The following op-ed appeared in slightly edited form in The Houston Post, Thursday, April 4, 1985, under the headline “Arms race can only lead to one end: If we don’t change our thinking, someone will drop the big one.”

It also appeared in The Times (San Mateo, California), Wednesday, March 20, 1985, under the headline “Nuclear war 100 percent certain, unless …”

I should emphasize that this article did not call for unilateral disarmament. As noted in my work on war and peace, while ending war is necessary for humanity's long term survival, in the short term we need a strong military to deal with very real threats in a world that has not accepted that truth.

I also should note that my references to wars in Iran and Iraq referred to the war between those two nations that lasted throughout most of the 1980's, with America supporting Iraq against what was seen as Iran's larger threat. Similarly, my reference to war in Afghanistan referred to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979-89), not the current American invasion of Afghanistan, post 9/11.

While the imminent danger of an all-out nuclear war that would destroy civilization has greatly diminished in the post-Soviet era, there are processes at work that make nuclear war much more dangerous than might first appear. Nuclear proliferation is creating more and more nuclear tinder that could set off a global fire, with India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea being the most obvious possible flash points. Secondly, America now tends to treat Russia as a has-been superpower which need not be consulted before we take action that might bring us into confrontation. This is very dangerous behavior toward a nation with thousands of nuclear weapons. During the 1990's I was very concerned that American military action in the former Yugoslavia might bring about a situation similar to the Cuban Missile Crisis, where both Russia and the US found themselves dragged, reluctantly but inexorably, toward full scale nuclear confrontation. And as I update this in 2008, the danger is increasing rapidly as explained on part of my current project's website.

So, while this op-ed at first may seem inapplicable in the post-Cold-War world, it has many elements of long-term truth that demand our attention. Given that a process of ending war will take decades, a long-term view is appropriate.

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On the Probability of Nuclear War

Martin E. Hellman

Hiram Maxim, the inventor of the machine gun, declared, "Only a general who was a barbarian would send his men to certain death against the concentrated power of my new gun." But send them they did. In World War One, the machine gun often mowed down tens of thousands of men in a single day.

Orville Wright saw a similar vision: "When my brother and I built and flew the first man-carrying flying machine, we thought we were introducing into the world an invention that would make further wars practically impossible." Far from ending war, however, the airplane increased the ability to maim and kill. In firebombing raids on London, Hamburg and Tokyo the airplane wrought previously unimaginable levels of destruction. In a single night, March 9, 1945, 25 percent of Tokyo was destroyed, 80,000 people were killed, and over 1 million left homeless.

History shows the folly in hoping that each new, more destructive weapon will not be used. And yet we dare to hope that this time it will be different. We and the Soviets have amassed a combined arsenal of 50,000 nuclear weapons, equivalent in destructive force to some 6,000 World War II’s, capable of reaching their targets in a matter of minutes, and able to destroy every major city in the world. All in the belief that they will never be used.

But unless we make a radical shift in our thinking about war, this time will be no different. On our current path, nuclear war is inevitable.

The inevitability concept can best be understood by analogy to finance. It does not make sense to talk of an interest rate as being high or low, for example 50 percent or 1 percent, without comparing it to specific period of time. An interest rate of 50 percent per year is high. An interest rate of 50 percent per century is low. And the low interest rate of 1 percent per year builds up to a much larger interest rate, say 100 percent, when compounded over a sufficiently long time.

In the same way, it does not make sense to talk about the probability of nuclear war being high or low -- for example 10 percent versus 1 percent -- without comparing it to a specific period of time -- for example, 10 percent per decade or 1 percent per year.
Having gotten the units right, we might argue whether the probability of nuclear war per year was high or low. But it would make no real difference. If the probability is 10 percent per year, then we expect the holocaust to come in about 10 years. If it is 1 percent per year, then we expect it in about 100 years.

The lower probability per year changes the time frame until we expect civilization to be destroyed, but it does not change the inevitability of the ruin. In either scenario, nuclear war is 100 percent certain to occur.

This pair of examples brings out a critically important point. Our only survival strategy is to continuously reduce the probability, driving it ever closer to zero. In contrast, our current policies are like repeatedly playing Russian roulette with more and more bullets in the chambers.

We have pulled the trigger in this macabre game more often than is imagined. Each action on our current path has some chance of triggering the final global war. And if we keep pulling the trigger, the gun will inevitably go off. Each "small" war -- in Iran, or Iraq, or Vietnam, or Afghanistan -- is pulling the trigger; each threat of the use of violence -- as in the Cuban missile crisis -- is pulling the trigger; each day that goes by in which a missile or computer can fail is pulling the trigger.

The only way to survive Russian roulette is to stop playing. The only way to survive nuclear roulette is to move beyond war in the same sense that the civilized world has moved beyond human sacrifice and slavery.

When it was merely moral and desirable, it might have been impossible to beat swords into plowshares. Today, it is necessary for survival.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur said in his 1961 address to the Philippines Congress: "You will say at once that, although the abolition of war has been the dream of man for centuries, every proposition to that end has been promptly discarded as impossible and fantastic. But that was before the science of the past decade made mass destruction a reality. The argument then was along spiritual and moral lines, and lost. But now the tremendous evolution of nuclear and other potentials of destruction has suddenly taken the problem away from its primary consideration as a moral and spiritual question and brought it abreast of scientific realism."

There is potential for this to be the best of times or the end of time, depending on which direction we take at this critical juncture in human evolution. Technology has given a new, global meaning to the Biblical injunction: "I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live."

To avoid extinction, we must take action to shift from an old mode of thinking which justifies war as necessary for survival to a new mode of thinking which recognizes war as the ultimate threat to survival.