SANTA FE, N.M. — Watching Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine this summer, I couldn’t help connecting the dots from one prickly, arrogant, over-armed, underdisciplined autocrat in 2014 to the gang of fools whose guns of August unleashed the calamity known as World War I.
In their bleakest nightmares, none of the great powers of 1914 anticipated a conflagration that would cost 8.5 million lives. It was a war spawned by misunderstandings, egos, poor communications, stupidity and arrogance. The world’s leaders blundered into war.
Unlike Putin, they didn’t have nuclear weapons.
I called former covert CIA operations officer Valerie Plame in Santa Fe last week to ask if I had reason to be anxious about the way something that in the context of history is so minor – an assassination in Serbia, a small civil war in Ukraine – can spin so out of control.
“Other than the annihilation of the human race through miscalculation or mistake?” she replied. “Yes, the summer has been full of terrible news. This is an issue that because it is so big and truly existential in nature, we tend not to be able to absorb it or do anything about it as an individual.”
Plame’s CIA career focused on preventing proliferation of nuclear weapons until a State Department official disclosed to the media that she was a spy. She and her husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson, settled in Santa Fe. She consults with the Santa Fe Institute, is a leader of the Global Zero nuclear disarmament movement and has just published her second spy novel, “Burned.”
The guns-of-August analogy is correct, she said. Nations move from peevishness to slaughter “without really meaning to.” India and Pakistan, for example, “are constantly creeping up the threat level. The mistrust on both sides is so vast and so deep. I’m very concerned about Pakistan because their command and control apparatus is not what it should be. As we know, their intelligence service is deeply infiltrated by those antagonistic to the West.”
“We’re only human,” she said. “Mistakes are made. Miscalculations are made. That is above and beyond the terrorists who are actively seeking nuclear weapons. Heaven forbid if ISIL gets hold of nuclear weapons.”
She referred me to a truly disturbing book, “Command and Control” by Eric Schlosser. It describes dozens of episodes of mistakes and miscalculations that could have led to nuclear disaster.
In 1995, Russian President Boris Yeltsin was told that his country was under nuclear attack and that he had minutes to authorize a retaliatory strike with 4,700 nuclear warheads. It turned out that what the Russians thought was an American submarine launching a Perishing II missile was in fact a Norwegian rocket launched to study the aurora borealis.
“Fortunately,” Plame said, “Yeltsin was sober at the time.”
The Russians later determined that the Norwegians had told them of the rocket launch weeks before. The message never made it through the bureaucracy to the military command.
Lest we Americans get too smug, let us remember that in 1980 a 46-cent computer chip failed, causing the national defense system to warn the White House at 2:30 a.m. that 220 nuclear missiles were flying toward the United States.
In the 1950s, Air Force bombers had an unfortunate tendency to drop nuclear bombs accidentally in the United States. One fell south of Kirtland Air Force Base on what is now the Mesa del Sol development. Fortunately, the bomb’s nuclear core had been removed, but the conventional explosives the bomb used to trigger the core dug a big crater out there. The military didn’t acknowledge the accident occurred until the late David Morrissey, reporting for the Albuquerque Journal, got the facts 30 years later through a Freedom of Information Act request.
“This isn’t just Cold War stuff,” Plame said. “Just a few years ago, an American bomber flew a thousand miles from one air base to another with nuclear weapons on board that had been misplaced in the arsenal. No one knew about it until sometime later.”
The only way to avoid accidental annihilation is to remove nuclear weapons from the planet, Plame said, which is the goal of Global Zero, whose leadership includes former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski (who answered that 2:30 a.m. phone call), former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev and former chief American nuclear arms negotiator Max Kampelman.
“This is an overreaching issue that requires sustained political will and people around the world who say this is not the path we want to take,” Plame said. “Nuclear weapons make you less safe, not more.”
I don’t know if toothpaste can be put back in the tube, or even if it should be. However, after talking with Plame, I find myself more worried about Putin, Ukraine and the guns of August than ever.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported who first revealed Valerie Plame’s identity. It has been corrected in the report above.
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