Wednesday, March 31, 2021

“Plain Dumb Luck” and the War Power: A Story of Nuclear Roulette and Its Lessons

Guest Blogger

For the Symposium on Martin J. Sherwin, Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis (Knopf, 2020).

Amanda L. Tyler

Martin Sherwin’s Gambling with Armageddon is a gripping, nail-biting account of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and so much more.  It would be hard to overstate how quickly the book grabs your attention and provides a frightening account of how close the world came to nuclear obliteration in October 1962.  But, if it is even possible, the book’s larger account of what the author calls “nuclear roulette” is even more frightening.

Those of us who teach and write about the separation of powers in the context of war spill barrels of ink debating such questions as whether Congress has given away too much of its authority to the executive; whether the courts have correctly stayed their hands with respect to a host of questions surrounding war prosecution, including enforcement of the War Powers Resolution; and more recently, whether Congress needs to bring up to date its Authorization for Use of Military Force to address new enemies and new fronts in the war on terrorism.  Sherwin’s book suggests that in the nuclear context, such debates may be, if my colleagues in this symposium will forgive me, largely “academic.”  Indeed, as Sherwin’s work lays bare, we have built a nuclear infrastructure that can bring us to the brink of destruction based on a handful of miscues and/or failures of diplomacy, and from which we may only be saved by sheer luck and the good judgment of a single individual who happens to be in the right place at the right time.

That, in any event, is one of the key points that Sherwin makes in the book.  In his words, the Cuban Missile Crisis “was the ultimate reality check: Nuclear threats could lead to conflicts regardless of intentions.”  Quoting political scientist Scott Sagan, Sherwin goes further to suggest that the crisis revealed the all-too real potential for “‘accidental nuclear war.’”  To make his point, Sherwin sets forth in detail here the miscues and misunderstandings that caused the standoff between Kennedy and Krushchev to escalate to the brink.  Continuing, he walks the reader through how, in the end, despite the desire of those leaders to “untie the knot” and reach a diplomatic resolution (to borrow from Krushchev’s language in a letter to Kennedy), it all came down to the sound judgment of a young Soviet naval officer who happened by chance to be on a particular Soviet B-59 submarine approaching the waters off of Cuba.  In recounting the events of the standoff, Sherwin tells us that he began a skeptic but emerged in agreement with Dean Acheson’s earlier account of the crisis, concluding that the world was saved only because of “plain dumb luck.”  

Now in this contribution, I do not want to spoil a good story, and Sherwin is a master storyteller.  Thus, I will refer the reader to his book so that he can walk you through how the tale unfolds.  What I can say is that it is hard to emerge from reading Sherwin’s account of the crisis and his explication more generally of the proliferation of nuclear weapons of war without coming to the belief that the notion of stockpiling the same as a “deterrent” to war (so-called “nuclear diplomacy”) is madness. 

This is, to be sure, the main contribution of the book, and it is a deeply important one at that.  

All the same, I wish here to draw out another one of the book’s contributions.  Gambling with Armageddon underscores that as much as we may wish to theorize as to how the separation of powers were designed to work and/or how they should work, when it comes to nuclear standoffs, none of that matters nearly as much as the character and judgment of the relevant actors in the equation.  This lesson, moreover, applies not only to high-level political actors, but extends all the way down the line to the naval officer far from home tasked with making a split second decision about whether to unleash a weapon with the potential for catastrophic consequences.

In this respect, Sherwin adds to a body of literature in the war context that has made this point before.  But given the context in which he is writing and the narrative he weaves, the point extends much further than prior accounts.  To flesh out what I mean, consider a counterfactual.  (As Sherwin notes here, he loves counterfactuals.  So do I.)  What if it had not been President Lincoln at the helm in 1861 charged with maintaining the Union?  And what if it had not been Lincoln at the helm in 1863?  Would another president have issued the Emancipation Proclamation and begun then and there to address the stain on our nation’s constitutional and moral fabric that slavery wrought?  As the Supreme Court wrote in the immediate wake of the war in Ex Parte Milligan, “[w]icked men, ambitious of power, with hatred of liberty and contempt of law, may fill the place once occupied by Washington and Lincoln; and if this right is conceded, and the calamities of war again befall us, the dangers to human liberty are frightful to contemplate. . . .”  Lincoln had been dead but a year and the Court was already ready to put him on Mount Rushmore, while also recognizing his exceptionalness.   

In my own work, I have drawn comparisons between President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill during World War II.  For his part, Roosevelt set in motion the events that led to the mass incarceration during the war of some 120,000 Japanese Americans (over 70,000 of whom were United States citizens), disregarding what he had been told by his closest advisers–namely, that doing so would violate the Constitution.  Roosevelt only reluctantly agreed to closing the camps once he won reelection in 1944 and was tipped off that the government would lose an important Supreme Court case that challenged the legality of the camps, Ex parte Endo.  By contrast, Churchill is most responsible for winding down Britain’s domestic internment program under what was known as Regulation 18B.  Invoking British constitutional tradition, Churchill declared that  “such powers . . . are contrary to the whole spirit of British public life and British history.”  To be sure, there were important differences that may account for the two executives’ contrasting approaches, not the least of which were the ethnic make-up of those detained in each program and the fact that Churchill did not have to stand in a general election during the war.  But the point remains that Churchill took a leadership role in shutting down a wildly popular program, while Roosevelt had to be dragged kicking and screaming to do so (and despite being told repeatedly that the Japanese American incarceration would and did violate the Suspension Clause). 

Here is what Sherwin’s account adds.  It is not just the leaders in the oval office whose character, judgment, and values matter when it comes to waging war.  In an age when the push of a button can unleash massive destruction, it is also the character, judgment, and values of the individual on the front lines who staffs that button that matters.  (Indeed, the story Sherwin tells is one that history has witnessed happen more than once, and underscores the dangers of taking humans out of the equation, as countless viewers, including President Reagan, came to appreciate from watching the movie War Games.)  To borrow from Milligan, we may not always have a Washington or Lincoln, or in the case of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a Captain Vasily Alexandrovich Arkhipov, to save us.  And, if this point “is conceded, and the calamities of war again befall us, the dangers to human liberty [and life as we know it] are frightful to contemplate. . . .”

Amanda L. Tyler is the Shannon Cecil Turner Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law.  You can reach her by e-mail at atyler at

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