Due to MAD, the threat of humanity's global extinction in a thermonuclear war is hobbling the West's response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

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MAD is the excellent reason why American President Joe Biden—along with the rest of the West—is so seemingly over-cautious in trying to defend Ukraine against the brutal Russian invasion now in progress.

MAD is the canny acronym for Mutually Assured Destruction, which, in brief, means first to strike, last to die.

In other words, few people worldwide, if any, would likely survive a full-on nuclear exchange with today’s gargantuan weapons.

If you go on with this nuclear arms race, all you are going to do is make the rubble bounce.

former british prime minister winston churchill (1874-1965)

So, while the West very warily eyes Russia as it batters Ukraine and murders Ukrainians with rockets and non-nuclear bombs, now is a good time to revisit MAD. This cynical, lose-lose doctrine has been the lynchpin of (relative) world peace since soon after the United States dropped history’s first two terrible atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, abruptly ending World War II.

After those single, fat bombs fell on the Japanese mainland in the summer of 1945, human beings everywhere immediately recognized the threat such weapons posed to any semblance of global security going forward. But the murderous genie was already out of its bottle.

Instead of doing the rational thing and banning atomic weapons everywhere, which wasn’t possible anyway once political leaders comprehended their awesome military applications, nations started stealing the U.S. technology and doubling down on exponentially compounding the bomb’s destructive potential.

‘Model-T’ A-bombs

So, today, we don’t just have simple “Model-T”-type A-bombs that pack the explosive power of 15,000 to 20,000 tons of TNT, equivalent to the Japan blasts; we have arsenals of nuclear multi-millon-ton super-weapons bristling with such cataclysmic malevolence that they threaten the planet-wide extinction of our species’ and others’.

This is why President Biden and other rational world leaders—not including Russian President Vladimir Putin—are being so excruciatingly careful in dealing with Putin’s cynical, illegal and unjustifiable attempt to sack Ukraine in his long-range bid to reconstitute the failed Soviet Union. The U.S., Western Europe and the rest of the West feel no confidence that Putin, already acting irrationally in attacking Ukraine, would never if cornered irrationally launch nukes against the U.S. and other nations that would end up destroying everyone.

If you don’t have a very robust idea of what such a launch would mean in the real world, please view these two YouTube videos below. They show how staggeringly huge and utterly destructive modern thermonuclear explosions are—and how, at potential above 50,000 kilotons (50 million tons) of TNT, they massively dwarf the city-leveling magnitude and mushroom-cloud heights of the first, fledgling A-bombs.

YouTube video
YouTube video

MAD and thermonuclear bombs

To summarize, thermonuclear devices, commonly known as “hydrogen bombs,” are hybrid weapons that combine nuclear fission, the splitting of atoms, with heat-generated fusion, the “fusing” of separate atoms into heavier ones. Both nuclear processes generate incredible releases of explosive energy—fusion releases some three times more than fission—but only fission also produces lethal radiation. Uranium and plutonium are most commonly used as fuel for these reactions.

The principle of these sophisticated weapons of mass destruction is that different elements are “chained together in ‘stages,’ with the detonation of each stage providing the energy to ignite the next stage,”

The U.S. unveiled the world’s first thermonuclear prototype in 1952—the “Ivy Mike” nuclear test. The next year, the Soviet Union tested the first ready-to-use thermonuclear bomb, the “RDS-6s” (“Joe 4”).

With these fearsome weapons today scattered about the world, MAD still holds sway in global power politics.

As late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once famously wisecracked, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica,

“If you go on with this nuclear arms race, all you are going to do is make the rubble bounce.”

Chilling MAD calculations

But back in the pre-MAD days, world leaders of nuclear-armed states were making some chillingly callous calculations.

Robert McNamara, Defense secretary under U.S. President Lyndon Johnson, in 1965 proposed a countervalue doctrine that targeted Soviet citiesEncyclopaedia Britannica writes:

“McNamara stated that this doctrine of ‘assured destruction’ could be achieved with as few as 400 high-yield nuclear weapons targeting Soviet population centres; these would be ‘sufficient to destroy over one-third of [the Soviet] population and one-half of [Soviet] industry.’ McNamara proposed that the guarantee of mutual annihilation would serve as an effective deterrent to both parties and that the goal of maintaining destructive parity should guide U.S. defense decisions. McNamara based this tenuous equilibrium on the ‘assured-destruction capability’ of the U.S. arsenal.”

William L. Shirer, author of the classic The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany, foresaw catastrophe after Adolf Hitler’s defeat by the Allied powers. Writing in Rise and Fall, Shirer warned:

“In our new age of terrifying, lethal gadgets, which supplanted so swiftly the old one, the first great aggressive war, if it should come, will be launched by suicidal little madmen pressing an electronic button. Such a war will not last long and none will ever follow it. There will be no conquerors and no conquests, but only the charred bones of the dead on an uninhabited planet.

This is the existential worry global leaders wrestle with in the 21st century as every world conflict escalates, as is happening in Ukraine right now.

Another existential threat: propaganda

Shirer also presciently noted another great enabler of catastrophe: lies. As Putin invades much weaker Ukraine under the invented pretext that it is a dire threat to the Russian nation and to its own citizens, we are reminded of the political fraud still bedeviling America—that the 2020 election was “stolen” from failed candidate Donald Trump, supposedly necessitating a deadly Jan. 6 attack on Congress to stop certification of states’ votes.

As a reporter in Nazi Germany, Shirer said he saw up-close the dangerous, corruptive effect of propaganda when other information is unavailable:

“It was surprising and sometimes consternating to find that notwithstanding the opportunities I had to learn the facts and despite one’s inherent distrust of what one learned from Nazi sources, a steady diet over the years of falsifications and distortions made a certain impression on one’s mind and often misled it.

“No one who has not lived for years in a totalitarian land can possibly conceive how difficult it is to escape the dread consequences of a regime’s calculated and incessant propaganda. Often in a German home or office or sometimes in a casual conversation with a stranger in a restaurant, a beer hall, a café, I would meet with the most outlandish assertions from seemingly educated and intelligent persons.”

As we stand near the abyss in Ukraine, propaganda and the threat of civilization-ending thermonuclear catastrophe compete for attention.

Joe Biden and the rest of us generally rational people know that what Putin is doing to Ukraine is horrific, is immoral. He doesn’t want to “provoke” the Bear.

Because of the threat of global annihilation looming like a black mushroom cloud in the background, our leaders fear we can only fight with both hands tied behind our backs.

If only Putin felt the same way.

Keep in mind that an all-out nuclear war would be apocalyptic. Even people who survive the initial nuclear exchanges will surely perish in the dreadful “nuclear winter” of starvation that follows, when nothing will grow as ash and debris rising high in the atmosphere blot out the sun.

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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...