Opinion: The specter of nuclear Armageddon NPR's Scott Simon reflects on President Vladimir Putin's threats to use nuclear weapons in Russia's war against Ukraine.

Opinion: The specter of nuclear Armageddon

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Small notes in the news can sometimes shake you the most. This week, Newsweek ran one of those best places in the U.S. articles, but it wasn't about the best local barbecue, towns for retirement or trips to see fall foliage. It was best place to survive nuclear war. For the past generation, the threat of nuclear destruction has been overshadowed by fears of climate catastrophe, global disease outbreaks, terrorism and the shattering of democracy. But now it looms again.

As President Biden recently told Democratic donors, for the first time since the Cuban missile crisis, we have a direct threat to the use of nuclear weapons. President Vladimir Putin says he will use all systems available to defend the territorial integrity of our motherland - in other words, keep Russia's grip on the four eastern provinces of Ukraine he has annexed. Putin contends the two atomic bombs the United States dropped on Japan to end World War II have created a precedent. Were they a precedent or a warning? The horror over the deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki showed the world that any war deploying nuclear weapons would be more a suicide pact than a conflict. John F. Kennedy said even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth.

Several great Cold War novels and films, including "On The Beach," "Fail Safe" and "Dr. Strangelove" imagined a nuclear war might be triggered by some ghastly technical malfunction or personal madness. They did not imagine that a visibly rational person would push a button to launch a nuclear attack. What kind of human being would choose mutually assured destruction? Ukraine signed in 1994 a treaty that sent to Russia the old Soviet warheads that had been situated on Ukrainian soil so they would be less likely to be stolen or sold to criminals or terrorists. Russia, in turn, agreed to respect the independence, sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine. Russia's invasions of Ukraine have displaced millions, killed tens of thousands and set off food shortages around the world. Now Vladimir Putin may have also brought back a dread of destruction many thought was history.

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