Pre-empting a nuclear strike

Had the Nazis had nuclear weapons before the war, or developed them during the war, what would have happened? Would they have been seen as proponents of MAD theory and thus "rational actors?"

Mark Langfan

OpEds Nuclear explosion. Illustration
Nuclear explosion. Illustration
Mark Langfan

“The Man in The High Castle” is the name of a Phillip Dick dystopian alt-history novel based on the "what if" idea that in World War II Hitler obtains nuclear power first and uses it to destroy several American and British cities to force an American surrender.  The “book” has become more widely known because Amazon has made a TV series very loosely based on it.  But the book presents us with a very interesting theoretical problem that shines a bright light on the questions we face regarding the current North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs. 

The question raised by the book is: To what lengths should the allies have gone to stop Hitler from acquiring a nuclear stockpile? Specifically, would the Allies have used nuclear weapons to pre-empt a Nazi nuke?   

The question of today is: If the only real US military option available to President Trump that offers the possibility of a quick immediate American victory without millions of South Korean casualties and tens of thousands of American casualties is to pre-empt North Korea by nuking North Korea first, is this pre-emption a a legitimate and necessary strategy?

The second question brings us back to the first question raised about the book describing the possibility of Adolph Hitler and his Third Reich being armed with a nuclear arsenal of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).  What should FDR and/or Winston Churchill have done in the 30’s and in the midst of World War II if Hitler would have been suspected to be on the cusp of developing a nuclear bomb?  Would America have blithely allowed the “rational actor” Hitler to acquire nukes based on the deterrent theory of “Mutually Assured Destruction” - or should we say MAD? 

Here the question breaks down to two time-period questions: The first is what if Hitler had developed the nuke before WWII began, and the second is what if Hitler had developed the nuke after WWII began. 

Before Hitler invaded Poland and war was declared by England and France against Germany, Hitler was viewed by Europe and England as a “rational actor.”  To Chamberlain, Hitler was such a “rational actor” that Chamberlain forcibly surrendered Czechoslovakia to Hitler over President Benes’ strident objections for the chimera of “Peace in Our Time.”  Stalin was equally taken in by Hitler’s “rationality” as proven by Stalin’s agreeing to destroy Poland along with Hitler, while believing that no one, including Hitler, would rationally invade the Soviet Union for another decade.  Both Chamberlain’s and Stalin’s “rational actor” conclusions were ultimately found to have been grievous, catastrophic errors. 

Before WWII began, had Hitler been deemed by the Allies a proponent of MAD theory, one would have to conclude that, before the war, the Allies would have lived with it and done absolutely nothing to definitively stop Hitler from acquiring nukes.  Can anyone imagine what Hitler would have done to the world if he and his Nazis had actually come to possess WMD before World War II broke out?  It is entirely fair to conclude that before the war started, the Allies would still have done absolutely nothing to stop him.  They certainly would not have nuked Nazi Germany to stop Hitler’s acquiring a WMD arsenal.  And the Allies failure to stop, at any and all cost, Hitler’s acquisition of nukes before the war started would have been the most irreversibly catastrophic decision that the world ever made - that is, up to the present North Korea and Iran issue.

Now, let’s ask what the Allies would have done if Hitler was on the cusp of developing a nuclear arsenal after World War II began.  And, for the sake of analogy, let’s assume the Allies had already developed a nuclear bomb.  If Churchill had a nuclear bomb, and the Luftwaffe was burning London to a crisp, does anyone think Churchill wouldn’t have used his WMD to stop Hitler even if Hitler wasn’t developing nuclear weapons?  Of course, Churchill would have nuked Nazi Germany to stop the blitz. and if Churchill knew Hitler was actually developing a nuke, there is no question Churchill and President Roosevelt would have pre-emptively nuked Hitler’s Nazi Germany to stop Hitler form acquiring a bomb.  Truman nuked Japan merely to avoid one million US casualties in attacking the Japanese mainland.  He surely would have used nuclear power to stop the threat to the US Homeland.

Under the Deep State’s mad MAD theory, if you’re a “rational actor,” you can have a nuclear arsenal. 
Which brings us squarely back to the questions of North Korea and Iran.  Is Kim Jong-un more or less of a “rational actor” than Hitler was?  Two months ago, Yong Suk Lee, deputy assistant director of the CIA’s Korea Mission Center, during a debate on escalating tensions, stated that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is not crazy, but a “rational actor” focused on regime survival. He went on to say, “Waking up one morning and deciding he wants to nuke Los Angeles is not something Kim Jong-un is likely to do. He wants to rule for a long time and die peacefully in his own bed.” President Trump aside, the CIA appears to believe Kim Jong-un is a “rational actor” for MAD theory.  And under the Deep State’s mad MAD theory, if you’re a “rational actor,” you can have a nuclear arsenal.  And, if allowing Hitler to have nukes would have been insane, allowing Kim Jong-un to have nukes is even more insane.

WMD have become more dangerous. North Korea could trump MAD theory and asymmetrically, but "rationally", use a tactical EMP nuke to paralyze the Korean peninsula and capture 30,000 US POWs that would effectively prevent any US nuclear retaliation.  Kim Jong-un would have 30,000 living bargaining chips under which he would demand an American surrender of the entire Korean peninsula.  Secondly, it’s entirely unclear how China or Russia could use North Korea as a nuclear proxy by promising the North a nuclear umbrella in the event of a nuclear war with America.

Hence, in the case of North Korea, while America should use nukes to pre-empt North Korea's plans, it is not likely America will.  It appears that President Trump will likely ultimately do nothing to stop North Korea because all the other military options are “ugly” and “unthinkable.”

In the Iranian case, the mad Ayatollahs in Tehran make Kim Jong-un look almost rational.  However, this will not stop the same CIA analysts from likely still finding Iran to qualify as a “rational actor” for MAD purposes.  And, therefore, it’s even more doubtful that the CIA will ever sanction America's using a pre-emptive nuke strike to de-nuclearize Iran.  The prognosis, therefore, on the Iranian nuclear front is not a good one.

Unless the American security establishment rationally discards its mad MAD theoriy of the “rational actor,” we would do well to bring those old bomb shelters up to date.