. PETER SELLERS (Actor): (as Dr. Strangelove) Deterrence is the art of producing, in the mind of the enemy, the fear to attack. And so because of the automated and irrevocable decision-making process, which rules out human meddling, the doomsday machine is terrifying and simple to understand and completely credible and convincing.

Mr. GEORGE C. SCOTT (Actor): (as General "Buck" Turgidson) Gee, I wish we had one of them doomsday machines...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Of course George C. Scott there in his part as well. The question, of course, asked later in that scene is: It doesn't do any good unless you tell people about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROSENBAUM: Yeah, that was unfortunate. The actual doomsday machine consists of automatic sensors which relay to a Russian command center supposed indications that there's been a nuclear attack on the Russian land mass and the chain of command, the human chain of command, has been eliminated, and therefore permission, authorization to launch nuclear weapons automatically is granted.

Unfortunately, if you - I mean fortunately, if you look - if you look further into it, there is one man who stands between the automated doomsday of "Dr. Strangelove" and the actual Russian system, and that one man has actually been - was a Colonel Petrov(ph), who actually was -had the choice as to whether to believe the mistaken automatic signals that Russia was under attack and could have allowed the doomsday machine to proceed with destroying the rest of the world but decided he'd wait a few moments and fortunately discovered that the signals were erroneous.

However, in the United States, we're not that much better off. We have a 15-minute launch window, which means that if we - we will launch our weapons, under some procedures, just on the basis of satellite and radar signals, without knowing for sure whether these signals are what's known as false positives or erroneous.

We have 15 minutes to launch our silo-based nuclear weapons before the silo-based nuclear weapons are destroyed by these supposed incoming missiles. And so the danger of accidental nuclear war based on just false-positive, pixilated signals, still unfortunately exists.

CONAN: We're talking with Ron Rosenbaum about his new book, "How The End Begins: The Road To A Nuclear World War III." We'd like to hear from those in our audience who have worked with nuclear weapons over the years. How did you think about them at the time? How did that change you? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Joseph(ph), calling us from Los Angeles.

JOSEPH (Caller): Yeah, hi, how are you?

CONAN: I'm good, thanks.

JOSEPH: I did work for almost three years, side-by-side, in what they call the missile field. And the way it changed me is I found a new relation with my - relationship with my creator and had a different outlook on life altogether, and that - although this information that the gentleman on the radio is sharing, I don't know if he has a sort of secret clearance or anything like that, should be substantiated.

But I just think that a person should respect the Earth that we live on and respect and love our creator, and I just think that our creator hasn't given us a spirit of fear if we embrace that love and - but power and sound mind, and I think a sound mind would hopefully - those in charge of the custodial service of the weapons are - have sound mind. But I would just...

CONAN: Joe, when you said you worked in the missile field, what did you do exactly?

JOSEPH: Well, I was a custodian for a security of policemen. In other words, I looked after the facility where they monitored the silos and...

CONAN: This was up in North Dakota?

JOSEPH: No, no, it wasn't. It was with Strategic Air Command, which is a division of the United States Air Force.

CONAN: Okay.

JOSEPH: And I appreciate an opportunity to talk, and thank you for listening, and I wish everyone all the best, and I just - I wish that people would look up and look around and smell the air and look at the trees and see where they came from, and I think this is what's important in life, and embrace our family and respect the - and respect the giver of life.

CONAN: Joe, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it. It's interesting, Ron Rosenbaum, you focus your book on a couple of other, I guess, former Cold Warriors. One of them is Bruce Blair, who was himself a missilier, in charge of some of the missile fields and now has come to the belief that we need to get to zero nuclear weapons.

Another is Daniel Ellsberg, of course we remember famously as the person who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. But when he was described as the most dangerous man in America, Henry Kissinger was apparently talking about something else.

Mr. ROSENBAUM: Well, he was talking about Ellsberg's early work as a nuclear strategist. And long before Ellsberg became the Pentagon Papers guy, he was working for the Rand Corporation and for McNamara's Pentagon, devising nuclear targeting plans.

But, you know, I want to say something about - I respect what the caller said about how nuclear weapons change your relationship to everything, because I know that when I was given the chance to hold the launch keys to a nuclear weapon in my hand and to twist them in a launch console - a test console, obviously, not an operational one - I think it changed my life.

I've been obsessed or fascinated with this subject ever since, and people who are - people like Ellsberg, people like Bruce Blair, who have held launch keys or have been responsible for nuclear targeting, it changes you when you realize that you have direct power over the fate of millions of people and perhaps the Earth itself.

CONAN: We're talking with Ron Rosenbaum, author of "How The End Begins." More with him in a moment. We want to hear from those in our audience who have worked with nuclear weapons over the years. What did you think about that at the time? How did it change you? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In his book, Ron Rosenbaum asks how close we've come to nuclear war, not just in the long standoff against the Soviet Union but in recent years as well, as nuclear weapons have proliferated.

If you want to read more about that, there's an excerpt from his book, "How The End Begins," at our website. That's at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

If you've ever worked with nuclear weapons, what did you think then about their use and how did it change you? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. You can also go to that aforementioned website, npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's get Roy(ph) on the line. Roy's calling us from Rapid City, North Dakota - South Dakota.

ROY (Caller): South Dakota.

CONAN: I apologize.

ROY: Oh, listen, don't say that.

CONAN: No, no.

ROY: It's (unintelligible) down here.

CONAN: Okay.

ROY: Okay, I was a missile launch officer here for four years in the underground silos. I held the keys in my hand - oh, gee - once every three or four days for almost four years. We were trained. We were evaluated. We used to sit around and ask ourselves, and each other, you know: If the order ever came, would you launch? Would you turn the keys? And almost everybody came up with the same thing: Yes, we would because we just wouldn't know what else to do.

And the question he raised earlier about would you - how do you know it came from a sane president - we had a term called "that's above my pay grade." And that's what we applied. We can't worry about - we can't worry about that. We have our own things to worry about.

We had our own families. We lived right - they lived right there. We knew what would happen if it ever came to it. But again, would we do it? Almost certainly yes, because you just don't know what else to do, and you don't worry about is the order coming from a sane president. You hope that somebody up there knows what they're doing.

Mr. ROSENBAUM: Well, it's, you know, the answer that most of the missile men that I spoke to gave. And it leads, though, to another question. When you're asked to launch these missiles, in most cases the scenario would be this, under nuclear deterrence.

Under nuclear deterrence, we threaten to commit genocide in order to prevent genocide, to prevent a genocidal attack against us. Well, what happens if we're attacked anyway? Then the threat is useless. Do we go ahead and commit genocide because we've been trained to do so? Is that a rational thing to do?

I mean, think of all the innocent families on the other side of the world who would be killed for no purpose other than carrying out a threat that failed.

I don't have the answer to that, but I do spend a considerable amount of time discussing the question with religious people and with philosophical people and with military people. I actually asked the question of the head of STRATCOM, the head of all our nuclear forces, General Kevin Chilton, at a conference. And he said he loses sleep over the question.

He didn't want to come out and say it was the right thing to do. He didn't want to say, well, we debate it a lot, because if you say you debate it a lot, then you lose the credibility of the threat.

It's really a kind of Catch-22 paradox, and it's one of those paradoxes, one of those questions that we stopped talking about in 1991. And one of the reasons I wrote the book is that I want people to start talking about it again.

CONAN: Roy, thanks very much for the call.

ROY: You bet, thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Let's see, we go next to - this is Pam, and Pam's with us from Anchorage.

PAM (Caller): Good morning. I worked at Los Alamos as an anthropologist, and that was in the '80s, and of course the people there were from the '70s, '60s and even some from the '50s.

And everybody there that I ran across thought very long and hard about whether they could do their jobs, and this included being a custodian, as well as an engineer or a writer or a physicist, and what the impact was.

And the other aspect that I found amazing was that there was a shared cultural values that I believe permeated the lab and also the influence of the lab that acted as a brake upon using nuclear weapons.

It's a very important aspect. It hasn't been understood. But I think it's a significant aspect of just the cultural components of what the nuclear weapons history and culture was.

Mr. ROSENBAUM: Well, that's a fascinating contrast. I'm deeply interested in hearing that because it's a contrast from the previous caller, who said we just go ahead and do it. And what you're suggesting is that people constantly give it thought, whether it's the right thing to do.

PAM: Yes, and even contributing to it, and that it was something that there were values that as a whole were important, as well as the cultural memory of the institution.

And that was very important, little understood, and I'm afraid is subject to being disrupted without anybody knowing it.

CONAN: It's interesting. In that light, Ron Rosenbaum, you write toward the end of the book about a theory that there were various times when the United States might have used nuclear weapons and elected not to, even when the United States had a monopoly of nuclear weapons, in the late '40s and early '50s, because, well, it just wasn't the American thing to do.

Mr. ROSENBAUM: Yes, you know, there's a concept known as the nuclear taboo. And it's been slowly evolving. But you pinpointed exactly the years where it's most relevant, the years when we had nuclear weapons and the Soviet Union didn't, and we could've used nuclear weapons to stop the Chinese in Korea. We could've used nuclear weapons in any number of crises and not feared nuclear retaliation.

But it's surprising how many statesmen, people who later became hawks, like Paul Nitze, said, as you suggested, it's just wrong. It's not the American thing to do. It's contrary to our character. And so that was a fascinating period and a revelatory period that, you know, when we had this total freedom from fear of retaliation, we wouldn't use nuclear weapons.

CONAN: Pam, thanks very much for the call. Interesting, though, you also point out that Russia may have a lower nuclear taboo than we do, and it's unclear what Iran has or Israel has or India has or Pakistan has, or who's going to be in charge of any of those places.

Mr. ROSENBAUM: Well, that's, you know, another one of the reasons I felt this book was worth writing, was that we had entered a different kind of nuclear age, that during the Cold War there was at least this illusion of stability, bipolar, two nations negotiating, able to talk on the hotline, et cetera, et cetera.

But now you have nine nuclear nations, many of them, like North Korea, unstable, Pakistan lacking sufficient control or even knowledge of where their nuclear weapons are or who's in charge. It's a much more dangerous situation out there in some ways because even though these nations don't have the vast nuclear arsenals that we do, they could start a regional nuclear war, and a regional nuclear war through various alliances could draw in the superpowers and escalate into a global nuclear war.

CONAN: And if I'm reading you right, not to say that you are in any way in favor of this, but you regard a nuclear exchange between Israel and Iran, should Iran get nuclear weapons, as almost inevitable.

Mr. ROSENBAUM: Well, sad to say, the Iranians have made constant statements about their desire to eradicate the state of Israel. And the state of Israel was formed in the aftermath of Hitler's Holocaust.

And, you know, I've talked to Israeli philosophers and military ethicists, and they say: Well, that's got to be a factor. We're in a sense going to be more trigger-happy, or we're going to be more inclined to shoot first rather than wait for a second holocaust to occur and then face the question of whether we retaliate against that.

CONAN: Ron would have just a handful of nuclear weapons in any foreseeable future. Israel has, people believe, hundreds. Why wouldn't deterrence work? Deterrence seemed to work for a long time during the Cold War.

Mr. ROSENBAUM: Well, two reasons. One, Iran isn't the only state in the region that is opposed to Israel that has nuclear weapons; Pakistan, we've only just learned. We thought they had 60 nuclear warheads. Now, they have more - it turns out they have more than a hundred. But also, there's the question of whether Israel could survive at all just one or two nuclear heads. Israel has been called the one-bomb state. One large enough bomb would be enough to destroy it.

And so - and then there's the other question, which is the deterioration of deterrence because of the ideology of suicidal martyrdom. In other words, one of the leading Iranian Ayatollah's, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said as far back as 2001 that he would welcome a nuclear exchange with Israel, because Iran might lose 15, 20 million people in that. But Israel would be totally wiped out. And there would still be a billion and half Muslims left on the planet.

So Israel can't count on deterrence in light of suicidal martyrdom ideology. And they can't rely, as we did during the Cold War, that their foe would be rational or fear death as a deterrent.

CONAN: And Israel, as you point out, now has submarines equipped with nuclear weapons that even if Israel should be destroyed by that one or two-bomb scenario, would be out at sea with the ability to retaliate.

Mr. ROSENBAUM: They would have the ability to retaliate. And this is one of the most difficult questions. And I got one of the most shocking answers from Moshe Halbertal, who is a Israeli military ethicist. And I asked him, should Israel - if Israel were destroyed by nuclear weapons from whatever source, should Israel use its nuclear-equipped submarines to retaliate? And he said, no.

He said that any use of weapons, according to the morality of the law of war that would involve the mass death of unarmed, noncombatant civilians is immoral. And, you know, in saying this, he's undermining whatever deterrent power Israel has. And yet, he felt the morality of the question required him to say that.

CONAN: Interestingly, he also said that maybe it would be moral to use them, though, in a preemptive strike. In any case, the book is "How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III." Ron Rosenbaum is the author. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go next to Michelle(ph), Michelle with us from Grand Rapids.

MICHELLE (Caller): Yes. My husband was qualified to fire nuclear weapons in the '80s. And I have to tell you, you know, it did eventually get to him. But all of the people that I have known that have been qualified or have decided not to complete qualifications remind me of the comments about Los Alamos. They know every day what they're capable of doing. They think hard. They do not just act, you know, remote button.

I believe that's why my husband finally had to leave the military. But they do think about it. They are responsible. They are thinking about who their command is. And if given the right - you know, the situation where they need to do it, I believe they will do it. But it's not without forethought. It's not a push-button situation. And these are highly intelligent people.

Mr. ROSENBAUM: It's interesting, because the Air Force psychological reliability program tries to weed out just the kind of people you're speaking of, whom I have great respect for, and make sure that the people who are at the controls will just push the buttons as like the last item on a checklist of things that they're supposed to do. And the fact you're bringing forth, that these people are concerned about this is...

MICHELLE: They're concerned...

Mr. ROSENBAUM: ...something important.

MICHELLE: Yes. They are concerned. They are intelligent. They are very gifted people. But the military certainly isn't going to take an average Joe and say, okay. Let's teach you how nukes work and how to fire them. That's just not going to happen. Matter of fact, I've had that conversation with several people lately. But they are incredibly skilled and intelligent and tend to be incredibly moral people, probably the most pacifist people I've ever met.

CONAN: I've always talked to people who said you can't truly hate war until you've seen it. So...

MICHELLE: Exactly.

CONAN: ...Michelle, thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we can get one more caller in. This is William(ph), William with us from Mitchell in South Dakota.

WILLIAM (Caller): Yes, sir. I was just calling - I was a nuclear weapon specialist in the Air Force. I was kind of the auto mechanic of the nuclear weapon so to speak. We were responsible for any modifications that would have came down from the Department of Energy and we'd have make the required modifications on the number of weapons that were under, you know, our control.

CONAN: And how did that change you?

WILLIAM: That changed me - well, while I was in, you know, we're - I was in my early 20s; this was in the last 10 years - and we would have an immense amount of respect for them. And then as you kind of worked day to day, you know, apathy comes sometimes. You know, not all the time and not everyone, but, like I said, sometimes a little carelessness comes into play.

And, you know, it takes somebody to kind of slap you in the back of the head to remind you exactly what's going on. You do. You forget what you're working with and you forget the severity of the situation that you're in, you know, even just with handling things, you know.

And I'm - one example is - this didn't happen at the base that I was at. But we had heard about a huge investigation come down because they found a footprint on one of the gravity weapons that were there, which means that, you know, obviously, somebody stood on one. And this is, like I said, this is just what happens.

I think you see a lot, too, and you see people that work with the high-stress situations, they get almost playful about the situation just to kind of cope with maybe some of the stress and some of the anxiety of exactly what they're doing, you know, whether you're making really, you know, almost crude jokes or...

CONAN: William, I'm afraid we have to go. But thank you very much for that call. Ron Rosenbaum, we thank you very much for being our guest today. He joined us from our bureau in New York.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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