72 Minutes Until the End of the World?

A new book lays out the frighteningly fast path to nuclear Armageddon.

An atomic cloud rises

An atomic cloud rises July 25, 1946, during the “Baker Day” blast at Bikini Island in the Pacific. | National Archive/Newsmakers


Kathy Gilsinan is a POLITICO Magazine contributing writer based in St. Louis and author of The Helpers: Profiles From the Front Lines of the Pandemic.

Nuclear war would be bad. Everyone knows this. Most people would probably rather not think through the specifics. But Annie Jacobsen, an author of seven books on sensitive national security topics, wants you to know exactly how bad it would be. Her new book Nuclear War: A Scenario, sketches out a global nuclear war with by-the-minute precision for all of the 72 minutes between the first missile launch and the end of the world. It’s already a bestseller.

It goes without saying that the scenario is fictional, but it is a journalistic work in that the scenario is constructed from dozens of interviews and documentation, some of it newly declassified, as a factual grounding to describe what could happen.

That’s this, in Jacobsen’s telling: A North Korean leader launches an intercontinental ballistic missile at the Pentagon, and then a submarine-launched ballistic missile at a nuclear reactor in California, for reasons beyond the scope of the book except to illustrate what one “mad king” with nuclear weapons could do. A harried president has a mere six minutes to decide on a response, while also being evacuated from the White House and pressured by the military to launch America’s own ICBMs at all 82 North Korean targets relevant to the nation’s nuclear and military forces and leadership. These missiles must fly over Russia, whose leaders spot them, assume their country is under attack (the respective presidents can’t get one another on the phone), and send a salvo back in the other direction, and so on until 72 minutes later three nuclear-armed states have managed to kill billions of people, with the remainder left starving on a poisoned Earth where the sun no longer shines and food no longer grows.

A makeshift house, made from the rubble left by the atomic bomb explosion in Nagasaki.
A makeshift house, made from the rubble left by the atomic bomb explosion in Nagasaki, Japan. | Keystone/Getty Images

Some scholars, particularly among those who favor large nuclear arsenals as the best deterrent to being attacked with such weapons ourselves, have criticized some of Jacobsen’s assumptions. The U.S. wouldn’t have to court Russian miscalculation by overflying Russia with ICBMs when it has submarine-launched ballistic missiles in the Pacific. Public sources indicate that the president’s six-minute response window is still about in line with what Ronald Reagan noted with dismay in his memoirs. But that assumes he’s boxed into a “launch on warning” policy, something Jacobsen’s sources characterize as a constraint to move before enemy missiles actually strike, but which government policy documents insist is merely an option and not a mandate. (The president could also just decide, contra the deterrence touchstone of “mutual assured destruction,” not to nuke anybody at all in response.)

The book arrives at a time when the countries with the world’s largest nuclear arsenals, the U.S. and Russia, are violently at odds in Ukraine, a Russian state TV host is calling a Russia/NATO conflict “inevitable,” and the Council on Foreign Relations is gaming out scenarios in case the Russians use tactical nukes in Ukraine. Oh, and Iran is closer to a nuclear weapon than ever before. It’s a fair time to ask Jacobsen’s central question — what if deterrence fails? Even if we’d rather not think about it.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Kathy Gilsinan: The book starts with two missiles out of North Korea and ends with essentially the end of the world 72 minutes later. And the subtitle calls this “a scenario.” Is it a realistic scenario?

Annie Jacobsen: The scenario I chose was pieced together from interviews I did with 46 on-the-record sources and dozens of sources on background, and I ran by them various scenarios to come up with the most plausible scenario that unfolds once it begins. And this is what I came up with. And so far, I haven’t had anyone who actually runs these scenarios for NORAD take issue with the choices that I’ve made and the way in which the decision trees unfold, which makes it all the more frightening.

Gilsinan: Can you walk me through why it would be inevitable that the North Koreans hit us with two and we hit them back with 80?

Jacobsen: Let’s look at the words of General [John] Hyten, former STRATCOM commander, when he did an interview with CNN during former President Donald Trump’s “fire and fury” rhetoric days. And General Hyten said on the record, in a rather “don’t you dare” way, speaking almost directly to North Korea: “If somebody launches a nuclear weapon against us, we launch one back. They launch two, we launch two.”

To drill down a little bit further on that I looked to Dr. Bruce Blair, a former missileer himself. Now he’s deceased, but he became one of the world’s experts on nuclear command and control systems and authority. And he explained in a monograph I cite in the book that it’s far more likely that if North Korea hit the United with one missile, America would send 82 in return. [The monograph, written under the auspices of the anti-nuclear group Global Zero, points to about 80 “aimpoints” relevant to North Korea’s nuclear and other military forces as well as its leadership, but also notes that “graduated and flexible strikes” would be possible. Jacobsen says she relied on other sources to support the assumption the U.S. would attack all the targets.] Everything I did, I linked to an open-source scenario that had been thought through by experts who have dedicated their intellectual prowess to these issues for decades.

Gilsinan: In this scenario, the U.S. responds with ICBMs that have to fly over Russia, with predictable consequences. Why, according to the folks you’ve spoken to, would we risk flying missiles over a nuclear power if we could use submarine-launched missiles from the Pacific Ocean?

Jacobsen: I asked that same question to numerous people, and the most powerful answer came from former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta himself: “There’s not a lot of thought given to who the hell else may be thinking about doing what … at a time like this.”

Gilsinan: Maybe this is the point of the book. I would like very much to believe that STRATCOM is smarter than me and has thought this through ahead of time.

Jacobsen: Part of the terrifying truth about nuclear war, or if a nuclear exchange were to unfold, is the insane time clock that was put on everything from the moment nuclear launch is detected. This is fact. And so is the fact that the president has only six minutes, that’s the rough time to make this decision. And in that time, the Black Book gets opened; he must make a choice from a counterattack list of choices inside the Black Book. Those choices have been thought through for multiple scenarios, but you can’t possibly take into consideration every contingency in real time, which makes so clear to readers exactly how insane the truth is about the unfolding of the scenario. And the unpredictability of it. And for example, one of the few people that actually read the contents of the Black Book and spoke to me about it in general terms so as not to violate security clearances is Ted Postol [a former assistant to the chief of naval operations]. He’s the one who said to me that every decision was a bad decision.

Gilsinan: Why do we think it’s six minutes specifically? I know that’s in Reagan’s memoirs, but why do we think that is still the case?

Jacobsen: You’ll see some people refer to it as 15 minutes, and some people refer to it as approximately 10 minutes. I made a point of linking every definitive policy, or specific element of this ticking clock scenario, to as specific a source and as a legitimate of a source as I could so as to avoid minutiae debates over these things. Does the president really have a six-minute window, or is it seven minutes, or is it 12 minutes, or is it 15 minutes? A thousand people will debate this issue on Reddit. I’m suggesting you just look to President Ronald Reagan, which is one of the only sources that we have where an actual POTUS refers to this window as insane. And no one gave me any indication that that has changed in the 40 years since.

And how could it? The timing hasn’t changed. One of the remarkable realities of all this is how some things never change. It takes 26 minutes and 40 seconds for a ballistic missile to get from a launchpad in Russia to the East Coast of the United States. That was true in 1959-60 when [nuclear physicist and former Pentagon scientist under Dwight Eisenhower] Herb York first had the analysis done, and it’s true today. Ballistic missile technology hasn’t changed the laws of gravity. No matter what you do, that still is that window to launch to your target. Pyongyang [North Korea] is 33 minutes because it’s a little bit different geographically.

Gilsinan: Presumably a submarine would buy us a little more time.

Jacobsen: Submarines are actually even more lethal. It’s why they call them the “handmaidens of the apocalypse.” What I learned in my reporting about the lethality and the speed of submarines is horrific and depressing. Submarines can sneak up, and have snuck up, within just a few hundred miles of both the East and the West Coast of the United States of America. I’m talking about Russian and Chinese submarines, meaning if they were to launch ballistic missiles, they would arrive at any target after 10 minutes. This is not me speculating. A very rare document that I reproduced in the book was in a 2021 Defense Department budget request to Congress. That’s where a map comes from that shows us just how close those submarines get.

Gilsinan: And we probably have the ability to do that to the Russians too, though, right?

Jacobsen: Not probably. Most certainly.

Gilsinan: Any given president of the United States is not necessarily as well-versed in these issues as the folks whose job it is to oversee nuclear weapons. But on the other hand, it’s the president who makes the sole decision about whether or not to use them. What are the implications of that?

Jacobsen: The implications of that are nuclear winter. And the hope of my book is that there might be a shift among nuclear command and control to further educate, and deeply educate, the president of the United States on his authority and the power that he holds, and the responsibility he bears in the event that he ever has to launch nuclear weapons.

Gilsinan: To me, the freakiest thing probably was the Russian Tundra satellites that can mistake cirrus clouds for missile plumes. I’d be worried less about the “mad king” scenario in North Korea and more about the possibility of mistakes. And we have seen mistakes happen over time — to include the story of Stanislav Petrov.

Jacobsen: By beginning the scenario with a missile launch under the auspices of the “mad king” logic — there’s no explanation for why anyone would do this. I wanted to set in motion what might happen, what would happen, what could happen, in this condensed, ticking time-clock scenario where the worst has already begun. We know from the six or seven or 10 on-the-record examples of near misses like Petrov — whew, oh my God, cooler heads prevailed. But that would not stand if there were ballistic missiles flying.

a mushroom cloud billows
In this Aug. 6, 1945 photo released by the U.S. Army, a mushroom cloud billows about one hour after a nuclear bomb was detonated above Hiroshima, Japan. | U.S. Army via Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum/AP

Gilsinan: At the end of it, you draw the conclusion that “it was the nuclear weapons that were the enemies of us all. All along.” Is that a call for anything in particular?

Jacobsen: That exact line is an echo to the words of Carl Sagan. After Sagan and his colleagues came up with the original theory of nuclear winter in 1983, they had a big conference in Washington about nuclear winter. And then there was a follow-on book called The Cold and the Dark. That’s why my last part of the book is called that. And Sagan’s conclusion is that the enemy is not a foreign nation, it’s the weapons themselves.

Gilsinan: Is the solution then to get rid of them entirely?

Jacobsen: I’m often asked that question, and the answer for me is always the same. I am the journalist who wrote the book called Nuclear War: A Scenario, presenting readers with the most fact-based dramatic series of events that I put together in this scenario. And there are scores of people in NGOs around the world who have dedicated decades to the question that you just asked me: What is the solution? And so I wouldn’t want to step out of my lane as a journalist and as a storyteller and into their lane as an expert on solutions. But they are definitely there and ready to offer opinions.

Gilsinan: You have reported on the national security apparatus for a long time. If you were going to pick one of the things that surprised you the most in reporting this book, what would it be?

Jacobsen: The general takeaway that when individuals, like dedicated professionals working within the national security apparatus in general, working within nuclear command and control specifically — once they leave their role in that apparatus, and they are allowed the bigger perspective, they seem to me to gain wisdom about the inherent dangers and the increasing potential problems with the premise that nuclear deterrence will hold.

That was the fundamental takeaway of, “Wow, I’m not alone in thinking: Holy shit, what if deterrence fails?” You realize people actually, once they leave the apparatus, they ask themselves that question, too. And they are just as confused and concerned as the next guy, whether it’s a Nobel laureate or a member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers [each of whom contacted Jacobsen to commend the book].

Gilsinan: Do you think people currently within the apparatus are asking themselves that question? Or is it just that those people aren’t talking to journalists?

Jacobsen: In the current situation, it’s no one’s fault. First of all, all of this has been inherited, right? Everyone who is in the nuclear command and control business inherited the job from a concept in the 1950s that began under the premise that nuclear war could be fought and won. One must never forget that. The generals that I refer to in that section on the SIOP [Strategic Integrated Operational Plan, the 1960s-era plan for general nuclear war] believed they could fight and win nuclear war, even if it meant killing 600 million people across the globe. That is insane. No one would argue that now.

Then the position changed to “OK, that’s madness. We can’t fight and win a nuclear war. We’re just going to simply never have one.” So the fundamental premise of nuclear war fighting switched. And yet the whole system is exactly the same. That’s a fundamental paradox. And that’s dangerous.

Gilsinan: Deterrence itself is a paradoxical concept — that mutually assured destruction is meant to keep us all safe.

Jacobsen: And let’s be clear, no one’s sitting around going, “Let’s have this idea of mutually assured destruction.” It’s not sinister in its conception. The premise was with the intention of safety. But it was the bad answer in 1959. And now the whole world has changed. The world is so remarkably different in 2024 than it was in 1960 from technology, from engineering, and also from the fact that there are now nine nuclear armed nations with some “mad king” logic infused throughout.

Gilsinan: I would also think that the logic of mutually assured destruction would be just as convincing to a Kim Jong Un as it would have been to a [Nikita] Khrushchev. Assuming, as our intelligence services do, that his top priority is regime survival, mutually assured destruction would probably discourage him from launching a first strike.

Jacobsen: The idea of the mad king logic came to me from arguably the world’s most senior expert on nuclear weapons, and that is Richard Garwin. Now in his 90s, he drew the architectural plans for the world’s first thermonuclear bomb. Everyone thinks of Edward Teller as the father of the thermonuclear bomb. He was, but he couldn’t figure out how to explode it. He looked to Garwin, who was then 23 years old. When I said to Garwin, “What do you fear most?” He’s the one that said to me, the mad king, someone who is working from the logic, and he quoted the French, “Après moi, le deluge.” This idea of “After me, the flood” — if I die, it doesn’t matter. And the point of that, coming from someone that has advised every president since [Eisenhower], you have to really think that’s a real threat. Take Garwin seriously.

In mad king logic, the insane is sane.

Gilsinan: And presumably the more countries that have nuclear weapons, the more opportunities there are for there to be a mad king.

Jacobsen: It would be hard for me to envision an Iranian mullah with a nuclear bomb as anything other than a mad king.

Gilsinan: Was there anything that made you hopeful?

Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan talk during their meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1986.
After the Reykjavik Summit in 1986 between Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan, the world went from 70,000 nuclear warheads, an all-time high, to the approximately12,500 we have today.  | Scott Stewart/AP

Jacobsen: Absolutely, the Reagan reversal. When I was a young high school student in 1983, I saw a movie called “The Day After.” It fictionalized a nuclear war between America and the Soviet Union, and it was absolutely horrifying. I watched it along with 100 million Americans, but a very important American also watched that show: President Ronald Reagan. He had a private screening at Camp David. His advisers encouraged him not to, but he watched it. And he wrote in his presidential journal that he became, quote, “greatly depressed.” He switched his position on nuclear supremacy. He reached out to [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev. They had the Reykjavik Summit. And as a result, the world has gone from 70,000 nuclear warheads, an all-time high in 1986, to the approximately12,500 we have today.

Gilsinan: Are you hoping that this book will have a similar effect as that movie?

Jacobsen: I would hope, by all means, that the president of the United States would make nuclear command and control, nuclear weapons, nuclear power, nuclear threats a priority and not something hidden.

Gilsinan: So more declassification, more public discussion of what this actually means?

Jacobsen: And more presidential action on reducing the threat, because the president can write an executive order to change “launch on warning” with that pen. The president could change [U.S. policy to] “no first use” [of nuclear weapons] with that pen. The president could reach out to his so-called enemy and have a conversation with that person, seeing them as an adversary, as Reagan did. The Reagan-Gorbachev Summit turned Russia and America from being archenemies into being adversaries, which is a big step.

Gilsinan: Do you think Biden — or Trump, for that matter — could do that with Putin? Biden tried to do some of that in 2021. And it was followed by Russia suspending participation in the New START Treaty, which committed the U.S. and Russia to limits on nuclear warheads. So the question is, if there’s not parallel reduction of such forces among our enemies, do we screw ourselves by reducing our own arsenals?

Jacobsen: You don’t know unless you try it, and you have to have a partnership. But Reagan saw the film in 1983 and Reykjavik itself was in 1986. Things take time. But they have to have a beginning.

You ask me what’s the hopeful thing? It’s not about declassifying things as much because most of this information is there. It’s about having an actual discussion about it where the people can be privy to both sides of the argument. So that you and I aren’t sitting here saying [about a “launch on warning” option]: “That’s dangerous.” Based on what? We don’t have all the information. But what is the missing information? What did President Obama get told by his advisers [about “launch on warning”]? Why don’t we get to know? These are the kind of open debates that people should be having, I believe. And more than anything to make known around the world how fraught nuclear weapons, nuclear use is, how insane it is to be having nuclear threats out of the mouths of the Russian president, the American former president, the president of North Korea. This is dangerous.

Gilsinan: Deterrence has held for 70 years. Do you think we can hang on for another 70?

Jacobsen: Some people say we’re in the 79-year experiment. When I began writing the book, war in Ukraine had not happened, there were not such incredibly fragile situations unfolding around the globe. And so it is a precarious time, and I hope that my writing Nuclear War: A Scenario, and people reading it, contribute to the safety of the future of this strange 79-year experiment.

Excerpts: Politico

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