Apocalypse Imagined: The Urgent Message of Nuclear War: A Scenario

Posted on June 11, 2024 By

by John Whitehead

Jacobsen book

Among the recent signs of renewed attention in the United States to the threat from nuclear weapons, perhaps the most important is the book Nuclear War: A Scenario by Annie Jacobsen. Published earlier in 2024, the book was a New York Times best-seller for several weeks and the focus of a well-attended webinar organized by the Back from the Brink Campaign and co-sponsored by the Consistent Life Network.

Having read Nuclear War: A Scenario, I would say the book is well worth the attention it has received to date and should receive still more. Jacobsen has written a fascinating, profoundly disturbing book about the potential nuclear catastrophe hanging over humanity. If enough people read the book and take its message to heart, Jacobsen’s work may help to inspire the action necessary to diminish or even end the nuclear threat.

Imagining the End of the World

Jacobsen begins her book with an arresting, detailed description of the effects of a 1-megaton nuclear bomb hitting the Pentagon. She reviews the physical effects—the initial fireball, the blast-wave, the subsequent fallout and firestorms—and what the consequences would be for Washington, DC, and its inhabitants.

When the fireball hits Nationals Park, two-and-a-half miles from ground zero, Jacobsen writes, “The clothes on a majority of the 35,000 people watching the game catch on fire. Those who don’t quickly burn to death suffer intense third-degree burns. Their bodes get stripped of the outer layer of skin, exposing bloody dermis underneath” (p. xix). This would happen within a few seconds of the bomb’s detonation.

Amid the later firestorm, Jacobsen describes how, within a seven-and-a-half mile radius around ground zero, “Asphalt streets turn to liquid from the intense heat, trapping survivors as if caught in molten lava or quicksand” (p. xxiii).

After this shocking opening, which made a particular impression on me as I live in the greater DC area, Nuclear War: A Scenario becomes only more disturbing.

The book provides some brief chapters of historical context: the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, the US build-up of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, and American planning for nuclear war. In these introductory sections, Jacobsen devotes special attention to a fateful meeting of top US military officials in December 1960.

During the 1960 meeting, the officials received a briefing on US plans for carrying out a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union or China, should the order to do so ever come. This briefing on nuclear war planning was recounted more than 40 years later by John H. Rubel, a defense official who attended the meeting and wrote a memoir shortly before his death.

As Rubel recalled, US plans called for massive nuclear bombing of the adversary nations: the total explosive power used on Moscow would be about 4,000 times that used on Hiroshima, for example. The resulting death toll would be in the hundreds of millions, many in neighboring countries that would not be directly targeted but would be affected by nuclear fallout. Such numbers did not take into account the hundreds of millions of Americans and others killed in the inevitable counter-attack.

Having provided this historical context, Nuclear War: A Scenario proceeds to its main topic, announced by the title: imagining a scenario in which a planetary holocaust like that discussed in 1960 might come to pass.

Jacobsen bases the nuclear war scenario on an impressive amount of research, drawing on government documents, news reports, and interviews with scientists and former government officials. She uses this research to describe, within the limits of what is publicly known, how the military establishments of the United States and other nations would react to a nuclear attack, including how they would carry out their likely counter-attacks. The book gets into the nuts-and-bolts of such matters, describing which kinds of a satellites and early warning systems would receive data on an incoming attack, which civilian and military officials at which locations the warnings would be relayed to, and so on.

The account of a hypothetical nuclear war is written in a quasi-novelistic way that imagines the thought processes and conversations of the various participants, but Jacobsen intersperses the narrative with explanations of the various technical concepts involved and other relevant information.

Nuclear War: A Scenario imagines North Korea launching a limited surprise nuclear attack on the United States, with the American retaliation consequently drawing Russia into a general nuclear war. I don’t know whether this is the most plausible scenario for how nuclear war would break out (and I’m not keen to find out), but the plausibility of the war’s political context isn’t really the point.

The book’s purpose is to describe the practical details of how nuclear war would unfold once initiated and what the consequences would be. Moreover, Jacobsen’s scenario is undoubtedly correct in two crucial respects: once nations use nuclear weapons, the conflict will likely spin out of control; and nuclear war will unfold very quickly—Nuclear War: A Scenario imagines it happening over roughly an hour.

Jacobsen’s account is filled with information that underlines both how easily the nuclear threat could become a reality and what the nightmarish results would be. To pay Jacobsen a dubious but sincere compliment, I can say that after spending 20 years of my life reading, thinking, and worrying about the nuclear threat, her book found new ways of scaring me.

To highlight just a few of the book’s points that will keep me from sleep:

  • Both former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Hans M. Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists confirm that nuclear missiles fired from the United States at North Korea would have to fly over Russia to reach their targets. Thus, a nuclear exchange between the United States and North Korea (a horrifying enough possibility by itself) could very well accidentally spark a wider nuclear exchange between the nations with the world’s largest nuclear arsenals.
  • Although in theory only the president of the United States can order nuclear weapons’ use, a contingency exists for the president to authorize “the universal unlock code.” This code effectively delegates nuclear launch authority to officials further down the chain of command. Intended to preserve the nuclear deterrent in the event the country’s political leadership is killed, this “universal unlock” policy effectively means that in a crisis a military officer outside the civilian leadership may be given the discretion to use nuclear weapons at will.
  • A single nuclear weapon, if detonated at a certain altitude and position over the United States, can generate an electromagnetic pulse that effectively destroys the entire American electric grid. The resulting collapse of the country’s electricity-dependent infrastructure means, as Jacobsen writes, “No more fresh water…No sanitation. No streetlights, no tunnel lights, no lights at all…No gas pumps, no fuel…No hospital equipment that works” (p. 267). Even absent any other nuclear detonations, a single weapon can destroy an entire nation.

This information and innumerable other facts provided by Jacobsen drive home the central reality that “human beings [who] developed slow and steady over hundreds of thousands of years, culminating in the creation of vast and complex civilizations, [can] get zeroed out in a war that takes less than a few hours from beginning to end” (p. 267).

Coming Back from the Brink

Nuclear War: A Scenario makes indelibly clear the catastrophic threat we are all living under. The book makes equally clear the catastrophic moral reality we are living in today: the world is currently governed by people willing and able to unleash global mass murder at a moment’s notice.

In his account of the 1960 nuclear war planning briefing, Rubel drew a parallel between the US officials’ meeting and the 1942 Wannsee Conference, at which high-level officials in Nazi Germany planned the Holocaust. A crucial difference, as Jacobsen points out, is that officials in the United States, and presumably their counterparts in Russia, China, and elsewhere, are planning the deaths of far more human beings. Another crucial difference is that, unlike the Nazis, contemporary officials have not carried out their plans—yet.

This situation cannot be allowed to continue. Humans need to step back from the nuclear precipice, and the Back from the Brink campaign has identified some important practical steps to take.

As the panelists in the webinar with Jacobsen observed, the time is now ripe for a revived mass movement against nuclear weapons. Nuclear War: A Scenario can play an important role in reviving such a movement. Everyone who can read it should.


For some of our posts on nuclear weapons, see:

Are We Finally Waking Up? Signs of New Awareness of the Nuclear Threat

Sleepwalking toward Nuclear War: The Lessons of the Able Archer Scare

The Persisting Threat of Nuclear Weapons: A Brief Primer

Nuclear Disarmament as a Social Justice Issue

 A Global Effort to Protect Life: The UN Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons / John Whitehead

Catastrophe by Mistake: The Button and the Danger of Accidental Nuclear War  / John Whitehead

Nukes and the Pro-Life Christian: A Conservative Takes a Second Look at the Morality of Nuclear Weapons


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