Book Review: Nuclear War – A Scenario

I think we can all agree that nuclear war would be bad.

Annie Jacobsen’s new book lays out a fictional worst, worst case scenario in terrifying detail. A bolt-out-of-the-blue nuclear missile strike on the US, escalating into an all-out nuclear war between Russia and the US. The book gives a minute-by-minute timeline of how the US nuclear forces command and control structure might operate under such a scenario, based on a huge number of interviews with top US army commanders and other key people that have been part of the nuclear chain of command.

It would make a great action movie. Timers are ticking down, and huge decisions need to be made RIGHT NOW. For example, there is a control room deep underground beneath a mountain in Colorado, with a red timer and a blue timer. In the event of a nuclear attack, the red timer in the room gives the number of minutes until the incoming missile hits the US, and the blue timer is the number of minutes until the counterattack lands. The number one priority is to get the blue timer ticking. It’s also a great disaster movie. Something like the Day After Tomorrow, except it’s a man-made disaster.

Launch on Warning

Nuclear war is quick. A missile can fly from North Korea to Washington DC in less than half an hour. In fact, it takes only about an hour to go from a perfectly normal sunny day, into having a toxic firestorm engulf the planet, ending civilization as we know it. If the war starts at lunch hour, it might be all over before you can finish drinking the coffee. It makes Hitler’s Blitzkrieg look slow and steady.

The US has a policy called “launch on warning”, meaning that the US will launch a nuclear counterattack if it detects an incoming nuclear strike, even before the incoming missile lands. To make this happen in time, the president has a SIX MINUTE window to decide what to do. That’s why the president is always accompanied by a military aide carrying the “nuclear football” – a satchel that contains the launch codes and a list of counterstrike options to execute on a moment’s notice. They say it’s like picking a breakfast option from a laminated menu. I can’t wait for that document to eventually get declassified for everyone to see.

A funny anecdote: when President Clinton was visiting Syria, there was a standoff because the president could not take the elevator because the aide carrying the launch codes wasn’t let into the same elevator with him.

I tend to think that as long as the president is sane (wishful thinking), they would choose to wait and see a little bit of what is really happening before launching the nukes. There is always a chance that it’s just a misunderstanding or a glitch. Of course, the US would like their enemies to think that they have a launch-on-warning policy, and they want to say so in every public statement to keep up the deterrence, but surely the innermost circle secretly agrees that in reality, they are not bound to follow the policy, and doing so would be madness.

The Scenario

Spoilers ahead. The scenario is as follows. North Korea fires a missile into the Pentagon, and another one into a nuclear power plant in California just to be as evil as possible. The US responds by launching dozens of missiles back at North Korea. Russia detects the counterattack and thinks they are destined for Russia, and launches a civilization-ending nuclear holocaust at the US and NATO. The US and NATO fire back, assuring mutual destruction. All this happens in one hour.

Could this actually happen? It’s extremely unlikely that North Korea would decide to fire the nukes at the US at a random time and date without any warning signs or threats leading up to it. If there is warning, then Russia would know to expect the attack and would not miscalculate like this (right?). Even if there is no warning… I just don’t see how Russia would fire their missiles before the first nuke explodes on Russian soil, given that their early warning systems have given false alarms before.

I’d hate to be wrong, but it just does not make sense. As far as catastrophes go, I’m far more worried about a lab-engineered killer virus killing us all.


The author describes an absolute worst-case nightmare scenario, which, if anything, makes an entertaining and gripping read. Actually, I didn’t read it, but rather listened to the audiobook, which was read by the author herself. I think that she did a great job with the audiobook, keeping up the tension and the atmosphere as the minutes tick by.

While the scenario in the book is very far-fetched, it’s not impossible, which is pretty unnerving, to say the least. It’s probably for the best to try to not actively think about this stuff.