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Opinion: The specter of nuclear Armageddon

Russian missiles roll in Red Square in Moscow. President Vladimir Putin has warned that he wouldn't hesitate to use nuclear weapons to ward off Ukraine's attempt to reclaim control of its occupied regions.
AP
Russian missiles roll in Red Square in Moscow. President Vladimir Putin has warned that he wouldn't hesitate to use nuclear weapons to ward off Ukraine's attempt to reclaim control of its occupied regions.

Small notes in the news can sometimes shake you the most. This week, Newsweek ran one of those, "Best Places in the U.S...." articles, but it wasn't about the best local barbecue, towns for retirement, or trips to see fall foliage.

It was: "Best Place to Survive Nuclear War."

For the past generation, the threat of nuclear destruction has been overshadowed by fears of climate catastrophe, global disease outbreaks, terrorism, and the shattering of democracy.

But now it looms again. As President Biden recently told Democratic donors, "For the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, we have a direct threat to the use of nuclear weapons..."

President Vladimir Putin says he will use "all systems available" to defend "the territorial integrity of our Motherland" - in other words, keep Russia's grip on the four eastern provinces of Ukraine he has annexed. Putin contends the two atomic bombs the United States dropped on Japan to end World War II have "created a precedent."

But were they a precedent — or a warning? The horror over the deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki showed the world that any war deploying nuclear weapons would be more a suicide pact than a conflict. As John F. Kennedy said, "even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth."

Several great Cold War novels and films, including "On the Beach," "Fail-Safe," and "Dr. Strangelove," imagined a nuclear war might be triggered by some ghastly technical malfunction, or personal madness.

They did not imagine that a visibly rational person would push a button to launch a nuclear attack. What kind of human being would choose mutually assured destruction?

Ukraine signed a 1994 treaty that sent to Russia the old Soviet warheads that had been situated on Ukrainian soil, so they would be less likely to be stolen, or sold to criminals or terrorists. Russia, in turn, agreed to "respect the independence, sovereignty, and the existing borders of Ukraine."

Russia's invasions of Ukraine have displaced millions, killed tens of thousands, and set off food shortages around the world. And now Vladimir Putin may have also brought back a dread of destruction many thought was history.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.