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In Renewed Focus On Nuclear Deterrence, Nonproliferation Expert Recalls A Close Call


President-elect Trump's recent tweet about a possible new arms race has prompted a new look at nuclear deterrence. One incident from 1983 highlights just how close the world sometimes came to nuclear war. A Soviet satellite reported a missile launch from the United States, and USSR officials had just 23 minutes to decide whether to launch a retaliatory strike. Jeffrey Lewis is an expert in nonproliferation and geopolitics. He's host of the blog and podcast "Arms Control Wonk" and joins us now from California. Thanks so much for being with us.

JEFFREY LEWIS: It's a pleasure.

SIMON: Let's not leave people breathless. Was the world blown up?

LEWIS: Well, we got lucky. As it turns out, even though the Soviet warning systems were doing everything that they needed to result in a launch, the duty officer - a guy named Stanislav Petrov - he just had this feeling in his gut that it wasn't right. It was five missiles. It didn't seem like enough. So even though by all of the protocols he had been trained to follow, he should absolutely have reported that up the chain of command and, you know, we should be talking about the great nuclear war of 1983 if any of us survived. He didn't.

SIMON: Yeah. I have to ask - do we know that the United States has never come close to that kind of situation?

LEWIS: We know the United States has come close to that kind of situation. My favorite story, which - as Big Brzezinski tells - during the Carter administration, he was the crisis coordinator for this kind of thing, and he got a call in the middle of the night, right? This is the the the proverbial 3 a.m. phone call. And he had a couple of minutes to make the decision about whether to wake up the president. At the very last moment, he got a call back saying it was all a false alarm. Someone, eventually they would figure out, had left a training tape in the computers at NORAD.

SIMON: Oh, my word.

LEWIS: But, you know, he went through emotionally all of the steps getting ready to call the president and tell the president to pop open the football and order a retaliation. And I think the grimmest part of that story is he decides not to wake his wife up because he figures it would be better to let her die in her sleep.

SIMON: Oh, my gosh.

LEWIS: But as somebody who's spends a lot of time thinking about the history, I know all of the times things almost went wrong, and I often marvel at them, and I'm glad that we had Petrov sitting in that bunker that day. But I shudder at the thought of someone less cool-headed in that spot either then or again in the future.

SIMON: North Korea has a nuclear program of some kind. Debatable, obviously, how far along they are. What are your concerns about that?

LEWIS: The first thing I would say is that North Korea is a hard problem, and so I think it's easy to slip into kind of denial about how far along they are. I am of the opinion that North Korea is now in the process of deploying nuclear weapons for its missile forces. If that's not done now, I think that will be done in a year or so. And I have a very worrying thought because I look at the things the North Koreans write, I look at the things that North Korean defectors say, and I watch the missile exercises that the North Koreans do.

And my judgment is that the North Koreans intend to use nuclear weapons in very large numbers at the beginning of any conflict. They're not going to sit back as Saddam Hussein did and watch the United States build up a massive military presence in the region and then roll in. That's worrisome because what it means is the North Koreans are thinking about using nuclear weapons early. And so the United States and South Korea - if we want to prevent them from doing that, then we have to be the ones who initiate the attack. But both sides can't go first. The North Koreans plan to go first, and we plan to go first, and one of the two sides is wrong about that.

SIMON: I think a lot of people might hear this and say the object is for no side to go first.

LEWIS: Right. Well, that also would have been the object in August, 1914, when the world plunged into the first world war. If you have a situation where it's in everyone's interest to go first, then even if nobody really wants to start, nobody wants to go second. And that is, in some ways, the textbook definition of unstable.

SIMON: And yet it's too late to stop North Korea from getting those weapons.

LEWIS: I think it's too late to stop them. And so here we are trying to imagine what deterrence is going to look like. And, of course, the thing I worry about is, once the two sides are in a deep crisis, each side will be looking for a hint that the other is about to move so that it knows it must go. And that seems to be the kind of situation that's the opposite of the Petrov case, where instead of thinking that this attack is out of the blue and therefore saying, no, no, it's just a false alarm, what happens if you get a false alarm when you're expecting an attack, right? Then you don't disregard it, then you put everything into motion, and then you end up with a war that we would all have wanted to avoid.

SIMON: Jeffrey Lewis is adjunct professor at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, and he also hosts the "Arms Control Wonk" blog. Thanks so much for being with us.

LEWIS: It was my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.