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Where Hiroshima could happen again

Jill Dougherty

(CNN) – When I was 12 years old, during the Cold War, I read John Hersey’s novel “Hiroshima.” He describes in searing detail what happened that day — August 6, 1945 — when the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

For nights afterward, I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t get his images out of my mind: people going about their daily lives; the sudden fireball so hot it vaporized bodies, leaving just shadows on a wall; the silent, deadly radiation that sickened and killed tens of thousands more.

I had reason to be afraid. By the time I was in high school, the United States had more than 30,000 nuclear weapons in its stockpiles. The Soviet Union soon matched it with tens of thousands of its own. But the horror of nuclear weapons ultimately helped keep the peace. It sounds like a macabre joke, but the concept was dubbed “MAD” – “mutual assured destruction.” If one side fired its missiles, the other side would immediately retaliate, and the world would be destroyed.
Therefore, nukes should never be used. As President Ronald Reagan put it in 1986, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
When I try to explain the bizarre “MAD” world to young friends today, they’re incredulous, because they think the nuclear threat is over and done with, a relic that disappeared along with the Soviet Union. In reality, that threat is back, more dangerous than ever. The unthinkable — nuclear war with Russia — is becoming the thinkable.
Russian President Vladimir Putin boasts about Russia’s nuclear might, while a TV anchor in Moscow warns Russia could turn America into “radioactive dust.”
Last autumn, Russian state TV “accidentally” broadcast video of plans for a nuclear-armed drone submarine that could approach enemy shores, detonating an underwater nuclear device that would unleash a radioactive tsunami on the city it was targeting.
“Russia’s nuclear saber rattling is incredibly irresponsible, it is dangerous, it is destabilizing in terms of its strategic effect,” says Michael Carpenter, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of Defense.
Current and former Russian officials have openly raised the possibility that Moscow could employ “limited” use of nuclear weapons, but a former senior Russian military official in Moscow told me that’s a “complete distortion” of Russia’s nuclear policy. A few former officials have engaged in some loose talk, he admitted, but “this is absolutely not Russia’s real nuclear policy.”
But Washington is taking Russia’s nuclear talk very seriously. The United States is poised to spend $1 trillion over three decades on modernizing its nuclear arsenal and delivery systems, including bombers and submarines.
NATO, meanwhile, is deploying a missile-defense system in Romania and Poland. The Western defense alliance insists it’s not about Russia, but is aimed at countering a potential missile attack from Iran or any rogue states. Russia calls the system a direct threat to its security.
These escalations are perilous. “Once you’ve crossed the nuclear Rubicon, there’s no clear stopping point,” says Russia expert Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute in Washington. “There’s no clear point at which you say, ‘Now we go back to fighting it out with tanks and artillery.’ No, you cross that threshold and you basically destroy the world.”
So if it’s so dangerous, why all the loose talk about nukes?
One reason is to compensate for Russia’s comparative weakness in conventional, nonnuclear weapons. Nukes make Russia a power to be reckoned with.
Raising the specter of using nuclear weapons also scores points for President Putin at home.
Putin “relishes this idea of unpredictability,” says Damon Wilson, executive vice president of the Atlantic Council. “I think he If he can foster this sense that you can’t know for certain what he’s going to do then you have to question how rational he is. Maybe, just maybe, he could actually think about the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Then that will temper our actions, keep us off balance.”
Putin may be a risk taker, says former U.S. Ambassador John Herbst, but “he’s not not irrational and therefore, I don’t think this would actually lead to the deployment of nuclear weapons, but he likes to threaten us with them.”
For more than 40 years, Russia and the United States have negotiated a series of arms control agreements that significantly cut the number of nuclear weapons each side had aimed at the other. But the last agreement, New Start, still leaves each country with 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads, and now — with tensions rising over the West’s missile defense system and Russia’s incursion into Ukraine — there’s virtually no chance for any new agreement.
“This is a dangerous moment,” says Herbst, “which I don’t believe people in the West really understand.”
I grew up with nightmares that another Hiroshima would destroy me and my family and everyone I loved. Today’s young people grew up in a world where nukes were just a bad dream.
Now, it’s time for all of us to wake up to the renewed danger.
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