Nuclear Weapons and Alcohol Do Not Mix | Charles Duelfer

Nuclear Weapons and Alcohol Do Not Mix

Lot’s of analysts are creating analyses of Vladimir Putin.  What drives him? What are his objectives? Is he psycho?  The fact is, no one really knows.  Analysis that was likewise wobbly surrounded Saddam in his day. It was off the mark and a bad basis for making policy decisions.  Unfortunately, the error band on anticipating a particular leader’s intentions or action is very large.  It’s hard to predict behavior of a single person.  

What’s worse is when the consequences of a single decision-maker are huge. 

Consider this.  Martin Indyk  has written a fascinating and very detailed examination of Henry Kissinger’s diplomatic history, called “Master of the Game.”  Indyk was a participant in much of what he describes.  And he meticulously sources his content.

In a chapter called DEFCOM-3, he describes the interactions of the various actors during the October 1973 (Yom Kippur) War.  Anwar Sadat’s Egyptian army surprised Israel and the Israeli army was not holding its own.  The superpowers were involved on opposite sides (well Kissinger was playing both Egypt and Israel sides in way).  At a certain delicate point the US raised its nuclear alert level to so-called DEFCON-3[1] to signal the Soviets Washington was committed to not letting Israel lose.  Indyk describes the machinations in Washington in arriving at that decision.  It took place at a bad time for Nixon.  Watergate was blowing up.  The famous “Saturday night massacre” when Nixon fired Special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox, Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy William Ruckelshaus took place four days earlier.  It has been well documented that Nixon was in his cups at the time and not part of the decision.

OK, that’s weird and scary that un-elected officials are making nuclear control decisions because the boss is looped.  But Indyk doesn’t stop there.  He’s unearthed documents and interviews from the Soviet side.  It turns out Leonid Brezhnev was also out of the loop!  He mixed “copious quantities” of vodka with sleeping pills that left him unable to think straight.  Consequently his staff was making decisions on his behalf. Not good.

Well, you might take some reassurance that at least the staffers were solid or sober.  But Indyk’s research shows that both sides were acting on incorrect assessments of the other side.

The nuclear balance needs attention.  A lot can go wrong.  The systems including the warning and control elements are old and I suspect of dubious reliability.  The leaders likewise. The systems, physical and procedural need attention.


[1] Defense Condition (DEFCON) levels go from 5 (lowest alert level) to 1 signifying nuclear war is imminent.  DEFCON -3 highest is “peacetime” level and forces need to be ready to mobilize on a very short timeline.  There are large consequences to military posture at each DEFCON level.  Personnel leaves are curtailed, airplane and ship patrols, submarines leave port, are changed, weapons bunkers are adjusted, communications change, satellites change, etc.  It also has implications for NATO and forces deployed overseas. In short, the nuclear structure is a big machine with a lot of moving parts that can signal unintended things.  Going to a higher DEFCON is not to be taken lightly.

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