A Letter to the Apocalypse

Wednesday, January 14, AD 2009

Via Ross Douthat, I ran into this Slate article about the Letter of Last Resort:

At this very moment, miles beneath the surface of the ocean, there is a British nuclear submarine carrying powerful ICBMs (nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles). In the control room of the sub, the Daily Mail reports, “there is a safe attached to a control room floor. Inside that, there is an inner safe. And inside that sits a letter. It is addressed to the submarine commander and it is from the Prime Minister. In that letter, Gordon Brown conveys the most awesome decision of his political career … and none of us is ever likely to know what he decided.”

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3 Responses to A Letter to the Apocalypse

  • The hysteria around the letter, of course, deals with whether MAD is morally licit or not. The question there has bothered me for some time. On the one hand, I’m a firm believer that MAD assures that nuclear weapons are never used, because no one wants an apocalypse from a nuclear holocaust. (Apocalypse due to the Second Coming and the end of time, maybe.) MAD, I’ve always felt, works as a great deterrent, a last ditch effort to forestall war. On the other hand, the sheer gravity of committing to the obliteration of an entire nation, or an entire continent, tells me that we’re walking on thin ice. MAD only works if there’s a guarantee that, if it comes to it, the nukes will be used. Thus implicitly we’re condoning the use of nukes. But if we cannot condone the use of nukes because of the indiscriminate destruction they cause, then MAD falls apart. So does that mean MAD itself cannot be condoned? I’m not so sure. The situation is so paradoxical that it is difficult to make heads or tails of it.

    What really compounds the problem of MAD is the escalation factor. The threat of annihilating an entire nation is not very palatable, but as long as it keeps the enemy quiescent, there’s seemingly no problem. But in terms of advantage, MAD still leaves a bitter taste, because it only guarantees mutual destruction. We can annihilate you if you choose to annihilate us. However, that still leaves us annihilated. So we try to develop defenses and weaponry that ensure that we can’t be annihilated, whereas we can still annihilate the enemy. They do the same. Worse, if we don’t keep developing, we’ll find ourselves in the exact opposite position. All this makes me wonder what happens if we ever develop a means of incinerating an entire nation so quickly (perhaps with weaponry traveling at a significant fraction of the speed of light) that they cannot react in time to retaliate. What happens then, or even if both sides attain such technology? Preemptive strike then becomes the only assurance of survival, but surely that cannot be morally licit. It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.

    If I were elected president and had to sit down and compose such a letter, I would not be able to pass the order to make a nuclear strike. My letter would read:

    If you are reading this, then the United States has been annihilated by a nuclear strike. Thus the cause is lost. There is no nation to defend. Do not retaliate; the whole world need not burn for that which cannot be recovered.

    Of course, one could argue that most the US would still persist in the aftermath of a nuclear strike, even if Washington D.C. and all our politicians were lost. That might change the dynamics of the situation. And of course, if anyone knew that I had told our submarine commanders not to strike, then we might be vulnerable to an attack. In a way, I’m grateful I’m not president. These questions are sufficient to drive one to madness.

    But yes, I’d certainly hope that our new president would be willing to interrupt the party to attend such a serious matter. Frankly, I think some people think that Obama’s presidency will be one endless celebration, an eight year jubilee.

  • “Of course, one could argue that most the US would still persist in the aftermath of a nuclear strike, even if Washington D.C. and all our politicians were lost.”

    It might even be a better place. 😉

  • It might even be a better place.

    Hey, I resent that!

    No, I actually don’t. Just give me a few minutes to evacuate.