Thank you so much for meeting with us, your house is beautiful. To begin, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
Well my name is Martin Hellman. I’m a professor here at Stanford, actually Professor Emeritus in electrical engineering. My early life academically speaking was concerned with communications, in particular with cryptography, and the techniques we developed are today used to protect the secure parts of the internet, electronic banking, foreign exchange, things like that. But about thirty — a little over thirty — years ago my interests shifted to the bigger issues of the world, making sure that there was still a world to do electronic funds transfers in, for example.
I became involved with issues of war and peace, nuclear weapons (which are totally intertwined), and how fallible human beings are going to survive not just with nuclear weapons, but that’s the one I focus on, but really all kinds of technology which have given us formerly god- like physical power and our maturity level is far from god-like.
Can you tell us a little bit about your work as a cryptologist and what it involves?
So cryptology — cryptography — is the study of codes and ciphers for protecting information to provide two things...
So cryptography or cryptology is the study of codes and ciphers for protecting information both to provide privacy so if you and I want to exchange information and we don’t want the rest of the crew hearing what we’re saying, that’s privacy. The other is authentication where I want to send you a message and you know it came from me and you’ll act on it and know that it wasn’t injected by some third party into the system.
How did you get specifically interested in nuclear issues and nuclear risk?
That’s easy: my wife. Let’s see. The techniques that I focus on for countries getting along better and avoiding needless wars are the same techniques I had to learn for avoiding needless fights with my wife and needless wars, which, in the case of marriage end in divorce.
And so there was a group founded by a Stanford professor (at that point retired) — Harry Rathbun and his wife Emilia — that my wife got us involved with. She kind of dragged me along
for the first six months or so and eventually I saw some real value and really threw myself into it and so my wife is the answer to that one.
Can you explain the concept of probabilistic risk analysis?
Sure. Probabilistic risk analysis or quantitative risk analysis - they’re synonyms. PRA is used more in nuclear engineering, QRA — quantitative risk analysis — in other places. I came across this because I realized that the fundamental question in a way was, how risky is nuclear deterrence? How risky is it to bet our homeland and really the whole world on a strategy that, if we find out it doesn’t work, it will be too late? And so how do you estimate the probability of a catastrophe that’s not yet occurred?
As I looked around, quantitative risk analysis — probabilistic risk analysis — I stumbled on it. It’s a well established engineering discipline. Would you like a brief explanation?
A good example... one of the many arguments in favor of nuclear deterrence is ‘it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. It’s worked for seventy years or sixty years, however you want to measure it. So don’t mess with success. But the same could have been said about the Concorde Supersonic Transport prior to July 2000 when it crashed, killing everybody on board. There had been absolutely no crashes, no fatalities with the Concorde prior to that. It was empirically (that is, on the surface) the safest airliner to fly until after the fatal crash when it was almost a hundred times more dangerous to fly than any other airliner.
The reason you jump from from infinitely better to a hundred times worse — well, I think it was about eighty times — worse than the rest of the fleet is that there were so few Concordes. And it’s the same problem we have with nuclear deterrence. But here we can’t wait for the evidence. So what QRA does is it breaks a catastrophic failure (jumping from here all the way out to there) down into a sequence of smaller mistakes called an accident chain. In the case of the Concorde, the accident chain involved a piece of debris on the runway from a previous flight. A tire from the Concorde hit that debris and exploded, it ruptured a fuel tank, the leaking fuel caught on fire, leading to loss of power, a loss of control and then the crash.
Now, prior to the fatal crash, there were zero fatalities with the Concorde, but it was known that it had a problem with tire failures. It wasn’t just double, it wasn’t just triple, it wasn’t just ten times that of the rest of the jet liner fleet. It was sixty times higher - six thousand percent above normal. And in more than ten percent of those tire failures, fuel leaks resulted. But no fires and no crashes.
So if you look at that accident chain, you can see that we had empirical data about excursions into the accident chain. We’d gone two steps out in a three or four step chain way more often than in a normal jetliner fleet. And so, while no one’s done a complete QRA of the Concorde post mortem, I strongly suspect that when we’re done, we would predict that the Concorde was too risky to fly compared to normal airliners.
Instead of regarding those sixty-nine years since the end of World War II as absolute successes, I liken it to tossing... well, let’s see... I look at how often and how far we’ve gone into different accident chains that could take us to use of nuclear weapons. The Cuban Missile Crisis
got us very close, much closer than we realized at the time because three Soviet submarines that were forced to surface by American destroyers that attacked them were later found out to have nuclear torpedoes on board and in one case, the captain is said by the crew to have given orders to arm it and was talked down by other people on board. One of the major strategies that was under consideration even after the crisis was resolved by the military was an invasion of Cuba to get rid of the communist ‘cancer’ in the western hemisphere once and for all. What we didn’t know is that the Soviets had battlefield nuclear weapons on Cuba to repel an American invasion.
Then we have other things like the Ukraine crisis right now. Almost no one’s talking about the nuclear dimension of that and yet, here we are acting as if we can force Russia to do whatever we want, forgetting that it has about ten thousand nuclear weapons. I mean, that’s their ace in the hole. And so, we’ve made a lot of excursions down that accident tree. I just gave you two of them, but there are many, many more.
Looking at how countries like Russia have so many nuclear weapons, do you think that nonproliferation is even something that is do-able in the next century or so?
We need to get some definitions here. You asked about nonproliferation and most of what I work on is not nonproliferation. I work on reducing the risk of a nuclear disaster and the only way we can have a nuclear disaster is through nuclear proliferation. But most people when they think of nuclear proliferation think of Iran or North Korea. They don’t think about Russia and America, that’s not proliferating — we’re actually reducing our weapons. Slowly right now, but we’re reducing them. So it’s not nonproliferation. It’s really dealing with nuclear risk, and you can look at it many different ways. So which question are we trying to get at really?
Sure. Nuclear risk. Um, do you think with relations so tense with Russia we’ll be able to reduce the nuclear risk?
I’m an optimist. If I weren’t an optimist... Let’s see, Harry Rathbun whom I mentioned before, who founded the group that my wife and I got involved with that took me to this, used to talk about the Noel Hypothesis. And in this case, I’ll apply it here. He said there are two hypotheses; Human beings are capable of change, we’re capable of better relations with Russia, we’re capable of growing up, they’re capable of growing up - because neither of us is acting responsibly right now. Or we’re not.
If you assume we’re not capable and we are, then you’ve passed up the chance to save humanity when it was there. If you act as if we are capable and we’re really not, all that happens is you go down fighting. And so I’d rather go down - I mean, it’s so simple. It pays to be optimistic. Plus, I look at history and I can see other major social changes where people said ‘it will never happen’. The fact that you can vote even though you’re a woman - that was heresy even a hundred years ago in most states. And the fact that you get the right to vote through a constitutional amendment... even most suffragettes thought that was crazy. It was going to go state at a time.
Or slavery you’d have to go back a bit further. Or Gorbachev coming to power. So what I’ve said for the roughly thirty years I’ve worked on this issue is, if I had a crystal ball and could tell you how we make it through (how we solve these problems) I wouldn’t dare tell you because it would sound so crazy you’d probably lock me in the looney bin. Just as if I had a crystal ball in 1985 when Gorbachev came to power and I said ‘He’s going to really change things’, people said, ‘You’re crazy.’ And in fact, even as he started to change things, most Americans thought he was just faking... up until December ’87.
So why today in 2014 do you think it’s important for the public to understand nuclear risk?
Well it’s essential for the public to understand nuclear risk - we’re acting as if — we, meaning the society as a whole — the risk posed by nuclear weapons is a problem from the Cold War and it’s gone away. And yet, there are roughly 20,000 nuclear weapons in the world today, most of them held by the United States and Russia. We’re poking at Russia. Russia’s poking at us. We’re both acting irresponsibly and it’s just a matter of time if we keep acting that way before we have another crisis comparable to Cuba — it could well happen with Ukraine, and when that happens hopefully it’ll end the way that one did, where we’ll come to our senses before it goes over the brink, but it might not. So, it’s a matter of life and death.
To put some numbers on it... Even if we could expect nuclear deterrence to work for five hundred years before it failed and we destroyed civilization (which most people see as optimistic), that is equivalent to playing Russian Roulette with the life of a child born today. That’s because that child has an expected lifetime of 80-83 years: that is about one sixth of five hundred years. And so, if we expect it to work for five hundred years, there is a one sixth chance that it will happen (once chance in six, just like Russian Roulette) over the expected lifetime of that child. So the risk is just much greater than people realize.
The other thing is it’s not just that we have to deal with the negative, because most people when they think of solving the problem, they think ‘Well, let’s get rid of the weapons’. But you can’t just get rid of the weapons. You have to make the world a much safer, less war-like, more peaceful place before anything remotely resembling that can happen. And that’s something we’d like to do anyway.
So how do you think we could go about lessening the risk? Do you think it could happen through diplomacy? Or lawsuits?
How can we lessen the risk? Well there are lots of ways we could lessen the risk if we were intelligent and so the real question is how do we become smart enough to do that? As I’ve studied this, I’ve concluded that one of the biggest problems is a lack of critical thinking. We go with our gut feeling. Like right now if you read the American newspapers — even the New York Times which is one of the better ones — last Friday they had an editorial in which they basically said there’s one man who can end the carnage in Ukraine: Vladimir Putin.
Let’s examine that. That’s what most Americans believe and sure he could end it if he’d come around totally to our perspective and totally give in which means allowing a government in Ukraine that includes some (not entirely as the Russians say) Neo-Nazi elements... some very anti-Russian elements... some elements that the ethnic Russians in the east have good reason to fear.
But he’s not going to do that. And so if we would realize that we could help end the carnage — it’s not that there’s one person who could end it, there are two groups that could put a lot of pressure their end and make things a lot better: Russia and the United States together. If we’d start to work cooperatively and get past the blinders that we put on where we see everything through a prism where it’s all Russia’s fault. We need to move from blame to responsibility.
About twenty-five years ago, my wife and I had had a big fight. I was cooling down and we’d started this process that helped us get to the point where we’d literally not had a argument in about fifteen years. Now we’ve been married forty seven years so that meant there was a lot of years before that. But, I remember thinking which would I rather was true: my current perception was correct — that it was all this crazy’s woman’s fault, you know, I’d done nothing to start the fight, just as we see it’s all Putin’s fault. In which case I was powerless and I was going to be in a lot of pain for a long time until she came to her senses.
Or, would I rather that I was missing something and I’d played a part in starting it, in which case I had power to get myself out of pain by going and apologizing for that. With that motivation I was able to see my part in it. I went and apologized and the whole thing evaporated. And, you know, she admitted her part in it too. It’s worked both ways.
But in the same way, if we really want power with Russia, the way to do it is to see where we’re making mistakes because we have no direct control — very little control at all — over what Putin does. And in fact, when we tell him to do A, it almost encourages him to do not A. But we have complete control over ourselves if we will apply critical thinking, if we will assess, if we’ll look in the dark recesses of our soul as a nation and see the mistakes we’ve made.
Going back a little specifically to your work - you sort of touched on this before - can you explain the one in six statistic and how you came about getting that number?
Well, Russian Roulette’s a nice analogy for people, so that’s why I picked five hundred years. It’s six times the roughly eighty year life expectancy of a child born today, that would four- hundred eighty years if it’s exactly eighty. But there are other ways to look at it. In engineering we often use what are called order of magnitude estimates when we’re trying to get a very rough estimate of things. Like, when I was in the Canadian Rockies thirty years ago with my family, I looked at one of those gorgeous mountains and I said, I wonder how much it weighs? How many truckloads of dirt it would take — could a human being ever make something like that? And to an order of magnitude I was able to do it. That means, I didn’t worry whether it was two hundred million truckloads or a hundred million truckloads, you would round all of that to a hundred million. You'd only use powers of ten.
And so, we can do that right here. I’ve asked well over a hundred people over the years, to an order of magnitude how many years do you think we can go with nuclear deterrence on our
current path without destroying ourselves? One year seems to short. I mean, we’ve been around for fifty, sixty, maybe even seventy years of nuclear deterrence depending how you measure when it started. I would say fifty years ‘cause you need enough weapons to call it deterrence. One year’s too short. Ten years is too short, almost everybody agrees on that. I skip over a hundred and I go to a thousand years — at least ninety-five percent of the people I ask say oh, a thousand years is wildly optimistic. That’s twenty repetitions of the nuclear deterrence era, twenty crises comparable to Cuba 1962, twenty Ukrainian crises, twenty Georgian Wars, and a whole bunch of other things most people don’t know about. So if ten is too short and a thousand is too long, then the only time horizon that’s left (to an order of magnitude) is a hundred years. That’s the only power of ten in between, that’s one percent per year risk. That’s ten percent per decade. That’s worse than fifty-fifty odds over that eighty year, eighty plus year life expectancy of a child born today.
So this is all subjective. It’s based on knowledge of what’s happened, but as I said, in quantitative risk analysis we could get a more accurate estimate (a less subjective estimate) if we could get enough people involved, enough money to do a really in-depth study, which has not been done. I did a very preliminary analysis six years ago.
Do you hope to go forward with the topic?
I’m a member of the National Academy of Engineering. In this country we have a National Academy of Science, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine, which are all the national academies. And I’ve spoken to past presidents and the current president about it — and they were supportive of the idea, but they both told me we need Congress to authorize it and fund it. A, for money, and B, for cover your rear end — why are you doing this? ‘Well if Congress asks us, then we do it’.
I have spoken to several congressman, even a couple of senators, I’ve spoken to a number of staff. There’s been some interest but in this current congress it isn’t going to happen, and I’ve been trying to do this for six years and it hasn’t happened. So, I’m still hopeful but I don’t see it on the horizon right now.
Um, what do you think is the most pressing like threat or issue related to nuclear risk or nuclear weapons?
Complacency. I’m a glider pilot and pilots agree that our worst enemy is complacency. And clearly the world is complacent about nuclear weapons, and why the heck is that? Complacency and a lack of critical thinking. Even President Obama recently said about the Ukrainian Crisis, that he’s not worried about Russia, he’s much more worried about terrorists planting a nuclear weapon in New York.
Well, he hasn’t thought that thing through very carefully. Because much as I love New York — and you like it even more since you’re in school there,and I grew up there... If we lose one city, that’s one city — which is the most that you’d lose due to a nuclear terrorist event. If you have a nuclear war, we’re going to lose hundreds of cities, maybe civilization. So, at a minimum, the
consequences just on a purely quantitative basis (which I don’t think fully encompasses what would happen ) but even on that very simplistic basis, nuclear war is at least a hundred times worse, maybe even a thousand times and maybe even greater, than a nuclear terrorist incident. Is it that much less likely? I don’t think so.
How do you think you overcome the complacency that people seem to have regarding this issue and sort of inspire critical thinking?
Well we can overcome complacency in small groups. I gave a talk last night to about fifty people at a retirement residence. It wasn’t just about nuclear, it was about avoiding needless wars which is totally connected to it, and they were very interested. Now, whether they’ll do anything is another question. So I think presenting the information... but I don’t know what it’s going to take.
In the eighties there was a huge outpouring of concern. That’s when I first got involved. And again if I had a crystal ball and told you how it’s going to happen it might still sound crazy, but I can see one possibility. If the Ukrainian Crisis blows up in our faces and — not literally — but blows up like the Cuban Crisis and people throughout the country and many parts of the world are walking around for a week or two or three as we did during the Cuban Missile Crisis, wondering whether they were suddenly going to see a flash and their lives would be over... that might wake us up.
Now, I’m not hoping for that but if it happens, I hope it will end without the use of a weapon and that it will wake us up. But there are things like that that could happen. There are other things that could happen as well, right? I just don’t know... there are just too many variables.
As a former professor and living in such a cool area filled with so many people, do you think the young people will be able to step up and tackle this issue of nuclear risk?
Well, I think the younger generation is capable of it. The question is whether they will become aware of it. And so, I appreciate you doing what you’re doing with this documentary to try to help make that happen.
What is your opinion on the lawsuit filed by the Marshall Islands against the United States and in the ICJ?
Well I heard about it even before it was public information. The person who was involved in it... the contact... I said, ‘well it’s a wild idea. Probably won’t work’. On the other hand, nothing we’ve done has worked. I’ve poured myself for about six years into trying to get Congress to authorize this National Academy study and it hasn’t happened. What I’ve seen in my professional life is you have to swing at a lot of wild pitches to hit what I call a fool home run. People say, ‘you’re crazy to do that’. And most of the time they’re right.
Every once and a while you connect. When I started working in cryptography all my colleagues told me I was crazy to do it and they had good reasons. Once I got the results that won me all kinds of honors they could see it was a wise thing. And actually, one of them Jim Mora, a good friend who was a professor at UCLA at the time, if he were here sitting now he would say ‘Yeah, I remember telling Marty that’. And I felt the same way about other things and so when I first heard about the lawsuit, I thought it was a wild idea but I think that may be a positive aspect to it.
Certainly, the Marshall Islands suffered terribly. If you’ve seen any of the video of the American Navy evacuating the natives and what a propaganda piece that is — it’s just shocking. And when the fallout hit them and what happened as a result of that... the fact that our nation could do that and look the other way is a shameful era. And we need to atone for that. I mean, we need to make amends and one step would be to admit that we’ve made mistakes. And the Marshall Islands here are not going back to that. They’re just saying, hey, you signed this treaty that said you would negotiate in good faith, work in good faith toward eliminating your nuclear weapons. It’s been decades and it hasn’t happened. So I think it’s great. It’s a wild idea, it’s a great idea, and I hope it works.
Alongside the United States, the Marshall Islands are also suing the Department of Energy, Los Alamos Labs, Lawrence Livermore for continuing to work on nuclear technologies. As a former scientist, do you think that Lawrence Livermore is obligated to stop their research? Are they bound by the NPT?
We’re getting into legal issues here. I have friends who work at Livermore. I think I won’t touch that one.
Alright, sure. Do you think the lawsuit could be successful or is it more of a symbolic gesture?
I think the chance of the lawsuit being successful is small — successful in the sense of getting a judgement. One thing I hope it will do (and I think it has a much better chance of doing) is raising awareness to these issues. And that’s the key thing. Raising awareness, that’s the first step in removing complacency.
What sort of algorithm do you use to calculate the accident chain? Just out of curiosity.
You actually don’t use an algorithm to calculate the accident chain. You have to — my wife jokes that I’m actually doing a second PhD in history or in political science — I go back and look at the discrete accident chains that could have lead to catastrophe like the Cuban Missile Crisis and see, could they be replicated today?
Then I follow current events like Ukraine very carefully uh, and the Senkaku Islands with Japan. Senkaku, Diaoyu: Japanese, Chinese names for the same islands. We have Japanese pilots
and Chinese pilots playing aerial chicken and naval chicken around those islands. And so the ability to start a firefight is in the hands of individual pilots, individual ships’ captains. And they can’t start a nuclear war but when you look at that accident chain, once a Japanese plane has been shot down or shoots down a Chinese plane, where does it go from there? You’re in a much more dangerous situation. So it’s really looking at the history and what’s going on now and using common sense to see how they could escalate.
Is that more of like a qualitative analysis then, or do you try to assign quantitative probability to things?
Certainly it’s helpful at a qualitative level even without doing a quantitate risk analysis. But if we ever get around to and if we ever get the funding to do an in-depth quantitative risk analysis, having those accident chains will then help us put numbers on it because we can start to do things like see how often have we gone — how far in each of these accident chains and how long did we stay there? Because one of the other things that happens is if there are different accident chains and if at the same time that there’s a crisis going on like Ukraine (you can see that accident chain) there is a false alarm in a early warning system of a missile launch, which... it’s more likely to be misinterpreted. So I don’t know fully how we would do a quantitative risk analysis. I mean, if I knew, we’d have done it. There’s a lot of work that goes into formulating the risk model.
Can you explain the concept of a pocket of nuclear awareness?
Yes, a pocket of nuclear awareness — it hasn’t worked yet. But to have idea go from being seen as crazy, wild, ‘Who would be interested in that?’, never gonna make it, to having it become commonly accepted like women being able to vote (anybody who proposed repealing the amendment that lets women vote laughed out of the room even faster than the people who first proposed the amendment would have been a hundred years ago)... So, how do we go from an idea being seen as crazy in society as a whole to having it be fully accepted?
And there’s something called an S-curve that business uses repeatedly. They find that when there’s a new product, a new idea, something that people aren’t accustomed to, that it follows a predictable pattern of, in the early phases, the societal leaders cannot adopt it because they would cease to be societal leaders. I think they’re called innovators — the ones who adopt it. They’re they first few percent and then there’s another few percent that come on — the early adopters. And then there’s some that are termed laggers that come on at the very end.
But something critical happens around five-ten percent when you reach the knee of that S- curve. Let’s for the sake of argument say it’s ten percent (it depends on a lot of different factors). Getting ten percent of Americans - over thirty million people - to take this issue seriously, it would be an impossible task from where we are right now, which is why, I think, most people just shy away from it.
But I picked a dorm at Stanford with four hundred students. Ten percent of that is forty students and I focused my energy on that dorm for about two years, trying to create what I call a pocket
of nuclear awareness. If you want later I’ll get a poster I came up with that I tried to get students to put up on their doors. I created tee-shirts they could wear because it’s to create the awareness. Most people don’t pay attention the first time they hear about something: it’s a blip on their radar screen that dies out. But if they get one blip and then a few days later another blip, and then a few days later another blip — that’s when a lot of people start to pay attention because very few people want to be the first on their block to consider the new idea, but almost no one wants to be the last.
Now that didn’t work. I put a lot of energy in there. I don’t know exactly. Maybe I need a community organizer like the young Barack Obama which I am not. Maybe there’s just too much complacency in society as a whole so that it infects even the, the dorm. But that was the idea behind a pocket of nuclear awareness.
Another version of that would be to focus on some small countries like Iceland with roughly one one-thousandth the population of the United States. It’s a thousand times easier on a numbers game alone to get to the ten percent level in Iceland, and it may be even easier because they’re not invested in the myth of the power of nuclear weapons and certain other things like that.So that’s the idea behind a pocket of nuclear awareness. I still think it might work but to date, I haven’t been able to make it work.
In addition to complacency in society, it seems like a lot of nuclear weapons states are very resistant to pursue disarmament. I wonder if you could just comment on the sort of governmental resistance to disarmament?
Well it’s not just government or societal resistance. There are a number of myths surrounding nuclear weapons. The first is that they’re useful. Most people think that they protect us. And yet, in the Nuclear Tipping Point, which is a video documentary done with George Shultz, Bill Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn (two republicans, two democrats). Colin Powell does the introduction and he concludes his introduction by saying that after all his years of exposure to nuclear weapons, starting with being a second lieutenant in Germany with an atomic cannon of all things, he said the one things he’s concluded is that they are useless. That’s his exact word. Useless. They cannot be used.
And so there’s this myth that they are useful. And so we need to look at that. That there’s an assumption that they’re useful. It’s also an assumption that they’re not useful. Although it’s one that Colin Powell reached after many years of exposure. That needs to be looked at and really debated and worked out. We need to apply critical thinking. Maybe they are useful and I’m wrong. And along with Colin Powell. But right now they seem useless to me.
Is there any way that you can think of that we can start on a pathway toward this critical thinking? Because it seems like there’s not any movement in that direction.
One thing I started on — and there’s so many, I wish I could clone myself ten times over because I can’t work on all these things — for a while I was talking to people here at Stanford
about why there’s a lot of emphasis at Stanford on critical thinking (it’s applied to Shakespeare and things like that), but why isn’t it applied to critical consumption of our media?
For example, fifty years ago almost to the date - August 2nd, 1964 - so just a few days from this interview, an American destroyer came under unprovoked attack in the Gulf of Tonkin. This was the USS Maddox. At least, that’s what we were told. Two days later the North Vietnamese (this rogue nation), after they’d been warned ‘don’t you dare do that again’, they attacked — we’d sent a second destroyer, the Turner Joy, to be there with the Maddox in exactly the same place and they attacked the two of them.
And this basically started the Vietnam War. I just happen to have here in my pocket a sixty- second clip where you’re going to hear the truth. So, Lyndon Johnson portrayed this as unprovoked aggression on the high seas that America had to answer. We cannot sit still. You’re going to hear him on the phone the day after the first incident, August 3, 1964, talking to a friend, a former treasury secretary (he was recording all his conversations), and you’re going to hear him say, ‘Well yeah, we were carrying on covert operations in North Vietnam, blowing up roads and bridges, things like that. And I suppose they wanted to stop it so they came out and fired on us so we sunk ‘em. And then we sent that destroyer and another one and sent back in exactly the same place. Okay... *plays clip.
So it wasn’t unprovoked aggression. And the second incident is even more startling: it never happened. Those words ‘it never happened’ are in a formerly top secret NSA history of the Gulf of Tonkin from an intelligence point of view. We thought it’d happened, but it fit with what Johnson needed. He was running against Barry Goldwater in November, 1964 for president and he had to appear strong because Goldwater was this very aggressive guy, and yet he also wanted to appear prudent and diplomatic. So unprovoked aggression that was answered with limited reprisal. I mean, we knocked the heck out of the North Vietnamese, but it was limited compared to what he could have done. It gave him what he needed.
And so, this is all answering the question, what could we do? I’ve tried to get the communications department at Stanford interested in creating a course on bias in the media. Oh, ‘cause what happened is, the media covered it as if all this was gospel. I mean, everything they were told by the Pentagon, they repeated. The second, nonexistent attack that was written up as a great air-sea battle and how our planes were swooping down and we sank one PT boat and another exploded — and none of it ever happened. And yet we ate it up, myself included. I was eighteen at the time and I believed it.
The same thing happened with the Iraq War. We were told Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction which it turned out he didn’t. We were told he had a connection to September 11th, which he didn’t. Ironically, there was almost no Al-Qaeda linked groups in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq whereas today ISIS has taken over roughly half the country. We need to learn from our mistakes. We need to start waking up, and Ukraine is where we could do that right now and stop buying the distortions, the one-sided views that the media feeds us where it’s all Russia’s fault. Common sense should tell us and history should tell us that whenever you hear it’s all one side’s fault, then you’re not getting the full story.
I have one more question, do you nuclear risk today is different or more or less than the nuclear risk during the Cold War?
The nuclear risk today is somewhat different than during the Cold War. Paul Bracken at Yale has a book, The Second Nuclear Age, that just came out. I don’t agree with everything he says but he does make a good point that uh, it’s different because it’s multi-polar, you have more players, but he also points out that the first nuclear age (the Cold War) was not as bipolar as we thought. But some things are the same. Russia and America have over ninety percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, so we are the two biggest problems. We’re the two biggest risks. And as long as we continue to demonize Russia and ignore our own mistakes, that we blame them for the whole thing, we’re setting up — and as long as they do it to us, which they do — then we’re setting ourselves up for a situation very similar to Cuba 1962. We viewed it as all Russia’s fault. In fact, what do we call it? We call it the Cuban Missile Crisis. What created the crisis was the Russians putting missiles in Cuba. They call it the Caribbean Crisis because it had to do with Cuba, like the Bay of Pigs in 1961, our attempting to overthrow Castro’s government.
And very interestingly, on the first day of the Cuban Missile Crisis when (we didn’t know about it, but Kennedy did... the first day he’s aware of it) he and his advisers are trying to figure out why Khrushchev would do something so reckless as to put nuclear-armed missiles ninety miles off our shore. And Kennedy, obviously forgetting that we had just done a similar thing putting similar missiles in Turkey in the spring, says ‘it’s almost as if’ — this is almost an exact quote — ‘it’s almost as if we put a bunch of MRBMs [medium range ballistic missiles] in Turkey. Now that’d be god-damn dangerous’. Exact words. Hist national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, is forced to tell him, ‘But sir, we did do that’. To which he replies (instead of oh, now I see what’s going on. That it's tit for tat, we did something just as reckless) ‘That was different’. And he gives a BS reason for why it’s different.
And so in some ways it’s the same. There are differences, but it’s the same.
I have one more question. Do you think that complete disarmament is possible? And additionally, do you think such a measure like going to no nuclear weapons is necessary to achieve a manageable level of nuclear risk or can we achieve a level that is manageable or acceptable while still having nuclear weapons?
Complete nuclear disarmament is both impossible and possible. It’s impossible right now. Just as quantitative risk analysis breaks down the negative possibility into a sequence of smaller steps that makes it more understandable. Like people could see how a Japanese pilot could shoot down a Chinese pilot over the Senkaku Diaoyu Islands and how that could lead... The same way — but most people think in terms of a discontinuous jump which is not possible. It’s impossible for World War III to happen out of the blue, but it’s possible as a sequence of mistakes.
In the same way, most people think of complete nuclear disarmament as impossible, and they’re right. We can’t just jump there from where we are today. But it is possible to make a change, a small step like starting to look at the Ukrainian Crisis through less rose-colored glasses, seeing it more nuanced, more complex than good guy-bad guy.
And if we do that, and if we make other steps, then what was previously impossible becomes possible. And I believe, if we do that, it’s not that we’ll get rid of the weapons all at once, it’s not that war will disappear all at once, but we’ll stop getting into needless wars. As we stop getting into needless wars, the desire for nuclear weapons will reduce and, in fact, we’ll say, ‘why are we spending these billions of dollars?’, and I suspect that you’d see the arsenals continue to come down until it reaches a point where we might well say, ‘why do we even have these vestigial weapons? What’s the point? Who are they protecting us from?’
Which, by the way, is a good question to ask today. Who are they really protecting us from? Who’s going to invade us? The only thing we really have to worry about is Russia attacking us with all their nuclear missiles. And why do they have them? Because we threaten them and because we’re pushing them — from their perspective, we’re pushing them around in the world. If we stop that then amazing things become possible.
Just as a follow up: do you think that complete disarmament is necessary to achieve an acceptable level of nuclear risk or do you think that we can achieve an acceptable level of nuclear risk while there are nuclear weapons in the world?
Well, I purposely say that my goal is to reduce the level of nuclear risk to an acceptable level rather than get rid of the weapons because you turn people off when you say zero. In fact, there’s a really interesting messaging study done seven or eight years ago (so it’s getting a little old but I think it’s still valid). It’s called ‘Talking about Nuclear Weapons with the Persuadable Middle’ and they found there that zero was not a good way to talk to people because it scared people. And so, I personally believe that to get it to an acceptable level we’ll eventually get to such small numbers that we’ll say, ‘why do we even have any of them?’ and they’ll go away. But I could be wrong.
Do you think that the Marshall Islands lawsuit is a good step toward achieving disarmament?
The Marshall Islands lawsuit has the potential to bring this issue into public consciousness which is a first step toward solving the problem. You can’t solve the problem that you’re ignoring, and if the Marshall Islands lawsuit helps bring this issue into public consciousness it’ll have made a major, major contribution, whether or not the courts side with it.
Do you think the lawsuit is worth pursuing?
Yeah. Some really good minds have put a lot of energy into it. I’ve heard two different legal opinions. I’ve talked to the people behind the lawsuit and they think they have a good chance. I’ve talked to some other people who say they haven’t a snowball’s chance in hell. But what chance was there prior to Gorbachev coming to power that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union would basically preside over the demise of the Soviet Union and communism.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about any of the topics that we’ve discussed?
No, I think we’ve covered it quite well. You’ve done a really good job. You’ve done your homework. Thank you.
Great, thank you.