“I want to say, and this is very important: at the end we lucked out. It was luck that prevented nuclear war. We came that close to nuclear war at the end. Rational individuals: Kennedy was rational; Khrushchev was rational; Castro was rational. Rational individuals came that close to total destruction of their societies. And that danger exists today.” (- Robert McNamara)
A flashpoint for this syndrome could be Tawain. As Taiwan pushes for formal independence from mainland China, its future, much like its present, remains ambiguous at best. The U.S. State Department, in a statement on January 23, 2021, called out China to “cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure against Taiwan.”
In April, China’s Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng insisted that Beijing “will never allow Taiwan to be independent.” Moreover, Retired Australian Major General and Liberal Senator Jim Dolan told Sky News Australia that any attempt by China to take back Taiwan by force would inevitably involve a major military conflict, explaining, “China has an aim and that is to take back Taiwan peacefully or by force and we have got to accept that.”
Yet, it is apparent that Biden is trying to thread the needle concerning his position on Taiwanese independence and mainland aggression. As reported by CGTN, an international English-language cable TV news service based in Beijing, China, “Last week, in its first public statement clarifying the U.S. stance on the island region, the Biden administration drew the line once again, saying that the U.S. does not support Taiwan independence. Previously, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and State Department spokesman Ned Price also said that there was no change in the one-China policy.”
But Biden will have to tread carefully moving forward. Recently, an American warship sailing through the Taiwan Strait drew the ire of the Chines government, who labeled the maneuver as “endangering peace and stability” in the region. In response, Biden doubled down on his aggressive stance towards China, warning, “It’s of vital interest to America’s foreign policy to secure unimpeded flow of global commerce. And it won’t happen without us taking an active role to set the norms of conduct, to shape them around democratic values, not those of autocrats.” Rat-a-tat-tat, rat-a-tat-tat, rat-a-tat-tat.
For their part, China remains resolute in their view of what they believe is unchecked American aggression. A spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, Zhao Lijian, said the United States and Russia should “substantively slash their nuclear stockpile in a verifiable, irreversible and legally binding way to create conditions for the ultimate comprehensive and complete nuclear disarmament.”
Such language on both sides pushes us further into Thucydides’ Trap, thus potentially setting the stage for a nuclear showdown. As Professor Allison puts it, “But you would wish that people would still stand back and say, look, war would be catastrophic. We should become much more imaginative about willing to adapt and adjust in order to find a way around this.”
And maybe there is hope for a resolution, not in the ancient past of Greece, but the more recent period of our cold war with the Soviet Union. On October 27, 1962, in the depths of the cold war, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov, a senior officer of a Soviet B-59 submarine, held the balance of world peace vs. nuclear annihilation in his hands.
As tensions ratcheted up in response to an American spy plane being shot down in Cuba, and another U2 straying into Soviet airspace, an American destroyer, the USS Beale, began to drop depth charges on Arkhipov’s B-59. The captain of the submarine, Valentin Savitsky, had no way of knowing at the time that the depth charges were actually non-lethal “practice” rounds intended as warning shots to force the B-59 to surface. Consequently, he ordered Arkhipov to fire a nuclear warhead at the USS Beale.
Edward Wilson, the author of The Midnight Swimmer, a novel about the Cuban Missile Crisis, wrote that this would have touched global thermonuclear war:
If the B-59’s torpedo had vaporised the Randolf, the nuclear clouds would quickly have spread from sea to land. The first targets would have been Moscow, London, the airbases of East Anglia and troop concentrations in Germany. The next wave of bombs would have wiped out “economic targets”, a euphemism for civilian populations – more than half the UK population would have died. Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s SIOP, Single Integrated Operational Plan – a doomsday scenario that echoed Dr Strangelove’s orgiastic Götterdämmerung – would have hurled 5,500 nuclear weapons against a thousand targets, including ones in non-belligerent states such as Albania and China.
Fortunately, understanding the harsh and irrevocable consequences, Arkhipov refused, thus literally defusing the beginning of what would have undoubtedly been a worldwide armageddon.
In a 2020 interview with Elena Andriukova, Arkhipov’s daughter, she had the following to say about our quest for nuclear supremacy:
To the “most powerful leaders in the world” I want to say: Stop the nuclear arms race. So much money has already been spent on armaments. That money should be used to improve people’s lives. It is a great miracle that life exists in our universe, that life exists on Earth. We should not destroy this life. Consequently, nuclear technology should be used solely for peaceful purposes, namely purposes that benefit mankind.
So, as things spin out of control on the world stage, we would be best to remember the words of MacArthur and Andriukova, and the deeds of Arkhipov, lest we hear the final rat-a-tat-tat calling us to nuclear arms, plunging us into a darkness from which we may never emerge. Or as President John F. Kennedy said, “Every inhabitant of this planet must contemplate the day when this planet may no longer be habitable.”
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