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Walker's World: 60 Dangerous Years

Building sixty years of peace among superpowers on the back of 200,000 dead.

Perigueux, France (UPI) Aug 06, 2005
The 60 years that have passed since the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima have seen an extraordinary period of human wisdom, combined with a remarkable amount of luck. Other than the second atom bomb on Nagasaki, nuclear weapons have not been used in anger.

The world came uncomfortably close to that brink on several occasions. By the end of the 1945, the Pentagon had already drawn up a target list of Russian cities and bases that was urgently reviewed at the time of the Berlin blockade. But wiser heads prevailed. One of the wisest was that of the former World War II commander, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, who as president in 1954 vetoed a Pentagon and State Department proposal to use three tactical nuclear weapons against the Viet Minh troops who were about to inflict a crushing defeat on the French at Dien Bien Phu. French Foreign Minister Georges Bidault said France had been offered the bombs by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles.

Eisenhower told his biographer, Stephen Ambrose, that he had said to his nuclear-minded advisers: "You must be crazy. We can't use those awful things against Asians for the second time in less than 10 years. My God."

Russian historians now suggest the world might also have been in danger of nuclear war in 1956. It seems from the Russian archives that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was not, as most contemporary observers assumed, issuing entirely empty threats when he warned that missiles "would rain down" on Britain and France unless they stopped their military reoccupation of the Suez Canal. (The CIA reassured their European allies that the Soviet Union did not have the missiles that could do this, but it has now emerged that the Soviet nuclear bomber fleet was put on high alert.)

The most dangerous moment was, of course, the Cuban missile crisis of October, 1962. This reporter took part in a meeting in Moscow in 1987, on the 25th anniversary of the crisis, of some of the leading American and Russian officials who took the decisions in those crucial days. The then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara recounted how he had come up for air from the Situation Room on Oct. 27, the day Robert Kennedy later called "Black Saturday."

"It was a beautiful fall evening, the height of the crisis, and I went up into the open air to look and to smell it, because I thought it was the last Saturday I would ever see," McNamara told us.

Across the room, Fyodor Burlatsky, who had been one of Khrushchev's advisers during the crisis, went pale.

"That was when I slipped out of the Kremlin to telephone my wife and tell her to drop everything and get out of Moscow. I thought your bombers were on the way," Burlatsky recalled.

There were other scares, including a very serious one in the fall of 1983 when the Soviets, alarmed by the "Evil Empire" rhetoric of President Reagan, over-interpreted the intelligence to convince themselves that the usual NATO reinforcement exercise, Operation Able Archer, was to be the cover for a pre-emptive nuclear strike. Nuclear-armed fighter-bombers were put on the very highest alert, poised at the end of their runways in East Germany with engines running and the bombs primed, and KGB stations in Europe were sent a "Molnya" (Flash) message to secure all premises against an expected Western attack.

Tensions were already very high after the Soviets shot down the Korean KAL-007 airliner when it strayed into Soviet airspace on Sept. 1. The NATO exercise the following month fuelled the Soviet alarm. As well as flying U.S. troops to bases in West Germany, it involved radio silence, the moving of command HQs of NATO forces through the various stages of nuclear alert, which included a change in the codes and frequencies of NATO communications. The plan was a wholly realistic simulation of a nuclear crisis, including the disappearance from public view of President Reagan and the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon.

Alerted by the U.S. National Security Agency to the signs of panic in Moscow, the national security adviser at the White House, Robert McFarlane, decided on his own authority to drop this final part of the exercise and arranged for Reagan to be seen publicly in Washington.

But nuclear crises are not solely the prerogative of superpowers. In October 1973, with Egyptian troops pouring across the Suez Canal and two Syrian armored divisions battering their way across the Golan Heights, Israeli defense Minister Moshe Dayan briefly panicked, messaging the Cabinet and the Air Force commander that "the third temple is falling" -- the code that Israel had to prepare its nuclear weapons for immediate use to stave off defeat.

In the event, the Air Force dropped its plans to hit the anti-aircraft missile sites that protected the Egyptian crossing points over the Canal, and instead threw its planes into high-casualty missions against the Syrian tank columns.

India and Pakistan have come worryingly close to war, and probably to nuclear war, twice in the last seven years, so their talks this week on mutual confidence-building measures and controls against accidental nuclear escalation come as a considerable relief.

But new threats loom, from Iran and North Korea. And while there are promising signs that diplomacy may be easing the Korean crisis, and that Iran may be further from a workable nuclear weapon than was thought, the prospect of a cascade of nuclear proliferation is now very real. It is something a minor miracle that 60 years after Hiroshima, there are still fewer than 10 nuclear powers in the world: the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain, Israel, India and Pakistan, and possibly North Korea.

The problem is that each new entrant to the nuclear club provokes its neighbors into a defensive emulation. India's nuclear weapon spurred Pakistan to follow suit. And a North Korean nuke would put intense pressure on Japan and South Korea to prepare their own deterrents. Equally, an Iranian nuke would put pressure on Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and possibly Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to get some nuclear insurance of their own.

If there are just eight or nine nuclear powers on earth now, the likelihood is that by the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima, there could be 20 or more, with the chances of accidents or the kind of misreading of intelligence that so frightened the Soviets in 1983, increasingly exponentially. The wisdom that has kept nuclear weapons from being used for the past 60 years may continue, but some day the luck is likely to run out.

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India And Pakistan Agree Pre-Notifications On Missile Tests, Hotline
New Delhi (AFP) Aug 06, 2005
Nuclear rivals India and Pakistan on Saturday agreed to set up a telephone hotline to reduce the risk of a nuclear accident and also agreed to notify each other before testing missiles, they said in a joint statement.

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